Learning, Un-Learning, Re-Learning: Mothering

My grandparents on their wedding day, their attendants on the outside edges of the picture.

Short and square, she could barely see over the edge of the steering wheel, but that size-five-foot managed to reach the accelerator with exuberance and commitment. My mother’s mother learned to drive just before her 60th year, and with every outing, attempted to make up for all those years of deprivation. Putting her large, General Motors vehicle in reverse, she would back out of the driveway at 30 mph, turning her car and her mind toward the street and the day ahead. This image of my small grandmother behind the wheel of a car is one of the strongest ones I carry to this day, fifteen years after her death. She was a woman of indomitable will, a gifted business person and from all I can gather, pretty much an absentee mother.

She had four children in four years and was often so completely overwhelmed by motherhood that she literally could not speak for weeks at a time. Fortunately, she had extended family nearby, maiden aunts who loved her kids and made themselves available when needed.

And were they ever needed. Nonnie went to work, you see. Her husband drank too much and gambled too much and they all needed the stability of a regular paycheck, so she did whatever she could find to do. And to tell you the truth, I think it was a relief to her. She never quite ‘got’ the whole mothering gig, although her children adored her, and hung on every word she said to them. The message my own mother got was this one: daughters take care of mothers. And that is exactly what my mother did during most of her growing-up life: she took care of Mother, standing between her parents when Grampa came home drunk, cleaning up his messes and their home, looking out for her siblings.

So when it came time for my mother to be a mother, she very deliberately did a lot of it differently. She never worked outside the home, choosing instead to nurture and support her husband and her kids by becoming the quintessential 1950’s housewife. She was a gracious hostess, a creative seamstress, a committed volunteer at church and school. One thing, however, remained exactly the same: the message she passed down to me — daughters take care of mothers.

And I got it. Oh, yes, I got it.

Mom, me and Dad when I was about two.

And I’ve spent a lot of years trying desperately to un-get it. At a very early age, I became a primary support system for my mother’s emotional health and well-being. It was not intentional, it just was. I was confided in, worried over, instructed in the ways of womanhood-according-to-mid-20th-century-conservative-Christianity, and generally expected to understand things that were far beyond my age or emotional capacity to understand. And I was a sponge for all of it, adoring my beautiful mother and wanting to be just like her.

Only, I wasn’t her. I was me. And it’s taken a lifetime to learn how to differentiate myself from her expectations and to find the courage to be the person God designed me to be, not the person my mother wanted me to be. This is a lesson I am still learning, on this the 68th anniversary of my birth. Still.

I hope the message stopped with me. I pray the message stopped with me. I was given the immeasurable gift of two glorious daughters, just 22 months apart, and then a son 30 months later. And while they were little, I carried around with me the image given me by my mom — stay-at-home, do-the-meals-and-the-laundry, be-sure-your-husband-is-happy-and-your-children-well-behaved. But I knew very early that I did not want that hand-me-down message to come out of my mouth or out of my unspoken expectations for either of my girls. More than anything, I wanted them to be their own unique selves.

Our three kids, ages 5, 3 and 1.

I did not mother them perfectly — not even close. I loved my kids more than life, but I often felt overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood. And I often felt more than a little bit lost. I hungered for adult companionship, for creative space, for more sleep! I often felt like a complete failure, impatient, distracted, inadequate. But one thing I did well — I enjoyed the ways my children were different from me and from one another. They were fascinating to me!

Even when I felt confused, even when I wondered if they’d live to see adulthood without killing one another, even when I wanted to walk out the front door and never look back — I was intrigued by who these small people were, each one so totally themselves. Yes, I was overbearing at times and yes, I sometimes expected too much from them. But this much I knew, right into my bones: I was their mother, they were my children. I was responsible for them — they were not responsible for me.

How could they be? They weren’t me. As I look back on those years, I believe that insight was a gift of grace, given to me by God, primarily through the gift of my marriage and our experience of living far away from family during those crucial early months of our married life. It didn’t come to me from my own experience of being mothered, nor from my mother’s experience of being mothered. And I hope and pray to God that this insight is the one that I communicated to my daughters, and not the one that came to me through our mysterious system of familial osmosis.

I’ve written here and elsewhere about my abiding love and admiration for my mother and my gratitude for the ways in which she and my father created such a remarkable and rich family life for me and my brothers. But this particular piece, this expectation of reverse-mothering-for-daughters — this does not land on any gratitude list. It’s been a difficult piece of my personal story for decades and I still must intentionally shrug off the debris that remains.

So I find it more than a  little bit ironic that now, at the end of my mother’s long life, after years of my own heavy-duty reflective work on this complicated piece of our story . . . I am indeed responsible for my mother’s well-being. I have a hunch I had to un-learn my grandmother’s and my mother’s version of daughters take care of mothers in order to finally be able to do that in a whole and healthy way. Time will tell . . . and grace, too.

All of us, spring of 2012. My daughters and DIL are doing such good mothering!

Joining with Emily Wierenga’s weekly theme, this week the prompt is ‘mother.’

Ups & Downs, Ins & Outs – Riding the Coaster

Remember the old movie, “Parenthood?”
A recurrent theme in that story of growing up
was the comparison of life to a roller coaster —
and our need to follow the ups and downs,
the ins and outs,
to tolerate occasional queasiness and to
look for joy and beauty along the way.

I’m feeling those dips and swoops a lot lately,
often more than a little bit queasy from it all.
And I’m trying hard to look for the joy,
the small beauties that show up, if I have the eyes to see.

On my evening walk last Friday,
I almost missed this glory.
 The fading sunlight was hitting our neighbor’s blossoming tree at
exactly the right angle to make us gasp with delight.
Such a lovely, serendipitous moment of beauty as the weekend began.

 And these three sentinels glistened against the sky as I made my rounds,

 The next morning, I drove south to meet these three sentinels —
my mom on the left (91), her ‘baby’ sister in the middle (on her 89th birthday),
their brother on the right (90).

These three have been the heart of our family for over a decade now,
the last remaining members of the older generation.
Their mother died in 1997 at age 101, her sister eight years later at 102.
I doubt very much that these three will live that long;
all are showing signs of wear and tear, the ravages of age.
I lunched with my cousins while our parents shouted at one another
in a private dining room at my uncle’s assisted living residence.
They’re wearing ‘hearing aids’ constructed out of water bottles
and offered as a fun gift by my cousin’s kids.

It is hard to watch this process — my mom is the only one with dementia,
but the other two are dealing with much more serious physical issues than Mom is,
so who knows how long they’ll be with us?

When I got back home, 4/5ths of our middle daughter’s family
was here, ready to relax and enjoy the holiday weekend.
It’s been a while since we’ve spent extended time with these dear ones,
and we were so grateful for their presence,
for their happy and sometimes boisterous reminder of youth
and life and promise
as we deal with our aging moms.

We opted to skip church on Sunday (gasp!) and went out to breakfast instead.
Then we drove to the butterfly preserve north of our home.

 It was a gorgeous day, mid 60’s and sunny.
The trail meanders through eucalyptus groves and out onto
the bluffs just north of the UCSB campus — gloriously beautiful.

 The deep hanging clusters of monarch butterflies were not to be found this day,
perhaps because of the unseasonably warm weather.

What butterflies there were flitted all through the grove,
enjoying the sunlight.
They are such stunning creatures, these monarchs.
Brilliant orange and black,
making the long migration between Mexico and Canada every single year,
stopping all along the California coast to rest and re-group.

We followed the trail all the way out to the bluffs,
stripping jackets as we walked and gawking at the endless view
of water, sand, islands.

It is a good walk, with enough ups and downs to make it interesting
and even a tiny bit challenging in the full sun.
Kind of like life, I guess.

Turning away from the water yields a mountain view,
beautiful in its own right.
This stretch of coast is one of the last and longest undeveloped
expanses in our state and we love it.

We are blessed in our children and in our grandchildren,
and they are blessed in each other.
Even though we’ve ridden some pretty steep and scary curves together,
I’d say the ride has definitely been worth it.

It’s good to be reminded of that sweet and powerful truth
when the queasiness sets in, don’t you think?

Once Lyla helps me straighten out some formatting grinches, I’ll join this with Michelle, Jen, Laura and Ann:


Spirit-Led Parenting – A Guest Post

One of the great joys of blogging the last two years has been the discovery of a rich community life out here in cyberspace. Megan Tietz and Laura Oyer are two of the many women it has been my privilege to come to ‘know,’ courtesy of the internet. I read a review of their parenting book early this year and was really impressed. So, I ordered four copies! There were four expectant couples in our church community at that time and I could  think of no better gift than an ‘instruction’ book that basically said – listen to your baby and to your own heart and toss out all the ‘shoulds.’  They’re entering round two of the required (and important) PR work for their fine book and I am delighted and honored to host this essay from Laura as they make the rounds of about a dozen blogs in the next few days. I encourage you to interact with Laura here, to think about the questions she asks, and to reflect on your own parenting experiences (if you have children) or about parenting you’ve observed (if you don’t have kids). Just opening the door and saying,  “Hey, I’m not sure about this…what have YOU tried?” can be a tremendously freeing experience. So, go for it!

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  2 Corinthians 3:17
I’ll begin with an honest admission:  I like rules.  I share in the opening chapter of our book that my nightmare assignments in school days were those with an open structure.  Options?  No, thank you.  I prefer guidelines and no-fail directions toward certain success. 
I expected the rules I’d heard for parenting a new baby to lead to that neat-and-tidy success found by so many.  Instead, they didn’t work for me or my baby, and I lived for a time in terror over the implications of what that failure would mean.
As Megan shared yesterday at O My Family, one of the bonds that deepened our friendship and led us to write this book was that we both entered parenthood bound as slaves to fear.  Our purpose in sharing our tear-stained stories is to encourage others navigating life with an infant, inviting them to the pursuit of another way. 
There is an approach to parenting that looks fear in the face and boldly speaks an answer:  Freedom.  Freedom from required formulas, unrealistic expectations of our children and ourselves, and the belief that we must force our babies to fit into a mold that may not have been designed for them.  
– Spirit-Led Parenting, page 42
When we live in fear, we resist the freedom that serves as a banner proclaiming the presence of the Spirit.  Yet Megan and I each found that in spite of our resistance, God beckoned us through the heartache of frustration and failure and offered us an approach to caring for our babies that we desperately wish we had known from the very beginning.  He was calling us into freedom.
  • Freedom to follow His lead first and foremost in our parenting.
  • Freedom to trust in the example of God’s Father heart, Christ’s call to servanthood, and the Spirit’s constant presence as we care for our babies.
  • Freedom to extend grace to those who parent differently, knowing that our Lord leads us individually, according to His flawless will and timing, to answers perfectly suited to our families.
  • Freedom to fail – understanding that perfect parenthood is unattainable, believing that God’s redemptive grace covers our missteps, and seeing our insufficiency as opportunity for our surrender and His refinement.
It was a rocky road, learning to live out what He offered.  But as we began to let go, we gained something unexpected:  a deepening perspective on the glorious, mysterious paradox of dying to self and gaining abundant life.  As two control-loving, perfection-seeking new mothers each woke from a fear-driven haze, we discovered that the cost of our new freedom in parenthood was not at all what we’d expected. 
Where once we believed we would find spoiled children and splintered marriages in the wake of our decisions to turn from the loud-and-popular advice, we found instead our own expectations and desires bowed low.  Where we once held fast to the notion that the “right” methods of baby-care would bring success, we learned that releasing our expectations gave us the freedom to truly follow the Spirit’s lead in every area of our lives.
It’s an approach that welcomes an often messy journey.  One that comes with sacrifice, as is always the case when we pursue a life of serving God and others.  It may mean less predictability and more time.  It may bring the uncomfortable realization that you are parenting off the beaten path, if that path where He has led some is not where He is leading you.  It may mean laying down that precious sense of control. 
But what if as that first year of babyhood winds down and a toddler stands where your baby once lay, what if you looked in the mirror and realized that the one who has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year is you?  What if you could see that in most every situation you encounter, your first response is no longer selfish retreat, but rather selfless embrace?
Would it make you smile with humble gratitude to recognize that in each moment you chose to approach your baby with a heart filled by the Spirit, you were able to more closely relate to and identify with your Lord Jesus Christ than you ever had before?  If you found, for perhaps the first time, that you were truly free in Him? 

– Spirit-Led Parenting, page 54

Living and parenting in freedom is a daily – and often difficult – choice.  We have heard from countless new parents through the years at different points in the journey, and believe that safe and honest discussions can encourage one another along the way.  Will you share your thoughts here today? 
What aspects of parenting in freedom appeal most to you, and which do/did you find most uncomfortable or hardest to embrace?  How has God used your role as a parent for your own spiritual growth, or how do you suspect He may want to do so?

We are deeply honored to share in this space today, and look forward to hearing from you! Find us tomorrow with a post at Narrow Paths to Higher Places

Spirit-Led Parenting is the first release from authors Megan Tietz and Laura Oyer. Megan writes about faith, family and natural living at SortaCrunchy and lives in Oklahoma City with her husband and two daughters. Laura blogs her reflections on the real and ridiculous things of life at In The Backyard, and makes her home in Indiana with her husband, daughter, and son.

Things Change. . . A Mixed Media Post

Life has gotten interesting of late. And I haven’t had as much opportunity to join with Lisa-Jo as I’d like. But when I saw this week’s prompt, I went to my draft pile and pulled this one up. I started to write it a week ago, to note what feels like a great, big, massive change in our lives – our youngest grandchild will no longer require our weekly care.
Gasp. She begins pre-school next week. How can this be??
So, you’ll see where I began the timed part of this post – and I surprised myself with where I went from there. Isn’t that always the way with 5 Minute Friday?? 
(Pictures added both before and after the 5 minutes!)
Five Minute Friday

Lilly – one-hour old
About 10 months old.
Feeding the bluejays with Poppy.
Tough girl pose – 15 months.
Playing doctor, 18 months.
Sweetness at 22 months.
Just a little uncertainty, also 22 months.
A series of wild-hair shots. Oh, my – yes. About 2 years old.
At her 2nd birthday party.
Under some semblance of control with Aunt Lisa, just past her 2nd birthday.
Lilly at 2 years, 6 months – how can it be?
A little dress-up play, three weeks ago.
Perhaps a cell phone would have been simpler for this little jaunt??
Every Wednesday since June of 2010,
she has come to our house to play.
And eat.
And sleep.
She was four months old when we began,
and I was just weeks out of the hospital,
and more tired than I knew.
So when nap time came,
I would put her down on the bed next to me.
I’d run the TV softly to create a little white noise,
 and sit next to her while she slept,
my computer on my lap.
During those first months,
I would do email,
research for teaching or preaching,
and wonder what the looming world
of retirement would be like.
Since the end of that year,
I’ve used Lilly’s nap time to
read blogs,
check Facebook,
think about posts,
write posts,
and watch her while she sleeps.

Two days ago marked the end of an era for us,
an end to babies.
First there were our own three,
each of them remarkable,
full of fun and curiosity and determination.
Then those three grew up,
met some pretty amazing partners,
and started having babies of their own.
Three boys from daughter number one –
one, two, three.
Three boys from daughter number two – 
one, two, three.
Loud, rough-and tumble,
some more than others –
wonderful promise of sturdy men to come.
Then, just one month after that last boy,
our boy and his wife had a GIRL.
Glory be.
And nearly four years and one miscarriage later,
another girl.
And now, they tell me, they are done.
Their family is complete.
Will I live to see great-grandbabies?
It’s within the realm of possibility –
our eldest is 21.
But I’m not sure it’s within the realm
of probability.

Everyone waits theses days.
We married young,
had kids while we were kids.
Not so much anymore.
There is education to be gotten,
jobs to be found,
houses to be bought,
lives to be lived.
And that’s all wonderful. . .
but . . .
I wouldn’t change a thing about our journey.
I loved growing up TOGETHER,
hanging on by a shoestring,
having babies before we had the money for them,
and loving every (well, almost every!) minute of it.
change comes.
And we?
We roll with it,
it rolls right over us.


Maybe I won’t miss this mess every week  . . .

. . . and maybe I won’t miss this weekly menagerie as I tried to get a very sleep-resistant girl to acquiesce . . .

But this?

(at 15 months old)

And this? (last week)

And yes, THIS (two days ago) I will most definitely miss.
She now covers almost the entire bed . . .

. . . and sometimes adjusts herself to make contact, her head on my leg as I type.

Mother Letters: The Stuff of Heroes

a blurry snapshot of a professional photo taken by Rich Austen of Austen’s Photography, Arroyo Grande CA. His work is excellent, mine not-so-much.

Dear Mother, My First-Born and Mama-to-Our-First-Grandchild,

Have I ever told you that you’re my hero(ine)? The first child born to us, teaching us the depths of love by your very presence, filling us with delight and providing endless hours of entertainment! 

That first child teaches his or her parents so, so much – as you discovered, at exactly the same age I was when you were born. How I admired your parenting instincts, right from the get-go. I remembered my own early fumbling and worrying and over-protective hovering with chagrin as I watched you let that boy of yours climb anything and everything, no matter how high. He was fearless! And how you delighted in that, how you celebrated it. 

Such a gift to give a child! 

Two more boys followed that first one, all three of them miracles of grace and goodness and fun. Because their dad had been so very sick early in his life, each of those healthy baby boys was a true miracle, the result of God’s grace and your love for one another and for each of them. You took trips and had adventures, tried scouting and read books by the basketful, taught them to love well, to create art and music and to grow friendships that went deep. 

And then things got pretty tough for several years. The after-effects of treatment received many years before brought suffering and eventually such loss. And you walked through every second of that with courage and commitment, with honesty and hard work and frayed nerves and sleepless nights and so.much.love. 

And your boys walked right with you, learning lessons we all hoped and prayed they’d never have to learn. Together you and their dad decided to be a family until the end, no matter how hard it got. And the two of you set such an example of courage for your small circle of five and for our extended families on both sides and for all the people who loved you. Yes, you are my hero, dear one. Every inch of you brave beyond belief. 

And now, nearly four years later, there is grace and there is laughter, buoyed by strong memories of the past and strong hopes for the future. God sent love again, a good man to be your companion and an encourager for your sons. 

One of those has flown the nest, another will soon follow. And your own courage and steady commitment over these 21 years has given them beautiful, resilient wings – wings that will take them safely to the next stage of life. I know this because I know about redemption. I know about grace. I know about commitment. I know about courage. 

And I know these truths most deeply because God gave me you. Because God allowed me the great privilege of being your mom. Because you and your sister and your brother are living proof that the age of miracles is not past. Somehow, you survived all the mistakes I made and thrived! Thanks be to God. 

I love you, 


The final installment for Amber Haines’ collection of Mother Letters at her site, as she and Seth launch their exquisite eBook of the same title. You can find the latest letters at this link: http://motherletters.com/my-mother-letter-link-up-party/

Mother Letters: Just Like You

a blurry snapshot of a professional photo taken by Rich Austen of Austen’s Photography, Arroyo Grande CA. His work is excellent, mine not-so-much.

Dear Mother-in-the-Middle of my three favorite moms, 

Do you remember when you found out you were pregnant for the very first time? How you slid to the floor in a puddle and worried out loud that you might have a baby who was “just like me?” And I followed you right down to the floor and said, “Then you will thank God with everything that is in you for such an indescribable gift?” 

Well, I really, really meant that. You were and are one of God’s best gifts to me and to your dad. As I have watched you mothering those three boys of yours for nearly 14 years now, I have been amazed. Amazed and grateful and thunderstruck. Because you are so very good at this gig, my girl. SO good. 

It’s not an easy job, is it? Losing sleep, feeling confused at times, wondering how you are going to make it through one more round of snotty noses and strep throat and allergy season. It’s tough to juggle all that is required as you do this work. I know that part all too well. 

But I didn’t manage to do even half of what you’ve accomplished. I stayed home with you and your younger brother and older sister. I chose to do so and I was blessed to be able to do so because your dad was ‘the breadwinner’ in those long ago days. 

Things have changed, haven’t they? 

You trained for a specialized job, working with blind students, and you’ve always worked at it – part time until boy #3 was three, full time the last few years. I truly do not know how you manage to keep all the plates twirling so magnificently. 

Well, I do know some of it: you’ve got a husband who jumps into all of it with both feet, offering encouragement, hands-on support and many layers of capability. And the two of you together chose this life you live – both of you in special ed with flexible schedules and summers off (mostly!)

Still…you are the beating heart of that wonderful home you keep. I watch you when we stay with you. Always quietly moving through the rooms, picking up, straightening, checking on homework, planning lunches. 

Also, entertaining guests almost every weekend – quite often 30 at a time!, maintaining deep friendships, serving as an elder at your church. You never do anything by halves – and you never have. 

Your children adore you – such fine young men they are becoming! Loving and kind, hard-working, smart, fun and funny. You are doing a great job, Mom-of-my-heart. Yes, you are. 

And, in truth, I do see you in each of those three boys. I can’t even tell you how deeply glad I am about that. Because you are a woman of valor – of deep, real beauty, both inside and out. You have the best laugh in the world and such a tender heart. You willingly admit your own doubts and questions, you seek honest answers to the tough stuff, you use your natural insights into human nature so very well. These are the things I see reflected in your children, good gifts that will serve them well as they move out into the world. 

After all, they are a lot like their mother. 

I love you, 


This one is being added to Amber Haines’ Link-up celebrating the release of Mother Letters:Sharing the Mess and the Glory. Have you seen this wonderful e-Book Amber and Seth have assembled from over 500 moms? I am an affiliate for this work of art – because I believe in the encouragement this project has provided to so many who are doing the hard/wonderful work of mothering. Check it out at: http://motherletters.com/my-mother-letter-link-up-party/

Dear Mother: Inviting Strength in the MIddle of the Scary Stuff

a blurry snapshot of a professional photo taken by Rich Austen of Austen’s Photography, Arroyo Grande CA. His work is excellent, mine not-so-much.

Dear Mother,

I watch you making room for courage in your little one, your toddler-sized daughter, and inside, I stand up and cheer. Yes! That girl you’ve got has spunk – that indefinable core stuff that looks at life as a challenge to be met head-on.

She knows her own mind, that 2-year-old of yours. She wants what she wants when she wants it and you are so wise as you deal with that willfulness. You hold onto it and treasure it, you recognize it for what it truly is: a gift that will serve her well as she grows into womanhood.

Yet you help her know that there are boundaries to be kept and you invite her to learn what they are, to grow increasingly comfortable with where they are and to honor them, especially as she is learning to navigate social and family relationships.

I listen as you offer clear, firm, yet gentle correction when the ‘NOs” become too frequent or too boisterous. I watch as you always sweeten your intervention with hugs, kisses, and the wise offering of an alternate choice that will both keep the peace and maintain her personal sense of justice.

Just in the last month or so, our girl has found some things in this world that are scary – loud noises most especially: vacuum cleaners, mixers, power mowers. Always, she has been fearless – climbing anything, reaching for life with all the enthusiasm her small bones can carry. Now she is beginning to see that some things in this life are bigger and louder than she is – and she shrinks back, momentarily overwhelmed. 

Thank you for acknowledging and validating her fears and then inviting her to move right on past them. Thank you for holding her close when she feels off-balance and uncertain. But thank you, too, for all your gentle encouragement to keep a firm grip on life even when it gets scary. Thank you for inviting her to be brave – not reckless, but truly brave. 

I believe in this girl. And I believe in you. You are fully up to the challenge of raising a strong-willed child – so gracious, patient and welcoming to all of who she is. May God grant you peace and confidence as you continue to mother her (and her bigger sister) so beautifully and well. You provide a safe haven from which she will continue to fly into life, even when it gets scary. She is a gift. And so are you.

Much love,


Adding this to Amber Haines’ MotherLetters collection, designed to celebrate moms and to encourage them in this oh-so-important life journey. You can add your own words of hope and promise by checking out this link: http://motherletters.com/my-mother-letter-link-up-party/