Parenting, Relationships

I Saw You from Afar

Bushmen by Petr Kosina on flickr

Adults in the Khoisan (Bushman) tribes of southern Africa are only 4’9’’ tall, on average.  These wise and ancient people, who have survived in the most adverse conditions and preserved their way of life for millennia, use this traditional greeting when they meet:

“I saw you coming from afar.”

What’s special about this statement is that it tells the person approaching, I noticed you.  It tells him more than that, in fact – it tells him that he is noticeable (in spite of his diminutive stature).

This greeting assures the approaching person that his presence is significant.

Other indigenous peoples, both in Africa and in other parts of the world, traditionally use physical markers (branding, tattooing, or other forms of body modification) to distinguish themselves as part of the tribe; this gives members of the group a sense of belonging.  In the modern world this feeling of being a part of something bigger than oneself can be fostered through the use of uniforms and other dress codes (amongst other identifiers).

Every society on earth, in fact, depends on its members having a sense of being a part of that society and being capable of serving that society (in some way or other) in order to function at its best.

The psychologist Alfred Adler talked about this sense of belonging and significance as being fundamental to emotional health and development.  A cornerstone of Adlerian psychology is the recognition that we, as humans, all share the same basic desire for connectedness and a need to feel that we have something to contribute.

We all want to know that there is a place for us in the world, and that we matter.

When I look back at my life, I have to admit that my lowest points have coincided with these fundamental emotional needs not being met.  When I’ve felt on the periphery of a group in which I’d like to be included; when I’ve been deliberately dismissed or excluded; when things others have said or done have made me feel foolish and unequal to those around me – these challenges have threatened my very sense of self and made me, at times, deeply unhappy.

My boys are about to start at a new school.

Their accents will be different from those of their classmates; they will walk into their classrooms as strangers to the other students; they won’t know where the lunchroom is or when recess starts or what the teachers mean when they tell them to ‘rattle their dags’*.  They will not belong.

I know this.  I have been there – I’ve been ‘the new girl’.  I’ve been the one with the funny accent and the different vocabulary and the strange clothes.  I’ve been the one who’s lowest in the pecking order and the one who’s the target for the bullies and the one who just didn’t get how to function in the society of my peers.  I did not belong.

In my own experience, it’s par for the course to feel a lack of belonging when you’re the new kid.  After all, the other kids know nothing about you – and unless you appear supremely attractive and cool and dazzle them with your sophistication, you are likely to be on the periphery of any established cliques for some time.  This was true in my case, except that with good humour and a healthy dose of forgiveness those who had begun as my enemies eventually became my friends.  I therefore know that this scenario into which my boys are being thrust can end happily – but still, if I thought I could somehow foster in them a sense of belonging to their new school (and within their peer group) right from the outset I would.

The hard part for me as a parent is that I know that sometimes social alienation can threaten one’s very sense of self.  It’s possible that my boys might be ostracized, or ignored, or even just not really noticed; and I know that, if they have a particularly rough time fitting in at school, my beloved sons might even begin to question whether or not they are actually significant.

So what can we do for them, as their parents, to mitigate against these challenges?

Well, we’re going out of our way to give them a sense of belonging.  We’re making a real effort to encourage them and illustrate for them how significant they are.  We’ve been doing that consistently and intentionally over the past three or four months; part of the reason we wanted to travel with them was to foster a sense of belonging (within our family unit) and to encourage them to see how they could contribute in their own unique way.  In fact, it’s not just when we’re travelling that this is important – we are always working to create a culture of belonging in our household and impart to our boys a sense of their own significance to us and to the world at large. 

Ideally, we want to breathe life into our boys with every word and gesture; we want to communicate to them that they belong to us, that they belong as brothers, that they belong to God who created them to be just who they are.  We want to assure them of their significance, to reinforce the fact that they have so much to offer and so much to contribute to the world.

We need to tell our kids, whenever they face discouragement that threatens their sense of belonging and significance,

“I saw you coming from afar.”

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Even if this current transition into a new school community goes unexpectedly smoothly, we know that our kids are bound to encounter situations in life that will challenge their sense of belonging and/or significance.  This is what we can do to counteract the effect of those difficulties:

  1. Teach them who they are: God’s beloved creation; our beloved son; a special brother, grandson, cousin, friend. Knowing who we are in relation to others is key to having a strong sense of belonging. (As I always say, life is about relationship).
  2. Give them a sense of usefulness: include them in tasks; enlist their help; give them reasonable chores to accomplish in order to contribute to the family unit and to others. Talking about responsibility towards others helps demonstrate how significant we can be as we serve and commune with those around us.
  3. Help them to identify goals and develop a sense of purpose: making plans and working through the necessary steps to the fulfillment of those plans fosters a spirit of intentionality and gives us a concrete demonstration of how we can be effective in life. Understanding that we can make good choices to positively affect the course of our lives helps us to feel empowered to seek involvement and make a difference in the lives of others as well.

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*Rattle your dags is a kiwi expression (unsurprisingly related to sheep), meaning ‘get a move on’ (hurry)

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Grace, Motherhood, Parenting

This Is What Love Looks Like At 3AM

1-Corinthians-13-6-web

OK, so D. hasn’t been sleeping that well lately.  We’re not in the cry-it-out camp – I always figure that there’s something up if they’re bothering to cry about it – so it’s a matter of taking time to do the pat-pat, hush-hush, soothing noises, and top-ups on his warm milk before bed.  Last night it took me an hour to get him down.  I think it may have to do with the fact that he has begun to realize that the two of us are separate entities – that we can actually be physically apart from one another – a fact that he finds understandably disturbing.

I don’t know how long these sleep issues have been going on for – the strange thing about disruptions to their normal sleep patterns is that when you’re going through a rough phase you almost can’t remember the last time bedtime was easy, and when it’s going well it’s hard to remember a time when you struggled.  But although it seems to have been going on forever, if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that we’ve been having trouble getting him down at night for a few weeks.  Before this (sometime in the distant past, my sleep-deprived mind is insisting), bedtime was a breeze.  We had this sweet little routine of pj’s, sleep-sack, soundtrack (crashing waves) on, lights out, cuddly bottle and tooth-brushing – and then we’d kiss his sweet head, pop him down in his cot (in his preferred position: face down, bottom up) with his dummy, and he’d be asleep almost before we’d closed the door.

No more.  Now it is routinely taking an hour or more to settle D. down for the night.  To add insult to injury, some of the time he has also been waking up in the wee hours, ready to party – and it has taken up to an hour of cuddling, extra water/milk, and back-rubs to get him settled back to sleep again.  Now, believe me – I have read all the theories about how to (and how not to) deal with night-waking and how to get them down for the night.  I know that there are those who will maintain that we are, in providing such nurture and sustenance, in a mire of our own making.  So I am not writing this to elicit sympathy – you would be right that we have options; but we choose not to exercise those options.  This is not negotiable, in my book.  So, if I am not going to allow my baby to ‘cry it out,’ what options have I got?  Well, to me the best option (borne through many similar experiences with my three older boys) is to change myself and my attitude to the waking.

From the first, when I am nursing my newborn, I am making every effort to savour that special one-on-one time together.  Do not believe that this means I’m impervious to the toll of sleep deprivation on a person – it is truly torturous!  But I choose to believe that it is circumstance and need that dictates the necessity of my presence with my nursling, rather than some capricious demand orchestrated by the child himself.

As he gets a bit older, I try to follow his cues about what he needs in the night; sometimes a baby might go through a phase of disturbed sleep because of teeth, or tummy upset, or some subconscious anxiety – the origins of his discomfort might be difficult for me to pinpoint, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he is uncomfortable.  And so again, my response is to do what I can to meet his needs as best I can, no matter how inconvenient the timing of his crisis.  I try to respond to his need with nurture and love.

But that’s all philosophy.  What does it look like in practice?  That’s the challenge.  Luckily, I had lots of time to think about it between 3 and 4AM last night.  One of the readings at our wedding was the classic Bible verse on love (1 Corinthians 13), and as I struggled with frustration at D.’s wakefulness and exasperation at this ongoing inconvenience (having already spent over an hour putting him to bed in the first place!) I began to wonder, What does love look like at 3AM?

Love is patient, love is kind

This means gently returning him to the prone position over and over again to remind him that it’s sleep time. It means not muttering or growling or gnashing my teeth, even when I’m getting frustrated.  It means actively seeking solutions to comfort and soothe my baby.

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud

No, “Why can’t you just sleep like X’s baby, and sleep all night?!” – and no bragging about it when he does sleep well.  No being arrogant about being the new Baby Whisperer when I luck out and get D. down in less time than it took Westley the previous night.

It does not dishonor others (it is not rude)

I don’t get a thrill from thinking about how much better a mother I am for doing this pat-pat, shush-shush when others might choose to shut the door and give their babies more time to self-soothe (this means respecting other mothers as they lovingly choose their own paths).

It is not self-seeking

I am not up in the night for me – I am up for D.; my needs come second.  If West is sleeping too deeply to be aware of the baby’s wakefulness, or if he’s choosing to let me take this watch in the night, I am not going to sigh loudly or bounce back into bed when D.’s settled so that I disturb his sleep (tempting though it may be!).

It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs

This means taking a deep breath and reminding myself that D. is NOT trying to be malicious by being awake.  It means willfully forgetting how long it took to get him down in the first place, and ignoring the urge to count up the number of times he has woken in the night lately.  ‘Keeping no record of wrongs’ means that even if I think I’ve mostly been the one getting up in the night, I’m not going to begrudge Westley the extra sleep.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth

I won’t allow myself to wallow in self-pity or anger or other destructive emotions; I will delight in the fact of this precious little person who is in my life, even when he causes pain or inconvenience to me.  I won’t lose sight of the fact that this is a temporary problem and I am equipped by Grace to handle it in a loving fashion.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres

What kind of Mamma would I be if I didn’t have that instinct to protect my young at all costs?  I am not protecting D. from physical harm as I rock him and kiss him at 3AM – I am offering him the security of my love and the comfort of my presence at a time when he is feeling needy.  I am protecting him from unnecessary stress and anxiety.  At the same time, I am trusting in my heavenly father for what *I* need; this patience, this kindness, this humility, this perseverance.  I am trusting that the dawn will come, and with it a new opportunity to find rest and renewal.  I am trusting that my Westley will let me sleep a bit longer when the other boys get up, because he loves and protects me.  I am hoping that this little phase won’t last much longer, and I am hopeful that I can continue to rise to the challenge of D.’s sleeplessness with patience and compassion.  I will persevere; I won’t give up on helping D. feel safer, more settled, and more at peace.

Love has many facets to it.  As a visiting pastor recently pointed out in a Sunday sermon, ‘Love Does.’  Love is action; love is intentional.  And to me, this is what love looks like at 3AM.

Trix and D.

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