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It Burns

It Burns

Last week, we finally had a beautiful, sunny day and our three youngest kids took full advantage of it. I lubed them up with sunblock, pulled swim shirts over their protesting heads, and positioned them where I could still take conference calls, but make sure no one was setting a fire or playing with homemade lawn jarts.

That day, they built tiny boats out of tree bark and rescued imaginary Smurf villages from imaginary floodwaters. They birdwatched, jumped on the trampoline and had a wonderful day. As much as I was trying to just hold it together with a full day of work, making lunches, cleaning up after the “creativity” and managing the day-to-day, I was consciously touched by how much fun they have together. Periodically throughout the day, I’d do a quick skin scan when someone would ask me for something to make sure they weren’t getting eaten by mosquitoes or sunburned.

Fast forward to the next morning, when my stepson asked me to put some lotion on his back because he thought he had a sunburn. I helped him get his pajama shirt off, and HOLY MOLY. There it was. A big, juicy blister the size of a quarter, on top of two little epaulettes of tiny sunburn blisters—one on each shoulder. After nearly passing out, I discovered that in the process of switching from dry clothes to swim clothes and back, he “took his swim shirt off for a little bit.” Umm…how long of a little bit? I tried to recall every time I looked at him the day before. Was he wearing the shirt?!? WAS HE?!?!? His two compadres (my biological children, to make matters worse–amiright, stepmoms?) were fine. No burns, no bites, no problem. How did this happen? Well…he didn’t bother me during the day, frankly. That’s how. He wasn’t the squeaky wheel, asking for twenty different things at once.

My red-headed stepchild (he really does have red hair) is the one who got burned, because he wasn’t actively vying for my attention and I falsely assumed what was working fine for the other two was working fine for him. I am heartbroken that anything happened to hurt him while he was in my care. I vastly underestimated the delicacy of Ginger skin.

I don’t consider myself to be a “helicopter parent.” More of a stealth “drone” parent. I’m watching, but I don’t want them to know I’m watching. Oh, but BlisterGate…it caught me completely unaware.

What did I learn?

They all need to be watched differently, because they all have different needs.

In this case, the need was for swim shirt mandates and extra sunblock, but it made me think about other, intangible things I may overlook that I’m not providing as a stepmom. I’m just too new at this to know what they are or how to offer them yet. I’m adept at providing what my bio kids need because I know them about as well as I know myself.

I give waaaaaaay more space to my stepsons than my biological kids out of a desire to respect their comfort level with the whole stepmom situation. As a result, I’m struggling to figure out how to show and tell each of them how much I love them as they are simultaneously being told the opposite. I wish they could see my heart, just for a second. *sigh*

Aside from giving my little fair-skinned stepson a full body SPF 50 dip every hour the next time he is with us, I will be on high alert with all five kids for ways that they need to be watched (and loved) differently. My husband, a veteran stepson for quite a few years now, assures me that it just takes time, but love will make its own case eventually.

I have time and I have SPF. Bring it on.

I urge you to live a life worthy of your calling. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.–Ephesians 4:1-2

The Spirit is Willing, but the Ink is Permanent

The Spirit is Willing, but the Ink is Permanent

Earlier this school year, my daughter’s teacher sent an email asking for a volunteer to teach art class one day a month. After briefly thinking it over, I decided I can surely handle one day a month for a measly hour, and told her I would be happy to help. No sweat, right?

I scoured Pinterest for a few age-appropriate ideas. Next, I invaded Michael’s Crafts to get the necessary items to complete the oh-so-adorable projects my 19 little charges would skillfully assemble, their cherubic faces shining up at me in artistic bliss.

I was eager to complete our first project—a cute little fall tree with ink thumbprint leaves. It went better than I expected, and the trees looked as delightful as you might imagine a forest of sweet little 1st grade thumbprint trees would look.

Feeling a bit more confident, I chose a Thanksgiving-themed paper mosaic for our next project. The kids glued and assembled with ease, even practicing their writing skills and assisting with cleanup afterward.

Oh, Overconfidence. You sneaky little weasel. You get me every time. Having forgotten that surety in life, I said to myself in my post-mosaic glow: “Wow! This is going so well. Maybe we’re ready for something a little more complicated!” No. No, you fool.

That brings us to this morning.

Pinterest, which is in constant cahoots with Overconfidence, derailing women everywhere, whispered “Why don’t you try this cute little sponge-painted masking tape snowflake, complete with glitter and a Christmas-themed name plate on a matted construction paper frame?” Sure. Why not? We glued little scraps of paper last time and that went fine.

I arrived at school early this morning, carefully setting out baggy T-shirts for each child to wear over their uniform. I gave each child their own palette of paint and their own sponges. I even clipped clothespins to the sponges so they wouldn’t get any paint on their sweet little fingers. I placed newspaper on each table, and thought “Perfect. Mess contained.” I mentally congratulated myself on covering all my bases.

You guys—I HAVE A 1ST GRADER OF MY OWN. How on earth did I let Pinterest talk me into this? I know better. Paint plus children ALWAYS equals “WHAT HAVE I DONE?!?” at some point.

Fast forward to 20 minutes into class, as the kids are busily sponging their masking tape snowflakes. So far so good. Then the hands begin to shoot up in the air. Since my daughter’s last name is not the same as my re-married name, there is much confusion about what to call me (Mrs. Brown or Mrs. Stout). It goes something like this:

“Mrs. St….ork? I have paint on my elbows.”

“Mrs. Str…ong? I have to use the bathroom.”

“Mrs. Brot? There’s paint in my shoe.”

“Mrs. Stouuuuu…? What do I call you again? Strobe? Stubb? I have to use the bathroom.”

“Mrs. Mom? I dropped my plate of paint.”

“Mrs. Bort? I have to use the bathroom.”

“Mrs. Storbt? There’s paint in my nose.”

At this point, everyone is done painting and it’s time to clean up. It looks like a blue paint grenade went off. I send the kids to the bathroom two boys and two girls at a time. Or…so I think. The crowd suddenly seems very thin. I count heads as quickly as I can. It is remarkably hard to count to 18 (one child was absent) when you are panicking. Try it sometime.

Hearing the unmistakable whoops (in an otherwise quiet school) of MORE than two little boys shrieking in the restroom, I realize I have to go restore order. But…can I go in the boys’ bathroom? Can I do that? Is that going to get me put on some kind of registry? Panic! Panic! The only other male I know for sure who is nearby is the school administrator, and I am not willing to concede defeat yet, so I will not ask him. I will not. Just then, a little boy returns, informing me that another of my little painters has somehow accidentally painted his forehead and the bathroom mirror blue, using only the residual paint from his hands. I am briefly impressed by the skill a feat like that requires. Briefly.

Feeling a little dizzy, I seat the rest of the kids at a clean table with the second part of the art project to occupy them, and poke my head around the corner to the restroom, using my best stern teacher voice. It worked! Oh, man! IT WORKED! The boys, including the one with the bright blue forehead and hopelessly blue palms, file back to the table and meekly sit down.

Smugly enjoying my little victory, I turn back to the art table.

Oh. Hello, Overconfidence…

One of the little girls tells me that a drain is clogged in the girls’ bathroom and “it’s starting to get serious.” Get serious? What does that even mean? Envisioning a mixture of blue paint, waste water and soggy paper towels flooding out into the quiet halls, I briefly consider sending someone to get the teacher. But, I just can’t. Their teacher is simply amazing. Both of my kids have had her now, and I have watched her with awe. Her students adore her, but they also toe the line and adhere to the tight ship that she so skillfully runs. Imagining how I would tell her that I am responsible for painting a child blue and flooding the girls’ bathroom, I decide to just power through the last ten minutes of class and hope for the best.  I can run fast, and there are other Christian schools in Indianapolis.  The kids will get over it.

God looked down on me in that moment and cringed in sympathy, shaking His head and sending the most good natured of guardian angels to go unclog the drain. I ask the children to sit down at the table and fold their hands. They obediently comply, smiling sweetly at me, unaware of how tragically inept I feel at that moment. I remember then why I volunteered in the first place and feel the panic fade. Just then, their teacher walks in to find 18 quiet children, patiently waiting to go back to their classroom.  It was like I knew what I was doing for one brief, shining moment.

I tell the kids how much I appreciate their enthusiasm for our art projects and how beautifully they completed their paintings (because they honestly did—I am so proud of them!), and then tell them that just because I am not their homeroom teacher, that each and every one of her rules still apply during art, so please (PLEASE!) don’t go to the restroom without telling me where you are going. They all readily promise and sincerely thank me.  They are all so sweet.  Even the blue ones.

As I scrubbed blue paint off of the floor and the walls and the tables and the chairs and the sinks and the toilets and myself this morning, I made a mental note that Pinterest is a vindictive liar, and never to trust it again.

If you are a teacher and you are reading this, please know that you have my awestruck, eternal respect. That includes, you, Mom.  (You had to teach me!) I do not know how you do it all day long, five days a week, teachers. Seriously…how do you do it? Can you help me get through an hour without turning someone into a Smurf? Please?

I thank God for the wonderful teachers and administrators and staff who selflessly give their time, emotions, resources, and whole hearts to my kids and kids everywhere. Hats off to all of you!

Oh, look. There’s paint on my hat…

Being a Human Is Hard

Being a Human Is Hard

Have you ever stopped to think about how weird it is to cry? I mean, how did God decide that the ultimate expression of extreme human emotion would be salt water dripping uncontrollably from two tiny little drain holes in our eyes? It’s just weird. We’re happy and we cry. We’re sad and we cry. We’re in pain and we cry…

What a bunch of leaky sad sacks we are.

I hate to cry. My emotional engine typically runs at one speed, so it feels very unnatural to succumb to something that’s so…natural. The rest of my body is in agreement with me. I know, because I’m allergic to my own tears. No joke—my traitorous eye-terrorists leave little red shame trails on my face. Every. Single. Time. Since I cry approximately once every leap year, this has never been much of a problem—until recently. I seem to cry about everything lately. Happy crying. Sad crying. Stress crying. Pain crying. I don’t know who this emotional lunatic is, but I miss the old robot me.

The past couple of years have been some of the best years of my life, but some of the hardest too. In the last two years, I married the love of my life, became the stepmom of three fantastic boys, quit a job that made me want to give myself a lobotomy most days, started a job at a company that I love and respect, and became even more involved in my church and my community. All wonderful things. In the last couple of years I was also diagnosed with an incurable and wretched GI disorder, I had to all but stop running—which has been a huge part of my life for the better part of 20 years, I have had to learn how to be a stepmom to the aforementioned boys, I lost my grandmother, and my husband and I have had to juggle his self-employment with my new job and all of the stress that comes with both of our career paths, all while navigating a new marriage and blended family. It hasn’t been easy, but every moment was part of God’s plan for us. The happy, the sad, the painful and the downright stressful—all part of the plan. Just knowing that makes everything seem much more manageable, doesn’t it?

Through all of this, even on my worst SOD day, I’ve kept my emotions in check for the most part. I cried when my grandma passed away, and even then the feeling was so foreign that it almost felt like someone else was operating my face. Don’t get me wrong– I love my family so much that it scares me sometimes, but my tear ducts haven’t traditionally felt obligated to weigh in—that’s all.

Today, I wrote down every stressful or nervous or negative thought that crossed my mind during the day. I was amazed at the extent of the thoughts I had. Looking at that list, I realized just how trapped I am inside my own stoicism. I think mothers feel like it’s their duty to keep it all together sometimes. I know I do. When I can’t keep it together, and it all starts leaking out my stupid face, I feel like I have failed somehow, and my “Pillar of Strength” merit badge has been ripped away.

Since my face isn’t really giving me a choice, and since I feel like maybe there is a lesson in here somewhere for me, I’ve decided to just let my acidic tears fall where they may . Maybe the old robot me is still in there, but this new, dribbly, soft version of me can co-exist with it. Being a human is hard, but what a blessing it is to feel things worth crying about, right? It reminds us of what we have to lose, what means the most to us, and the grace we’re given to overcome the hard times. If you’re feeling like you’ve misplaced your robot too, I’ve got a box of Kleenex with your name on it.

Okay, half a box.

Two. Two used Kleenexes with your name on them.

Rip off that hero badge, mama.

Mommy 2.0

Mommy 2.0

I hear other mothers talk about how they limit the time their kids are allowed to use electronics to 10 minutes a day, or only on Saturdays, or only when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with Mars–but only if it’s on a Tuesday.

Friends, I am not that mother. I would like to be, but it is with great mom-shame that I tell you that sometimes I use my kids’ iPads (yes, they have their own) as babysitters, teachers, bribes and the carrots at the end of the stick that is parenting tedium. Don’t get me wrong—we have rules about our electronics, and the kids are expected to follow them. Our rules are just a little…looser than some of my other mom friends’ rules.

In our house “One more word and you lose the Xbox” elicits an immediate and intentional silence that even the crickets don’t dare violate. “Do you want to lose the iPad?” has the same weight as “Do you want to be dipped in boiling oil?” The behavior in question magically vanishes, and my previously unruly child stares up at me with the face of a sweet cherub.

In my kids’ defense, they really are bright and creative and active. Although there are days when I have to pry their electronics out of their white-knuckled grips and drag them outside as they blink up at the sun like little zombies, those days are rare. As all moms do though, I feel that sense of “I’m the biggest failure that ever failed a fail” when it comes to most things (why do we do that to ourselves?) and I aspire to impose stricter limits on electronics. Oh, but then I have an emergency conference call. I have to run across town for an unexpected errand. The dog eats 7 smoke-bombs and starts vomiting neon projectiles (true story). The point is that life gets in the way of good intentions and I hand over the iPads in defeat.

I am not making excuses for myself in the areas in which I need to improve. Life is never going to stop being crazy—we just have to find new ways to cope with it and become the next “better” version of ourselves. One thing that we all have in common is that we want to do our very best for our kids. If my best today is “watch a movie while Mommy picks Legos out of the garbage disposal” then that’s my best, and I have to be okay with that.

I picture my inner critic as June Cleaver. White apron, immaculate hair, perfectly-applied red lipstick… I hate her. She smells like fresh-baked banana bread and judgment, and she is always staring down her perfect little nose, telling me what I should have done and tsk-tsk-ing at my failures. You know what, June? My kids might have permanent grass stains on their behinds (it’s possible—trust me), and they might be able to quote the NFL Bad Lip Reading videos verbatim (if you’ve never seen them, they’re HILARIOUS–but, I digress). They might be missing 2.5 buttons at any given time, and it’s 50/50 if they remembered to flush the potty, but they are loved and they love fiercely in return. Their little hearts are pure and sweet and focused on Jesus—even at their young ages. For every moment that they cause another gray hair to pop out like a turkey timer on my head, they give me a thousand moments of warmth that make June’s banana bread look like a pile of regurgitated smoke-bombs.

It’s not easy going through your parents’ divorce. When you add on a new stepparent and step siblings, life really gets interesting. I am not one to embrace change. I often wonder how I would have reacted as a child if my parents had divorced and remarried. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have been very pretty.

One of things I am most proud of is for the way that all five of our children have adjusted to life in our blended family. We all still struggle in different ways and at different intensities, but I am so proud of them for continually adapting with such grace. (Do me favor please, and remind me of that the next time they are all in the car, arguing about who gets to sit where while I rock back and forth in the passenger seat, pulling out my eyelashes.) The bottom line is that all seven of us continue to develop new, improved versions of ourselves. Our 2.0’s. We work on our “bug-fixes” and make adjustments where we need a little tweaking.

Mommy 2.0 might not be able to get the kids to flush, or to stop running around in the yard in their socks, but she’s okay with that. Who knows? She might even bake banana bread.