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Snapshots of Parenting

The snapshot of OUR day, just a moment in time, and not a big picture.
Brooke Dunbar

Yesterday I was sitting on my porch, frantically texing back and forth with my husband while our 3-year-old son played in the sandbox. This isn’t a normal practice at our house. Usually I would be right there in the sandbox getting my little self dirt-covered, something that goes with the territory when you have a boy. This don’t-get-me-dirty princess learned that fact quickly and prominently got over herself.

But no, yesterday I was texting back and forth with my husband trying to get his newly broken-down car towed from the parking lot where he was sitting in a meeting and really couldn’t leave for more than a second or two. Amidst the stress of how-on-Earth-are-we-going-to-pay for this, I was arranging and planning and coordinating, and while I certainly knew where my child was and what he was doing, playtime with him was not my first priority at that particular second. I promised him we would build a huge sandcastle later, but Mommy needed a few minutes. This came after a morning of multiple games of Candy Land, learning the letter “M”, and learning about “trajectory” thanks to the Angry Birds.

So this was the scene: me on the phone, toddler in the sandbox when someone who I can only assume was a neighbor, walked by with her three children and yelled as she passed “get off the phone and raise your d%#@ kid.”

Now let me just state: I’m a big girl. I’m not about to lose sleep over a drive-by insult to my parenting by someone who was not only using profanity in front of her children and mine, but was also teaching them how to bully in the process. So no, I don’t really care what she thinks, but it does remind me of a very similar conversation from someone who was much better intentioned.

The year was 2010. My husband was in Iraq and I hadn’t heard from him in a week. News reports were showing the loss of 3 soldiers in the province of Iraq where I knew he was stationed. My heart was in a tight ball in my chest for days just waiting to hear something - anything. I needed to get out of the house because I needed to do something other than stare at the driveway just waiting for the government vehicles to pull in, complete with a flag and a chaplain, to tell me the bad news. I needed to get out of the house.

So I took my kiddo to the park. At least one of us could have some fun. That afternoon when my phone finally vibrated with a message from my husband, with tears of joy streaming down my face, yes I was going to answer. He was alive, heartbroken over the loss of 3 friends, but alive. We talked for about a half an hour via messenger while I followed my son around the park, consoling, comforting, celebrating. The tears had dried up by the time a woman who I assume was there with her grandchildren judging by her age, came up to me and said sweetly, “honey, put the phone away. These years go by too fast. It can wait.”

The thing was, there were plenty of instances where I am probably guilty of this and I’m sure her advice was extremely well intentioned. She wasn’t really wrong on the whole, but this time, in this circumstance, she was. This is why I didn’t correct her or explain. I just said “thank you” and went back to what I was doing to her critical glares.

I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about whether I should have told her – politely – that it was none of her business. Or maybe I should have explained. I’m not sure. What I really wanted to do in my stressed state was give her a very loud and angry belittling speech about exactly who I was talking to and why, but the fact that I didn’t in my very stressed state proves to me that I have Jesus in my heart because my emotional-control tank was running on empty and I certainly didn’t maintain my cool on my own; for heaven’s sake, I’m Irish.

My problem is not this particular well-meaning lady. The problem is that this is becoming a little too common. We’ve started to believe that these snapshots of parenting, or people for that matter, really mean anything. We think that they give us insight into someone’s world, intentions, and larger and very unique situation – and more importantly, that it gives us the right to decide what’s right for them. Meanwhile, we certainly wouldn’t want anyone to take a snapshot of our parenting skills in our worst moments or the ones that require the most explanation.

I remember during our last move when we were without furniture and hurriedly trying to get our house cleaned before we turned the keys in to our landlord, our 2-year-old was restless and desperately trying to get our attention. Most of his toys were gone except the few we had kept specifically for the move, of which he was bored with already. I handed him a carton of ice cream and a spoon and placed him on the kitchen floor and told him to have fun. 2 years of an organic and low sugar diet straight out the window. Go crazy, kid. The house was spotless, for the record.

Then there was finals week. My husband had been in Germany for 3 weeks and I had over 50 pages in papers due the next day. The result was that my son had a VeggieTales marathon during which he might have watched every Veggie Tales ever made while Mama wrote papers for grad school. Yes, my kid spent hours and hours in front of the TV, something I swore I would never do but it was either that or fail graduate school. I figured if he was watching Veggie Tales, at least he was learning about Jesus.

If these were the only moments of my parenting that people were able to see, of course they would think I was a horrible mother and in need of correction. They wouldn’t see the hours of together time, of cuddling and laughter. The hours of learning and playing.

The problem is that I don’t think these people offering their critiques are really ill-intentioned. Well maybe the lady who randomly yelled as she passed my house. I can’t imagine she thought she was being constructive. Like I would immediately say “Oh! The lady rudely yelling profanity at me just changed my outlook on life! I’m going to go become a better person now!” But as for the others, probably. But I’m still not sure that makes it okay and I’m learning that more and more these days.

My husband and I have decided on one child. We are happy and content and think he’s the coolest little kid in the whole world. We feel complete as a family and have never felt the Lord leading us to have another one. That could change someday but after almost 4 years, it hasn’t. The grandparents are losing optimism on the subject.

But we have received plenty of criticism over this particular issue. From friends, family, complete strangers. Everyone seems to have an opinion of some sort. “That’s selfish… how could you do that to a kid?” or “He’s going to hate you someday” or “you will regret it.” We’ve both heard it all.

There was a time when I would respond to these comments with explanation, almost apologetically, wanting people to know that we had considered their concerns but really, this is what was best for us. Then a later time came when I got tired of explaining and started giving cute amusing responses to make the person chuckle and hopefully drop the subject. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Now I’m even past that. I’ve decided that these responses – this validation that my reproductive or parenting decisions are anyone’s business – are part of the problem.

I have several friends who have struggled with infertility or miscarriages. They have told me that these continual questions and critiques – about something that in their case is out of their control - are a constant reminder of the painful things that go on behind closed doors. It’s their pain and they should be allowed to choose with whom they share it. They shouldn’t have to give an explanation for their number of children or not having any at all to any person who thinks they are entitled to an explanation.

I decided that my explaining and validating these rude and inappropriate questions and accusations are adding to the problem. I’m not doing it anymore. If just one person gets the hint and it saves even one of these hurting souls from having to answer just one more question, then standing my ground is worth it.

I’m learning, and was reminded yesterday that you just can’t know someone’s life or situation based on the little glimpse you see of their life. Enough to know what’s best for them. Enough to know what they are doing right or wrong. Enough to know what is in their heart. Only God knows that.

The thing is, I understand why Christians sometimes do this. I love Jesus and I’m so incredibly filled with joy because He loves me anyway. Me! Messy, self-indulgent, chaotic ME. I just want to hand out my joy like candy to every person I meet who needs love in their life. When I see Christians being overzealous about their opinions and even their faith to the point where they sound pushy and judgmental instead of loving and joyful, I know this is why. If their life is so full of joy, they just want to share it and give it to everyone else, and sometimes they think that the way to do this is by giving others a life that looks exactly the same as their own.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t work that way. My relationship with God doesn’t look like anyone else’s relationship with God, just like my parents’ relationship with their 3 children didn’t look the same for all 3 of us. We weren’t all allowed to do the same things. We weren’t all punished for the same things. We didn’t relate to them the same way. Because we are different people. The Father does the same for us. We are different people and simply relate to Him differently.

When I say “parenting isn’t one-size-fits-all,” I mean our parenting from the Father too. While my friend who told me that God was calling her to have five children is probably correct, that certainly doesn’t mean that He’s calling me to it. And that’s okay. My path and my purpose are different, and that’s okay too. Really, I promise.

Someone isn’t failing God because they have one child or no children or because they homeschool or don’t homeschool or anything else. We were made to be unique. We have unique lives and circumstances and those lives and circumstances get to be between us, our God, and those with whom we choose to share them. Not strangers or even well-meaning friends who are deciding what is best for us based on a snapshot of our lives without knowing our hearts the way our Father does.

I’ve also learned that it works the other way, too. Those glimpses aren’t an adequate view from which to compare ourselves either.

Months ago, a casual friend who I had studied from afar enviously was doing a talk in our women’s group about parenting. She was the kind of Mom who always dressed well and her three blonde haired blue-eyed children were well behaved and some of the smartest kids I’ve ever met. In my head, I held a vision of her that included her waking up at the crack of dawn to do devotions while birds chirp outside of her window before she dresses in a skirt and pearls to make her husband and children breakfast in her spotless home.

During her talk, my vision was shaken as she told stories of parenting blunders and even revealed with a laugh that she does her morning devotions while sitting on the toilet because it’s the only place she can get peace and quiet from her crazy kids.

While it didn’t change my opinion – she is a fantastic woman and mother – what I did realize is that I was comparing myself to her based on the once a week glimpse I see of her life. She is a fantastic Mom because she loves her kids and is doing the best she can. No pearls and chirping birds. She is teaching her children to love Jesus and be the unique and beautiful people He made them to be. No snapshot was going to tell me that. And if there’s a part of her life that I would like to live up to, this is it.

I’m kind of grateful to have been on the receiving end of this criticism again yesterday. Every so often I need this reminder that we are all doing the best we can and it’s not okay to play judge and jury of anyone’s life based on the little bit that I see. And not to judge myself and compare based on the little bit of other people that I see.

On that note, my son and I are headed back out to the sandbox to make the biggest sandcastle in the world because I owe him one from yesterday. But it’s not because profanity-woman said we should, it’s because that’s the job that God gave me – the job that’s totally between me and God – to be this little boy’s Mama in the best way I know how.

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