The Ninety-First Letter: Birthdays Are Not the Most Important Thing

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Dear Daughters,

Flashback to the morning of the eldest’s birthday:

Bean: My birthday is the best day of the whole year.

Me: What about Christmas?

Bean: Jesus was born.

Me: What about Easter?

Bean: Jesus rose from the dead.

Me: Yeah, so I think you won’t be getting your birthday into the top two days of the year any time soon. Sorry.

And then you told me that your dad had basically said the exact same thing to you last night.

So he and I are on the same page. #parentingwin

Girls, you’ve both had birthdays in the last few weeks. I love that you have them less than two weeks apart. And they’re bookended by birthdays of one of your grandpas and one of your grandmas. It makes it feel like this is “birthday season,” in addition to the Kentucky Derby, the college graduation, your piano recital, Mothers Day… sigh. So. Many. Things.

We didn’t have a party, but I did try to go out of my way to make sure you felt special, because I know we don’t do a lot of gifts. (Intentionally so, but more on that later.)

You got to drink chocolate milk in the morning, which is unusual for house, even though I’m pretty sure you know other kids get it regularly. You got to pick your birthday dinners and the colors of your birthday cake—hotdogs and macaroni and cheese and grapes and a purple cake with pink icing; pancakes and egg casserole followed by vanilla cake with white icing—and we had our sweet friends over to share it with us. We had small presents for you both—plastic dinosaurs and playdoh; artsy science books and a nature journal—and our friends made themed birthday hats for us related to your interests of dinosaurs and birds. In fact, I am not exaggerating when I tell you that there is still a giant dinosaur helium balloon floating around the ceiling on the first floor that your crazy aunts brought us. Also, we did a family trip to a local animal reserve on the weekend between your birthdays; on the eldest’s actual birthday, we met some friends at the local orchard.

My point is this: we do celebrate birthdays. I feel like we celebrate them and celebrate you a lot. Just not in the presents and party sort of way that has unfortunately become the norm. (I’m not talking just in a social media out in the wide world kind of norm, but in our very own community kind of way.)

And so also this point: birthdays are not the most important thing, and if I’m going to fault on the side of anything, it’s going to be under-celebrating, rather than over-celebrating.

Not all of my mom friends agree with me. In fact, I’m pretty sure they think I’m weird on this thing.

Recently the eldest announced matter-of-factly, “Some people get hundreds of birthday presents.” It actually really bothered me that you’d said this, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I asked what you meant. You gave me the example of one of your friends’ birthday parties from a few years ago. Though there weren’t hundreds of presents at the party, it did seem excessive to me at the time, and I remember having to explain to you that there are lots of ways to celebrate birthdays. I tried to make excuses for the excess. There was an entire table of presents, a small cart of presents, presents piled under the table, and a new bicycle.

Girls, let me just clear the air: don’t ever think I’m going to let you open that many presents at one time.

That will never happen. Not on your birthday. Not on Christmases. (Okay, maybe someday if you have a baby shower or a wedding shower, but I kind of hope that I’m raising you to never want so much stuff.)

I love you very much, and your community loves you very much, and of course I’m teaching you that God loves you very much, but I promise you this: you are not that special.

In addition to being opposed to the consumerism of birthdays, the excess of the parties and gifts, I am worried about how that center-of-attention, open-all-the-presents type of party shapes children’s understanding of themselves, of how love should be expressed, and of how God calls them to live in the world among hurting people.

And I have once again crossed the line into preachiness. Sigh.

Girls, I don’t know how you’ll feel about our family traditions once you’re older. You might remember pangs of jealousy when you see others opening a ton of presents on their birthdays, when you hear how much your friends got for Christmas. (I actually look forward to being able to chat with the grown-up you about these things in the same way my parents occasionally ask me how how I used to see the world when I was a kid.)
But there’s one more thing I want to write down for posterity’s sake, so that you can get a peek into my heart.

I would actually love to buy you all the presents and give you all the presents. I see things all the time that I know you would love. They are not crappy toys made overseas by slave workers. They are learning activities, art supplies, books and books and books, solid and well-built equipment, seriously beautiful toys. When I see things I know you would love, it is hard for me not to buy it for you. But I don’t buy it for you.
I don’t buy it for you for many reasons. One, because you really have enough, and I want you to learn what it means to have enough. Two, because I truly believe that your creativity will thrive when you are free to make and do and run and design and write your own narrative. Three, because I want you to love libraries, to love playing outside, to consider the possibilities of a cardboard box, rather than read instructions on a put-together toy. Even if that toy is amazing.

What I mean is this: I love to give you gifts. Don’t ever think that it’s because I don’t like shopping that you don’t have a lot of birthday presents. (I mean, I don’t like shopping, but that’s not the reason. We do have Amazon, after all!)

And for the record, I did buy too many gifts for you this year, but after wrapping them, I decided to put them aside to save. Some of them will be given by the tooth fairy over the next year. Some of them will go with us on an upcoming trip as a special travel treat. Some of them might make it until Christmas. We’ll see. But you didn’t get them for your birthday.

So you see, I do need to keep myself in check as well. There is a tendency when you love someone to want to give them more.

Always more.

And in our world, that “more” is usually more stuff. And fancy parties.

I’m working really hard for it not to be that way in our house. It does take work. And I’m guessing you’ll have a lot of things to say about that some day.

Love,
Your Momma

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The Forty-First Letter: On Getting Comfortable & Why I Love College Students

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Dear Daughters,

Your dad and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary last weekend. And by “celebrated” I mean we got take-out blue cheese and bacon burgers from a local foodie place and ate them during your quiet time on Sunday afternoon.

Twelve years is kind of a long time, considering I am a pretty young person.

And then I realize that I turn thirty-four next week. Thirty-four years young.

Most of my friends are older than I am, so I’m not really shocked by my age. What surprises me, sometimes, is how I’m settling into this life, how I still don’t feel like a “grown-up” but I’m beginning to be content not being one.

Settling-in is a good thing.

Mostly. I’ll be the first to admit it.

It is also a bad thing. Because my life has been pretty easy so far, I’ve felt myself getting pretty comfortable, not holding myself to as high of standards, letting my convictions slide as convenience (mine, as well as yours) takes center stage. Things that are more work, which I would have always thought “worth it,” don’t always seem so anymore.

It feels weird even to admit it, because that is so not me. I have always been overflowing with conviction. Not necessarily motivation, I’ll confess, but to the extent that I have not been motivated to make a change or be the change I saw necessary, I have always been aware of the way that I was not living up to my convictions. I think I’ve always favored clarity and naivety and idealism to being practical.

Because, let’s face it. The gospel is naive, girls. Jesus is pretty naive when he calls us to give up everything, isn’t he? That’s impractical, isn’t it? We don’t hear that very often from pulpits.

I don’t think others sense it yet, this tension I’m feeling as I get comfortable in my life.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m still seen as young and a little too idealistic at, say, church committee meetings. I attend an aging church, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by me that often when I make suggestions to folks who’ve been in the church for decades, I still hear the whole “Well, fourteen years ago, we had a committee that did such and such and that’s why we don’t do it that way any more.” That just warms the cockles of my heart, as you can imagine.

Or not.

But the thing is, when I’m honest with myself, I can admit that sometimes, now that I’m in my thirties, I simply want to do the easy thing, too.

Because I can, gosh darn it.

And I don’t like the hard work and I don’t really like change.

I hate that.

But here’s something I’ve been thinking about this week: this sliding toward comfort and conservatism is precisely why I love being involved in the lives of young people. College students. Seminary students. Young people who think that they can change the world–believe that the world can be changed–take seriously their role and their convictions.

They hold me to a higher standard.

They hold all of us to a higher standard.

And yet we so often discount what they have to say, without really listening. We look down on young people because their existence among us is often transient, and they seem too idealistic, and besides, what do they know about what it means to save for retirement or pay for health insurance?

Exactly.

They don’t know. And so they can be a lot less jaded than we are. We who have so much invested in our comfort, we who have worked hard for stability. Someone’s gotta pay the electric bill in our air-conditioned churches, right?

Ah, now I am getting preachy. There’s that old soapbox feeling again.

I imagine that when you read these letters, you yourself will be a young person. That’s why I wanted to write this one. I was imagining you as young women with conviction, with articulate voices, calling me to a higher standard. And I wanted to give you permission to stand firm, even when others say that you are young and naive and impractical.

I really hope you call me to a higher standard. I really hope your voices are charged with dissatisfaction with the way things are and hope at the way things could be. I hope you read scripture and see the disconnect with the way it is so often lived in this world. I hope you see a path forward, and I hope you are lights on that path for others.

For the old folks.

That is, for me.

I hope I will be able to hear you. I hope I will be challenged by you. I hope you’ll make me a little bit uncomfortable.

Because that is how it should be.

Thanks in advance, girls.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Seventeenth Letter: My 33rd Birthday

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Dear Daughters,

Today is my 33rd birthday.

When I was pregnant the first time around, I attended a (very) brief set of classes for expectant moms at our local hospital. Of the three other young women in the class, all of them looked about twelve to me. They were probably more like 18 or so, but I was nearly 30. That’s a pretty big difference. I was the only attendee who came with questions about hospital protocol and expectations, and I’m guessing the only one with pretty strong feelings about her birth plan. I might have been the only one who was married.

At my next doctor’s appointment, I asked my OB if I was old to be having a baby. He said no—he had lots of patients much older than I was. But when I told him about how young the other women seemed in the hospital class, he qualified his earlier statement: “I guess you are relatively old to be having your first baby.”

My mom was in her late twenties when my brother was born; she’d just turned thirty a few months before I came along.

So this age feels about right to me, though I admit that it would have been easier to bounce back physically after your births if I’d been ten years younger. (After the first unmedicated labor and delivery, I felt like I’d run a marathon without any training.)

Yes, there are reasons for having babies young that I can only appreciate now, now that I’m not young. If I hadn’t lived a childless, adult, happily married life for 8 years before you were born, for example, I’d probably mourn that life of freedom a little less than I do.

But I wouldn’t change it if I could. I like my thirties. I like raising you in my thirties.

I’m more reflective and laid back as a parent than I would have been in my early twenties; young people fresh out of college have such fervent convictions and clarity. Granted, I still have conviction—and I probably voice that conviction more than the average person—but I’m gentler than I was ten years ago. And I hope more patient.

I hope.

I’m probably as stubborn as I ever was, and I still worry a lot, but I have a lot better grasp on the things that really matter.

And the things that don’t.

I’m still easily distracted and can’t multi-task, but I know that relationships with people are more important than finishing the book before my weekly reading group.

I’m better at appreciating beauty in normal, everyday life, but I’m still a far cry from thinking that motherhood cultivates grace. I don’t see grace here, and I’m fine with saying so. That’s probably something an older parent is better at, too. In my thirties, having lived my last decade in a different season, I’m comfortable with knowing that this season, like that earlier one, won’t last forever. It makes me grateful, but still exhausted.

I’ve enjoyed growing older and getting grayer alongside your dad, who continues to inspire me, and I will enjoy growing older with you. You’re transforming into little independent people already.

The summer I turned thirty, just after the Bean was born, I remember telling my mom that I couldn’t believe I was in my thirties now. She told me that she couldn’t believe her baby girl was 30 either! We laughed together at the time, but I realize more each day just how honest that feeling is.

That day—when my own baby is 30—will be here for me before I know it. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that at some point every day, every slow and boring and life-sucking day, I am paradoxically astounded just how quickly the overall time is soaring by.

I had no idea that watching children grow and learn and develop and change would be such a reminder of how much time is sifting through my fingers.

I’ve never felt angsty about aging—not about going gray, not about the freckles and age spots, not about the creases around my eyes.

But it still catches me by surprise when I glance in the mirror.

I am 33.

Young.

Not young.

Just right.

Love,

Your Momma