Loving Imperfectly Well

On this day eight years ago, I became the mom of an amazing baby boy, adopted from Ethiopia. Happy Gotch-ya Day, B’man. I wrote this blog post a few years ago, but it’s no less poignant to my heart today. I love this boy, oh so very much. Happy Gotch-ya Day to my B’man.

This morning my daughter excitedly helped her brother get dressed as they both anticipated our early morning birthday celebration for Benjamin’s sixth. One thing I’ve learned with young kids; there’s no sense in waiting for cake. We do it first thing, candles and all. Let the birthday boy (or girl) start their day with all the extravagance my love can muster before 7 a.m. We trailed him downstairs as he exclaimed, “yey!” to our happy birthday wishes.

Facebook faithfully churned out a memory for me, of a toothy one-year old boy on his first birthday, just seven months after coming home from Ethiopia to join our family. And then I remembered, as I drove into work how I’d really felt when we brought him home. After the infatuation I’d felt in those first months with my daughter, also adopted from Ethiopia, and the bliss of a first child, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of my hesitation to give myself over to that same abandon with my son. Instead, I settled into my role as his mom. This handsome boy needed caring for, but I felt, ashamedly so, like he had just interrupted me. After all, I’d been so taken by my daughter, falling for her uncanny sparkle and celestial happiness without any effort on my part. I wasn’t sure what to do when those same feelings weren’t immediately present the second time around.

This guy was no less winsome. He was no less deserving of my love, that same love I so easily found for my daughter. But just because he was mine, didn’t make that so. I loved him first in a responsible, care-taking way. I committed myself to meeting his needs as any attentive mother would. I actively loved him at first. I put my energy into the practice of that feeling of love I trusted would follow but, at times, wasn’t quite so sure.

Then, somehow, in that choosing, again and again, to give myself over to this baby boy–to learn what made him laugh; to admire him for the qualities that were uniquely him (not my daughter); to give him a bottle in those early hours of the morning and change countless diapers; to acknowledge my limitations in loving him perfectly and appreciating, instead, the process of learning to love him—somehow, I fell hard. I remember when I emerged from the uncertainty and worry–it was right about the time, my world was rocked by a blow that seemed to come out of nowhere. But, instead of jeopardizing that love that had really always been there, that dark time rooted my love for my son (and my daughter) more deeply. That love anchored me. It gave me purpose and direction and a reason to live well.

Loving is a discipline. We love in practice when we show up each day for the people who love us, and in the case of our children, need us. My son’s propensity to spitting up, although tiresome at the time, was an opportunity to practice love in the mundane routine of cleaning up, of washing out shirts, of paying attention to just what might be upsetting his stomach so much in the first place.

Love is a choice. We must give ourselves over to it. It cannot be passively expected to flourish when we don’t cultivate it in practice and pursuit. There should be no surprise when love goes dormant because we are not giving ourselves over to it anymore. We must choose to love and then make every effort to nurture that promise. Over time, I tossed aside the expectation that my experience of loving him would or should be the same as it had with my daughter. He was different. was different. But, in the end, the love was the same. Always there . . .  waiting to consume me.

On occasion, our beloved little elf-on-the-shelf, whom we affectionately have named Umpa, will make an appearance to decorate birthday cakes. Well, last night, I decidedly left Umpa on the shelf. I wanted some credit for a change. It was a perfect reminder of my imperfect love as it stuck to the pan, causing it to break and as I clumsily attempted to decorate it with yellow and black frosting. I knew, no matter what, he wouldn’t care if the batman emblem was smudgy or a corner that had collapsed was filled in with frosting. The most important thing was that he felt loved. And, after blowing out the candles this morning and scarfing down a piece, he scampered over to me and wrapped his arms around my legs.

“Thank you, Mommy, for my birthday cake,” he said. And then in that sweet and squeaky Benji voice, he followed it up with, “I love you.”

I love you, too Benji. I love you too.

I Believe In the Resolution-Makers

This Christmas my church staged a production of Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol.” For as many Christmases as this classic story has aired on television in one rendition or another, I almost ashamedly admit that I’ve never really cared for the story. Often playing amid the backdrop of the Christmas season, I hadn’t paid close attention to the beautiful theme of transformation that played out on stage this year right before my eyes.

Following his haunting encounters with the ghosts of his past, present, and future, Ebenezer Scrooge awakes one morning, transformed and resolute in his commitment to be kind, generous, and benevolent. One by one, Scrooge faces the individuals he has wronged: among them a neglected nephew and a devoted employee. For his hardened heart, he lost his love, so there is no one with whom to reconcile.

While his own transformation is remarkable, what impressed me as I watched Ebeneze Scrooge come to life was the reaction of those with whom he sought to make amends. Though stunned and quite possibly amused at his remarkable metamorphosis, from an insensitive and stingy old man to the incarnation of kindness, no one (at least not in this adaptation) scoffed at his change. There were no remarks of doubt or skepticism towards him, just gracious acceptance for who he had become.

When I was in college, I participated on several student-led committees. In one of them, the faculty member who worked with us had expressed his hope to see an operations manual of sorts be written after we finished our campus-wide event. This would, in turn, provide direction and information to the next group of student leaders planning the same event in following years. Being the leader heading up the week-long seminars and activities involved in our World Opportunities Week, this responsibility fell to me.

What this faculty member did not realize when he expressed his doubt that I would follow-through, based on the performance of previous students was that his skepticism fueled my drive even more. Nothing was more irksome to me than being doubted based on the performance of other people.

I thought to myself, “Oh yea? Well, I’m going to write that manual, and I’ll show him.” If anything, maybe his attitude challenged me. Perhaps he even intended the consequence. I recall a degree of surprise when I pulled out the binder that documented my hard work in organizing the event. My sense of gratification was all the greater because I was making a point. I did not appreciate being doubted because others had disappointed. I had no previous record to indicate that I didn’t finish things, and I would have preferred being given the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps this New Year, you have made a resolution or two. You might have announced it proudly with wide-eyed optimism, or you may, like me, wish to keep your aspirations for 2015 to yourself.

When making room for resolutions or change of any kind, we each need the support of our friends and family. We might hesitate to announce our aspirations because our enthusiasm has been steam-rolled before by someone whose doubts or lack of encouragement discouraged us.

Even if it’s just from one person, pessimism binds others to failure; it kills the spirit, and it shrinks the heart. How much of the change we so desire in ourselves and our world is stunted by our inability to believe it is even attainable in the first place? Can you imagine something better for yourself? Are you willing to imagine that for someone else?

It can feel safer to shrink into the confines of negativity and doubt because embracing change in others might mean something about us may have to change, and this can be uncomfortable. After all, the choice to change wasn’t ours, yet it calls upon us to respond and may require a change in our perception or attitudes towards another.

What if my best friend does lose 20 pounds? She might look better than me.

What if my spouse starts balancing the check book? Then I won’t be in control anymore.

What if my co-worker gets a promotion? Then I won’t feel as good about myself.

What if my child moves out? Then she won’t need me as much anymore.

Behind our skepticism is a reminder of our own insecurities. Buried underneath our doubt is also a doubt about ourselves. Instead of running the race with our friend, we secure our place on the sidelines of a run that drains the life out of both people. Either way, no one wins.

Imagine a world in which we could celebrate the progress of others and cheer them on in their pursuits. Imagine a world where everyday was about resolution-making because there was just that much to hope for. After all, freeing ourselves up from the compulsion to judge the fortitude of others in fulfilling their own resolutions is, in a way, a testament to our own limitations. Letting go loosens the grip of negativity, and it unleashes the possibility of change for us all.


*This post originally published in December, 2015*


On one of my early independent jaunts as a kid into the Atlantic Ocean, I got my first taste of salt water. Gagging and coughing, I wasn’t sure why I felt like I might throw up.  I had lost my footing and was sucked into the current of the sea.  I’m sure I hadn’t drifted too far out, but it didn’t take much for the force of the tide to pull my string-bean frame out further than I’d planned. I was old enough not to be trailed by an overly concerned parent but young enough not to be the best judge of how far was too far. So I learned the hard way, as we often do, just what they meant by undertow.

Undertow. That force that moves in opposition, always there, imperceptibly so. Threatening. Challenging anyone who ventures in to call its bluff.

A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by an interview on CBS This Morning with a psychiatrist father and his comedian daughter. They were pitching their new book to the media, “F*ck Feelings.” What drew me in was the suggestion that we must accept our complicated feelings and difficult life circumstances, despite how we might feel about them. There are some things that, no matter how much we might wish were different, just will not ever, not never, change or go away. Sometimes feelings are what they are. We can’t feel our way out of them but must learn to live with them, around them, in spite of them. And not just live but, rather, live well and love ourselves for trying.

I’ve been divorced over two years now, and still, I wonder when I won’t feel sad. After all, that sadness puts me in conflict with all the goodness that has flowed into my life since then. Grief still lingers. Just when I am not sad about one thing, I become sad over another. Sadness remains because each day carries a paradox for me– the challenge of living well but outside the boundaries of my values. The undertow of that loss sometimes threatens to pull me out to sea. I live with, and I live without every day.  I live with the hope that emerges when something new comes to life. But I live without the dreams I’d set out for in the first chapter. And when I’m caught in the undertow, I doubt whether I can get where I want to get at all.

I woke up one morning, wondering just where God was in all this sadness, not just my own but, also, yours. Ours. We all live with. And we live without.  Yet, therein is the very conflict that leaves room for the divine to make all things beautiful. The very notion that this will take time and things will be made beautiful points ever-so-subtly to the fact that they didn’t start out that way. We are with, and we are without every day.

Feelings are just that–feelings. They come, and they go. They’re wobbly and unreliable. They’re like scattered Legos on bare feet in the dark. They can trip you up. Or, just when you think you’re going to take a quick dip, they pull you under. Though we might not be able to master of our feelings, we can master how we handle them. We can choose to live well and make it our quest to find as many ways as possible to do so. And when sadness rears its head or disappointment nestles in beside us, we can celebrate the endeavor we’re on, the blood, sweat, and tears we’ve shed to get beyond it.

Feelings tell us something about ourselves–what we value, what we’ve lost, and what we ultimately long for. They need not drag us down. We may find ourselves being pulled under. Yet, if we can yield for a moment to the pull, the emotional swell can come and go without sucking us completely under. And in the miracle that is learning to swim, we may soon find that our deepest aches give way to joy.

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Psalm 30:5 NRSV