Dear Mom…

Dear Mom,

Happy Mother’s Day.

It’s taken me a while, but I think I’m starting to see what this day is about… and also what is isn’t.

You see, society has ingrained in us to see this day as a day to express gratitude for you, a mother, giving me, a child, life. Moms giving someone life. Motherhood, then, inseparable from its relation to other people, thus establishing an identity through what you’ve done, what you’ve produced– offspring, life, a living, human, pulsating, oxygen-breathing, wide-eyed curious human being through you. A type of experience involving every part of you- your heart and love, your intellect, your very body, day in day out, for the past 32 years since my big brother was born (now that I see that number, I’m grateful to be the youngest, not the oldest).

All of this is good, is great; it’s sacrificial, and quite beautiful.

I’m so in awe, now, of all you -and all those moms out there- do. The pain you went through just to introduce someone like me into this world. The challenges you faced in balancing the scales of work, life, and family, perhaps like a juggling acrobat on a tightrope wire, all without falling off. The stories you told me of gender discrimination at work, circa the time you were pregnant. The daily patience you exhibited when I was a whiny, ungrateful kid, with a knack for spilling things (some habits don’t change) and wanting your attention for every single underwater hand-stand at the pool and climb of monkey bars. Your financial support that went into not just sustaining my life, but enhancing it. (Remember when I used to take art classes? Well, that didn’t go a lot further than my clay lime popsicle I found on a shelf gathering dust in my room when I was home a couple months ago. But those swim lessons you put me through as a kid, even when I would hide in the bathroom when it was time for them to start, turned into a love for the water that has given me a blessing thousand times fold, and shaped who I am today.) From everything within me, thank you.

Thank you.

But if can impart some wisdom to you, as you’ve done for me, may I remind you that this day isn’t just about motherhood. It’s not just for those who have had biological offspring. It’s for every woman out there who’s ever looked out for a child, as a coach, mentor, leader, teacher. It’s about personhood. It’s about you and the fabulous human being you are, regardless of whether or not you procreated. There’s a reason, Mom, why I have that picture of you on a motorcycle in Brazil when you were an exchange student taped on the front door of my room. You were cool then; you’re still cool now. You have an identity apart from me, apart from Eric, and even apart from the time-consuming role you’ve had in raising a child with Down Syndrome, my sister, both of whom I love and cherish to have as siblings.
I value that identity.
Though I know you as a mother, I desire to know you as a person. Though I know you as a parent, I aspire to know you as a friend. Though I’ve known you for the past 26 years, I want to know more of you who you were before then– say, when you were 26.

I’m still not sure where I am with this whole motherhood-thing. There’s some days where I don’t want to have kids. Ever. I think about all the uncomfortable changes your body went through just to help me be here typing these words right now, and I still contend with God that sitting on eggs would be a much more enjoyable option than, well, you know. You dealt with it. The whole ordeal sounds pretty awful to me. But to give someone the opportunity to breathe, to think, to discover, to wonder, to dream, to play, to laugh, to experience every ounce of feet touching Earth or sky, well… that’s pretty beautiful. Pretty special. Quite a gift.

I’ll think on that one a little longer.

In the meantime, happy Mother’s Day to you.

I’m grateful for you.
I love you; I always will.

Mel.

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Toilet Paper on Our Shoes (and other thoughts on brokenness and healing)

I keep running into these moments, like a giant rock that I continually trip over. Maybe you know those moments. When it’s just you, alone somewhere with your thoughts. Perhaps it’s nighttime and you’re driving back home and it’s just you, the car, a bumpy road, and God. And the light that was once green has now transcended from yellow to red. So you’re sitting there stuck at the red light, going nowhere, and it’s just you, these thoughts, the feel of the steering wheel, and this ominous presence in your car with you, speaking through the windshield, or next to you, or through a crack in the window, oh, I don’t know. And you can’t run, you can’t hide anywhere; you’re exposed. Your running and distracting and avoiding and fearing are called out. You can’t resort back to your usual mechanisms of escape because it’s just you, stopped at the red light of sameness or change.
It’s as if you have no other choice but to face the music of your life soundtrack. And it’s a CD mix you’ve never heard before, so you don’t know which songs are the fast tracks, and which ones are melancholy. And as the next track begins playing, you realize the music is a sad and somber tune and all you wish is for the next song to be of joy and merriment because life is short, damn it, and shouldn’t we be living in carpe diem every moment? So you try and focus on the things that make you happy and get you thinking “it’s all good,” “it won’t be so bad,” and you minimize that it’s about to get hard. But then this snowball from the past comes flying in your face and all you can feel is its wet sting as it slides down your face and into your coat, slowly melting frozen snowflakes onto your chest like butter on toast. Trying to tell you that spring will never come until you deal with whatever it is you have to deal with. Oh sure. Things change. The next day you’ll wake up and you won’t be alone again and you can go back to distracting yourself with friends and people and tasks and to-do lists. Spring will come anyway, because seasons change and evolve. But the degree to which we fully enjoy each of these things, unfettered, comes from our willingness to throw away the toilet paper dragging from our shoes. Maybe you’re in such a hurry that you don’t even notice the paper trail from your soles, which the whole world can see bright as day. And maybe, just maybe, there might be one tender-hearted person who pulls you aside, alone, privately, safely, waking you up to the toilet paper on your shoe, without embarrassing you or belittling you either. Because we all have had toilet paper on our shoes before and we all have monsters in our closets that sometimes like to reappear. I mean, it’s not about the toilet paper. It’s those conversation that say, “Hey, I’ve noticed something about you.” And someone asks you if you’re really happy and you just let out a confused cry. And that’s ok. That’s enough for that moment.

Inside each of us lies an innate longing for everything to be ok. And anything we can latch onto to show us that things are going to look up, get better, be ok… we cling to, perhaps for comfort, perhaps as futile attempts to block out change. To hold on when we should really let go. Sometimes I just want more than a verse that states, “but I’ve given you a future and hope.” I need more than that. I need to see, oh how I want to see. Oh how I want more assurance. Because everything inside of me screams, begs, demands for everything to be ok. And the longer I can’t see how it’s all going to be ok if I make this decision, or if that happpens, or if this occurs, the more I pine for assurance, signs, and control. Because everything seems so out of my control sometimes and quite frankly God,  sometimes it seems like you’re up there doing nothing.

And so some days, we find ourselves in Churches or other places of worship. I wonder sometimes, for every service I went to at that megachurch back in college, or at that Bible study event filled with a bunch of people smiling, talking about praying, and Evangelizing, and all that joy-in-the-Lord-is-our-strength stuff… was just a show. A bunch of BS. A bunch of people, but certainly not all, who were too afraid to speak of the monsters in their closets, the toilet paper on their shoes. A bunch of people who walk around “happy,” but deep down feel far from the abundant life to which we’re invited. A secretly empty population walking around just hoping to emulate a veneer of “the good Christian.” No. That would be a tragedy. My, my I don’t think we were ever created for the pretending and the “everything’s fine,” and the pity-filled, “Oh I’ll pray for you-s.” We were never meant to, perhaps, smile at every single worship service. What we were made for is community, authentic community. We were invited in, promised with, the opportunity to be a part of a community that says we’ll share our bread and our cup and your tears and my tears and together, we’ll taste something so rich and beautiful, we won’t understand why we ever used to settle for less– the excessive smiling and covering up of pain and doubt.

I know I can be a cynic, but I do know that not everyone of these circles are pretentious. And maybe all those people I saw were joyful and happy in the Lord. Maybe every single one of them was. Maybe.

I just wish I had more influences in my life then like I do now where we sit down at lunch and cry in front of each other. And talk about what depression meds we’ve been on. Where we admit that we too aren’t so sure about the messages we’ve been reiterated about hell or gender or any of those things that Jesus doesn’t really talk a whole lot about. And then where we get really excited and creative about all the ways in which we can find new ways to love, which Jesus talks a whole lot about. More people who go to counseling too and we laugh about how crazy we can be. More one on one conversations in which the two of us admit that we actually have no idea where we’re going with life right now or where this journey is taking us. More people who knew that Jesus could be worshipped on top of a hay bale as you and a friend live out his words to “learn from the birds” as they migrate Southbound, in strength and beauty, letting out a few drops of poo too. Lucky them; they don’t have to worry about the toilet paper-shoe part.

I’m grateful for all of the people in my life who’ve shed away their false layers, remaining open and transparent, as if secretly giving me permission to drop by guard and do the same. I’m grateful for these moments of brokenness in which God stops me, has my complete attention because I’m now shivering and crying alone in my room. “Why do you cause such tears to fall from my eyes and why this pain in my heart!?” I implore You. Though hard to recognize in the moment, I know it’s possible to choose to perceive these tears as a gift. I know Your words to be true when you hold my hand and whisper back, “Because I love you. And there is something good to come from this mess, but you won’t be able to see it yet.”  Some pains are just a part of this world; events that God never intended, but will warmly hold your hand and cry with you, yes, that’s His/Her hands embracing you. There are those other pains that grow- the consequences of our own actions or in-actions- and God looks you in the eye, puts a hand on your shoulder and says, “My child. Is this the only way you’ll slow down? Is this the only way I can gain your full attention before you hurt yourself even more?” And S/He swoops and breathes hope into our breaking hearts that things won’t always be this way. I just can’t expect to see these moments disappear if I don’t start dealing with the broken pieces I’ve tried to hide under my bed, or under my seat, or in my private thought life that no one but God can access. It’s as if S/he enters in, and takes you by the hand, and says, “Well go on now!” Cry. Mourn. Confess. Forgive. Heal. But refuse to sucumb to the notion that you’ll never get through this,” whatever the “this” happens to be at that moment.

Brokenness is a powerful tool for change. Even though as a kid in middle school youth group, I would sing, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for,” I would never ask for it to happen to me, willingly. But every time it does, I am always amazed at how God uses it to reveal something new about who S/He is, who I am, and where I still harbor my insecurities. God uses it to show us we’re stronger than we think we are if we would just face whatever it is that won’t stop pestering and festering.

And so tonight my candlelight is still burning. And I’m still feeling a bit of that brokenness and confusion about where and when this mess will intersect with beauty, but I do know this: I am not as alone as I initially felt I was. We have a God that will keep us from the lie we’re alone in those times of brokenness and healing. There is a God who can create something good out of something so hard, or ugly, or untimely, or even as trivial and embarrassing as toilet paper on our shoes.

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Beyond Motherhood, Workhood, and Wifehood: Re-defining What it Means to be a Good Woman (or Man)

“They were hoping for a son to carry on the family name,” a woman I work with casually laments in conversation.

My insides choke. I despise when I hear comments like this because it reiterates that even from birth, there are differences in the perceived value and capabilities of males and females. With this couple’s ideology, a baby born with xy chromosomes will be able to carry on a family name. But if this baby is simply born with xx chromosomes, in the eyes of this couple, she already has something that she CANNOT do: carry on a family name. Rigid standards for what women and men should and cannot do hinder society, forcing women to make “and/or” choices rather than “both/and.”
Now over halfway through my twenties, the inflexible “and/or” message I hear the traditional world shouting out most frequently is this: Soon, if not now, you will be reaching a fork in the road. At this fork, you must decide if you will go the motherhood/wifehood route or the climb-the-ladder career route.  

But before we get to the fork, let’s pause for a minute. What if there’s something different? Or something in between? Is life simply an “and/or”?

I know women who are breaking gender norms as inspirational lawyers, doctors, and authors, addressing gender parity beyond the suffrage movement and into areas of global justice, gender-based violence, and women’s economic development. I also know women who are stay-at-home moms who do anything but “stay at home. They’re volunteering in HIV/AIDS ministries, advocating for the poor, visiting the sick, caring for the hungry, serving as board members, and taking care of their own children. When we underscore one or the other as “the goal,” the thing you were supposedly created to live for; When we dictate what is the “right” or “wrong” way of doing marriage, career, and family, we reinforce the idea that women must choose; they can’t be both. Certain circles will praise her wife/mother/homemaker choice and others, critique it. Some circles will laud the career ladder climb, leaving women who are serving and changing the world in ways outside of a typical employment schedule simply out of the picture, dismissed. Often, “stay-at-home-moms” are portrayed as June Cleavers. Some may be. Some would argue that this is the very thing women “should” be doing these days. While 14% of American women identified as stay-at-home-Moms in 2012, I’d hardly think this categorization gives enough recognition to the ways in which these women are changing the world through their service and leadership in their spheres of influence. On the contrary, when we hold motherhood and “wifehood” as the “ultimate” for women, we imply that those who do paid work outside of the home aren’t attentive to their families, can’t raise good children, and have their priorities wrong, which negates the ways God can use one’s employment to change the world. When we encourage women to solely invest their time and energy in home front matters, we live lives that are small, as if our family of (3, 4, 5 etc) is all that matters. But when 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty, if all we do is snuggle in our children a little bit tighter and keep the floors shined, we’ve sorely missed the point.
These rigid messages suggest that something must be wrong with a woman if she isn’t married by 30. As if the only talent she brings to the world are her breasts and ovaries. As if it doesn’t really matter how much she likes her first job out of college; all she needs to do is suck it up for a few years because soon enough she’ll be married and out of the working world anyway, so what’s the point?
Other messages portray the glorification of brides (have you seen the array of bridal magazines in the grocery line?) through tv, and, in the Evangelical Christian community, books. It’s no wonder the wedding industry is worth an estimated $40 billion– and that’s just in the U.S. Through this culture, women are set up to think their wedding is the pinnacle of their life. The only day that matters. Consequentially, there then becomes a trend of girls selfishly becoming the focal point of their universe, through bride wars, expensive dresses, family feuds, all captured on public tv, after all, she’s the star of her show, both literally and figuratively in cases like “The Bachelorette,” “Say Yes to the Dress,” and the other 26 wedding-themed television shows. When women are encouraged to receive their validation through marriage, we don’t present women with all the ways in which they can become something, someone.
I wonder if this is why many young women and men are disenchanted about their wedding day. Because with the mindset that society and some religious circles embrace, this is the day that a woman will prove that she’s beautiful enough, wanted enough to be “chosen” as someone’s life partner. Similarly, this is the day a man follows through with what he has been socialized to believe about what he needs to do as man in order to be successful: marry, work, and, according to many Evangelicals, “lead.” Both the woman and the man, in this framework, get married for the wrong, self-centered reason: seeking affirmation, acceptance, and a “check mark” from society or religion. And twenty years down the road, many of these couples find that their marriage has not brought them happiness. Their “day in the sun” desiccated a long time ago. The wedding photos are in albums collecting dust somewhere in the basement. Deep intimacy was lost sometime after the honeymoon, but before the kids were grown and out of the house. And once the kids are out, there’s no distractions available to divert attention away from the ugly truth that you and your spouse barely know each other now. Because, from the start, it was all a show- after all, we had “roles” to play, right?

At some point, I wonder if we’ve hyper-focused on such gender roles: manhood and womanhood, instead of personhood. How, then, does one become a good woman or good man, if not through the mores of certain religious circles and society?

We can start by dropping the word “role.”  Women and men have biological differences, but there’s a difference between your sex and your gender. Society or religious circles often shout what your gender “role” “should” be, while your sex just happens to be whatever chromosomes developed in utero. May I suggest that the most genuinely “good men” and “good women” happen to be, in fact, marvelous people, people who delight in simply being a Child of God.

I want to create a life that doesn’t have “role” after the word gender. I am not trying out for a play; I’m showing up to create my life. Therefore I don’t have a “prescribed role” to follow, line by line, scene by scene, for the applause of an audience of conservative Evangelical men.  I want to pursue what I’m passionate about, without worrying if it’s “womanly” or “manly.”

Which brings me back to the beginning. Instead of defining a good “woman” through the sole lens of motherhood, workhood, or wifehood, why don’t we start defining a good “woman” or “man” by being true to their particular calling? To the degree we’ve loved our neighbor, loved our enemy, loved God, and even loved ourselves? Because God doesn’t have the same plan for all of us. And I think there’s still some unreconciled tension among women with differing choices in regards to mothering, marrying, and working.

Conservative Christian voices such as the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose board is composed of an entirely white, all male staff, will continue to use God to keep men and women in separate, distinct, inflexible roles. Popular culture might too. But we have a choice, everyday, to decide who we will be and what we will do. And so, here’s my victory statement, my peaceful rebellion: I will live out the life God has planned for me, no “blanket statement” rules here. I will delay marriage until I feel I am fully capable of loving someone unselfishly to the best of my capacity. Truly, we can live from the wisest, most passionate, alive, parts of our hearts. No, you won’t find me making blanket statement rules for an entire gender because to do so limits the diversity of the callings God puts on people’s hearts. Yes. I’ll be walking as a Child of God on the Road of Freedom, having my (wedding) cake and keeping my last name too.

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