The Art of Parenting

Parenting is tough. It’s a complicated dance that includes steps called Love, Discipline, Challenge, and Acceptance. When we fail as parents it’s usually because we’ve become too good at one of the steps and underdeveloped in another. Getting it right is mastering the tension between loving unconditionally and yet still nurturing little people the rest of the world will want to be around. It takes work and a good amount of grace.

For many reasons, the difficulty level of this dance seems to increase when you parent a child with special needs. It isn’t technically harder, of course, but it is different. In our case, we’re constantly second guessing ourselves when it comes to parenting Claire. Most of you know her story. She has mild cerebral palsy and she’s so good at adapting that too often we forget she isn’t a typical middle child.

Other times, it is only too clear with Claire that we’re not dealing with a child facing the usual problems and obstacles. This is especially true whenever she has an evaluation or milestone, and it was one of those weeks.

First, I stood at the rehab clinic and talked with her physical therapist while we watched Claire walk up and down the hallway. She has hemiplegic CP which means most of her weakness/tightness is on one side, her left. Since our bodies are meant to work symmetrically, this causes many physical problems for Claire. We talked stretching and muscle-building and Botox and exercise. It’s always tempting in those conversations to feel like I haven’t been doing enough or to despair that we’ll never “fix” the problems.

“What was her diagnosis? She had a stroke as a baby?”

“No, she had brain bleeds as a preemie. Grade 3 on one side and Grade 4 [the worst possible] on the other.”

Our therapist threw her hands up in the air, “Oh, my gosh! What are we stressing out about?! What she’s doing is amazing.”

And it’s true. Years ago at a visit to one of her specialists, we overheard the parents in the chairs nearby working together to fill our the paperwork that asks about the patient’s history. It turned out their daughter was just a bit younger than Claire, born at the same gestation [25 weeks] and with many of the same complications. The difference was, our daughter was toddling back and forth to the magazine rack bringing us things to read and their daughter was staring off into space strapped into an electric wheelchair equipped with a ventilator that kept the little girl breathing.

That could have been our reality. Instead, we’re “tweaking” her walking/running gaits and reminding her to use her left hand to help with daily tasks even though it would rather just hang tight at her side. We’re trying to figure out how to help her catch and throw a softball and how to spin in time with her classmates in the school musical. Remembering where we could be helps me relax about where we are.

Then it was also IEP week, which meant I met with the special education coordinator to discuss Claire’s recent evaluations and how they will impact her educational plan. I’ve been bothered by her IQ score, frustrated that it didn’t match with what I saw in her mind and in her academic achievements, so I had requested that she be retested. I just knew the new score was going to prove that I was right.

I was wrong. The new score was actually a little lower than the first one. I fought my disappointment as we continued working through the results. Some of it is so heartbreaking, like the fact that my nine year-old tests with the physical abilities of a four year-old. That explains a lot of her frustration. And imagine the body of a four year-old doing the school work of a third grader.

But some of it was encouraging. There is still no sign of a learning disability. This is determined by matching her abilities – what she is capable of doing – against her performance – what she is actually doing. In a child with a learning disability it is determined that their academic performance does not match up with their abilities. In these cases teachers try to determine what kinds of things are standing in the way and help the child to overcome them (for example, reading test questions and allowing the student to speak his or her answer instead of writing it down). Claire has never tested with learning disability because it has been determined that even though her academic performance has been below average, she is working at the top of her abilities.

When I first learned that, it was not reassuring. I didn’t want failure to be the top of her abilities. But this time her testing showed some different results. In every academic area except for one (math), Claire performed as “average.” Which means that the only area where she is working at her ability level (which is below average for her age group) is in math. In every other area she is working ABOVE her ability level. And this test was administered by an external specialist using a test not related to Claire’s own schoolwork. So it isn’t that she is just getting special treatment at school or anything. She is literally performing beyond what she is technically capable of.

So what is that? The opposite of a learning disability?

I don’t know, but I do know it is a great way of describing Claire. It also reminds me of why the parenting dance with her is so complicated. Just when I think she isn’t able to handle the routines, she does a flying leap across the floor in perfect pace with the other dancers. Yet then when I push her to finish a math review worksheet on her own, I find her still working an hour later and remember that subtraction – for some crazy reason – is harder for her to process than multiplication. The steps are out of sequence, we’re learning as we go, and the music doesn’t always match the costume.

But we’re dancing. And we’re having fun learning. And no one else really knows what any of it is supposed to look like anyway. I think I’ll remember that and just call it art. I might not be able to explain it or replicate it or teach anyone else how to do it, but good art doesn’t have to do any of that. Art just is, and we enjoy it and learn from it and let it make us better people in ways we don’t even understand. Just like parenting.


A Memoir . . . of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron

This was my Christmas vacation read, and I loved it. It helped that I had heard Cron speak at STORY in September. I literally had his voice in my head, so picking up his gentle spirit in the tone of his writing was easy. I had also experienced his gift as a true minister of Jesus. At STORY he closed his session by reciting a prayer over us that nearly took our breath away. I felt like I was reading the story of a friend, even though I had only briefly met him in a church lobby in Chicago in the fall.

Though my life may have few similarities with the one Cron describes, he still held me close to his experience through his beautiful writing. I felt his heart and emotions in so many of the scenes. I’m pretty sure just from reading the engaging narrative of his First Communion I was baptized as a Catholic!

“And then I fell into God.”

After I read these words, I was done. Finished. They so perfectly sum up the way I have experienced God throughout my life. It didn’t matter if the vehicle was old-fashioned or pentecostal or just plain weird. I know this feeling. I recognize this language. I’ve fallen into God myself. Somehow Cron does this again and again in this memoir.

I’ll admit some resistance to being this sucked into the language of a memoir. Cron discloses his approach in the introduction. It’s typical memoir-speak. The author may or may not have exaggerated certain events or descriptions in an attempt to help the reader feel the emotional weight of the actual event. I dont’ have a problem with this. I do it in my own conversations. Many times I’ve caught myself embellishing the story just a bit, just enough to make sure you REALLY understand the significance. I get it.

Still, I did catch myself wondering WHEN he was exaggerating. Did he add the tears on his face during that First Communion? Or maybe the priest’s knowing look? Was it his friend’s embrace when he finally admitted to a drinking problem? Maybe the photos of his father playing golf with Richard Nixon? I thought about this off and on until I realized it didn’t matter to me. I wanted to feel the emotional weight just as he felt it, even if he had to use a bit of artistic license to get me there.

I do hope the conversation with Miss Annie at the barbeque is exactly as written, though, because I want to tattoo those words on my arm (or on everyone else’s foreheads) so I don’t forget:

“Love always stoops.”

Read it. Live it.

Please, Rev. Cron, please tell me that’s really what she said! Because like the rest of the book, that just felt so real and true.

Wait, don’t tell me. I like just believing it.


Acceptance Speech Ready?

Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte are two of my favorite authors, so how can I resist quoting you writing advice (living advice, really) from Gaskell’s biography of Bronte? I can’t.

This particular excerpt closes with this explanation: “I put into words what Charlotte Bronte put into actions.”

Here are her words (after she makes the bold and probably not-quite-true point that men who take up writing are easily replaced in their day jobs by another man just as qualified):

But no other can take up the quiet, regular duties of the daughter, the wife, or the mother, as well as she whom God has appointed to fill that particular place: a woman’s principal work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed. And yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents. She must not hide her gift in a napkin; it was meant for the use and service of others. In an humble and faithful spirit must she labour to do what is not impossible, or God would not have set her to do it.

I know it isn’t modern-age politically correct, but most women I know (even the modern ones) can identify with this description and its encouragement. There is a unique pull, especially on mothers and wives, between our irreplaceable role in our homes and families and our belief that we are capable of offering other things to the world as well.

It’s a tension we all feel. Most of us, when we’re honest, never feel like we get it perfectly right, but that’s the nature of tension. That’s how it feels to love the many roles you play in life and still wonder if, since you are trying to play all of them at once, you play any of them well enough to win an Oscar.

I think you do. And you will. You must “labour to do what is not impossible” – emphasis ours!


I Won’t Watch Downton Abbey

. . . even though I LOVE IT! I’ve literally been waiting a year for it to return and now I refuse to watch the first episode.

Until I finish something.

I have a list. A checklist that needs to be completed by a certain (soon upcoming) date. I don’t have tons of extra hours in my day. The only reasonable place to cut out the time I need is by carving into my “down time” – my “Downton time,” actually. The time I use to watch TV.

This will not be forever. I am not a gladiator. I WILL reward myself with a Downton binge once my checklist is complete. But until it is, I’m denying myself in an attempt to get something finished.

I’m watching other things: basketball, a sitcom not to be name on the grounds that I might incriminate myself, and the remainder of the football season. I’m not CRAZY; I’m just trying to dangle a particular carrot in front of my procrastinating self in an attempt to keep my proverbial rear in gear.

Think it will work? I hope so!

Ever given up something you wanted in the short-term for the sake of something you wanted in the long-term?

UPDATE 1/20/2012: Checklist complete. Downton Abbey this weekend!

One Word 365: DARE

The One Word challenge was created by Alece from the blog Grit and Glory. In place of making a list of resolutions, Alece had the idea to spend the year focused instead on a single inspired word.

I made lists of potential words for my 2012 choice before I finally settled on this one: Dare.

(I was encouraged by Ann Voskamp’s Joy Dare here. I even downloaded her app for my new Android phone so I can keep up with the challenge to be thankful for 1,000 gifts in 2012!)

Dictionary definitions for dare include:

to have the necessary courage or boldness for something; to have the boldness to try; to face courageously

This year I want to be daring. Not in anything particularly scary or risky but just in the simple sense of action.

I am a model perfectionist; I’d rather not try at all than try and fail. This is NOT a winning quality. I want to change this.

I don’t want to keep talking about writing; I want to write something.

I don’t want to keep talking about going to graduate school; I want to apply.

I don’t want to only read over contest guidelines; I want to submit. 

Other words I considered were go or work or do. Dare seemed perfect because to the action it also added the element of bravery.

Blogger Jeff Goins wrote about the difference between dreaming and starting here and that’s been another source of inspiration. With this word as my focus, I’m ready to dare!

If you are interested in joining up with your own One Word 2012, check out the links and join Alece’s community.

I dare you.


Dear New Year,

You’ve come in sunshiny and cold, as a New Year should. You are clear skies to lift our spirits and give us hope that you will be good, but you are also a deep chill that reminds us you might not.

We know this and yet we welcome you. We welcome you with cheers and streamers and parties. We welcome you as if you were already delivering a summer’s bounty worth of produce and good things. Strawberries and peaches.

We don’t welcome you this way to try to trick you into behaving as we hope you will. We are not ancient peasants trying to appease a god of fertility or wealth. There are no altars.

We welcome you this way for our own sakes. We are not innocent. We’ve seen years come and go. We’ve known you to be both plenty and wanting. We’ve known you one year to be life and another year to be death. Some years, most years, you are both. We know you will bring us pain as well as parties.

But we welcome you anyway. We welcome you the way we smile at a new notebook all white with red and blue lines of days and weeks and months yet to be filled in. Today you are fresh, clean, and unspoiled. You just might be something awesome.

But if you aren’t – if your pages fill up with words and pictures we don’t want – we know another like you will come back around again this time next year. You will be replaced. And hope will be new again.

Today we imagine that you could be anything – great, wonderful, or amazing. And we celebrate that hope generally more than we celebrate you exactly, although you can’t always tell that by our glitter covered hats and metallic noise makers. Thank you for the opportunity just the same. Thank you for holding invisible what you will really be so that we can celebrate what you might be.

When we toast you, New Year, we actually toast a deep and abiding Hope. You are the embodiment of that eternal Hope today.