Read the rest of my Bigish Family Series here.
I am chronic people-pleaser. I prefer to say yes to people who ask me for favors, volunteering help, or jobs such as team mom. I also often enjoy taking charge, planning and organizing, and helping out. I love speaking at churches and events, and I enjoy writing and using my journalism degree. I really don’t want to say no to anyone or to anything. But sometimes my primary vocation as a wife and mother demands that I do.
Earlier this school year when the older girls just started going to “real” school after our eight-year homeschooling adventure, I found myself frequently volunteering at the school. But one day when I left my littles with a babysitter yet again, I had an epiphany. I was saying “yes” to people who really did need help, but I was saying no to my children. One of the big reasons I decided to send the older children to school this year was because I wanted more time to just hang with my littles – to bake together, to read storybooks, to start teaching my 5-year-old to read, to be lazy in our pajamas before the afternoon schlepping started. Yet, here I was jetting off to school for a few hours every week, missing out on soaking up their sweetness. I realized that I needed to start saying no more. I also reminded myself that behind every no was a yes to my children and my family.
I’ve had to say no to other opportunities, too. Recently, someone approached me about doing a weekly radio segment. I would not only be the host but also the producer and would be responsible for finding story ideas as well as guests to have on the show. It sounded like tons of fun. I love my monthly spot on the Morning Air Show. I’d love to do more media appearances and speaking when my family life allows it, but a weekly show just isn’t feasible for me right now. It would require too much work and too many nos to my family.
I’ll never like to say no to people or to new opportunities, but I always remind myself that with the size of my family, it’s a full-time job just to keep on top of all of the laundry and logistics of getting child A to point B when child B is needs to be at point A. One tip I have if you’re trying to discern whether you should volunteer or take on something new outside of the home is to tell the person asking that you need to discuss it with your husband. Then talk to him. I’ve found my husband is much better at knowing my limitations than I am, and it also makes me feel less guilty if I can explain that this was a family decision and isn’t just about me saying no to someone or something.
Bottom line: When I say no, I am often saying yes to the ones who need my time and talents the most right now – my family.
“Mommy, why are you so grumpy?” my 8-year-old asks. I’m on a tear, gathering stray socks, shoes, and toys from the floor. I’ve morphed into what I’ve jokingly come to refer to as a “Tsu-Mommy.” All I see is the mess, and my sweeping arms and kicking legs will do anything to clear out the cluttered life living with four little ones leaves in its wake.
Still, her question makes me pause. Why am I so grumpy? Why am I so fixated on the mess? Why are my expectations so rigid that I fail to see a room strewn with dolls was not so long ago a fertile bed for a preschooler and toddler’s imagination to blossom?
During Lent we are invited to take a long, hard look at the mess, at our broken selves. We are called to make tweaks with the hope that the 40 days will lead to real and lasting transformation.
But on Easter we have a new mission. We are invited to look beyond the mess. We unearth our “alleluias.” We fill the starkness with flowers and pretty pastels and chocolate bunny rabbits. The darkness of the tomb is filled with radiant light.
Parenting is an odd mixture of Lent and Easter. Or at least it should be. But too often I’m too stuck in the Lent to notice the Easter all around me. I approach the drudgery of motherhood – and as much as I see my calling as a sublime vocation, there is a fair share of drudgery found in picking up toys and cutting food into choke-proof bits day after day after day – as an interminable practice of penance and sacrifice. I don’t let it change me, but I do allow it to frustrate me.
But we are an Easter people. We’re not Lenten people; Lent isn’t what defines us. It’s supposed to change us, yes, but, because of Christ nailed to a tree and made gloriously new in the resurrection, we are Easter people at our very core. We should always have “alleluia” on the tip of our tongue. A humble acceptance of our lot in life – the fact that my life as a mother to young children frequently revolves around my children’s bowel movements, sleep patterns, and a trail of clutter – is different than a state of disgruntled grumpiness or a begrudging acceptance of the status quo.
I love Easter. It’s hard to be grumpy when there are dark chocolate eggs to snack on, time with family, and a beautiful Easter Mass. On Easter it’s out with the grumbling, the toy-kicking. The Tsu-Mommy is surely replaced with a sunny disposition. The house will be almost clean. Outside, green shoots will start to poke through the dirt. My daughters will be clad in smocked dresses, and my son will look dapper in his pressed, plaid shirt.
It’s easy to be Easter people on the day itself. It’s just as easy to forget, though, that the Easter feasting lasts 50 days liturgically. And how many of us really remember that we’re an Easter people all day, every day? Hope abounds. It is not a hope based on a superficial optimism that is blind to the reality of suffering in the world. Rather, it is a deep trust in God and His love for us. This is not a season for despair, worry, or even grumpiness. Easter calls us to embrace the freedom from fear, and to hold onto the life, the peace, and the joy that Jesus died to give all of us.
My heart has its ups and downs. My life is unpredictable. There is plenty of discord in my home: unkempt rooms, upturned toy baskets, sibling squabbles, and meltdowns from both my children and me. My faith isn’t as steady as I’d like it to be. My inner control freak is perpetually frustrated and challenged because I cannot will my children to do much of anything at all. Yet, Easter season is a good reminder for me as both a mother and a child of God that the only one who can rob us from the joy that comes with being a Christian is ourselves. We are sure to lose much in life and far more than toddler socks. We lose jobs, loved ones, financial security, freedoms, good health, confidence in our future happiness and in the path of our life. Then there is God. He remains. He does not shift with the wind or with our woes. He is forever. Love is forever. No one can take that away from us. I need to bury my doubt and yes, my vision of having a perfect, clutter-free home and let God and love live amidst the chaos.
“We can say ‘Alleluia’ again!” one of my children joyfully announced last year Easter morning. (We usually bury strips of paper with “alleluia” scrawled upon them, but slacker Mom forgot to this Lent.)
That’s what Jesus gave us on that first Easter: A reason to shout, “Alleluia!” again, a reason to hope.
This is what my children give me, too.
Children are hope. They are happiness. Joy personified as they gleefully hunt for Easter eggs. Sometimes they are a messy version of happiness with mud splatters all over their new clothes or crayon scribbles on my walls. Even when they hijack your sleep and poop on the floor (again), they are a constant reminder that the future is worth investing in and believing in even when the forecast calls for cloudy skies ahead. Who can trust forecasts any way? It’s better to put your hope in the sun than to resign yourself to a storm that may never come.
Children don’t need an Easter meditation or homily to remind them to choose joy. They’re naturally Easter people. Like Jesus, they give life to the world and show us all how to live as well as how to love, deeply and without abandon. They give me my share of Lents. I have sacrificed much as a mother, but I’ve been given far more in return. They chip away at this hard shell of mine, and they help me to discover the surprise that lies within. They bring out a new life in me; they bring out the Christ in me. Little things that offer big explosions of grace and joy, I look beyond the messiness and there they are: My children, my daily Easter – frequent reminders to rejoice, to trust, to believe, and to sing “Alleluia!” again and again.
So here’s part one of my Tips for Bigish Families Series. Read the introduction here.
Tip numbero uno: Grooming is overrated.
I am always eager for spring and the gradual greening and warming that comes along with it. What I am usually not ready for is the greater need for daily baths. Winter means less time spent digging in the dirt and frolicking outdoors, which translates to less baths. Now my well-groomed, daily-shower-loving husband would likely disagree with me here, but a daily bath really is not a necessity especially when kids haven’t been getting dirty all day outdoors. Like many Europeans, we don’t do baths every day. Sometimes I am just too tired to partake in the elaborate bathtime routine. I’d rather squeeze in more storybooks than scrubbing behind the ears. I’ll never forget a story my nana, who died two summers ago just before she hit the 91-mark, told. Her youngest and ninth child was looking quite gray and a peaked to her, so she decided to take him to the pediatrician to make sure his health was not ailing. The diagnosis? A nice layer of dirt! Seriously, my uncle had just been dirtier than usual, and the pediatrician rubbed a bit off and showed my nana, who sheepishly and quickly left the doctor’s office but loved telling the story later on as evidence that dirt really doesn’t bother kids or hurt them. This might horrify our clean-obsessed-frequent-hand-sanitizing-culture, but I find it rather funny and comforting. All of her nine children are healthy, happy, and productive adults now. A little dirt never caused them any harm.
And fancy, smocked clothing, well, it looks pretty, but it’s not necessary either. Which brings me to tip number two: It’s not what they’re wearing that matters; it’s the memories you’re making.
I dressed my first child like a baby doll. No matter that she was constantly ripping the pretty bows from her wispy hair and I was always cursing the tiny buttons that were awfully difficult to work with. I also wanted her clothes to match when we out in public. Not so anymore. When we go to Mass or perhaps a nice restaurant or another “finer” event, then, of course, I expect a certain level of decorum. However, I also give my children far more freedom in choosing their clothing these days and am not bothered so much by mismatched outfits or slightly messy hair.
I was at a birthday party for little girls a few years ago, and many of the girls were impeccably dressed in smocked gowns (smocked clothing is very popular in the South); however, there was one child who showed up in play clothes with ragamuffin hair. I heard another mom whispering about her, saying something about how she couldn’t believe her mother hadn’t brushed her hair. This kind of superficial comment infuriated me. I knew that this child was the oldest of five young children, and all of them were homeschooled. Perfectly coiffed hair probably wasn’t a big priority, and why did it matter? These kids were playing at a birthday party; they weren’t having tea with the Queen. Some girls might love smocked frocks. Some moms might enjoy dressing their girls up as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t feel guilty if you’re not into that or just can’t be as a matter of survival. Likewise, don’t sweat the small stuff, and kids who don’t look like Suri Cruise in public is most definitely small stuff. Honestly, we moms often dress up our children just to impress others.
Another time this lesson was hammered in for me was during a trip to a pumpkin patch this past fall. We attempted to get a group photo of all the kids, and I had to laugh at our motley crew. I have a photo from when I was pregnant with Mary Elizabeth, and Madeline and Rachel were wearing darling fall outfits. I had more time to pay attention to the details back then – time that is more of a luxury these days. Not surprisingly, in last year’s pumpkin patch photo, the kids were wearing all different colorful ensembles. Best of all, Mary Elizabeth was wearing a pink, homemade Valentine’s shirt in October, which makes the memory of that crisp fall day all the more vivid in my mind. Remember Annie’s wisdom: Your kids’ smiles are their best accessory.
Stay tuned for the next installment in the series where I talk about how behind every no there is a yes. New posts won’t arrive until after the Triduum, however.