Thursday, February 6, 2014

Really! Reading Does Increase Intelligence

Are you weary of teaching your five year old to sound out words? Have you given up on the dream of your less-than-stellar-student getting into college?  Is it easier to grab the remote than to grab the keys to drive to the library?  Read this:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The First Mile

After over a year of neglecting this blog, I'm making an effort in 2014 to give it some attention.  It's selfish, really.  I read oodles of great stuff on the Interwebs and I'm going to try to use this blog as a central storage place for my favorite items of motivation.  Because there are so many different aspects to my life (wife, mother, housekeeper, engineer, educator, reader, runner), I will be compiling the most motivating articles that relate to those topics.

Life is hard, right?  And messy.  Yes, messy.  Very.  And hard.  Did I mention that?  There's a life analogy that has been sticking with me for the last few months that applies here.  As a runner, I hit the pavement for training runs several times a week.  I began to notice that every single time I start to run, the first mile is extremely hard.  My legs feel heavy, my lungs seem tight, and my brain screams, "Quit!"  It doesn't matter if I've had a day of rest prior or if I ran 18 miles prior; the first mile is always excruciating.  But after that first mile, my legs feel less heavy and my lungs seem wide open. By the time my watch says mile two, I feel as if I could run for hours.

This analogy holds true for every aspect of my life.  The beginning is so hard.  Getting started is excruciating.  Whether it's trudging through a hard-but-good-for-my-brain book or diving into a new computer program, that first mile is hard.  So, I turn to others who are so eloquent at motivating me through that first mile.  It's on this blog that I'd like to start compiling that very motivation.  Here's hoping you garner some motivation and get through that first mile, too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan

When things get tough, Stewart O'Nan is my go-to guy.  He is always on the shelves at the library.  He's not difficult to read.  I don't have to turn on my brain to analyze him and yet the depth of his perception into  people - especially women - jumps off of the pages.  Always depressing and never uplifting, O'Nan's realistic portrayal of life is comforting because he doesn't pretend.  There's no hope for a happily-ever-after ending, no certainty of a literary climax that elevates the power of the human spirit.  Reading his novels always reminds me that no human can fix the brokenness in my life.

Wish You Were Here is the story of the Maxwell's, a family who is spending a week at their lake cottage for the very last time.  Emily Maxwell, the matriarch of the family, has decided to sell the cottage because in the wake of her husband's death, she can't care for it any more.  She arranges for her son and his family, her daughter and her children, and her sister-in-law to join her in remembering the past while cleaning it out for the future.

Nothing exciting happens in this book.  The narrative explores what a family does on vacation, from eating hamburgers to put-put golf to squashing a fly that escapes the outdoor hear.  But every single page has astonishing insight into the thoughts of kids, teenagers, middle-age parents, and retirees.  As the narrator of Wish You Were Here can read the minds of all the characters, the readers gets a glimpse into thoughts that, well, stunned this reader.    Ken, the 40-something year old son of Emily, had some thoughts about his wife's behavior that made me pause more than a few times.  I was familiar with the mind of Lisa, a 40-something year old wife of Ken:  "Sometimes she was dissatisfied, and when she said anything, Ken made her feel like she expected too much.  She felt caught in an opera, wanted daily to be ravaged by passion, and then, doing the dishes, picking up after the kids, thought it was just her age. She wasn't the only woman bored at forty, wondering what had gone wrong."  I wondered if my teenager thinks any of the thoughts that 13-year old Sarah had.  When her father asks how she is doing, she responds with what her dad wants to hear, but this is what she was thinking:   "Terrible, she wanted to say, but he didn't really want to know about her and Mark, or how long this summer had been, and she didn't really want to tell him.  'Good,' she said, and waited for him to say something else. It was easier this way."  How many times have my kids told me what I wanted to hear because it was easier that way?

So actually, something exciting DOES happen in this book.  Because of the piercing narrative unhindered by pretense, the reader is able to hear the voices in her life that are often masked by figurative ear pods vibrating the sounds that she wants to hear.  Because the characters are developed in such detail, the reader is not likely to easily forget what the 11-year old is thinking when the mom responds to him in sarcasm about his screen time, or what the words are that the husband withholds to avoid a confrontation.

Is it futile to read 516 pages of hopelessness in the human spirit?  No way.  It's a realistic portrayal of this life on this earth and a reminder that there's nothing I can do to give myself a happy ending.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Adoption Resource #2 - Toddler Adoption - The Weaver's Craft by Mary Hopkins Best

Over the last decade and a half, I've come to the conclusion that the most challenging adoption situation for both the child and the adoptive parent is that of a toddler. During the toddler years, children start to express themselves and use a variety of different methods to do so. Children over the age of five or six have a much easier time expressing themselves, even if they are speaking in their native language to a translator. When a child is adopted as a toddler, they need to express their feelings and fears about new surroundings, new people, new smells, new food, new everything. And this need to express is hindered by the fact that they are still learning to communicate. Children born to and raised by their biological parents have difficulty communicating and expressing their emotions (biting, anyone?). Throw an adoption into the mix of this crucial developmental stage, and you've got yourself one terrified and confused kid that is not apt to attach to his or her new parents with ease.

Toddler Adoption - The Weaver's Craft, by Mary Hopkins Best, is my second favorite adoption resource out there. Thorough, clear, and - best of all - frank, this book spends a large portion of the book asking parents the hard questions, summarized by the chapter title: "Is Toddler Adoption for You?" The book then explains the development of a toddler, how a toddler grieves having to leave familiar surroundings, and how adoptive parents can attach to a grieving two- or three-year old. Dr. Hopkins-Best gives examples of specific toddler adoptions and clear guidance as to how to best parent these children in desperate need of attachment to their parents.

Ten years ago, I hesitated to recommend this book to potential adoptive parents because I was afraid that it would scare them away from adoption. I had seen my share of orphanages around the world, and I wanted (still do) every single child languishing in an orphanage to have a loving family. What I understand now is that, while every child needs a loving family, not every family is capable of providing the environment that these children need. So in order to advocate responsible adoption, the best thing I can possibly do is recommend Toddler Adoption - The Weaver's Craft when I meet parents who are considering adoption. Note that this book has portions that are applicable to the adoption of a child at any age. Knowing what they will face when that grieving child enters their home is the very best thing that parents could do. Realizing that parenting an adoptive child takes many additional measures of patience, perseverance, and kindness toward these hurting children is what adopted toddlers need most during the transition into their new families. Adoptive parents need to know. Reading this book will do just that.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Adoption Resource #1 - Helping Your Adopted Child

This is the first of several posts intended to highlight quality adoption resources. I will be recommending books that provide helpful and effective advice in matters of parenting adoptive children as an alternative to parenting books than have proven harmful to adopted children. Helping Your Adopted Child - Understanding Your Child's Unique Identity, by Paul David Tripp is the first of these recommendations.

Helping Your Adopted Child is a 22-page booklet that is provided by the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. While it is clearly Christian in nature, I would encourage non-Christians considering adoption to read it, as Tripp's practical strategies are applicable to parents of all religions.

Paul Tripp (not to be confused with Tedd Tripp, author of Shepherding a Child's Heart) has been counseling for over 25 years, but he is also an adoptive parent. That combination is extremely appealing to me, as he has both professional and personal experience with adoption. He starts out summarizing his experience with the adoption of his daughter, who is now well into adulthood. He then discusses God's view of adoption and progresses to struggles that an adopted child faces throughout life. His insight is frank and firm, yet he provides hope for parents in their efforts to help these unique children through their struggles. With this important foundation, Helping Your Adopted Child also provides practical strategies for helping adopted children through transition and struggles.

I appreciate the fact that Tripp points out that often times, parenting strategies for adoptive children sometimes require different techniques that parents would use with their biological children. He's clear that formulas do not work in the parenting realm and encourages parents to point their children to their identity as God sees them. The best part of this booklet is the fact that Tripp points parents to look to God, and not to quick-fix solutions.

I recommend this pamphlet to adoptive parents at the beginning of the process, to adoptive parents struggling with parenting their children, and to adoptive parents who don't like to read long books . So check it out. Buy one, a pack of five, or a case, and pass them out to anyone you know considering adoption.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Adoption Education for Life

To say that I'm sad about this story is an enormous understatement. The death of any child under any circumstance is horrific. The death of a child at the hands of adoptive parents somehow seems more than horrific. That it's happened twice in the past three years with the same book as the guiding parental advice light is abominable.

Here at Civil Thoughts we adore adoption. Someone's pain became our joy four times over. For us, adoption has been the greatest joy of our lives. For some parents, this joy is not felt. Adoption is complicated, at best, for everyone involved. Over the past 13 years, we've completed four adoptions and assisted with countless others. During these years, one of the constants I've experienced is the fact that, once the excitement subsides, the first days at home can be extremely challenging for the child and parents. This is especially true for children adopted older than the infant stage. The cry of the new parents during this time is always this: "Why didn't I know it was going to be this difficult?"

Most people would assume that adoption agencies help with post-adoption counseling. Typically, they do not. I vacillate on whether or not it is their responsibility to do so. The bottom line is that processing adoption paperwork is expensive, and adoptive families balk at adoption costs as it is. If agencies were to spend time providing post-adoption counseling, they couldn't cover the basic costs of running the agency. So, families who bring home children at older ages are usually left with little help as they navigate how to live life together.

While adoption of children at any age is challenging for the child, the most difficult adoption situation - by far - is when an older child is adopted from a foreign country. In most situations, these children have lived in orphanages for some time, and while logic would dictate that their new surroundings would evoke gratefulness from them, the surroundings seem strange and overwhelming to the child. These kids can't speak the language, they can't recognize the food they are eating, and they can't wrap their brains around why everyone looks so different. Many parents of these children muddle through these challenges, and some parents actually help the children settle into the their new life in a way that is effective. Some parents, however, become so overwhelmed that they hang on to every last ounce of control that they think they have and they use that control in an attempt to "fix" these children who are clamoring to survive in their new environments. By all accounts, this is what happened to poor little Hannah Williams. It's also what happened to Lydia Schatz.

Trying to fix adopted children to the point of death is simply not acceptable.

Someday, I'd love to start a non-profit organization solely dedicated to providing post-adoption counseling to families. Until then, I'm going to have to just try to continue to educate people about how to help these precious children settle in to their new lives.

Over the next few weeks, I'm hoping to highlight resources that will help adoptive families with transitioning their newly adopted children with love, grace, and patience. These resources that I will summarize are not a substitute for competent professional counseling, which is often times what these children and families need once they are home. I'm not a professional counselor, but I am experienced with adoption, and I feel as if I have to do something in light of this latest tragedy. The books and pamphlets that I'm going to discuss are a first step in the right direction for families thinking about adoption, for families in the midst of an adoption, and for families who are wringing their hands over how to survive a completed adoption. More often than not, I talk to parents who are embarking on the adoption journey and they have no education about how they are going to help their children once the adoption is complete. Starting an adoption without reading about the challenges is nothing short of foolish. Prospective adoptive parents must educate themselves. It can be a matter of life and death.

Please send the adoptive families here to read about books that can help. Encourage them to throw away books like To Train Up A Child and pick up books like the ones I'm going to discuss in the coming days. Together, we can take this little step to help end the senseless deaths of children who want and need loving families.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson

As you can tell by looking at this year's reading list, I've had a bit of an identity crisis. As usual, I tried to solve it by reading a bunch of non-fiction. And, consistent with the solutions to my mini-crises of the past, a fiction title made everything right again.

I Don't Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson, is a novel about Kate, an executive with a financial firm. She is married with two kids, and her work provides the primary source of income for her family. Kate's nanny cares for the children while she works and travels all over the world and while her husband tries - half-heartedly - to give his own career some momentum. Pearson's insights into the world of women trying to do it all are incredibly well-written, not to mention eerily accurate. One of my favorite examples follows:

"I reckon this must be how it was for centuries: women doing the doing and exchanging conspiratorial glances and indulgent sighs about the men. But I never joined the Muffia; I don't know the code, the passwords, the special handshakes. I expect a man - my man - to do women's work, because if he doesn't I can't do a man's work. And up here in Yorkshire, the pride I feel in managing, the fact that I can and do make our lives stay on track, if only just, curdles into unease. Suddenly I realize that a family needs a lot of care, a lubricant to keep it running smoothly, whereas my little family is just about bumping along and the brakes are starting to squeal."

I laughed more while reading this book than I did when I read The Corrections, and that's saying something. Here is a sample of that humor with which every mother can identify:

"Leaning over the empty tub, I clear out the Pingu toys and the wrecked galleon, unstick the alphabet letters which, ever since the vowels got flushed down the loo, have formed angry Croat injunctions around the rim (scrtzchk!). I peel off the crusty half-dry Barbie flannel that has started to smell of something I vaguely remember as tadpole; and then, starting at one corner, I lift up the nonslip mat, whose suction cups cling for a second before yielding with an indignant burp."

And then this:

"When I wasn't at work, I had to be a mother; when I wasn't being a mother, I owed it to work to be at work. Time off for myself felt like stealing. The fact that no man I knew ever felt that way didn't help. This was just another area in which we were unequal: mothers got the lioness's share of the guilt."

And simply because I have a terrible time with returning library materials, here's another quote:

"...and please return Snow White video to the library. The fine now exceeds production costs on the original Walt Disney movie."

Ultimately, it was the way she captured the inner conflict of "to work or not to work" that made me adore this novel. The movie will be released sometime this fall, but I guarantee that the movie will not come close to capturing the dynamic of the working mother like the book does. The sentence construction that Pearson uses to describe women who want it all caused me to pause and ponder repeatedly. She starts off with this description of the "two kinds of mother":

"There is an uneasy standoff between the two kinds of mother which sometimes makes it hard for us to talk to each other. I suspect that the nonworking mother looks at the working mother with envy and fear because she thinks that the working mum has got away with it, and the working mum looks back with fear and envy because she knows that she has not. In order to keep going in either role, you have to convince yourself that the alternative is bad. The working mother says, Because I am more fulfilled as a person I can be a better mother to my children. And sometimes she may even believe it. The mother who stays home knows that she is giving her kids an advantage, which is something to cling to when your toddler has emptied his beaker of juice over your last clean T-shirt."

I found the following little quip hilarious, once I was finished feeling offended:

"Taking her eyes off the Career Path for a few months, she had found herself on what they call the Mummy Track. (The Mummy Track has the appearance of a through road; you can travel for many hundreds of miles along it before you notice you're going nowhere.)"

As the book progresses, Kate struggles more with how to do everything she is expected to do. She starts to make observations like this one:

"You needed a license to drive a car, but with a baby you were expected to pick it up as you went along. Becoming a parent was like trying to build a boat while you were at sea."

At the end of the book, Kate's life has spun so out of control that she makes a lists of reasons to give up work and keep working. Reason 5 on the list to give up working was especially poignant: "5. Because becoming a man is the waste of a woman."

So where does that leave us? With easy answers in this world where the opportunities for women seem endless? Hardly. I'll tell you where the pausing and pondering from this book left me. My parents gave me the gift of a college education which allowed me to have a full-time, working woman career for seven years. I loved the feel of my black leather brief case and I can't remember tiring of wearing suits and high heels. I adored giving presentations and sitting across from clients so that I could explain how their wastewater treatment plant could run more efficiently or how I could design a developer's parking lot so that it wouldn't flood anymore. Twelve years later, I found myself sitting across from a different client. This time, I was teaching my "client" how to read. And let me tell you, teaching my children to read has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and it pales in comparison to the fleeting satisfaction of those presentations I made in conference rooms. Why then, do I drool over my husband's career? Does my desire to work outside the home mean I should leave the work inside my home to someone else? I know lots of women who think the answer to that question is yes. And I know other women who think that my place in eternity would be compromised if I left the rearing of my children to someone else.

What I realized after finishing I Don't Know How She Does It is that the answer comes down to stewardship. I need to ask myself this two-part question: "What have I been given and how can I best take care of what I've been given?" I came pretty close to not having any children at all. Had that happened, I think putting my all into a career would have been a fine choice. But that didn't happen. I ended up with four kids and a husband who's career keeps him traveling constantly. There are no guarantees in life; for a plethora of reasons, it's possible that I may have to work full time during a different season in my life. The point is this: I have to take care of the people and circumstances I've been given at each stage in my life. I know many women who don't have a choice in this matter. With their circumstances, the way that they can best care for what they've been given is to work outside the home.

Much has been written about this topic. I'm drawn to every article and book I see that addresses it. The answers are not black and white in our culture. But they may become a bit easier for women as individuals, not as an entire gender, when we look at what we've been given and determine just how well we are "stewarding".