What a Soccer Game Taught Me About Parenting and Letting Go…

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I’ve been applying the Serenity Prayer to my parenting lately; praying for wisdom and discernment for what I can change and what I need to accept. As my kids are growing and maturing every day, they need the grace and space to make mistakes and learn from them. They need me to cheer them on, support them in failure and success, and love them through each stage and phase of life.

A couple weeks ago, Teo had a soccer tournament and played very well. I loved every second of watching him and his buddies play!  The moment that taught me an important lesson came in the second of three games that day.  Teo’s team, the Ice Wolves, were playing one of the strongest teams in the division, one that they’d lost to earlier in the season.  Midway through the first half, Teo and another player collided as they went for the ball.  Teo sprawled out on the ground, knocking the wind out of him.  His coach and I helped Teo to the sideline as he tried to catch his breath.

He was mad at the other player, feeling that he had intentionally taken him out. He was in tears and out of breath.  As I tried to calm him down and prayed that he’d be able to pull himself together to reenter the game, he suddenly said, “I want back in the game!”

“Teo, catch your breath first,” I tried to counsel him.

Getting up from his chair, he said “Coach, I’m ready to go back in.”

As he walked out to his position in the defense, Teo was still taking those short jerky breaths you get after crying and trying to calm his breathing down. I was dubious that he was actually ready to play again.

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But, about a minute later, the ball was kicked toward Teo all alone on the field. He was midway between the center line and the goal he was defending.  He ran up and gave it a big boot down the field… and almost scored into the corner of the goal!  It was incredible!  I’m pretty enthusiastic on the sideline and cheered like crazy as tears filled my eyes.  He had taken all his frustrations and emotions and poured them into the game.  He hadn’t broken down and decided to quit.  After the struggle at the beginning of this season, I was so moved by Teo’s growth and development in this way.

As I thought back to my own emotions when Teo didn’t want to play soccer just a couple months earlier, I could appreciate a new perspective. He was going through a stage then – getting used to the harder academics of first grade and realizing that he could opt out of class, practice, whatever by feigning illness or injury.  That phase passed as he got comfortable in these new environments.  My need to control his experiences (and therefore his emotions), caused us both undue anxiety and stress.

Since that time, I’ve been praying for a serene mindset toward my parenting. I cannot control my children or make them behave or feel a certain way.  I can guide and lovingly support them, but they need to make choices and learn hard lessons when they make poor choices.  They need to explore the world, decide what they like, learn what they’re good at, and in doing so they’ll try things they don’t like and struggle to succeed.  They have their own journeys of growth that they need to experience.  They’ll benefit from parents who help them navigate their emotions while they grow and change rather than trying to coerce them to act the way we think they should.

To this end, I’m trying to listen more than I talk and ask questions more than provide answers. It feels much like the process of surrendering control over my own life, learning to be present in the moment, and trusting God.  Now I’m mindfully handing over my parenting to Him too.

L-O-V-E

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The Gospel reading for this past Sunday was from Matthew, chapter 18, when the disciples asked Jesus “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replies by calling a child over to him and He said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I love this reminder and oh, how I need to keep it in front of me daily.

The prevailing message in our society is self-determination.  We are encouraged to strive hard, be productive, and generally make our way in the world.  Jesus’s message couldn’t be more different.  His definition of greatness is the opposite of what the world tells us.  The child who is humble, meek, and readily surrenders to the care and guidance of their Father in heaven, that one is the greatest.

I don’t know about you, but this message brings me such relief! It tells me: “Stop striving, Kels!  Stop trying to live up to the expectations of this world.  Stop needing things to go a certain way so you can feel comfortable and in control. Stop measuring your worth through productivity, wealth, or accomplishments.”

Instead, look around you, be present in the moment, what are you called to do right now?  Try praying for guidance.  Try resting and waiting for God’s timing to be fulfilled. Be humble and surrender.  God knows what’s best and he’ll let you in on his plan for your life a little bit at a time.  You don’t get to see the whole picture.  You don’t know what’s best.  But, your Father in heaven does.  Stop. Rest.

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As a parent actively raising young children, this imagery of childhood and submitting to the guidance of loving parents is particularly meaningful.  Just last night, I had the opportunity to pray for wisdom, stay present, and help my son through a challenging moment.  Teo was sitting at the dining table and making a consistent, annoying noise.  After asking him to stop a few times, I decided to put music on in the kitchen to divert his attention.  He didn’t react well to the music coming on.

“I don’t like this music!” he complained as Frank Sinatra’s crooning filled the room.  I explained that this was mommy’s time for cooking and listening to music, so I wasn’t going to change it.  He continued to throw quite a fit.  I let him cry and yell for a few minutes, then tried to reason with him again.  He calmed a bit, but then came into the kitchen complaining again, “Turn this off, I don’t like it.”

The Nat King Cole song “L-O-V-E” was just starting.  Without any forethought, I scooped Teo up in my arms (which is getting harder and harder to do!) and started dancing with him in the kitchen.  He instantly relaxed and put his head on my shoulder as I sang along:

L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see
V is very, very extraordinary
E is even more than anyone that you adore

And love is all that I can give to you
Love is more than just a game for two
Two in love can make it
Take my heart and please don’t break it
Love was made for me and you

As the song came to an end, I silently prayed: “Thank you for that moment, Lord.”  Then I kissed Teo on the cheek as I put him down.  Within a few minutes he grabbed his glove and baseball to practice pop-flys in the backyard while dinner finished cooking.

When I think of the way that God lovingly guides and cares for us, despite our persistent sin, pridefulness, and general disregard for his direction, I’m inspired to love my children unconditionally.  Children are often sent the message that they will be loved when they obey their parents or other authority figures.  Being a “good girl” or “good boy” and being praised for those traits leads to many “people pleasers” and “approval addicts”.   What if we allowed our children to feel their emotions, express them, assert their will, and have their own perspectives?  Then, we can teach, guide, and coach them with loving support and big doses of hugs and love.  What if we tried to model God’s grace for us in the way we parent our children?

11:06

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Several months ago, I noticed an odd phenomenon.  Most days, at the office, I checked the time at precisely 11:06 a.m.  At first, this just made me pause and smile to myself.  But, after several instances, I considered this random event more consciously.

Dennis and my wedding anniversary is November 6th. Seeing 11:06 on the clock on a nearly daily basis, was a sweet reminder of my husband and our marriage.  I started emailing or texting Dennis when I caught “our time” on the clock.   Such a small little thing, but it was fun to turn it into something special in our daily routine.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that noticing 11:06 began during this stage in our life.  I’ve been quite aware lately that marriages are difficult to maintain.  We’re in the child raising phase of life and it’s very easy to let the world revolve around our kids.  While we love them like crazy, ultimately Sienna and Mateo are going to grow up, leave the nest, find a spouse, and create a family of their own (at least that’s our hope and prayer!).  Building a life that revolves around them will not bode well for our marriage once they’re launched into the world.

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Dennis and I were friends before we fell in love, bonding over a shared love of sports, faith, and San Diego.  We still have a lot in common; there are so many things we enjoy doing together.  Football is Dennis’s passion.  When we lived downtown, before we had kids, going out to watch the Dolphins’ game was a weekly tradition.  Then, for several years, I was too distracted with my need to plan and so “in my head” that I didn’t make the time to sit down and watch a football game with Dennis.  As we settled in to watch football together today, I reached for his hand and decided to just watch the game and share this time with my husband.  Productivity went out the window today, but our relationship got nurtured, so that’s a win.

In the busyness of life, it’s easy to accept so many invitations and requests for our time that we don’t have space to connect to the most important people in our lives.  To protect and support our marriage, we’re making an effort to consciously connect on a daily basis, even if it’s just sharing about our day for a few minutes without the kids’ interrupting!  We just restarted our coffee date routine today, as Sunday school resumed for the year.  It’s my favorite.  We’re looking forward to some “date days” once I get through this fall busy season at work.  We’re making it a priority to spend meaningful time with one another.  That’s something worth planning!

At the beginning of this year, we decided this was the year of “Only What’s Essential”.  In my life, Dennis is essential.

On the drive home from church this morning, I glanced at the clock. It was 11:06.  “Look, Babe!” I said and pointed to the clock.  It turned to 11:07 about 3 seconds later, but we caught “our time”.

 

Seeking Peace Where it Can’t Be Found

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Living in our postmodern, technological age, we are inundated with information all the time.  Browsing through the bookstore or library (two of my favorite activities!) reveals that there’s pretty much no topic that hasn’t been researched and written about.  I’m a fan of physical paper books, but there’s obviously a nearly infinite number of electronic and online sources of information.  From diet plans, cookbooks, and exercise advice, to personal productivity, self-help, and religion, if you have a problem, there’s at least a dozen sources of potential answers.

Culling through all the noise and conflicting advice is enough to make your head spin.  There are certainly useful and sometimes very helpful ideas that we can implement in our lives in practical ways.  But, as a Christian, I’ve found that all the worldly advice and self-help rhetoric can never compare to God’s perfect guidance.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite verses from Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4: 4-7

When I’m striving for control, I can dive deep into the latest research, diet, or other self-help approach, seeking to improve myself and be healthier, smarter, and more productive.  But, none of that information can ever give me what I deeply desire.  It can’t fill the God-shaped hole inside me or provide the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.  In fact, instead of lasting peace, this striving for control ultimately leads me away from God as I rely on my own understanding.

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When I trust in God and rest in prayer, I am consistently amazed by how perfect His timing is, how the right words come to mind and prompt me to act in loving ways so I can connect with those around me.  What truly matters always gets the appropriate amount of attention and time when I stop striving to control and accept the world around me.

If you step back and think about it, this striving and seeking our own way forward, instead of relying on God, it’s pretty ridiculous.  The Creator of the universe has made Himself known through His Son and communes with us through the Holy Spirit, so that we always have access to Him and His perfect love.  But, so often, our sinfulness drives us into ourselves and we believe the lie that we can make it on our own.  Instead of turning to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we trust our feeble, limited wisdom.  Craziness!

There’s undoubtedly a lot of wise and helpful advice and information in all types of mediums that we can read and learn.  I’m a lifetime student at heart and still love going to a coffee shop to read and take notes!  It’s my special “me time” that I try to carve out on a weekly basis.  But, now I’m doing it prayerfully, asking for proper discernment, so that trusting in God is always foremost in my heart and mind.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3: 5-6

My Journey from Control to Acceptance

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Everywhere you look in modern American culture, you hear people saying they want to be happy. The goal of life is seemingly to maintain a consistent state of happiness.  It wasn’t that long ago that I believed staying “happy all the time” was achievable.  Then, one of the wisest people I know told me something profound.  She said, “I don’t think of happiness as a state I try to stay in.  Something happens and it makes me happy.  Through Christ, I have joy, peace, love, and hope all the time, but I don’t try to stay happy.”  While I couldn’t snap out of my perspective that quickly, for the past few years, this comment has shaped my growth.  I wanted to be a person who didn’t try to stay happy all the time.

The next teacher God placed in my path was a lovely counselor in the Midwest named Brenda. She took my call when I reached out for help during a moment of intense anxiety.  After I described my struggle with being present in the moment, a hyper focus on planning and control, and generally fighting to regain feeling “happy all the time” she suggested I get a book called The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. I went straight to the bookstore, bought the only copy on the shelf, and started reading it right away.

This book was utterly transformative for me. I knew that the need to feel happy was at the root of my problem, but I didn’t know to change my mindset.  This book, and specifically Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (“ACT” pronounced like the word “act”) literally taught me the skills and techniques to make that transition, and I continue to use them every day.

Dr. Harris argues that happiness is not the normal state for human beings because our brains have evolved to warn us of danger, not to make us feel good. He outlines four myths about happiness that most people believe, the last of which rang most true for me: “You should be able to control what you think and feel”.   In fact, we have very little control over our thoughts and feelings.  Positive thinking and a lot of popular psychology encourages people to just “think more positively” – which actually helps to set the happiness trap.  The trap is set when we believe that the only acceptable feeling is “happy” and then struggle against any of the “negative” emotions that consistently occur in life.

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The progression of information and skill development in ACT is brilliant! When I first tried to “be in the moment” when my anxiety was at its worst, it was a complete failure.  I knew that I didn’t have the coping strategies to be comfortable in the moment.  ACT starts with dealing with your thoughts and teaching you how to minimize the importance of thoughts.  Rather than trying to turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts, this therapy teaches you to see them for what they are – a stream of words running through your mind.  Whether or not you give your full attention to a particular thought should be dictated by your answer to this question: “Is this thought helpful?” That is, does it help you take effective action in your life?  If the answer is no, you can let that thought run in the background and not struggle with it.  The goal of this skill, which is called defusion, is to accept your thoughts.

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Next up are emotions. Unhelpful and/or painful thoughts can often trigger uncomfortable feelings.  By dealing with thoughts first, you are then left with the emotions that are currently occurring in your body.  Again, the goal is acceptance of your feelings, instead of fighting them and flipping on your struggle switch.  The skill of expansion teaches us to open up and give our feelings as much room as they need to move on.  This process involves acknowledging that the moment is as it is and the feelings in your body are only sensations that you can observe, breathe into, and let be.  Instead of adding a lot of additional discomfort and anxiety by struggle against what you’re feeling, this state of expansion lets your feelings move, much like the weather that is constantly changing.

Once you’ve learned how to accept your thoughts and feelings, then you’re ready to learn how to connect with the present moment. Connection is all about turning your attention to what is happening around you: what you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.  It enables you to connect with the people you love by truly seeing them, noticing their feelings and readily responding to their needs.  There’s no greater joy that being able to be fully present to a loved one, right when they need you most.  When I am “in my head” my response is too often, “I’ll be there in a minute.”  When I’m connected to the moment, I transition and respond more quickly and joyfully.

There’s a beautiful irony to the process of acceptance and connection. When you break out of the happiness trap and accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment, you’re then able to connect and be present in your life more fully, which tends to result in more happiness and fulfillment!  Because, just as my wise friend noted, happiness comes from something happening that makes you feel happy.  If you are distracted from the moment by your thoughts, you won’t truly be present to experience those things that make you feel happy.  I now recognize that what I once considered being “happy all the time” was actually a feeling of control that make me feel good.  Feeling the range of human emotions allows you to recognize when you’re happy, sad, mad, joyful, peaceful, frustrated, and all the rest.  You can’t have the highs without the lows.

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Then, once you are able to connect to the moment and let your thoughts and feelings come and go, the book focuses on living a life you value. Being intentional about what you believe in, what you’re passionate about, and what truly matters in life, then begins to shape the committed actions you take. Since we ultimately have little control over our thoughts and feelings, but a lot of control over what we actually do, it make sense to focus our attention on valued action.  I found that, once I was present in the moment, opportunities to act on my values presented themselves all the time.  Sienna wants to talk about her day?  Yes, stop everything and listen.  Teo wants to go throw the baseball?  Yes, let’s do it!  Dennis is getting ready to sit in the backyard with coffee and read?  I’ll grab my book!  A friend or loved one needs to share what they’re going through?  Let’s talk.  Those moments can easily be missed when your thoughts demand all of your attention.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy isn’t tied to any particular religion, though Dr. Harris does outline his version of the Serenity Prayer in the book. I loved this connection!  The Serenity Prayer is so meaningful to me.  Through a lot of prayer and God’s guidance plus the skills of ACT provided me with the ability to accept, discern, and trust in God.

This is obviously just a summary, so I’d encourage anyone who’s struggling with anxiety, loss of the moment, or self-defeating habits to check out this therapy.

Struggling with Control… Again.

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The little story of letting go that I recently shared was just the tip of the iceberg.  Turns out, I had a lot more letting go to do.

Several weeks ago, I had the sudden realization that I was an “Upholder” based on my tendency to meet all internal and external expectations.  Okay, that’s true and fine.  Then, I decided – “Why not embrace my Upholder Tendency and focus on establishing more concrete habits?  I can monitor them and stop spending so much mental energy deciding what to do.  I’ll decide once and then not think about it!”

Two new apps were downloaded – one for logging my blood sugars, meals, etc. and another to track my habits.  For the past few weeks, I’ve been monitoring my activities, eating fewer and fewer carbohydrates, and generally zeroing in on the habits I wanted to cultivate.  At first, I felt really awesome!  Look at my self-discipline!

But, all along there’s been this slightly nagging feeling that these behaviors were starting to trigger a desire for control.  But, I brushed it away.  Through prayer and surrendering, I’ve come to see that this episode is very much like the time I threw my planner away.  Less dramatically, I just deleted the habits app from my phone this morning.

There is a part of me that LOVES structure, discipline, and self-control.  However, that’s the part of me that, when nurtured, pulls away from the present moment, resides in my head, seeks to control myself and those around me, and generally feels that my little world is subject to my command.  I find myself feeling frustrated and short tempered when my children don’t behave the way they “should”.  I don’t feel my emotions deeply because I’m busy thinking about what “should” happen next, what I “should” be doing.

butterflyTracking and monitoring daily habits reinforces the idea that each day can be mastered by my choices and actions.  This directly contradicts the sense of curiosity that being present and accepting the moment fosters.  Rather than freedom, focusing on these habits started to make me feel agitated and distant from what really matters.

For me, the opposite of being in “control” is a state of surrendering, accepting, and trusting God.  He’s in control and will put in front of me what I “should” be doing at any given moment.  When I consider the fact that I don’t know what the day ahead holds, instead of feeling fear, I feel hopeful and excited.  My prayer becomes: “Lord, show me how I can love your people today.”  And then I stop focusing on my thoughts and instead look around me at my family, friends, coworkers, and strangers that cross my path.  That’s what I’m here to do, to love and serve others.  Not to track how much water I’ve consumed or whether I snacked too close to bedtime.

I have a reminder on my phone that pops up every few days. It says: “The thinking self struggles with control, but the observing self doesn’t.”  This was one of the great insights from The Happiness Trap.  At any given time, we can either be thinking or observing our direct experience with the world, but not both.  While thoughts and feelings come and go, we can actively choose where to place our attention.  Did that passing thought need my full attention, or should I look around me and notice the present moment?  We get to make that decision hundreds of times each day.

The struggle with control comes from the fact that our thoughts are largely out of our control.  When we get hooked by our thoughts, it’s typically because there’s something about them we want to change.  We make judgments, criticisms, or assumptions that cause us discomfort, so we engage our thoughts with other information, in hopes of changing our thoughts to be more positive or comforting.  I’ve learned (time and again!) that recognizing my thoughts are just words running through my head, which often don’t require my full attention, I’m much more peaceful.

When I trust that God will guide my actions through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, instead of relying on my very fallible thoughts, I feel immensely more fulfilled and at peace.

Lifting the Veil

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This week my kids began the fourth and first grades.  It’s cliché, but true: they grow up so fast!  I’ve was home with them for several days before they went back, getting ready for the school routine to start up again.

Teo first day of 1st gradeLast week, I found myself struggling, specifically with Teo’s rejection of every healthy meal I placed in front of him.  I’d been trying to get them to embrace the whole foods diet that I follow.  Teo isn’t particularly picky, but he’s accustomed to the foods he typically eats and isn’t big on change.

At the YMCA pool on Thursday afternoon, I could feel myself struggling with wanting to control his diet and feeling so frustrated that he wouldn’t even try these new foods. The thoughts running through my mind we’re variations of “How do I make him try these foods?!”  I told Sienna what I was feeling:  “I need to let it go, don’t I?”

“Yeah, I think you do, Mom,” she lovingly replied.

Sometimes I can literally feel myself accepting reality and surrendering my illusion of control.  It usually sounds like a deep, cleansing exhale from deep in my body.  I imagine my “struggle switch” literally switching off.

027 (2)The next few days, I felt so much more present and connected to the moment.  Soaking in my children and this particular phase of life felt joyous.  They are at a very fun stage of being more self-reliant and therefore “easier” but also very interested in mom and dad’s attention and praise.  I hear “Mom, mom, I need you!” dozens of times per day.  But now, instead of needing me to do something for them, they’re asking to talk or show me something they’ve accomplished. They’re growing and conquering fears on a daily basis, and it’s so much fun to witness.

When I let go of a need to control, it instantly lifts a veil over my eyes and helps me to see my loved ones more clearly.  I see that they are their own person with tastes, interests, talents, fears, and perspectives that are different from my own. I see that they are imperfect and growing.  They’re God’s little children that have been placed in my care to nurture, teach, support, and love.

With some patience and understanding, a situation that I found frustrating or aggravating can be transformed into one of growth and learning. For both of us.