image by sarah mccoy photo

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Building Identity: Part 2 of 5

What Do You Do?

It happens all the time when you are a stay-at-home mom.  You chat in line at the coffee shop, or you visit a new church, or you are introduced at a cocktail party.  You get through the exchange of names gracefully, and then comes the dreaded question:

“So! What do you do?”

We can pop shrimp in our mouths to obscure our answers, but when alone, we also ask ourselves, “What will I do when the kid leave home?”

So we develop hobbies and volunteer and take online courses so our resumes sound current.  There is a huge upswing among stay-at-home moms in crafty-ness (and blogging about their crafty-ness), in knitting, in Little House on the Prairie-inspired baking and the sewing of pillowcase dresses.  These are all good things that make parenting fun and fill mornings and hopefully keep our minds active.

But it’s also good to occasionally contemplate the effect of competing values on our contentment.  If we are able to stay home, we are making a sacrificial choice in terms of income, but we’re also making a sacrificial choice in terms of worldly prestige.  It’s just super unlikely, whatever continuing education courses I take, that I will be able to launch into a big-deal career the moment my youngest child leaves the nest.  I like to think that the things I do now (aside from making zucchini bread and sock puppets) will enable me to find a gig I like and that makes an impact when the time comes.  But I can’t do well the job I have now if I stress over the “What will I do” question in the meantime. 

At the root of this conflict is the assumption that there is a lesser value to some jobs than others.  So who defines worth? 

Maybe it’s God.  Maybe it’s just us.  Maybe it’s our husbands, our families.  Maybe it’s Pretty, Popular, Powerful People.  Maybe it’s some materialist standard. 

First, I should note that work-as-basis-of-identity is not a universal value.  The German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote that the ancients wouldn’t even have understood our conception of work as being the sum of our person. Some of the ancient words for “work” would actually be translated more like “non-leisure.”  Their paradigm was quite unlike ours.

But what does God say about what we do?  Well, he says a great deal to women in particular, just as if he knew we’d struggle with this issue.  The Proverbs 31 wife with her myriad homemaking accomplishments is “worth more than rubies.”  When wives are again addressed in 1 Peter 3, it is the woman’s gentle spirit that is of “great worth in God’s sight.”  God is telling us how to identify ourselves to his satisfaction, and if Proverbs is to believed, that of our families as well.

That leaves us to please only the pretty, popular, powerful crowd and materialism.  It’s interesting that the 1 Peter passage ends with a warning.  If we would be counted the daughters of the godly women of old, we must “not give way to fear (v. 6).”  God knew that there would be external pressure to seek something different or something more than the portion we’ve been given right now. 

He also tells us we don’t have to wonder what the world will think.  We can rest assured that if we are in Christ, we will be reviled.  So yay!  That’s settled!  Maybe too much enthusiasm for the derision of our peers, but it does put perspective on our striving.

So back to the cocktail party question, “What do you do?” 

Nothing here gives me a smooth response.  I can’t cry, “I don’t get out of my pajamas much, but I am a new creation!”  Biblical accuracy is not the point of this query.  If you’re like me, you may have secretly wanted to bolster your “I stay at home” with some reference to your unused degrees or other sellable qualities.  I think if we redefine our goal, we can pick a better answer.  We want to invite conversation, relationship.  We want to be true to ourselves and the choices we’ve made in good conscience.  We’d prefer not to look idiotic.

I try to think more of my delivery than my wording.  “I’m at home with my kids. We’re starting a home schooling program in the fall,” is true.  But if we add “just” to our “at home” or qualify it with an apologetic shrug and a “but”, we’re indicating that what we do is a lesser thing.  If I am straightforward and engaged, even proud despite my lack of an impressive title, then I project how I feel about what I do, and how God feels about it, and not some assumption of what the world thinks of me and my just-mom-ness.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Our Kids, Our Masterpieces?

I interrupt myself today midstream in my Identity series to bring you this article, How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, from The Atlantic (thank you Rachel for the tip!).  I read it to a loop of Natasha Bedingfield's "These Words (I Love You)" and in the spirit of the vamping declarations of amor in the background, I loved I loved I loved author and therapist Gottlieb's informed take on modern parenting.  Have kids?  Plan on kids someday?  Just know anyone with kids?  For the love of, well, our kids, read this piece!

Lori Gottlieb:

...Here I was, seeing the flesh-and-blood results of the kind of parenting that my peers and I were trying to practice with our own kids, precisely so that they wouldn’t end up on a therapist’s couch one day. We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids—yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused, and anxious. Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned? What happens to those kids?

...the underlying goal of good parenting, even during the heyday of don’t-hug-your-kid-too-much advice in the 1920s (“When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument,” the behavioral psychologist John Watson wrote in his famous guide to child-rearing), has long been the same: to raise children who will grow into productive, happy adults. My parents certainly wanted me to be happy, and my grandparents wanted my parents to be happy too. What seems to have changed in recent years, though, is the way we think about and define happiness, both for our children and for ourselves.

Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier. The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way. “I am happy,” writes Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project, a book that topped the New York Times best-seller list and that has spawned something of a national movement in happiness-seeking, “but I’m not as happy as I should be.”
How happy should she be?

...“Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.” It’s precisely this goal, though, that many modern parents focus on obsessively—only to see it backfire. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?

Read the full article here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Building Identity: Part 1 of 5

Ascribing My Own Identity

If you’ve ever watched TV, or driven by a billboard, or opened a magazine, or even just glanced at a magazine cover in the grocery line, then you know something.  You deserve your way, your whims, on your timetable, for your happiness.  You are worth it.

Or, I’m worth it.  I’m not sure whether that goes for everyone, or just for me.

The thing about identity in our culture is that it’s really hard to think about it clearly when everyone’s telling me how awesome and unique I am, and how I deserve a pedicure and a Big Mac with extra pickles and no onions just because I’m me.

“Hey, Media,” I gasp in moments of clarity, “I’m trying to improve; stop justifying me to myself!” 

Me-Culture affects everything I do.  It sabotages my contentment in my circumstances, reminding me of how much more I could have, and should have.  It tells me unrealistically of all the lives I can simultaneously live: CEO, celebrity chef, astronaut, puppeteer, AND mom.  Then it drop-kicks me into Failureland when I spread myself too thin trying to be and have it all.

I was reminded of this empty promise when I once, ill-advisedly, watched an entire season of America’s Got Talent.  Every contestant interviewed over the course of the contest was asked, “What would it mean to you to win this?”  And invariably they gushed, “Everything! It would mean everything!”  Now, I wouldn’t hate to be successful with my songwriting, but if it were “everything,” that’d be a lot of potential fulfillment to hang on a pipe dream.  If the slim possibility of winning some cash and a show in Vegas (I think that was the prize that season) is everything, this says a lot about your relationships, your family, your work, and your faith.

And yet, we buy into it.  We major in Women’s Awesomeness Studies, minor in Canoeing because we know we deserve to learn only things that really, really inspire us, and oh, we also expect to start out at 40k with 3 weeks paid vacation even though we’ll be texting and emailing for most of the workday.  We charge our furniture and our cars and our BCBG wardrobes because we deserve to live like this now.  If our parents lived on hand-me-downs until they were 40, it’s just because they didn’t know about entitlement back then. 


But maybe it doesn’t always look so transparently selfish.  When I was a kid, my dad worked evenings and caught up on our grade-school drama on the weekends.  So it should have been no surprise one Saturday, as I proudly related a story about my prowess at Prison Ball in gym class, that my dad responded, “Oh yes? Are you good at sports?”  I was flabbergasted that he could not know this about me when in my mind, my entire identity and coolness hinged on my athleticism.  That identity took some more serious knocks later when I busted my knees up permanently.  It’s hard to maintain a self-worth based solely on athletic ability when you are relegated to the elliptical machine.

But self-identifying on worldly terms is more serious than just being obnoxiously entitled and its downsides are graver than a life without pick-up games.  It actively prevents actualization of Godly identity; you can’t serve two masters.  The world tells us we deserve better when our relationships hit a snag.  Godly wisdom guides us through the muddy trenches.  The world leads us on a goose chase, stomping on others on our way to fleeting fancies.  Godly wisdom puts us on the sideline of a bigger story, doing sweaty grunt work to achieve something lasting.  The more we try to make the story about us, the more frustrated our efforts become. 

But we shouldn’t expect to find truth or ultimate happiness in the world’s philosophy.  Then as now, “None of the rulers of th[e] age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).”  A wise college professor of mine defined freedom as the ability to ascribe one’s own identity.  Between a Big Mac my way and ultimate fulfillment, there lies a choice of whom I will choose to be.

In the next four posts, we’ll talk about our roles in our work (read: mamahood), relationships, marriage, and the church as we develop tools for intentionally building a fulfilling identity.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: Craving Grace

I have long been torn about memoirs.  They are the Reality Shows of the literary world, more compelling and plot-driven than serious non-fiction, more personal than a biography, and more real than a novel.  They seem to sell well when they are written by someones who are young and attractive.  And yet, I have always wondered, shouldn't memoirs be the province of the old, the experienced?  Might not a lesson learned in youth be told with even greater depth and perspective after a lifetime of reflection?  Is it just symptomatic of our youth-worshipping culture that we'd rather read the wisdom of a cute, witty 20-something than that of a wrinkled octogenarian?

It was with these conflicts in mind that I found out my friend Lisa Velthouse was publishing a second memoir.  On the one hand, I thought, could she possibly know enough to fill two books?  She's as young as I am!  And on the other hand, I thought, I really like her...she's awfully cute and might be really good...

So I bought a copy of Craving Grace, the story of a fast from sweets that taught Velthouse to savor the sweetness of God.  And then, I had to buy three more, stopping only because more than four seemed excessive.  But I kind of wanted everyone I know to read this book.

Many memoirs are striking in the drama of the circumstances that inspired them.  The very drama that draws us in, however, keeps us aloof.  Oh, so you lost three limbs and still medalled in the 200 meters?  Oh, so you had six failed marriages and learned a great lesson?  Heartwarming, shocking, awe-inspiring, but ultimately hard to relate to on many levels.  What makes Velthouse's book a must-read for, well, everyone is that nothing too momentous happens.  As she comes to know her flawed self, it is not through limb-loss or hard jail time, but through the critical thoughts she has, the judgments she passes in secret.  These are related with such skill that I had several awkward loud-laughing-in-public moments, and yet they are so perfectly normal that the reader cannot get away with distancing herself.  I may never have six failed marriages, but I have judged and criticized and played God, and much less wittily.

Many memoirs—I’m thinking, for example, of Elizabeth Gilbert’s—make their impact by glorifying the baser instincts of the author: self-revelation in the form of self-adoration.  Where Gilbert is proud of what she discovers in herself, Velthouse allows herself to appear stripped, exposed, and diminished, a primed canvas on which we get to witness the artful workings of grace.  As Velthouse becomes aware of grace, so do we.  We begin to believe that although, or because we, too, harbor prideful thoughts and self-reliant tendencies, we too, could become attuned to these constant evidences of grace.

Perhaps most distinctive, however, is what's missing: a sense that Velthouse has now arrived.  In fact, bouncing between two periods, one several years ago and one more recent, the book is at first confusing; does she struggle with some of the same obstacles even years after the fast is completed?  But that is the beauty and the genius of it.  The very arrogance that bugs me about some memoirs is absent here.  Velthouse's experience with grace is not complete after her fast, three years later, or even now that the book is on library shelves and coffee tables and bathroom countertops.  But what she's learned and is learning still is worth writing and worth reading right now, in the still-reeling voice of a 20-something.

As Velthouse so aptly demonstrates, grace is doled out in generous, earth-shattering bits, just enough to overwhelm and humble us time and again.  Perhaps when she is a wrinkled octogenarian, she will have even more insights to share from her journey in grace.  And if so, I, her wrinkled peer, will probably have to buy four copies.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Catching Up With Leisure

It’s an inescapable fact that life sometimes gets in the way of leisure.  It’s a fact on which I try not to dwell.  But this summer, life and leisure ganged up on me in an unforgivable way that has prevented me not only from writing, but also from sleeping a full 14 hours a night.  Pity me if you must.  To catch us all up before we launch into our next topic this week, here is a photo glimpse at what has truly been grueling, mind-numbing leisure.  And then, rested or not, it’s back to business.

In the middle of our D.C. to CA move, we ditched the kids, took a detour, and ended up in Rome.
In our defense, we'd never had a honeymoon.

We ate things where the eyes were showing.

We flew back over the course of ten million hours in two days.  This may be an inaccurate figure due to my lack of sleep and occasional in-flight illness.  But it's a close guess.

Because we felt so rested, we immediately set off on a cross-country caravan trip.  
So many miles, so many hotels, so many Monster energy drinks. 

We found a perfect condo in a record three hours and then spent some enjoyable family time sleeping on the floor and eating off of a file box. 

This is more fun when you are three than when you are 28.

The movers came, leaving chaos in their wake. 
We worked round the clock building storage furniture so as to move sharp and poisonous objects off of the ground before anyone died.  Kids.

But in the end, we have our room with a view.

More ruminations are coming your way, now from sunny San Diego!