Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Letter to My Former Self (Who Was Afraid to Become a Parent)

By Shannon Stewart.

It was the fifth Facebook status like it I had seen that day. It read something like, “Naptime. All four kids awake. Poop in my hair.”

To me, happy in my third year of marriage, it made me feel sick inside. I wanted babies—but I didn’t want to “lose my mind,” as many Facebook statuses seemed to suggest I would. I have a Master’s degree in English Literature. I like my mind just the way it is, thank you very much.

So I was scared. And it wasn’t just because of Facebook statuses. I loved my life, my marriage, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? I didn’t see how adding another human to our household could make my wonderful life anything but worse.

I know there are others like me who struggle with the same fears. There is little out there to encourage us. There are mommy blogs that talk about how hard it is, mommy blogs that practically have little hearts floating out of the screens as they revel in how much they adore parenthood (barf), mommy blogs whose sole purpose it is to scare you out of vaccines or co-sleeping… But there was nothing helpful for me, tentatively wanting to be a parent but discouraged at how all these mommy blogs made parenting seem either all-consuming or stressful—or both.

So now that I have a 15 month old and another due this year, I wanted to write a post to my past self (and anyone else like her). Not to tell me how blind I was, not to play the parenting expert, not to coo about how parenting is awesome (though it actually is)—I wanted to write the post I wish my past self had been able to read. In this post, I’d like to address the rhetoric that encourages those fears. Next week (or soon thereafter), I’d like to share how my life has actually improved because I had a kid.

Without further ado, here’s my response to the ideas circulating that, intentional or not, make people like me afraid to parent.

1. Reach for the Stars

The first problem with parenting rhetoric is High Standards. Don’t do this, don’t watch this, only eat organic, use Pinterest to make every day an adventure—or YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE RUINED. My first advice regarding this is to stop reading parenting magazines; most I’ve read run on a mixture of guilt, fear, and consumerism. My second advice is to read this article, this article, and “A Cruel Kindergarchy” in Kevin DeYoung’s fantastic book Crazy Busy.

Essentially, my summary of these authors’ thoughts is this: American parenting today holds itself to too high a standard. Other cultures, and even American culture a century ago, didn’t have all these requirements. There are simply other ways to parent than the ways you see and fear (have you read that second article yet? Go! Go read it!). Think about your own childhood. Did your parent spend every day of your toddler years making your life magical? No. My mom didn’t have the Internet to research, second-guess, and publicly champion every parenting decision she made. And I’m not ruined (at least, I don’t think I am). So parenting doesn’t have to be quite as consuming as the Internet makes it out to be.

2. Woe is We

The second major problem with parenting rhetoric is Complainy Moms. My theory about complainy moms is that they are the kind of people who complain about whatever is going on in their lives. They were the ones who complained about homework during college, about work when they were out of college. Now their favorite subject happens to be their kids. Just hide them from your newsfeed and ignore them like you did in school.

3. False Causes

The third problem with parenting rhetoric isn’t actually the rhetoric; it’s how I chose to interpret what I saw. For example: a harried, upset mom yelling at her three crying kids in Walmart. I looked at that and thought, “I don’t want that in my life. I don’t want to be a parent.” To use fancy terminology, this is the logical fallacy called false cause. This lady was having a bad day. I immediately assumed it was because of her crying kids. Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. When I see a childless lady in a business suit in Walmart and she’s acting like a jerk to the clerk, I don’t assume it’s because she’s a businesswoman that she’s acting that way. Sometimes businesswomen have bad days. Sometimes moms and kids have bad days. It’s not necessarily because of their jobs that bad days happen.

On the flip side, I also fearfully observed the Mom Who Won’t Shut Up About Her Kids Syndrome. It seemed like whenever I got around my friends who had babies, all they would talk about was the babies, leaving me out of the loop. It also seemed like every third mom I knew would post a picture EVERY 30 MINUTES of her child on Facebook. So I thought, “Motherhood must make you unable to think of anything but children. I would much rather think about book ideas or philosophize about the ultimate futility of Livia’s attempts to control power in Ancient Rome.”

This was silly for two reasons. First: almost no other woman ever wanted to talk with me about Livia before they were moms, either. So again, false cause: it was unfair to believe that they weren’t “on my level” just because they had kids. Maybe I am just a weirdo.

Second: When I enjoy something a lot, I talk about it a lot. That’s why my classes now groan every time I mention The Legend of Zelda. The possible need for self-restraint aside, maybe these moms post about their kids so much because they like having kids!

I will say, now that I have a child, that I don’t only talk about Elanor. My students still come up to me after class to discuss the latest Christopher Nolan movie; Cap and I discuss quiet times and book ideas on dates. I still light up when Legend of Zelda is mentioned (oh my goodness that new gameplay footage of the 2015 game…).

But I do enjoy talking about Elanor. I appreciate having an “in” with other moms, from the grannies at the grocery store to the girls at church with whom I have nothing else in common. Kids are a great conversation starter, and more often than not I’ll leave with some great new idea or encouragement for parenting. Not a bad deal.

So, past self (and all selves like her), there’s my handy guide for dealing with the stuff out there that encourages parenting fear. Next week I’ll talk about how my life has actually improved because I had kids.

photo credit: Wondermonkey2k via photopin cc

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Trillia Newbell and the Church’s Answer to Racism

With memories of racially-tinged police brutalities still lingering in our minds from last year, and the release of Selma last weekend, the topic of racism is alive and well, which is both good and bad. It’s good that we’re talking about it, rather than ignoring it. It’s bad because…well, because it’s still an issue. We’ve come a long way as a country, but we still have a long way to go.

In an article for The Atlantic, Robert P. Jones proposed that “the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.” Voluntary segregation is a problem, for many more of us than those who care to admit it.

What is the solution? My friend Trillia Newbell talks about it in her book United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity. Through her own personal experiences, she shares how the gospel empowers interracial harmony.

Considering that the book is titled United, it should come as no surprise that one thing which stuck out to me was just how united all Christians are, regardless of race. The similarities we share in Christ far outweigh any and all differences. Finding our identity in Christ has radical implications for how we view those who are unlike us. It’s a simple truth, but it’s easy to wave off with bored disinterest.

When we don’t fully understand and embrace those implications, we tend to stay within our cliques—even in church:

Self-sufficiency says we don’t need anyone, but humility shouts for help from those God has placed in our lives. . . . [W]e might think that we just don’t need others who are unlike us. Sometimes logistical barriers keep us from being able to expose ourselves to one another, but that is quite different from resisting diversity because, in our pride, we think we are okay relating only to those we already know who are like us.

Our self-sufficiency and pride can often lead to apathy in our relational pursuits:

[W]e must be careful not to use our differences in language and culture as a crutch or an excuse. We also must not allow our differences to be excuses for apathy. It’s simply easier to coast through life not worrying about anyone outside of those immediately associated with us. It takes effort to know those not like us, to study history and ask hard questions and be willing to change.

Lest I give the impression otherwise, Trillia talks more about the solution than she does the problem. Hers is a decidedly hopeful book. Though she has seen and experienced racism in her life, her outlook is based on viewing the future through a gospel-saturated lens:

My dream and hope is that my black-and-white children (the sweet gift of biracial blood) will be holding hands with black, Latino, Chinese, European, and African children in church one day, worshiping together. Stop and think about. Isn’t it a beautiful picture?

I don’t often stop and think when an author tells me to do so (I just want to keep reading), but when I read those words, I did stop, and I did think about it. And it was indeed a beautiful picture.

It will be beautiful to experience that myself in Heaven. In fact, as Trillia points out, if that’s what we’re headed for on the other side of eternity, why not have a little taste of such a culturally and spiritually rich experience in the present? Why wait for Heaven to start enjoying Heavenly gifts now?

I’ve read that Trillia needlessly narrows her audience to those in the Reformed world. I don’t see this as a weakness for two reasons. First, since her book is largely autobiographical, she is simply sharing her experience in the Reformed community. Her testimony doesn’t need to be something it isn’t. Second, my own experience in the Reformed community leads me to believe that people like myself need to hear more perspectives on racial reconciliation. A book catered specifically to us is much needed.

If I had anything negative to say, it would actually be about the editor and not Trillia herself. I caught a small handful of redundancies here and there (just little turns of phrase) that should have been caught and reworded. Nothing major, but I found it to be a distraction. There’s also one instance where a couple sentences on one page are repeated verbatim on another. I hope the editor of Trillia’s next book, whoever he or she may be, will show more attention to detail.

In the end, Christians like me need people like Trillia to help us move past our comfort zones and embrace the “unity through diversity” found through gospel-empowered relationships. I’m thankful for voices like hers. May more of us have ears to hear.

children photo credit: Lennart Tange via photopin cc

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Two Things You May Not Know About Whooping Cough

Around this time last year, our infant daughter was in the hospital with pertussis (i.e., whooping cough). My wife wanted to write a blog post about this dangerous disease, which some countries call “The 100 Day Cough” (and they aren’t kidding, folks). I’ll let Shannon share our experience, and how it might help protect you and those you love.


We were just getting over the flu (I had picked it up at Desolation of Smaug, which makes that film doubly worthless to me). My sweet two-month old Elanor had a few days off from coughing before she started again. Nothing too serious, really—just like a cold. But it never went away. I took her to the pediatrician, and he said it wasn’t bad enough to be pertussis; I should go home and lay my fears to rest. Two nights later we were in the hospital after Elanor temporarily stopped breathing during a coughing fit and gasped out several “whoops” just afterwards.

We had a mild case of pertussis, it turns out. Even better, when I tearfully asked the doctor at the hospital if Elanor’s life was in danger, she stopped just short of rolling her eyes (a gesture which, at the time, I found very comforting). “It’s very rare to die of whooping cough if you’re here,” she said. “Mostly the kids who die are the ones who are too little to get over it by themselves, and their parents try waiting it out too long.”

So Elanor’s life was not in danger. Nonetheless, we were in the hospital for a week. Here is a synopsis of that week: I started whooping just one day after Elanor. Cap got food poisoning. We missed my grandmother’s funeral. Three or four times the staff of the entire floor rushed into our room because Elanor was turning blue. I sprained a rib coughing. (Then a guy with the spiritual gift of healing prayed for me and boom, it was healed! But that’s another story, probably entitled, “I grew up Baptist. I don’t believe in miraculous gifts… wait one of them just worked on me.”) We received food and coffee from loving friends, excellent and compassionate medical care,…aaaaand the kind of bill you’d expect to rack up by staying a week in the hospital.

Once you get whooping cough (and you like to do your research, like me) you learn a few things. Two things, actually, that I’d like everyone to know:

1. The vaccination prevents you from getting the disease. It does not necessarily prevent you from transmitting the disease.

Let me be straight with you: I am not an anti-vaxxer. I am not trying to start a vaccination debate. I learned this from my pediatrician, who always errs on the side of caution, and my reading has confirmed it: people who have the vaccination can still carry and transmit pertussis. The vaccine’s “severity” has been decreased so that it no longer gives herd immunity (but it also no longer gives as many seizures! Yay!). In fact, if you do the incubation-period math (every mom’s favorite math), we believe the person we caught pertussis from had the vaccine.

2. Whooping cough acts like a normal cough for the first two weeks.

You heard me right! For the first two weeks you have pertussis, you will think it is a common cold (albeit a worsening one) or bronchitis. Only after the first two weeks will you start whooping or coughing so hard you vomit.

For those two weeks, you are still contagious. Every time you cough in the grocery store, thinking you have a cold, you are spreading the pertussis bacteria. My apologies to those of you whom I may have infected while grocery shopping during my two weeks.

What are the implications of these two facts? Here’s what they are for me.

If you or your child is coughing, please keep yourselves away from other children.

I know that really stinks. I know it means no Sunday School, no much-needed play dates, no fun ever, period. I also know it’s impossible to do entirely: you have to buy food, after all. But as much as it is possible, it would be a courtesy to the mom of the two-month old who hasn’t yet had her vaccination to safeguard her family as much as possible. It shows real care. I LOVE it when my friend texts me and tells me her kid is sick so I can’t come over. She is protecting us.

And this one is most important: DON’T TOUCH MY BABY.

I will not tell you this to your face, because there really is no nice way to do so. But when you reach for my baby in the grocery store or at church, I am tempted to slap your hand away. I don’t slap your hand because if I did, you would probably think, “What a paranoid jerk.” Yes—I am a paranoid jerk whose daughter caught whooping cough from someone touching her face.

Here’s how you can be polite to a new mom during flu season: don’t touch her babies. Just don’t. She will love you. She will love your understanding of, and avoidance of, the awkward situation most people place her in every time she takes that baby out of the house. She will love you when you pull out your hand sanitizer and douse your hands with it right then and there before you ask to squeeze that baby’s cheeks.

Here are things that people say to put me at ease when they touch my baby:

1.     “I just washed my hands.”
My mental response: Define “just.” Does it mean five minutes ago? Does it mean thirty minutes ago? How many door handles have you touched since then?
My real response: Smile awkwardly. Get away as quickly as possible.

2.     “My cough is only allergies.”
My mental response: Oh really. What are your symptoms? I want a full list. Are you assuming based on your anecdotal knowledge, or have you gone to a doctor and received the literal diagnosis, “It’s just allergies?”
My physical response: “Oh well as long as it’s just allergies.” Smile awkwardly. Get away as quickly as possible.

Please, please, friends—don’t put moms in this incredibly awkward situation. True, not all of them are as paranoid as I am. But not all of them have had whooping cough, either.