Monday, May 25, 2015

Call Her Elizabeth; Cancel the Joust

I didn't plan to get hooked on yet another PBS mini-series. Downton Abbey had ended, and Mr. Selfridge had failed capture my interest. 

But then along came Wolfhall. 

The series is set in the court of Henry VIII and centers on one of his chief advisers, Thomas Cromwell. It's a compelling glimpse into Tudor England -- the intrigue, the customs, the clothing. In the interest of full disclosure, anyone familiar with A Man For All Seasons might have a hard time recognizing Saint Thomas More who, at least in Wolfhall, isn't much of a saint. Thomas Cromwell, on the other hand, is remarkably more decent and humane than history has ever found him before.

(Interested in reading the novel, I googled author Hilary Mantel and found this quote: I think that nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people. This just might explain the role reversal between More and Cromwell. And as one of those disreputable Catholics, I think I'll keep my $20 and not buy the book).

But I digress . . .

Henry, as we all know, faced a bit of a dilemma. He needed an heir and a spare, and they needed to be boys, darn it. Those many wives of his just weren't up to the task. Remember he had six. Wives, that is. And if you want to remember their fates, they followed a simple (albeit bloody) pattern: divorced, executed, died, divorced, executed, died. 

Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. Henry would not live to see that the longest reigning monarchs in English history would be two women -- Queen Victoria who reigned for 63 years, 216 days, and the present Queen Elizabeth II who is closing in on her great-great- grandmother at 63 years, 106 days. Henry's second born daughter, Elizabeth I, would be the eight longest reigning monarch, holding the title Henry was so unwilling to give her for 44 years. 

In the history according to Wolfhall, Henry learned of his daughter's birth and said, "Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the joust."

I used to show Anne of a Thousand Days to my world history students. In that film, Henry bursts into Anne Boleyn's bedchamber hoping to meet his son. Anne holds up her newborn daughter and asks, "Would you not kiss your daughter?" "When she's older," Henry replies, "when she has a brother."

 He needed an heir and a spare, and they needed to be boys.

Cancel the joust.

My Internet friend Mary has written a thought-provoking piece  on gender. Mary blogs over at Better than Eden. She is the mother of four boys and has an almost entirely white house. I mean white couches, white cabinets, cream walls. As the mother of three boys and one hooligan girl, I eye Mary's house with equal parts envy and sheer terror.

Anyway, Mary is expecting her fifth baby a-n-y minute now. Needless to say, she's hearing a lot of "so you're trying for a girl" sort of  comments. She writes:

We have four boys.  Never in my entire life or imagination would I ever wish that one of them were a girl.  I can’t even fathom wanting to change something like that.  This newest child who is already present and growing and who God has already ordained male or female is no different.  Who they are has already been determined by God and that is exactly who we want him or her to be.  Really.  No, we are not “hoping for a girl.”

The part that really struck me was this:

I’m one of six girls and a boy.  And we heard the opposite type of comments routinely. The shocked looks.  The “Oh, your poor father!” or “Your dad must really want another boy!”  True or not, when you hear a comment like that over and over again, you begin to believe it may be true.  Those comments ingrained themselves deep, leading me to believe my femininity really was a drawback and that surely it would have been better had I been a boy.  For many years I regretted my God-given femininity and truly believed it to be a burden.  It took a lot of time and healing to overcome those thoughtless comments that we heard so very very often about our gender.


While I have never (to my memory) made comments to a mother much less to her children about girl/boy ratio, I have absolutely hoped for a baby of a certain sex for friends and relatives. I'm happy Kate Middleton had a girl! Just cuz. Modern psycho-babble aside, girls and boys are uniquely and fundamentally and delightfully different. Is it wrong to hope friends will experience that delight?

I always think God created John so off-the-wall interesting because, as the third boy, there was no way he was going to get lost in the same old, same old shuffle. John doesn't get lost in any shuffle. I go into his room to clean and find a detailed list of rules for joining his Dryer Box with Large Addition Club. And I love it. I love his ingenuity and passion, his interest in all things related to spies and his obsession with building Legos. He brought two of his latest creations to show off to his father. "Dad, which do you like better," he wondered, "the flying spy camera with the flames or the tank?" The tank with the oscillating turret.

Pure John. Pure boy.

And I have loved nearly every minute of my girl Ainsey. Yes, yes, it's the silly things -- the dresses and hair clips, the tutus and the tiaras, the Easy Bake Oven coming our way this August. Mostly, though, it's just who she is. The girl who wants to play, eat, sleep, do all things in close proximity to her people. The girl who topples rain forests with cards and letters filled with long-haired stick people and "I Love You's." The girl who still plans to grow up to be "a princess in a not-itchy dress."

Pure Ainsley. Pure girl.

Never, ever would I want to send a message of disappointment to any child. We wish you were different. We had something else in mind. One of the most stunning aspects of childbirth is that whatever you had in mind, you are blown away by what God had in mind

As our babies grew, I remember shaking my head in surprise at their humor, their quirks, their delightful turns of phrase, their charm. So like us, and yet so surprisingly different from both us and from each other.

The word Conception points to biology, anatomy, physiology. But, really, it also points to the creative genius of God who conceived -- thought up, dreamed up, designed, brought forth from nothing -- a Tim, a Kolbe, a John, an Ainsley   --  each one an unrepeatable soul with this gift and that smattering of freckles, those striking blue eyes and that ability to lift his right eyebrow.

And every one of them is worthy of a joust.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Note to the Boy Sleeping in the Dryer Box

Note to John: If you're going to take up residence in the dryer box, please send a change of address card to your mother.

See, John, your mother is slightly neurotic. You may or may not have taken note of this fact. When she ambles into your room to do the old rise and shine thing, she's taken aback when she peers into the top bunk and spies no John. Naturally, since she is not a complete nut job, she quickly considers that you could be a) in the bathroom or b) taking in a little Scooby Doo before school.

But when a) and b) don't produce one sleepy, brown-eyed John, she instantly leaps to c) which typically goes along the lines of CHECK THE WINDOWS! CHECK THE YARD! SOMEONE STOLE MY KID!

I wish this were a bit of bloggy hyperbole, but, sadly, it is not. I go from zero to CALL THE COPS! in about the time it takes to say Looney! Tunes! I probably need to examine why panic is so often near at hand.


I can think of any number of valid reasons.


The Internet.

Helicopter parenting.

Too many horror movies as a teenager.

Mary Higgens Clark Where Are the Children? type pulp fiction as an adult.

Yes, John has taken up residence in a dryer box. He sleeps in the box at night and makes improvements upon the fort by day. As I zipped through the neighborhood the other afternoon, John spied an amazing box on our neighbor's front walk.  Can John have the box? I quickly texted my friend. It's yours for the having, my friend responded. The dryer box now has a sizable and tasteful addition.

If you're in need of a cathartic cry, please read this piece by Ann Voskamp.

So much of motherhood seems eternal -- and I am mean both the good and the dreary. The laundry will never end, but you'll always have a small hand in yours as you cross the street. Sibling squabbles drone on and on and on, but you spend a good chunk of every evening reading books on the couch. Tense words fly over homework and curfews and screen time, but late nights end with tight hugs and early mornings begin with shared coffee.

I find myself on the brink of something.

My oldest is moving toward adulthood. The braces are gone, the SAT has been taken, college looms in the not so very distant future. Meanwhile my youngest is taking us through our last set of firsts.

Our last set of firsts.

She's about to lose her first tooth which will be our last first tooth. I won't have another first day of kindergarten. She already swims, but she doesn't yet ride a bike. Yes, there will be more firsts. But unless a really, really big surprise comes our way, these firsts -- the tooth, the bike -- will be our last firsts.

A part of me breaks when I think about these things.

But another part of me quickly texts my friend to get that nifty box.

Handle with care, reads the top of John's dryer box.

This cardboard and duct tape behemoth is not exactly the decorating statement I had in mind when I envisioned John's new room. But babies don't keep, as the saying goes. John is welcome to sleep in his ever-growing, double-wide fort.

(As long as he keeps his mother apprised of his whereabouts).

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

When You're Everything to Someone

When I delve deep into the archives of this blog, I read some of the antics of life with two babies and, wow!, those were some wild times.

In honor of Mothers' Day, I offer this little blast from the past.

To moms everywhere:

Maybe you, like me, had a four-year-old come running with a grisly tale of an overflowing toilet. Upon investigating, you found that this boy with a flair for the dramatic wasn't exaggerating one little bit.

Maybe you, like me, sat in the backyard wondering why oh why your phone was ringing off the hook. When you finally answered it, you found that your assistant catechist, a mother, and your entire class were all waiting at the atrium for a session scheduled to start fifteen minutes earlier.

Maybe you, like me, let your adorable toddler try on her Easter dress for just a minute and then found that this darling frock -- lovely, smocked, purchased by Grandma -- had had an unfortunate encounter with an uncapped Sharpie.

Maybe you, like me, have been wringing your hands, questioning your purpose, pouring yourself glass of wine. If so, I suggest reading this article on the impact of nurturing mothers.

It seems the hand that rocks the cradle really does rule the world, or as the author puts it, "One generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world."

Here's a summary of the study:

Researchers brought the kids and parents into a lab and videotaped them as the parents, almost always mothers, tried to help their children cope with a mildly stressful task that was designed to approximate the stress of daily parenting . . . Ratings of parental ability to nurture their children were done by study personnel who watched the videos. . .

Several years later, on average, the children had the size of a brain area called the hippocampus measured . . .  The researchers found that children with especially nurturing, caring mothers, based on their behavior during the laboratory stressor, had significantly larger hippocampi (plural of hippocampus - you’ve got one on each side of the brain) than kids with mothers who were average or poor nurturers.

Why is the hippocampus so crucial?

Because more than any place else in the brain, when it comes to the hippocampus, size matters. Other things being equal, having small hippocampi increases your risk for all sorts of troubles, from depression and post traumatic stress disorder to Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to protecting us against brain illnesses, we all need big hippocampi because this brain area, while not much bigger than your little finger, plays a disproportionately large role in how you will be able to handle the stresses and strains of your life, and how you will remember your life when it’s all said and done. (Emphasis mine).


It's a rainy day today, and my van is in the shop. We enjoyed a slow, lazy morning full of coloring books and Legos. John grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote a bunch of random letters on it.

"I wrote a note to Auntie Kate," he told me, holding up his paper. "It says, 'Dear Auntie Kate, I love you.'"

With Valentine's Day still fresh in his mind, John colored a heart for her. I gave him little scissors and encouraged him to cut it out.

"I can't do it," he said. "I don't know how."

I demonstrated and told him to give it a try. He was thrilled to see that he could cut out a heart. This was very much the kind of mildly stressful task these researchers studied with children. These challenges arise a hundred times a day. A child struggles to tie a shoe or manage that last button or get that Transformer to transform. And there's Mom. Is she helpful or encouraging or comforting? Is she cranky or distracted or cheerful?  Is she blogging or texting or chatting on the phone?

I can be all of these things depending on the week, the day, the hour.

Today I folded John's note and the heart and put them in an envelope to mail to Auntie Kate. "Are you going to letter it," John asked. "How do you do that?"

I showed him how to "letter it." He carefully wrote J-O-H-N in brown crayon in the upper left hand corner. He put the envelope in the mail box and raised the red flag. Lettered!

I remember a day years and years ago when much  a younger Tim fell apart during piano practice. He hit a tricky measure and no amount of repetition or counting could help him get it straight. I had just plunked an enormous quantity of unfolded laundry onto the couch. I looked at Tim's obvious frustration and said, "You know, Tim, this laundry is overwhelming. I can't do it all, but I can fold one shirt."

We both persevered.

It is constant, this life-long gig we call motherhood. I find it helpful to keep my eyes on the prize, to read articles like this, not so that I can become undone by the enormity of it all, but so that I can once more be inspired by the greatness of this vocation.

No one has expressed this better than G.K. Chesterton who once said this about motherhood:

I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.

That hand that rocks the cradle? It really does rule the world.

Monday, May 11, 2015

{these moments}

In honor of Mothers' Day 2015, a few images I want to remember:

John hauling an over-sized box down the street because every decent fort could use an addition:

Ainsley's suction cup toothbrush, stuck to the mirror just out of reach by a helpful brother.

My girl in braids and school uniform and mary janes, still tiny, so sweet:

Tim's coffee mug. The coffee says he's big. The space mug says he's the same boy with big dreams.

Kolbe, my builder. always dreaming and scheming and finding a new use for duct tape.

Kolbe's work bench, seldom caught on camera:

Thank you, God, for these unique and beautiful souls you've entrusted to my care.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Stomach Bug, Be Gone!

Seven Quick Takes from the Dolin house . . .

1.    Boy scheduled to take the SAT Saturday morning is huddled in the fetal position fighting a nasty stomach bug. Current score? Bug 4, Tim 0. Please pray for him and pray that the bug won't hit boy scheduled for First Communion on Sunday or aunt arriving from Michigan on Saturday or anybody else for that matter.

2.    So I spent nearly two hours trying to reconcile various accounts. Here's a hint: If you begin with the wrong starting balance, it's never gonna jibe. Nope. The key is starting with the correct balance and having a few good tunes to make a tedious task less bothersome. My playlist:

Smile a Little Smile for Me, Rosemarie - The Flying Machine
Ma Bell Amie - Tee Set
Hey There, Delilah - Plain White T's
Ninety-nine Red Balloons - Zena
My Maria - Brooks and Dunn
Mandy - Barry Manilow
Close to You - The Carpenters
We've Only Just Begun - Ditto
Knock Three Times - Tony Orlando and Dawn
Lemon Tree - Peter, Paul, and Mary
Puff the Magic Dragon - Ditto

Call me a child of the seventies, but Mandy still makes we swoon. How's that for good taste? As for the Carpenters, a veritable schmalzapalooza that few but myself and Kris can fully appreciate.

3.    Happiness is discovering half a box of Oreos after the kids are all in bed.

4.    And while we're on the subject of Oreos, we can file this under "too good to pass by". A mom gets the following note home after -- oh, the horror! -- packing Oreos in her daughter's lunch:

PHOTO: A note sent home to Leeza Pearson after her daughter Natalee brough Oreos to school.

The blurry fine print specifies that children are "required" to bring a fruit, a vegetable, and a healthy snack and further stipulates that peanut butter is "not a healthy snack".

My goodness, I'm fairly sure I'd be facing hard time if my kids attended that school.

A Dolin staple.

5.    I can do one better that the above note. Not so long ago, I received a text from Ainsley's kindergarten teacher: Ainsley says she's hungry. Did she eat breakfast?

And because I try really, really hard to tell the truth, I was forced to reply: I don't know.

I don't know. 

How awful is that? 

She's five, and I don't know if she had breakfast or not. Mornings can be a tad harried around here. I gulped hard and have tried to be more careful about these things since then.

6.    Meanwhile, John's eating habits have been cause for maternal angst. His lunch came home virtually untouched two days running. He didn't even eat his cookies (not Oreos, but probably verboten at the above school).  And for breakfast, nothing appealed to him. Nothing. John's appetite tends to go south in the wake of his fever episodes, one of which struck hard over the weekend.

It can certainly be a challenge to get kids to eat and to eat right. I'm pretty sure shame notes don't help the process.

7.    And since John's first communion is upon us and we are expecting house guests, I am off to clean and paint and weed and de-clutter like a mad woman. 

For perspective on First Communion, please read this. While I'll work hard today and tomorrow, it's all about John and Jesus. 

Not the cake or the suit or the tablecloths or the weather. 

John and Jesus. 

And it's all going to be glorious.

Head over to Kelly's to add your Quick Takes.

Thoughts on First Communion

As we prepare for John's First Communion, I think back to our first First Communion. Here's what I learned . . .

Six years ago I spent weeks and weeks preparing for Tim’s First Communion. I had him pick out the tablecloths. I labored over the menu. I gathered a dozen of my favorite photos of Tim to decorate the tables.

Then came the actual week of First Communion. Things began to go south quickly. I was eight weeks pregnant and scheduled for an ultrasound.

“Well, your dates may be a little off,” the sonographer began.

And I knew it was all over.

This was my fourth or fifth miscarriage, and I had heard the line about the dates too many times before. Despite the inauspicious report, I continued on progesterone which left me bloated, moody, and unable to sleep.

This was the backdrop to a momentous sacrament of initiation. Despite the bleak circumstances, Tim still received the Eucharist.

Loads of family traveled to celebrate with us. Some arrived late, some arrived early, and I hardly slept in between. Despite my fatigue and irritability, Tim received the Eucharist.

I planned a dinner at a homey restaurant known for its excellent food. I had not eaten there for five years or so. In the interim homey had devolved into run-down with a similar decline in the quality of food. I was mortified. But Tim still received the Eucharist.

At the reception guests began to arrive an hour early. I was frantic. Rain stymied our plans to celebrate outside. I sent Dave to pick up some flowers, and he returned with the gaudiest bunch I have ever seen. The ribs were burned. I left the macaroni and cheese in the refrigerator. I neglected to buy enough drinks.

And Tim still received the Eucharist.

In an education course eons ago, I studied a technique known as “concept attainment.” Teachers present multiple lessons using different modes of learning all aimed at mastering a single concept.

God was clearly employing this tactic with me.

At the end of the day, it's not about tablecloths, flowers or even the beautiful white dress (as fun as that's going to be!).

It's about about receiving the Bread of Life.

We celebrated Kolbe's First Communion yesterday. It was a beautiful, solemn event followed by a simple party at the lake.

Compared to Tim's, the glitches were minor. Kolbe forgot his belt. One family hogged three double pews! Everyone dashed before I could snap a picture of four kids with decent haircuts and ironed clothing. John got into the cake.

Still the graces of today - and six years ago and a thousand years ago - were abundant and unchanging.

When we arrived at the lake, Kolbe announced, "I'm the First Communikid!"

Yes, you are, my sweet sunshine.