Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Glorious humiliation

Parenthood is the most glorious sort of humiliation.

From its genesis, holiness and filth walk with fingers entwined, forbidden lovers born for each other. From the gooey mess of afterbirth emerges the angel face of a daughter. As I wipe muck from her year-old bottom, she giggles and launches my heart ceiling-high. Mopping up the collateral damage of her potty-training—again—I am caught between curses and praises. Waiting on tiny tables, buttoning princess dresses, washing heart-shaped dishes, breaking up kitten fights, I fight my proud resistance to this daily ordinance of humility.

Work is so much easier than this. And so much more rewarding.

Yes, more rewarding.

Work yields fast dividends: esteem, results, checks on checklists, unprompted thank-yous, a sense of accomplishment. At work I have an office space I control, where books stay neatly in line on the shelves and tools are my toys. People—nearly grown people—come and go in civilized fashion, wait their turn, say please. Stacks of work diminish in size as I solve problems using high-level mental processes. The diplomas I worked years to earn are on the wall, smiling down at me, stretching out an arm to pat me on the back.

It is really quite nice. A happy sort of limbo where neither glory nor humiliation come calling.

But home is the marriage of heaven and hell. The highs are high and the lows are low.

The question is (as it was for readers of Blake’s masterpiece), which is the real heaven and which the real hell? Is heaven when all is mellow, when the kids are napping or hugging me or playing nicely for a change? Is hell when I’m wiping up blood, urine and tears to the tune of children’s wailing?

Or is something else going on? Are the inconveniences of parenting that feel like hell purging the pent-up inferno of my self-centeredness? Are the quick rewards of work that seem so heavenly sustaining the life of my parasitic ego, the one that sucks dry the God-imaged me? Are the moments of peace paradise’s reward to me, or breaks in the boot camp in which God has lovingly enrolled me?

When did we decide that the best thing to do is the one we find most “rewarding” anyway? Did Jesus wash filthy feet for the rewards? Was Calvary his quest for paradise?

Caring for my children exposes the rawness of my nerves, the frailty of my facades, the poverty of my soul. It catches me red-handed. It brings me to my knees in ways that my rewarding job never could.

I do not like this part of the Daddy gig. It infuriates me daily. I fight against it, I whisper curses. I slam the wall with my open hand, hoping it will knock sense up through my arm into my heavy heart.

I pray desperately. I hug my girls, pressing my cheek in hard against theirs. I breathe in the bouquet of their hair and kiss the blonde curls atop their heads, hungry to be filled with the kind of love they were born to enjoy.

Through the anger of vulgar self-interest—my real hell—I emerge with a sort of peace. Humiliated. Gloriously.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Helping Daddy

One thing I love about my children is how desperately they yearn to be helpful. I have three lovely assistants for all my screw driving, tooth brushing, seatbelt buckling, word processing, DVD cleaning, tea steeping, floor sweeping, needle raking, laundry folding, cake baking, grocery shopping, Band-Aid sticking, and doll hair trimming needs.

With all this help, it’s a wonder I manage to come up with things to do with my excess leisure time.

Or something like that.

Of course, the well-intentioned help of my dear ones proves to be a routine disaster. It costs me time, money and patience. With three little women at work, less things get done in more time generating more mess and waste than even I in all my advanced klutziness could manage on my own.

Working with their help is inefficiency on steroids.

And it is beautiful.

In one of his videos, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey relates his frustrating experience working toward delegating lawn care to his son. All he asked for were two things: green and clean. Simple as that seemed to Daddy Covey, his son consistently let things slide. Green faded to tan. Trash piled up. It was taking Covey more time and stress to supervise the job his son was doing badly than it would have taken to do it well himself.

Days into the experiment, Covey was ready to fire his new gardener. But he pulled himself aside and reviewed his real purpose in the whole process: “Raising boys, not grass.”

The young gardener kept his job.

Having my children help me makes an abomination of my proverbial lawn. I get scratched DVDs, a broken computer keyboard, eggshells in my birthday cake. I take a full 15 minutes to load the minivan while they buckle their own car seats. It takes longer still if I commit the atrocity of starting the buckling myself, because then they have to undo my work and redo it themselves. It makes me crazy.

But what am I here to raise—pretty turf or helpful souls?

I have often wondered why God lets us help Him. He could self-reveal directly to people and circumvent all our human distortions of Who He is. He could feed the world with a couple loaves of Roman Meal and a few cans of tuna instead of waiting on us to share our own loaves and fishes. He could finance mission work using some of His own cattle on His own thousand hills without relying on the fickleness of our generosity. He could realize social justice with His own omnipotent hand rather than suffering the sight of our clinging to the status quo.

It must make Him sick sometimes. You can hear His impatience in the voice of the Old Testament prophets. If I get anxious waiting for my girls to buckle their seatbelts, how much more desperate He must be for us to hurry up and do the right thing for people. He cries with all the victims of all the suffering we allow to go on. This is more than a pretty lawn we’re talking about.

If the Father wants it done right, why doesn’t He just do it Himself?

Maybe this was part of Jesus’ third temptation—bow and enjoy the convenience of having things right in the world without the hassle of having to work one by one, day by excruciating day, with people who are so slow, so stubborn, so immature. Maybe it is a temptation He has to keep fending off. Or maybe He faced it and conquered it on the day He settled on the insane decision to create people in His image.

Whatever the case, I’m sure of one thing. God is definitely much more interested in growing people—with all its steroid-size inefficiency—than in getting things done right or quickly or efficiently or any of those other things I lust for when I’m letting my children help their Daddy.

I need to learn from Him the patience that relishes baby steps in my children despite the mess they make while they are learning. I want to delight in their desire to help without regard for how unhelpful their efforts may seem. I long to celebrate what they are learning to do, even when it takes longer and turns out worse than I could have done on my own.

I am here to raise girls, not grass.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Know what I did last summer?

I am on summer break--eight whopping weeks of unemployed freedom. I've been looking forward to it since Easter, planning my days. I would blog five times a week, revise last year's 3-day novel and outline this year's, accomplish a host of home projects and do all manner of cool daddy activities with the girls.

I do not know what I was thinking.

I should know from two years of experience what staying home with the kids for the summer means. It little resembles a writer's retreat or anything on the DIY channel.

Last summer, childless friends of mine were emailing from all around the globe--Paris, India, Thailand--sharing their romantic adventures. After a day that could only be called normal by a father of multiple preschoolers, I sat down and wrote about my own summer adventures. Here they are, with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy:

You may be a stay-home daddy of three toddlers if…
  • Your diet today consisted of half-eaten food including nibbled toast, soggy Cheerios, half a smashed banana, cold mac 'n' cheese, the crusts of PBJ sandwiches soaked in milk, and whatever they didn't gnaw off the broccoli stem.
  • You ate all of the above on plastic Dora the Explorer, Barbie Princess, or Care Bears plates.
  • You can disassemble, wash, refill, heat and deliver a sippy cup to a screaming child with a screaming child on your shoulders.
  • You hummed a kiddie song all morning, accented by curses.
  • You actually prayed to God for a word that would replace or clean up the four-letter mantra that kept coming up when the kids were too near…and He gave you three in one ("Fuggetaboutit").
  • You have ever reached down to pick up a crumb of stray trash and discovered it was a tiny sphere of excrement.
  • You recently cleaned Cheerios from any of the following places: mattress, floor, foot bottom, BOTTOM bottom, carpet, carport, carseat, car engine, under bed, vacuum cleaner (it can only suck so many).
  • Your IQ is inversely proportional to the number of offspring awake at the moment.
  • You have ever fished reading material from the latrine. (Baptized book titles include Prayers for Peace, and Silent Flowers: A New Collection of Japanese Haiku Poems. And yes, they dried nicely and still grace our john. Haiku submissions inspired by that scene are welcome).
  • You joined Netflix and instinctively put Elmo's Potty Time at the top of your queue.
  • You watched it the day it arrived—over breakfast.
  • You compulsively count to three when in public places.
  • You used the word "poopoo" and "peepee" more than twelve times today.
  • You cheer and dance when anyone in your home acts these words out.
  • You successfully answered the question, "Why?" six times this morning before punting with, "Because God made it that way."
  • Your working vocabulary consists 97% of "no, later, time out, be nice, please, eat, wait, I don't know, say you're sorry, time out, swat, not yet, get in the car, stop it, thank you" and "Daddy loves you A LOT."
So...where would I rather be? Nowhere. (Except it would be more fun with Mommy home from work.)

(August 8, 2007)