Integrate THIS . . . seriously

Once upon a very brief time, I had the freedom that sometimes, these days, feels like my dearest fantasy: exclusive focus on one thing. One hat, one role, one set of responsibilities. In this case, it was caring for my home and children. And, during that period, I may have mentioned to my mother-in-law something of the Sisyphean despair that I felt in confronting the kitchen each morning. A complaint to which she responded, “Yes, the days are long. It’s the years that are short.”

I didn’t actually get to the “years” part of stay-at-home parenting. It just felt like I did. On Mondays.

If you’ve been following along at home, you probably already know that I was not winning any prizes at the SAHM gig. If you are, I bow before you—this post is not for you.

Anyway, back then, in the midst of a PTSD recurrence/existential crisis (I’m still unclear on which of those begat which) my therapist said, “Jordinn, we’re just getting through the days. If nobody dies, we’re gonna call that a success. Just get through the days.”

 

I appreciate that, now.

Because I can, sitting in this same kitchen, parenting these same children, almost empathize with how very overwhelmed that woman—my former self—was.

Only now I’m like: Sister, can I get some of those minutes?

You can hang out in your pajamas or yoga pants or whatever, and don’t worry about those dishes in the sink . . . but while you’re not doing anything, could I just . . . yeah, thanks.

 

And I know what I’d do with those minutes. Wanna hear?

Things. I would do Things. And probably, in every case, I would do them while fielding questions about something else, or while singing or shushing or driving or snuggling.

Especially this year, with schooling at home and churching online and both of us working in a neighboring state . . . the roles and time allocations are admittedly a bit unclear.

Enter the new catchphrase for figuring out how to live amidst multiple roles and blurry boundaries and can’t-turn-it-off technology:

Work-life integration.


This copy-ready phrase has been around for a couple of years, but I first heard it a few months ago. I raised a concern about a meeting time not working well for my family, and possibly not for other families either, and was met with a two-part response from a meeting organizer: 1. This is a sacrifice for my family, too, and 2. The task here isn’t to balance your life and work—it’s to integrate it.

Hmm.

Perhaps, I reasoned, wrapped in this annoying response was a worthwhile idea; I have thus spent the past few months mulling it over. And believe me, I have ample opportunity. My work—whatever you call it—and my life—such as it is—are integrating all over the place. Work and life may indeed soon have sticky but eloquent love children given to fingerpainting, tantrums, and quoting Friedrich Schleiermacher.

And yet I wonder: is this loud, messy, occasionally fragrant collision really what “integration” looks like? I am not sure, and in the midst of trying to figure it out, I’ve taken to mouthing the phrase—work-life integration— to myself in moments of stress.

Note: this is actually kind of fun. For best results, apply lipstick. Sit up straight. Articulate carefully.

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Ready? Try these on for size:

Babysitter, despite having completed half of a bachelor’s degree in the hard sciences, forgets what day it is; you have meeting in neighboring city in an hour.

(work life integration)

 

You retrieve smaller child from preschool; you must carry a sparkle leaf*–into the wind—against the pants you just had dry cleaned.

(work life integration)

 

Screen on, sound on: smile at a group of gathered people and explain pastoral care in a digital community; screen off, sound off, threaten misbehaving children with loss of privileges and/or life.

(work life integration)

 

Stop, mid-collegial conversation, to listen to 7 year old explain, again, about how Santa is going to bring “fire lizards” in a highly specific range of colors. Your colleague is treated to a lengthy filibuster, which ends only when you agree to “feed them meat.”

(work life integration)

 

Run personalized and highly physical daily warrior dash; hurdles day 3 include “mop floor” and “find lego man’s head before I diiiiieeee” and “bring snack for 24; no nuts” as well as “racial justice meeting,” “make meme” and “write pulpit testimonial.”

(Yep. Work life integration again.)

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. . . Or is it? Is allowing this jumble of competing claims to become more and more interwoven really an accomplishment?

Is the trick to somehow do the weaving better?

Or is it that I should do less with more . . . or was it more with less?

 

What is missing in this phrase is the how. Which, when you think about it, basically means everything important. How does one integrate fingerpaint with a finance committee?

I have a theory, y’all. I think what’s needed in considering the “how” of work-life integration . . . which I have begun to hear as “the how of everything–all at once” is a quick history lesson. Because the trouble with the idea becomes evident when we consider the “integration” push not as a step toward the middle from “work-life balance,” but as a cultural pendulum swing away from it.

Truth: in these last two decades—the work/life balance decades—the pressure has been on both employees and employers to acknowledge that work isn’t everything. That family and vacations and space to relax and breathe are important. Work/life balance, in fact, echoed the ideals of the labor movement. Many of us have forgotten the history, but the slogan from the days of bread and roses,–8 for work, 8 for rest, 8 for recreation!—still speaks to how we might spend our hours. This balance lay at the heart of a vision of self-advocacy that paired corporate responsibility with employee health.

And so, in the second decade of this new millennium, with communication technologies that could reshape our working lives, we might be moving toward greater balance. But statistics say we aren’t. In fact, we’ve gotten far afield of the idea, in a way that suggests that the “balance” movement was a smaller pushback against a larger tide of workaholism, and not a sea change in itself.

Balance has actually failed, for many reasons, to take root in the context of our national working life . . . and now, with work-life integration, we may forsake balance altogether.

Work vs Life Balance Choices Two Way Street Road SIgns

But is that what work-life integration is? The death knell for off-duty time, achieved by a rebranding of the same old dollar-driven agenda?

Maybe so, but even if the push to integrate work and life has dollar signs between the whites of its eyes, there is something more at stake here—an opportunity, in fact. As work stakes a claim on family life, we have a chance to consider—and even redefine—not just where we work, but also how, with whom, and for what purpose.

In the end, we’re not just combining a thing called “work” with a less productive and more self-indulgent thing called “life.” We are discovering and defining how to incorporate new technologies into the entire package of our daily realities (you know—the thing we might actually call ‘life.’ All of it.)

 

So: what could this look like, if not the stressed-out, grown up Peter Pan in Hook or Diane Keaton’s character in Baby Boom? Short of a radical conversion to a more stripped-down reality, what can we achieve for real quality of life with an “integration” mindset?

 

As it turns out, it depends on the model we use. There are two very different ways of framing work-life integration, and we ought to choose carefully—they seem likely to lead us to very different places.

The first way may look familiar; we might call it more-better-faster. It’s control-oriented and fear based. Be available now and later and always or THE MARKET WILL LEAVE YOU BEHIND. You MUST answer e-mails at home. You NEED to be available on vacation. Those who refuse will be fired.

Probably unsurprisingly, the writers describing work-life integration this way tended to be men, and to take an uncritical view of top-down, short term capital-driven decisionmaking. The gospel here is that the world has changed, you may have already been left behind, and the only option is to paddle hard and jettison what’s slowing you down. Those vacation days, for example.

This is depressing, consumerist, and right in line with the dominant culture. I think I’ll pass.

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Fortunately, there is an alternative–a second lens on work-life integration which could be labeled the new work-smarter. This is the framework in which sudden life challenges for committed employees inspire creative, win-win solutions ranging from flexible scheduling to job sharing to videocommuting to intercompany partnerships. It’s the “better box” that we work to build together, in which new moms—or dads!—bring their babies to work, company R&D offices partner with grad student studios, and pastors give blessings to holiday shoppers and hear confessions (and all manner of other things) on Facebook or in the local coffee shop.

This vision of work-life integration is status-quo disruptive. It empowers lower levels of hierarchies, or circumvents hierarchy altogether. It provides—and even celebrates—the means through which an articulate layperson speaks directly to denominational power via the blogosphere, a programmer creates an app and gets it to the marketplace in the same day, and consumers, congregants, and care recipients communicate their needs in real time to those who can help.

The choice of how we’ll respond matters, because this—this lovely, magical, muddled, troubled present—it’s a given. What is up for grabs is whether we will act with intention and mindfulness to use technology to make human life better. To infuse our days, and those of others, with quality, the kind that imbues purpose and meaning and, in the reflective moments, even connects us with wonder.

 

Which brings us back to this moment. The one in which sticky jam hands are drawing oh so near to the ipad where I’m drafting my sermon, and in which my husband and I are likely to meet on the highway to swap caregiving roles, and in which I will run OR write, and will assuredly think about thorny problems while I do either.

Here, in this space, I find that even with a clear sense of hope and possibility, what’s missing amid all of this integrating is a clear sense of limit.

It’s true, in my experience, that this “integration” stuff—blending my life with . . . well, my life—it means more energy, and more joy.

 

But the price of cross-pollination, at least the way it’s happening in this house, is more tasks. Just as we should not expect church membership to bring with it an economy of scale—more members bring more energy demands more programs invites more services creates more costs—don’t believe for a minute that these invigorating conversations and meaningful connections of the “integration” model are going to do anything but ask more of you, in a net sense.

And more tasks? Well, friends, no new discoveries here. Eventually, something’s gotta give.

 

Yes, I am blessed to have these conversations and inspired to do this reading and grateful for these opportunities . . . and even so, my to do list has not morphed into a melting pot of productivity. A walk with a glitter leaf constitutes a success only in my own mind, or, if he’s feeling particularly generous, that of my four-year-old. Ditto saving the hamster from certain death, cannily avoiding a parking ticket, paying the one from last year that I forgot to avoid, changing out of pajamas into yoga pants and then into dress clothes like some sort of underaccessorized superhero. Even writing stuff (look, we’re on to adult tasks here) doesn’t magically “count” for any person who’s not directly benefiting from it.

Fact: I work for inspiring, butt-kicking women in service-dedicated, person-first institutions. But people, reasonably, still want their stuff done. And that includes the tiny people. There’s just more stuff now, and more people, and I have, maybe, more of a smile on my face. Yet ten hats are ten hats, too much is too much, and I have found many of the tasks of mommyhood to be utterly insoluble in the waters in which we swim.

Integrate that.

 

Further, I attend a cutting-edge seminary, but cutting edge also means in-the-process-of-creation. In this evolving reality, it is on us to envision—and speak to—what the future might look like, especially where there’s a reason to push the door open just a bit wider.

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Where is the potential for integration in this?

I’m still thinking about that. And in the meantime, I’m breathing through stress and caffeinating through tiredness and shifting my to do list in my head yet again . . . and I am also remembering about the need to put on one’s own oxygen mask.

 

There must be limits. We must make choices.

Including the choice of how to respond when “work life integration” is handed to us not as a point of exploration, but as a slippery non-answer to a request for consideration.

When that moment next comes,

We might choose to take what’s offered.

We might choose to view technology as another way to enforce scarcity.

Or we might just hand those shiny words back, raise our voices again, and ask that our real, live, bad mama selves be accommodated.

 

Because that, in this time and place, would be an integration worth seeing.

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*A sparkle leaf, friends, might once have been an actual fallen leaf . . . and is now an admirably horrific combination of wet paint, microglitter, and all of the hopes and prayers of your four year old. Good luck with that.

on failure to fly in four-year-olds

I don’t yet know how we remember days like this in the long run.

This is A Day When Silas Did Not Die.  As, so far, they all have been . . . so how do you mark the moments where your day, and your life, nearly became something else?

Our younger son is four now.  Milestones of the age include: (marginally) prefers building cities to destroying them.  Discriminates between food and non-food items.  Understands, and wields, words upon words upon words.  And, cause for true celebration for those of us who have experienced early childhood without it: Si now demonstrates a sense of fear.

If those milestones mattered today, it was only in their false sense of reassurance.

How do you assign meaning when the narrative arc of action and inaction, redemption and irremediable loss, runs so tightly that it takes your breath away as you consider it?  What can we learn from being brought up short by what nearly was, laying out each “but for” as though it were a thing with teeth, a shade poised to lay claim to the breath of a now-sleeping child?

I don’t exactly know what to think, but I can tell you what I feel: sheer, incredulous relief.  This day, the sheer boredom and minutiae of it, has been delivered back to me as I blink, confused, stumbling again into the too-bright daylight after escaping the brief horrorshow behind me.

As Silas explains the noteworthy event of the afternoon: “I wanted to jump, but without hitting the ground.”  (Don’t we all want that, friends?  Isn’t jumping-without-hitting-the-ground the simplest conception of flying?)  Si’s jumping place of choice: his small dresser.  The alternative to hitting the ground: it had something to do with the long, trailing cord of the wooden blinds that hang in Si’s window.

Ah, the blind cords.  Craig and I have tied those strings in knots and stuffed them in specially-ordered “cord-keepers.”  We have taken the blinds down and put them back up again.  We have had more conversations than I can count about how the blinds aren’t for touching, ever ever ever . . . and now, in what feels like the “after” of the “intensive physical challenge” piece of our parenting life . . . we have largely forgotten about them.

I remember now, in a more zealous phase of parenting, sending an article about blind cord safety to all of our family’s grandparents.  I did a bit of research, back then, finding common sense advice inspired by a number of tragic stories—but there is one detail I read that lurked, ever after, at the back of my mind.  “The average age of children killed in blind cord accidents was four.”  That always seemed weird to me.  Why four?

I think, as the battle-hardened, gray-hair-sporting parents of seven and four year old boys, my husband and I feel, on a level both philosophical and cellular, that we have earned some peace.  Or perhaps it’s simply that if they haven’t died by now, then surely, surely with additional common sense and an increasing apprehension of danger, we’re in the clear.  At least with these things.

And also, there is this: at Si’s request, we hung curtains in his room about a year ago.  Those curtains, a smooth celadon he chose himself because it matched his idea of his big brother’s favorite color, are the show piece.  The blinds behind them hang, forgotten, squinched up to the top of the window frame since we can’t remember when.  Out of sight, out of mind is a saying for a reason

And so, who knows where the cord keeper went?

Who knows when the pull became unknotted?

Who knew that that long beige cord would speak to Silas like the serpent in the garden, assuring him that he’d never have to worry about hitting the ground if he’d only twine that string around his chest and neck, like so . . .

I can tell you now that what separates the mundane ordinariness of a Thursday afternoon from the sickening terror of too-late is, at most, a few minutes.  It’s enough air in the lungs, and enough space in a constricted airway, to scream.  It’s a parental pit stop in a misbehaving older brother’s room, leaving only one underinsulated wall between me and my baby bird, rather than a separate story and a lack of consciousness—I am home sick today and so dearly wanted to spend afternoon rest time actually resting.

I would have paid good money, up front, for the promise of sleep at 2:00 in the afternoon.  I might have traded my soul for quiet.

As it stands, there will be no nap today for anyone except Si.  I wanted sleep; instead, I have breath, hot against my hand on his pillow.  I hoped for peace, and instead I have the fury of a four-year-old who thinks band-aids are the answer for anything that hurts.  And we have, for now, the angry red reminder of a livid mark across a baby sealskin neck, barely a line in back but bright and deep in front, the place where those thin cords chafed, rubbed, and then began to strangle my would-be flyer.

I don’t know what to do with any of this, not really.  I still believe that tragic accidents happen. That not everything can be prevented, and that in that mistaken belief, we place ourselves on the opposite side of those who experience their turn with misfortune before our own, and that also, we forget to live.

And yet, there is another truth: that sometimes accidents don’t happen.  And that other times, they do—the worst thing, it happens—and yet the pieces of your life are handed back to you whole, anyway.  Sometimes we just get damned lucky, my friends.

I’m giving thanks for that, this afternoon.  For all that I had, which sometimes continues for another day to be all that I have.

But there is indeed something to be said for prevention, not as the sole objective of our lives, but as a way not to miss larger moments for smaller oversights.  And so I’m taking this opportunity to suggest, from our family to yours, that you take a moment to check those blind cords.

There is perhaps a story here about why it’s the four year olds who die.  And I wonder how many of them are youngest children of parents who assumed they were done with this safetyproofing stuff.

And so, though I know you did it last week, last month, last . . . when was it? . . . check them again.  I know you told the grandparents, the babysitter, your older son . . . tell them again.

We got lucky, so lucky, but Si is going to have the shape of that cord on the underside of his chin for a long, long while as a reminder of what we forgot.  May the only reminder that your family gets be these words.

Blessings, my friends.

j

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As long as you can get yourself down: the argument for an UNsafe childhood

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Two years ago, our sons’ preschool brought in writer and consultant Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.  The purpose, amid a capital campaign for a natural playscape, was to educate us about the importance of allowing risks and exploration while enjoying nature with our children.

In this spirit, the school allowed its students to climb the trees bordering the three-acre playground.  “As long as you can get yourself down” was the rule for tree-climbing—until the day our older son fell out of one.

Soeren’s scrapes required no medical attention; he healed completely within a week.  It may sound odd, but I was delighted to learn that the abrasions to the side of my son’s face were not from falling, but from catching himself on a low branch.  Soeren has always been a reluctant physical risk-taker, constrained by an anxiety about “what if” that is uncomfortably familiar.  My parental pride and the exhortations of the nature consultant aside, however, the trees were declared off limits for the rest of the year.

Several months later, a different child fell from a metal climbing structure, breaking his arm.  In my own school experience, it was at least a yearly rite of passage for the ambulance to come and take an arm-breaker to the hospital.  The child came back the next day to much fanfare; we all signed her cast, and life continued as before.  What happened in this case was an ambulance ride, a hushed apology to the family, and the near-immediate dismantling of the offending piece of playground equipment.  The entire set was taken down and hauled away; the children played in a yard of flat grass with balls and trucks for the rest of the year.

What these events meant for our obligation as parents to “take risks” and “explore nature” was never made clear.  I still wonder, but in reality, this particular school’s interpretations are unimportant.  The larger principles at work are what is noteworthy—and concerning.

An emphasis on safety above all things as a response to competing values (Get back into nature! Without anyone becoming hurt, or frightened, or dirty!) has redefined the parental obligations for an entire generation.

Unfortunately, this emphasis encourages fear rather than eliminating it, and inflicts collateral damage in the process. Were we to truly examine what it means to expect accidents not to happen, we might realize that what we have come to expect from ourselves and each other is not just safety, but control.  Possibly absolute control—over our own thoughts and actions, over those of our children, over environments, over weather, over chance.

This expectation of control stands in stark contrast to how I was raised.  I grew up in Wyoming and experienced a childhood that, admittedly, fell at the far “free range” end of the parenting spectrum.  However,  the facebook memes making the rounds—you know, the ones listing all the things we’re “the last generation to ___”– seem to strike a nerve with my generation of parents. I’m guessing it’s because those lists acknowledge that things today are different from how any of us were raised, and those days now seem simpler and also far out of reach.

How can I keep my sons free from significant harm, yet allow them to have access to a childhood of hard-won discoveries, unsupervised explorations, and the power to invent worlds, destroy them, and start over the next day?  Most times, this might be left an idle question, read about in somebody else’s blog post, pondered briefly, forgotten by dinner.  Later that same year, however, I experienced a recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder.  This affected my own parental perceptions of danger quite acutely; suddenly it became important to find answers to these questions, or at least strategies for wrestling with them, stat.

In desperation or habit or deep ancient wisdom, I felt a pull toward Wyoming, scene of my own childhood, to look for those answers.  To Vedauwoo, specifically—a series of tall granite outcroppings rising out of the high plains between Cheyenne and Laramie, and the natural heritage and birthright of southeastern Wyoming kids.  Vedauwoo means picnics, campouts, family hikes and wiener roasts, and later hooky days from school, stargazing, college keg parties.  And, unavoidably, it also means danger.

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Here amid the echoes and the rocks (and in this part of Wyoming, even the dirt isn’t far removed from rock; Si falls down and we spend five minutes removing tiny shards of granite from his shin), parenting initially appears harder than ever.  Risk looms larger here; what I barely noticed as a child is inescapable in watching my sons scramble delightedly across the rocks.  Danger—the real kind—beckons like the pied piper from all directions.   The boys could fall from a cliff.  They could drown in the pond.  They could lose the trail.  They could cross paths with a bear or a wildcat, be struck by lightning, or, in the particular case of my two-year-old, eat poisonous mushrooms, climb into the latrine, or cut your wrists on any of the jagged pieces of glass from the beer bottles that come here to die each weekend.  This place has been called a playground for those who love nature, but it’s a playground likely to give my generation of parents headaches, if not actual nightmares.  Gymboree it is not.

It’s overwhelming.  Or at least, I am overwhelmed.  And so, in full sun next to a wall of rock my children have just disappeared behind, with Daddy following along as spotter, I set my pack in the gravel and lie down with my head upon it.  I give up, for a bit, on vigilance.  Lying there, I also give up on trying to understand.  I ask myself if I’m also planning to give up on thinking, or breathing, or being, as I stare upward from the ground.

The patch of earth on which I’m lying slopes down a bit from my back to my head.  I wonder vaguely if I’m falling off the world or held tighter to it, and as I lie there I realize I’m facing a rock formation that I have climbed many times.

Gazing up at the granite, I am speechless, taking it in as though for the first time.  The sun feels both far away and uncomfortably intense, the light unique to clear days at high altitude.  The rocks reflect the light brightly in some places, and glow softly in pink and orange in others.  The sky surrounding the cliffs is cloudless, a color that instantly evokes a hundred memories but defies naming.   It is beautiful.  It is forceful.  It is sharp, and hard, and angular and, just . . . undeniably there.

This place is a physical representation of the phrase “It is what it is,” words that irritate and even provoke me in nearly every context.  Here, though, in the face of so much unyielding rock, they are comforting.  As I have known you, so you are.  Even now.  Even still.

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As befits a person on the edge of crazy, I talk to these rocks, asking, “If you are the same, and I am the same, why can’t I keep my children safe here when my parents could?  How were they calm in the face of your danger?  How did they know that things would be ok?”

I try to remember how my parents acted.  What strategies they used to calm or caution us.  But as I think about it, what I remember most is being left to our own devices.  We played; the grownups sat, fire blazing, at a neighboring campsite and talked.  We climbed trees and explored caves; they climbed rocks and whistled down to us.  This is confusing—how could they have made sure that we were safe if they weren’t there?  How could they have known at which moment we might get into danger, and prevent it?  How could they have looked away while we climbed surrounded by only hard landings?  In my own life as a parent, I feel affronted when a playground has soft-form asphalt rather than mulch under the climbing equipment.

We yearn for control and we imagine that we wield it—but ultimately, we cannot ignore the tension created where our theories and the world-in-practice do not match up.  When accidents do happen—to someone else’s child or our own—how do we react, emotionally? With guilt?  With shame?  With condemnation?

Outwardly, we place added pressure on ourselves, on other parents, or on laws to do what the world itself refuses to—protect us at all costs.  The concept of “accident” has itself changed in the years since we were children—what once, in one sense, applied to a great mystery of life—sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why—now indicates only negligence, whether or not we can immediately pinpoint the source.

In this context, failing to protect a child from harm is unforgiveable. We look immediately and mercilessly for someone to hold responsible when a child is hurt in any way.  As for ourselves, we believe that we simply won’t make those bad choices, and accidents will therefore never happen to us.

This attitude is a mistake, and not just because it stigmatizes those to whom bad things happen, or because places an impossible weight upon our shoulders.  It is mistaken because it cuts us off from growth.  Writing now, later, I can share that in coping with PTSD symptoms, I have had to learn two things: to see and evaluate risk more objectively, even in the face of a strong emotional response, and to accept with serenity the knowledge that there is true danger simply in being alive.  I will posit that these are the same tasks we must take on as parents guiding our children through a frightening world.

First, we must strive to see risk for what it is, and to acknowledge it where we find it.  Some things simply are too potentially damaging to allow a child to do so long as we are the ones responsible for her safety—though these determinations may vary by child, by parent, by family.  Other things, however, are not nearly so dangerous as we believe them to be, and have benefits that far outweigh the risks.  For our family, playing outside with minimal supervision fits into this second category; riding bikes without helmets into the first.

Next—and this one is the nailbiter—we must accept that it is not possible to make the world “safe.”  Dangers, known and unknown, are part of the bargain we make in living.  Our task, then, is to accept, and then move beyond acceptance to embracing the way that risk and challenge shape our lives.

In the end, whether we are willing to see it or not, our children are all climbing dangerously.  And so are we.  Maybe what they need—what we each need—isn’t a bigger safety net.  Maybe it’s actually a bigger rock, or the experience to know that the climb itself is its own reward.  The view from the top isn’t too shabby either, but the real reason we need to do it is because risk is part of what makes us human. It’s part of what makes us real.

Let’s not focus on making the world risk-free, then.  Let us instead climb to the high places, and in so doing, tap into the great pride of human accomplishment.  And let’s look to our children as we climb.  It is up to us to protect them—but they are the ones who can show us how to get ourselves back down again, and to do it with joy and grace.

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