Saturday, September 15, 2012

Parenting Unrehearsed: It does take a village

— 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 six(ish) weeks I'll share here  -- off the top of my head -- a few practices we may have learned in our twenty-one years of parenting four children. 

Chapter 1:  Your Kids Were Supposed to Have Perfect Parents.

Chapter 2:  Your Kids Are Not Fragile

Chapter 3:  

It does take a village.

  (or How to Have Awesome Kids and Make It Look Like You Did All the Work)

My youngest daughter offered the alternate title for this blog series:  How to Have Awesome Kids and Make It Look Like You Did All the Work.  She's so funny, right?

Really, that quip feels more true than false.  I did not earn, nor do I deserve, these four beautiful people who call me Mom. Of course, it'd be silly to believe that my husband and I had nothing to do with our children's upbringing.  I feel like I'm self-aware enough to recognize some of the good decisions we made along with the parenting mistakes.  

At the top of the list of good decisions we've made I'd put this one: We raised our kids in community

Do you remember way back in 1996 when Hillary Clinton wrote It Takes A Village to Raise A Child and all of us conservative-types cheered when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole gave her the what-for in his nomination speech: "With all due does not take a village to raise a child.  It takes a family to raise a child."

Boy, we felt pretty pleased with ourselves on that soundbite, didn't we?  

In 1996 I had just given birth to my third child in five years.  I was 27 years old.  We were elated that our daughter was born over spring break so my husband didn't have to miss any classes for his undergraduate degree.  Two months later -- in May -- Brian sat up 38 hours in a row writing his thesis because he was also working and we had three kids five and under.  We were barely making it any which way you measured it.  I mention all these details because it was our tribe of family, friends,  neighbors and church community who held our frazzled parts together during that season.

In some ways that season never ended.

Fast forward to 2012.  Our kids are older.  Now Brian's working on his third degree -- seminary, this time -- and we still would not be making it as parents, as healthy human beings without our "village".

Perhaps we should have paid more attention to the African proverb Ms. Clinton used for her book title; perhaps in a more humble, less Western-independent mindset, we could learn from the tribal cultures of our African neighbors.

My 2012 self would love to tell Bob Dole -- with all due respect -- it takes a family
 to raise a child and a village to raise a family.

Two of our "tribe members" helping us bless 
our oldest son on his 21st birthday last month.

The same daughter who offered the witty little title suggestion also gave me my most vivid "It takes a village" moment in all my years of parenting.

She must have been about twenty-two months old, Labor Day, 1999.  Her sister and two brothers (now 8, 5 and 3) sat watching cartoons early in the morning.  Because it was a holiday, Brian had a rare chance to golf with friends.  I was asleep when he left so to absolve himself treat me nice, he let me stay in bed, warning the older three children to "keep an eye on your sister".  

I'll never know the exact timeline of the following events, but when my five-year-old started banging on my bedroom door hollering for me to wake up, one thing became pretty clear:  "MOM, THERE'S PEOPLE AT THE DOOR AND THEY'VE GOT NATALIE!!" 

You ever have one of those weird moments when you're so sound asleep that  you can't be quite certain you woke up or you're still dreaming?   Yeah, me too.  

As I stumbled toward the door I wasn't even sure what I was wearing, what day it was or if that baby looking back at me through the screen door actually belonged to me.

 I definitely did not recognize the bathrobe-clad couple holding the baby.  In my sleep-walking state it felt like it took me ten minutes of staring at them to register the fact that they held my daughter -- wearing only her soft blonde curls, bare feet, and diaper.  That she had toddled all the way to the end of our street alone, unharmed.   Then it seemed like another ten minutes feeling so embarrassed at what kind of mom I must look like to her rescuers before I opened the door and retrieved her.

In the haze of horror, I heard them tell their story -- as if they were speaking to a reporter for the 6:00 news: "We were in our house and kept hearing a crying noise.  Finally we looked out our window and saw this baby and we didn't know what to do.  We thought we'd walk up the street and try to remember which houses had children." 

For years afterward I avoided running into that couple at school and neighborhood functions. You know I never thought to ask them if ours was the first house they tried.

vacationing at Wrightsville Beach with some of our tribe, 2007

The illustration is a bit dramatic, possibly, but fitting.  It's a good thing we lived in a village that September day because that child's family wasn't paying too much attention.  Not for malice; we were just plumb worn out!

In real-life ways for the twenty-two years since I was pregnant with our first child, we have walked from day to day fueled by the strength of community.

We needed a village to help us when we were exhausted -- to play with our kids, to let us go out once in awhile.  We needed a village to teach us how to properly slice a melon and balance a budget and cut tile for our bathroom remodel.  We needed a village to take our kids out for ice cream, to listen to their stories and their knock-knock jokes, to remember their important days and remind them how wonderful they are when we forgot.  We needed a village to sit around campfires and teach our kids Bob Dylan tunes.  To show up at birthday parties and graduation parties and school plays and post-alt-rock band gigs in unheated Elks lodges in the middle of winter in upstate New York.

three generations chatting around Grandma's picnic table

In our tribe we needed people of all ages.  We needed families with older kids than ours to model a way to grow up in this wily world.  We needed families with younger kids to remind ours that little eyes and ears were paying attention.  We needed grey-haired friends to tell stories about the war and the Depression and the old-time factories in our small town.  We needed babies and single people and newlyweds and pregnant women and barely-surviving Christians.  

One of our favorite tribal troubadours, Jason Harrod at our home, 

By grace we've gathered in our tribe musicians and artists and philosophers and carpenters and engineers and teachers and preachers and janitors and missionaries and students and unemployed and disabled and retired people.  Not everyone we've welcomed has stayed long, some we've lost touch or fallen out of relationship.  But even then, living in community trained us as parents and as a family.

This family needed a village to raise it like an old-timey barn raising:
 blood and sweat, tears and casseroles.

Practice Tribe-Building

"True integration is a matter of people really feeling a oneness with others and attempting to understand them in personal communication of the sort that takes place around fireplaces, washing dishes together, having tea together, eating together, walking together, and discovering things in common together. True integration is a matter of people having spiritual communication and fellowship together, discussing and discovering new thoughts and ideas by sharing their trends of thought, or thinking out loud and having some kind of creative activities or recreation together ."  (The Hidden Art of Homemaking, Edith Schaeffer)
 I've never even read Hillary Clinton's book so I don't know what her definition of "village" might be.  For us, the village represents several circles of influence:

1.  Neighborhood -- neighbors, teachers, principals, co-workers, coaches

2.  Church community -- pastors, teachers, friends, small group members, ministry team members

3.  Extended family - grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles

learning the essence of Farkle at a beloved tribe gathering, 

Repeating an important 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, some of the best truths I've learned about the practice of tribe-building:

1.  Practice bare-foot hospitality:  You can not build a tribe if you are too busy managing your family's image to some sort of idealized, dressed-up version of community.  Cultivate the sort of comfy hospitality that invites people into the everyday-ness of your lives (figuratively and literally).  Bare foot hospitality goes both ways:  you risk exposing your true messy selves and you make space in your homes and hearts for others to tread with their own sort of flaws and foibles.

2.  Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others:  You've heard the quip "some things are better caught than taught"?  I can't think of a better example of this truth than the way you model friendships for your children.  When you cultivate healthy, life-giving friendships for yourself you are then able to pass the value of good relationships to your kids.  In that order.  

3.  "Stay at the table" with your church community:  This is probably totally politically incorrect in the Christian blogging world right now, but I'm a big proponent of finding a church and staying with it...even -- and especially -- if you struggle with doubt and disillusionment.

The church we attended for 13 years in upstate New York used the expression "stay at the table" to help us all imagine what it looks like to stay in the tension of being together.  To not push away from the table too soon, storm out of the room or just lean back and disengage.  It's a good metaphor for all sorts of relationships.  If you and I were sitting together -- face-to-face-- it's at this point in the conversation that I'd put my hand on your shoulder and say "Please, please, please don't try to raise your kids without going all in together in a church community."

There's so much more I could say on this subject but maybe most important for this post is to tell you that without my husband and I going all in with our church community -- the good, the bad and the ugly (and there was plenty of all three) -- I'm honestly not sure we'd still be together.  If we were, I'm not sure what we'd look like.  And I know for sure, our children would be poorer for it.

our friend Stacie -- and busy mom herself -- showing up 
for one of Kendra's choir concerts

4.  Recruit tribe members: When we were preparing to move to Texas last year I prayed hard for at least four different people to take a special interest in each of our kids, to intentionally walk with them through the transition of the first few months.  I knew I'd need more help than I'd ever needed.

God answered beyond our expectation in the way that we quickly synced with our new church community, but still I realized I needed to make some specific "asks" for our kids. I am forever grateful for the men and women who said yes. They showed up for concerts and birthday parties, took our kids to coffee and lunch, asked the question "how are you" and waited for an honest reply.

5.  If you are a parent you need a tribe for your family, if you are not a parent you need to be some family's tribe: I have seen so many beautiful examples of men and women who do not have children of their own stepping into the (often chaotic) rhythms of a family's life outside their own.  Just last week I watched a man bounce and sway and cradle a newborn so that her mother could lead our writer's group.  Eric and his wife Cheryl do not have children of their own but I've watched them be a village for exhausted, stressed-out moms and dads.  I'm thinking too of some beautiful people we know in New York who gladly make other families a priority in their lives.  

My sister-in-law JoAnn does not have biological children but she has mothered dozens, maybe even hundreds, of children. 

Fairy Godmother JoAnn
 (how many people do you know who'd voluntarily attend  four-year-old's birthday parties?!?)


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 tribe-building?  Also, please feel free to share the sorts of questions you've been asking about parenting.


P.S., If you'd like to receive This Sacramental Life in your inbox, enter your email address here

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

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...