The Unexpected Blessing of Social Media

Can I say something that most people don’t seem to want to these days? I really kind of love social media. I know we’re supposed to be skeptical of it, nervous about it, burdened by it, bored with it – and I’ll admit that I was reluctant to get involved in it in the first place. But now? I’m so grateful for its place in my life.

So often social media is presented as a barrier to “real” relationships with people – as if people choose to stay home with their laptops and smartphones rather than go out into the world to be physically present to the people in their lives. Maybe that’s how it works for some. But for me, social media has been more boon than barrier.

Facebook allows me to connect with “IRL” family and friends better than pretty much anything else I can imagine, save a utopian walking community in which everyone’s backyards abut each other. My family is big and busy and mostly spread from one end of a sprawling metropolitan area to the other. Even if we saw each other more frequently than we do (and we see each other pretty frequently by most families’ standards), there’s only so much in-person catching up I could do with my 70-odd closest relatives (not exaggerating – I counted) given my responsibility for keeping track of these four relatives:

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And then there are the family members who live great distances from us. Because of Facebook, I know that my two little cousins in Maine are learning the art of beekeeping. I know that they’ve resumed their riding lessons and that they just swam in the lake for the first time this season. I get to cheer my cousin and his wife in San Diego as they run their (very intimidating and impressive to me) marathons and half-marathons. I get to watch my teenage and twenty-something cousins in St. Louis and Chicago and Nashville go off to proms and colleges and fall in love.

I get to know new friends more quickly and I get to know old friends better. I get to enjoy playdates where my girlfriends and I don’t feel like strangers from postponing a half-dozen times because somebody is always getting sick.

Social media also enables me to be “myself” better than any situation I can imagine. (Even my fantasy utopian communities have their limitations.) Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (I do limit it to the three) allow me to indulge in a custom mix of my favorite interests, values, and personalities – a cocktail of politics and history and faith, of smart/witty/wise/idealistic/self-deprecating Catholic writers, of home-making and child-rearing and beauty found in the ordinary.

They allow me to connect with people who share those interests and values, to make friendships that transcend geography.

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Social media gives me opportunities to understand people and to love them.

On a daily basis, it presents me with more diversity and a wider range of experiences and ideas than I would ever bump up against in my physical community. It helps me put myself in someone else’s shoes; it makes obvious to me the common threads that run through families and communities that seem so different.

Social media allows me to nurture a fondness, a tenderness, not just for my family and friends, but also for the loved ones of those I’ve loved somewhere along the way. (You should see the piercing blue eyes of my college roommate’s little girl and the deep brown eyes of my high school friend’s little boy. You should read the hilarious kid quotes. You should hear how beautifully my friends love their spouses, their siblings, their children, their parents.)

Social media allows me to feel my role in the Body of Christ, praying for and supporting those in need, working with others to accompany people through their trials.

Are there problems with social media and the role it has come to play in our lives? Of course there are. There are problems with just about every way in which we humans come together. When engaging in social media, we should hold to the same principles we (hopefully) do in other human interactions: be kind, consider where others are coming from, watch what you say, consider your own disposition, recognize that the world is full of people who are like and unlike you in a million important and not-so-important ways. Love. Enjoy the people you encounter. Accept the light they bring to your life and offer a little in return.

These Walls - The Unexpected Blessing of Social Media

Walking That (Parenting) Line

Yesterday I was feeling brave, so I decided to load all four kiddos into the van for some errands. The boys were in serious need of haircuts and we were overdue for a grocery run, so I thought we might as well mash it all together and stick a fast-food dinner in-between.

So we did the barber shop (but the wait was too long), then dinner, then back to the barber shop (success), then the liquor store to buy more of my new favorite wine from the mark-down cart. (I don’t know anything about this wine except that it is AMAZING. I highly recommend it if you like a white that’s dry and full but bright. Just amazing.)

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By then the baby was starting to fuss, so I decided to forgo the grocery run. (That is, I decided to have my husband take care of it on his way home.) We left for home, the baby fell asleep, and I threw caution to the wind by ushering all three boys into the tub almost as soon as we walked through the door. (Baths require almost as much courage as grocery runs in my book.) Afterward, I nursed the baby in her room while the boys played at my feet.

All this time – from the restaurant to the barber shop to the bath to the nursery – my four-year-old was naughty naughty naughty naughty naughty, varying only in the intensity of his misbehavior. “Stop it stop it stop it stop it,” I’d said, until I finally banished him from my presence. He was sent to his room.

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All was peaceful for about three minutes, until he decided to up the ante: he threw one of those little egg shaker musical instrument thingies into the nursery, cracking it in half and sending hundreds of tiny metal balls flying around the room.

TROUBLE.

I yelled, he laughed. I YELLED, and he stopped laughing. He was again sent to his room, this time to an early bedtime.

Oh how awful that was for him! The child screamed and called for me and begged to be let back downstairs. But I was busy with the baby and the brothers and the daddy calling from the grocery store. And anyway, he was being punished. It wasn’t supposed to be pleasant.

I did go up at one point, once I’d finished feeding the baby. I hugged him and tucked him back in, but told him that no, he would not be allowed back downstairs. He continued his tirade.

A short while later, I was scrolling Facebook when I saw a heartbreaking photo and caption. It was from Humans of New York (of course). A woman’s face conveys a sense of terrible pain and loss. “Two weeks after Max was diagnosed, he asked me if I’d be his Mommy forever,” a woman named Julie said. “Of course I will,” she told her son. “Even when I’m ninety?” he asked. “Yes.”

“I just couldn’t tell him,” she said. “God I was such a coward. I should have told him. I just couldn’t do it. Even toward the end… the whole last week I’m whispering in his ear: ‘Let go, let go. Please Max, let go.’ My seven-year-old son. I’m telling him to let go… And the whole time I never told him he was dying.”

You can imagine what this did to me.

Tears streamed down my face as I imagined this woman whispering “Let go,” to her dying child, a child she’d never told was dying. And there was my child, just a few feet above my head, screaming for me, begging for me to have mercy on him.

What a line we walk as parents.

We want to instruct, we want to form, we discipline in order to help our children learn to control themselves. Or to follow rules. Or to respect us. Or to not treat others badly.

At the same time, we treasure our children. They pull on our heartstrings and we’re happy to have them do it. We want to wrap them up in our arms and prevent them from feeling any pain.

But learning lessons often involves pain.

So it doesn’t seem to me that you can choose one side over the other. I’ve always thought that good parenting required a lot of discipline and a whole lot of love. A lack of either would be damaging to a child. We parents just have to walk that line, wherever we think it lies.

So how did I (try to) do it?

I went back upstairs. I told my boy that he could not come down, but that I would sit with him a while. I climbed onto his bed and held him in my lap and rocked him. Then I flipped on the light, grabbed a couple of books, and moved over to the armchair in his room. He sat on my lap as I read those wonderfully sappy Nancy Tillman books – “On the Night You Were Born” and “Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You”.

I read slowly, carefully. I let my tears drip down onto his face. He calmed down.

When the books had ended, we got up and got him back into his bed. I tucked him in for the third time. I kissed him and ruffled his newly-cut hair. Then I went back downstairs.

I don’t know if I did the best thing but it felt like the right thing. That’s all I can do. I try to walk that line wherever I find it, wherever it seems right given the circumstances of the moment.

These Walls - Walking That Parenting Line

In Pursuit of Good Behavior: Our 8-part strategy for getting kids to behave in church

I am about to do something stupid.

I’m about to hit “publish” on a blog post on how to get children to behave well in church, mere hours before taking my own children to Mass. They’re going to be terrible – I just know it.

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Anyway!

Generally speaking (and I cringe to say this – see above), my children are pretty well behaved at church. We – cringe – even receive compliments on their behavior. (Of course, these might better reflect our fellow parishioners’ expectations upon seeing three small boys and a baby ushered into a pew, but I’ll take them.)

Since it seems to be a perennial question on social media (and because I’m a glutton for punishment), I thought I’d share our strategy for getting our children to refrain from causing a ruckus during Mass. But I’m not going to lie to you – it is not made up of quick fixes. There is no magic bullet – at all, for anything – when it comes to children. There’s a lot of hard work, a few clever ideas, and a decent measure of luck.

In this post, I’m going to first offer you the two “hard work” elements of our strategy and then the six that might fall into the “clever ideas” category. The luck is up to you.

1. We have an expectation that our children will obey us.

Our kids operate under the assumption that when Mommy or Daddy say to do x,y,z, it is to be done. They certainly don’t obey us all the time, but we have reasonable confidence that when we give them a direction, they’ll follow it.

To some, this will seem so obvious as to not be worth mentioning. To others, it will seem like a pie-in-the-sky idea. Either way, unless you’ve been blessed with a child who is naturally mild-mannered (not us!) and pleasing to the general public, it’s the most basic of foundations for functioning well outside the home. (And inside the home too, I’d wager.) We have to trust that when we tell our child to stop and we raise an eyebrow and give him that look, he’ll stop.

How do we do this? How have we gotten to the point where we can reasonably expect our children to obey us, at least in public? Lots of hard work. Lots of consistency, follow-through, consequences… and some yelling. I’ll admit it.

2. Our children are able to sit for the duration of a meal.

I figure that if our children are unable to sit for any length of time in our home, they’ll be unable to do so anywhere else either. Partly for that reason, but mostly because I just think that meals should be eaten at tables, we insist that our children stay seated for the duration of every meal. This is not always easy. It is not uncommon for our meals to be punctuated with, “Sit on your bottom. Sit on your bottom. Sit on your bottom. I said, sit on your bottom.”

In our home, you stay strapped in a booster until you can demonstrate that you’re able to stay seated without it. We’re currently in the transition stage with our two-year-old. If the mood is right, we’ll let him sit there unstrapped, but once he starts trying to get up (and ignores our calls for him to sit back down), we strap him in. He’s learning.

At any rate, I really think the meal thing helps. Our boys are used to sitting in one place three times a day, for between 20 and 60 minutes a pop. So while sitting in church can be a challenge, it’s not a shock to the system.

3. We have age-appropriate expectations for how our children should behave in Mass.

First of all, let’s just make an exception for the 12-24 month range, shall we? My husband and I have found, with each of our children, that little babies in church are no big deal. Bigger babies may need some creative hushing when they become vocal, but they’re still not that difficult. But then you bang up against mobility. From the time our children can crawl through the time (somewhere around the age of two) we can begin to reason with them, there’s just really not much to be done. We can try all the strategies above and below, but it’s always going to be a crapshoot.

In that age range, we keep them in Mass as long as possible, but if they become disruptive, we take them to the back of the church. I prefer to stand in the vestibule with the child, letting him walk around but not run, hushing him when necessary, and demonstrating to him that I’m still paying attention to the Mass. My husband sometimes prefers to take the child downstairs or outside.

Beyond that age, we start with two simple requirements: Our child is to be quiet (not silent!) and he is to stay in the pew. He may whisper, he may move around, he may climb up onto the seat, off the seat, onto the seat, off the seat – he just has to stay in the pew.

Once our child has mastered those two expectations, we add more. He has to stop climbing… he has to stop talking… he has to sit. Ultimately, he’ll have to sit still. (Our oldest is five; we’re not to that last one yet.) We add requirements as our boys are able to handle them and we try to keep them as simple as possible.

4. We talk with our children beforehand about our expectations.

The first Mass behavior expectations we ever voiced to our oldest son were “Remember that you have to be quiet, you have to stay with Mommy and Daddy, and you should set a good example for your brother.” His brother was a baby – he was not yet paying attention to anyone’s example. But the idea that he was the big kid, that he had a big-kid responsibility – it stuck with our oldest. So we still use it.

On our way to Mass, or as we walk from the car into the church, we say something like, “Remember, you’ll be in church. We are not here to play; we are here to pray and to think about Jesus and to thank God for all the good things in our lives. You need to be quiet and you need to set a good example for your brothers.”

We also have particular instructions for those who need them. One of our sons has a tendency to end up sprawled across the pew, his head on our laps. So he is told to sit up straight. Talkers who think they are whisperers get told not to talk at all.

5. We model good Mass behavior. (In other words, we mostly ignore the kids.)

The last part of that line might get me in trouble. To be clear, I don’t mean that we actually ignore our children. I just mean that we utilize those eyes we have in the backs of our heads to monitor them and we reserve the ones in the fronts of our heads for the altar.

I try to keep track of what my boys are doing without making eye contact with them. That may sound cold, but I’m just trying to discourage my chatty guys from starting a conversation. Or from doing something silly to make me laugh. So I sit or stand or kneel (as the case may be), my body and mind oriented as much as possible toward the Mass, and I encourage my children to do the same.

6. We snuggle our children.

While I try not to engage directly with our children during Mass, I do try to take advantage of those quiet, holy moments to be lovingly, physically present to them. I sit with my arms around my boys, I stroke their backs, I give them a pat. When it’s time to sing, I open the hymnal with them, singing in their ears and tracing my finger across the notes on the page. I hope that our one hour in Mass every week begins to take hold in their little minds as a time for tenderness and love.

7. We explain things at appropriate moments. (And sometimes the most appropriate moment is after Mass.)

I want my kids to understand as much as possible about the Mass, and anyway I want to get/keep their interest, so when the time seems right, I’ll lean over and whisper a “Did you hear what Father said there?” or “Can you see what he’s doing?” I offer a quick explanation and then go back to my ignoring/snuggling strategy.

If my boys ask a genuine question that can be easily and simply answered, I go for it. But only if the timing seems appropriate and I don’t think we’ll be disruptive to our fellow parishioners. If they’re asking a question that requires a more complicated response, we tell them we’ll answer it when Mass is over.

8. We bring small distractions (just small ones) to church with us.

We are a thirsty family, never traveling anywhere without a beverage (and my boys are all pretty much addicted to milk), so I’m sure to always stow their sippy cups/bottle in my purse. They make for a great distraction when the first wave of wiggles hits. But beyond that, we keep it very spare. We never bring snacks, because crumbs and wrapper noises and my thing about thinking tables are important. Sometimes I will bring a couple of quiet toys for a baby, but mostly I keep it to one or two books per child. Just religious ones. The images contained in them not only help to keep the boys occupied, but provide a jumping-off point for their questions and imaginations. And I think that’s important.

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So that’s how we do it. I’ve probably seen dozens of strategies in my people-observing and blog-reading days, but this is the one that works for us. I offer it here for the curious or the desperate or the only vaguely annoyed. Good luck!

(And wish me luck too – we’re off to Mass shortly.)

These Walls - In Pursuit of Good Behavior - Our 8-part strategy for getting kids to behave in church

It is Good to be In Love

I am not the most patient mother.

I have a temper, I have a limited capacity for dealing with noise and activity, and I have zero tolerance for whining. (Seriously: we have a “no whining near Mommy” rule in our family. You may either whine or be in Mommy’s company, but you may not do the two simultaneously.)

So I go through lots and lots of seasons when my primary attitude towards motherhood is resentment or annoyance or a strangled sort of desperation.

But right now? I am just in love with my children.

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I always love them. The love is nothing new. What’s new or different or fresh in the feeling is that I’m mostly feeling it free of the things that pull it down. Often I love my children with a sort of “You’re driving me crazy, so I’ll remind myself over and over again how much I actually love you!” Or, “I love you, but do you have to be so difficult?”

Lately, for whatever reason, I’ve been looking at my children and only feeling the love.

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I glance at the baby and my heart does a big, cheesy leap. The toddler tugs at me, wanting my attention, and I smother him with kisses and tickles. I pick up my sons from school and I’m so happy to have them back with me that I cup their faces in my hands and smile kisses onto their soft cheeks.

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That may sound saccharine sweet. It may sound manufactured. But I’ll tell you what: It is such a relief to feel this way.

Too often, my feelings toward my children are a tug-of-war of love, frustration, anger, pride, enjoyment, resentment, and more. This is difficult work. It wears on a soul.

So moments like these – days, weeks, minutes when the peace and joy and love of parenting somehow overshadow everything else – they are so welcome. They are so important. They fill me up; they give me something to draw upon when times get hard.

These Walls - It is Good to be In Love

Softness in the Slog: Mother’s Day in the Season of Early Motherhood

Well, happy Mother’s Day to you! We haven’t had the smoothest build-up to the day, so I thought rather than posting anything overly sappy about my mom/me as a mom/motherhood in general, I’d keep it real.

Here’s what the past couple of days have looked like for me:

Friday. Rise early to yet another sore throat/ear ache combo. Wake the sick five-year-old so I can get both of us off to our doctors’ appointments. The poor kid has a high fever; he’s so upset about feeling sick and thirsty that he throws up all over the kitchen floor. Miraculously, he doesn’t get any of it on his clothes, so I hand him a bowl and hurry him into the car while my husband tackles the clean-up. I drive him and the baby first to my appointment (sinus infection), then to his (virus that could possibly be triggering his fifth ear infection of 2016).

My doctor sympathizes with my son, admires my baby, and tells me what a good mother I am.

The pediatrician engages my son before she does me. He accurately describes all his symptoms to her, answers all her questions, reads a sign off the wall (“You’re growing like a weed”) and tells her that he is indeed growing like a weed. She is delighted with him. I am delighted too.

We stop at the grocery store on the way home. I nurse the baby in the car; we pick up my prescription and a few groceries. We arrive home to find my mom watching the other two boys. The kitchen bears the marks of general neglect, husband having made pancakes, and an ant infestation in the cereal cabinet.

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Mom bottle-feeds the baby while I start to deal with the groceries/counters/ants/lunches/diapers/sick child/screaming children mess. After she leaves, I continue to deal with it. For hours. When there finally seems to be enough of a lull for me to nurse the baby again, I steal her away upstairs so the boys can’t find us. A few minutes later my little sickie yells for me from the bathroom. I reluctantly get up, fearing the viral worst. But no, it’s just “Mommy! There’s a string hanging off my sock!”

His fever reaches 104.7; my throat and ears hurt so badly I talk as if I’ve had my jaw numbed in a dental procedure. We. are. pathetic. Brennan arrives home from work; he takes care of most of the bedtime routine so I can be more thoroughly pathetic. He has brought me Mother’s Day flowers.

I fall asleep nursing the baby. A short while later, I (barely) wake to hear Brennan cleaning up one of the boys, who has vomited all over his bed. I wake again to find him lifting the baby out of my arms. He gives her a bottle so I can go to bed.

Saturday. I wake early to the tell-tale sounds of more vomit clean up. This time it’s the other boy. I go in to help but end up messing everything up by getting the toddler up and ready for the day. Brennan says it’s too early to get up. He puts the boys back to bed and I head back to our room to nurse the crying baby. Hours later I wake again. She and I have slept gloriously late; Brennan is making French toast downstairs.

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My throat and ears are feeling much better. My son’s fever is 103.9 but another round of Ibuprofen works its magic. The boys develop an elaborate scheme for attacking their father with Hot Wheels, toy airplanes, and a model aircraft carrier. The toddler naps while the bigger boys play outside and Brennan pulls weeds. I tackle the never-ending dishes and counter mess. My baby smiles at me. She coos. Sun shines in through the window, onto my flowers.

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One of my sons sings a little song to himself, “I wuv my own Mama! My Mama, my Mama! I wuv my Mama!”

Later our older boy throws up again. Brennan bathes him, then the other two. Shortly after they’ve been put to bed, the toddler’s diaper situation requires yet another bath. I do more dishes. Always, more dishes.

Is that tedious enough for you?

I don’t mean to bore you to tears, I only mean to show you how perfectly appropriate these couple of days leading up to Mother’s Day have actually been.

When I first became a mother, I hoped for Mother’s Days full of gifts or brunch or flower arrangements or time at the spa. (Or at the very least diapers, dinner, and dishes, done by someone other than myself.) In other words, I hoped for one day’s worth of a life that was not my own.

Maybe in the future, when my mothering responsibilities are less constant than they are now, I’ll have Mother’s Days more like those I originally envisioned. But for now, my Mother’s Days (and the days that lead up to them) are much like my everyday life as a mother: a constant slog of hard work, exhaustion, frustration – punctuated by the most beautiful moments of softness.

A compliment, a kind word, a game, a song, a smile, a flower. Hugs and kisses. Bad moods that can be dispensed with tickles and raspberries. The weight of a small child cuddled on my lap.

I did not wake this morning to breakfast in bed, or even choruses of “Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy!” I woke to find my four-year-old playing peek-a-boo with the baby. Soon he was singing and dancing for her from the top of the bed.

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Today, I’m sure, we’ll continue the slog. I’ll go to church with whichever of my children seem unlikely to infect the masses. Brennan will stay home with the sickies. We’ll get through, and we’ll keep collecting those sweet, soft moments. They’ll help me remember – like nothing else could – how lucky I am to be a mother.

A beautiful Mother’s Day to you and yours.

These Walls - Softness in the Slog

Putting Out Fires

I’d forgotten what it was like to live like this — running nonstop, spending my entire day putting out fires.

Inching out from under the sleeping baby to nominally prepare myself for the day. Making the Kindergartener’s lunch. Preparing bottles for two, sippy cups for two. Waking and dressing three (except one never needs to be woken — he’s always squawking in his crib before I’m ready to get him). Feeding everyone. Cleaning up each in turn. Dealing with the inevitable spit-up and leaky diapers as they (sometimes literally) come at me. Brushing teeth and hair. Hugging and kissing my loves as they walk out the door.

Washing dishes, changing diapers, breaking up fights, nursing the baby, making bottles, preparing meals, wiping counters, attempting laundry, emptying the trash, stealing the spilled-over recycling back from the toddler. Over and over again.

Anticipating a break because everyone has finally been fed and the littlest ones are finally napping, only to have them both wake up on you. Rejoicing at getting all three boys to bed, only to have the baby wail for hours. Soaking in the quiet after everyone else in the house has fallen asleep, only to find it impossible to keep my eyes open.

The Kindergartener keeps asking to do his math games on my computer, but I’ve hardly turned it on in weeks, let alone taken the time to figure out the login his teacher sent home from school.

I’m not sure I’m feeding or bathing or holding the baby enough. This morning I left her in spit-up-soaked clothing for hours because she fell asleep before I had time to change her.

One child has been manufacturing drama to get my attention, another has been going overboard in telling me how much he loves me. The third just wants to be held. (Also, he’s about to turn two and expertly playing the part already.)

I’m edgy — worn thin and anxious about how little capacity I’ve had to tap out my thoughts (presidential campaign! drama at my alma mater! life with a new baby!) on the keyboard. Hence this quick attempt at a blog post via smartphone.

I’m tired, but the wired sort of tired where you hardly sit down for fear you won’t be able to get back up again. Brennan is more tired than I am — migraine tired, asleep-on-your-feet tired.

Yet it is good, living like this.

I’d forgotten how delightfully smushy a newborn feels in your arms. I’d forgotten how they smile in their sleep and splay their hands out in front of them. I’d forgotten how a baby’s big siblings will fall over each other to be close to her.

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I’d forgotten how much easier, despite all the work and all the rushing, it is to acclimate to having a new baby in your home when you’ve done it a few times already.

I’d forgotten how nice it is to hand off your baby to a room full of eager family members and then how much sweeter it is to get her back from them when the party’s over.

I’d forgotten how generous people can be.

I’d forgotten about all the looks of love and longing you see aimed in your direction when you carry a new baby around with you.

Yes. It is good, living like this.

(Even when you need to remind yourself of the fact as you run from one fire to the next.)

It is good.

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Home to Me: A German Student Finds Home in a Foreign Land

Today I’m thrilled to host a guest blogger whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years. Svenja Zimmermann was an exchange student living with family friends of ours in 1997, and she’s remained part of their family ever since. We’ve seen each other a handful of times over the subsequent years, including That Time I Rang a Stranger’s Doorbell and Found Family.

These Walls - Svenja ZimmermannSvenja is a 34-year-old wife, mother of three boys, and high school teacher (in German and English) on parental leave. She lives with her family in a small town near Hannover in northern Germany.

I hope you enjoy Svenja’s contribution to our “Home to Me” blog hop.

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When I first thought about what home means to me I wondered what exactly the definition of home was in a dictionary and whether that captured my notion of home.

Some of the definitions the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives are: (1a) one’s place of residence, (1b) a house, (2) the social unit formed by a family living together, (3a) a familiar or usual setting, (3b) habitat, (4a) a place of origin, (4b) headquarters, (5) an establishment providing residence and care for people with special needs.

To some extent, I thought, those definitions were right. Obviously number five. Whether the inhabitants of those establishments feel at home – we still call it that. Definitely number four! The place of origin will probably always be some kind of home to people. In my case number two is also correct. I live together with my husband and my three sons in our home, which leads me to number one, because it is a house. Our house.

So Merriam-Webster is right. All those definitions are definitions of home. But still, I am not really satisfied with them. Something is missing. The definitions are ‘lifeless’, unemotional. They don’t suffice.

So, what is home to me then? What is the determining factor? What would I write if I had to define home?

There are three places that are home to me.

Number one is easy. It is my parents’ house. The house my parents built and I moved to when I was three months old. I moved out when I started college in a different city (where, by the way, I never really felt at home). In this house I grew up. I learned to walk and talk, I went to kindergarten, I started elementary school, went on to high school. I found friends, I lost friends, I found new friends, had my first boyfriend (and some more).

Number two is also easy. It is my home. My and my husband’s house. We had it built the way we wanted it. We chose every bit, from the color of the roof to the floor tiles in the hallways, even the socket-outlets. We definitely love our home. Our house. We are raising our three children here, we enjoy spending time on the street chatting with neighbors. We are a family. A mom, a dad and three little boys, living in their house. What else could be more of a home than this?

But then there is a third place I call home. And it is not that I only call it home. Because it was my home for a period of time, I feel it is my home.

The first time I ‘came home’ was in March 1997. I was in 10th grade here in my German high school and went on an exchange to the United States. It was just three weeks, not far away from Washington D.C. with a day trip to New York City. How exciting! I was 15 years old at the time, about to be 16 on March 29th. I celebrated my 16th birthday in the U.S. Back then, long before the real globalization as we know it now, the U.S. was a country so totally different from mine. Of course everybody had an idea of what it would be like from movies and TV shows: Beverly Hills 90210. This was what it was going to be like in the U.S.

When I got there I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t quite like Beverly Hills, but it was still nice. After a long flight our group landed at Washington Dulles International Airport, where the exchange group waited to pick us up. My host sister and I sat next to each other on the bus and we chatted all the way back to school. I immediately liked her although she obviously was not a lot like me (on the outside). I liked tight jeans and make up. She was in her school uniform, not wearing any make up and definitely did not seem to care much for such things. But still it felt like we had known each other for a long time already. When we arrived at the school, her parents awaited us. They were so nice. They weren’t at all like my parents, but they seemed to honestly be happy to get to know me. They were so lovely and cute and I immediately felt very welcome and well taken care of.

Time flew and faster. Sooner than I expected, the exchange was over. I had had a great time at this family’s house. I had spent a lot of time with them: the parents and the two daughters. I hadn’t missed a thing, even though it was not like I had imagined it to be (Beverly Hills 90210) and it was not at all like my home in Germany. My parents were very liberal. I went to parties on the weekends, slept in ‘til noon. In the U.S. I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t sleep in as long. We went to church on Sundays, something I never did at home. Nevertheless, I liked it so much, I wanted to come back. For longer. And that summer I came back, for one whole semester. I came back home.

My American parents treated me as if I was their own daughter. They made no difference. They went to parents’ day at school to see how I was doing, they hugged me, they gave me way too many gifts for Christmas, they planned a surprise vacation to Niagara Falls, they cared for me when I had the flu. But most of all they made me feel loved. And I loved them. I love my American parents, I love my American sisters more than any other people that aren’t part of my ‘real’ family.

According to Merriam-Webster this place in the United Stated can’t really be my home. I am and was not a resident. It isn’t my place of origin. It is a house, yes. But does this fact make it my home? Surely not.

What is it then that makes it home to me? If I look at those three places I mentioned that are home to me, it is obvious that there is one common factor. And that is love. I love my parents unconditionally and they love me in return. I am their child. I love my husband more than anything in the world. It feels like we were made for each other. We can trust each other and rely on each other, we chose each other. Our children are my life. There is no love like a mother’s love for their children.

And then I love my American family. So much. This semester with them changed me, made me another person in a good way. And they made that possible, because they made me feel loved.

Of course Merriam-Webster’s definition isn’t wrong. But one vital aspect is missing and that is love. Just as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said:

Where we love is home.

Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.

~~~

This post is part of the “Home to Me” blog hop, hosted by Julie Walsh at These Walls. “Home” can been elusive or steady. It can be found in unexpected places. It is sought and cherished and mourned. It is wrapped up in the people we love. As we turn our minds and hearts toward home at the beginning of this holiday season, please visit the following blogs to explore where/what/who is “Home to Me.”

November 13 – Julie @ These Walls
November 14 – Leslie @ Life in Every Limb
November 15 – Ashley @ Narrative Heiress
November 16 – Rita @ Open Window
November 17 – Svenja, guest posting @ These Walls
November 18 – Anna @ The Heart’s Overflow
November 19 – Debbie @ Saints 365
November 20 – Melissa @ Stories My Children Are Tired of Hearing
November 21 – Amanda @ In Earthen Vessels
November 22 – Daja and Kristina @ The Provision Room
November 23 – Emily @ Raising Barnes
November 24 – Annie @ Catholic Wife, Catholic Life
November 25 – Nell @ Whole Parenting Family
November 26 – Geena @ Love the Harringtons

These Walls - Home to Me

Can’t the Answer Just Be That We Mourn?

In the two days since the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve seen plenty of expressions of sadness, sympathy, and solidarity for the people of that city on social media. But I’ve also seen a growing number of complaints about those expressions.

“Stop saying you’ll pray.”

“Don’t turn your profile picture red, white, and blue.”

“Where were they when we needed them?”

“Where were you when others were attacked?”

Maybe I’m naïve, but I didn’t see this coming – at least not so soon. Victims of those horrible attacks still wait to be identified, to be claimed, to be buried, and already we’re attacking each other. Why? Why can’t the answer just be that we mourn?

“I pray because I mourn.”

“I show these colors because I mourn.”

“It doesn’t matter where they were; I mourn.”

“Maybe I mourned then, unseen. Maybe I didn’t mourn and I should have. But still, today I mourn.”

I wish we would stop questioning others’ motivations. If there are ever motivations to question, they’re our own: If I say I’m praying, am I actually doing it? If I express solidarity, do I feel it? If I’m riveted by this situation today, will I be paying attention tomorrow? Will I pay attention to the next one? Do I feel that people in some parts of the world are more worthy of my grief than others?

Ask yourself these questions; don’t ask them of others.

If you didn’t read the lengthy Atlantic piece on ISIS months ago, take the time to read it now. It’s not an unquestioned account of the organization and its aims, but I think it makes an important overarching point: ISIS does not operate under the assumptions we’re accustomed to. It does not make the same calculations. It doesn’t seek the kinds of goals we’re used to confronting. It is an organization that is inherently difficult for the West to understand, let alone counter. (Also take the time to read Elizabeth Scalia’s post from a year ago: The West Lacks One Essential Tool to Defeat ISIS.)

All that said, I think we can be reasonably sure that ISIS aims to sow fear, discord, and anger. Why in the world should we help them along by questioning people who are struggling to adequately express their sorrow?

In my own piece on ISIS and evil a year ago, I said:

I’m just trying to call it like it is. When people do such terrible things to one another [i.e. the ISIS attacks against innocent civilians in Iraq], I can’t help but see evil’s mark. I can’t help but envision evil seeping like a deadly, insidious disease from the heart of one man to another. And then another, and another, and another…

Some situations seem ripe for spectacular displays of evil. Evil must find fertile soil, after all, in lands where oppression, poverty, and war have been present for generations. What terrific places to be planting seeds of anger, fear, and hopelessness. What good chances that they’ll grow in individuals’ hearts until they spill over, manifesting themselves in violence and injustice towards others. What likelihood that those fruits will begin the cycle anew.

That’s how I think of the ISIS fighters: as men whose circumstances and life experiences have made them angry and resentful… men who have sought sympathy and camaraderie amongst those who would encourage their indignation… men who feel more powerful and more right the more they work together toward a dramatic goal… men who have so convinced themselves of their righteousness that they view those who are unlike them as less than human… men who start by seeing violence as a necessary tool and end by relishing violence for its own sake. I trace evil’s influence throughout.

But that – that far-away place, in those foreign hearts – is not the only place where evil lurks. Evil would not be content to bear only a few thousand ISIS souls away from God. Evil works on the rest of us too…

Evil tells us that what we have is insufficient, that we will always need more. It encourages us to nourish our anger and resentment. It emphasizes our fears. It helps us divide people into “us” and “them.” It tempts us to seek fleeting satisfactions that harm our bodies and souls. It entices us to take pleasure in media that glamorize violence and disordered relationships. It convinces us that righteous indignation is indeed righteous. It leads us to think we’re alone and unloved.

Evil finds success in such “small” things all the time, all over the world. I can’t help but wonder whether, when evil has become sufficiently emboldened by its quiet successes, perhaps that’s when it taunts us, leers at us, with acts so glaringly evil that we’re stopped short.

We have a role here.  We are part of this story. And we have a say in how we play our part.

Will we respond to terrorism by despairing? By accusing? By stoking self-righteous anger? By questioning the sincerity of those who are supposedly our friends? I don’t think we should.

I think we ought to take people’s expressions of mourning at face value.

I think we ought to pray — for the victims of terrorism in Paris and elsewhere, for those in harm’s way, for those who are tempted to do harm, for each other.

I think we ought to pay attention to events across the world and extend our sympathy to victims of violence wherever they’re found.

I think we ought to act against terrorism and fear and hate and evil however we’re able.

I think we should all feel free, when the situation calls for it, to simply… mourn.

Can't the Answer Just Be That We Mourn

Portrait of a Good Daddy

Yesterday morning our littlest guy, nineteen-month-old Mr. Curly Head, followed his father around the kitchen, clutching a book and whining pathetically. He wanted Daddy to read to him.

The poor guy hadn’t gotten to see Daddy the night before, as Brennan had come home from work too late. And recently he’s become a real Daddy’s Boy anyway. (I wonder whether it’s my growing belly that’s prompted the change: I’ve always found that the youngest child attaches to Daddy just before he’s made to give up that precious birth-order position.)

Yesterday morning, however, Brennan was in a rush. He had to get our oldest to the bus stop and then he had to get himself to work. He really didn’t have time to sit down and read a book. So out he went, shooting a pained look towards our disappointed toddler.

But a few minutes later, Daddy came back.

Brennan had gotten our oldest on the bus and then turned right back around. He came into the house and found the boy and the book and he sat down to read.

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It was a simple scene, but it did my heart (and theirs) so much good.

A small boy had missed his Daddy. He’d snuggled into Daddy’s legs while they rushed through the morning motions. He’d held up a book bigger than his own head and grunted a request that couldn’t have been clearer: “Read to me, Daddy. Sit with me and hold me and love me.”

He’d been disappointed, but then Daddy came back. Daddy scooped him up and sat down to read the book. Daddy took the time to give him love and attention.

He’s such a good daddy.

I’m grateful for my husband for many reasons, but most of all, I’m grateful for the father he’s become. Brennan, who had little experience with children before our own boys were born, has proved to be a natural. He’s jumped into diapers and baths and feedings and vomit clean-up. He teaches, he comforts, he corrects, he snuggles, he guides, he loves.

This is what a good father looks like: A man who does the big-picture hard work of providing and protecting as well as the nitty-gritty hard work of chasing down and cleaning up. A man who plays with his children, who makes them laugh, who hugs them tight. A man who will make detours for them – even the ones that seem too small to possibly be worth it.

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This is a portrait of a good daddy.

These Walls - Portrait of a Good Daddy

Hometown Lovebirds

Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary. Just look at them – aren’t they cute?

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My mom and dad were high school sweethearts, married at the ages of 18 and 20. I think they first met when Dad shot spitballs at Mom from across the school auditorium, or something like that.

They became engaged on the night of Mom’s high school homecoming, when she was (cliché, I know) homecoming queen. Dad was home on leave from the Airforce. He’d been a volunteer firefighter before he left, so when an alarm went up that night, he reported to the scene. Mom stayed at the firehouse making pancakes for everybody. (It’s quite possible that I’m conflating two stories here. The pancakes-at-the-firehouse night might not have been the same as engaged-at-homecoming night.)

Regardless, Mom arrived home too late to announce the news to her parents and didn’t want to spring it on them on their way out to door to Mass the next morning, so (you can see this coming, can’t you?) Grandmom and Granddad learned of their 17-year-old daughter’s engagement from acquaintances at church. Amazingly, they somehow still grew to be okay with it.

When Mom and Dad married a year later, they held their reception in my grandparents’ yard. Their bridal party was huge because between them they had eight sisters and three brothers. Mom’s cousin was her maid of honor; Dad’s friends filled out his side. All the dresses were homemade, including my mom’s, which her aunt (and Godmother) had provided the fabric for. Mom finished sewing her dress the night before the wedding. Various family members provided hams and roasts, etc. for the reception and my great-grandfather hired some women to serve it. Mom’s three-year-old sister was her flower girl. I believe my aunt spent part of the wedding tugging on the priest’s robes.

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Or at least, this is the story I grew up with – the background to my fantasies and the model for my own expectations. In my book, it was the ideal – probably because my parents were.

I have always known that I was lucky to be born of my parents and their marriage. They, and it, are not perfect, of course. They have their squabbles and their struggles. But in the 36 years I have known them, and it, their love for each other has always been hugely obvious. Like, neon-sign obvious. Mom and Dad are loving and flirty. They’re considerate and (sometimes underneath a few grumbles) patient. They support each other and they were always a united front in raising my brother and me.

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I guess I always expected to follow a path similar to theirs. But mine took a different route. No homecoming crown, no high school sweetheart for me. No teenage marriage. Not even one in my twenties. No, unlike my parents, I went off to college. I traveled. I saw six foreign countries and countless American cities before I turned 25. I spent my twenties not changing diapers and chasing small children, but working late hours, reading stacks of books in my tiny apartment, and taking my little cousins out for ice cream when I got lonely. I met my husband via the internet, not a spitball.

It was good – just a different kind of good from my childhood fantasies.

My marriage is different from my parents’ too. Brennan and I are less flirty, our love is not so neon obvious. But it is good. It is solid. And like my parents, my husband and I try to be considerate and patient. We are supportive of each other and we are a united front in raising our boys.

I think we have my parents much to thank for this. They’ve provided me with a lifetime’s worth of examples of a good marriage, and they’ve been eight years of wonderful to Brennan.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for all you’ve done and for all you continue to be to us. Congratulations on what you’ve accomplished together. Enjoy your beautiful (and hopefully delicious) day.

We love you so much.

These Walls - Hometown Lovebirds