Growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of traditions. There was a lot of fluctuation in even the number of family members (due to foster care, etc) so more things changed than remained the same. There are two things that happened every year without fail, no matter what kind of transition we were experiencing. Thanksgiving was the one time each year we got together with as many of my mom’s seven siblings and their children as were able. Usually it was a two day event, complete with flag football (with jerseys!), guitars and hymns and hippie songs sung with many harmony parts, potato candy, and sitting together while each family gave their year “end” update.
Every year on our birthdays, for as far back as I can remember, Mom makes a point to tell us our birth stories. I should specify that the birth stories she tells are not like the ones you can read on current blogs in that (thank heavens) she left out the gory details no one needs to be privy too. If she had not left those memories out, I’m sure I wouldn’t look forward to that part of my birthday as much as I do. When I lived at home, she would wake me up or put me to bed with the story. As an adult, I have always gotten a phone call or had a visit at some point in the day from her to be sure I could hear it all again. After 33 years, I know it by heart. My grandma convinced her labor would be long so she stay home as long as possible. The result was that I was nearly born in that small red house. Dad drove over the train tracks and she thought she would pass out. Dad lost his shoe in the hospital parking lot and didn’t stop to pick it up because the situation was so dire. The doctor did not have time to scrub in before I came. He basically caught me. Dad made Mom furious by eating cheetos and daring to laugh in her hearing while she was pushing. When my head came out, Dad announced “it’s a boy!” to which the doctor replied “you usually can’t tell by looking at that end”. I had a ring of hair around my head like a bald man, prompting my dad to say “she looks like boss hog”. Dad was on a role that day. Backward and forward, I know that story.
When the girls became ours, I knew I wanted to find traditions and special things to bond us in a similar way the retelling of my birth story had given me a unique connection with Mom. Of course, my boys have always been told about their birth days, but even though soon we will be issued birth certificates for our daughters with our names listed as mother and father, neither of us was present in the hospital rooms on those birth days.
I watched the clock that Friday afternoon. In my little classroom with my six students and their moms and young siblings, we had wrapped up the introduction of new grammar, the kids’ weekly presentations, a science experiment, an art project and we were quickly nearing the end of our review game. Every other Friday, I take my time packing up the room when class is over. The kids eat their lunches ravenously to make more time to play with their friends. By the time they’re running outside, I’m loading up the van and heading to eat lunch and visit with the other moms. This Friday though I had an appointment in the Cincinnati area, close to two hours away. It had occurred to me that morning that I had somewhat miscalculated the timing of the trip and the end of class and that I hadn’t left any wiggle room in regard to getting the kids packed up and dropped off at home before I left. So when we finished our review, I went to into overdrive and with a rush of panic and adrenaline I got Kacey and Cohen into the van with all of my school materials and took them home and was back on the road with not one minute to spare.
Time in the car is alone time for me and often I choose not to listen to music. I enjoy the quiet, make a phone call (or two!) to catch up with my sister or a friend, and mostly just enjoy the silence. I took David’s car so he had the car seats should he need to go anywhere while I was gone. The appointment was with an attachment specialist I had been eager to meet for about a month and I was antsy. The quiet swelled and became full of my thoughts and the questions I didn’t want to forget to ask and a smudge of anxiety over what she might ask, say or suggest. Noise was necessary. I flipped through David’s CD’s in the car. It was either Coldplay, a random mix of music his brother had given him or books on tape. I should’ve grabbed my CDs, I thought with a sigh. Then I remembered I had a message on CD in my purse. We had attended a partnership meeting the night before at the new church we have been attending since the fall. I rummaged through my disorganized black bag at a stoplight and found it.
I felt so encouraged listening to that vision message we had missed by a few months, if I were to write about it I don’t know where I’d start. As I was driving around, searching for an unoccupied parking spot, Jim (the teaching pastor) made a few side comments about a regular practice he has with his three sons. It moved me almost to tears. I stopped the CD and sat in the car a few moments, composing myself for the appointment. The thought was in the back of my mind the rest of the day. I got home shortly before bedtime.
I don’t know about the rest of you parents, but on the days I’m not utterly exhausted by 8pm, some of my favorite moments with the kids are right before bed. Everything has slowed down. They have started to unwind and yawn while I read through several books. In their pi’s, the snuggle up with blankets and pillows on the couch and listen, sometimes drifting off before the story is finished. When they have gone upstairs and gotten underneath the covers, I often find myself kneeling beside their beds, staring in their eyes. Scout wiggles around, flirting and trying to stay awake. It can be maddening, but she’s so stinking cute you almost forget. Adler, even in his current defiant two year old thing, becomes super cuddly, demanding kiss after kiss and extra tight squeezes and hugs. Kacey is often anxious about going to sleep for fear of nightmares (though she hasn’t had one in months, praise God!) She will ask as many questions as she can think of to keep me beside her bed. And when I kiss her forehead and reach for the door knob, she thinks of another. The longer she’s lived here, the more she attempts to talk about her real fears. That isn’t something I have access to often, so I sit and listen and try my best to make her feel safe and teach her how to give her most painful thoughts to Jesus. Eventually she nods off. Cohen is always the last to fall asleep. I can go upstairs to wash my face hours after they’ve been in bed and when I walk past his room, I will hear him whisper ” ‘night mom”. Tucking him in since he could talk has never been a quick process and he was speaking in sentences before he was two years old. He tells me stories, true ones and made up ones. Now, he often tells me ideas for projects or experiments or inventions. He asks deep, difficult to explain questions about life. He confesses. He recites his school work. He tries to tell me about a game and make my non-strategic brain understand.
Almost without fail, I find myself looking into each of their eyes and thinking sadly and guiltily that I haven’t just stopped and looked at them without interruption very much throughout the day. I feel sad because someday they won’t live in my house and Scout won’t play games, Adler won’t want mommy kisses, Kacey won’t need for me to walk her through her fears and Cohen won’t be lie awake in my house dreaming up ideas.
So that night I tucked them in and I stole the tradition Jim mentioned off handedly while casting vision for the church. I asked each kid questions and none of them knew any of the answers. I fumbled my way through, trying to remember all of what he had mentioned. The kids giggled at me like I was silly, particularly when I moved on to their sister or brother sleeping a few feet away and repeated the same line of questioning.
Now, though, they won’t let me forget to walk them through the whole thing. It has become the story I get to retell until it is etched deeply into their memories. What I initially had stolen has taken on the flavor and twist of our family, with additions and edits and rephrasing. I kneel beside their beds and I ask them their name. They tell me all of their name and I recite to them the meaning of the names we chose for them. I forecast for them the strongly held beliefs we have about who they are, who God is making them and what God has for them individually. With each child, this has taken on a different form. Kacey listens intently and asks questions, waiting for the same answers I give her every night. Scout wants me to take my hand and make my fingers like a waterfall from the top of her head down her face when I say, “the favor of God will flow down on your every adventure”. I did it once and now every time she waits for it, exclaiming with a giggle “FLOW!” Before I can sit down Adler will say “I am EAGLE!” At first he was worried about having “boy arms” instead of wings, but he’s come around to the idea. Cohen waits for me to go over the meanings of his names and then will want to explain to me what it all means. What is the same with each of them is a series of questions I ask once we have exhausted the importance of their names.
“Who do you belong to?” [totally stole that one] “God,” they each answer. At first they’d say “mommy and daddy” (very telling, eh?) but now they get it. “Who loves you?” There’s a big list of an answer to that one. “Who is proud of you?” Again, the answer is long and detailed. And I finish up with my favorite question, “Why did God put you on the earth now?” We have talked about this one, but I have given the answer and made them repeat it over and over until it rolled off of their tongues automatically. “To be a part of His Kingdom and to help usher to into the earth.” Kacey adds, “I’m a princess because He’s my dad”.
I share this only because it has so greatly impacted how our kids see themselves and has daily caused me to remember who these little people are running around my house during the day, snotty noses and messes and all. I am reminded every night that they are on loan to us and the gravity of their dependence on us to speak life and truth into them and to remind them how thankful we are and how much they are loved. But most of all, to keep present the truth that God saw them when they were knit together inside a human womb and He knew then, just as He knew when the foundation of the earth was laid, that they were born with a likeness to Him and with the weighty and wonderful privilege of participating in that everlasting, unchanging Kingdom that is as close as their next breath, bigger than the Universe and planted in human hearts.
Don’t think for a second that every night I float our narrow, short stairwell on those lofty thoughts. Many, many nights I follow behind big kids who “not tired” but are frustrated that bedtime has come. At least half the time, I carry a kicking and screaming toddler the whole way. We break up fights, manage emotional melt downs, lose our temper. Sometimes the day has been so harrowing that I beg David to do it alone and then I let him, only plodding unhappily up the stairs when they start crying because I haven’t been upstairs. Often we make two or three or four trips up to make Scout get back in bed or to tell Adler to quit climbing up the ladder to the top bunk. Cohen yells down to tattle on someone who is talking after lights out at least once before 10p every single night. Did I say sometimes I lose my temper? Because saying that is like trying to line up an instagram photo in just the right way to cut out the sink full of dishes. The truth is, we have five kids six and under and I homeschool which means I am home with five kids six and under all day from at least 7am to dinnertime. Everything shifts when Daddy comes home and there is another adult to give instruction, play pretend, and act as a human napkin and jungle gym. But before the shift, I am working on hour number eleven with only a couple of short potty breaks. I’m usually cooked through by the time he pulls into the drive. And after reading books each kid has selected and then whatever chapter book the older kids are into, I want to just stay on the couch. I want them to get changed, brush their teeth, and crawl into bed unassisted so I can keep sitting close to my husband and not have to get up. That tiredness alone can make me grumpy not to mention the whining that often accompanies tired kids, especially the ones who don’t think they are tired. By the time I’ve wrangled the little ones into bed and they’ve dared to try to sit up or slide off the bed, regardless of how charming or funny they might be, I can be *this close* to snapping. I get short. I threaten the loss of anything I know they want. I beg. I do all of those things every parent knows they shouldn’t.
…and maybe especially then… I find it impossible not to apologize for harshly spoken words or my snappy tone or my plain old bad attitude. I look at them and my heart softens as I watch them react to what they already know I am going to say. It sinks into them and I get to see it. They hug and forgive me. They go to bed with my voice in their ears speaking life instead of nagging about clothes left on the floor. And come downstairs, fully present with the truth about the gifts God has entrusted us with and the key roles they will play and will play in the ever unfolding rescue plan of God. And I need those reminders when the day has been long and I haven’t sat down all day and my two favorite tots have been doing their toddler work of making messes with various items I thought they couldn’t reach.
I need reminded. They only get to be small for so long and we only get this chance right now and I so desperately need to be reminded. Typing these words right now, I am thinking of how often I am already sidetracked in the morning! I may have to start doing some modified version of it over breakfast too.
So if you are looking a meaningful way to connect with your kids, slow time to speak words into their little hearts, a daily tradition to ground them or even if you just need bedtime not to end with arguing or nagging or yelling.. feel free to steal this idea I stole from the pastor of our church and make it yours. Edit it, add to it, and put it in your words and suit it to your kids. From one very imperfect, impatient, needing-Jesus-constantly-not-to-lose-my-mind Mom… trust me, it works.