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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Category: Motherhood

Guest Post: A Pastor's Encouragement for Your Messy House This Summer

Thanks to Chris McGarvey, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Wilmington, Delaware, for allowing me to repost from his blog this past week. Chris and his wife, Beth, are friends from college days, and they, like us, have five children.

* * * * *

The Manger and Motherhood

I've been studying Proverbs for the last couple of months. I came to Proverbs 14:4 one morning back at the end of April and saw some strong encouragement for my sweet wife and the mother of our brood.Mothers have one of the toughest jobs on the planet and they need all the encouragement we can give them. So when I came to Proverbs 14:4 again yesterday morning, I was reminded of the encouragement I passed on to Beth from this verse. There might be a few other mothers (and other-than-mothers) who could stand a little encouragement in the midst of their messy, loving lives.In a sentence, Proverbs 14:4 is saying that the meals are worth the mess. Or, the crops are worth the crap. Here's how I put it to Beth.


Dear mother,
Proverb 14:4 Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, …
Wouldn't that be nice? A clean manger (read kitchen, house, laundry room, car, etc.)!
Imagine that! Everything in order. Everything where it belongs. No "ugh" when you walk back in the door after your errands. Only "ahh" as you return to your spotless domain.
Imagine it! No stains on the carpet or furniture. No spills or crumbs in the car. No spit up on your blouse. No toys on the floor. No art project explosions. No finger prints on the wall. No clothes on the floor. No sink full of dishes you didn't dirty. No school bags or lunch bags or coats or hats to contend with. No Lego bomb shrapnel to scoop up. No toothpaste in the sink. No “presents” left in the toilets.
A clean manger! What a blessing! Animals drool and stink and shed. Mangers are not the most hygienic environments in the world, you know.
…but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
But...a clean manger means not having more than just the mess. It also means not having the animals. And without the animals, you miss out on the crops.Imagine that! No little smiles and cuddles and giggles and hugs and kisses. No little homemade cards. No constant flood of opportunities to sow seeds of gospel grace and truth and love and service and "I'm sorry" and forgiveness and mercy and tenderness and toughness and discipline and discipleship. All of which grow slowly. All of which have their seasons of drought and storm. But the word will not return void and your labor is not in vain. You have and you will taste the fruit of your labors. You are feeding those oxen. The manger is a mess, but the crops can and will be abundant. All the fruit of His love, your love. Messy? Yes. Worth it? I'll let you answer that.
A clean manger? Wouldn't that be terrible? A clean manger is an empty manger. And an empty manger is not a good sign. This is a farm after all.With love, The farmer

Postscript: Motherhood is only one applicational direction for this proverb. You might not be a mother, but there is still a word for you here. If you live a small, selfish life, you might have all your ducks in a row, but duck arranging doesn’t produce much. The fruit of love is only birthed through the dirty work of relational plowing and seeding and watering and weeding and harvesting. These activities will take time away from dusting your ducks, and you’ll have to have more supplies and tools lying around, but harvest time will be rich!

Kneading Bread and Guilt

My mother emails to ask how “daycare” is going for the kids, and she may as well have rubbed salt into a freshly cut wound. “Day camp” has been hard enough to swallow. I am conflicted about these first two weeks of our Montreal adventure during which I’ve enrolled all five of the children in day camp, intending to hole myself up in a café to write. My knotted conscience throbs hard when I leave Andrew sobbing yesterday morning in the arms of his camp counselor, “MOOOOMMY!” echoing down the hallway as I hide outside the women’s bathroom. I am quite sure that everyone who passes me knows that I am the bad mommy who does not come when called.

There are a million rationalizations that I make, most of them depending on some kind of complicated mental algorithm. It’s as if I can only grant myself permission to do this when I’ve tallied the hours I’ve logged these past eleven years, enumerated the dinners I’ve made, calculated the value of past sacrifice. Yesterday afternoon, as I kneaded bread and prepared our family’s favorite chowder, best with sweet summer corn, I kneaded my guilt, too, telling myself that I was not the failed mother I knew myself secretly to be. And as the soup simmered, so did self-incrimination.

I know the issue is much bigger than whether the kids attend day camp or not. I’m not a good mother because I keep them home. I’m not a bad mother because I send them. But it’s that similar reflex of calculation I’ve heard done many times before, especially, for example, when it comes to school choices. In many Christian circles, it’s the women who choose to homeschool who are billed as committed, spiritual. And for those women who send their children to school, well, we know the better verb for “send” is “ship.” They’re “shipping their kids off to school,” their disinterest in their children revealing how they see them less like humans and more like Fed Ex packages.

It’s a bogus deal, all those calculations, mired as they are in the mathematics of culture and place. In Toronto, as in most big cities I imagine, more women work than do not. Living is expensive, and it’s not simply that families “need” their three-car garage and media room. Buying food, paying rent: many families can’t do these most fundamental things without the help of two salaries in cities like Toronto. And even for the moms who, privileged like I, can choose not to work, day camp is still for them a viable option to pass the long summer months; it doesn’t seem for them the threat to maternal credibility that I’ve somehow interpreted it to be.

And the issue is infinitely bigger than motherhood and day camp. It’s the inner algebra of the soul we all attempt as we work to find the equation that tips the scale in our favor, proving somehow that we are good enough. We are desperate to mute the stricken conscience, those screaming inner places that jeer how we are what we’ve worked long and hard to deny. Failure.

Forgive us this day our sins as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us. This is the only language of rescue I know for the predicament of striving and failing, for the knotted conscience, for the reflex of calculation, for the kneading and needing. Jesus loves me, me, mother who takes two weeks maternal hiatus in the summer to stare at a computer screen. Jesus loves me, me, whose ledger falls short, whose performance is mediocre at best. Jesus loves me, me, and not with gritted teeth and sighs of impatience, but delight. Sheer delight.

A husband and his bride.

A father and his child.

And that’s what I must knead into the sore places of guilt.




How-to Friday: Make your Children Happy

We’d caught each other at the doors of the school at dusk, dark falling early that January afternoon. We were catching up on the news of winter vacation, and Camille’s friend takes her new iPod Touch from her pocket. The two friends hover around the screen like swarming bees, and from the corner of my eye, as I talk with the mother, I watch the hallowed buzz until suddenly, there is the spectacle of the Christmas gift falling to the ground and the screen shattering into pieces. There can be no retrieving it, no neatly putting it back together. And the mother looks as if she’s run over a deer, killing the animal and denting her car beyond recognition. There isn’t blood in our scene, just bits, and she mutters that she thinks Visa will cover the loss and allow her to replace the broken one, and she’ stringing together sentences fast, making sense of the bits and the two hundred dollars she may as well have just ignited in a backyard bonfire if Visa doesn’t come through as she hopes.

I might be easily made to say, if you twisted my arm, that eight-year-olds have no business receiving an iPod Touch for Christmas, but that would make me the arbitrating voice of reason for every family on this planet. I’m not happy to play that role. You can give your child whatever you want to give him. You can happily spend the money you think you must, but I’m simply here to say it doesn’t have to be so expensive to make your child happy.

Several weeks ago, when the children had a four-day weekend, Camille proposed the utterly ingenious idea of hanging a swing from the tall oak tree in the back yard. She had done the proper calculations, designated the appropriate branch, and reasoned that it couldn’t cost a lot of money to hang a swing. (Camille knows the value of a dollar. Once, when her piano teacher had indicated that because she was almost finished with her theory book, she would have to buy another, Camille had eyed her suspiciously. “That costs money, you know.”)

We googled, “hang a tree swing” and came up with a This Old House episode on just that very subject. The video had proposed a project with saws and paint, and while I normally would NOT have let myself be talked so easily into a project by my eight-year-old, this particular day offered up its unexpected dose of parental generosity. “Yes, that’s a great idea.” Not, of course, that I would be the one working with the saw. We promptly emailed the video to Dad.

Who came home and - why sure, we could try that - on Sunday made his pilgrimage to Home Depot, returning home with a plastic melded disc for the seat of the swing and two different kinds of plastic rope. I asked him whether he intended to drill some hardware into the tree branch, warning him when he answered no that we would be endangering the tree.

“I’m NOT getting up there with a drill.”

And the project proceeds with the collective heads of Ryan and the three older children strategizing how to get the rope around the tree’s tall arm, which extends stiffly over the backyard. First, the rope is attached to a Nerf football. Both Ryan and Nathan throw, making unsuccessful attempts to loop the long rope around the limb. It is decided that something heavier is needed. They scrounge through the garage, and someone triumphantly carries out a baseball mitt. It would take only a few tries with the mitt, and the yellow rope would indeed loop and fall. There is applause, cheers. Ryan threads the disc onto the rope, knots it like only a Boy Scout can (or was he a boy scout?). The swing is operational.

It has hung like an invitation into the backyard. For the first week, the children were in the backyard immediately upon waking up in the morning. Our neighbors, I might imagine, have regretted the hanging of the swing ever since. Friends have been invited to play, “because you HAVE to swing on our new swing,” and they, too, have drunk in the fun of swinging in the widest arc ever known to man. I am asked to do my famous underdogs for them, and when I push twice, counting, “ONE . . TWO” and then, grabbing their waist, run under them as I hold and release with an extra push of my fingertips, they sail higher than the fence, squeal, and wave to the sky.

A swing. It was as easy as that.

Am I Mom Enough?

The mommy wars wage on. mom enough

The controversial cover of Time Magazine and its even more provocative question, (“Are you Mom enough?”) have taken our Mommy heads by the hair and plunged us again into the cold, dark waters of judgment. (This is becoming a cultural OIympic sport.) Who’s Mommy enough? The article (which I confess to only having read about) features mothers who adhere to attachment parenting, and those mothers might make the case that you’re only mom enough if you’re nursing as many children as you can for as long as you can, if you carry your baby in a sling, and if you co-sleep with your children.

I don’t have a problem, by the way, with any of those choices. I can honestly say that by the time the twins were born (they were the 4th and 5th babies I swaddled, nursed, diapered, and napped), the only real metric that made sense to me was the question, “Does it work?” And if that sounds hopelessly spineless and horribly pragmatic, let me tell you: it was.

Are you Mom enough? There are a lot of Mommy bloggers working their fingers raw to insist that you are, no matter what your choices are about how you feed your child and whether you work or not.

But I find the question terrifically unfair and loaded with all kinds of presumption. Mom enough according to whom?

When I walked into a friend’s home last summer to attend the first meeting of our church’s mom’s group here in Toronto, I expected a house swarming with sticky-fingered kids and crying babies. I waddled in with my five ducklings in tow and panned the room: there was hardly a kid in sight, except for the occasional baby sleeping in his car seat. Where were the children?

Some of the mothers worked, and they’d stolen away from the office for a couple of hours to attend the meeting. Others were on their maternity leave for their second child, having kept their childcare arrangements for the first child. No one has as many children as I, and certainly no one had their children home all summer, as I did. (Hadn’t I ever heard of day camps?)

Suddenly, my standards for “Mom enough” were set on their head. In the more suburban, American, Christian landscape I’d left behind, “Mom enough” had come to mean nursing your children and choosing domesticity over career. And for the extreme moms, who loved Jesus incrementally more and willingly laid down their lives with the extra inch of heroic surrender, they bore more children and kept them home for their schooling.

By that standard, I’ve earned my mommy merit badge. I nursed. I’ve stayed home. I’ve borne five children. And I’ve homeschooled.

And as it turns out, I’m still not mom enough.

If ever I needed proof, I only have to think about the animal instinct that rises in my throat when a friend (a friend!) posts the most adorable pictures of her son on Facebook, and for Mother’s Day, posts the song she’s written and recorded to celebrate his first year of life. I listen for fifteen seconds.

The truth is, the song, the pictures, the status updates like, “My little angel, what would my life be like without you?” feel, at every turn, like the gavel has dropped on my own parenting. What is wrong with you? The truth is, for the ways I really and treasure my children (see, there it is – defensiveness), I could never write what she writes and don’t even feel what she feels.

I am not mom enough. Not according to the relentless comparisons I find myself making every day. With the inbred sonar system by which I track and plot the actions of other moms, I am found wanting, at every step. I am not as patient as other moms, who’ll stoop sympathetically when their children wail at the top of their lungs because they’re scraped their knee and there might be blood. I do not have the volunteer spirit of other moms, who will gladly sign up to accompany their children’s class on their annual outing to the zoo. I am not as spiritual as other moms, moms like Ann Voskamp who write blog posts like, “The Manifesto of the Happy Mom.”

I write whiny posts like this one and announce to the world the real truth behind these four walls: I am not mom enough.

And thank God, I’m granted this glorious freedom, by the grace of the living Jesus, who loves me and knows all the ways I’m pocked with selfishness and sin. I don’t have to accumulate an impeccable Mom C.V., dazzling you (or God) with the heroic feats of my motherhood. (Oh, the cookies I’ve baked!) I am not mom enough – and won’t be, even in spite of the herculean efforts to make you and myself believe I am.

What will have to be enough today is this: a real commitment to love, which is the sticking with it, with them, and with the senselessness that is me and my failed intentions. What will have to be enough is finding and drinking from a reservoir of strength in the great Someone Else, whose time and energy and wisdom and mercy are always – ENOUGH.



The Work You Want to Do

I saw a link to this blogpost on Ann Voskamp's, A Holy Experience. She hadn't known what to make of the post but declared it, "thought-provoking" and "an excellent conversation starter." My interest was of course piqued. Bradley Moore writes in his post, "Don't Mistake Doing What You Love With Doing What's Important," that although he might like to ditch his day job for his creative pursuits, he could hardly justify such a choice. "There are bills to pay, after all, [and] providing financial security to my family is important." Moore is a writer and a creative dreamer, but his feet are firmly planted in today's sobering economic realities. Siding with Oscar Wilde, Moore quotes, "It is better to have a steady income than to be fascinating."

In part, I find myself agreeing with Moore who wants to take issue with Christians who shirk family obligations and financial responsibility to chase "fantastical dreams." "God never guaranteed that all of our deepest career fantasies would be fulfilled like an American Idol episode."

And on the other hand, I'm not at all comfortable with the false dichotomy he draws between, as he would say, the hard and holy work of one's everyday responsibilities (home, job, family)  and the fantastical dreaming of creative pursuits. One you supposedly hate and are inclined to shirk (can you guess which?), and the other you're pursuing with your stupid adolescent fever. In Moore's words, "The difference between doing what's important and doing what you want is that the important stuff is usually harder. It's not much fun. It generally won't fulfill all of your deepest longings."

He's hit for me a sore spot, considering that the book I'm currently writing is a book nestled right into the tension he surfaces. My question is this: Are the holy things automatically the things you hate doing, while the things you feel enthusiastic and eager to do necessarily life's lesser pursuits?

I don't buy it. There are important things that I like doing. I like hanging with my kids in the summertime and spending our lazy days in the park or beside the pool. I like reading books to them and seeing their eyes and hearts illumine with the candle of a story. I like getting up in the morning, making my ritual cup of coffee, and saying my first hello to Jesus. I like listening to the stories of others and helping them, in some small way, find there the divine script. I like writing and losing my hours here at this keyboard. I like all these good things.

And there are days that I still feel that lurking resistance to do even those things I've said I supposedly like. Days I decide that I will throw my computer into Lake Ontario and get a pedicure. Summer days I wish for September and the beginning of school. Nights I feel too tired to read, even when Colin begs for the Easter story. . . again. Days I won't answer the phone, can't bear to read and answer another email. Days that any work - laundry or blogging, making dinner or finishing a chapter I'm writing - feels overwhelming and hateful. Almost every day, I fight my impulse to spend the day in bed or to make that phone call I've been long planning (the witness protection program).

Loving our vocation, our calling, our work is one of God's greatest gifts: "There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" (Ecc. 2:24, 25) Neither the responsibilities that I have to manage this family and home, nor the work of ministry to which I feel I've been called feel easy. It's not so neatly divided as Moore would argue, that hard work (begrudging? uninteresting? mundane?) equals holy work and easy work (creative? vitalizing? passionate?) connotes selfish pursuits. It has been my privilege to be, at times, granted joy in ALL the work of this life I lead.

Moore got it wrong, at least in part. It may well have been his intention to call us back from shirking the responsibilities we each owe to our families and our jobs, and for the ways we've neglected that work, finding it either too uninteresting or ourselves overly fascinating, he's made a reasonable point. But for the discrete (and false) categories with which he's left us, I say a hearty no! Let's do ALL the work to which God has called us, letting ourselves neither be conformed to a world hellbent on its own pleasures, nor betraying a more robust, more Biblical, theology of work as BLESSING, rather than curse.

What 15 years can teach you

In the years when I taught writing at the community college, I'll admit to having given notoriously bad advice. I'd hailed the merits of the semi-colon. Called it punctuation's sleight of hand. But  what was deft about cramming details into the bulging suitcases I called sentences? I'd been ponderous and self-inflated back then, forcing my readers through indented bogs of sludge.

I wish I had my students back in neat little rows in front of me. I'd revise all my advice, tell them that I'd known nothing back then. It would take 15 years just to get the elemental stuff figured out.

That goes for marriage, too. Call the first 15 years a round of preliminaries. In the looking back, you're embarrassed to discover how little you've known and the fool you've been all those years.

Ryan and I did so many things wrong in the first years of our marriage. In the years before we had children, we let form between us the creeping separateness against which we'd been warned. We'd married young; we were only 22. Too young to have brought any real baggage of habit into our marriage, too naive to understand that we were forming with our own hands the weights we'd later carry.

In the early years, our marriage suffered a quiet kind of neglect.

Having children for many couples is a strain they may not have anticipated. The vacations they'd grown used to taking, the lazy pajama mornings that Saturdays have always been, all the spontaneous invitations to dinner and evenings out; these are the leisures that evaporate when parenthood first dawns. That baby, packaged so small, wreaks unimaginable havoc, at least initially.

For us, it worked differently. We'd spent our twenties adding letters behind our names. Pre-parenthood had its blazing intensity - and its separateness. So when we brought Audrey home in the spring of 2001, there began a forced (but welcome) rethreading of our time and our priorities. Home and family exerted a beautiful centripetal force, hugging us close together. Those first years of parenthood saw us dusting off our marriage.

From the beginning, ours has been the conventional arrangement: husband working, wife managing the home and the children. I haven't ever wanted it otherwise. When the nannies stroll past my house pushing the prams of the strangers they care for, I remember what an unimaginable privilege these years have been. I do not regret the choice we made together. I have now been home almost eleven years.

Which isn't to say that I've put to rest all my struggling to make sense of what a godly mother is and does. Which doesn't mean that I now find it easy to make peace with these limits that are mine.

I wonder what the writing means in it all, how to even dare dream of taking the next year to begin a book. There are days I feel utterly ridiculous, wishing I'd just get the laundry done rather than wrangle here with these words.

I leave for a writing retreat in less than a week. Five days disentangled from meals and laundry and chauffering. It is a gracious gift from this husband of mine, the man to whom I've entrusted the secrets of my dreaming.

I'll admit there are things we've definitely gotten wrong in the past. There are seasons and separateness I'd now revise. But 15 years teaches you something, even to the most obtuse. There are some things we're starting to get right: the leaning, the trusting, and the vocabulary of intimacy that is daring and tremulous.





A Miracle for the Taking

If the devil is in the details, then why not God? There are times it is simply demanded of us to pause and absorb the good realities of God. I don't know that I'll ever come to the end of this wondering: the God who holds fast the threads of a universe in motion, He cares for me?

Maybe our greatest test of faith every day is finding Him in the here and now, in this moment so unbelievably ordinary. Maybe this is worship, and maybe this is joy.

Two days ago, we were scheduled to leave for the States for Colin's surgery scheduled today, Friday.

And two days ago, Colin woke with an obvious cold. I knew colds were show-stoppers for anesthesiologists.

I'd panicked and called a friend who is a doctor. Would they do the procedure if he had a cold? Should I even risk logging two days and ten hours in the car only to be told that the surgery would need to be rescheduled?

But there was simply no fortune-telling of this cold, no reading its symptoms like one reads a palm. There was only waiting. And Wednesday's Colin would not necessarily be Friday's Colin. All that mattered was that Friday's Colin was visibly well.

We left, we prayed, and we waited. Waited for the rousing of the dragon-cough from its lair. Waited for the onset of fever. But the cold made only modest moves, modest gains.

Last night, I'd tossed and prayed fitfully all night. There is no eloquence in fear. But with my small faith, I asked God to find Colin visibly better in the morning.

And the miracle was ours for the taking. I woke this morning to a Colin who wasn't coughing. A Colin whose nose wasn't dripping, who wasn't feverish. This is the Colin that the anesthesiologist met this morning, hugging a bear and tracing C's and O's on his new magnetic writing pad. The doctor asked me his series of perfunctory questions. My every yes left me to wonder when we'd trip the alarm wire, when we'd be wheeled back to the receptionist area and forced to reschedule.

But the Colin who was visibly better was wheeled into surgery.

The ENT greeted me after the surgery, telling me that when they opened him up, there was indeed infection in both ears and in his sinuses. And still, everything had gone smoothly.

"I can't believe he wasn't in more pain, wasn't more visibly sick," she'd ventured.

I can.

Today's miracle was mine: small, no doubt, in proportion to the needs of so many, but mattering to me.

* * * * *

I'm happy to report that the patient enjoyed a chocolate milkshake after surgery, ripped eagerly into another birthday present, and raced around his new dump truck until mom announced that it was naptime. We hope to head back to Toronto tomorrow.

I am unbelievably grateful - that you thought to pray, and the He cared to hear and answer.



It wasn't two days after the ultrasound that Ryan had the spreadsheet reconfigured, the spreadsheet that calculated just how much it would cost to put five children through college. It was his way of absorbing the news that I was pregnant. With twins. How long did it take us to fully absorb the shock?

The pregnancy was itself a surprise. And what of the news delivered after what was supposed to have been a routine ultrasound? This is Baby A, the tech had announced smiling broadly. What is the word for describing the moment you realize your life has suddenly gotten away from you, like a herd of wild horses, and you would forever be on the run, chasing it?

If you're an actuary like my husband, you meet the news with a calculator. Your face bears grim lines of responsibility. He's still reeling, I think.

He didn't have the advantage that was mine. Hormones. A curious little invention that makes a pregnant woman wildly unpredictable, crying when she should laughing, laughing when you'd expect crying.

I bore the news with a curious and unexpected joy. I was insanely proud of those two blobs on the printed ultrasound picture. I walked through the following days and weeks, chuckling to myself, as if remembering the punch line from some cosmic joke that had been told.

The twins turn four today. My friend, who is herself a twin mom, reassured me long ago that four was the magic number. The day I would sweep difficulty behind me and greet ease at the front door.

Eh-hem. I'm waiting.

 Are they all yours? we're frequently asked.

Someday, I'll admit my habit of picking up neighbor kids on the way to the grocery store, just for kicks. I'll confess what terrific fun it is, manning the cart and quelling the chaos.

How old are you? This question almost inevitably follows the first.

In subway stations, school parking lots, and in public parks, I'm left defending my almost 38 years to complete strangers. For effect, I point to the grey hairs.

In search of the proper measure of my idiocy, the last question is raised, right alongside the eyebrows.

Was this planned?

They want to know if I'd marched into lunacy wide-eyed. Five kids is ecological disaster, financial ruin. Who signs up for this?

If I had the time, I'll tell them of the sheer joy of the surprise and the way life works best when we learn to receive it, not manage it.

I'd tell them of the ways our older children grew beautiful new habits of generosity and patience and responsibility in learning to care for their two little brothers.

I'd tell them of the way I'd been learning to wear out my knees these past four years, how I'd been learning to trust Him more deeply and embrace what He gives as gift.

Today, I celebrate the gift that was ours four years ago today: Andrew Grayson and Colin Grant. Happy Birthday!




Mess-making and apologies

Who made this mess?  An apology sends a timid hand in the air, a slinking kind of admitting. Me.

I've become adept at the apologies. The only thing, quite honestly, that I'm good at in this whole parenting thing is the I'm sorry. The gigantic messes around here are undeniably my own.

I make her sit in the front seat, taking from her hands the book she intends to read in the car.

"I want to talk to you."

"But I don't want to talk to you."

"Then I guess I'll have to talk at you."

I begin with a question: "Where is all the anger coming from?"

Her answers are expert maneuvers of  blame-shifting. She finds fault in others. She justifies her kicking, her hitting, her yelling by the extreme duress to which she's been subjected. They've irritated her.

I know the mechanics of this excuse-making. I might have written my own book on the subject. On anger, too.

The truth has to be told to this girl who's slid down further in her seat and stares angrily ahead. The truth has to be told to me.

You are 100% responsible for your own thoughts, words, and actions.

I can't make you change your heart, but I can give you the severest of warnings. If you let anger rule your life, you're destined to see all of your most important relationships suffer.

The person you are to be, you are now becoming. And if a kind, gentle and patient woman is who you want to become, you begin today in all of your small choices.

The first and most important of those choices is repentance. That means laying blame at your own feet and taking full responsibility. It's hating your sin and turning to Jesus. Without Him and the work of the Holy Spirit, change isn't possible.

The conversation continues, and her flinted face softens. This is gift, this is grace, that a child might hear, that any of us hears, water absorbing into stone, recalcitrance thudding to the ground. We turn.

Photo Credit

"I'm sorry, Mom," I hear as we wait on the stairs for her lesson to begin.

Parenting bears a reflection I don't bear all that bravely. Mirror, mirror, on the wall.

"I'm sorry I haven't given you a better example."

The pure grace of the apologies. They fuse relationships and make it all possible for any of us to live together and be family.

"You know, if one thousand million daughters were for sale, I'd always choose you."

"No," she argues. "You'd find the perfect one. You'd choose her."

"Absolutely not. I don't expect you to be perfect."

And I absorb the words I speak next: "You don't have to be perfect, but you do need to be honest."

Honesty: the first wind of change? Admitting: a sure path freedom?

Apologies: the most important words we speak?


Day of the Miracle

It was five whole days Colin lay limp. This is a boy who doesn't normally sit still five whole seconds.

Asthma. RSV. Pneumonia. Ear infection. His sickness was a literal germ conspiracy, and it landed him  in the hospital for 36 hours.

A mother's skin is only so elastic.

The truth is, I've been worrying. Sick with worry. Irritable and sleeping restlessly and every morning, waking up to more worry.

We've spent years building a trusted network of medical doctors in the States.

And I'm starting over. In a system I don't understand. With doctors I don't know and can't yet trust.

It snows today.

I feel dread, and Canada feels so far from home.

I've spent the past two days making urgent phone calls to every doctor (and doctor friend) we know. Hours I've combed through the cryptic notes of his past years of care, trying my amateur hand at figuring out what is going wrong and how can we keep him well in this winter that's barely begun? 

I've been praying.

Put Colin into expert hands. 

And you've been praying, too.

Here's a facebook message I had just this afternoon from a friend.

I prayed for comfort. For peace. For health restored. For patience. For wisdom. For help - any help, God could send today.

Two days ago, our friend from church, himself a respirologist, put in a referral to a pediatric respirologist. Grace.

I called immediately and got an appointment for December 19. Extraordinary. (These kinds of referrals aren't easy to come by in Canada. And it's not unusual to wait months to schedule an appointment.)

Today, the receptionist from the specialist's office calls me back.

"Mrs. Michel?"


"This is Dr. __________'s office calling. We had a cancellation for next Monday at 2:30 and could see Colin then. I thought of you and called to see if you'd like to reschedule."

Thought of me? But you don't know me, and I hadn't put my name on any kind of waiting list.

Expert care.

Help, any help, God could send today.

My friend's message concludes:

 He sent a miracle - a doctor's appointment. My prayers chanted in the cold Wednesday morning, across I-74 in the middle of corn fields, were heard by the Creator. This brings me hope. And, a smile. And, renewed faith that He does listen. And, he does love us.

Thank you, gracious God.

Thank you, dear friends.

When Things Go Wrong

It’s 3 a.m., and I wake to an insistent, “MOMMY!” Upstairs, I find Colin stretched out on the floor of his bedroom, breathing shallowly and coughing. I scoop him up and start a breathing treatment.  These are rituals we know well – four of our five children have asthma. My own childhood was pocked by sleepless nights of struggling breath. “Juice? Can I have some juice?” He wheezes the words, his breathing tight and constricted.

It’s not ten minutes later that we decide to head to the ER. The breathing treatment has made no noticeable impact, and Colin’s already vomited the juice he’d drunk so greedily.

So it is that we speed to the hospital and spend our early hours of Thanksgiving morning in the stark curtained space of the ER. And those early morning hours give way to daylight, and Colin is admitted. Doctors and nurses come and go, and I lose track of time. The curtains are drawn, keeping secret the hour. I just pray that my little boy can rest. There are antibiotics, breathing treatments, and thermometers under his arm, and each of the endless interruptions he meets bravely, crying only when we’d sat waiting for his chest x-ray. (I’d forgotten lambie.)

After our restless night of sleep, Colin’s feverish body all tangled up in mine, the doctor delivers the unwelcome news that we’ll be staying another day or two.

“One act of thanksgiving, when things go wrong with us, is worth a thousand thanks when things are agreeable to our inclinations.” – Saint John of Avila

And I keep counting, even here.

God’s kind providence - an aunt and uncle in town, lending extra hands and Ryan’s work calendar cleared for Thanksgiving celebrations

Hospitals, medicine, emergency care

Kind doctors and nurses

A nurse who learns Andrew’s name and gives him Tylenol for his fever (and he’s no patient of hers)

Friends praying

A little boy who wants me close

A friend who’ll roast our turkey

Movies on the iPad

Books to keep company with

Starbucks in the hospital lobby

Words of Scripture whispered in the dark

Each new occasion to follow Him and receive what He has planned

Today's Most Important Work

He's miserable, little Colin, coughing and feverish and tired. It was an hour and a half last night that I laid awake listening to him . . . and worrying. And when I finally tiptoed into his room at 3 a.m., I found him in bed with his twin brother, brave and vulnerable.

This four-year old has grown too big to sit on my hips while I stir pots, and I can't help but feel impatient and restless at the interruption.

I need a talking to.

"Every day I put love on the line. There is nothing I am less good at than love. I am far better in competition than in love. . . I am schooled and trained in acquisitive skills, in getting my own way. And yet I decide, every day, to set aside what I can do best and attempt what I do very clumsily - open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride. All that is hazardous work. I live on the edge of defeat all the time."

-Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

And why is it so easy to forget what is today's most important work?



The twins have begun to dress themselves. It's as if this universe has shifted in some way, they now asking me to lay out their clothes at bedtime. In the morning, I hear drawers open and close, and minutes later, these two boys, still wiping night from their eyes, find me. "Is this the right way?" they ask, pointing to their shirt. And when I croon,"Yes!" their eyes find their toes, and they smile shyly.

Our oldest is almost eleven. She's so capable now. With the twins, still three, there are yet shirts to button, pants to snap, and coats to zip. But more and more, as their little hands grow deft and big, they insist, "I can do it!" and I watch their heroic struggle with velcro sneakers and coat sleeves.

The motion of my hands is different these days. I'm no longer changing diapers, finding pacifiers, or rocking a baby to sleep. Instead, I sign papers and type passwords. I pack lunches and fold laundry and pick up scattered library books. But my hands still draw these five close. I'm hungry for a piece of them near, even as they try and wriggle away.

Establish the work of my hands. Psalm 90:17

To be a mother is to have your hands set in perpetual motion.

And whatever good our hands accomplish, whatever greatness they purpose, these hands are weak, arthritic. They bear the sure signs of something enfeebled and frail. Things seem to be forever slipping away, and these hands aren't strong enough to hold.

Establish the work of my hands. This is a mother's prayer.

Establish. Found. Make something strong and lasting of all my porous efforts. Because this work, this mothering, is simply too big. And demands too much. And who'd have imagined what a wreck I really was?

But prayer is whispered faith. Establish the work of my hands. You, Big God, build.

It's not a stilling of the motion to which I'm called. I purpose and commit and work.

But ultimately, I surrender and I trust.

Because He is strong and big. And His hands hold.


Audrey walks toward me, her canvas bag swinging at her ankles and her backpack visibly heavy.  The twins have wrestled and giggled wildly for the hour we've waited outside as the older three finish their swimming lessons. I squeeze her, and she gives her perfunctory, "Oh mom, please" look.

"You've got to talk to my teacher."  Swimming teacher, she means, and yes, I'm shamefully absent when all the other dutiful parents pick up their children and wait for the instructors' feedback.

It's just too much effort. Seven minutes to corral the wild horses and herd them inside. Two minutes to remove coats and shoes. And the spectacle of my ineffective parenting the moment we've stepped foot on the pool deck as they ignore all of my warnings to "Stop running!"

Mother of five, I simple can't do it all. As much as I think I've made peace with the limitations, fears simmer beneath the surface.

There's never enough time, money, energy, or attention for this crazy brood of kids.

And I'm beleaguered by the cultural messages.

If you want your kids to succeed, you've got to involve them in a variety of activities from a very young age. Remember, it's achievement that counts, so give them enough opportunities to be the very best. It's going to matter for college. And college means career, and career means money, and money means security.

I see the parents around me driven wild by the fear, and they can't stop the perpetual motion of securing the best for their kids.

And then the school announces the topic of their next parenting discussion, led by a renowned expert.

"Self Reliance and Independence: Letting go can be difficult at any stage, and yet working ourselves out of the job of managing our children’s lives is one of our most important tasks as parents. Get practical tips for building a child’s confidence and ability to be resourceful and self-evaluative."

They have seminars for this?

This is our life. Resourcefulness, autonomy, self-expression, independence: these are the fruits that grow wild in families as big as ours.

And so it is that I exhale and embrace the limitations of this family, this life, this mom.


We pull into the school parking lot and rehearse the do-nots. "So Mommy has to meet with Nathan's teacher, and what are the rules again? How does Mommy expect you to behave?"

And from the backseat, Andrew's voice rises confidently: "No running. No screaming. No punching. And NO DILLY-DALLYING."

* * * * *

Camille and I walk quickly to the subway station, Starbucks in hand. I spill some coffee on my jacket, and she smiles smugly, probably remembering the speech I'd given her on the way, that I wasn't buying her hot chocolate this morning because every time I did, it ended up all over her shirt.

As we come down the stairs, an approaching train rumbles, and the brakes squeal. It is Sunday morning, and if we miss this train, we'll wait at least five minutes for another.

"Quick! C'mon, sweetie. We can make this train."

And I race ahead.

The doors gape open, and I hop on, Camille another 3 1/2 steps behind me.

I turn just as they begin to close. My arm reaches through the gap, and I throw my weight against the doors.

But they don't budge.

Five inches of opening, too small for either of us. We're moments away from losing our grip, seconds from when that train will lurch forward and leave a little girl of 7 alone in an empty subway station.

It is that still, silent moment of panic, when the possibilities are too terrifying to consider.

And then he jumps from his seat, the man with strong hands, and forces the doors open. I yank Camille inside the train, and she tumbles into my arms. I hug her breathlessly."

"I am so sorry," I whisper, as we collapse into a seat. "We should have waited for the next one."

* * * * *

Musings on Motherhood

“Bits and pieces of me have rolled off and been lost along the way. They have rolled off down this mountain someplace until there is not much left but a dried-up husk, with me leeched out by hard work and babies.” -Ivy Rowe, protagonist of Lee Smith's achingly poignant novel, Fair and Tender Ladies

These past ten, almost eleven, years of motherhood have altered me.

Some days, I side with Ivy, and despair that the years have devoured all parts of me that used to be intelligent and interesting and fun. Caught red-handed discussing bowel movements and household products, I'm the guilty one. The verdict echoes down the hallways of nothingness. We, the jury, find the defendant, Jennifer Pollock Michel, guilty of BANALITY.

On better days, I remember that these years become what I make of them. The fabric of my days and years, in His hands, has all the potential for becoming something breathtaking. The final chapter is not yet written, and I'm pulsing with capacities and curiosities.

It's not true that motherhood is only exhausting and depleting, a season to be suffered bitterly, until FINALLY the children go to school, or college, or get married.

I admit that motherhood has taken me by the toes, turned me upside down, and emptied me. Of illusions of being great and doing great things. Of my defiance of limits. Of that predictable temptation towards a center-stage kind of life and ministry.  I've turned in my superwoman cape (or sparkly gold boots?) and are learning to content myself, not with greatness, but faithfulness.

"You've observed how godless rulers throw their weight around," Jesus said, "and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It's not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served-and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage." Mark 10:41-45

I'm following Him today in my ordinary moments.