When Mother’s Day Just Isn’t Happy

Sunday is a special day for many women — a day full of warmth and joy.  But for other women it’s a reminder of loss, estrangement, disappointment or pain.

And it’s often hard to admit in the midst of all the flowers and cards.

Read more about my story and the story of man others here.

Blessings!

Sheree

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Blue Eyes and a Smile

Today is my fourth-born child’s birthday. I don’t highlight all of My People’s birthdays each year because if I did I wouldn’t have enough weeks to blog about anything else. But last night I was unable to fall asleep and found my thoughts turning to my Joey.

Always smiling

Always smiling

Sandwiched between three siblings on each side, Joey was the consummate middle-child peacemaker. Well, except for the day at age three when ruckus in his and 4-year-old Jesse’s room found me calling Benny on the phone to tell him his sons were in a fist fight…with Joey on top pounding on his much bigger brother.

Joey’s peacemaking made him the natural choice for his siblings designating him as the “ask Mom” delegate…especially when the other kids thought I would say no to them but not to the adorable little guy with big blue eyes who did have me pretty tightly wrapped around his finger. It was one of those things I didn’t realize was going on — and didn’t find out until they were grown. (Those of you with adult kids know those “Ummm…we didn’t tell you that?” conversations around the dinner table when confessions are flowing so conveniently late.)

Everyone loved Joey’s smile. Sometimes I would catch him smiling pretty much for no reason. Life just seemed to be fun for him, no matter what was going on.Until he was 8 years old he smiled all the time, but then he started

Joey (bottom right) loved playing with the other boys, especially big brother Jesse (middle, second to right).

Joey (bottom right) loved playing with the older boys, especially big brother Jesse (middle, second from right).

playing basketball. Nope, no smiles there. Who tells little boys not to smile while they’re playing sports? Actually, all my sons suddenly developed a “game face” when they got a basketball in their hands. They learned to love and proudly display that face. And to this day, years after the only games they play are followed by complaints about how old and slow they are, I almost always have to tell them to smile in pictures. I don’t get it.

They insisted on a game face pic even at Jake's wedding!

They insisted on a game face pic even at Jake’s wedding last month.

After our move from Virginia to Florida when Joey was fifteen this mother and son became closer than ever. We were both homesick and would check in on how each other were doing. Just before the 3-year mark we were in the car during one of our many treks back and forth to the community college and I asked Joey how things were going.

“Mom, this is starting to feel like home,” he said. I agreed. God had moved in both our hearts. I didn’t mind that Joey wasn’t too interested in getting his license until he graduated high school because it gave me lots of time to chat with a budding young man who I increasingly respected and who was okay about sharing his heart with his mom.

Post Wales :-)

Those eyes and smile captured Lauren’s heart, too.

Then came the day when his heart was turning toward a cute brunette in our church. I won’t forget the night he made a customary stop into our bedroom to kiss me goodnight and sometimes chat with his dad and me about his day. That chat turned into a lengthy talk about Lauren. It seems an upcoming missions trip to Wales had him looking forward to spending some leisurely time with her to see if the stirrings in his heart would find their home in hers. They did. My son’s wise choice of a delightful, godly and fun wife resulted in Amelia Grace Phillips who may have Daddy’s coloring but certainly has Mommy’s love for dancing anywhere and everywhere, especially at Disney.

Several years ago Joey surprised us all with a new “gift.” It came seemingly out of nowhere and we don’t really know what to call it; a sense of humor is too weak so maybe the “gift of wit” as one guy called it will suffice. During his years of coaching high school basketball at our former church Joey started writing kinda true but humorously embellished recaps of the year to read at the annual sports banquets. While the room crescendoed with laughter as he read, Joey’s deadpan face remained unchanged. Those banquets produced requests to do his “thing” at birthday and engagement parties and for wedding toasts — and I’ve already told him his funeral debut will be for me. If you ever want a really good laugh that usually ends with heartfelt warmth let me know.  I promise you don’t even have to know the people.

Amelia's 3rd Birthday last week

Amelia’s 3rd Birthday last week

My favorite memory of Joey so far is one that made me realize my boy had become a man. Benny and I had just learned some painful news about someone we love and needed to confide in someone trustworthy. I reached out to a couple of my kids, including Joey. Looking back, it was the first time Mom went to the kid for help and advice rather than it being the other way around. Sitting in McDonald’s that night I was wisely and compassionately cared for by someone whose tender blue eyes searched my own to see how I was processing the news. Those same eyes had looked into mine hundreds of times over the years when he sat on my lap. Ran to greet me with outstretched arms when Benny and I returned from a trip. Silently begged me not to leave him in Sunday School before he compliantly turned to join his friends. Twinkled with joy when he made the select basketball team and later fell in love. And brimmed with tears the day we packed up his room (including a bunch of basketball memorabilia) to move into the first home he was about to share with his bride.

That night the peacemaker reminded me that I could trust the One who promised a suffering, hurting mom-turned-counselee peace that passes understanding. And since then I have found timely hope in those tender eyes again and again even when no words are exchanged.

Happy Birthday, Joey. Twenty-nine years ago today God gave me a baby son who is now I man I deeply respect. Your eyes and your smile still melt my heart. I love you — even though you lied to me about never leaving me and promised to live next door when you got big.

(But Lauren and Amelia — and maybe little Wiley someday? — are more than worth it.)

Last fall celebrating their 5th Anniversary…at Disney, of course.

Last fall celebrating their 5th Anniversary…at Disney, of course.

Two Babies and a Wedding

It’s been quite awhile since I posted a blog. Thanks to those who have reached out to ask where I am.

I haven’t been anywhere. But lots of stuff has been happening in my life. I know some of you are understandably disinterested in the personal details, but for those who are….

Silas Christmas

Now three months old

In early October we welcomed our 12th little person. Silas Joshua’s entrance into the world was all too slow for Janelle, but the room full of family and friends who weathered his leisurely arrival fell in love immediately. I spent two weeks hanging out with my new grandson and seeking to spoil my Missy. Watching her embrace motherhood with such passion warmed my heart. It’s a powerful experience to watch your child have a child, especially for the first time. And seeing Eric enjoy being a first-time Dad reminded me of how much I miss my own daddy who left for heaven nearly 40 years ago.  (How can that be?) For some reason this fall was a sad time for me as I thought about how much Mom and Dad would have loved knowing and welcoming all their great-grandchildren.

The fall was filled with anticipation and preparations for my youngest son Jake’s December 28th marriage to Sarah. What a joy it was to watch them (umm…Sarah, that is) turn yard sale finds into lovely pieces for their apartment and to experience their growing excitement for sharing life together as husband and wife. As any of you who have watched a son marry can attest, the convergence of the joy of my sons’ upcoming wedding and the melancholic sweetness of his years as “my boy” coming to an official end resulted in a strange roller coaster of familiar but nuanced emotions. Jake is the sixth of seven of my kids to marry so I’m pretty accustomed to the ride. But him being my last son to marry during the same year I will turn 60 made me feel…old. More on that another time.

Caroline Christmas

Merry Christmas to Granma!

Three days before the wedding brought a surprise for our family. Our oldest daughter Jaime, who typically gives birth a week or so late, called me the morning of December 23rd, about ten days before her due date. “Mom, I think something must be happening.  Can you come over?” Gratefully Jaime and PJ live just minutes away. Her biggest concern was the wedding. How could she be a bridesmaid with a 72-hour-old baby??? When I arrived it was clear that Caroline Rae was going to be the best Christmas gift a Granma could ever receive. In just a couple of hours she whisked into a room full of eager observers (yes, my girls actually like giving birth in a crowd!) and by early afternoon everyone was off to enjoy their Christmas Eve plans. Benny and I left asking ourselves if we really did just watch number 13 enter the world with just enough time to get ready for our 26 People to show up the next morning for Christmas breakfast?

Sarah and Jake

Jake and his beautiful bride

Jake and Sarah’s wedding was a wonderful celebration of God’s faithfulness. Benny enjoyed the privilege of performing our 6th child’s wedding and PJ worked hard the night before to “hem” one of the layers of Jaime’s dress (with scotch tape) so it would keep his no-longer-nine-months-prengant wife from tripping down the aisle. As I stood in the back waiting to be seated by my handsome and beaming son I realized afresh how forever blessed I have been. The doctor who told my parents when I was a teen that I could never have children didn’t know God had other plans. And that day I witnessed my youngest biological child say “I Do” to the godly woman for whom I’ve prayed for over twenty years.

Me and my beautiful daughters (and Jaime has a three day old baby!)

Me and my girls…yes, that’s Jaime 2nd from the left with her husband-hemmed dress.

After the whirlwind of two babies and a wedding the reality of life with a daughter still in college, getting caught up on some needed items with my part time job working for my son, ongoing adjustments to having Benny’s mom living with us and the joy of helping two daughters with newborns has left little time for writing.

Plus, God has been moving around in my heart about things I will likely write about at some point. In the midst of all the wonderful new things that have been happening in my life there have also been challenges. Isn’t He kind to wisely and lovingly govern both the joys and sorrows we face? Puritan Thomas Watson wrote about pharmacists of the time who skillfully measured just the right amount of ingredients to cure a patients’ specific need. And mixed in with the medicinal items was usually a bit of arsenic.

There’s a lesson there: sometimes poison can actually be added to life’s vicissitudes to heal what ails. And over these months I’ve seen that principle at work in my life. Through good times and hard; laughter and tears; joy and sorrow; bursts of faith and bouts with unbelief He has been near. My times of solitude with Him are among the most prized moments in recent months, even though they often happened through tears of joy one moment and sadness the next.

A few of you have asked how often I plan to post. I still don’t know. But there are some things stirring in my heart that I want to share. I think the time is right for some of them is soon.

I’m sure God has been busy in your life, too. What has He been up to? More on that in the next day or two.

i.miss.them.

Aside

Yesterday I spent part of my day at a Monday homeschool support program my daughter Jaime started last year, enjoyed by a few dozen children and some spunky mom/teachers. I walked up to the building to a greeting of a voice I recognized as my friend, Vicki, who waved from the playground where she was supervising a couple of kids. Inside, I walked by classrooms of giggling children, a teacher reminding students to stop chatting and pay attention, and a child asking how big a stomach is.

I observed my daughter Janelle’s writing and history classes in preparation for being her substitute teacher when little Silas is born in a couple of weeks; watched moms pull toddlers onto their lap to help them with lunch; observed a pregnant mother rubbing her expanding belly; was introduced to a delightful single woman with a reputation for being an awesome kindergarten teacher; and overheard Jaime saying she was headed off to clean up a poopy “whoops” in the bathroom.

As the morning progressed I became sad. I was thrilled to be there and am really looking forward to subbing for my daughter. Yet on the way home tears filled my eyes as a strange blanket of grief crept through my heart.

I miss my babies.

At ages 35, 34, 30, 27, 24 and 19 my littles are now all big. They are terrific, productive, delightful, busy, handsome/beautiful…adults.  They have given me eleven adorable Little People, with numbers twelve and thirteen on the way. And just two nights ago I had the opportunity to listen to them mock and honor and express their love to the three whose September birthdays we were celebrating. Sometimes I pinch myself as I wonder how in the world this “infertile” woman has been so lavishly loved by God.

But today I miss them.

I miss all those little blondes and the dark-haired cutie God gave us last through adoption. I miss wondering if it was dog or toddler pee on the hallway floor and realizing at 4:30 PM that chili dogs would have to do because I forgot to thaw the chicken…again. I miss dandelion bouquets. Feeding the ducks at Burke Lake. Overhearing Benny praying from room to room at night that each would “love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Snuggling on the couch to teach another first grader to read. The smell of a just-bathed newborn. Having my frig covered with pictures of Mommy and Daddy whose skinny arms stretched out of our fat heads. Picking up coloring books and popsicles and a Blockbuster movie for the one who had a fever. Nags Head vacations with a house full of kids and friends.

I miss my littles. It may sound strange but today I feel like I’m grieving. Why? They’re all well and I still get to make their favorite birthday dinners. They love to mock me for lovingly comparing a friend to a hobbit and remind me that the every single accent I try always sounds asian. Laughter still fills my home when they are around and the piano in the living room gets played a lot, usually with Jesse’s newest awesome arrangement of something familiar. When Jake, Joey and Janelle get into the kitchen to help clean up, Disney songs are still belted uproariously out and Josh thinks even today’s video games are “unrealistic.” And once in awhile I even hear Jaime slightly mispronouncing her r’s.

So what am I grieving?

I’m mourning the loss of years I thought would never end. But they did.

They ended before I made enough pbnj’s; played enough CandyLand; read enough “Fox and the Hound”‘s; kissed enough boo-boos; graded enough spelling tests; cheered at enough basketball games; swept up enough Cheerios; wiped enough tears; kissed enough soft cheeks; returned enough morning grins; clapped at enough piano recitals; celebrated enough lost teeth; and combed or trimmed or curled or cut gum about of enough hair.

Maybe it was  yesterday’s gloomy, rainy day that caused me to mirror the melancholy because it’s been awhile since I’ve grieved like this. I mostly love my still-busy but different life when I can actually go to the bathroom alone and enjoy leisurely time reading my Bible or editing family photos or blogging in my room with no interruptions (well, except when Benny’s elderly mother wants to know if I can help her find a NCIS rerun on her tv or asks again if I’m sure she took all her pills that morning). But yesterday I was mourning the loss of a life that was more exhausting but wonderful than I could have ever dreamed.

If you’re a mom of young children, please try to remember that before you know it you will be me. The very things that tempt you to feel unappreciated, cause you to fall into bed exhausted (knowing it’s only a matter of time before someone cries to be fed or falls out of bed or rushes in frightened by a bad dream), and make you crazy are those things that may find you driving in a few decades with tears streaming. Of course you get tired and overwhelmed. What you’re doing with your life requires more courage and strength than you ever anticipated. And, yes, you get as low on patience as you do sleep.

But sooner than you think you might be sitting in your quiet room alone thinking about how happy you are that your pregnant daughter and her husband are coming for dinner. In fact (shhh…don’t tell anyone) you might even experience a tinge of jealousy that she is the one about to bring home a newborn and not you.

Then you’ll come to your senses and realize that there is something precious and sweet about remembering things that used to feel they would always be…but aren’t. The grief will pass but the memories won’t.

Kiss your babies while their cheeks remain soft and their little bottoms can still fit into your lap. And tonight when you fall exhausted into bed, remember there’s now one less day before you will celebrate their last birthday at home before they get married to start the crazy, wonderful years they, too, think will creep by before they get old (right, Jake?). The tears you shed now over another day of doing chores that will only have to be redone tomorrow will become tears of sentimental regret that one one is in the house to mess it up.

I know you probably don’t believe me. But trust me. It’s all true.

Me and my "babies"

Me and my “babies”

30 Years Ago Yesterday

Aside

Not everyone likes a gushing mom so I know some of my readers will probably skip today’s post. But I just can’t help but introduce you to my son, Jesse.

Yesterday was his 30th birthday.

Jesse and his wife, Rebekah

Jesse and his wife, Rebekah

I won’t go into the details that only Mom, maybe a couple of patient sisters or a wife would actually care about. But I want you to know that whenever I’m discouraged and wondering if the future will be brighter than the present I often think of Jesse.

You see, Jesse came into our lives after two “easy” kids. We never said it out loud but Benny and I thought we were pretty good parents with Josh and Jaime. They were compliant, pleasant and did what they were asked without much fuss. Other than Josh giving his little sister a bath with toilet water (it was clean, thankfully), the two of them “cleaning” the living room furniture with baby powder and then “cleaning” the fireplace by making sure all the soot got onto themselves we had a pretty easy time parenting them.

Jesse's firstborn, Sam, recently showing off his missing tooth

Jesse’s firstborn, Sam, recently showing off his missing tooth

Then came Jesse. Before he turned two he was throwing violent temper tantrums that left us crying (literally!) out to God for wisdom to help him. God was good to give us this little guy who fell onto the floor screaming in public to deal with any vestiges of good-parent- thinking and left us full of compassion for parents whose kids acted out in public.

One day I was in tears on the side of the road, feeling desperate and alone as a mother. I had no more solutions. No more strength. No more hope. The tantrums had been continuing for nearly two years and I was exhausted. Plus, we already had another son and had just found out I was pregnant again. Five kids in 11 years was about to become the end of me.

But hope came. WIth tears streaming down my face in the van that day I sensed the still, small voice of God’s comfort in my head assuring me that He was at work in my son’s heart and that someday I would see the fruit of all He was doing.

And I have and do.

Issac (yes, it's spelled right) is Jesse's second and is Daddy's mini-me

Issac (yes, it’s spelled right) is Jesse’s second and is Daddy’s mini-me

By God’s grace, Jesse is a trophy of His faithfulness. He is a faithful husband and loving father to three adorable boys. Through family trials and wrestlings with the Lord, God grew him; protected him; gifted him; and saved him. He grew in self-control and learned to depend on God to change his heart from one of anger to gentleness. God gave him a heart to honor his parents after years of kicking, biting and resisting us. He has brought this mom joy by filling our home with music and embracing a call to preach. He works hard to support his family as an IT guy and I can depend on a warm hug whenever he sees me.

If you have children about whom you are concerned, pour out your heart to God. He hears. He answers. He is faithful. He takes the wandering heart and turns it toward Himself. He transforms anger and disrespect into tenderness and honor. He brings joy following sadness, replaces fear with faith and fulfills His promises even when it takes longer than we hoped.

Jesse's youngest, Josiah

Jesse’s youngest, Josiah

Happy Birthday, son. I loved you when you bit and fought me. When you’d come into our room at night and talk about your struggles and temptations and accomplishments. When you came home and played “My Cheeseburger” on the piano at midnight. When you hit that last second shot and made Cindy and I jump up and down for joy on the bleachers. When you told me you were in love and when we shared the dance at your wedding. When you cried at The Columbia when we told you about the PC and when God brought you back to Orlando to live closeby. I love you for giving me three grandsons and for working hard to train them in godliness.

But I mostly love you for teaching me that while good parenting is important, the One who is most responsible for growing a kids heart and character is God. You’ve taught me humility both when you threw a fit in the floor at Toys R Us as a toddler and when you shared your heart with me as a teen.

I love to watch you love your wife and sons. I learn from your preaching. I value your counsel. And I’m grateful that you’re not nearly as impressed with yourself as I thought you might be. Thirty years from now I will most likely be gone. But every year I get to watch you grow, admit your flaws and failures, love your family and serve God’s people will be a joy.

I’m glad God gave you to me, son. And I pray that your life will continue to be an example to me and others that the story is still being written. God completes what He begins…always.

My son and his sons

My son and his sons

The Ultimate Blog Challenge: Day Nine

UBC-banner3

A Challenging Weekend that Ended Well

When we started our family back in the late 70’s our lives and church were full of singles and young couples without kids. Additionally, there were no books on Christian parenting. That’s right…none.

It actually turned out to be a blessing because the only resource we had was the Bible. As years passed and Benny started performing numerous weddings, couples started having children and our own family continued to grow. The thing we most often talked about with others was parenting. You see, most of us had been raised in the church but were worldly hypocrites who posed as Christians and got away with murder because our parents were virtually uninvolved. We didn’t want this for our kids….

We read the Bible and had many conversations about how to apply biblical truth to parenting. We certainly made our share of mistakes, including misapplying truth at times. Looking back, we also tended to focus more on outward compliance than inward change. Yet to us if the Bible said it we wanted to help our children embrace it.

One of the things we worked hard on was confession of sin or wrong, followed by asking forgiveness. The Bible talks a lot about confessing our faults and sins to one another (and to God, of course) as well as going back to the person we have hurt or sinned against to request their forgiveness. We felt that a big way to protect our kid’s relationships with each other was to do our part to prevent offenses from building up throughout their lives.

First, we didn’t allow our kids to tattle on one another. When one of them did something wrong or hurtful, their sibling was instructed to ask them go tell Dad or Mom (or whoever was in charge) what they did, rather than running to tattle. If the sibling refused, they could then come and inform us that something happened that their brother or sister refused to come and tell us. The bottom line was that we wanted our kids to confess their own wrongs, not those of others (which the Bible calls gossip).

This scenario rarely worked just right — especially when the child was first learning the ropes. More times than I can count, we had to correct the child who said something mean or acted unkindly twice….once for whatever they did to their sibling and once for not coming to tell us when reminded. But over the years they slowly learned to come and confess their wrongs. Our hope was that this repeated practice would teach them that confessing things to Dad and Mom (and then others) wasn’t something to avoid but to pursue. Confession should always be redemptive and restorative. Even when what they confessed required discipline, we tried to celebrate their willingness to tell us. Making it easy for the kids to admit to us that they had done something wrong was a priority to us. (More on that below.)

Here’s the problem with not allowing your kids to tattle and gossip: heart issues remain. Benny and I had to repeatedly remind our kids that coming to tell us that a sibling “did something and won’t come and tell you” with a vengeful, self-righteous heart was just as wrong as whatever that brother or sister did or said. But even these encounters were ministry moments with our children.

Second, we helped our kids to confess their wrongs and ask forgiveness. Our family was (and is) like every other family. Lots of fun and memorable stuff went on that was laced with selfish reactions, manipulation and down right meanness. Sibling “rivalry” is just a concise way of saying, “Put two siblings who can at least crawl into a room together and before long you’re bound to hear yelling or crying over something one or both did to the other.”

The Bible is clear: when we do something wrong to someone we must acknowledge it and ask forgiveness. Children aren’t exempted from this responsibility. Children who are trained to ask for and extend forgiveness over and over are more likely to keep their relationship clear of longterm bitterness that comes from repeated unresolved offenses.

Over the years, parents have lamented that this kind of commitment is just too hard. One mom told me, “If I stopped to consistently deal with issues between my kids like this I would never get anything else done!”

I agree. It’s hard work. And some days I felt like all I did was remind and correct my kids for tattling, trying to get their sibling in trouble, dodging responsibility for their sins or failures, and grabbing onto every peacemaking skill I had ever learned to teach them to be kind to one another.

But last weekend I saw decades of gospel-saturated forgiveness in action. An incident happened that resulted in three of the kids disappointing and hurting one another. There were numerous issues to discuss from the encounters. While not every aspect of the conversations went as well as we hoped, one thing was clear: asking forgiveness of their siblings was on the top of the list. My mother’s heart was warmed the next day when I knew my adult children were reaching out to one another to take responsibility for their contributions to the conflict.

It doesn’t always work this way in our family. Sometimes needed confession doesn’t happen or is forgotten. But I truly believe that teaching little ones to acknowledge and confess their wrongs and sins against each other can lead to adults who value their sibling relationships enough to make reconciliation a priority.

Perhaps our method is not the one you feel is best for your family or encouraging humility and acknowledgement of wrong is already something you practice with your kids. Remember that principles are always more important than practices that are not clearly spelled out in scripture. I would just encourage you to find and consistently implement a way for your kids to resist the temptation to gossip about one another and to ask for and extend forgiveness.

It’s just biblical.

P.S. Tomorrow my youngest son, Jake, will share his perspective on this issue…as well as mock his siblings for the many ways they required him to forgive them. Smile.

Lifelong Friends-to-Be?

Mom grew up in Roanoake, Virginia in the 30’s and 40’s. Granny was a stay-at-home mom like every mother in those days. My grandfather was a hard working blue collar guy who worked long hours to support eight children. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard Mom and her siblings say, “The only toys we had were each other.”

It was apparent to me from a young age that those eight siblings were close. We spent many Sunday afternoons at Aunt Vergie’s laughing over repeatedly told (and embellished…smile) stories of family life in rural southwest Virginia. Most of my 25 first cousins lived within an hour of each other; when we got together food and laughs abounded.

Most days when I was growing up I overheard Mom talking to at least one of The Sisters. I could hear her laughing from wherever I was in the house. And sometimes I could also hear her fussing over something that had happened in the family. Mom’s three brothers were all younger and two of them spent a lot of time at our house eating, living there temporarily and yes, laughing. My Uncle Alvin once showed up with an anteater he won in a card game. I don’t think my brother Randy ever forgave Mom for not letting him keep it.

I was twelve when Uncle Alvin was severely burned in a house fire in the late 60’s. Mom spent day and night at this side watching him suffer an agonizing death. One night after the funeral I found her sitting alone in the dark crying. It’s my first memory of Mom telling me how important it was to stay close to my siblings.

“Honey, friends will come and go. I know you think your friends are really important but someday they will probably all be gone. But your brothers and sister will be there for you all your life.”

Mom didn’t know then that my older brother would break his neck in a swimming accident at age 21 when I was 16 — just when I started learning what she meant.  When Randy died six years later I knew I had lost a lifelong friend. Three years after his death, our first miracle baby was on the way. I started praying that Benny and I could carry on Mom’s legacy of sibling closeness while I was growing our firstborn son. God knew then what I didn’t: this medically infertile woman would become the mother of seven.

Our seven J’s in 1995

The youngest of the seven that I once looked down to is now eighteen and before long her oldest brother will be 35.  As I typed this post over the weekend, three of them were sitting in the family room playing some old Nintendo 2 game. Yesterday a bunch of us watched the Redskins game together (while Benny texted with Jake about two hours north at law school) after spending the morning serving and worshiping together at Redeemer Church. Living within five minutes of each other has been a meaningful expression of the kid’s desire to stay connected to each other —  and allowed Josh and Rach to ask Jaime to expand her little home school to include their two school-aged kids.

People regularly ask us what we did to foster closeness between our kids. That’s the reason for this post today; the first of several in a series on sibling relationships. They see the love and loyalty between our seven J’s and wonder what they can do as parents of younger kids to create a culture of family affection amoung siblings who fuss and fight more than they hug and kiss.

Benny and I smile.

What people don’t know is about the time I called Benny at the office to inform him that toddlers Jesse and Joey were having a fist fight over matchbox cars. Or the night Janelle was in tears (again) over mean things her brothers said or did, resulting in Rachel confronting her adolescent brothers-in-law. Or the damage arrogance and unkindness between Josh and Jaime produced in their teen years. Or the times proud, insensitive or angry comments have required apologies between adult siblings as recently as this past weekend.

In addition to the common challenges our large family has experienced over the years, there have also weighty trials through which we have walked when sin (ours and others) threatened to tear our family apart, but became the Spirit-born glue that miraculously forged a deeper bond between us.

I think there are things parents can do and not do that help create a culture of loyal love between siblings. I will share some of those things over the coming days, not because our family is perfect or we’ve discovered a formula for making sure we stay close. Honestly, I think we have some things to offer for the very opposite reason: we’ve messed up, hurt one another, asked forgiveness and found hope in gospel-reconciling truths available to every Christian. A couple of readers suggested that I involve some of our kids to share their thoughts and experiences. I’ve invited any of our children who desire to weigh in to talk about whatever is on their heart — good, bad or ugly — that might help parents of still-at-home kids to prize one another as lifelong friends. So far three of them have said they would love to talk about the joys and struggles of being raised by parents who “made them” love each other.

Our seven J’s in 2011

But let me say this: there are two things to which I most attribute the warm relationship between my kids today. First, the advice a mother gave to her 12-year-old daughter over four decades ago; advice I watched her live out all her life with my uncles and The Sisters. And, second, God’s faithfulness to answer the prayers of some young parents who dared to believe that kids who said and did mean things to each other would end up carrying Mom’s legacy into a new generation.

I once heard someone say, “If you aim at nothing you’ll hit it.” Encouraging close relationships among your kids requires having a vision; something at which you are willing to aim and then pray your heart out that God will empower your efforts to do your part. Mom gave me that — and I hope to pass it along to you.

Josh’s Surprise Pumpkins

The phone rang and she instinctively checked the caller ID. Margaret again. She had a way of regularly calling at the wrong time. Diane wondered what people did before you could know who’s calling before you pick up the phone.

When Diane and Vic married she had some concerns about Margaret. Vic’s dad died about a year before the wedding and Margaret became a little clingy with her only son. Diane understood that Vic’s wedding following so closely to Margaret losing her husband was going to make it hard. At first, she was calling almost daily just to say hello and check in. The calls aren’t nearly as frequent now but Diane can’t help it that Margaret seems to call just as she is leaving to run errands or Vic is just walking in from work.

Besides, Margaret will probably call back later in the week. As she walks away from the phone, Diane’s eyebrows press into a slightly quizzical look. For some reason she just realized that she never remembered Dad getting regular calls from her Nana. Hmm…guess they weren’t that close. Maybe that’s why she only saw Nana once a year or so.

The posts on this in-law series have recently focused on the parents-in-law. For the next few days I’d like to share some thoughts that may be helpful to children-in-law. Diane didn’t realize that her in-law views had been shaped by her upbringing. Because her father didn’t get regular calls from his mother, Diane unconsciously wondered why her own mother-in-law called so much. Sometimes she didn’t even mention to Vic that his mom called…

I’m reminded of Josh coming to me when he was about eight to tell me he planted a couple of pumpkin seeds on the hill in our back yard. “Nannie said if I planted the seeds where they could get lots of sun and grow downhill we’ll have pumpkins pretty soon! She said even you probably can’t kill pumpkins, Mom!”

The sparkle in his eyes prevented me from squelching his enthusiasm. Clearly my reputation for killing most everything I planted was well established. But even I knew that digging a little hole, throwing some pumpkins seeds in it and dousing it with a glass half full of water was not going to result in fresh pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving.

Well, until the vine grew all the way down the hill and cute little pumpkins started growing.

The first thing I want to share specifically with children-in-law is this: remember that you are sowing seeds will may reap in the future. I find myself regularly repeating a phrase Benny picked up somewhere years ago, “More is caught than taught.” Because Diane grew up in a home where there was little one-on-one contact between her Dad and his mother she found the amount of contact between her husband and his mother to be excessive at worst and mildly irritating at best.

In-law relationships are rule-less. There is no reputable handbook or list of laws that must be heeded about relating to your parents-in-law! And what is preferred by and works for other families may not be right for yours. That’s where the comparison trap can wreak havoc. Perhaps you have friends who rarely see or talk to their in-laws and it works fine for them, while others you know go to their in-laws every Sunday for food and football. Look long enough and you’ll find someone who has the kind of in-law relationship you prefer — whether it’s less contact or more. 

The Bible talks about the principle of sowing and reaping (Galatians 6:7). What is put into the ground is what comes out of the ground. I can’t plant tomatoes and then be disappointed that I didn’t get cucumbers! While this verse is certainly not referring to in-law relationships, the principle is applicable. What was “planted” in Diane’s young heart was that husbands and their moms don’t have much contact and see each other only occasionally. This made Margaret’s regular calls to her married son seem a little strange to Diane. She wondered what in the world would happen when they had kids for her to dote on?

If you are the parent of small children I would suggest that you consider the seeds you are planting. After Benny and I got married it became more noticeable to me how infrequently he and his parents (who lived nearby) interacted. After we had children, and especially after his parents divorced, I found myself suggesting to Benny that he call his mom to say hello, invite her to the kids basketball games or see if she would like to join us for church events.

Some years later I realized what I was doing. I wanted our children to grow up seeing their dad reach out to his mom. There was something in my heart that hoped our sons would “catch” their Dad’s care for and initiative toward his mother. As her daughter-in-law, I not only wanted Jewel to be the recipient of her son’s love (especially because of Benny’s warm relationship with my mother) but I also hoped those seeds would be reaped in my life when my four little boys became men.

I’m not suggesting that how you treat your in-laws will automatically affect how your adult children will treat you. Perhaps Diane’s grandmother was perfectly content with the amount of interaction she had with her adult son and didn’t notice that he didn’t reach out except to make arrangements for holiday visits. But maybe she would have loved to hear from him more — if she wasn’t concerned about being perceived as a meddling mother-in-law or a nuisance.

Take a minute soon to look at your little ones. Those chubby arms and legs will grown lean and long. Before you know it your little boy’s voice will deepen and you’ll start seeing facial hair pop up on a face that is starting to look like it belongs to a man. The little girl who is turning in “pretty circles” to Disney music will be asking when she can start wearing makeup. Your children will become adults who will leave home and get married.

What will your relationship with them be like then? Who will be there to show them how to warmly love their parents ? Will they think to call sometimes just to say a quick hello? Will their eyes roll unseen on the other end of the phone or computer when asked to come over to Mom’s for dinner or drive into town for a holiday? Will they get so busy with their new marriage and life that they forget how excited you are when you hear their voice on the phone or as they walk into the front door?

Let me tell you a secret. You are teaching them — now. Let them hear you call your parents and parents-in-law or overhear you gently remind your spouse to do so. Show them how to treat you later by how you treat your parents and in-laws now.

And if you’re discouraged because there is so much turbulent water under the in-law bridge that you’re afraid it’s too late, remember the gospel. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross says it’s never too late to hope for change. Maybe your in-laws are mean and want little to do with you. Perhaps they are perfectly happy with living their lives apart from you for any number of justified or unjustified reasons. And maybe, if you’re honest, you prefer the way things are and don’t want more relationship or contact with them.

Again, just fast-foward a couple of years and ask yourself if the way you think about and treat your in-laws is the way you hope things will be with your adult kids and their spouses. Making any changes you think are needed now with your in-laws won’t guarantee good things later.

But you never know. After all, we had fresh pumpkin pies that Thanksgiving because a little boy was willing to throw seeds into some dirt and hoped they would grow.

Vacationing With the In-laws? Ummm…..

A couple of times during this series on in-law relationships I’ve mentioned the dangers of comparisons. Consider these real-life situations (with changed names):

  • Jennifer and John admitted to friends recently that the majority of their conflicts are over in-law relationships. Specifically, Jen hears regular comments from her mother about much more time the grandchildren spent with John’s parents than with her.
  • Martin’s parents live closeby while Anna’s are out-of-state. Anna’s parents feel that because of their close proximity to the kids, Martin’s parents should be willing to sacrifice Thanksgiving and Christmas in exchange for living nearby and sharing so much time together throughout the year.
  • Melanie learned from Greg that his parents planned their first extended family reunion in several years during the week of her younger sister’s high school graduation.  When Greg called to explain this to his Dad and Mom they responded by saying that while they were sorry about the conflict, they expected that their annual participation in Melanie’s family vacation would certainly warrant her making Greg’s family reunion a priority this year.

Please try to remember that comparisons are frequently rooted in jealousy or rivalry and can produce ongoing tension. As an in-law I have dealt with disappointments over decisions my married children have made. But I’ve found that often the tables turn and next time the decision may go in my favor. Allowing resentment or jealousy to fester is not only sinful but also damaging to my family. Humble and honest dialogue with our married children and their spouses, and perhaps with our in-laws, can be helpful and redemptive. However, time and again over several decades of being intimately involved in the lives of numerous families, Benny and I have watched in-law relationships go from bad to worse when married children are put in the middle of parental rivalries. On the other hand, we have also watched in-laws partner to protect their married children and their grandchildren from jealous tension by making requests rather than demands — then resisting the temptation to react sinfully when disappointed.

Two more thoughts for you to consider:

Anticipate challenges and expect grace. One friend commented to me that this series has tempted her to want all of her children to be single so she won’t have to share them! Letting our kids go is fraught with challenges. Additionally, having married children requires blending an adult raised in a different family culture into your own. Add unspoken expectations, selfish demands or suspicious attitudes to the mix and…look out!…where there is smoke there will be fire.

In-law relationships are often challenging but God’s grace is available to all. Some years back I whined to the Lord that it would have been helpful if there was at least one little chapter in the Bible devoted to this relationship. When should I express my concerns to my married children and when should I be silent? And surely God knew that most adults would love to have Him lay out fair rules for the holidays! The thought that quickly came made me feel pretty foolish….

Much of the Bible speaks of relationships; I just needed to cry out to Him for help to apply the clear teachings throughout scripture that apply to every relationship in my life. Flawed people seeking to apply biblical truths will not inoculate families from conflict. It certainly hasn’t ours! And loving our children’s spouse and his/her parents doesn’t necessitate becoming close friends or sharing holidays and vacations. But it does require governing our hearts with a healthy sense of self-suspicion about what is motivating us when desires become demands and competition sets in.

Last, don’t resent sharing. From the time our kids are little we teach them to share everything. Then when they become young adults we are the ones who have to share…them.

A note to parents of sons: sometimes sharing isn’t equitable. This is commonly true with sons. The old adage, “A son is a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter all of her life” can play out in heart-testing ways in many families. Generally, married daughters are more committed to staying connected to their parents than married sons. When a daughter wants to hang out with family she typically drops by her mom’s house, not his. Because she talks to her mom more often, her mother-in-law doesn’t know to offer to babysit for that upcoming event so, of course, she’s happy to take Mom up on the offer. If we parents-in-law don’t carefully guard our hearts against temptations to feeling overlooked or slighted, we can become bitter toward the person with whom our child fell in love and/or her parents.

Some time ago one of my New Girls communicated some guilty feelings over  her and the kids spending more time with her mom than with me. She acknowledged that she rarely calls or drops by and wondered if I was resentful over the inequity. I told her that while I love any opportunity to see her and the kids, I understood why she was more comfortable hanging with the women in her family than with me. Wasn’t it the same with me? While I have loved Benny’s mom for decades and she has been a model mother-in-law in many ways, the simple fact was that if given the choice I would usually choose putting my feet on the furniture at Mom’s.  How could I expect my daughter-in-law to feel any differently?

The truth is I love her dearly and I know she loves me. She proves this every day by caring for my son and grandchildren; being patient with things about my son that could have used more parenting help prior to their marriage; sharing holidays with our loud and large family without complaint; and even thinking to ask me how I felt about her heading to Mom’s first.

Maybe the in-law situations you are facing are far more weighty than having to figure out how to handle Thanksgiving. Perhaps hostility and manipulation characterize your relationships and you have no hope for change. Or maybe some of my thoughts seem simplistic and insensitive. Please know that’s not my intent. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my comments aren’t meant to speak to every situation.

But here’s the good news: the gospel does speak to every situation. There was absolutely no way a totally holy God and utterly sinful people were ever going to get along. Yet God made a way. Perhaps He hasn’t called you to “be close” to your in-laws. That’s not the standard that everyone must reach. In-laws can be warm or politely superficial and still honor God. Some in-laws talk about personal things happening in their lives while others don’t. I know in-laws who go on trips together and others who would rather stay home than do so, and not because they don’t like each other. And even those who have several married children have differing relationships with each.

Whatever the case, the gospel is applicable. Jesus Christ made a way for sinners and God to have a relationship, so He has the power to help people with lesser differences obey biblical commands to love, forgive when needed and be kind to one another — even if they never share a vacation.

What To Do When Greet By Hugging Marries Wave From Across the Room?

Today and tomorrow I’m going to share some personal lessons I’ve learned in my fifteen years as a mother-in-law and early next week I’ll communicate some thoughts for children-in-law, but before I do, some opening comments….

I’ve learned from your comments and messages that some of you are in painful relationships with your in-laws. Please know my intent in blogging about this issue is not to address the unique concerns of every reader. Few things stab at a mother or father’s heart than awkward or adversarial challenges involving our children.  My heart goes out to those of you whose in-law relationships are plagued by suspicion, accusation or tension. Others of you have healthy and warm in-law relationships. I pray these posts have made you freshly grateful! Still others have little relationship with your in-laws. You have rare or no contact with them. Perhaps you would like to — or maybe you’re glad they are a non-factor in your life.

The things I share are simply ideas and lessons from my own life and experience to be considered or tossed as irrelevant or unhelpful. While I certainly pray they are helpful, I also know that your best source of counsel is the scriptures and those who know you best. But for what it’s worth, I want to share six lessons I am learning that have helped my relationships with my New Kids. Some of these lessons have been learned the hard way through mistakes on my part while others have been gleaned from others, including my mother and mother-in-law.

One more thing: please understand that I am speaking to a generally Christian audience of people who are encountering normal and common issues. If you are experiencing serious issues of any kind and are not already receiving counseling from a qualified source, I urge you to do so. I am not a professional counselor; I’m simply a wife, mother, friend and homemaker just like many of you.

The first lesson I’d like to share is please remind yourself that your child’s relationship with their spouse must be valued as the most important one in his/her life. Marriage was the first human relationship God created. This was for good reason. He chose this union to demonstrate the covenant love and devotion between Christ and His bride, the church. Even before the first couple had children, God taught mankind that once God brings a man and woman together in marriage they must “leave” their father and mother and “cleave to” (“hold fast” or “be glued to”) one another (Gen 2:24).

After our children are married, we cannot and should not do or say anything to separate or jeopardize this prized relationship. While all of us are instructed by God to “honor [our] father and mother” we must allow the Bible to interpret itself in what this should look like. We may feel that honoring us means our married children should continue to seek our counsel about decisions; tightly protect our family’s holiday traditions and continue to faithfully attend family gatherings; realize how much we miss them and call us regularly to see how we’re doing; and elevate our preferences as the “elders” of the family.

Do I wish the Bible defined honor as requiring my adult children to live nearby and spend Christmas morning with Benny and me every single year until we die? Absolutely! But it doesn’t and couldn’t, unless our child’s in-laws also live nearby and we shared Christmas morning together so our child-in-law can “honor” his/her parents, too! As parents, we can certainly make honest, reasonable requests. But when our children marry they are beginning a new family that is separate from our own. This doesn’t mean they are given a pass to be selfish, insensitive and uncaring. However, just as our own relationship with our parents changed when we married and left home, so does our children’s relationship with us.

I have come to see the wisdom of God in doing everything I can to prize my married children’s relationship with their spouse over their relationship with me. This hasn’t been easy. At times I have wrestled, cried, battled self-pity and fought resentment. Then I remember that God called them to leave me and cleave to each other. The best thing I can do for my married son or daughter is release and encourage them to cherish their mate. This is especially important in the early years of the new marriage when in-law children understandably wonder how their new parent(s)-in-law are dealing with the changes.

One of the most endearing things that happens in my relationship with my sons-in-law, PJ and Eric, is when they send their wives to Mom for counsel. This is so meaningful because it demonstrates their trust that I (hopefully!) won’t say anything to my daughter that will put a wedge between her and her husband. This hasn’t always been easy. There have been times when I have been tempted to take up an offense for my girls; after all, I’m their mom! But in cases of martial strife or difficulty, the best thing any friend or advisor can do is compassionately point the person to the One who has all the help that is needed for whatever is happening rather than quickly share our mom-tainted advice. When our children marry we want their spouses to come to trust that we will not do anything to sentimentally draw their spouse — our child — away from them and toward us.

Second, resist any temptation to make critical or unkind comments to your child about his/her spouse. Again, as Christians the scriptures should be our guide in every relationship. Sinful speech in the form of gossip, fault-finding, sarcastic or critical words are not forbidden in the Bible except when in-laws are involved. As parents, we will certainly observe and perhaps hear struggles our children are having with their spouses. Our children are imperfect sinners who married imperfect sinners! But then something usually happens: they kiss and make up. In the aftermath of a conflict or when our children are hurt or hopeless, they may actually want us to agree with them that their spouse is a louse! But later they and we are left with the sarcastic, judgmental or accusing words that were spoken in the heat of the turmoil. As parents, it is our responsibility to wisely choose our words when talking to our child about his or her spouse, especially when they and/or we are upset or concerned.

I have heard in-laws on both sides of the relationship who have had to take a hard stand. Married kids have had to say, “Please don’t criticize my spouse anymore. If you have any concerns or criticisms to share, you will need to speak with them and not me.” Parents-in-law who speak negatively about their child’s spouse may let off some steam now but will likely pay later. Additionally, when married kids develop a pattern of sinfully bashing their spouse to Mom and Dad they, too, blow off steam that tempts parents to resent a child-in-law. In both of these cases, the damage can be serious.

Third, and last for today, recognize you are building a lifelong relationship. There have been things about each of my in-law children that have bothered me — and certainly things about me that have bothered them! All relationships are flawed. Even the best of friendships are tested through conflict, misunderstanding and hurt feelings. It’s no surprise that people-in-law confuse, disappoint and sin against one another. And on top of that, there is a common weirdness to in-law relationships because two families are being united to some degree. Even in-laws who have little interaction are affected by the upbringing, traditions, values and family “culture” of the person to whom their child is married.

Loud marries boistrous. Tidy marries sloppy. Tradition marries “whatever we’d like to do this holiday.” Resolve it now marries this can wait. Greet by hugging marries wave from across the room. Make sure you see Mom on her birthday marries give her a call that day-ish.

Throw some sin in the mix and of course there will be challenges! Now that I’ve had married kids for nearly fifteen years I am learning that I need to be as patient with my New Kids as God is with me. God doesn’t point out all my faults and areas of needed growth at once. Wow. If He did I would be completely overwhelmed. I’ve tried to imagine how hard it is on a new husband or wife to wonder if the in-laws approve of them. Who wants to live under that kind of pressure and concern, even if it’s unspoken? Being married is hard enough without the added pressure of wondering if a parent-in-law is pleased with who you are.

Most of what has bothered me about my New Kids centers on personal preference. Yes, they sin just like I do. But most of the weirdness has been lessened by the realization that I’m tempted to elevate my preferences over our relationship. That’s why I decided to give my relationship with our New Kids two years before I bring up any uninvited concerns. (If they’re reading this post they probably learned this for the first time.) Certainly if there was something serious that needed immediate attention, Benny and I would speak up. But most of the things that worried me were no longer a concern in two years. Any weighty issues that became a pattern were more easily discussed when they were secure in our love and commitment to not meddle.

The fact is this: if you’re a parent of married children like me, our children made a choice. We may or may not agree with the person or timing of their choice. But once the choice is made we are wise to build a culture of love and trust. Alienating our children and their spouse is no way to build a bridge over which the joys and challenges to come can be carried.

P.S. I know this post is long. But if you made it to the end you now know that I’ll post the other three lessons I’m learning tomorrow. I would love to hear any helpful lessons you are learning. Please share them in the comment section for my and others benefit!