Am I just lucky?

This past Saturday afternoon, I sat with my wife, watching our three children run around a playground. We took a trip to celebrate ten years of marriage and we had spent much of our quiet time reflecting on how far we had come, what we had gone through together, and what we had accomplished. In many ways, we were watching our three greatest accomplishments (our children) and reflecting on another (our ten years of marriage).

And, it had been a great trip, experiencing the beauty of God’s creation by hiking up to breathtaking scenic lookout points and places of absolute serenity. Our kids hiked more than 7km over two days with almost no complaining. They approached each new park, hotel room and restaurant with excitement. My wife and I had nothing but happy memories to reflect on from our marriage. It was just a happy, happy time.

As I sat there reflecting, I said to my wife, “I hope we’re not just really lucky!”

This would have been the perfect time for her to say that no other man could possibly make her this happy. She could have listed off all of the conscious decisions and sacrifices we had made that had brought us to our present almost utopian reality. She could have pointed to any combination of our intelligence, faithfulness, and mostly humility as the cause of our current stability, but she didn’t. She just smiled and said, “Yeah, I don’t know. “

It would be great to be able to control our own narrative like that. It would be great to be able to say that each of us, sought out to find a companion, and because of some mixture of determination, divine providence and the proper criteria, we found what we were and should have been looking for.

Of course it is possible to tell another story; that we got lucky. Lots of people never find their soul mate, but somehow we succeeded. Lots of couples try and fail to conceive, but for us it worked right away. Then, of those couples who manage to get married, many don’t last for ten years, but we did. And we can’t say that we are somehow better and more deserving than these other people, because we know them. We know that they are as much or more intelligent, attractive, gracious, loving, faithful, and marriable than we are. So the question is obvious, why us and not them?

There are perils to embracing either story wholeheartedly. If I believe that my good fortune resulted only and completely from my work and actions, then the logical conclusion of that is that the pain and difficulties my friends experience is the direct result of their failures. So if someone were to complain to me about their plight, what could I possibly do but diagnose their failure and prescribe some kind of remedy. If I believe that I have earned nothing, then it would be best not to hold too tightly to my family because that which has come randomly will leave randomly. If someone asks for my advice, I dare not give any, because I wouldn’t have earned the right to comment on any situation, no matter how similar to mine.

There are benefits though too, and, as usual, it’s best to dwell on those. If I believe that I have done good things to earn my good situation, then I need to keep doing those things, or else I will deserve to lose those good things. In this world view, if my wife loves me, it must be because I have done something right, so I need to keep doing right by her. If my kids are happy, it must be because I have either given them a happy world, or because I have given them the tools to be happy in an unhappy world. Why would that change now? Keeping them happy and joyful will require more work. If I see my blessings as easy come easy go, then maybe I should hold them even tighter. From time to time random evil does happen; a child is kidnapped, a plane crashes, and vehicles accidentally collide. In those times all we can do is draw our loved ones closer and tell them, just in case it’s the last time that they hear it, that they are loved and valued and cared for. Shouldn’t I do the same thing all the time if my day-to-day fortunes are just as random?

You may have learned to be leary of any time a pastor presents opposing and flawed positions, but I don’t have a clever third option. I don’t even know where on the spectrum of in between options I would place myself. But I am truly happy to be where I am, and so I am committed to do whatever it takes to stay and I want to do whatever I can to demonstrate appropriate gratitude. Whatever the truth is, I want my response to be appropriate.

Ruby’s Waitressing Dream

My daughter came home from the last day of school with a package of books, crafts and papers. It was the culmination of projects, journals and art from the whole school year, as well as information about the summer and information about the next school year. It was fun to flip through the various pages seeing her progress and seeing her journalised reflections of the events in our lives over that time. But one sheet of paper jumped out at me.

It was a print out of 25 photographs. At the centre was her teacher holding up a sign with the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” All around that were the images of my daughter and her 23 classmates holding up signs with their answers. There were future doctors, artists and hockey players, and in the midst of all of their lofty goals was my daughter holding up a sign that simply read “Waitress.”

In a lot of ways, this didn’t come as a surprise. She loves organizing things and she loves serving people. When she plays with her friends, they often create menus together and then come ask the nearby adults which of the imaginary food options they would like.

Still, her choice stood out from the rest of the high paying, professionally certified and/or socially prestigious positions so much that I wondered if it reflected poorly on my parenting. In her defence, there were a few other children whose signs could also demonstrate a lack of professional ambition. A few boys had “gamer” on their placards, and while that could very well mean they just want to play video games all day long for the rest of their lives (they are already on the “can’t date my daughter” list) there is at least the potential that they want to be video game designers. One girl’s sign read “mother,” a job that often requires more ambition than I have, but is rarely held up as “successful.” I think motherhood doesn’t get the social prestige that it should, but at least you know that when a little girl writes that as her life goal, you know she has good parents. But waitressing is the kind of profession that almost nobody aspires to. The vast majority of restaurant servers are using the job as a stepping stone to something bigger, or using that job to pay the bills while they pursue other dreams on the side.

It crossed my mind that this could be some kind of cruel joke. I wondered if maybe the teacher had taken photos of the kids holding up blank sheets and then used Photoshop to write in the jobs she thought they were destined for, in a kind of Soviet style classification exercise. That might even explain the gamer label on a few of the boys (one of them was on the aforementioned list before I saw this sheet). But, in all of my interactions with the teacher, she gushed about how great my daughter was, in terms of friendliness, intellect and enthusiasm. So much so, in fact, that I was surprised when she didn’t win the academic award for Grade 1 (parenting bias may have influenced my surprise as well.)

But it isn’t that I don’t respect my restaurant servers. I am constantly impressed by their ability to remember complicated orders, deal with difficult customers, and spend the whole shift on their feet. Also, I aspire to treat everyone equally, and that has to begin with people who are put in a position to serve me. I am a good tipper and when appropriate, I like to engage our servers in conversation. I’m not claiming to be any particular waitress’ favourite customer, but I really hope that staff at the restaurants I visit feel respected in their interactions with me.

And it seems therein lies my success, and perhaps my failure. Does my daughter want to be a waitress because I have indirectly taught her that it is a position worthy of respect? Am I disappointed by that choice because deep down I don’t respect them as much as I aspire to? Either way, the odds that a person grows into the career that their six year old self chooses are quite low. Her career path will be determined by her hard work, natural skills and the opportunities that present themselves far more than it will be by the choices she makes as a six-year old. I can try to instill a good work ethic, I can do my best to nurture the abilities she has inherited, and I can do what I can to put her in touch with people and organizations that will give her the opportunities she needs to succeed. But more than any of those, I need to give her a view of the world where success is not measured by a paycheque or by the social prestige of the position you find yourself in. Success is living with integrity regardless of where life takes you, and part of that integrity involves treating everyone with respect, regardless of the status society gives them.

How I Talk to My Little Girls

An article showed up on my Facebook feed a few times a long time ago.  I had a reaction to it at the time, but I figured it would fade away, which it mostly did.  Now I’ve seen the article posted again a few more times and I thought it would be worth spelling out my reponse.

The article in question is here.  In it, author Lisa Bloom explains the value of praising young girls for things other than their appearance.  She says that finding other things to compliment will help them to combat the societal expectation that their appearance is the most important thing.  The article also serves essentially as a promotion for the book she has written on this topic.

As a father to two young girls, I celebrate that these values are being upheld.  I want my girls to grow up knowing that their worth is not exclusively determined by how attractive society deems them to be.  Already I see the creativity and enthusiasm my four year-old is demonstrating and I am glad that I am not the only one who compliments her for that.

To make her point though, Bloom gives an example of a dinner party that she attended where she met her friend’s 5 year-old daughter.  She explains that she is so committed to these ideals that she held back her compliments on the girls appearance.  I applaud her for the way she spoke to the girl at her level (which isn’t always easy or appreciated) and for being able to find common interests.  I refuse, however, to congratulate her for not complimenting the young girl’s appearance.

First, especially in this particular incident, it was a completely natural thing to do.  She admitted to noticing and appreciating how cute the young girl looked.  The girl almost certainly would have appreciated the compliment (I say ‘almost certainly’ because my oldest daughter seems bothered by people telling her she’s ‘cute’ or ‘pretty’).  Any time we give someone a compliment and they are happy to hear, that also makes us feel better too.  Those are all real results.  The long term benefits of not complimenting are entirely theoretical and may very well be cancelled out by other forces down the road, which leads me to my next point.

At various times in my daughters’ lives, they will be convinced that they are not pretty.  That will happen despite what I teach as a pastor, what Bloom and others write in books about how to raise girls and what we as her parents tell her.  I see it then as my responsibility to make sure that no matter what she assumes about what the boys at school think or anyone else she will know that her father sees her as beautiful.  If either of my daughters grows up not knowing that their father think they are beautiful, then I will have failed in that parental responsibility.

Finally, holding back from complimenting a girl about her appearance doesn’t mean you have arrived as a feminist or that you have reached the pinnacle of female understanding, it means you have experienced what men live with every day.  If we are supposed to congratulate Ms. Bloom for holding back a compliment about a girl’s looks, we should go around thanking every man we meet.  My mind conjures up all kinds of compliments about the women I see, and I usually do a pretty good job of filtering out the inappropriate ones.  That doesn’t make me a hero, that’s just what men do.

I agree that we should compliment little girls and little boys on their character, on their achievements, on the skills they’ve developed and all sorts of other things, but I also believe that it would have been quite appropriate for a woman in Ms. Bloom’s position to speak the kind words on her mind and make a little girl, if only superficially and only for a moment, happy.

Babies don’t fix anything

Every now and then I hear people talk as though having a baby will somehow fix a part of their life.  Don’t get me wrong, I love babies.  I think there are lots of people who aren’t having babies that should.  Still, it needs to be clear that having a baby, whether it’s by birth or adoption, will not fix anything.

I’m not trying to overstate things.  I really cannot think of a single thing that is a baby can fix.  Let’s look at the things people hope will improve:

  • Your marriage – Saying that having a baby will fix your marriage is a little bit like saying adding a second floor to your house will fix a crack in the foundation.  If there are major problems in your marriage, having a baby will make those problems bigger.  If you have a strong marriage, having a baby will test that strength and then reveal how necessary it is to have that strength all the time.  A baby will not strengthen your marriage.  A baby will simply remind you that you need to strengthen it on your own, or make you appreciate that you already have.
  • His commitment issues – This is the one that scares me the most.  Whether a guy and girl are dating or married, girls often think that the guy will be more likely to stick around/propose/appreciate her more if she gets pregnant.  I shake my head when I hear that.  Sure, the guys on TV and romantic movies have these delivery room moments where they take one look at a child and swear from that day forward that they will do right by this child and his or her mother, but that is not the standard response.  For me, with the birth of each of my three children, I looked at my wife afterwards and was overwhelmed by the show of self-sacrifice and devotion that I had just witnessed.  I looked at my new babies and committed to help these vulnerable little creatures find their way in the world they had just been born into.  But with each birth, I was terrified.  Despite having reason to believe that I possessed the physical, emotional and spiritual resources to make raising these children possible, I was still scared.  Sure I was committed to being a good father, but with each birth it seemed that the bar was raised, the bar of being a good father and husband was moved up, possibly out of reach.  If a man hasn’t already committed himself to you, the emotional turbulence of having a baby will not stabilize him.
  • Your relationship with your parents/in-laws – This is one of the things that people underestimate about marriage, that their parents will continue to interfere with their lives.  Sometimes there is an idea, and sometimes it’s spoken outloud, that if there was a baby involved, the relationship between the child’s parents and the child’s grandparents would be smoother.  That’s not true either.  A healthy relationship between parents and their adult children involves support when needed and freedom to make their own decisions.  Adding a baby to that mix is great.  They help when you need help, and they affirm the parenting decisions you make.  If there is an unhealthy relationship of pressure, guilt and judgment, that will make the already difficult process of having a baby more difficult.  If those parents second guess your parenting decisions about naming, feeding, clothing, and simply raising your child, that causes extra stresses on you and both your relationships between you and your baby and you and your parents/in-laws.
  • Your biological clock – This is a force that should not be underestimated, but it cannot be the primary deciding factor about if and when to have children.  The same impulses that will make you want to have a baby will also make you second guess every decision you ever make about that baby.  Every time that baby gets sick, misbehaves, experiences failure or even cries, you will wonder if there is something you did wrong to create this problem or if there is something you can do differently to fix it.  The answer will almost always be no, but that won’t stop you from contemplating all sorts of other answers.
  • Your credibility – In some places, women and men are taken more seriously if they have a child, preferably more.  As a married pastor with well-behaved children, I benefit from this kind of thinking.  This credit however, is temporary.  Whatever credit you get for having a baby will be lost when that child inevitably grows up and disappoints you or the people who measure you by your parenting skills.  Sometimes people will see that you are a parent and then give you credit for balancing work and family life, but that’s a really hard thing to do, and you don’t get the credit until you demonstrate it, and you may not ever be fully convinced that you deserve the credit at all.
  • Your bottom line – There are all sorts of tax credits, benefits and incentives to have children.  It can get you into somebody’s will. It can be a good long term business ownership transition strategy.  It’s obvious that kids are expensive, but they don’t need to be as much as we are told.  Still, no matter how carefully you draw up a budget, kids have a way of finding and creating extra budgetary expenses.  Kids know how to milk money out of their parents.  I’m sure you can think back to a time you convinced your parents to spend money, on ice cream, toys, vacations, etc, that they weren’t planning to spend.  That was in a time when parents could say no to their children and still be part of the mainstream.  Times have changed.

The reasons to have children are for more simple.  I firmly believe that each of us are equipped with the tools to raise children.  But a solid relationship and a healthy sense of self need to be the beginning point, not the destination.

I forgot

I forgot how tired I felt
when at two in the morning I was woken up by a crying baby
and a frustrated wife.

I forgot how keenly aware I was
of the sleep I was losing,
the productivity I would be sacrificing
and how much my forthcoming decrease in mental alertness would cost me.

I forgot the amount of
resent, anger, and self pity
that would build up in me
with every minute this child would lay awake in my ever weakening arms.

But I also forgot

I forgot what would happen when I would look down
and lock eyes with this child.

I forgot the amount of innocence a pair of beady little eyes could hold.  

I forgot how magically disarming that glance could be.

I forgot how quickly
all of my selfish emotions
could be replaced
by feelings of love and compassion,
and how easily all other
tasks and responsibilities
would fade into oblivion,
all other tasks, that is, besides sleeping.

I simply forgot

Okotoks-20130310-00182

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I wrote this poem as I reflected on my new reality with a newborn in the house.  I also had an article published recently where I wrote about her birth story (relax, there are no graphic details).  The article was published in the local Western Wheel newspaper:

http://www.westernwheel.com/article/20130306/WHE0903/303069979/-1/whe09/birth-and-death-have-more-in-common-than-we-think