Having “the Poor” with Us

We finished the “Questions of Travel” series a couple of weeks ago with very little fanfare from me since it hit just at the end of school; I hope you will go back and reread the many brilliant entries in that series. It is one of the things I’m the most proud of on the internet in my short time blogging–bringing these voices together in a discussion that was as complex and nuanced as it has been seems to me a real triumph. Thanks to the many contributors–what a great gift you’ve given us.

I had a conversation with my oldest daughter (who goes by Noelle on this blog) that I thought summarized so perfectly how I wanted to end this series. She’s been attending a VBS at another church this week (it’s awesome). But she came out on Wednesday really frustrated.

“Mom, why do I have to give all of my stuff to the poor?”

We talked about giving things away that we didn’t need.

“No, not that. My art. Why do I have to give my art away to the poor? I like my drawings. I made them. I don’t want to give them to poor people.”

It took awhile for me to figure out her VBS teacher kept some of her drawings to send to “the poor.” I asked Noelle to consider a little bit more about sharing and how her lovely pictures might bless people’s lives. I’m still not sure exactly what the teacher said to her; I’m always learning to filter what my kids say, so I don’t really know what comment it was that set her off. But after we talked about giving drawings away to her grandparents and cousins and friends, Noelle sighed as she grabbed my hand to cross the street.

“I like giving my drawings to people I know. But I don’t want to give it to poor people. Who are poor people, anyway?”

I looked at this child who plays weekly with Burmese refugees in an apartment complex that many suburban moms might consider unsafe but that she runs through with the familiarity of her favorite playscape. Her best friends from kindergarten speak Spanish and most of them live at the trailer park that borders her amazingly diverse public school. When we go on playgrounds, she doesn’t realize it yet, but she is always drawn to the people who are different from her, who speak other languages, who don’t dress the same.

This kid has no idea who “poor” people are. We’ve never drawn those categories. We talk about difference and celebrate skin colors and languages and cultures, but there is no rich and poor, as far as I know, in her six-year-old mind.

I squeezed her hand. “You know what? Let’s not worry about the poor. Thanks so much for sharing your drawing–you’re going to make someone very happy whoever they are.”

I love that my kids see no rich or poor, no us and them, just friends who are different. Someday we will have to talk about these things, but for now, we’re going to enjoy the easy friendships of this mixed-together lifestyle. It’s not always easy, but it’s the kind of life I would pick again and again for us–having the poor just be the people in our lives that we love.

 

 

 

Till We Have One Face

I sometimes feel like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. (No, I’m not a cross-dressing nanny.) There’s a scene in that movie when he scheduled a job interview as himself at the same time as lunch with the family as Mrs. Doubtfire. He runs back and forth to the bathroom, changing clothes, face, and personality, until finally it all starts to fall apart. His face mask askew, he can’t keep it up any more.

My grad school world and church world have conflicting cultural expectations of me and, honestly, it stresses me out sometimes. Everyone has different conversations depending on your surroundings. But for me and so many women like me, the cultural differences are stark between our professional lives and our church settings.

I’m a card-carrying member of both a liberal academic world and a conservative Christian one. I feel like a secret spy. I have to nod and smile at things “we all” agree with that are totally different from one group to another.  I’ve been thinking about making a t-shirt: “I’m the liberal-leaning, conservative-church-attending, social-justice-loving, feminist-egalitarian-who-still-respects-the-slow-thoughtful-process-of-the-church, Democrat-but-sometimes-Republican-who-thinks-abortion-is-more-complicated-than-the-media-portrays Christian that your mama warned you about.”

(It’s a work in progress.)

I teach an essay by Stephen Greenblatt in my college English class titled “Culture.” He gives four terms that you can use to see what a culture values and how it defines itself: constraint (things that are taboo or just not done), mobility (things that are permissible and easy to do), praise (when a group reacts positively to something you’re doing) and blame (when a group reacts negavitely). The constraints and mobility, praise and blame are markers of cultural boundaries.

I know when I do something that is valued in graduate school because people sit forward, lean in, talk more, listen up. I’m most often praised for articulate teaching, thoughtful solutions to difficult problems, or being appropriately and professionally assertive. I know how to be both funny and authoritative as a teacher; it’s taken me a long time to learn how to walk this line. The praise I receive shows the values in that culture: smart, articulate people are praised and their gender has NOTHING to do with it. It would be deeply offensive to think it might.

These same qualities are not praised generally in my church setting. I have several people who know me well and might compliment me on occasion for something I’ve said in class (just like I’d compliment them for an insightful comment), but our church as a culture doesn’t value the same attributes I’m cultivating in grad school. I’ve learned to qualify my remarks, to speak softly so I don’t come across as assertive, to talk about my children more than anything else, because being a supportive wife and mother is what I’m taught by broad church culture is valued. Sometimes it’s implicit—a raised eyebrow or pause after a comment shows blame, a leaning-in or effusive response shows praise. We all know the signs, we can tell when we’ve made a faux pas or said something wrong. And I can tell when I’m in church and I say something that is a bit taboo, a bit too much.

It’s hard to keep my mask on some days.

I live in a place of cultural tension. As a Christian woman who attends a church which is not egalitarian, I face the gendered constraint of not being allowed to do the things my husband can do. I sometimes face the underlying blame of not being a stay-at-home mom. I am most often praised for my domestic pursuits. (I love that my husband usually cooks food for potlucks and I get the praise. That one is awesome.)

At the same time, I face the blame from my grad school friends of attending a church that doesn’t allow what they (and I) consider basic civil rights to women, or I would if I talked about it with most of them. It’s not a subject I bring up very much. I’ve spent hours explaining to one of my best friends why I choose to attend a church that doesn’t share our feminist values. Why, she wonders,  would I subject myself to a constraint I don’t need to? The truth is nuanced and difficult to explain: how I love this church and I understand the complexity of this issue, how I’m committed to being a part of a cultural shift through prayer and thoughtful engagement. Unless you’re in the system, it’s so hard to grasp why in the world you’d stay.

I want to have one face. I want to be the same thoughtful, articulate, professional woman who adores her children in both of my worlds. It’s easier in grad school than church, which bothers me. To change our broader culture will require a major shift on the part of many churches, mine included.

We have to consciously praise women, young and old, who speak out or speak up or use their voices.

We have to praise women who are single for their faithfulness to the Lord rather than just asking them when they’re going to get married.

We have to praise women who wait to have babies for a time while they work on their careers because they earnestly desire to serve God with their talents as much as men do.

We have to praise women who choose not to have babies at all or cannot have them rather than quietly shutting them out of our social circles.

We have to praise men who work hard to support their wives, like my fabulous husband, rather than worrying about whether they’re “man enough” (one man in another church told Jonathan once he couldn’t follow me to graduate school because he was the MAN. Seriously.)

We have to praise women who want to be missionaries or ministers or teachers and open the same doors for them, just as easily and just as widely, as we would for their male counterparts. Whether they’re married or not, God has plenty of room for anyone willing to use their gifts to further the kingdom.

We have to talk to little girls about career paths that include vocations both within and without the church that serve God well. That way, when the time comes, they can make an informed choice–to stay home with their own children for a season, to work outside the home, to get married or not, just as they and the Lord see fit. For my own daughters, I hope they will have the freedom to do a little bit of everything, just like I do.

But I hope the transitions between their worlds is a bit smoother by then. I hope our cultural boundaries of what is OK and what is not have broadened for women. Perhaps they will have the chance to face their church without a mask, as mothers or not, as teachers or not, as speakers or not, but always as themselves, as the lovely gifted woman God has made them to be.

I pray it is so.

***

Rachel Held Evans’s #mutuality2012 week has kind of wrecked my blogging plans. I’m so glad. I’ve discovered so many thoughtful writers this week–it’s good to feel like we’re in this together.

Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

My name is Jessica, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.

I had a perfect day once. I woke up early to work out. I made a healthy breakfast. I read books to my daughter for an hour. I played the piano while a bird came and tweeted on the fence outside the window (really). I ate lunch with a friend. I came home to put my daughter down for a nap and made a delicious dinner, which we ate leisurely. We all went to bed at a reasonable hour. There were no fits, not crises, no angry-Mommy-tirades. It was a dreamy day.

It happened in June 2007. My oldest daughter was six months old. Now she’s five.

Enough said.

I want to do things right. I want to be more patient. I want to be more whimsical and spontaneous. I want to play educational games with my kids instead of watching TV. I want to serve gourmet meals instead of heating up chicken nuggets.

I also want to spend time laughing with my friends over drinks while wearing sparkly earrings. I want to write a brilliant dissertation. I want to be the best part-time grad school instructor ever. I want to run a non-profit that quietly changes the world.

I want my life to look like this:

Source: The Container Store

Instead, I feel like it looks more like this:

Source: Houston Press Review of “Hoarding: Buried Alive”

My wise friend Caren told me when our daughters were tiny, when we first started visiting refugees, that she was a recovering perfectionist. (She has a gift for mantras.) The power of that statement grew on me slowly, like wasabi that you barely taste at first and then explodes in your mouth.

I decided then and there to join the club, to take the pledge, to start the twelve steps–I was tired of being a victim of my addiction to perfection.

Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a mom. It means I have to watch myself around certain places, like an alcoholic who walks regretfully away from a bar. I can’t spend too much time on Pinterest, that glittery land where perfectionists rule. I barely go there at all. When I do, I can feel the tension rising in my neck, the twitchy fingers aching to execute that cake or that sock puppet or that cereal box organizer. It means I limit my friends–I can’t be around people who might lead me back into my old life of guilt over my own unmet standards. I like best the people who are real, who don’t have time to judge, who couldn’t care less about comparing our lives.

It means I have to accept myself for what I am–a loving, devoted, active, engaged, flawed, impatient, learning mom.

Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a grad student. I admit this is hardest for me, because I work in a field where perfect is the accepted measure of work. To be anything less than a highstrung, obsessively devoted scholar and writer feels like a failure to me. I feel pressure to be the job, to live, sleep, eat and breathe the job. Except I don’t and I can’t. Though sometimes I still stare at a blank page, paralyzed by my inability to write dazzling prose at the drop of a hat, I’m learning that getting it done is more important than getting it right.

It means I have to accept that perfection doesn’t come instantly, but is the result of revision and great editing, whether in my dissertation or other types of writing. No one ever writes anything perfectly the first time.

Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a non-profit director. In this, I’m so blessed to work with Caren. We walk away from things ALL THE TIME. We don’t walk away from people–that’s why we’ve started this tiny non-profit despite kids and part-time jobs. But we do walk away from all of the “shoulds” that people keep throwing at us: how we should grow, how we should change, how we should sell products in this shop or that boutique, how we should streamline our process, how we should be doing what we do but better and more. We admit that we’re doing this poorly much of the time–neither of us can do basic math, for heaven’s sake. Our artisans are impeccable and driven and would make endless amounts of products if we’d let them, but we stop ourselves constantly so that our growth is sustainable and empowering.

It means we have to set limits and stick to them and accept that we are less perfect than many of the bigger, flashier or more influential examples we see. Slowly, inch by inch, we’re growing a non-profit that is rooted in relationships with our artisans, with our kids and families, and with each other.

Being a recovering perfectionist has changed the way I view myself as a woman. My hair is grayer and my eyes more wrinkled every year. My body is flabbier than I’d like it to be. No matter how many sit-ups I do (OK, not many), I still have to suck my belly into my jeans some days. My skin is pale and vericose veins form elaborate roadmaps behind my knees.

It means I accept that I am poweful and gorgeous and spectacular. Even when (or especially when) I don’t look in the mirror and see the ridiculously perfect and totally imaginary woman our society values. My body has birthed babies, my eyes are marked by thousands of grins and giggles, my gray hairs go along with the experience I have earned.  I value these hands that pat sleepy backs when I tuck in babies, these arms that are only muscular because I pick up squirming toddlers and stacks of books, these feet that have walked grooves in the nursery floor. I find beauty in this voice that sings lullabies, this hair that is usually back in a hasty bun, these unplucked eyebrows, these fading blue eyes, these dark circles that show that I work on things I adore while my kids are sleeping, these chipped fingernails that tap-tap-tap on my computer with an intoxicating rhythm. I see perfection in this body, lovely in its quirky imperfections.

Being a recovering perfectionist means that when I look at the future, I stop trying to predict what will happen, when my next baby will fly home with us from China, what job I’ll get when I graduate that will let me earn money while living out my crazy callings, what schools my kids will go to, what trips we’ll take to get away, what friends we’ll make, what house we’ll live in, what our lives will look like tomorrow and in ten years and forever.

I’m tempted to do those things; sometimes I do. I worry and I fuss and I guilt and I judge. And I also regret and get back on the wagon. Because living a life free of addiction and comparison and impossible standards is more important to me than being perfect.

Taking a Minute

Sometimes in the mad, mad rush of my daily life, giving my babies my all and squashing the rest in the tiny margins I leave, I  breathe in and am grateful.

It’s not easy, but I’m doing this thing. I’m raising these babies with this intriguing man who fascinates and pushes and engages me daily and who loves us enough to hold two girls in his lap at lunch so I could finish my taco in peace.

I’m writing these words. I’m teaching these students. I’m loving these women with whom I’m forging a beautiful and unlikely community.

I think that if little Jessica could have known those many years ago when she worried where she’d end up, she’d be pretty glad.

Walking down this gorgeous hallway outside my cube, in the cool of a spring evening on my way to teach, I felt deeply, deeply grateful to be this girl in this life with these people.

Ado Annie and Me

We recently watched Oklahoma! on AMC with my little girls. First of all, I forgot how classist that movie is (the hired hand will always be “other,” and therefore evil–isolationism in action). Second of all, we had a blast. My girls danced and danced to the music and they’ve been singing “The Farmer and the Cowman should be friends” ever since. There’s no plot to speak of, but the music is so much fun.

Watching the movie, I thought how much I have in common with Ado Annie, not in terms of romantic love, but in terms of my career. Unlike Ado Annie, I’m a one-man girl (have you met my husband? He’s hot AND he does all the grocery shopping. No competition.) Like Ado Annie, I love whatever job I’m with. I keep thinking I want to quit one, but I can’t bring myself to do that. How can I when I love them each for different reasons? I keep thinking I’m going to have to make a decision–non-profit director? college professor? writer? With a couple of current exceptions (I could do without my dissertation, for example) I love every single thing I do every day.

Some of these options are not going to change. I will always be a mom. I will always structure my life so that my kids get the most from me. That leaves very little time, after building awesome ships to explore the ocean in from our living room…

…and taking walks in the bluebonnets…

…for my other jobs. That’s why I think I should choose, or at least have some directions. I’m about to graduate with my doctorate! Isn’t it about time I know what I want to be when I grow up?

I’ve been thinking this for awhile lately. Part of this is because I’m in a grad program that is full of people who found what they wanted to do when they walked into the doors of our department. I did too, completely–teaching is my everything. When I’m doing it. And then, when I leave to work with our artisans, I think, “No, this is it!” I feel that way about writing too. I could do it all day and all night. Sigh. Here I am, Ado Annie again. Why can’t I be an expert in one thing, like most of the people I know in grad school? I’ve had several concerned comments over the years that my being involved on a professional level with so many different activities is going to make it more difficult for me to get an academic job, since scholarship is supposed to be the only thing we’re interested in.

I’ve been reading (very slowly!) The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In it he talks about three different types of people, Mavens, Connectors and Salespeople. I realize he’s talking about a very select few, the rare people who make change happen, but I think his categories can be applied in smaller communities as well. I realized this week that I am in a world of Mavens, who are deep experts in one field and who love to help give information to other people. I, however, am a Connector. I love to know people from several different worlds. I’ve never fit into just one. When I was in college, I was a member of several different groups. I know people from all walks of life. I love to bring them together and introduce them together, the same way I like eating pears and red onions–I like the way unusual things work together.

Maybe, being a connector is part of why I feel like Ado Annie all the time. Maybe it’s an inability to choose but an innate desire to be in so many worlds that is part of who I am. I hope so, at least. Otherwise, I’m just a girl who “cain’t say no.”

Why I’ve Stayed

I originally published this post in January as a way of articulating some of my reasons to remain in both my local church and as part of a more traditional church. I took it down because it felt too vague and out of context, so I’ve made some important changes to that original post. I was thinking at the time of a conversation about the emerging church movement and how many of my good friends intentionally left behind the more established churches in order to begin new church plants in cities around the country. We were missionaries for awhile in Brazil, and then came back to a U.S. church that was losing people in our generation right and left to start new churches or for other reasons. We stuck around. Looking back, here are some of the reasons why:

I’d love to say I stayed a member at established churches because of some thoughtful theological reasons. Mostly, it’s for practical reasons: we didn’t live in the same place long enough to start any churches like the emerging church friends I admired. Then, when we whipped from Brazil  to the US to Chile to Texas, established churches were our instant family. Interestingly, the churches that looked most like us were the most different from our worldview. My comfort zone is probably more in line with missionary-established churches in South America, with their amazing racial and socioeconomic diversity, than in the upper-class suburban white churches we found.

People asked us the two times we came back from South America if we were glad to be home. I remember staring blankly at someone–home is the church where I grew up where women can teach and questions are asked, or the communities in Brazil and Chile that loved and welcomed us immediately. Rich white churches in the middle of suburbia that didn’t know what to do with us took awhile to feel like home.

But they did, in time. And it’s not like I made it easy. My precious church in the American South has no idea how much I judged them; it breaks my heart to think back on it. I saw women who were content to be silent, who let the men eat first at small group while the women stayed behind to chat, then cleaned up. I saw young mothers who stayed at home with three or four tiny children. I saw a sea of white people in the midst of a black neighborhood and the largest population of Hispanic immigrants in the region.

They saw a girl come in who wore professional clothes when the young moms were lucky to have brushed their teeth before our weekly women’s Bible studies; they wondered if I was one of those “feminists” they’d been warned about (I was). Some of them pitied me for having to work and support a husband who was in school when it should have been him supporting me at home with babies (a Bible class teacher told me that once). They assumed I couldn’t have children (they asked me how long I’d been struggling with infertility–I was 25). We were in the midst of a serious culture clash–I felt left out, they felt unsure. Praise the Lord for the older women who took us all under their wings.

I will never forget the night I aired my grievances aloud over dinner to my favorite mentor in our church. She listened quietly as I railed. I already had some great friends who broke the mold, but I was reacting against what I saw as the pervasive culture in the church. We had just finished a Bible study in which we’d learned to be better supporters for our husbands, who were designed by God to be wild at heart (still don’t agree with that one) and it sent me over the edge. I talked and talked and talked. Finally, her hands folded gently in her lap, she called me out. She told me I had no idea what I was talking about. She pushed my view of these women, who I had known for months, with stories of what she had seen for years. The growth they’d experienced, the changes they had made, the difference they made in the lives of neighbors and friends, the Spanish-speaking Bible study going on in one house I didn’t know about, the marriage that God had transformed after an affair, the adoption stories that pervaded the congregation, the complexity and life God was drawing forth in this church.

Praise the Lord for her. She took me down and changed me, as iron sharpens iron. She gave me new eyes to see the church I was in. It was not my life–we knew we were only going to be there for two years–but it was a good life for this community. Of course it was small, but it was also intimate and generous. In the short time I’d been there, they’d carved a large space for me, whether I deserved it or not. That conversation allowed me to grow deeply in love with that church. We already knew the preaching was fantastic (the best we’ve heard before or since) and that many of the people were wonderfully like-minded. But she opened my eyes to see the rest of the group, the ones who felt so different from me. They might have watched Fox news and voted Republican, but all of us were being acted upon and changed by God (and I bet she told them to accept the CNN-watching, Democrat-voting, feminist-view-spouting girl, too). And now, amazingly, the church I felt might be too conservative has since hired a woman as their youth minister. I assumed they fit into a stereotype that they didn’t. I was wrong.

It took me two years to get over leaving the church I once thought I could never belong in.

This, to me, is the heart of church. If it hadn’t been for that life lesson, I might have stayed angry, allowed my stereotypes to change the way I view God’s people. They may not agree with me, they may not look like me, they may not think like me, but this is not a club of like-minded people, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis. Our differences are our strength. God’s body is much more glorious and complex than I saw in my youth and my judgment.

So if you’re walking back in or looking at us from the outside, give us a chance. We may look like we’ve bought into the system, but I guarantee there are more of us than you think who are resisting from the inside. We are deeper than we look on the surface. We fight injustice with casseroles. We deliver light with hospital visits. We change lives by holding hands and holding babies. We are ugly and old and wrinkled, or young and too dressed up and distracted by our children. We are not living the lives you think we should live. We’re probably not living the lives WE think we should live. But God is working in us, that I can promise. And the story, when it’s all played out, is going to be bigger and more beautiful than any of us can imagine.

This American Life

“I really can’t bear much of American life these days—surely no country has ever been so filthy rich and so hideously uncomfortable at the same time”  (Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to Robert Lowell from Brazil, August 1957).

The Brazilian consulate in Houston lost our passports on September 12, 2001. That’s right, the day after 9/11. It’s no wonder, then, that it took us four long months to get new passports. We were moving to Brazil and we were supposed to arrive on September 20. Instead, we got there in early December 2001.

Being in Brazil just a few months after 9/11 was really touching. People would stop my husband and me on the street to ask us if we were Americans and tell us they were praying for our country. We were so blessed by the way people talked about our country for the next year. The world was behind us and we felt it in our little town.

The international mood had shifted by March 23, 2003. That’s the month George Bush and the U.S. government declared war on Iraq. I watched as friends and loved ones participated in a series of protests that eventually became one of the largest world-wide protests in history. They were shouting against my country all over the world.

File:Die In.jpg

Source: wikipedia.org

A couple of weeks later at a table at a youth camp, a Christian woman whose opinions I valued more than most people I know turned to me and said in all seriousness, “American culture is the cancer of the world.” She meant it and she expected me to agree with her. I was surprised to find myself really offended. When I disagreed, she spent the rest of the night telling me how awful my country was.

Though I can be pretty patriotic, I am usually among the first to criticize our American culture. And I was (and am) vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq; if I had been in the U.S., I would certainly have gone to protest. But living in Brazil it was a bit different. It felt like someone was talking bad about my mom all over the world. It’s one thing for me to talk about my family; it’s another thing for other people to do it. So when she told me that my culture was the cancer of the world, I got angry and huffy.

It still makes me mad. And I don’t agree with her. But I think she made some excellent points in that conversation I’ve been thinking about ever since, about our colonial viewpoints and our self-centeredness and our navel-gazing. And despite the fact that I was too frustrated to really respond well in Portuguese, I do think it’s important for me to hear and acknowledge other people’s criticisms of my culture.

For me, the most important thing about living in Brazil was realizing that my normal wasn’t everyone else’s normal. I don’t think most Americans realize that our culture isn’t normal. Look at us–we even use the word “American” as if we’re the only people on this continent. We’re a pretty insular bunch. Most Americans I know don’t speak another language. It’s not easy or convenient to travel to another country, like it is in Europe or places in South America and Asia. We’re used to being the center of the media world. My favorite question came at a high school movie night in Brazil with our youth group: “Why are Americans always saving the rest of the world from aliens?”

That’s a really good question.

Jonathan’s answer at the time: because we’re the ones making the movies. My answer now: it’s one of our tropes, the white savior trope. (I’ll be getting to that later this week.)

My point is not that we should hate our culture, just that we should recognize that our culture is not normal. Yes, it’s our normal, but it’s not everyone’s normal. It’s not the viewpoint everyone uses when they’re seeing the world. There are so many ways this plays out, but I think the first step in having a good conversation about how we as Western Christians talk about the poor is to recognize that we use a very specific constructed viewpoint. It’s not God’s viewpoint, it’s an American Christian viewpoint. As Western, rich, privileged Christians who grew up with specific narratives about faith and pioneers, faith and soldiers, faith and conquerors, we have a very specific way of speaking about the rest of the world. There are phrases we use and ideas we hold that are specific to our historical and social moment.

It doesn’t mean our culture is wrong–I don’t think American culture is the cancer of the world (though I’ve read a lot of anthropologists lately who might disagree with that). It just means our normal is not everyone’s normal. Our expectations and viewpoints and values are not shared by everyone else in the world. Realizing that is the first step in a constructive conversation about poverty in our churches.

Coming soon: how World War II shapes our narrative of national identity. (No, really, this is going to be fun, I promise!)

My Own Privilege

To round out my seek of identity posts based on “The Awakening,” I just want to add that my education and my background and even my skin color give me privileges that I need to be aware of. So often I see blogs about being stay-at-home moms that don’t recognize the economic privilege that we have that enables us to spend most of our time at home with our kids. I work part-time, a luxury I choose because my husband has a lovely flexible job that enables him to also be with our children, and we make enough money to afford a home that, while pretty small by US middle-class standards, is enormous and decadent compared to most places in the world.

The first part of privilege is identifying it. I need to be able to say that I realize that staying-at-home, even part time, is not a choice most of the women in the world are able to make. And as a Christian who feels called to make a difference, I think I need to do something with my comparative wealth and privilege. That’s part of why we started Hill Tribers. It’s part of why we’re adopting. It’s also part of why we struggle to know whether we’re doing enough. Because while we look at the white privileged culture around us and think we might not be doing enough to “keep up with the Joneses,” in reality our lives are very, very cushy. And I don’t want to feel guilty about it, I want to feel proactive.

Identifying my privilege allows me to resist the desire for more and better and pushes me to use what I have to bless others.

Mommy Identity

I hadn’t thought about losing or reclaiming my identity when I entered into motherhood. We just wanted a baby. But in the years since I became a mother, I’ve been shocked by the depths of the identity crises I see around me. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

But it’s not just motherhood that impacts my identity. In the last ten years, I’ve been a graduate student, non-profit director, writer, English teacher, missionary, editor, and stay-at-home mom, all while being a wife, daughter, sister, friend and Christian. Each of these roles have been attached to a specific culture with clearly understood cultural values and identity markers.

And we live in a culture where we identify ourselves daily. We write and shape the narrative of our identities by the clothes we wear, the events we attend, the way we update our facebook, who we follow on Twitter, how we blog about ourselves. How we present ourselves has never been as important as it is in our media-saturated, wordy world.  Navigating the roles in my life has wrung me out.

This is not about self-esteem, and it’s certainly not about post-partum depression, which is a unique and discrete category (a clinical diagnosis shouldn’t be confused with identity issues because of change, even if some of the language is the same). It’s about having to choose between multiple identities that I find most stressful and most interesting about my stage of life. I truly had no idea five years ago, when I was a few months away from having my first child, that I would have to stake out this identity for myself.

None of the books really covered that part.

What to Expect When You're Expecting Cover.jpg

What about you? What issues of identity have you had to wrestle with? Has it been stressful? Freeing? Both?

A Skinny Girl, Sitting on a Train, Going Someplace

I adore my children fiercely. I cannot imagine life without their precious, precocious, hilarious antics every day. And the moment I blogged about yesterday, in the Cracker Barrel parking lot, was certainly not the worst or the craziest thing my kids have done or will do. It wasn’t the worst diaper or the worst fit I had faced; Noelle threw a bigger fit about taking a bath that night.

The frustration I felt was at a deeper level, triggered by, but not really about, my children’s diapers and fits that day. I framed my frustration in terms of identity, which is something that has stood out to me over the years in the many moments I’ve felt that way. In the Cracker Barrel parking lot, I didn’t think to myself “I can’t believe they’re acting this way” or “I hope those people don’t think I’m crazy.” I thought, “I don’t want to be this girl.”

I was in what is one of the most difficult periods of new motherhood, in my experience. The baby was four months old, which meant I had lost some of my baby weight, but not most of it. I didn’t look like I expected to look when I saw myself in the mirror. I was in the middle of a maternity leave from graduate school, which meant it had been months since I’d felt like an adult in an adult world. For six months with Joy and eight months with Noelle, I moonlighted as a true stay-at-home mom while dealing with post-partum exhaustion. I was trying to stay showered and sane, but there had been times when I had been smart and confident and I felt that girl slipping away from me more and more.

I knew who she was though, the ”girl” I always wanted to be. I summed it up to my best friend a few weeks later, when the baby had not slept for what seemed like days and we were in the middle of the summer doldrums: “I want to be a skinny girl sitting on a plane going someplace.”

I had been that person once, the kind of girl who could pack for an international trip in two hours, who looked forward to train trips because they meant intriguing people, a good book and some coffee. I wore the same clothes I’d had since high school and they still fit. I thought things to myself and wrote them down in a notebook, important and deep observational thoughts. I curled up in a corner of the train seat to take a nap because I was sleepy. I was young, curly-haired, skinny and alone.

I know who I am, what I love, and where I want to go. Like pictures in a scrapbook, I can recount the times I’ve felt most like myself:

–I woke up in an overnight train in Thailand and caught my breath at the wonder of the sun rising over water-filled rice fields.

From visualtourist.com

–Once, after I was married and living in Brazil, I had a conversation with four of my favorite Brazilian girls in the world in which no one listened to each other, and everyone talked as loud as they could, and used their hands as much as possible—I laughed so hard my sides hurt and Portuguese flowed from my lips like honey.

–Also in Brazil, I can see myself teaching twenty children’s home kids, hearing my English phrases repeated back with enthusiastic if horribly wrong pronunciation.

–Every cold day in a city reminds me of the many, many solitary walks I took in Santiago, Chile in the winter when we lived there and Jonathan worked all day. I found an English bookstore once that had a used copy of Francois Mauriac’s compiled writings that I bought and devoured in two days straight.

This picture, from the wikipedia entry on Santiago, looks identical to the view from our apartment–those nightclubs, like the “Boomerang,” used to keep us up EVERY NIGHT. The mountains over the city were gorgous, though.

–My second class teaching at the big university where I work, with the first day jitters behind me, we had a rocking discussion in my class and I began to have some inkling of how deeply I loved teaching.

–Walking across campus every time after I teach is euphoric; I have a sense of purpose and peace I never have in any other time.

That is the “girl” I felt like I was losing—bookish, relational, traveling, teaching, writing, thinking, me.

And then, one winter when my friend Nyssa visited, I added another memory to my favorite identity scrapbook.

–It had snowed, which is rare in Austin, and I dressed the girls in their warmest clothes. We went to meet Nyssa’s new baby at the hotel where her little family was staying while they were here. Waiting for the elevator, without my asking them to, on either side of me, my small girls reached out and took my hands. We held hands all the way up the elevator, through the hallway, to the door of Nyssa’s room.

The simplicity of walking with my children holding hands in the hallway took my breath away. I am also this “girl,” and she’s a mother, and she’s doing just fine.

Tomorrow: I’m not the only one who struggled with identity issues.