Parenting is a marathon. It feels great while you’re doing it, it pushes you to the mental and physical brink, and there is a let down when you stop. Of course, I’ve never run a marathon, but that’s what I imagine it’s like. This morning I got ready to send my son to summer camp for a week. As his car drove away, Pepper and I walked into an empty house. The remains of last night’s chicken nuggets and butterfly shrimp littered the kitchen counter. Baskets of laundry seemed to me to sit pondering in the silence; wondering where their owners had disappeared to.
My mind has been ruminating endlessly the past few weeks. Wesley is constantly on the computer playing Minecraft and the computer is my preferred writing place. Rather than fighting him for the computer, I’ve taken the path of least resistance. Instead of siphoning off my thoughts Dumbledore style, they are crammed in my head screaming for release. Now he’s gone and I have a few hours to myself, I’ll see what comes out.
This morning in my quiet room with only sweet Pepper there to receive my love and nurturing, I sat on my bed and looked at her gorgeous soft, shiny coat. It’s black, but I’ve learned from drawing it that there are places that are white and light grey. That’s what makes it look shiny. Things are always more complicated than they seem. The human brain, always aching for simplicity, wants to see Pepper’s fur as a single color. It is black. It isn’t midnight, moon grey, scintillating silver, or morning fog. That’s too complicated. Black and tan. She’s a chihuahua mix. But she isn’t. She’s a mutt with bloodlines that are uniquely hers; an angel crafted through time and given by God to me to comfort me in my blackest midnight. But it isn’t just black. Life is like that. It isn’t black and white.
But I understand that if I had lived a different life, I wouldn’t see the complexity either. And I would relish the simplicity. Nature is always yearning for simplicity, stasis, harmony, balance. Rivers take the smoothest and easiest path. The brain craves rest. Thinking takes energy. Seeing is work. And yet I think. And yet, I see.
And for that I will never rest. I will run the marathon. So today I paused in my frenzy of thought and prayed. It has been a long time. Sometimes it’s easier to feel the guilt and push it away than actually do the thing that will put the guilt to rest for good. Praying felt good. God reminded me that I’m not such a bad person as my brain likes to tell me I am.
My brain likes to insist that my good intentions pave my road to hell. Every glass of milk I give my child is half empty, not half full. My efforts are never enough. It is like the God in my head is a version of my teenaged son with a gift for ferreting out my every flaw and hypocritical act. The real God sees me different. And in that quiet moment, I remember that He isn’t the demanding perfectionist my brain likes to think He is. My heart poured out to Him all my shortcomings and failings and He calmed that storm with a simple thought. “Do you think I need your efforts, my child? Don’t you remember that I am the one with the loaves and the fishes? I am everything you need.”
But I need a functional government and a church community. I need assurances that my children are going to grow up to be competent adults. I need money in my bank account and friends to affirm me. I need. I need. I need. I need to understand it all right now!!
But I don’t need. I don’t need anything but Him. He leads my soul to the still water. He soothes the wounds the world has given me; the wounds I give myself. And He heals me. And I remember what I forgot. He is everything I need.
And yet we understand Him so imperfectly. We imagine Him to be a simplistic version of our own creation. We remake his image like a child with a crude crayon on brown recycled paper. We hold it up as the true God of Israel and then the sheep stray. We forget that He is not our toy soldier. He is not our mascot to be remade at our convenience. The human mind could study Him for a lifetime and never unlock His secrets. He is not of this world and no human mind can comprehend Him.
How Great is Our God? How Great is Our God? How Great, How Great is Our God?!? Tongue cannot tell, nor heart can frame. Yet we rise from the dust of our creation. We reach for Him and He reaches down to us. For a moment, He opens my eyes to see; I am more than this world. I was born for a better world. My heart is comforted in my uncomfortable; I will never fit here because I belong with Him. He and I know that and it is enough.
I am totally in love. She is a six week old chiweenie mix, and she is my baby. We were never going to get a dog. They are messy, and a lot of work, and I don’t need more chores. Still, there has always been this nagging feeling that we need to have a pet. Every family has one! Still, we could never agree on what kind or how to get the money together for the initial investment. I knew that eventually we were probably going to get a dog.
When my friend from church ended up with a litter of puppies that needed homes, I was just going to go snuggle them. The more times I went over for puppy snuggles, the more the idea of taking one home appealed to me. Then I brought the kids. Ben was the hard sell. He didn’t want a dog. It would cramp our ability to take off on a plane whenever we wanted to.
Even his heart seemed to melt when he saw the puppies. We picked a little black puppy with tan eye brows, tummy and socks. We named her Pepper. Since we picked her out, we have had little play dates with Pepper. They started out as just a couple of hours at our house. Now they last several. She even was able to stay for Devin’s birthday party last night.
That brings me back to my whack-a-mole post. So I was racing home to finish Devin’s birthday party preparations, keep my boys from killing one another over a video game, and of course, snuggle my puppy. I walked in the door, and tried to comfort a distraught Layne.
Layne is twelve. He is a genius at math and science, an avid reader, a good student and a wonderful son, but he has not been easy to raise. Let me tell ya! Mentally, he is rigid, black and white, and very high strung. He struggles with anxiety and when he gets ramped up, I am about the only person that can help him down. This time, I didn’t have good news for him.
He had used his time limit for the Wii U and it was Devin’s turn. It was his birthday, and for that day only, he had unlimited time to play. He didn’t take it well. He shouted at me and then ran into my bedroom, presumably to calm himself down or prevent himself from acting aggressively and getting into trouble.
I went and got Pepper. I could feel the tension start to drip away. She licked my face and hands and snuggled into my lap. I grabbed some pizza and ate it ravenously. The anxiety masks my appetite so I didn’t realize how famished I was. Layne was crying and occasionally screaming from the other room.
We have had him in therapy for a couple of years, but we still struggle with temper tantrums. Electronics are especially problematic. They ramp up his anxiety and if he is on them for too long, he can’t handle his emotions. But, when you take them away, it is so devastating that he can’t deal with his disappointment, so he has a melt down. Timeouts sometimes work, but sometimes being by himself with nothing to do means that he ruminates on his feelings and they escalate. We no longer force him into timeout. He puts himself in timeout as a coping strategy. During Spring Break he has made ample use of timeouts to help him deal with being with his three brothers all day every day.
He has about four mental health diagnoses that we are working with. Layne is a unique combination of characteristics that makes treating him extremely complicated and difficult. He can be manipulative, but most of the time his distress is truly genuine. This time the timeout was not working. His volume was increasing. It seemed to come from everywhere as it echoed through the living room. Then there was a loud “thump.” He had escalated to throwing things. It was time to intervene.
When I approach Layne in his melt-downs, I have to tread carefully. I show no emotion. If I get angry and start scolding, he will escalate. I understand his state of mind, because I have been there so many times myself. The brain is bathed in cortisol and adrenaline. There is no rational higher level thoughts going on. He is defensive and ready to lash out, like a wounded animal. There is no instruction, no behavior modification at times like these. There is one goal. Calm him down. Then you can talk. Then you can reason. Then you can give consequences. But calming him down is the first priority. That takes precedence over everything else.
I had Pepper in my arms when I entered the room. I slowly approached Layne who was glaring at me angrily. To him, I was the one who was responsible for the injustices of the universe. I stroked his neck and told him I was sorry that he was having a hard time. I asked him what I could do to help him calm down. He erupted into a fountain of grievances. Pepper whined softly. I asked him if he noticed how his shouting was upsetting the dog. He quieted a little, but continued his monologue of victimhood. The puppy continued to whine. I listened and commented and clarified dispassionately. Gradually, his anger seemed to ebb and the puppy stopped whining. I sat down beside Layne. I held Pepper up to his face, reading him and the dog carefully. The dog licked him affectionately. I set her in his lap. She didn’t resist, but curled up contentedly.
His angry mask dropped and tears filled his eyes. The dog seemed to give him permission to feel his pain and release it. Within two minutes, Layne’s affect was completely different. He was no longer ruminating on his disappointment and how unfair things felt. His face was serene. It was like magic!
I’ve got a bag of tricks I’ve used in the past. Once I started reading a book to him and after a couple of minutes, he was a different child. Distraction can do wonders. Still, the change from anger to the release of sadness and tears, that was a first. It seemed to me that the dog was uniquely suited to bring that out in Layne. Her willingness to lick him even though he had scared her before was so significant. Her acceptance and love was validating to him, and I think she was just what he needed in that moment.
We were able to salvage the evening. Devin continued playing the Wii U, only taking a break to eat cake and open presents. Layne participated with the family. I think Pepper helped make the evening a big success.
Sometimes the Lord works in unexpected ways. I always thought about getting an emotional support animal; a fully trained dog that would help Layne manage his emotions that would likely cost a lot of money. I had no idea how much a little mutt, a rescue with no training and nearly free, could benefit my family. She has just the right temperament for my wild anxious boys. I can’t help but feel that this is one of God’s tender mercies. Little Pepper was supposed to come to our home. She is uniquely suited to bless our family.
That doesn’t mean that she isn’t going to be a lot of work. I just sense that this dog has the raw material to be a powerful tool for helping Layne, me, and all of us deal with our stressful lives. I’m going to train her to be an emotional support dog.
I’ve done my share of eye rolling with the whole “emotional support animal” trend, but the fact is, there is a reason for it. We humans have created a concrete world for ourselves. Animals and plants are usually stuffed or made of silk. We’ve lost our connection with nature and we pay for it. If an animal in our home is what it takes to remind us that we are part of a larger world full of creatures great and small, then I accept it. If it brings us back into balance, it will be well worth the work.
The scriptures say that by small and simple things, the Lord brings to pass that which is great. I stew and study about my problems. I consult the best minds and study the profound theories of mental health until my brain hurts. Then the Lord brings me a dog and I remember that he knows what I need. He knows what my boys need. And he will supply my needs.
My Shepherd will supply my need: Jehovah is His Name; In pastures fresh He makes me feed, Beside the living stream. He brings my wandering spirit back When I forsake His ways, And leads me, for His mercy's sake, In paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death, Thy presence is my stay; A word of Thy supporting breath Drives all my fears away. Thy hand, in sight of all my foes, Doth still my table spread; My cup with blessings overflows, Thine oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God Attend me all my days; O may Thy house be my abode, And all my work be praise! There would I find a settled rest, While others go and come; No more a stranger, nor a guest, But like a child at home.
Three springs ago, I planted a grape vine. It was a dead looking stick that I hoped would someday grow into a vigorous vine that would produce delicious grapes and save our family money. That first summer I carefully tended to each delicate shoot. It made painfully slow progress and would droop pathetically when the Texas heat came. Eventually it gained strength in the roots and started putting out strong vines, but no fruit since it was the first year. We pruned it during the winter, but we didn’t prune it as much as was recommended. I knew that the fruit would be produced off the old wood, and I was eager to get as much fruit as possible.
The vine took off that spring and quickly had covered the trellis. Blossoms came, and then tiny grape clusters. Unfortunately, there were so many vines and leaves that the grapes were unable to mature as the plant was putting its energy into producing leaves and vines. The sunlight was also unable to get to the grapes, so they didn’t ripen. Although the vine produced probably fifteen grape clusters, we didn’t get a single edible grape. I was disappointed.
I don’t like failure. I take it personally. I don’t like to think about my failures because it’s painful and I prefer to distract myself with other things that bring easier rewards. I busy myself with projects and once I face an obstacle, I start another project. The chaos that ensues tends to sap my energy and contributes to my depression. As I have become healthier, I have reflected on this part of my core personality and I am working to challenge some of my views about failure.
We learn more from our failures than we do our successes. One of the worst things to do with failure is ignore it or avoid it. Failure is a gift that can lead to success at hard things; and hard things often bring the greatest rewards. So I looked at that hairy mess of vines on my trellis the other day and I decided I would do some research and try again.
After watching a few hours of YouTube videos about grapes and pruning, I thought, “I can do this.” I went out with my pruners and a saw and I hacked into my grapevine with no mercy. Where I made my cuts, the vine bled clear liquid, but I knew that in order to get what I wanted, I needed to butcher my poor plant. I cut off about ninety percent of the plant and was left with barely anything. I am also going to prune around the grape clusters so they get plenty of sun. Most importantly, I am going to prepare for another year of failure, because chances are, I have more to learn. That’s okay.
Because this isn’t about grapes. This is about me learning how to grow grapes. It isn’t the end result that matters. It is the process. It is the growth. It is about me, not about groceries, grapes, or food budgets. God teaches us through the soil and the plants and the animals. This world was created for us; so that we can fail and learn and fail and learn and in the end we find Him.
The grapevine keeps coming to my mind in my parenting. Parenting is hard. There is a lot of failure. Sometimes my kids look like vigorous vines growing and learning and running wild across the trellis of life. Then it seems that the fruit just isn’t turning out just right. I want to clarify. I don’t mean that they are bad kids or anything. I just mean that I sense that there is more potential in them than they are expressing. Just like the vine. The vine was good last summer. I did a lot of things right with that grapevine. It didn’t reach its potential because I was shy with the pruning. I made one mistake, and it effected what the vine was able to do.
Like the grapevine, I need to not be afraid of my failings as a parent. In fact, I need to look carefully at them. Success for my children depends on my willingness to face my failures and learn from them. Just like I did with the grapevine, I need to do my research. Last Sunday I was studying the church library on my phone and I came across this marvelous resource. It is a book published by the church in 2006. If every parent in the church would read and follow the principles outlined in this resource, we could change the world in a couple of generations. it is calledStrengthening the Family, an Instructor’s Guide. I read the first session which is about parenting principles and practices. I’m thinking this book is for a stake parenting class or something? I’ve never heard of such a class, but I think it’s a great idea. Anyway, what I have read is excellent and gave me some good ideas for adjusting some of my parenting practices. Just like the YouTube videos and horticulture sites I learned from about the grapevine pruning, I can use the massive amounts of good information about children and their development to become a better parent and bring the potential out in my children.
Failure as a parent is excruciatingly painful for me. This week I had several painful failures. Tuesday I brought Austin home from preschool and carefully snuggled him to sleep on the upstairs couch. I planned to shush Wesley as soon as he came home from school to ensure that Austin would get a good nap. Wesley exuberantly walked through the front door and flipped it closed with a smack. I heard wailing from upstairs. So much for that.
When Austin wakes up on the wrong side of the bed from a nap, it is torture for everyone. He screamed for an hour in spite of my many solicitous efforts to stem the tide of toddler fury. Then he went on a tornado rampage across the house, climbing to get cookies that I had told him he was not allowed to get, playing with things he was not allowed to play with, and making messes everywhere. I started getting overwhelmed and I went to my room to calm down. Of course, they eventually made their way to my bedroom. It’s like gravity. They find me.
So my irritation continued to mount and I started yelling at Austin to stop crying. I knew I was going to hurt him if I didn’t calm down, so I told him and Wesley that Mom needed to take a timeout. I herded them out the door and locked it. Austin was not okay with that. Of course. He screamed and screamed pounding at the door.
Anyway, it was a mess. I was supposed to be making dinner. I had counselling and a parent meeting for track and a STEM showcase. I prayed, I called Ben, I calmed myself down. I unlocked the door. Austin had wet his pants and as I took them off, he chided me. “Austin very angry! Austin so sad! I was crying.” I comforted him and praised him for naming his feelings. I was still crying at that point and he patted me on the shoulder. “It’s okay Mom,” he said in his parent voice. “You gonna be okay.” He grabbed a tissue and started wiping my tears. I had him give me kisses for my owies and I smiled for him to show him he had made me all better. He was delighted. Eventually, with the help of an angel friend and my husband, I was able to pick up my son late from track. I missed the parent meeting. I also missed my other son’s STEM showcase because it conflicted with my counselling appointment.
I tearfully apologized to Layne for missing his special day. He had the sweetest expression of compassion on his young face. “I understand Mom. It’s counselling, and you need it. It’s more important.” Of course, that made me cry even more as I told him how proud I am of his work at school and how much it means to me.
Devin had his first track meet yesterday. This was his first meet and he was actually pole vaulting. I didn’t realize it was a forty minute drive to Ft. Worth, so I was late. I thought for sure I had missed the whole thing. Parent fail. When I got there, I ran around in the cold searching faces, trying to find Devin. There were hundreds of kids and at least four schools. If I had gone to the parent meeting the day before I would maybe have a clue, but I didn’t, and now I was paying the price. I hadn’t put on any makeup, and I felt like a total looser. Besides that, there were so many African Americans. Even after living in Texas for nearly two decades, I am still irrationally afraid of them. Other people blithely say, “I have lots of friends that are black.” I only know a few black people, and I feel awkward and wrong footed around them most of the time. On top of my normal level of social anxiety, I felt on the verge of panic in this environment. I tried timidly asking a few people for help finding Devin, but no one knew. I went back to the car to warm up, thinking of the hurt expression on my son’s cold face when I finally found him. I was devastated.
I eventually dried my eyes, screwed up my courage, and went out into the cold again, determined to face my fears and find the coach. The sun had gone down at this point, and the wind was cutting through my sweatshirt. I wished I had worn a coat! I fearlessly asked the strangers with Wester sweatshirts. “I need to talk to the coach.” I was directed to a large black man with massive shoulders and a confident stride. I paced for a few minutes, then pushed down my terror.
“Hi, I’m Bridgette Burbank,” I said firmly, “I’m looking for my son and I can’t find him.” My voice didn’t even shake. He flashed a bright smile that contrasted with his ebony complexion. “Yes, Devin Burbank and pole vaulting. He would be over there,” he pointed out the pole vaulting event, hidden behind a set of bleachers. As I walked to the event, I got a tender mercy from the Lord. I saw Devin’s lean lithe form run down the track and gracefully vault right over the bar. It was beautiful! That was my son, and I got to see him vault at his first track meet! I didn’t miss it after all. I watched him vault again a few more times, but he was unable to clear the bar as he did that first time. We ran to the van and warmed up. Then we got some Arby’s and drove home. He wasn’t angry at me at all, and we had some good quality time together. Most of all, I think he saw that his mom drove across the metroplex and froze her face off to come support him in something that was important to him. That made all the failure worth it for both of us. And when I got home, Ben had put the kids down for bed, and some angels had come helped me clean my house. Thank you YW!!
The good news about parenting and grape vines, is that you get lots of chances to fail and learn and try again. Apparently, it’s really hard to kill a grapevine, so chances are good that I will have many more years to try and fail at growing this one. It is also really hard to kill your relationship with your kids. Kids love their parents. They want us to succeed, and even though we make a lot of mistakes, and maybe some that are pretty bad, we can always try again. No matter how old we are, or they are. If I can face my failures as a parent, you can too. Honestly, you’re probably doing better than I am.
Even though it is has been a rough couple of days for me, I haven’t had any suicidal ideation. That’s some real progress. My counselor was very pleased and encouraging about the way I am dealing with my challenges. I get in that negative mindset where I can’t see anything I’m doing right, but the truth is, I am making progress in real ways doing very hard things. Celebrating those successes and learning from my failures is key to getting through this depressive episode.
It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Jesus Christ loves me. I feel like such a mess! It seems like everyone else has stuff figured out and I am just flying by the seat of my pants screwing up everything. The fact is, he created me in all my scatterbrained, ADHD, passionate, over-analyzing, oversharing glory. For some reason, he loves me. Maybe I give him some comic relief as I live my crazy life! I definitely add some variety to the world. Most of all, I hope I am becoming the woman and the parent God wants me to be, whether or not I ever run a well managed home and schedule.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6