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Guard Your Gates

Photography by Brian A. Petersen at www.brianapetersen.com

We have a few good phrases we say in our house a lot, little catchphrases or sentences that carry a lot of meaning in just a few words. They are the phrases that distill a lot of conversation into one sentence. For instance, we say “calm your heart” and “we use our words to love each other.”  This is another one: Guard your gates.

It was Halloween and we were at my parents’ house helping to hand out candy. We aren’t really into Halloween and so we hadn’t made a big deal out of it. At the time, Anne was barely two and Joe was only a month old so the idea of trick-or-treating was more daunting than delightful. So we stayed inside and handed out candy with my parents. Anne was off and about, playing here and there but she happened to wander past the front door right at the moment that I opened up the door to a gaggle of teenagers decked out as zombies and witches. We can talk about whether or not teenagers with beards should be trick-or-treating another time perhaps but I’ll tell you this: Anne was terrified of them. She didn’t even scream and cry, she just froze in absolute fear, her eyes swallowing her face as the colour drained.

My mother saw her reaction and quickly scooped her up and away from the door. After I finished with the teens and shut the door, Anne was perched on my mother’s lap. I was privileged to overhear my mother helping my daughter learn how to deal with fear. As best I can remember it – it’s been six years and more babies since then – this is what she said:

“Annie, that was scary, wasn’t it?” Anne nodded, her mouth quivering. “Well, you know what? You don’t have to let that fear into your mind and into your heart, sweetheart. Just because there are scary things, it doesn’t mean you need to invite them. Let’s pretend your heart and your mind have a gate, okay? And we can either open the gate to scary things or things that make us bad or do bad things. Or we can shut that gate. Sometimes we still see things over a gate, right? But we don’t have to open the door and invite them to come in and set up forever. If scary things come into your mind and heart, it’s hard to get rid of them. Your eyes and your ears are your gates, Annie. So if you ever see something that makes you feel really scared or makes you want to do bad things, you just shut your ears and your eyes to it. You need to guard your gates, baby. If you guard your gates, then nothing will come into your mind and heart that you don’t want in there.

You want to open your gate up to the good things, sweetheart. You open your heart and your mind up to the things that make you laugh or make you good or make you think.

Annie got it. Since then, all of the tinies have gotten it. In her childlike trust, she believed my mother and the thing is, I did, too. Tinies are so sensitive, so easily influenced, so perceptive. Of course I wanted to guard her gates and teach her how to do the same thing. We are careful about what we allow the tinies to watch and experience and listen to – we know that it can become part of their very selves.

In a way, it’s become a bit of a family joke. If we’re watching Hockey Night in Canada and a commercial for a horror film comes on (seriously, HNIC, why do you do this? you know kids are watching), someone – often one of the tinies themselves – will holler “GUARD YOUR GATES” and then the tinies clap their hands over their ears and screw their eyes shut. They know that if they see that terrified girl or that blood dripping down an arm, it will become part of their mind and their heart, haunting their dreams.

I’m sure that when the tinies are all grown up, they’ll laugh themselves silly over how we used to holler “guard your gates!” during the commercial breaks of Chopped on the Food Network because an ad for a primetime show came on. Whatever. What’s parenting for if not to give them a few ways to laugh at you later on?

Confession time though: I still guard my gates. I’ve admitted at long last that I’m not immune either. I’ve learned to guard what I watch or listen to even in movies and television and music. Not because I have some weird legalistic thing about it, but because I’ve finally admitted what most everyone who loves me has known for a lot longer: I’m very sensitive. The tinies come by their sensitivities quite honestly. I take these things into my mind and heart and they latch on. I’d rather not open the doors of my heart wide to fear or lust or violence, for instance. If I believe those things are antithetical to life in Christ, then why am I flinging wide my own gates to them?

It’s funny how much I’ve tried to pretend that I’m beyond being influenced. Like I’m supposed to be so past it, so over it, that it doesn’t bother me or impact me. Like what I listen to or watch doesn’t affect what I think and how I speak and how I move through my life, how I view humanity and violence, sex and God.

Brian and I tried to watch a show recently that everyone was raving about. We made it through two episodes before we realised we were both sitting there with a cringe-y look on our faces. “It’s just not us to watch this stuff, is it?” he said. “It makes my soul feel sad,” I admitted. So we turned it off. Maybe we can’t keep up with 99% of pop culture references but I’m okay with that. Lesson learned. And yet I watch my fair share of crap, too – I can’t figure it out either. Somethings just make me a worse version of myself. I can admit that now.

But as the tinies grow up, the simplicity of that instruction has shifted. As we deal with friends and challenges and new influences, we’ve had more conversations about what it means to guard your gates beyond just slapping your hands over your ears.

Guard your gates now means that we get to decide who influences us – how we think, how we feel, what we do.

As in most things to do with parenting, I find I’m learning right along with the tinies.

One of the tinies recently asked to listen to some quiet reinterpretations of old hymns after our bedtime prayers. “It feels like someone is still praying over me as I go to sleep, it keeps the gate open to good things,” they said. Another time, we had to have long talks about the influences of certain friends and how these friendships had opened up the gates to some unacceptable behaviours and habits. It was time to practice guarding the gates against those influences while still being kind and friendly.

When we have the agency or choice (which we don’t always have), we want to be careful about who and what takes up residence in our minds and our hearts.

I think this is the hard thing about parenting – okay, who am I kidding? one of many hard things –  this whole “finding a way to help lead and teach and model nuance and wisdom” thing. When the tinies were toddlers, it was as simple as “shut your eyes and shut your ears” to scary things. Done and done.

But now that they are getting older, guarding one’s gates has to become an act of Holy Spirit lead discernment. 

Because there are times in our lives when we damn well better open our minds and our hearts to things that make us uncomfortable. In fact, I think sometimes that a lot of good Christians take the toddler approach to “guard your gates” – they just don’t listen to or hear anything that might be difficult or complex or heart-breaking. They go through life with their fingers in their ears and their eyes screwed up tight against anything that might challenge them.

Indeed, I have been thinking a lot lately about the importance of listening to the stories that make us uncomfortable and challenge our peace. Just because something is terrible to learn, it doesn’t mean that I need to guard my gates against it. As Christians, I think it’s our responsibility to carry each other’s burdens and be a part of restoring justice for one another. Sometimes that means being able to carry truly terrible truths without letting it bury us whole. We grow in these places of challenge and hardship. Guarding my gates doesn’t mean shutting out the cries of our brothers and sisters.

Sometimes the most holy work we can do is listen to each other’s stories and take their suffering into our hearts, carrying each other’s burdens and wounds to Christ.

So, no, I don’t guard my gates against simply terrible or scary things anymore. Instead, I want to guard my gates against what diminishes wholeness and holiness in me.

I guard against the influences that make me the worst version of myself, the influences that feed my natural tendencies towards sin and bitterness, rage and cynicism, seeing the worst of people and being quick to offence.

This is a hard thing to write about without sounding like this is an exercise in boundary-marking and legalism. I’m not really into policing anyone else’s standards. I tend to trust the Holy Spirit in you. But it’s also a good bit of common sense to me now.

Sometimes it is this simple: is this influence – whether it’s a book or a movie or a friendship or a Facebook page – bringing life and wholeness and the fruit of the Spirit to me and others? Is it challenging me to be fully alive, to be more compassionate and human, to be more wise and loving?

It doesn’t have to be pleasant, oh, no sometimes the things that bring compassion and wisdom and wholeness into our lives are the very things that break our hearts or make us angry or challenge us.

Even in the face of terrible and terrifying things, I want to open my gates to the influences that will help make me whole and holy. I want to grieve and lament, push back against evil and darkness, challenge injustice while still, as Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8-9,”filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”

And I want to open wide the gates of my heart and my mind to the influences that bring life and light, goodness and holiness to me.

I want to fill my heart with those things because then when I encounter the terrible and the terrifying, my true life will brim over into true words and deeds that bring life (Luke 6:44).

I have no idea if this makes any sense.

 

 

Continue Reading · faith, family, parenting · 77

In which this is one of the great joys of watching my children grow up

Like most parents, I have a few unwritten rules to keep my life easier and my own self saner. For instance: Thou shalt not take small children to the toy store.  Call me a mean old mum, I just don’t do it. If I need to pick up a toy for them or for a friend, I leave the tinies with my husband and go forth to conquer. Toy stores are just plain overwhelming these days. In our town, gone are the days of a shop on the corner with a lovely selection. Now we’re confronted with gigantic box stores stuffed to the ceiling with every imaginable form of product and television marketing ploy known to humanity. Just walking in the whooshing sliding door makes me want to rock in the fetal position due to sensory overload: no wonder it’s crammed full of sobbing children whose eyes have not seen nor ears heard what the marketers hold forth for them. Nothing brings out the worst in small kids – and in parents – than a toy store. I have made a valiant effort to take children to the toy store over the years. “It’ll be fun! Everyone likes to pick out a toy!” It never ended well. Lesson learned, my mama didn’t raise a fool. Toys are lovely. Big box toy stores are the seventh circle of hell.

***

I noticed something about toy stores with my eldest daughter when she was younger – she felt penned in by the Pink Section. If her family gave her a bit of money to spend at the toy store for a birthday, away we would go and, even though she loved science and art, building and Barbies, she would inevitably feel stuck in the Pink Section. Filled with Barbies and baby dolls, kitchen sets and princess dress up, fairies and little ponies, she would pick out a new Barbie or a doll baby. Her brother would pick out something from the Lego section or a soccer ball. Then we would go home and she would spend the entire next few days begging Joe to let her play with his Lego or his ball, leaving her doll baby on the floor. I would walk her to other sections of the store: look, here! you love riding your bike, why don’t you get a new basket? you love bugs, why don’t you get a bug catching kit? you love Lego, why don’t you get a set? you love science, why don’t you get a telescope? but inevitably, she would say, no, Mum, this is where the girls shop so this is where I will shop. (Don’t misunderstand me: we actually like the “girl” toys, too, we’re even a fan of Barbie in our house for a lot of reasons. But I could see that she just didn’t have as much fun with these Pink Section toys as she did with the sporting goods and the science and engineering toys.) She didn’t feel like she could be herself in the toy store. She felt like she needed to be the girl that the toy store told her to be. So I stopped taking her to the toy store. Instead, I would do it and buy what I knew she liked. At home, far from the marketing, she began to feel it was okay to love what she loved, to have fun where she wanted to have fun, to be the girl who loved both Barbies and biology.

***

We experienced the same thing with the Scholastic Book Orders (remember those? Oh, the delights!). Once a year, near the end of the school year as a special treat, we let the tinies choose one book out of the Scholastic Book Order pamphlet. A couple years ago, Anne picked an insipid book about a fairy. I knew it was a boring book that she wouldn’t enjoy but because it had a pink glittery cover, she was suckered in. I knew she loved the inventive Boxcar Children and mischievous pest-y Ramona more than fairies learning “lessons” about being a nice girl but it was her choice. Sure enough, that book came home and sat half-finished. When I asked why she hadn’t read it, it was “boring” and she’d rather read Stuart Little again. That lame book was donated to the thrift store pretty quickly. Marketing won that round.

***

Today my eldest daughter turned eight years old. Eight! Anne is eight! It seems like yesterday I was blogging about her birth and babyhood.

***

I know I don’t write about her much anymore (I’ve written about that decision here) but longtime readers remember that the tinies used to figure very prominently in my daily writings and musings. But today I am making an exception – with her permission – because it’s her birthday and she quite likes the idea of people on Facebook paying attention to her and telling her Happy Birthday today.

***

Don’t you remember being eight years old? To me, this is the golden age of childhood. This is the age around which the rest of our childhood memories orbit. At least, they do for me. Next comes the tween years then the teen years, I pray I can help to keep her centred on her true self.

***

All day yesterday, she would mark things as “the last time” – this is my last time eating supper as a seven year old, this is your last time kissing me good night as a seven year old. And kids wonder why we get emotional over their birthdays, eh? She bounced into our bed at seven o’clock this morning, her gap-toothed smile wide. I love that smile. I love every too-big adult tooth and every wiggly baby tooth. Her hair stuck up like a rooster tail and she wore an old Mercy t-shirt that hung to her knees. “I’m eight!” she announced. We laid in bed, just the three of us and I told her the story of how she was born like I do every year. 

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Anne, four days old in 2006

***

One of the greatest years of my life was her first year of life. I had a year off work with maternity leave (thank you, Canada, for your family focused social policy!). We lived with my parents because money was so tight. Brian was in school still. Nothing about being a mother looked the way I thought it would look. And every day, I woke up to Anne-girl. She was a dream baby, the love of my life. I remember how we used to wake up early together and go for walks in the park, how every little old lady out for a stroll would stop me to congratulate me because I had a hat on her head. (Pro tip: the quickest way to the heart of older generations is to put a hat on your little babies.) It was such a slow and beautiful year, I made a fool of myself over her little life, exulting in every milestone, gloating over her skin and her smile. As she grew up, she was so perfectly her own little self, holding her own in a world that even from a young age likes to tell us what is right and good and proper and expected from little girls.

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Me and Anne at the lake in 2007

I told her stories of that year this morning, smoothing her sticky-up hair. I loved you from your first breath, I said. I’m so proud of the young lady you’ve become, so proud of who you are becoming, I love helping you grow up.

***

One of the great joys of watching my children grow up is seeing them become more fully themselves.  I love watching her become more fully herself. I love watching her love what she loves with abandon. To see her happy makes me happy. Every day, she becomes stronger in her character and in her passions.

10467880_248214175386698_366295759_n I love that she comes in sweaty from playing street hockey with the neighbourhood kids, flushed and triumphant, one of the only girls who can hold her own out there. I love that she plays with her Barbies by the hour, dressing them up and concocting elaborate sagas. I love that she reads Ramona books under the covers and howls with laughter over Garfield comics. I love that she leads her little siblings and cousins with such compassion and strength. I love that she is sociable and outgoing, extroverted and engaging. I love that she is creative, her ideas out pacing her ability to clean up after herself. I love that she creates puppet shows. I love that she hangs up six foot tall posters about the workings of the human body’s systems. I love that she chopped all of her hair off into a pixie cut and highlights it with pink hair chalk, she has a passion for fashion and fearless self-expression that delights me because it’s so foreign to me. I love that she’d rather watch the Food Network and HGTV than most cartoons. I love that she loves to cook and bake on her own – she makes excellent jam muffins, I must say. But I also love that she writes out business plans and menus for her future cafe ownership. I love that she writes and illustrates stories and then catches bugs. I love that she tells terrible jokes. I love that she loves to pray and has such an earnest faith. She carries all the complexity of being a girl becoming a woman.

***

This year, we bought her a Lego set and the classic book Matilda by Roald Dahl for her birthday. Someone else will get her a Barbie, someone else a rocket launch kit, someone else a craft kit. She’s all of those things and something so much more. As e.e. cummings wrote, it takes a lot of courage to grow up and turn out to be exactly who you are. And I have found that one of the great joys of parenting is seeing these small people grow up and turn out to be themselves, in all the dizzying complexity of wholeness.

***

Related: A few of my favourite old posts about Anne

In which she can come along and see for herself ::  I believe that the Gospel is usually caught, not just taught. For every earnest conversation, there are a hundred more unscripted moments: the rides in the van, the talks at the supper table, the nights at church, the invitation to come along and see for yourself. Maybe this isn’t the most important moment but all those small moments have a habit of adding up and creating a small outpost for the kingdom of God.

In which I can’t help myself :: In the beginning, before we know better, maybe the voice of God sounds like the voices of our parents. It would be nice if that’s a wide path to follow straight to the truth of Love, instead of a prison to unlock or a fetter to untangle or a dark wood to wander until we find the light. In the beginning, until they know better, I hope the voice of God breathes in my words to them: loved loved loved loved lovedlovedlovedloved thumping out a rhythm of belonging right into the ventricles of the breath.

Continue Reading · Anne, parenting · 17

In which I write about motherhood – still :: a guest post by Lisa-Jo Baker + a giveaway!

Every day I wake up knowing by the time I crawl back into bed with my laptop, a book or a favorite movie I will have learned more than I bargained for.

I will be tired in every part of me. I will feel stretched out and squishy. I will often be frustrated that no one is staying in bed like they’re supposed to. But I will also know that the Lisa-Jo today has grown up. And the Lisa-Jo tomorrow will grow up further still.

Grown up, dragged up by her kids and the God that made them.

This unglamorous truth is my Gospel.

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I write about motherhood not because I always grew up dreaming of being a mom. Not because I am a “parenting guru.” Not because I have it figured out, or have read all the books, or understand even remotely the best ways to educate, discipline or shape young lives.

I write about motherhood because it’s where I understand why Jesus would have died for me and why the Father would have sent Him. It’s the place of Cheerios stuck to the sides of bowls and self sacrifice on repeat with the loads of laundry. A parent will always lay down their life for their child. Jesus loves me this I know, for my children teach me so.

I am not a Bible scholar. I write stories. They’re not long ones and they last all of a couple days on this blog. But they are the gospel that speaks the loudest to me. Not buried in Greek or Hebrew, but lisped by baby boys who hate when I call them babies.

God’s love for me is so loud when I look at my children that even my worst days can’t drown it out.

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Gospel climbs off the pages of Scripture on Mondays during the pre-school rush and reminds me that Christ lives in me. That this must make a difference in my day. It must slow me down when I want to rush and shout and gnash my teeth and wail at the child who’s lost his shoes again.

And some days I snap, “see, that’s what happens when you don’t put them away like I’ve told you a meeelllion times before!” And other days I remember the Gospel buried here in my mess and I swallow my shout and instead work hard at remembering that love is patient and kind.

Because it is hard work to remember to be kind and patient when you know mere minutes stand between the kid who can’t find his shoes and a “tardy” note from school.

In the living room, between the discarded pajama pants and the left over bagel I work out my salvation with fear and trembling. And then we buckle everyone into the car and Micah tells me school is stupid.

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I talk a lot here about how small a mother’s routine can feel.

Perhaps, however, I don’t talk enough about how big the impact of that routine can be. Celebrating the small is directly related to recognizing the massive, Kingdom impact. Kids are forever. They are eternity with skin on. And we mold them like so much play-doh until one day they walk out the door and take every small moment of a family’s routine with them.

I guess what I’m saying is that celebrating the smallness of a mother’s day in and day out is more than just making it through – friends, it’s a wild dance of recognition, of celebration, of courage. It has to be more than finding meaning in the laundry. It has to be a wild Hallelujah that laundry is just the tipping point for all that you invest, that you pour, that you knead and knead and pull and knead into your kids. These are the front lines. These are the glory days. This is the stuff of heroes – not the laundry, but the conversations that take place in between the loads.

Piece by painful, sometimes mind-numbingly boring piece, you are building a mosaic of memory love – a testimony. Something that your children will see the day they open the door and turn head back over shoulder for a last look.

It will all be there, the beautiful wonder you’ve woven into them.

And the miracle they’ve stitched into you.

{To see the video reminder of why all mothers are braver than they know and deserve a medal, click here}.

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This guest post comes with love from Lisa-Jo Baker to our community in celebration of Mother’s Day. If you haven’t already – treat yourself, your mom, your sister, your BFF or your grandma to a copy of her new book, Surprised by Motherhood: Everything I Never Expected About Being a Mom.

No matter what stage you’re in when it comes to motherhood, we promise it will encourage. And remind you that you are braver than you think.

GIVEAWAY: And to celebrate each and every one of you who encourages, loves on and mothers others, whether you have children or not, we’re giving away 2 copies today. Just leave a comment sharing what has surprised you about motherhood or about your own mama to be entered. (unfortunately due to shipping, you have to be located in the USA or Canada to be entered).

Continue Reading · giveaway, parenting · 38

In which “My Practices of Mothering” is now an ebook

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We had our three babies in four-and-a-half years. It was … rather life-changing. And right in the midst of it, I began to write through the stuff that I do (or tried to do) to enjoy day-to-day life with a houseful of tinies.

Three years later, it remains one of the most popular series of posts I’ve ever done at my blog. It’s a little bit practical and a little bit theological and a lot of conversational, non-expert “in-the-trenches” talk about what worked for me in that season of life. 

I call them Practices because that’s what us Christians have often called spiritual disciplines, but really they’re just things I do over and over again. Everyone has their own “practices.”  Most of mine come from my own parents but then I picked up a few others from books or friends or mentors.  And my practices may not work for you and your family.

As my tinies grow up, my practices have already shifted and changed and evolved, as they should. Life in our house looks differently now that our tinies are 7, 5, and 3 than it did when they were 4, 2, and newborn. I imagine that they will be completely different again when they are teenagers. Your own practices will do that, too.

The practices included in the ebook are:

  • speaking life,
  • attachment,
  • the big picture,
  • routine,
  • worth,
  • gentle discipline,
  • being a person,
  • play,
  • sleep,
  • abiding in the Vine,
  • community,
  • space on the margins,
  • realistic expectations, and
  • assigning positive intent.

Because it can be hard to click around a website searching for the right posts, I decided to edit the posts and put them into an ebook. My thanks to Dan King for his help with the tech side of things and to Andrea Levendusky for such a perfect cover. 

Check it out here: My Practices of Mothering for $2.99* on Amazon.

*It’s $2.99 in the US Amazon store. If you’re purchasing from Canada, the price may show up as $3.01. 

Continue Reading · books, parenting, Practices of Mothering · 4