“My doubtful heart, which trembling scarce believes…”

When I was younger, I thought I knew the voice of God.

Tell-Me-What-I-want-to-hear
As I’ve gotten older, I realize that the voice of God is easy to misconstrue. There were many things I attributed to God that were merely my own desires. We have a tendency, as human beings, to hear what we want to hear, and too often, I heard God saying what I wanted him to say–whatever it was that would make me believe that what I wanted was going to happen–almost like He was a fortune teller, or a wish-granting fairy.

For instance, there was a boy I liked. And, of course, I was looking for hope that he would like me too, and even more than that, that we were “destined” to be. I wanted to believe that he was the one, and so I convinced myself that God wanted it to be.

When it never happened (Thank God!! He’s a great guy and all, but we definitely were not a good match!), let’s just say I was a bit disillusioned. It was my first realization that maybe some of what I attributed to God was just my own inner dialogue. How could I tell the difference?

jesus-not-meantOther times, I heard him, but I misunderstood him. I drew the wrong conclusions.

When I was in the eighth grade, I had a life changing moment. It was in the middle of my World Geography class of all places. We were talking about current events, and a cyclone had just devastated Bangladesh. In that moment I felt something stir inside of me. I needed to go there. I needed to help. I felt it as strongly as I have felt anything.

I interpreted this to mean that I was going to be a missionary to Bangladesh. I believed that for a long time. I now know that I misinterpreted what God was saying.

I did go to Bangladesh, for three months as my internship in college, and it changed me forever. It was one of the most life altering experiences of my life. Not only that, it was the door through which I met my husband (a much better fit for me than the guy I was so convinced I was supposed to be with btw!). I was meant to go there, just not when and how I thought I was.

These experiences changed me, and they changed my understanding of God. I had been naive, and it was good to know the truth, but now, I find it hard to know when to trust God’s direction. How do I know it is him? Is it really Him guiding me, or am I looking for divine intervention in random circumstances? Is it His voice guiding me, or simply my subconscious hearing what it wants to hear?

These questions are crippling and they leave me wracked with indecision.

I always believed I was meant to live overseas. So did my husband. As he finished up his undergraduate degree, we prayed and contemplated. We waited for a sign, and when none was forthcoming, we made plans to move to Saipan to teach in a school there.

Your-plan-RealityInstead, we got pregnant with Serena, and the timing was such that we couldn’t go. We unpacked our stuff and decided to wait a year.

When Serena was about six months old, we resurrected the dream of teaching overseas, and this time we were in conversation about positions in China. We were hammering out the details when we found out Serena was sick and our lives were sucked into a whirl pool.

In the aftermath, this dream laid dormant.

I thought about it often, wondering if that dream had “shriveled like a raisin in the sun.” Had it run its course? Was it just another example of my penchant to misunderstand the voice of God? I thought about it, but felt no inclination to pursue it.

For years, we were wracked with grief. Like a leaf caught in an autumn wind, we were dried out, brittle, damaged. We were blown wherever circumstance chose to take us. We could barely keep our heads above water much less think about going overseas.

Eventually, we felt less brittle, but the dream of moving overseas was replaced with a need for safety and security. Losing Serena had taught us of the transience of life, the unfairness of it. The hand of fate could reach down at any moment and tear our world apart. So we attempted to fill this lack of control with things we could control.

We surrounded ourselves with stuff–stuff that gave us the illusion of permanence. We got a big house in the suburbs complete with pool and hot tub in the backyard. We got a shiny new SUV. I decorated my house with care and creativity to resemble the houses in “Good Housekeeping” and “Better Homes and Gardens.”. I signed my kids up for football and baseball, ballet and gymnastics. I dressed them in trendy little outfits from the Gap and adorable outfits by Matilda Jane. In essence, we became the typical suburban family, living the stereotypical suburban life.

broken heartI feel like we have been in stasis the last three years, a holding pattern. We have lost the brittleness. The desperate need for security has lessened. Don’t get me wrong, we have not healed–I don’t think we ever will really heal. My heart is a web of cracks, any one of them can start throbbing or even begin bleeding again with the slightest of pressure. My daughter is not with me. I buried my first born–time cannot completely heal those wounds. But I am not a whirlpool inside any longer. I don’t feel the emptiness, the black hole, within me. I don’t need to try to fill it with “stuff.”

Instead of feeling sheltered by the “stuff,” I feel as if I am a mouse on a wheel, running, stuckrunning, always running, but nothing ever changes. I am on a treadmill, the suburban treadmill, and just as I always knew, I do not find it satisfying. It leaves me feeling vaguely empty and unsatisfied.

And so I feel the dream stir.

Where in this broad world can I go? What places can I see? What adventures can I have?

I want to make a difference. I want to, at the end of my life, know that I have truly lived, that I’ve given back, that I have made this world better for having existed. That I have not simply gone through the motions.

dream deferredBut I question.

Is this stirring I feel the hand of God or is it merely my own thirst for adventure and meaning?

Am I going to step out, and reach for this dream knowing that the last time I did so, fate crushed me? Am I tempting fate by daring to dream this dream once more?

Or is it the voice of God I hear whispering in the corners of my mind? Is this not a dream that “fester[s] like a sore” but instead one that has spent the intervening years as a chrysalis–waiting to emerge as something I never could have imagined?

Did I hear the voice of God, but misconstrue the form it would take?

Is it the same dream, evolved, reformed, reborn?

How do I know the difference?chrysalis

Do I wait until I know that it is God’s will?

I fear that, if I wait, I will never move, because I will never know for sure if it is His voice or my own. And it is safer, more comfortable, to do nothing.

But I can’t. Though my heart quakes, I think I would rather risk it, than grow roots and never move at all.

I think I’d rather hope for the butterfly, than settle for the treadmill.

treadmill

I don’t know where,

I don’t know when,

and I don’t know how,

but for the first time since my world fell apart, I am ready, and willing, to leave comfort and security behind, and to see what else there is in this world of ours, and to see if, perhaps, this dream, rather than being a “heavy load,” might instead provide me with wings that will take me far from the treadmills of life.

Bring it on Boogeyboy! I can totally take you!

new-beginnings21I have often heard it spoken that it is easy to see the miracle in the open doors, but not in the closed doors. It sounds profound, but, when you really stop to think about it, it’s not.

Open doors imply beginnings. New things. Possibility. Adventure.

Closing doors too often imply endings (often not desired ones). Trepidation. Uncertainty. Fear.

I can get excited about the opening of a door. I love adventure and a journey ripe with possibility.

But a closed door?

hall of doorsWhen I see a closed, or a closing door, I’m focused on the ending, the closing. I’ve yet to see the new door that will open, and, so often, I have no idea what that new door will entail. Cognitively, I know there will be another door, but what if it isn’t as good as this door was? What if it leads to conflict, heart ache, or even pain? What if I can’t find that new door at all, but am instead left wandering the halls of life looking for the door I am meant to open? Stumbling along, lost and clueless, missing what should have been, could have been, or what was supposed to be? Instead, what if I find some other door I was never meant to open at all and find myself somewhere I never wanted to be?

In these moments of my life, I am reminded that I am to live by faith, not by sight. I am supposed to trust, to believe that God is in control–that all will be well.

It sounds so easy, but then why is it so darn hard?

It’s so darn hard because I’ve grown up. I’ve been confronted opening doorby the reality that God, though in control, is not averse (actually quite the opposite) to leading us to and through difficulty. So, yes there will be a door, but just as when I was a child and I was scared to open my closet door lest there be a Boogeyman on the other side, so I am scared to see what might be lurking on the other side of this door. I really can’t know what will be on the other side.

Will it be good things? Exciting things? Will I find myself in the mountain top experiences of my life?

boogeyman-1Or will I find myself in another desert, confronted with difficulty and a season of struggle?

No matter how often I read my Bible and see how trial is not only a part of life, but a necessary and formative part of it, my humanity can’t help but cringe away from it. Yes, it might be good for me, character building, turning the dross of my selfish existence to something more refined and infinitely better, but, gosh darn it! It hurts! And I don’t want to open the door if it’s going to hurt!

Perhaps that’s why, as I get older, I tend to get stuck in ruts. I get lethargic. I resist the ideas of change, taking risks, or stepping away from what I know (even if it’s not everything I want) and daring to step into the vague halls, the indistinct surroundings of possibility.

Maybe it is the curse of age, or perhaps the weight of the responsibility of being a parent. I know that change was something I embraced when I was young. It excited me, invigorated me. The sense of slamming doorpossibility was intoxicating. Perhaps not age, but disappointment sours that particular wine and when there is so much more at stake than just my own well-being, well, I’m hesitant to rock the boat.

Either way, the reality is sometimes we don’t choose to close those doors, they smack us in the butt as they slam closed behind us.

Sometimes maybe that’s what it takes for God to get us moving. Maybe the ugliness, the betrayals, the injustices that led to that door closing really are the hand of God–even though it seems like the unfairness of chance, a boss, or a loved one . . .

Regardless, of why and how this particular door has closed, I have determined that I am going to channel closetmonstermyself of old. I am going to look past the closing of this particular door and I am going to choose to imagine the doors that could be opening, not with a sense of trepidation, but with a sense of adventure. I am going to believe that it will not be a monster on the other side of this door, but rather something even better than what I’m leaving behind. And I know, even if it is the Boogeyman . . . well, all things work together for my good, not for my comfort, but for my good.

And, if it is a monster, well, I’m not going to take it sitting down. I’m going to take it head on and kick that monster’s a**! 😉

fighting back

Well, hello there! Long time no see!

comfy chairThe other day I had a rare day off with an empty house. My children were at school, my husband was at work, and for the moment, it was just me and my own thoughts, a turn of events I have become unaccustomed to in recent years.

I smiled in bliss at the solitude, appreciating the absence of sound. I settled into my comfy leather chair, snuggled beneath my favorite afghan with a steaming cup of Joe in hand, ready for a nice long chat with myself, a veritable wandering into the hallways of my own soul, reconnecting with an old familiar friend.

But this time, I greeted my solitude, and myself, as a stranger. When I tried to connect with my thoughts, I was overcome with silence–like friends too long apart I had become awkward in the presence of my own mind. My thoughts tumbled around my children, my husband and my job. They skittered amongst the practical, the responsible, the mundane. The thoughts of reflection, of self-knowledge were gone, their whisperings lost in the clanging of necessity. All I heard was the noise of the practical, the thoughts of others, ideas borrowed from books or the radio, my voice, the voice so uniquely me, was silent.

It is a very uncomfortable thing to come face to face with one’s self and to see a stranger. It is a feeling a do not like at all.

I used to be intimately acquainted with my own thoughts. I started a journal at the tender age of ten when I was too young to put much beyond the literal happenings of my day onto the paper. But, the practice led to introspection, which led to reflection. I grew in my knowledge of myself. I discovered who I wanted to be. I reflected on my place in the world and how I interacted in it. I knew who I was, who I had been and I had a clear picture of who I wanted to become. I don’t know this any longer.

It is not an altogether new thought, this reality that I am no longer intimately acquainted with myself. It has risen to the surface, a bubble appearing on the surface of a pond to disquiet the surface by its presence, but the ripple caused by the bubble spreads and fades, and that knowledge is ultimately forgotten in the noise of adulthood, of motherhood and marriage, and the clamor of needs.

disappearNow, I know who I was, but not who I am, nor who I want to be. In this moment of quiet, I confronted the stark reality that I as an individual have gone “Poof” up in smoke, no more substantive than the roles I fill. Me, the individual, this woman named Heather, exists only in relation to others, take them away and there would be nothing to ground me, I would drift away like a bit of fluff in the wind.

From the comfort of my chair, I stared unseeingly out my windows to the gray day before me and wrestled with the questions. How do I, when there is so little time and not enough of me to go around as it is, become re-acquainted with myself? How do I delve passed the responsibilities and the grinding of daily necessity to find the me that I am, not the me that I was?

I am a wife. I am a mother. I am a teacher. All these are things I am.

But these are all roles I fill, parts I play. I am more than the sum of these roles I play for others.

Who is Heather, the woman? Who am I apart from necessity and responsibility?

I was stumped.

Freight-11-728x400This year the reality of this freight train called life has come crashing into my consciousness. My son and my eldest daughter are transitioning from childhood to tween-ness and all the craziness that entails. My baby is not a baby but instead an increasingly tall, long-limbed girl as if she were a piece of taffy that God pulled from both ends, stretching her out. My husband and I have been married for fifteen swift, fleeting years (dear God! How did that happen! Surely I am not old enough to have been married for so long!). And this summer marks my twenty year class reunion. Excuse me as I swallow passed the lump in my throat . . .

I remember going to my ten year reunion and there was another class who was having their 25th reunion. I remember thinking how old they were, and how far removed from high school. I remember feeling so incredibly far from them, as if they were at a place I could not quite conceive of myself as ever reaching . . .

But here I am, a breath away, nearly there–and the breath within me stops, and I feel a suspicious knot in the vicinity of my heart. I am so busy with living, that I am not living, and my life is speeding past and soon I will be old.

CAM00708-1The High School I teach at is putting on a play of “High School Musical” and the director sent a campus wide call for high school pictures from all the teachers so last night I went digging through my old albums to see what I could find. It took a while. Apparently I left almost all of my childhood behind when I left my little rural town for the big city, and I didn’t really look back. I left almost everything at my parents’ house. I uncovered one year book and just a handful of pictures. One of the pictures was of my mom and I on graduation day. I recognized myself. That’s the me I know, the me I remember. That’s still how I look, isn’t it?

The more I looked at the picture, the more I realized that that girl is not me and I am not her. I looked at my mother in the picture and realized that I am the age my mother was when I graduated (actually, I’m a couple of years older!). I likely have more in common with her than I do the girl brimming with youth and hope.

I looked on that girl as a stranger and wondered what she would think of me if she were to meet me today, as I am now. How would she view who I have become? Would she think I’ve accomplished anything worth accomplishing or would she think that I had settled, defaulted to the original setting of life, the treadmill, that factory setting?

Would she recognize me as once being the her she is or would I look so entirely different that I would be nothing more than a stranger she just happened to be meeting?

Perhaps it’s a mid-life crisis, or perhaps it’s an epiphany brought on as I sense the ever-widening distance between myself and the students I teach, but I find myself realizing that we can never allow ourselves to become too busy to know ourselves. That is simply not okay. We cannot be a stranger to our own minds, our own dreams and aspirations. And we cannot rest on old dreams, the aspirations of our youth.

Marriages flounder and struggle and die. Fingers are pointed, blame is passed around. We declare, “I am not happy” as if our spouse is to blame for the lack of happiness we feel. “I don’t love him anymore” we say, not realizing it is hard for someone to love us, when we ourselves are lost even to ourselves.

mom self careHow can someone really love me if I don’t know who I am? And how can I love myself if I don’t even know myself? And how can I be happy if I don’t even know what I want?

I value my role as a wife and mother too much to give them a pale copy, a shadow of the woman I was meant to be. And I can’t become that woman if I don’t know myself.

Knowing who I am, who I want to be, is a responsibility too–and it is one that we, as women, too often neglect. We need to move it up our priority list. We need to give it time.

Do your husband a favor. Do your children a favor. But most importantly of all, do yourself a favor. Don’t become a stranger to the person you are. Take the time to reaquaint yourself with the you you have become, and take the time to figure out who you want to be in the future. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your family.

A Letter to my Students

child hospitalAs a teacher, I am continually exposed to the suffering of others. This year has been particularly bad. I hear of these kids struggling with real-life, grown up suffering well before they should be. I hear of their fights with cancer and cystic fibrosis and diabetes. I hear of broken families and death. I hear of rape. I hear of abuse. I hear of suicide. I hear the pain in the words they write, the things they share, and I see it in their eyes. They are too young for such pain. Childhood should not be shadowed by its presence. I wish I could take it away, make it better, do something. But I cannot take it away, and I can’t really make it better, though maybe by simply listening I do make it just a little bit better, because in listening, they know that they are not alone.

Dedicated-to-the-rape-victim--28502This morning as I was driving into work I was thinking of one of my students and what she has gone through. I see the effects of the trauma she experienced playing out on a daily basis. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She did not deserve what happened to her, but we seldom do, do we?

I was thinking of what I would say to her if I could. What wisdom have I gained on my own road of suffering? What pearls of wisdom could I pass on?

I thought of my journey, my own pain. I remembered the heartache. I remembered my idealism shattering. I felt the echoes of the soul crushing agony and how my journey of childhood, naivity, came to a bone crushing halt as I found myself thrust in to the heartbreaking world of realism.

I reflected on the story we’re currently reading in my classes, Annie Dillard’s “The Deer at Providencia.” Most of my fellow teachers hate teaching this story. It’s not an enjoyable story, but I find that I love teaching it. I love it for its realism, for the lessons it has to share. And I know those lessons to be true, and I am glad that I get the chance to share that wisdom with my students. Those are the messages I would pass on.

suffering1We all, when suffering comes our way, ask why. Why me? Why God do you hate me? What have I done that you turn your face from me?

We feel alone in our suffering. But we are not alone.

There is very little that is guaranteed in this life, but one thing that is is the reality that you will suffer. Life itself cannot exist without suffering. For our continued existence, something must die. Even if you are a vegetarian or even a vegan, your life is sustained by the ending of something else. It is the cycle of life.

When that suffering comes, we must remember that, though we feel alone in our suffering, though we feel like no one has suffered like we suffer, we are not, in actuality, alone. The person sitting next to us on the bus has suffered. The woman in the car next to you at the stop light has suffered. That friend from high school who seems to have the perfect life on Facebook has suffered. We might not look like we have suffered to an unknowing eye, but don’t doubt it, not for a moment, we have suffered.

It’s not like we wear a badge that says “Yes, I have had my fill of suffering.” We don’t have bumper stickers to announce it to the world, and most of us don’t splash it all over social media. But we have suffered. We all have. You are not alone.

angryThe next thing that I think I would want to tell my student is to allow herself to feel the raw emotions. Feel the anger, the rage, the bitterness. Allow yourself to acknowledge the feelings of wrongness. It was not fair. It should not have happened. It was wrong. Life shouldn’t be this way. Those feelings are there, and they need to be acknowledged. We cannot ignore them, push them down, and pretend that they are not there. It’s only in acknowledging them, embracing them, that we can begin to let them go.

I remember after Serena died I had a hard time seeing couples with a little baby. I felt a surge of anger and bitterness. Why was their child allowed to live when my darling girl had to die? Why were they allowed their blissful parenthood when mine was shadowed with pain? Why, in this world of healthy babies, was mine marked to die?

It did not make me less of a person to feel this way. It did not make me a bad person or less of a Christian. I wrestled with my feelings. I howled at the sky. I cursed God.

stormBut the thunder storm quieted to a downpour, and the downpour dimished to a rain, and the rain faded to an intermittent shower which gave way to gray skies . . . and finally . . . I found myself in a place of acceptance.

Eventually I stopped asking “Why me” and I began asking, “Why not me?” In this world of suffering, why should I have been given a free pass?

Let yourself feel what you feel so that you can come to a place of acceptance. Those demons need to be acknowledged, confronted and wrestled with. They won’t go away just because you ignore them; they will just keep rearing their heads and poisoning your life until they are dealt with.

Acceptance. That sounds sort of trite. Optimistic. As if I am giving my approval to what has happened, saying it was somehow right or good.

Let me be clear. I will never give my approval to these horrendous moments of suffering. I will never say it’s okay. I will not try to say that the pain is outweighed by the “goodness” or the growth that comes after.

heartI will never accept the “rightness” of what happened, because it will never be right. What happened to you was not right;what happened to me wasn’t right either.

You don’t accept that you deserved it, because you didn’t. She didn’t. I didn’t.

But you accept that it happened–you accept its presence in your life–and you embrace it.

The only choice we have in suffering, the only power we have, is in how we allow it to change us.

Suffering sucks, there is no way around it. It it not okay. It hurts us and it breaks us. It tears and it rends. It’s agony. But if we embrace it, acknowledge it’s inevitabilty, and it is inevitable, we can become stronger, better versions of ourselves.

innocenceIn Dillard’s story, “The Deer at Providencia” she begins the story with the description of a deer that is caught and suffering, awaiting its death. She describes this full grown deer in terms that would resemble a fawn in the area where I grew up. It was delicate and frail. Small and “thin skinned.” Fragile. Breakable. Childlike.

I think that her description of the deer is symbolic of what we are like before we suffer. Though we may or may not be full grown, we are still as children. Fragile in our ideals. Breakable in our naivity.

It is in the very process of suffering that we grow, that we understand. It is a part of our coming of age, though we don’t really define it as such.

It makes me think of the process of weight training. To grow our muscles, we must break them. We stretch our muscles beyond their endurance causing little tears. These tears, when mended by our bodies, cause our muscles to increase in size and strength.

Suffering is like weight training for our souls–if we embrace it and let it do what it is meant to do. The little tears mend, and we become stronger, better, wiser versions of our selves.

Unfortunately, many never accept it, much less embrace it. These individuals become lost in the past, in the world of “could haves” and “should haves.” They continue to feel alone, singled out, picked on. These inidividuals become angry and bitter. Instead of their souls growing stronger and into something more intricate and wise, the wrinkle and shrivel like raisins in the reality of their suffering. They become the worst versions of who they could be.

Some tears, some breaking, is beyond what we can easily endure. Just as with muscles, sometimes we are pushed beyond what can  easily heal. We rip the muscle. It pulls from the bone. We injure it beyond the normal process.

In weight training it can take months for the body to heal these kinds of wounds.

It can take the soul even longer to heal. But it can heal from the greatest and most horrific of suffering.

WieselI think of Elie Wiesel. I think of what he suffered, what he endured, living through the Holocaust. As awful as losing my daughter was, his suffering was so much more. It is hard to believe that the human psyche can survive what he survived, much less become anything but a bitter husk in the aftermath, but he, and so many like him, are living proof that even the grossest of injustices, the most debilitating of suffering, can not only be overcome, but can also be transformative.

The power we have in our suffering is to embrace its transformative nature, to allow light to be shed on our misconceptions, to send its searching eyes into the darkness and imperfections of our own souls, and to see our inclusion in this mad story called the human existence.

We are all part of the story, and we all contribute to the song of suffering. It is unavoidable.

So my dear students, I so wish that I could take away your pain. I wish I could ease your suffering. I wish I could tell you that this world was different, gentler and kinder, than it is.

But I can’t. I can’t tell you that all your dreams will come true. I can’t tell you that you won’t know loss and betrayal. I can’t tell you that you will never be touched by injustice or the wild spin of chance. I can’t tell you that suffering will not come to your door. I can’t even tell you that it will come once, but never again.

rainbow-after-a-stormWhat I can tell you is that you are not alone. I journey with you. We all journey with you. We might not know what it means. We might not know why we suffer, why God allows it, but I can assure you, that it doesn’t have to cripple you. You can be transformed by even the ugliest this world can give you. You can become beautiful in a way that is intricate and real, not despite of your suffering, but because of it.

And I can tell you that though the world is ugly, it is also beautiful. The very ugliness brings the beauty into such sharp detail because of the very contrast. Don’t allow suffering to overshadow the beauty that exists, but instead to throw it in sharp relief. Allow it to make you, and your world, beautiful in a way that is more real, and more true, than it was before you suffered.

 

 

No more pencils. No more books. No more teachers’ dirty looks.

I came home last night to a distraught daughter. images

I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my leather recliner with a book, and disappear for a few minutes after my long day, but, instead, I found myself in that same chair, with my 8 year old third grader cradled in my lap, as she wept and wept.

Why, you ask was my little one crying? Did someone pick on her at school? Did she skin her knee? Is she the target of all the bullying we’ve heard so much about lately?

No, no and, no. But she is a victim.

She is a victim of expectations and perfectionism. She is a victim of standardized tests and insane expectations. She is a victim of a generation of extremes. Either the kids feel like they need to be perfect, driving themselves in their need to achieve: academics, athletics, community service–or, they go to the opposite extreme and skate by doing as little as they possibly can (except maybe in the athletics department), spending most of their time on their phones or playing video games.

sleepI see it everyday at school. Granted, my school is an extreme. The kids drive themselves to exhaustion in their effort to outrank each other. They give up their passions and they give up their sleep. They put their dreams on a shelf to get dusty, and, eventually, to become forgotten altogether. They forsake their childhood while still children, and exile the high school experience to the dusty corridors of “If I only had the time . . . ”

Or they do nothing. They exist. They come to class, do as little as possible, and spend every spare second on their phones. They feel like the very fact that they dragged their lazy bum out of bed, and sat that same bum into one of my chairs entitles them to a passing grade.

Okay, so maybe that is a little unfair. After all, some kids do fall in the middle. Some kids have found the balance of the pendulum. But truly, the vast majority seem to fall into one extreme or the other. Over achieving or lazy bum.

I am not a stranger to perfectionism. I most certainly was a perfectionist in my youth. My class was very competitive and I wanted to compete, so I drove myself. I joined everything there was to join from choir and basketball to forensics and theater. I was big into community service. I was so busy competing that I forgot to play. I rushed through college in four years, testing out of whatever I could so that I could finish first. I rushed into adulthood and responsibility. I was that kid. The kid who was all work, all acievement– and no fun.

But today . . . today it seems so much worse.

My perfectionistic nature drove me to my perfectionism. My exceptionally gifted class drove me to my perfectionism. School itself did not drive me to this unhealthy balance. State testing was something we did, but no one paid a whole lot of attention to the results. I did not always feel as if I was compared to the others in my class. And, truthfully, there really wasn’t any feeling of expectation until middle school. Yes, we were encouraged to do well, but it was not a competition. We did well, so that we would learn what we needed to learn, so that, when it counted, we would be prepared.

cryingAs I listened to my daughter cry because she scored low on her reading istation test. As I listened to her weep, because she was “Terrible at spelling! Terrible!” As I listened to her tell me she wasn’t as smart as the other kids, I felt anger stir. I was indignant. I became livid.

My daughter is in third grade. She should be playing. She should be happy. She should be carefree.

She should not be weighed down by school. She should not feel like she is competing for her academic future. She should not even be thinking of her future in anything but abstracts term! School should be fun, a place of learning and growth–academic and social growth–not of stress and pressure.

She has hours of homework most nights. She has more homework than some of my high school students. She’s eight.

My daughter reads–without me having to remind her to do so. She loves to write–she is always writing stories. She practices her flash cards–because she likes to.  She is very bright–but she is worried, already, that she is not good enough.

I have a problem with this. I have a problem with my daughter who will likely be a straight A student all the way through her academic life already feeling the pressure of school. I have a problem with these standardized tests that expect all children, no matter their birthday, and no matter their developmental speed, to achieve the same levels at the same time. I have a problem with a system that makes these children feel not good enough, because a certain skill might take them a little longer than it takes someone else. With this, I have a problem.

It’s bad enough that, day in and day out, I see so many gifted students forsake their love of art or music in the name of success.

I found it so telling that, when I asked my students at the beginning of the year what they wanted to do with their lives, 90% of my honors kids said they wanted to do something in the medical field. Success means math and science to them.

As it did to me back in the day. It’s what the smart kids do. It’s what their parents tell them to do. What the counselors encourage them to do. It’s what society expects them to do.

I was going to be a doctor too . . . until I realized that I hated math. Until I acknowledged that, though I was good at it, I hated biology. Until I realized that, I would rather make less money doing something I loved, than make more money doing something that I hated.  Just because I was smart enough to be a doctor, did not mean that I was supposed to be a doctor.

easelIn a million ways I see my students’ love for the arts. I read of their love for music and dance. I hear of the artists with abandoned easels . . . the dancers who’ve retired their dancing shoes . . . the athletes who have abandoned the courts.

All in the name of success.

In the name of perfectionism.

To be the best.

Because they are smart enough to do it.

Even if they don’t want to do it.

Just because they can do it.

Almost daily, I tell my daughter that she does not need to be perfect. Every day, I tell her her best is good enough. Every day, I remind her that there are things more important than school.

Yes, I am a teacher, and I say this.

I lived this. I see so many of my students living this. I don’t want my daughter to live this.

ChildsDreamI don’t want her to give up her childhood while still a child. I’m not ready for her to stop dancing yet. I’m not ready for her to be anything, but who she wants to be. Not ever.

I don’t want her to take on the stress and pressure of unreasonable expectations. I want her to LIVE–not simply succeed.

I want her to play. I want her to dance. I want her to soar.

There is time enough for her feet to be firmly planted on the ground.

For today–for now–I want her to live in the clouds, in the land of dreams, where anything is possible, and where her best is good enough.

I want her days to be about friends and dolls. I want her childhood to be filled with songs and swings. I want her evenings to be filled with pretend worlds and wild imaginings–not with math and science. Not with spelling. Not with tears.

I look at my high school kids, and I wish that so many of them knew what I know now.

I wish that they knew that they need to forge their own path, not the path their parents think they should take.

I wish they knew that medicine is not the only road to success.

I wish they understood that there are more important things than money and success, and that all the money and success in the world are not enough to make them happy if they’re doing something they hate.

I wish they understood that high school is as much about memories and moments as it is about books and homework.

There is time enough to be adults. They don’t need to let their childhood go so quickly. They never need to let go of their dreams. Nothing is worth that. Not even success.

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You Don’t Have to be Alexander the Great to Change the World

I was very discouraged last week.

I wrote a blog, pouring out some of the greast lessons I feel like I have learned in life, and I crafted them with great care. I wrote, I paused, I pondered, I wrote, pondered some more, and rewrote. The end result was a blog that I felt captured the heart and soul of what I wanted to say. With a feeling of accomplishment and pleasure in a job well done, I posted it and waited. And waited . . . and waited some more.

A handful of friends and family read it and appreciated it. A handful. I was discouraged. As so many writers, I blog because I have so much inside myself that needs to come out, but also, because I am a writer–I have things to say and I hope that they are worthwhile things that can speak to the human soul, the human angst, the human experience, and thereby, that my influence, my voice will be appreciated by the masses, not a handful. I was discouraged.

As so many of my fellow bloggers have wondered at some point in their blooging lives, I couldn’t help but wonder why I even bother? Why do I spend my free time writing for an audience that doesn’t emerge when I could just as easily simply put my thoughts and ideas into a private journal? Why spend my time agonizing over word choice and turn of phrase, putting my thoughts out in the universe, when no one is going to bother to read them?

But then I began to remember something. It started with a comment a friend who I haven’t seen in ages wrote on my facebook page. She read my blog, and it impacted her. It helped her. It spoke to her in her present pain, and helped her see that she was not alone, that what she was living, is normal. I cried.

In that moment I remembered a truth that so many of us tend to forget.

I have always wanted to change the world. It has always been a burning passion in me. I want to leave this world a better place when I leave it. I do not want to simply take up space, but instead, to know that my living will have an impact, that my time spent on this planet will mean something.

I’m not alone in this desire. It is a somewhat comman desire, that we leave our footprint, our fingerprints, on this world. I think however, that sometimes we look at that and think to change the world we must do so enmasse, in one fell swoop. We have the misconception that we change the world by personally affecting the lives of many people personally, but that is not how most of those who change the world, change the world. They do so one person at a time.change

I have an absolutely wonderful grandmother. She is smart, she is kind, and she pours into the lives of her eight children and her many, many  grandchildren.

She poured into my life. In so many ways, I am the person I am today because my grandmother instilled within me a moral compass, a compassion for others, and a will do to the right thing because it is, quite simply, right.

My grandmother is getting older. As she is walking into the twilight of her life, she spends a lot of time reflecting on the life she has lived. More than once she has spoken with me about her struggle as she contends with a life that, she feels, has not had an impact, has not been important, has not left an imprint.

She was a stay at home mom in a generation of stay at home moms, and now she wishes she had done something great. Something important.

What she doesn’t understand is that she has changed the world.

Behind every world changer, there are many individuals who have changed them.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not change the face of our country alone; he had behind him all of those who impacted him, who encouraged him, all of those who believed in him and told him not to give up. Every great man or woman does.

My grandmother doesn’t think that she changed the world, but she changed me, and I am determined to change the world, be it one person at a time. Every time I impact one of my students, every time I write a blog that changes someone’s outlook, every man woman or child I helped in my times overseas–my grandmother was a part of that. She changed me, and I in turn changed them.grandma

She impacted her children, who have gone out and impacted others. And she has impacted her grandchildren, directly and indirectly. She helps cancer patients through my sister, she reaches countless adults, women and children through my Uncle Mark, and she has touched almost every continent in this world between her various children and grandchildren. By changing one, we change the world.

And so, though my blog is not read by many, and though my impact is negligible, I will not be discouraged. If I impact one, I have made a difference. As a writer, as a teacher, as a citizen of this planet, I will never be able to impact everyone, but, just like paying it forward, if I can give of what I have and of who I am, and if those I pour into will also pour into others . . . then that is really enough, isn’t it?

When Dinosaurs and Fancy Nancy Go the Way of Puff

Parenthood is such a rollercoaster of emotions. The happiest day of my life was the day my first daughter was born–and the worst day of my life was the day I found out she was going to leave us.

Most parents (thank God!) don’t have to experience that lowest of lows, but there are still plenty of moments of pain, sorrow, disappointment, and frustration in every parent’s life. There are also the moments where your heart feels so full of love that you can barely breathe. Moments when you look at them and think, “This is what life is all about!” The moments that you want to hold on to forever and never let go.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my children at every age. I enjoyed them as babies, as toddlers, and as kids. But now, I find that I need to adjust to them as tweens. The problem is, I wasn’t ready for this transition. I thought I had more time.

Parenthood is a series of doors opening and doors closing, pretty much continually. I’ve recognized that from the very beginning. Because I understood that, I savored the moments, stored them up–like a squirrel with his nuts–deep in my heart, so that I could take them out, remember them, gaze at them, knowing that I had made the most out of every one of those moments.

You never know when a door is going to close. My daughter always called “Joe’s Crabshack” Crabshadrack (for years!), until suddenly, one day she didn’t. The door had closed. She was a big girl, and she could say the word right. It was a bittersweet moment for me.

For years my son has snuck into our bed at night, and for years, despite the fact that I often don’t sleep as well with him there, I have told myself to hold on to the moment–snuggle, enjoy his closeness–because one day he will stop coming, and he will never come again. That special bonding moment will be gone forever, lost to adolescence.

Ironically, Gavin still occasionally crawls into our bed at night, but Arabelle stopped coming a long time ago, and had I known on that last time that it was her last time, I would have hugged her a little closer, and snuggled a little longer–savored it a little more. But I didn’t know, and that door closed, never to be opened again. That moment lost to her growing independence.

Don’t get me wrong, I have not mourned the transitions–at least, not exactly. The truth is, one of the things that I think my husband and I have done exceptionally well is to foster our children’s independence and individuality. We have never been helicopter parents, hovering around, fearful of any misstep. In fact, we’ve always recognized that it takes some missteps to learn how to do it on your own. And we’ve always recognized that healthy children are children who are independent, but also well-supported children.

We’ve always felt very strongly that, despite how much we might want them to stay little, we need to encourage them to feed themselves, take that first step, run, take that big slide though they might be terrified (and maybe so am I!!), etc. etc.. I believe that it creates confident, independent children. They know they can come to us for anything, but they are also sure that they can take on this world and succeed.

Up until now, though my heart broke a little each time, I graciously handled the closing doors: the last time I breastfed each of my children, when they no longer needed help at bathtime or brushing their teeth, when they could take the big slides without a nervous glance at me–desperate for my encouragement, when they no longer needed me to tuck them in at night, when they started spending more time at friends’ houses on summer days than they did at home–all of these, though a part of me did not want them to happen, though I wanted to create “little pills” to keep them little so I could see Gavin’s happy dance one more time and have him crawl up into my lap to snuggle a little more, still, despite what I felt, I celebrated the open doors even though it meant some doors were closing.

I was proud of them. I felt a surge of joy at who they were becoming. Though it saddened me that Gavin’s obsession with all things dinosaur just disappeared one day, I embraced the new. Though a part of my was saddened to see Belle slowly neglect her Strawberry Shortcake dolls and her My Little Ponies, in exchange for Monster High and American Girls, I accepted it. I embraced it. Until now.

gav dinosaur

My husband always laughs at me. I’m very analytical. I think about things, I ponder them, and yes, sometimes I even obsess over them. I often do this years in advance. It probably has helped me with those closing doors. I anticipate the closing door, and so, think to myself, “Any day may be the last day I breastfeed my child. This could be the last time we have this particular kind of closeness, this particular kind of snuggle” and so, because I have anticipated it, I feel somehow ready–I know I have treasured it.

Despite all my forethought, somehow this whole “tween” thing really blindsided me. I knew it would happen, and I knew a little bit about it, but I thought I had more time. I wasn’t exactly shocked when Gavin, who is ten, started showing some signs of this transition (though diving straight into things like porn and dildos–yes, for real!! was a bit much). However, right on the heels of Gavin, Arabelle, who is only 8, started acting differently. She is still my sweet little Belle! I am not ready for her to step across that threshold into tween-ness! No! She is a little girl! She is my sweetheart! She is a child and no where close to being a teenager!!

I think I feel a little bit like Puff might have felt when he started to realize that little Jacky Paper wasn’t going to be coming back for much longer–in fact, he wasn’t going to be little Jacky Paper anymore. Instead, he was going to transition into someone different, someone simply known as Jack. Puff probably felt proud, but he also likely felt incredibly sad as he realized all those special moments of childhood had moved into memory, and those particular kinds of moments would be no more.

puff_the_magic_dragon_by_anubis3021-d4lru2v

I might protest it all I want, but the change is happening. One door is closing and another is opening, whether I want it to or not. She is spouting things like, “I need my privacy” and “I need some alone time.” She is posting “Keep out” signs on her door. She listens to her ipod rather than hanging out chatting with me and her father. She is pulling away–just a little bit, but it’s the beginning.

belles note

This time, I am not ready. I am not ready to put away all things little girl. I’m not ready to see the end of dress up and Fancy Nancy and tea parties at Grandma’s house. I am not ready for my cuddler to stop cuddling in exchange for “alone time.” I am not ready–but it doesn’t matter if I’m ready or not. It’s not up to me. My sweet, people pleasing daughter is ready to begin spreading her wings and asserting her independence, and though it might break my heart, I want her to fly! I want her to find who she is, and I will certainly not be the one to hold her back.

Still, I know where big sister goes, little sister is soon to follow. Lily will not wait long before she starts to emulate her sister.

But that is a thought for tomorrow. I cannot bare that thought today.

Today, Lily still clutches her blankie and sucks on her finger. Today, Lily thinks the whole world is her friend. She still climbs into my lap every morning and evening. She still plays with barbies and loves princesses. She loves dress up and tea parties. Today, she is still little, and I am going to wrap my heart around that littleness.

tea party

 

And I’m going to make the most of every one of these magical childhood moments and treasure them while I still can!

Sometimes the Most Ordinary is Extraordinary

I’ve always admired people who are content. Contentment has always been an elusive, out of reach quantity to me. It doesn’t seem to matter where I am, what I’m doing, or what I have, there is always a persistent longing. I want more.

I’ve always envied my sister this quality. She has always seemed content. It doesn’t mean that she lacks ambition or success–she has both in her life. Rather, she seems able to enjoy where she’s at while she’s there without longing for the next step.

Not me. From as early as I can remember, I always wanted more. I wanted to be the best, the prettiest, the most successful, and, no matter what I achieved, it never felt like enough. Yes, I have a competitive nature (I come from a highly competitive family after all), but it seems to me that this is something deeper than competiveness.

I think that I am a product of the child psychology of my day–Baby Boomer psychology. Unlike their parents, the parents of my generation taught us to aim high. They were idealists. The sky was the limit and we were told that the only thing that would stop us was ourselves.

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I grew up hearing that I was special–I would change the world. I had a destiny that I needed to reach for, a life I was meant to live. I was special. Not ordinary—the definition of special. I was extraordinary—extra-ordinary

This all sounds great. Everybody wants to be special and who doesn’t want to change the world? I embraced it.

After I graduated from High School, I put those ideas into practice. I traveled all over the world trying to make a difference. I went to Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Bangladesh doing everything from teaching English to providing cyclone relief to teaching Bengali mothers the basics of hydration and hygiene.

And then I got married. I had children. My life changed. I changed.

Now, I find myself living a life that is the epitome of “ordinary” and the only things that I have been changing are years’ worth (literally) of dirty diapers and the dryer vents from the mountains of laundry that I do on an almost daily basis.

I am the epitome of the “soccer” mom (though my kids don’t play soccer). I have my 2.5 children (we’re going to round up in my case), a mini-van (well, actually an SUV), and my lovely house in the suburbs (which includes a pool to splash around in on those unbearable Texas summer days). I attend PTA meetings and little league (okay, so maybe not baseball, but football and gymnastics). My life is very, very ordinary–but it’s quite lovely—but it’s ordinary—and I am supposed to be extra-ordinary. I’m supposed to change the world.

I’m sure most of the Gen Xers didn’t take their parents and teachers quite so literally. They didn’t soak up that idealism and let it worm its way into their very DNA. But I did, and despite my lovely life, I long for more. I have not learned contentment—contentment is not something I was taught, and it slips through my fingers, completely intangible no matter how hard I try to grasp it.

But I’m learning.

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I’m learning, that it is not in the quantity, but in the quality.

I’m learning that I don’t need to change the world, just a few–and that starts right here right now. It starts with the neighbor who had a new baby, the friend who has cancer, and the student who thinks no one cares. It starts with what I can do in the world that I am in.

I might not get to sing for an audience any more and soak in the applause of a crowd, but when I sit down to play on my piano in my study and belt out a Broadway tune, my children sit enraptured. Theirs is all the praise I need.

I might not turn heads when I walk down the street, but my five year old thinks I’m beautiful.

I might not be the most popular mom on the block or have the most friends, but my kids sure love hanging out with me.

Being special doesn’t have to mean that you are better than everyone else—it means that you are extraordinary to a few. And my daughters think I hung the moon.

For today, that’s all the special that I need to be.

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I made a right turn at love, a left turn at happily ever after, and ended up in Oz

Sometimes lately, I feel like I’ve made my way into someone else’s story. There’s nothing wrong with this story; it’s just not my own. It feels like some great cosmic trickster picked me up and dropped me into a life I never planned on living, and yet, here I am–going through the motions.

Have you ever watched a movie and drifted off for a couple of scenes and when you woke up, nothing made sense? You weren’t really sure how the characters got there or what it all meant? That’s what my life feels like. Like I drifted off for a while and when I woke up, I found myself in a world not of my own choosing, one that I never planned to live–an alternate reality of sorts.

It’s kind of surreal. Like I’m on a cosmic caoursel that just keeps moving, turning and turning, never slowing down, never stopping. Around and around I go . . . no chance to get off and to get on the ride I’m supposed to be on. And yet, all my choices led me here. . . Or have they?

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We all set out with a destination in mind. When we’re young, the world is wide open, our minds are full of dreams. There are things we know we want–marriage, children–at least sometime down the road. Some things, we think we want–but when it really comes down to it–we don’t really want them at all. Others, we want, we pursue–but then life gets in the way. These are our dreams deferred, delayed, and sometimes, our dreams forgotten and lost forever. They drift into the land of “should have been,” “could have been,” and “if only.”

When I set out on this journey called “life on my own,” adulthood, or whatever you want to call it, I had it all plotted out. I knew what I wanted: where I wanted to go, who I wanted to become, the lifestyle I wanted to live. I saw it all as a story, and I was the heroine. My life was progressing from one logical chapter to the next logical chapter, and it all looked just how I wanted it to be.

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But then I met my husband.

He was part of my story, the story I wanted, the one I had planned. He was, but still he changed it–my story veered, turned, took a side road. The destination appeared to be the same, but it took a different route. He rode in with his charm and his own story–and a pile full of plans and dreams of his own, and so, he changed my story forever.

He was one of the characters I wanted, one I dreamed about, but the thing about life that is so different from a story is that it’s not written by the mind of one, but the mind and wishes and plans of many. Even though our dreams seemed to be in alignment, I was no longer making choices based only on myself–and so the story changed.

And after marriage, of course, come the children. That’s when you really start seeing the unfamilar territory. Road blocks, no outlet, detours. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t get rid of a single one of them (well, at least most days!). They are my joy, but, though we know in theory how much those little people are going to change our lives, the reality is so much more than we can understand until we live it. Nothing in our world is ever the same. It’s not the same story–we’re not even the hero anymore. We become a supporting character so that our children can be the hero or heroine in their own story.

The reality is that we can plot out our lives and outline our story, but life doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t follow our plans, and it certainly doesn’t consult us. Life is messy. Chaotic. Life is filled with the unexpected–disappointments, doors closing and doors opening. It is filled with heartbreak and loss, new birth and growth–and change.

life map

We think we choose our paths in life, but, in so many ways, we really don’t. It chooses us. In the past, they attributed it to fate or the cosmos. Today we sometimes say it is God or maybe mere chance–luck or unluckiness. Whichever way you want to term it, the reality is, so often our choices are few, and sometimes, even when we think we are choosing, our choices are really being chosen for us.

I recently read Lauren Oliver’s trilogy because my students are reading her book Delerium for my class. (I loved that book, btw! So much better than I expected!) In her final book  of the trilogy, “Requiem,” she makes a statement that puts it so well.

“They wanted the power to feel, to think, to choose for themselves. They couldn’t have known that even this was a lie–that we never really choose, not entirely. We are always being pushed and squeezed down one road or another. We have no choice but to step forward, and then forward again, and then forward again; suddenly we find ourselves on a road we haven’t chosen at all. But maybe happiness isn’t in the choosing. Maybe it’s in the fiction, in the pretending; that wherever we have ended up is where we intended to be all along.”

We start out choosing, but so often those very choices are dictated by the pushing and squeezing of fate and the cosmos. So few of us really end up where we intended at all. We come to terms with where we are. We might even love where we are, but it is not where we set out to go in the beginning.

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Maybe this is where I was meant to be all along, even though it’s not where I intended to go. Maybe I ended up here because of random chance and a good dose of both luck and unluckiness. Maybe it doesn’t feel like the life I was supposed to live, but it is the life I am living.

Maybe I’m just having an early mid-life crisis and no one else has every felt this way or knows what I am talking about at all . . . 😉

Or maybe, life is about rolling with the punches, accepting the role of fate and making the most of the choices that God–life–fate–the universe–allow us to make.

Sometimes less truly is more . . .

This has been a year full of change. After four years of being a stay at home mom, we decided that it was time for me to go back to work. Lily, my youngest was four and she is a very social little girl. She was ready for school and I was ready for work.

Some moms seem to thrive in their stay-at-home status. I was not one of those moms. Financially, it made sense for me to stay at home, and honestly, I felt compelled to stay at home, but it was a constant struggle for me. I adore my children. I love savoring the moments with them, filling up my jar of precious memories. I love the changes but mourn the amazing moments that growth leaves behind. I love spending time with my children above all else, but, I did not like me as I struggled to conform to this role I seemed to be so ill-suited for.super_hero_mom_poster-rb00ac9d631604ce3822afbae9898c56d_wad_8byvr_216

For years I have struggled with a sense of guilt. Being a loving, consistent mother is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. Shouldn’t that be “enough” for me? I would look at some of my friends who seemed so content or even blissful in that role, and I wondered why I was so unhappy. A good mother would be content in that role, right?

I was full of trepidation when I accepted the contract to go back to teaching. Would my children suffer? Would I be able to balance everything? Was I doing the right thing?

It didn’t take me long to realize that the decision we had made was the right one for us. I am such a better person with the challenge and mental stimulation that teaching gives me! I am happier, and, I believe that I am also a better mother.

 

That is not to say that this year has been an easy one. For seven months we made the grueling commute from home in south Dallas, to our jobs in north Dallas. (Anyone who has ever driven in Dallas during rush hour knows how awful that was!) Now imagine that same commute cooped up with three bored children . . . in the car with you . . . for the entire commute! Yeah! That has become my vision of what hell must be like! My littlest, literally, seemed unable to stop talking. Imagine the running commentary of a four year old at 6:30 in the morning before you’ve had your first cup of coffee . . .059

 

In fact, it was so bad, that we decided to move to North Dallas in the middle of the school year! Crazy I know, but such a good decision! My son is like a whole new kid (I won’t even get into the troubles we had with him this year! :S) since we moved. It’s amazing what a difference having time to play after school can make!

So, what’s the point of all of this? I guess what I want to say is that no one can know what is right for you and your family. I stayed at home because I needed to, and I don’t regret the time I spent at home with the kids. I just wish I had spent less of it feeling guilty for not being who I thought I was supposed to be!

Being a parent requires such balance. It is easy to lose ourselves in caring for our children. It is also easy to be a crappy parent because we are too focused on what we need and not focused on what is best for our children. Being a good parent means putting our children in front of ourselves. But it also means, being able to tell the kids to go watch a show or play in their rooms for a bit so that you can keep a sense of your own identity in the midst of this crazy thing we call parenting.

Yes, you could take the time to work on your child’s reading or to play another game with them, but sometimes, the best thing we can do for our children is to make sure that we don’t lose ourselves, because, after all, that is what makes us the best parent of all!