Present and Gracious Parenting

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Learning to be still and trust God has been the most beautiful blessing. Although there are so many aspects of this change that inspire gratitude, I am most thankful for the way I’ve changed as a mother. Since Sienna is older, I’m seeing the changes play out in the way I respond to her most clearly.

Sienna is passionate. She cares deeply and articulates herself very well. When something upsets her, she expresses it.

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When I was disconnected from the moment and trying to control my world, it bothered me a lot when she didn’t behave the way I expected. I’m not talking about misbehaving, more like not living up to my expectations. For example, if I announced we were going to do something fun and she didn’t get excited. Or, we went to an event and she pouted about something bothering her – her socks were rubbing funny, for example.

When my world was idyllic, (and entirely in my head), I needed her to act a certain way to make the picture fit. I wasn’t comfortable unless I was “happy” and needed my family to help me perpetuate the illusion of perfect contentedness.

Fortunately, I don’t think too much permanent damage was done. My awakening corresponded perfectly (divinely?) with Sienna’s growth from preschooler to “big kid” and all the emotional and mental changes that involves.

Now that I’m (mostly) living in the moment and embracing my own constantly changing emotions, I’m much more capable of riding out the ups and downs of my kids emotions.

This weekend, Sienna was frustrated and sulking when we started our (admittedly miserably hot) outing to the Safari Park. I calmly told her, “We’re here to have fun. If you choose not to have fun, that’s your choice, but you’re not going to ruin it for the rest of us.” Then I let it go. I didn’t try to cheer her up or overly engage her. Dennis, Teo, and I cheerfully entered the park, looked at the animals, and enjoyed ourselves. Within a few minutes she was excited about seeing a couple of little foxes in their den. When she started explaining to me what she thought they were doing, I enthusiastically joined in her story. Nothing was said about her attitude changing. I didn’t comment on her earlier behavior at all.

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We’ve been having some tough mornings on the way to church recently. Part of the issue is our summer bedtimes (or lack thereof) as we’ve been staying up and doing fun activities on Saturday evenings, leaving the kids tired on Sunday morning. A couple weeks ago, Sienna was very upset with me on the drive to church. I can’t remember why, probably a clothing choice I’d vetoed or her brother got something she wanted. She didn’t come around when I made a couple reconciliatory gestures on the drive and when we slid into our pew, she purposefully sat next to Dennis and gave me a little glare. Instead of getting upset, I just waited a bit. When we stood to sing the opening hymn, I put my hand on her shoulder. When we knelt for Holy Absolution, I shared my hymnal with her. When we sat for the scripture readings, I put my arm around her and she cuddled in. We spent nearly the entire service cuddled together. We stood for the Gospel reading with my arms wrapped around her shoulders. During the sermon I ran my hands through her hair as she reclined in my lap.

Toward the end of the divine service, Sienna told me, “I love cuddling with you in church.”

“Me too,” I replied with a smile and a hug.

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Nothing was said about her attitude that morning. Instead, I thanked God for the much overlooked power of touch. There’s such an emphasis on words and connecting with others through verbal expression in our culture, I marveled at the intimacy and power in simply embracing my daughter. We didn’t need to formally reconcile through words. Sienna knew that everything was fine when I put my arm around her and pulled her in.

Emotions are constantly changing, if we feel them. It brings me such peace to teach my children that their “negative” feelings are safe. They can be sad, angry, or frustrated. They can feel those emotions and express them and it never changes the way their parents feel about them. They don’t have to earn our love and affection by behaving a certain way.

This unconditional love is from Christ. It is how he loved us when he died on the cross and the way he continues to patiently love, nurture, and guide us. It’s pure grace. Giving our children the grace to make mistakes, express their feelings, and learn lessons the hard way is one way we can model God’s love for them.

“Why Don’t I Wait and See…”

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Ideas about change and growth have been percolating in my mind the past few weeks. This weekend I thought about it some more while out for a run on Saturday morning. I was at Miramar Lake and had to park down the street a bit because it was already packed at 7:00 a.m.! The loop around the lake is 5 miles and I was planning to run a bit farther. For the first couple miles, I kept thinking about how far I was going to run, what route I would take after completing the full loop, etc.   The options were endless – and they ran through my mind, distracting me from enjoying the run for several minutes.

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Suddenly I thought, “Why don’t I wait and see how I feel after running the lake once?” There it was: recognition that I didn’t know and couldn’t control how I was going to feel 30 to 40 minutes from now. Sure, I could have a goal to run farther, but why not let the run unfold and listen to what my mind and body told me in the moment?

This idea has occurred to me frequently over the past couple years, particularly while running or swimming. When I focus on the distance I plan to run or swim, instead of focusing on running the steps or swimming the lap I’m currently on, I’m disconnected from the moment. If I’m currently feeling strong and capable, I may set an unrealistic goal based on those feelings. Or, if I’m currently feeling sluggish then I project that forward and think there’s no way I’m going to be able to finish that many more miles or yards.

I have found a lot more enjoyment in both forms of exercise by learning to stay present and take what my body and the conditions give me. It has become more about enjoying the process than achieving goals. I love to run and swim. I don’t want to rush through these activities so I can cross “exercise” off my list for the day. Realizing that my feelings are always changing has also been enhanced by focusing on growth over achievement. I’m seeking to improve my running and swimming skills over time, rather than focusing on specific goals that would require much more time and dedication than I’m currently willing to give.

Embracing the fact that things are always changing, including our feelings at any given time, makes it so much easier to remain mindful and present in the moment, because you know there’s no sense in trying to control the future. There are an endless number of variables that impact our physical and emotional states at any given time. Being mindful and present gives us the best chance of adapting to those changes as they occur. Being disconnected by analyzing how we’re going to feel and what we’re going to do in the future does not enhance our performance, and actually robs us from enjoying the process too.

It gave me a little rush to realize this connection between being in the moment and embracing that change is constant.   That bit of enthusiasm helped me have a really great 7 mile run while listening to a wide variety of music. This is another trick that reminds me to stay present: I like to listen to Pandora’s shuffle setting and not let myself skip songs that aren’t particularly great for running. It’s fun to let the music shape how I’m feeling and just go with it. This run, it happened to play a lot of music that reminded me of Dennis. So, instead of analyzing my running performance, I enjoyed thinking about my sweet husband and how he has made my life so much richer while running to some of “his music” – Vicente Fernandez, disco, and Bruce Springsteen.

So, that was my lesson: focusing on the activity of running while listening to random music, rather than accomplishing a certain goal, is more enjoyable and gratifying.

Life’s About Change…

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I’ve probably mentioned this before, but here it is again: I’ve never liked change. As a kid I remember getting upset when we changed out our couch or even got a new car. I liked things to stay the same, be predictable. A lot of the anxiety that hit in 2013 was due to the massive change of having Sienna start elementary school. So, for much of my life change was scary, threatening, and something to be avoided.

Now that I’ve done the hard work of getting in touch with my feelings and no longer plan excessively in order to control my emotions, I understand that change is persistent, healthy, and uncontrollable. There is a timeless quote attributed to Heraclitus: “The only constant in life is change.” Such wisdom in that little phrase.

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Although it’s irrational, I see now that I feared change because of this unrealistic idea that those feelings of discomfort and unsettledness would persist, forever. It was really the emotions that change evoked that I was avoiding, not the change itself.   But, ironically, feelings change all the time. People adapt. What is scary and disorienting at one stage of life, then become the normal, routine, predictable things in the next stage.

Dropping off Sienna at her elementary school was new and made me feel anxious and unsure of myself for several weeks. Then, it became normal and routine. This summer was her third year in the Extended Student Services “ESS” summer program. I know the drill and it has felt happily familiar as I dropped her off and picked her up each day.

Realizing that feelings are always changing was a huge revelation for me. In The Happienss Trap, Dr. Harris says that emotions are like the weather – they’re always changing. When I was feeling down, this insight provided hope that I’d be happy once again. When I’m feeling good, it’s a reminder not to hold on too tight, this feeling will inevitably pass.

Feelings are always changing and so are we. Imagining situations that may arise in the future and fearing how those circumstances will make us feel is the cause of most worry and anxiety. The thing is, even if that exact situation occurred, we don’t know how we’d feel about it in the future. Not only do circumstances change, but we change. What is scary or devastating to us in our imagination, may not be that awful when it actually occurs, sometime in the future. This is another reason why it’s fruitless to worry or try to control our feelings. Instead, it’s much healthier to live as The Serenity Prayer says: “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time…” You simply can’t know how you’re going to feel or react to any future circumstances. But you can pray and trust that God will be there to support and strengthen you, whatever happens down the road.

Whenever I spend time thinking about change, I will eventually hear the lyrics to an old Patty Loveless song that goes: “Life’s about change and nothing ever stays the same…” There’s a poignancy and rawness to that line that never fails to touch my heart.