Life, Parenting, Philosophy

Shall I Compare Thee…

comparison by sean dreilinger on flickr



“Life is one race I never want to win – I’d rather stroll around enjoying the scenery”

― Aditya Chandra

It’s funny how, in some things, my boys are so different.  Just looking at how they sleep and wake up, they are a study in contrasts.

Our A is a proper early-bird.  He bounces out of bed wide awake and ready for the day.  He’s immediately ready for conversation at a normal (if not louder than normal) level, and he breakfasts soon after waking (he is now, I’m grateful to say, competent at preparing this meal independently).  Because of these early starts, he’s often ready for a nap in the afternoon – although he rarely gets to indulge in one during the school year.  He falls asleep easily when he naps; his is often the first head to nod in the car; and he tends to sleep quite solidly (whether it’s a shorter day-sleep or the full night), although he does sleep-talk fairly often.  He’s soft in his slumber, curled and nestled and cuddly – he doesn’t at all mind being woken slightly with a kiss and blanket-tuck when West and I head to bed.

B is, in this as in many other things, A’s complete opposite.  He’s our night-owl.  With very few exceptions, he simply cannot sleep during the day.  He’ll whine and complain and moan from the confines of his car seat on a long drive about how tired he is but that he can’t fall asleep.  He stopped napping the earliest of any of our boys – even jetlag doesn’t push him over the edge enough to convince him to seek slumber during the day.  Once he falls asleep (he goes to bed at the same time as A, but often struggles to settle), he may wake again for any number of reasons.  He sleepwalks, sometimes, and he often falls out of bed. When we go to lift him back onto his mattress, he straightens his limbs in protest and it becomes an ungainly balancing act to manoeuvre him onto his pillow.  He protests thickly in his sleep if we bother him too much with kisses as we tuck him in again.  He sleeps in a hard line, often angled awkwardly along his bed. Because he’s such a night owl, he sleeps in longer than the other boys – and when he wakes, he’s still tired.  He rolls out of bed (literally – *thump*!) and creeps along the hallway to the living room, collapsing onto the floor for a little snooze at regular intervals.  I’ll often pass him like this – on my way to or from the living room – and I know enough by now to just whisper a greeting and step over him.  He’s not ready for food or conversation for at least half an hour – ideally an hour or more.

C falls somewhere between the extremes of his older brothers.  He normally falls asleep well, as long as we leave the light on a bit.  He has to be a certain distance from the wall alongside his bed, so that the ‘monsters in the wall can’t tickle’ him when he sleeps; he sleeps with a couple of beloved stuffed toys in his bed, but not in his arms, ‘because they got lost once’ when he went to sleep that way…  He has some of the ease of slumber that A enjoys – he’ll drift off quickly when we’re travelling in the car and falls asleep fairly readily in other situations as well.  But he’s more like B in waking; while A would show up  silently to our bedside if he needed something in the night (startling me and making me yelp loudly on more than one occasion), B and C shout from their beds.  C will call out for blanket-adjustments, water, comfort from nightmares, philosophical discussions, or religious queries.  He will have comments and complaints and questions ready upon his night-waking; the most common ones being, “Will you sit on my bed for one minute?” and “It’s too dark to sleep!”  When he wakes in the morning, he stretches and yodels out an arpeggio, belts out a few high notes with extra vibrato, and then trots off to do his little routine (bathroom, reading, cuddle with us) before he’s quite ready for breakfast and conversation.  He is cherubic in his slumber – all tousled curls and ruby lips – and snuggles into his pillow with a half-smile when kissed good-night.

Although still a baby in many ways (he just turned two, but I have a feeling he’ll be ‘the baby’ forever!), D already has his own little sleep signature.  He went through a phase – we’re thankfully on the other side of it now – in which he required the constant presence of West or me while he was drifting into sleep; but now he only needs a little cuddle while he drinks his bottle, and (after brushing teeth), music, dummy and favourite little stuffed elephant to clutch and he’s asleep very quickly.  He still naps during the day, too – usually for a couple of hours.  It’s hard to know at this stage which of his little sleep quirks will stick, but for now he’s pretty adorable with his little bottom up in the air while he slumbers.  When he wakens each morning, he stands up in his cot – cheeks rosy and fluffy hair forming a halo around his sweet head – and calls out to us:  “Hi Mummy!  Hi Daddy!”  As I lift him from his bed and into ours, he’s full of snuggles and lisped requests:  he wants ‘walkies’, ‘eat’, ‘Gogo-Bapa’ (my parents), ‘play car’, and ‘milkies’ – and he wants them all at once.  But he is placated by the closeness of us, and he’ll dandle a strand of my hair and bestow kisses as he shares our pillows; and that will hold him for a while before he starts to wriggle and sit up to begin on his day’s activities.

They’re all different – they’re all unique, and all special.  When I was listing off their various ways of waking up to my Mum the other day, my boys were all ears.  They grinned, and giggled, at the descriptions of their quirks.  They revelled in the differences; they recognized that I was appreciating those qualities that set them apart from one another.

Why can’t my response to comparisons be like that?

When I feel compared to someone else, my immediate reaction is often to become resentful, or defensive.  Right away, I assume that I’m coming off as the loser in this comparison – in any comparison.  When I feel compared, I become competitive.

So-and-so just bought an amazing house.  Her kids are taking Japanese lessons, and the family is going to stay at a manor in England this summer.  She only shops at Whole Foods, which she can afford, because her husband is a nano-technologist.

“Oh, really?”  I want to sneer, “Well, isn’t she lucky?!”  And I start racking my brains for the last time my children said or did something intelligent and I shoot them laser-beam looks as they giggle over the milk dribbling over their chins as their too-full mouths chew too-sugary breakfast cereal spooned from chipped breakfast bowls…  I start to wonder what I’m missing, that other people have it all together and they’ve earned – earned – the admiration of whomever it is who’s giving me this news.  I’m a failure, I think, and I hand my ill-bred boys a paper towel (not a linen napkin) with which to mop their messy mouths.

But that’s not how it should be, clearly.  How much better it is to be like my kids, and revel in the differences between myself and others.  I can celebrate the uniqueness of others’ lives just as I prize my own ability to live life in a way that’s unique to me and my family.

And here’s the thing: I am far better at doing that – far better at celebrating the differences and embracing my own unique path – when I have a strong sense of myself and my priorities.  The cure for the problem of comparison leading to competition, for me, is this: recognizing my qualities; having firm plans; and upholding strong values.

It’s easy to become envious and competitive when people are talking about someone else’s achievements or acquisitions as if these things were a mark of their superiority; but when I remember that my qualities and goals are different but worthy in their own right, I am spared from feeling ‘less than’ in the face of others’ abundance.

We can lose sight of truth, beauty, and abundance in our own lives when we focus on what other people seem to have (seem to – because we can never know the true measure of a person’s life from the outside).  So we need to re-calibrate from time to time.  We need to ask ourselves – and to really delve deep in doing so – “What are my gifts, and how am I using them?”  We should strive to make the world a better place through our actions; in identifying the things that we do well, and the things we’re passionate about, we are best able to discover our place and purpose in the world.

I’m a big planner.  I love making plans – and at times in my life when I’ve been thwarted in my desire to have a firm sense of the future, I have felt frustrated and adrift.  This doesn’t mean that I’m inflexible.  It just means that I feel better when I have goals, and when I can make plans to reach those goals.  When I have a vision for what I’d like my life to look like in five, ten, twenty years, or more (God willing), I am far more secure in my own path and thus less likely to engage in petty competition to walk in someone else’s proverbial shoes.

It is important to recognize that, while who I am and what my goals are may be part of an abiding contentment with life, more essential than either of these is having a strong sense of what my core values are.

I’ve developed my value set over my lifetime; and as I mature, my unshakeable belief in these values only grows richer.  While my abilities and gifts may change over time, and while my plans and goals are altered in the face of life’s serendipity and challenge, my heart remains true to these beliefs.

Some of my core values are:

  • A belief in the benevolence, omnipotence, and omnipresence of God (who is a personal, relational, God who desires good things for all His creation)
  • A belief in the immutable value of humanity and human life (and in our responsibility to relieve poverty and suffering, fight injustice, demonstrate love and mercy, and help others)
  • A belief (stemming from the aforementioned values) that the meaning of life is, in essence, relationship. Relationship with God and relationship with others; in my estimation, these two things are paramount.

Knowing my values and trusting in the path set before me, it’s almost laughable when (for one example) I feel challenged by the material wealth of others.  I am passionate about social justice and stewardship of resources – surely those things aren’t often compatible with the acquisition and retention of personal wealth?!

When I’m sure of myself and my place in the world; when I have a sense of direction as I navigate through life; when my core beliefs are foremost in my heart and mind (where they belong) – this is when I am able to stand secure and avoid being competitive with others.

As a Mama, it’s part of my job to help my children develop these three aspects in themselves: to inspire them to find and use their gifts (and acknowledge their precious uniqueness in all of creation); to encourage them to set goals – and to hope and trust as they journey through life; and to nurture them into spiritual maturity as children of God.  We need to create in children this trifecta of strength – because this will afford them perspective and allow them to continue to delight in their differences throughout their lives, just as they do so naturally when they’re young.

“In the end, only three things will matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”

-(Author Unknown)


Motherhood, Parenting

Goodies or Goons?

Goodies or Goons - flickr photo by Philip Howard

It seems to me that there tends to be a uniformity in how the sons of larger all-boys families turn out.  Either all of them become entirely decent, productive members of society – or they all become involved in activities that fall outside the dictates of the law.  In other words, they become ‘goodies’ or goons.

At this point in my parenting journey with my boys, it could really go either way.

Stories abound in which sets of brothers join (or form) criminal gangs and use their fraternal connections and familial might for ignoble ends.

Why would this be?

Well, I’ve always said that groups of boys are much more than the sum of their parts.  Even if your boys can be calm and focused and gentle, most likely they will exhibit none of these characteristics when in the company of other boys.  Boys have a natural inclination to energetic physicality and hyper-competitiveness, and this is accentuated when they are in a group.  Consequently, when all of the siblings in a family are male – and they are therefore without the mitigating influence of sisters – their rowdiness/noisiness tends to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Aggression is another natural part of boys’ makeup. This innate aggression has very real and necessary applications (so I’m not trying to vilify boys at all*), but within the confines of modern life – most particularly within the educational process – it can be a challenge for boys to find an appropriate outlet for this energy.  In this technological age, boys’ natural physicality is often frustrated, and if parents aren’t really intentional about channelling that energy and teaching their boys how to be gentle and nurturing as well, this negligence can have many negative results. We also need to be deliberate and diligent in showing our boys how to contain those aggressive instincts when necessary, if we are interested in avoiding the necessity of making regular prison visits in our retirement years.

When I had my first two sons, I was determined that they weren’t going to be stereotypical ‘caveman’ males – my boys wouldn’t be rough and loud and rude.  I decided that we weren’t going to buy them any weapons and we would discourage the wrestling and aggressive romping in which we often saw brothers participating. But, like puppies, they began tousling together from an early age; and in spite of a dearth of ‘real’ weapons and an absence of violent media, they found ways of roughing one another up.  This physicality in their play has only increased as we’ve added to their numbers.  I have come to the conclusion that even if we lived on a desert island they’d still end up bashing each other with palm fronds and throwing coconuts at one another.  They’re not generally rude, but rough and loud just seem to go with the territory.

As I touched on above, something that can either mitigate or accentuate boys’ predisposition towards more aggressive behaviour is how they are brought up. When confronted with a gang (gaggle? mess?  murder? I’m never sure what the appropriate plural term for boys should be) of sons, most mothers’ first concern is naturally to ‘manage’ them – so sometimes the whole ‘nurturing’ part of parenting ends up getting tossed out like the proverbial baby in the bathwater as Mamma goes into survival mode.

A friend (herself the mother of four boys) told me about an acquaintance of hers who grew up in an all-boys family (I think there were more than four of them – maybe six?): his mother used to feed them their breakfast cereal in what amounted to a trough – just one huge bowl with a spoon for each boy.  I’m not sure whether my friend expected me to be impressed or horrified by the story.  I was a little of both.  These kinds of tales are lore within the all-boys club, to which I and a number of my friends belong, and there is a sense of kinship in the telling and sharing of them.  Before there were all these ‘life hacks’ going around on the internet, there were mothers of boys passing on the wisdom of their experiences to other mothers walking this path.

Not all boys are the same, of course.  A’s music teacher has two young sons whom she just leaves to play upstairs while the class is going on in a ground-floor room.  Either she’s turning a blind eye to their potential criminality or they are actually obedient, self-controlled kids.  Of course, there are only two of them.  It’s hard for the dynamics of a ringleader and a single follower to culminate in the realisation of devilish schemes.

Speaking of which, I think it is partly this phenomena of ringleaders and followers that crops up when groups of boys are together that causes the uniformity of the results when they’re grown.  Maybe the likelihood of boys in a large all-boys family ending up as positively productive or negatively notorious depends on the inclination of the boy who takes on the largest ‘ringleader’ role in their midst.  Because it seems to me that there does tend to be an instigator for most shenanigans, even if the co-conspirators are equally to blame by the end of the whole thing – and in those families where the boys are all model citizens and are uniformly pleasant to be around, dependable, and all the rest of it, there tends to be a strong leader towards that end as well.

When I think about that and I remember the early-morning candy raids, the flooding of the bathroom, the putty-in-the-bed-linens episode, and other noteworthy events in my boys’ history, it’s easy to imagine that we are doomed.  I might as well start saving up for bail money.

In addition to my sons’ noteworthy departures from upstanding behaviour, there is the fact that all the families I know with four boys around the ages of mine are raising them admirably; this leads me to believe, statistically-speaking, that we are most likely to end up with a gang of goons.

But then I see my boys sprawled together on the couch watching TV; I witness the hand-holding as they walk down the hallway at school; I feel a squeeze on my heart as I watch them give each other a bear-hug; I remember all the kindnesses they show to us and to each other – and I think that maybe, just maybe, we’re going to end up with some ‘goodies’ after all.

Either that or one day you’ll be reading all about my gang of goons in the paper.

*Check out Matt Walsh’s blog for an excellent article on how our society has demonised the natural behaviour of boys.

Faith, Life, Parenting


leaning over the balcony

Once, when we were dating, I had an entire conversation with Westley about being ‘precautious.’  After he had listened respectfully for some time, he ventured, “You do know that it’s not ‘precautious,’ don’t you?”  Yeah – I’m only a writer and an editor and a logophile; why would I know that?! (*Ohtheshame*) Somehow I had subconsciously mixed ‘precaution’ and ‘cautious’ to create my own word; and actually, the way I was using it was more like ‘over-cautious’ or ‘vigilant.’

I am something of a Nervous Nellie.  I read recently that research has uncovered a gene variation in a certain percentage of the population that makes them more likely to foresee danger and to accurately assess the physical risk of a situation.  I definitely have that gene.

In fact, one of the researchers even said that “people who have this genetic variant are more inclined to have strong emotional memories” – further proof that I have it.

Wherever I am, I am alert to the dangers lurking in that situation.  Aside from being genetically predisposed to spot potential hazards, I have also been nurtured to think this way.  My Mum is the queen of cautionary tales, and I have been known to repeat a few to the boys – and West as well – although none of them have taken to the instruction so naturally as I did.  I was always appreciative of this special education – how else would I have known about the possibility of being paralyzed by misjudging the depth of a pool (feet first except at the deep end); choking on a marshmallow when playing ‘chubby bunnies’ (refused to play); or going blind from looking at the sun (not even a peep!)?

This insight into the chances so many people take without any forethought gave me pause whenever I was in any novel situation; I would scan my memory for any instruction warning me of the dangers of said situation and proceed accordingly.  I did not drive with new drivers or people I knew to have ‘a need for speed’.  Lest I suffer the same fate as ‘the boy who cried wolf,’ I would never scream unless it were an emergency.  I don’t listen to music too loudly, to avoid impairing my hearing. And I would never, ever eat something past its ‘use by’ date.   I take these precautions because I am naturally, you know – precautious.

To add fuel to the fire (another danger!), at university I majored in Criminology.  I’m therefore very much aware of the sinister nature human interactions can take; and so I take appropriate action to avoid becoming the victim of a more intentional injury in the same way that I avoid succumbing to more accidental harm.  I always check the back seats before I get into my car at night.  I have been friendly but not open with strangers (except – oops! – in my blog).  I always scan for exits in any situation and often go over a game plan in my mind of what I’d do in an emergency – especially if I feel threatened.  You know – just being precautious.

So, having been born and trained into calculating (and mitigating) the inherent risks of life, I have by now become a veritable walking advertisement for ‘play safe’.  I am a very careful (some would say nervous) driver: I scout for hazards and choose ‘the lane of least resistance’;  I maintain a safe following distance from the car ahead and increase that space if the person behind me isn’t as strict about their own spacing; I follow the speed limit; and I ‘merge like a zip’.

I am also a safety-conscious parent.  In pregnancy, I was always concerned about exposure to chemicals (guess who had nine months off bathroom-cleaning duty?!); eating the right things; not eating the wrong things; avoiding risky sports; and so on.  And once the babies were out in the world then it opened up a whole new world of worry.  Baby-proofing, instructing them about all manner of hazards (from ‘stranger danger’ to not being sufficiently wedged into their five-point-harnessed carseats), being germ-aware… ‘Better safe than sorry’ is my mantra.

People have teased me for this precautiousness as I’ve gone through life (although I’d like to point out that I’ve never broken a bone, and that good fortune must be due at least in part to my deliberate avoidance of perilous pastimes). My nephews, in particular, like to tease me about how nervous I get when they practice their parkour.  These guys are climbing monkeys and I just cannot take the stress.  By some miracle they have avoided broken bones thus far but one of them did knock a permanent dimple into his cheek with a fall from the back of the sofa.  And my boys, too, give me a hard time about calling them down when they get too high up a tree (I’ve seen Pollyanna – I know what can happen!) and freaking out when they run out to the edge of the sidewalk to greet an arriving guest at the curb.

But look – it pays to know your strengths, does it not?  I’m not a person you’d choose to have with you in a medical emergency.  I have taken the first aid courses, it’s true – but I know all that prudent advice would fly out the window at the first sight of the wound.  I’d be more likely to need assistance, myself, for injuries sustained when I fell backwards in a dead faint at the shock…  I speak from experience.  When B. needed stitches on his forehead several summers ago (due to an ill-aimed tent pole being launched by A.), I rose to the occasion by stemming the flow of (ick) blood and maintaining a cool head for just long enough for the doctor to examine him and pronounce his need for stitches – whereupon I crumpled woozily in a corner, prompting the physician to turn his back on my injured child and summon a nurse to remove me from the room and give me some cold water and a lie-down.  Job well done, Mama – way to stay calm in a crisis!  As we left the examining room, the GP took West aside and told him, with a head nod in my direction, “Next time, don’t bring her.”  For real!

So, if I don’t want to be in the situation of needing to administer some sort of assistance in an emergency, the best course of action must be to just avoid dodgy situations altogether.  Not so?

Yeah, except did I mention that I have four boys??!

Fortunately, I attended a baptism not that long ago in which all of these concerns of mine were put into perspective.  The baby being baptised was the first child of a young pastor and his wife, and the message at the ceremony was given by the baby boy’s grandfather.  He gave the baby’s parents some sage advice, which he in turn been given by his mother as she raised him and his brothers (he was one of three or four boys).

Let them break bones.

Bones heal.

Let them climb too high.

Boys need to be allowed to push their physical limits.

Let them run fast and go far and try things for themselves.

Boys need to grapple with the world around them – they need challenge and adventure and opportunities to be good and brave.

But guard their hearts.

Be vigilant about their virtue.

Guide their decision-making.

Teach them right from wrong.

Be firm about the things that really matter.

Don’t place your anxiety for their physical safety above your concern about things that have eternal consequences.

And so, this natural trepidation I feel about risk – I’ve really got to temper it a bit.  I think I have to zero in on the things that truly matter.  The things that have eternal consequences.

I’m not going to fret about every little thing that might cause my boys minor harm or physical discomfort.

I’m not going to concentrate my prayers on “Keep them safe” and “Don’t let them get hurt.”

I’m not going to stress about ‘what ifs?’ and other unknowns.

Because I’m teaching my boys about what really matters in life.  And I don’t want to be so busy protecting their physical safety that I forget to guard their hearts.

Motherhood, Parenting

Something New

I have exactly the family I always dreamed of having, except with fewer tea parties and more yelling.

Life with four boys can be rowdy, chaotic, overwhelming, and spine-tingling – but in spite of the fact that this energetic atmosphere is a good distance from the rosy-hued image I had of parenting (which had originally comprised, it must be admitted, a myopic plan of gently herding a fragrant, pig-tailed, tutu-wearing gaggle of little girls of my own), it is a rich life and a happy one.

Of course, having been a babysitter and then a nanny, I had all the answers when I leapt into parenting.  And that lasted all of a week once my first son was born.  Yes, I knew babies and felt more or less prepared for providing for their needs – but with a difficult labour (what first labour isn’t?!), feeding issues, and torturous sleep deprivation, I was immediately out of my depth.  I had plans to be such a gentle shepherd of my children’s lives and souls, but once the second son arrived I found that my default setting was not Mary Poppins but the mustachioed mater from ‘Throw Momma From the Train.’  When my third son arrived I figured it was just time to invest in a striped shirt and a referee whistle – this was a whole new course we were charting, and I was either going to get on board or get run over.  And by the time boy #4 arrived on the scene we were so in the zone of being with the ‘blue crew’ that I was actually enthusiastic about maintaining this particular craziness and just ‘keeping on keeping on’ with all the ‘raising boys’ books and testosterone surges and reminders to watch what they were doing when using the toilet (!).  It’s not that I have come full circle, from feeling like I had all the answers to actually having all the answers – it’s just that I am now more comfortable treading water, figuring out the best stroke for the next part of the race, doing that for a while before treading water again, etc; I know that the struggles and challenges are gradually making me a better swimmer (parent) if I am intentional about it all and I know that even when I feel like I’m sinking I will not go under for long enough to drown!

And so I have begun this blog – something new.  I hope that this will be a way to record my thoughts and experiences (and share the same with my friends and family) and a catharsis and a springboard and all of those good things.  Often enough I have an idea of something I’d like to write (often this inspiration occurs during my morning shower; honestly, if I could just spend all day under hot running water I reckon I would be an incredibly productive person!) but I lack the forum for it – this means that I expect that my blog might end up being a place to jot thoughts and work through ideas rather than always containing linear, coherent paragraphs… but we’ll see.

I don’t know what else to write, except that I hope that my words and thoughts will be interesting to someone other than myself – but even if not there is value for me in the practice of putting pen to paper (as it were) and working through some ideas.

I will just add one final note: I am expecting to use pseudonyms for our family, which my own friends and family will no doubt be able to decipher, because I know that sometimes posts are shared and thus reach a wider audience.  Who knows if this will be the case with my blog – quite possibly not – but just in case, I will exercise that caution with the transparency of the internet in mind.