When moms learn of my work to prevent human trafficking, the conversation always turns to fear for their own children. They wonder, how do I protect my kids? They ask, what can I do to prevent this from happening?
We go in early March when the selection is good, the options plentiful. There are knitted, embroidered, and ruffled varieties. Vivid colors. And even some that aren't all about cleavage.
There is nothing worse for parents who have written books on parenting to feel the sting of hypocrisy. Or, I suppose for a marriage and family counselor to feel like a fraud if things at home are sloppy.
“Your story is not my story!”
The Year of Phenomenal Women with Tamara Cook
When I was a teenager, I had the amazing opportunity to hear Maya Angelou tell her story live. I had been blown away by I know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her poetry including the beautiful and a bit cheeky Phenomenal Woman with the famous refrain, “I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me”. I loved the strength that Maya Angelou projected in her story and especially in this poem. So, when my husband and I decided to design a coming of age process for our twins building up to their 13th birthdays, I was inspired to call the process with my daughter the “year of phenomenal women.”
As I thought and prayed about how I wanted my daughter (and me!) to grow, the fruits of the spirit from Galatians 5 seemed a beautiful guide for our journey. During a silent retreat, I sketched images linked to each fruit and brainstormed scriptures, books, movies, songs, inspiring women and related activities. I then reached out to an artist at Kitengela Glass to commission small round stained-glass circles to represent each fruit. Each outing began by giving my daughter a stained-glass which now all hang across her bedroom window. Our outings ranged from extravagant nights away to a simple lunch on the way home from the salon but each holds a special place in our hearts. Our conversations ranged from the silliness of crushes to the deep complexity of cross-racial adoption and identity. We laughed. We cried. And we each grew more into the phenomenal women that God made us to be and become.
Here is a taste of our experience during the year linked to each of the fruits of the spirit:
Love: We kicked off the year with a night away including a sushi-making class. We studied the famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 about love as an action, not as a fairy tale. The stained-glass was a simple but powerful heart. We stayed up late watching movies linked to love (one from her generation: Catching Fire with lots of examples of selfless love and one from mine: Pretty in Pink with several different angles on what love means). I tucked her into bed by reading our worn copy of I Love You as Much and singing The Rose, a song I used to sing at bedtime.
Joy: We considered the joy of our salvation in Psalm 51 and the line in Amazing Grace “the hour I first believed” that always brings a smile to my face. The stained-glass was a smiley face. The outing was a lunch out where we spent time joyfully staring at the clouds and imagining what shapes we could see.
Peace: We explored the armour of God described in Ephesians 6 and especially what it means to have our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. The stained-glass shows a dove in the shape of a hippy peace sign. Our shoe shopping outing was perhaps a bit too silly of a connection but we had a deeper conversation around I am Malala.
Patience: We listened to U2’s 40 inspired by Psalm 40 and the idea of waiting patiently for the Lord. This stained-glass is an acacia tree reminding us of the patience of Wangari Maathai who embodied peace in her fight to bring the green belt movement to Kenya. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the same year we adopted the twins while living in Kenya.
Kindness: We pondered the words of Isaiah 58 to loose the chains of injustice, share food with the hungry and provide shelter for the poor. The stained-glass was a sunrise recalling verse 8 “then your light will break forth like the dawn.” We also learned more about the work of Jane Addams and the Hull House.
Goodness: What better description of goodness could there be than the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5? The stained-glass was a mountain and I had hoped we would go for a hike but she wasn’t interested so I didn’t push it and we still had a good talk.
Faithfulness: In a world where faith can be so misunderstood, Romans 12 especially verse 2 reminded us that faith is not about conforming but about being transformed by the renewing of our minds and testing and doing God’s will. The glass was a simple cross reminding us of how Jesus embodied faith as well as all the other fruits.
Gentleness: The imagery of Psalm 23 reminds us of God’s gentleness as he leads us beside still (and gentle) waters. The stained-glass was a stream and we read a stunning rendition of Psalm 23 interpreted for an African-American urban community.
Self-control: We used Paul’s self-discipline metaphor in 1 Corinthians 9 of training for a race as we prepared for a 5k and our last night away. The stained-glass was a rainbow finish line accompanied by a silver necklace with all the fruits inscribed. We ran the 5k on our own because the race we registered for was the same morning as the baptism service. Both twins had decided to follow their steps of faith into the pool that morning where Daddy dunked them with tears in his eyes.
It has now been almost a year since we finished the Year of Phenomenal Women. The teenage years continue to come with the expected and some unexpected challenges. But those stained-glass windows still glisten in the window to remind us both what it means to be phenomenal women.
Tamara is a follower of Jesus, wife of an amazing man who happens to be a pastor (www.lavingtonvineyard.org), mama of three very cool kids, and head of digital innovations at Financial Sector Deepening Kenya (www.fsdkenya.org). She was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, studied international affairs at George Washington University, got an MBA at INSEAD in France and has lived with her family in Washington DC, Nairobi, Paris and Seattle while working to increase the value of financial services for people living in poverty.
Read more from Tamara in A Voice Becoming: A Yearlong Mother-Daughter Journey into Passionate, Purposed Living.
For Red Tent Living this month...
Perhaps you can relate? Ever feel that a genuine, sacred desire is being thwarted? Yeah, that's us.
Clouds move in and the wind picks up. Sunny, blue skies turn gray and thunder ripples west. Another Saturday’s desperate attempt at play, thwarted. Our family story, on repeat. Stuck in a motif we’re rather tired of, weary of.
It began while living overseas. In a megacity of concrete and traffic and millions and millions of bodies, we craved space, nature. We brought picnics to the waterfront patch of green, but stray cats and dogs forced us to move. We bought bikes to transport on the ferry across the sea to an island without cars, but the hordes of people made it virtually impossible to peddle. We left early on weekend mornings to reach a forest outside of the sprawl, spent a refreshing few hours in the trees, before sitting in endless hours of congestion homeward. The hot, stop and go sucked the life from us.
We left the megacity with weary souls.
In the Pacific Northwest, we tried camping with friends. We emptied the nearby camp store of tarps and they were still insufficient to protect us from the onslaught of rain. Years later, when we had all moved to sunny Colorado, we tried again. Memorial Day in the mountains brought rain. We went south in June: Rain. We went to the desert the next year: Rain. We went east to Nebraska: Rain.
It became laughable, so long as we were together. But alone as a family, after a tiresome week of holding trauma for clients or teaching about trafficking or struggling with school friends, we reach for play. When it alludes us time after time, it is not so funny. It is the very opposite of funny.
Continue reading here.
It did not rain!
Hello Moms! Perhaps you're like me, parenting teens and holding on to a faint memory of having the luxury of time and mental capacity to linger over the Word and in prayer. Many of us go back to work or increase hours as our kids get older, only adding to the depletion of those two valuable assets: time and mental capacity! Can you relate? This is why I love my friend, Catherine McNiel's book, Long Days of Small Things, which launches today! Removing all guilt and readjusting our expectations, she writes of how to turn the everyday, mundane and monotonous moments into something sacred. And it is beautiful!
If you're a young mom friend, beware: This is the book I'll be giving out at showers and sending as congrats this year!
Enjoy getting to know Catherine and her heart for the book in this interview. And pay attention to the last question if you're wondering if you should have pulled "it" together by now with older kids!
Catherine, introduce yourself to us.
Thank you! I’m a mom with three kids (and a few part time jobs). I love to read and garden. I love to study theology and ancient cultures. I’m always trying to learn something new. I enjoy getting to know my neighbors and learning how different people see the world. I love to explore how theology impacts our real, physical lives…and how our real lives impact theology. I’m enamored by the creation of new life but find that working in the garden is less exhausting than pregnancy.
Now, introduce us to your book Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
Long Days of Small Things is a book that looks at the real life work we do in our everyday lives, and finds God right here in the midst of it. It’s a book for moms (or dads…or grandparents…or caregivers…) who know they don’t have any extra time or energy, but still want a way to connect with God and discover how to find Him.
How do you do that in Long Days of Small Things?
In each chapter I tell stories from our real lives—the seasons and stages of motherhood, pregnancy and delivery, infant days, sleepless nights, caring for children of all ages—and the tasks that fill them. I look at spiritual tools that already hide there—like sacrifice, surrender, service, perseverance, and celebration—and consider how we can open our eyes to the spiritual boot camp we walk through every day. Without adding anything extra to our live or to-do lists, we practice so many disciplines every moment of the day.
Why did you decide to write Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline?
A few years ago I was a work-from-home mom with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. These precious, demanding children took me all the way to the end of my rope…and left me there indefinitely! My life changed in every way, yet I heard only the same spiritual prescriptions I’d always heard: spend quite time each day with God. Find 30-60 minutes each day to be in silence and solitude before the Lord. As I considered the classic spiritual practices (which I love!)—prayer, worship, fasting, meditation, service, solitude, etc.—it became abundantly clear that the realities of motherhood meant I was likely to fail. Or opt out entirely.
But my spirit didn’t allow me to do that. I heard a lament rising in the hearts of the women around me—I have nothing left, nothing left to care for myself or give to God. But as I looked at the actual seasons and tasks of motherhood, I was convinced that there was no better “boot camp” for my soul. Each day we mothers create, we nurture. Each day we are pushed to the end of ourselves and must surrender, sacrifice, and persevere. Each day we serve, pouring ourselves out. We empty ourselves for those in our care—and isn’t this emptiness the very reliance on God that the spiritual disciplines are designed to produce?
[bctt tweet="We empty ourselves for those in our care—and isn’t this emptiness the very reliance on God that the spiritual disciplines are designed to produce?" username="bethhbruno"]
I’m convinced that motherhood is doing an eternal work on my soul, even if I’m too exhausted and overwhelmed to notice just now.
What are the “Practices” that you describe in Long Days of Small Things?
At the end of each chapter, I list three things we are doing already—things like walking, eating, driving, changing diapers, going to work. And I explore how we can use these things, already in our daily routines and schedules, to awaken to God’s presence with us. Moms often don’t have time to add additional tasks and tools into our days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the tasks already there! In fact, in many cases, I think these natural things are the most effective.
How has motherhood impacted your understanding of spirituality?
We think of spirituality as something that happens in our minds, in silence. We are taught that our bodies, our mess and complications and noise hold us back from being with God. That doesn’t leave a lot of hope for moms, whose pregnant or post-partum bodies, newborns, toddlers, and van-full of carpool kids have no end of loud, messy, physical, chaotic needs.
But God made us, didn’t He? Genesis describes Him getting in the dirt and forming us from the dust by hand, then breathing His own breath into our mouths. That’s pretty physical and messy! Then He actually took on a body Himself. The King of Kings wiggled around in a woman’s womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid. He entered the world through her birth canal. God was born, you guys. That’s our Good News.
All this physical stuff that we feel keeps us from Him is the same stuff He used to meet with us, to speak to us, to save us.
So Long Days of Small Things is a book for moms “who have neither quiet nor time” as the cover says—or dads, grandparents, and other caregivers.
Describe an experience that first caused you to understand motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I was shopping with my three kids. Can you imagine the scene? Lugging my infant in one of those terribly unwieldy baby-carriers. Holding my toddler by the hand, while my preschooler zoomed around the store. The diaper bag was falling off my shoulders, and I clenched the grocery bags with the same hand that grasped my toddler.
And then…the door. I couldn’t figure out how to get us all through. The baby was wailing for milk and a nap, the toddler and preschooler needed lunch (and a nap). I wanted lunch and a nap too, truth be told. But mostly I just wanted to get us out the door. No one held it open for me, but plenty of people watched me make a fool of myself trying to wiggle us all through without banging any heads or pinching any fingers. It felt like a hero-feat, an epic win.
When I finally got everyone home, fed, and sleeping, I sat down to read an article I’d been saving; a short biography of a favorite Christian teacher. The biographer described this hero of the faith as so spiritual, he radiated peace just by walking through the door.
This stopped me in my tracks. The memory of how I looked going through a door was so fresh in my mind. I realized that if spiritual growth entailed developing an aura of peace and radiance, I was never going to arrive—at least not without getting rid of these precious babies!
The contrast between this teacher and myself was so stark, and I realized he and I were simply on two separate paths. I was seeking God through the chaotic but life-giving seasons and tasks of motherhood, and this was going to look entirely different from the classic spiritual practices. “Results may vary” as they say.
How is this book different from all the other books and conversations out there regarding motherhood today?
There are so many books out there for moms on the topic of devotion and spirituality. Almost all of them have this in common: after admitting that moms are exhausted, stretched too thin, without any margin or time or energy, they look for a few extra minutes here or there which might be harvested for God; or offer a Bible study or prayer list that might fit in the tiny slots. Get up at 4:30am before the baby wakes at 5am! Read two minutes of the Bible each day!
I’m all for doing these things when it works, but I’m convinced that we don’t need to exit motherhood to have a spiritual life. Our children are what we create, and this is where our Creator God meets us. I’m certain of it. Without adding more “should’s” or “to-do’s” to our days, we can open our eyes to a unique spiritual journey, made just for us—and find him here. We’re already doing it. All that waits is for us to breathe deeply and being to drink.
How have you noticed the "practices" change as your kids get older? Can you give one example of how a mother of a tween might experience similar daily spirituality?
That's a great question. My kids are still on the younger side, my oldest is ten. It does seem like the practices change as they get older. Maybe I'm getting more sleep and more time to myself, but I still have ample reasons to lose my patience, or worry, or realize that the parenting task before me is going to require everything I have and probably a whole lot more. And this is where I think parenting becomes a spiritual discipline -- when we have to dig deep and rely on God through stages of suffering, surrender, service, perseverance, etc.
I think the key to everything I describe in Long Days of Small Things is awakening to see that God is already present in each moment we're in. And he invites us to remember him, to reach out to him right there, in the midst of all we're doing. So in my book, I describe what this might look like in the baby stages of breastfeeding and diapers, but I also describe what it might entail when driving carpool, cooking dinner, or punching in at work. Our daily tasks might change as the kids get older, but the key concepts stay the same.
Bio: Catherine McNiel survived her children's preschool years by learning to find beauty in the mayhem. Now, she writes to open the eyes to God's creative, redemptive work in each day. The author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017), Catherine cares for three kids, works two jobs, and grows one enormous garden.
*I received this book to review and help launch.
I had a proud mama moment this week. My youngest, a budding activist who happens to be a 5th grader, declared she was one of a few kids who raised their hands when the teacher asked who knew of Malala. She then apparently took over the discussion about girls’ education and Malala’s efforts, having not only read the book, but watched the documentary, He Named Me Malala.
Malala is her hero.
She knows about the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient because I bought her the Junior edition in 3rd grade. In 4th grade, I pulled her out of school when limited viewing of the film came to town. And, we’ve continued to discuss global inequity, girls there vs. here, how education decreases terrorism, and the overall privilege she enjoys. She stayed up late the night CNN aired Michelle Obama’s We Will Rise, celebrated Advent with the family at the After Spring Syrian Refugee documentary, and cried with me over Hidden Figures last week.
She’s an activist because of me. She’s a little women’s rights campaigner because of me.
And I’m proud.
A friend asked how to have tough conversations with kids and I knew, he was referencing porn, sex and sexuality, online safety, suicide… all the things we parents muster up the courage to address. We look for books and ask our elders, hoping for an easy, miraculously “safe” way to handle these sensitive topics. And then, if we’re intentional, we schedule a night, a breakfast, a weekend to convey the information, breathing a sigh of relief. We expect behavioral adaptations will follow.
What if they don’t?
Are my kids the only ones who have a short attention span? Is my son the only teen who says “got it” ten billion times a week as the most obvious attempt at covering up a blow off? Surely, I’m not the only parent who repeats herself.
I think osmosis is more effective than a fire hose. Hanging truth upon experience is what makes meaning. Slow parenting looks like repetition over time plus example. And this? This is not accomplished in a singular event.
We cannot teach our kids media literacy over dinner. We won’t raise sexually pure kids as a result of one special weekend. We will not inoculate them from peer pressure after one bullying presentation.
How do parents have tough conversations with their kids? Start young. Don’t stop.
My 10-year old can handle watching a film about Syrian refugees because we’ve talked extensively about global issues. She could read about Malala’s volatile and dangerous life at age 8 because I didn’t shield her from the world’s pain. She wears a “People Don’t Buy People” sweatshirt to school because she gets modern day slavery. Even if she doesn’t fully understand it or picture what it entails, she gets people being forced to do something they never wanted to do.
Raising children to engage the brokenness and darkness and glories of the world as adults requires exposing them to the brokenness and darkness and glories of the world as kids (in age appropriate chunks). As Kate Conner, author of Enough, writes, “Crack the door and let all of the broken, beautiful humanity flood in like a sunbeam. Let it in; let it move her. Let it inspire her, wreck her, challenge her. Let it change her. If you want her to catch the fire, you’re going to have to put her near a flame.”
If you want to have tough conversations with your kids, you’re going to have to get them near the flame. And of course, you’re going to have get near the flame too.