Friday, August 24, 2012

Parenting Unrehearsed: Your kids were supposed to have perfect parents.

— adj

(of a play, speech, etc) not having been practiced in advance

I might also add off-the-cuff, in no particular order, results may vary. For the next six(ish) weeks I'll share here once a week -- off the top of my head -- a few practices we may have learned in our twenty-one years of parenting four children.

Here's Chapter 1:

Your Kids Were Supposed to Have Perfect Parents. 
You Were Supposed to Have Perfect kids.
You're All Plain Out of Luck

Allow us to laugh often at ourselves

There's a photo I keep tucked in a small scrapbook, three kids ages 6 months, three, five. My husband and two of the children sport elastic diaper pants on their heads, The proud owner of the nightime diapers gives a thumbs-up. The kindergartner is cracking up so hard he can't bring himself to pose for the camera, tumbling out of the frame. The baby looks completely clueless. Doesn't every family wear diapers on their heads before bedtime?

The photo is bent, nearly ripped from all the times little hands have held it, giggling the story "remember when"? On the page opposite the photo, I tacked a handwritten journal entry-turned-prayer for us all:
Father, please let the Murphy family live lives soaked in prayer and centered in Jesus. Let us always keep in mind that we are flawed and allow us to laugh often and easily at ourselves and any creeping pretensions of 'holiness'. Please help us to trust always in letting ourselves be loved by God as more important than loving God in some kind of mechanical way. Please help our family to never distort the face of a beautiful God.  (excerpted from Brennan Manning)
I don't typically archive photos of the moments I'd rather forget in my life.  I do have one stashed away from the morning -- a few years after the diaper-on-head party -- of my two-year-old daughter, four-year-old son standing on the front stoop of our rental house.  Little girl's face smeared with hot-red lipstick, little boy scowling at the camera.  Both sporting autumn jackets haphazardly slapped over saggy pajamas.

They are clearly posing as hostile witnesses to a morning where everything that could have gone wrong, did. Beginning with that lipstick and ending with a dash to get oldest son to school after he missed the bus, baby on hip, grumpy preschoolers tossed into the mini-van protesting their hurried lot in this world.  

Mama said there'd be days like this.

It was one of those rare times I chose humor when I didn't know whether to laugh or check myself into an institution.

I did not have the insight to photograph  all the times I'd yelled at my kids when they dumped breakfast cereal on the floor or the times I'd dragged them kicking and screaming to their bed because it was nap time, dammit, and they were going to sleep.  I certainly would not have taken photographs of us all lined up in our church row, my husband and me with our four children ages 6 and under, me too proud to take our wriggling toddlers to childcare because I wanted so badly to look like the other rows of well-groomed families in our congregation who sat together for the entire service.  (I swear I saw their four-year-olds taking sermon notes!)

In those years I thought the terms "mother" and "pretensions of holiness" were synonymous.  I thought I was supposed to be straight-laced, spit-spot.  I might have gotten away with it, too.  Except for Alex.  He was born fighting my determination to parent-by-technique.  He was the newborn hollering at me to feed him whenever he wanted, to hell with the schedule I'd used for his older brother.  He was the kid I couldn't drag out of the sanctuary fast enough, before he pleaded his case with the rest of the congregation, "Don't spaaaannnnkkkkk me!"  

He was the teenager sitting on his bedroom floor yelling at me that I was not a good mom.  That I'd never been a good mom. 

That's the day, after crumpling on the floor with my son, both of us heaving snotty sobs, hugging each other in our intense pain, that's the day I learned probably my most important parenting lesson.  

My kids want -- no, demand -- perfection.  Not only that, but they were designed to have perfect parents.  And, frankly, I'm pretty disappointed to not get perfect kids.  

Until my son called me on the carpet (literally),  I was pretty sure I was doing the best I could.  I was pretty sure I was doing better than my mother had done and definitely sure I was doing better than her mother had done.  In that moment, I saw clearly that Alex' heart could really care less what sort of mother I'd imagined for myself. His crushing pain announced I wasn't even close. All he felt was the absence of what was supposed to be real and good and perfect in his life and the gap was too wide. For both of us.

Brian and I often share this statement from author David Seamands.  We know it is true from our own childhood, we're learning it is true for our children also.
"Children are the best recorders, but the worst interpreters."
When the sobbing subsided in my son's bedroom that day, we talked through the stories he'd recorded, the conclusions he'd interpreted. The stories we'd told over and over, never realizing each telling added another layer of painful misinterpretation over his heart.   

Before that day I'd have told you success as a mother meant to never hear those words come out of the mouths of my children.  After that day I'd say that the best moments of parenting come when we fell into the cracks of my holy pretensions.

In our family, the gap between Brian's and my best parenting efforts and our childrens' needs is the place Jesus saves us.  It is the aching space of our unmet needs that His cross fills and His resurrection restores.  

Since that day (and many others like them) I am less afraid to fail.  That was the day the awareness of my inability brought peace instead of condemnation.  Not in the first moment,  In the first moment hearing my son's anger I wanted to scream back, "Do you know how hard I'm trying?  Do you know how hard it is to be your mom? How dare you criticize me?!?"  But in the next moment -- immediately after I chose not to say those words -- I heard the quieter voice, "My kids need more than I can ever give them.  I can not fix this. Jesus, save us now."

Practice Forgiveness
I can think of no better practice than giving and receiving forgiveness to thwart our tendency to take ourselves too  seriously.  For all the gifts our kids bring to us when they enter the world, bursting our pretension bubble might be the best they have to offer.  We do strive for holiness, yes, but we strive with one part sober mind and one part kickass sense of humor.

A word of disclaimer:

Relax. You've got time, it's going to take time

I know, I know - old ladies have stopped you in the store five trillion times to warn you that the time flies by faster than you can imagine and that you need to make the most of every single moment with your cherubs.  And that's sort of true.  

Most true, though, is that Jesus is a redeemer of time. He moves outside of time and space, He returns time and stretches it out in just the right ways so He can save you and your kids.  When you read any practical suggestions I have to offer please take your time, consider, pray, laugh, relax.

Put another way, maybe the very, very best advice I have to offer parents is this:

Reject hyper-vigilance, embrace spacious grace.

With that in mind, here are three forgiveness practices we've learned so far: 

1.  Let confession be normal and start with yours. Whether you are asking forgiveness from your children or from someone else in front of them, let them hear authentic, well-spoken apologies from you often.  Let it be normal for them to hear you say "I was wrong. I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"

2.  Give each other time and space to forgive. We tried to give our kids plenty of space to fight with each other and plenty of time to forgive each other.  We tried not to shut down squabbles or force reconciliation too quickly.  One of the statements we taught them to say -- when they were ready:  "What you did to me is not okay, but I do forgive you."

3.  Let your family stories reflect the clean slate. My kids have taught me how to be aware that the stories I tell about us and to us might, unintentionally, communicate unforgiveness and shame.  The family story that acted as an inciting incident between Alex and me was a story we had told countless times to friends and strangers.  It was a great conversation piece, but it rehearsed too many of the wrong details.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give you discernment about how you tell the story of your family to yourselves and to others.

4.  When all else fails...


Next time on Parenting Unrehearsed:
I love to hear from you!  For example, what are some ways you've both learned and taught healthy practices of forgiveness?  Also, please feel free to share the sorts of questions you've been asking about parenting.


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*Thank you to the lovely Lindsey from Lindsey Davern Photography for capturing the hilarious -- and unrehearsed -- family photo I'm using for this series.*

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