So here in the Barrett household, it’s Saturday morning screen time. I am twitching a bit – it feels weird to have a moment to sit down and write – but this is the gift of being screen-free all week. Suddenly, Saturday morning TV/tablets are exciting again. To be honest, the part of me that wouldn’t even nurse my first child in a room that had a television on is still nagging me a bit…but I keep reminding that perfectionistic inner voice about the Monchichi’s and ThunderCats, and that we’re going to the zoo soon. It’s going to be okay.
I’ve been thinking a lot about patterns in these days after Chris’s death, when we are exploring what “new normal” might look like, trying to be a good captain for this little family boat. I knew that it would make sense to structure our lives pretty consistently – anything to give the children an increased sense of security and confidence. So I made posters:
THE KIDS LOVE MY POSTERS. THEY LOVE THEM.
They communicated this to me by saying things like, “I HATE CHICKEN. I HATE PIZZA. NO SCREENS AT ALL YOU ARE SO MEAN. I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT GATHER TRASH MEANS. NO ONE ELSE HAS TO DO THESE THINGS.”
(Parenting is super-affirming. Anyone else notice this? Hahahahahaha…)
But here’s the thing: they actually DO love the posters. They consult the menu in the morning to make sure they remember what’s coming and announce it to one another. They point to the rules, especially when they want me to know that one is being broken by someone else (or by yours truly).
And I’m learning two things about patterns. First, they interrupt my tendency toward perfectionism…which is another way of saying “control”…which is, of course, another way of saying “managing fear.” This is counterintuitive, but it’s true. The difference between being confronted with a thousand challenges for negotiation all day long and working a pattern is liberating.
Let me give you an example. Here is how dinner planning used to go:
“Okay. I have an hour. I’ve already roasted chicken this week; this reminds me that ethically we might ought to be vegetarians but probably not today; stewardship matters; what would be the best way to use the leftover meat? The children don’t like mixed flavors; but They Say that it takes fifteen exposures – or was it twenty-five – to a new food until kids learn to like it (I should probably google that right fast; why can’t I remember anything??) – where was I – okay, I have raw veggies but I really should be roasting these brussels sprouts before they go bad, but the kids hate cooked vegetables, which is certainly my fault for not being more proactive about how I cooked when they were little, but Chris did have cancer, but that was all the more reason for me to be cooking more vegetables, but not so much that they lost their nutritional value; wasn’t there something about that being important for cancer patients? – anyway, oh DANG IT it’s almost 5 – I’m sure I can find a five-star recipe for chicken and brussels sprouts that children love to eat, just let me do a quick search…”
Dinner planning now:
“It’s Tuesday. Time to make spaghetti.”
It’s not perfect. And I know that especially with food, there are families who for various reasons don’t have the luxury of doing it this way. But for us, for this season in particular, it’s liberating. It frees me from the swirling cacophony of “this is the BEST WAY” voices in order to feed everyone adequately and just.move.on.
Here is the second thing I am learning about patterns. They make space to practice presence.
In the above all-too-true example, during that hour before dinner, I would have been preoccupied, hopping off and on the computer, tennis-volleying the bids for attention from my three as we worked through homework and the inevitable post-school/work-pre-dinner crabbiness that every human being feels. My inner state would have been self-blaming, frustrated, overwhelmed. (And don’t think children don’t notice, absorb, and reflect that kind of inner state with their caregivers…)
Now I just boil water for the pasta. I put three plates on the counter, and I load them up with the same contingent of raw carrots and broccoli and whatever fruit needs to be used next. And I sit at the table and help with homework. I listen more calmly. I attend more fully. It’s not perfect (hint: it’s never, ever perfect; that’s not quite the human category I used to believe it was). But it’s better. So much better. And not just better – easier. More enjoyable.
Patterns, in other words, are making it possible for me to be present with my kids. To joke with them. To laugh. To observe and relish their personalities. To sometimes have thirty seconds or so when I just marvel in the privilege of simply getting to be their mom. And, when it’s not as easy, when someone is swamped by grief or fatigue hiding itself behind a tantrum, I often have the reserves to stay present, to take my own time-out if I need to, to keep my voice calm and my body more relaxed, to hold the space around them so they can feel the things they feel and we can practice appropriate ways to express and/or process those feelings.
Patterns can protect me from my own perfectionism.
Patterns can create the opportunity for presence.
In the next part of this reflection, I’m going to introduce you to a book I promised to tell you about months ago. It’s by my dear friend Kara Lassen Oliver, who is an amazing writer, mother, preacher, and holy friend. And it’s about creating patterns – not for the sake of control, but for the sake of making space for presence, presence to one another and to God. She blogged about it recently, and I’ll leave you with her words as a teaser: