The Last Mile: To My Son on His 17th

heidi-2016Originally I posted this at “A Mother on the Road Less Traveled.” But since we are in the middle of #40Day Challenge: Mother Teresa Edition, I decided to move this tribute here.

Because of the pictures I post most often on my blog, it would be reasonable to assume that we have only one child: my incandescent fifteen-year-old who never met a camera lens she doesn’t like.

But today we celebrate the birthday of another child who, though allergic to getting his picture taken (ahem), is also my pride and joy.

He turns seventeen today. Yes, on Ash Wednesday. Father says he can still have birthday cake – though he can offer it up if he wants to. (Which he probably would, so long as I give him the same weight in frozen blueberries.) We have one more year together until he finishes high school and officially launches himself into adulthood. Christopher, in honor of your birthday today I want you to know 17 reasons I’m so grateful God brought you into our lives.

  1. You’re my “homeboy.” Unlike Sarah, who can’t wait to launch herself into the big, wide world, you are happiest here (well, here with your girlfriend). And though you spend most of your waking hours in the toxic zone of your room, because it is your birthday I won’t go there!
  2. You are funny. Your classmates and teachers, your friends, and your family all delight in your wicked, playful, Christopher-ish sense of humor. Yes, you sometimes use it to get out of trouble (who wouldn’t?). But you are one funny guy.
  3. Your smile. The sight of that roguish grin makes me all warm inside. Like sunshine on a cloudy day. You long for braces … and you will get them. But I love your smile just the way it is.
  4. Your art. You love your colored pencils, and have killed whole trees in your drive to capture the perfect animae character. You have an artist’s soul.
  5. You are kind and loyal. Two of the qualities I most admire about your dad, you have in spades as well. Despite all the changes in your life, you hold your friends fast.
  6. You love fiercely. It takes my breath away — and frankly makes me a little scared for you — to see how you give yourself to your friends without holding anything back. I pray that they will always return the favor.
  7. You believe, no matter what. When your schoolmates challenge and tease you, you don’t back down. You know what you believe, and stick to it in good times and bad.
  8. You can see your future, and know what you want. That house in Michigan, a good job, and a family. In an age when marriage is a shaky institution, you aspire to be a good husband and father. That makes me prouder than I can say.
  9. Your compassion. Even when your sister annoys the snot out of you, at the first tear you are visibly moved to reach out to her.
  10. Your eyes. They dance when you are happy, they cloud over when life gets hard. Those clear blue orbs really are a window to your soul.
  11. You are easy to make happy. A large bowl of ice cream (with blueberries, if possible) with your girlfriend and an animae cartoon … Or an afternoon with Jacob on his farm. These are the things that light you up.
  12. You try. When you mess up, you do your best to fix it. Over and over again, you start over and keep trying. That’s a hard skill … and you have it.
  13. You take to heart my advice. You don’t always look like you are listening … but I see you taking up the challenge.
  14. Your balancing act. Part boy, part man … all heart.
  15. Your quest for goodness. You sometimes mess up (we all do). But I have no doubt that, in your heart, you want to be a good person and make the right choices.
  16. You trust people. Despite all the difficult hand life has tossed your way, you keep reaching out.
  17. You call me mom. You are the only boy in the world with that particular challenge. Because of you, my heart lives outside my body — and I have the privilege of helping you achieve your dreams. I’m so proud to call you my son.

Happy Birthday, Christopher!

Thoughts of a Working Mom (to Be)

Anyone re-entering the workplace after taking time to pursue other goals — college, family, or writing the next Great American Novel — knows that finding the ramp back to the fast track can be a daunting experience.  (For those who live in Michigan, it’s more of a “painfully slow” track, but I digress.)

Coming up with a plausible explanation for any gaps in the resume is one thing; being able to articulate how these non-revenue-producing endeavors have contributed to one’s personal bottom line is something else.

So this past week, I’ve been thinking about my vocation as a wife and mother, and above all as a child of God.  Even the word “vocation” is more complex for me now than it was when I was single.  It is infinitely easier to look “together” and “successful” without a captive audience to witness those less-together moments. As a single adult, I led the worship team and managed sixty projects a year.  As a wife and mother, I sat in the church’s “cry room” and aspired to a shower before dinner.

Here’s the thing:  As time went on, I discovered more than a little overlap in the life lessons I”ve learned between the “two me’s.”  For example:

One day at a time.  Projecting too far into the future based on one’s present circumstances can be problematic for mothers and editors alike.  As a new mother, I had to pull focus from “building a writer’s platform” and concentrate on the immediate challenges at hand (like getting that aforementioned shower).  My kids needed me to be fully present.

Now this lesson takes a very different form: I try not to obsess over the “big picture” of what God has planned for my life. Instead, day by day I take up the challenge at hand, always trying to remain attentive to that still, small voice of the Spirit. A Spirit who often speaks to me through my own family.

Rest in the knowledge that God knows me best, and loves me anyway.  Like most people, I have at times wished that life had a rewind button.  As a mom, I’ve cringed over my children’s boisterous behavior in public. My inner critic howled over the injustice of going from choir director to cry-room dropout in just a few short days.

Now, having come I’m through the worst of it, it’s alot easier to silence that inner critic where other people are concerned. Not that I have a flawless record. Like most people, I’ve said and done things that — in retrospect — were cringeworthy. And yet, my children have taught me something about God’s unconditional love, which helps me to extend tolerance and grace to others.  

The Iceberg Principle:  Human beings are like icebergs: There’s a lot more than meets the eye. These “hidden mysteries” inform and motivate both our actions and reactions.  However, with time and effort it is possible to develop an instinctive sense of the “danger zones.”

For example, I can always tell when one of my children “forgets” to take a certain medicine or has had a bad night.  The brother-sister banter is edgier, with shriller howls of protest. Cereal turns to mush as the kid in question makes umpteen trips to and from the breakfast nook. Directions go unheard and unheeded. As the mom, I understand why this kid is acting like a gerbil on crack. It’s not intentional, but aggravating nevertheless.

The Iceberg Principle applies in the workplace as well, motivating us to invest on a personal level with those on our “team.”  If we fail to do this, behavior that a friend might interpret to be  “collaborative” (or “proactive”), to a casual acquaintence might seem “lazy” (or “egotistical”).  Misunderstandings (or being misunderstood) is an occupational hazard for those who refuse to map out  those hidden layers.

What do you think? Have you made the transition from stay-at-home to either work-from-home or work-away-from-home?  If so . . . are there any aspects of parenting that have made you a more valuable employee?

Science Fair Syndrome (and other small miracles of parenting)

You could have knocked me over with a feather yesterday when a parent FB’ed me to say that Christopher had won “high honors” for his Science Fair project.  “Do all M&Ms melt at the same rate?” was Christopher’s idea — and he held to it while I continued to pelt him with what I thought were better ideas until his teacher said she thought his idea was a good one. Okay, then.

Next, we had to outline the project step by step. We tried pancake grill, top of stove, and in a low-temp oven. We got lots of cracked candies — but they just didn’t melt, per se. Not even at “mouth” temperature.

Finally, we got things rolling at around 400 degrees. So we ran three trials, compiled the results . . . and low and behold, red candies did seem to melt just a tad more quickly than blue or green! (My husband wasn’t sure the difference wasn’t statistically significant, but Chris kept dancing around the kitchen yelling, “I was right! I was right! Red ARE the fastest!” )

Finally we typed it all up (Chris dictated, I summarized), glue-gunned the candies all over the board, and got it into school a whole day early. (Whew!) I wasn’t sure it was what the teacher wanted — I hoped he’d at least get a passing grade. God knows he needs it.

I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but we didn’t attend the Open House on Sunday afternoon.  In point of fact, I forgot about it — but even if I’d have remembered, we probably wouldn’t have gone. It simply never occurred to me that we might want to be there. 

The truth is, when raising special-needs kids, it can be a real temptation not to set the expectation bar too high.  Craig and I were both good students; over time, we came to realize that our kids would struggle to get grades in a way we never had.

The truth is, I simply didn’t expect Chris to win Science Fair. After four years of attending honor roll assemblies and watching my children wave to me from the crowd while the rest of their classmates trot up for awards in academic achievement, moral focus, or both, I couldn’t raise my aspirations higher than “I hope he passes.”

But today I learned an important parenting lesson:  I need to believe in my children, no matter what. That’s what a good parent does: She always encourages, always helps . . . and always acknowledges it when she fails to do just that.

Yes, sir, today Christopher won “high honors” for his Science Fair Project!  I can hardly wait for the next assembly, so I can watch him get his ribbon.

Thoughts on a Snowy Day

“Stormaggedon?” Hardly.

Woke up this morning with both kids and the dog in bed with us, excited beyond words about the prospect of a day at home with mom AND dad AND no school!  Woof.

It’s almost over now. A pork pie is simmering in the oven, scenting the kitchen with rosemary and garlic. The picnic table on the back deck glistens with a thick blanket of white stuff; the birds all but disappear as they land to pick up the bits of bread scattered across the table top. They look cold, but clearly hunger is more compelling than warmth.

The kids storm in from outside, pink-cheeked and exuberant. Maddy’s muzzle is white from diving into snowbanks for her precious tennis balls. She flops on the towel near my feet to pick the ice out from between her toes, then jumps up to go out again as soon as the kids warm up. After about three hours of this, the kids finally have had enough, and gobble a plate of nachos while I scronk Christopher at Monopoly. Finally they retreat to their rooms to (imagine this!) read a couple of chapters before dinnertime.

Not the most productive day of my week … but I’m sure this feeling of contentment will stay with me.

Thank God for snow days!

For Parents Who Wait: St. Thomas More, Patron of Adopted Kids

The other day a friend of mine was asking me about St. Thomas More, the patron saint of adopted and foster children. His feast day is June 22 — but as Advent is a time of “waiting,” and adoptive and foster parents are prone to wait, I thought I’d share this little true story with you today.

Before our children came to us, Craig and I visited London and saw the Tower where St. Thomas was held prisoner by Henry VIII. As part of the tour, the guard took us to the crypt where the head of St. Thomas was interred. Craig and I knelt before the ornate box that bore St. Thomas’ name, and asked the saint to pray for us, and for our children’s angels to protect them until it was time for us to receive them.

Watching us silently for a few moments, the guard finally admitted that the head wasn’t in the box – that to protect it against vandals, it had been buried in a space in the wall behind us. I placed my hand on the wall, and told St. Thomas that if we had a son, he would be named Thomas.

As it turned out, Craig later admitted that he wanted his son named after HIM, or at least to have his initials, and I honored his request … But Christopher knows he has his confirmation name already picked out for him!

Foster and adoptive parents need to be especially flexible and open to changes to “the plan.” And yet, like St. Thomas, we also need to be prepared to stand for truth, and to guard against the negative influences of society. As foster parents, we are often called upon to mitigate the negative effects of our children’s early experiences. Loving discipline, combined with large doses of patience (of which I am naturally in short supply, but God provides!), will help to ensure that however rocky their beginnings, our children will blossom to become God originally created them to be.

Photo credit: This image is available for purchase here.

The Ghostly Minds of Middle-School Boys

This morning I took a carful of fifth graders to the Detroit Science Museum. I didn’t know any of them well (apart from my son, that is). And so I was a bit floored when the two sitting immediately behind me started talking about the fact that they regularly hear things going “bump” in the night. If you catch my meaning.

One of them, who happened to be from another faith tradition, lost his father a few years ago as well as several other male relatives. The other was Catholic, and said that he regularly wakes up hearing someone walking up and down the stairs outside his room. Even though no one is there.

My son has told me from time to time he’ll wake up and sense that someone is in the room. So he tells his guardian angels to protect him, pulls the covers over his head, and goes back to sleep. I’m starting to wonder if this is a middle-school thing, something in the development of their brains.

I was a little floored at first, knowing what to say to the child who had lost his father. He has a teenage brother, and it sounds as though the two boys are often on their own as the mother supports the family alone. He mentioned that he regularly sees movies and television programs that are … well, let’s just say the content is more mature than I’d want my 10-year-old to see.

This boy didn’t really know me, and I was pretty sure if I just said, “Don’t WATCH stuff like that. It will rot your brain!” He wouldn’t listen — and it wouldn’t really help. Nor did I think his mother would appreciate my issuing an altar call right there on the freeway. So I racked my brain for something that would be consistent with his world view.

“Sweetie, you must miss your dad so much, and it must be comforting to think of him right there beside you. He will always be a part of you, living right inside your heart. And I think if he were here right now, he would want you to focus on what a gift life is, and to enjoy the good things every single day.

“You know, sometimes I have scary thoughts at night, and I let my imagination get away with me, thinking about the future. When that happens, I ask my guardian angel to help me, and to bring my prayers straight to God. I know for a fact that all three of the great monotheistic religions believe in angels — Hagar and Ismael, Abraham and Isaac, the stories of the apostles, all of them include stories of God’s messengers who intervene when we need it. Maybe next time you feel scared or worried, this little prayer might help you.” Then I taught them all the “Angel of God” prayer.

“Thanks, Mrs. Saxton. I like that — I’ll try it.”

“One more thing. Have you ever considered why some movies are labeled ‘R’, so that you have to be 17 or with your parent to see them? Or why some movies are PG-13? Your brain is developing really quickly right now, and some images are so powerful that they can be permanently etched in your mind, and not in a good way. If you’re having trouble sleeping, and find yourself often thinking about dark things — death, and demons, and ghosts — then you really need to watch what you are feeing your brain. That means making grown-up decisions about what kind of movies you watch with your brother. That way you can be in charge of your thoughts and your dreams.”

Both boys got quiet on that one. I wondered how much their parents knew about their viewing habits. Clearly they both had a lot of time on their hands without supervision … and so someone needed to encourage them to think like little adults, instead of sneaky children.

This little boy had been through so much. He needed someone to give him permission to be a child as long as possible.

Heavenly Father, watch over all the children in my community whose parents aren’t there to influence their daily choices and habits. Give these children wisdom beyond their years, to protect their hearts from the evil one and his schemes. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

When Good Parents Make Tough Choices

The other day I came across this post from Michelle at Scribbit, telling of how she and her husband had decided to move their middle-school son from his chosen school back to the school his siblings were attending.  It was a tough decision, and one that was not going to be welcomed by their son . . . and yet they realized that good parenting sometimes means making the tough calls.  I especially appreciated her five parenting guidelines:

1.  Observe, interact, and love. Not necessarily in that order.

2.  Kids need reasons. (Besides, “Because I said so.”)

3.  Tackle problems early on — don’t procrastinate hoping it’ll go away.

4.  Remember that positive outcomes come from painful experiences.

5.  Don’t be afraid to make hard calls — it’s what you’re “paid” to do.

I could totally relate to her story. Although my kids are younger than Michelle’s, I’ve already had to make these tough calls on more than one occasion:  an association with a neighbor kid whose knowledge of “birds and bees” was far more developed than I could stomach. The time we had their sister placed in another home. The time I had Sarah get blood drawn, even after I’d mistakenly told her that she wasn’t getting a shot that day. (The effects of the last one were not as far-reaching, but the immediate unpleasantness was just as bad.)

Down the line, the results of these choices may turn out to be better or worse than anticipated. Chris finds it hard to make friends, at least partly because he’s worried that the attachment won’t last for long (not unreasonable, since he has already lost one set of parents, two siblings, and several friends). Their sister, however, has turned out to be a beautiful young woman who has positively thrived in her new home. And the iron levels in Sarah’s blood, it turns out, were absolutely normal (that  is, she didn’t need the blood draw). 

Which brings me to one more guideline of my own creation, to add to Michelle’s original five:  Once you’ve made a call, don’t second-guess yourself. Just ask God to help you make the best decision possible, with all the information you have. Then leave that choice in God’s hands, knowing that — for better or worse — you have done the best job you knew how, to be the best parent you could be. In the end, that’s all any of us can do.

Lord, sometimes our world is very black and white. Other times, there are seas of gray.
Help us be faithful, in good times and bad. Grant us courage to love and obey.

When Good Kids Do Bad Things

Last weekend Craig and I took some friends to the Halloween party of our kids’ godparents. It’s an annual event, and Katy and Todd spend weeks getting all the stations set up throughout the woods bear their house. We’ve enjoyed it so much, we wanted to share the experience with this family, too.

It’s two parties, actually — a kid-friendly one during the daytime, with a scarier version (complete with spooky soundtrack) in the evening for the exchange students in the area. Unfortunately, when Todd when went to check the sound that afternoon for the evening party, he discovered his MP3 player was missing.

Long story short, one of the kids had swiped the player. His mother found it in his bedroom two days later.

Yes, there were extenuating circumstances. Still, this was a “teachable moment” of monumental proportions.

What would you do in a circumstance like this?

I remember swiping a handful of candy from the corner drugstore when I was the same age as these kids are now.  My parents made me pay for it out of money I earned by doing a MOUNTAIN of chores. I had to put the money in the manager’s hand, and told him what I had done.  And that man, bless him, asked me why I did it, and whether it was worth embarrassing myself and my parents this way. Then he said something to me that guaranteed that I would never do anything like that ever again:

“You are old enough to decide what kind of person you want to be – for good, or for bad.  Bad choices have a way of snowballing into WORSE choices later; each time you make a bad choice, it becomes harder and harder to hear the little voice inside that tells you right from wrong.   

“Now, everybody makes mistakes, and this is yours. I hope you will remember this moment, and promise yourself NEVER to let something like this happen again. Your parents didn’t raise you this way and you know better. It’s time to grow up.”

What would you do, if your child stole something?

When Choices Spiral out of Control

These past few months I’ve been working with a local family, trying to help them gain some control of their lives. One member, “Dan,” is a 21 year old male, has a daughter and a record. But he is also working toward his GED and had a job interview this week … until he missed a meeting with his PO and got 90 days.

“Dan’s” mom is heartbroken. “Out of my three boys, he’s the one I thought would make it. When the police showed up (years ago) to say my son had been arrested, I thought they were kidding me. Not Dan. I knew he was hanging around with this one guy, a bad guy. But I never thought it would come to this.”  Bad guy (who already had a record) talked Dan into carrying the drugs for him; Dan needed money — and got the time. So missing an appointment with the parol officer has far-reaching, serious consequences.

As a mother, I can appreciate how impulsive choices — wrong choices — early on can have devastating, life-long consequences in the lives of youth whose decision-making faculties are not yet fully formed (or who did not benefit from the positive role models that are essential to good moral formation).

This is not to say young people should not be held responsible for the choices they make. Recently at AnnArbor.com, I wrote this article about how the little rules we allow children to break when they are small can have far-reaching consequences. The comments I received (as you can see) are pretty evenly split. Some thought it was much ado about nothing — but other parents got it.

And so, when my kids came home, I talked with them about our friend Dan. We drive by two prisons on our way to school every day, so the kids understand the concept of “jail.” I told them that Dan would not be working on the yard this week — that he was in prison because he made some bad choices.

“What did he do?” Christopher wanted to know.

“Well … It all started because he made a bad friend, who encouraged him to do something he knew was wrong. And he needed money, so he made a very bad choice.”

“Why did he need money?”

“He stopped going to school and couldn’t get a good job. And he has a daughter whose mommy needs money to take care of her.”  As you might expect, this raised a whole new set of questions, which I fielded as discretely as I could.

“We’re sad for our friend, and we need to ask God to take care of him while he’s in jail. But what I want you to remember is how important it is to make GOOD friends who encourage you to make GOOD choices. And I want you to remember to thank God every day for your school, and for a family who loves you no matter what. Every day that you go to school and do your best, you make us proud.”

Lord, please watch over my friend today. He was just starting to dig his way out of some very bad choices. Help him not to be discouraged, but to be even more determined to turn his life around. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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