Practicing Parenthood: Paying Attention

Most of the time we think about parenting as something we do to influence someone else—it's what we do to raise baby humans into responsible, contributing adult humans. We scour articles that promise “pro tips to get your child to behave” or “how to produce a [kind, responsible, smart, superstar] child in ten easy steps.” Me too! I get it--I study and teach parenting for a living—the fascination is strong there and we want to crack the code for how to produce happy, adjusted people.

Lately, though, I’ve been mulling over how parenting and parenthood has changed—sometimes “raised,” other times lowered—me

When I’ve let it, motherhood has been a spiritual practice—and I mean that in the sense of my spirit imperfectly practicing difficult, soul-stretching-and-spraining things.

That’s not to say it’s always transcendent or that I float around in nirvana but rather that when I hit the most difficult (yet oh-so-frequent and mundane) times of being the allegedly mature grown up in a family, those moments invite me to learn to be a better human in general and get better at the things that matter.

Now and then I’d like to chat here about some of those parenthood practices that make us stronger people—the equivalent of doing those annoying scales and arpeggios when practicing the piano. What are those things? I don’t know. Or rather, I’m trying to figure it out.  Tell me yours: what quality or change has the practice of parenthood brought you?  What specific parenthood moments have helped stretch and deepen you as a person? Please chime in, I’d really love to know.

. . .

Here’s one I’ve been considering: attention. More specifically: paying it.  In the movie Lady Bird one of my favorite parts is a scene between Lady Bird, this teenage girl who lives in Sacramento (though is aching to leave it), and her Catholic School counselor, Sister Sarah Joan. After reading Lady Bird’s college entrance essay, Sister Sarah Joan remarks that Lady Bird clearly loves the city. “You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care,” she tells her. This surprises Lady Bird, who replies that she just pays attention. Then Sister Sarah Joan notes, “Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love--and attention?”


French philosopher Simone Weil wrote about attention as a kind of spiritual discipline: “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Parents know this. We gaze at our newborn’s faces for hours, memorizing the slopes and angles and reading their features and their cues like tea leaves. Somewhere along the line this level of attention becomes inappropriate and/or unwelcome (“Why are you staring at me like that?!”) so our attention takes covert, underground forms.

I got out of practice of really paying attention as the pace, competing priorities, and sheer number of people in our family increased. But I’m keen to build that muscle again. If you are, too, here are a few ideas for our attention practicing:

  • Write a description of each of your big kids/teens/YAs as they are now. Details. What do they look like, who do they remind you of, what pushes their buttons and makes them happy? Baby books are great and all but this is when things get really fascinating. Pay attention and document, even if just for your own eyes.
  • Look family members in the eye. Don’t make this creepy; try for at least once or twice a day when you stop what you’re doing, turn to them and talk face to face, no interruptions. Notice what it feels like to really see and be seen.
  • Pay a sincere compliment about something you’ve noticed. Or write a note. I remember once when I was an awkward, 15-year-old I took a ballet class. Short limbed and long bodied with legs more muscular than lithe, I didn’t feel graceful. I felt self conscious and internally lamented I didn’t look like the twiggy lean dancers in the class but I did love going to class, moving to the music, expressing myself that way. My mom came to one of the open house classes and said in the car on the way home something offhanded like “It was so beautiful to see you move like that. You have such a lovely figure.” I probably said “oh, Mom.” I might have even rolled my eyes. But guys. I took that compliment and tucked it into my soul pocket for years. I felt seen.

We are here to abet creation and to witness it,
to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed.
Together we notice not only each mountain shadow
and each stone on the beach
but we notice each other’s beautiful face
and complex nature
so that creation need not play to an empty house.

Annie Dillard

Wedding Mantras for Mothers of the Bride

Over the string of months that I held mother-of-the-bride status, I adopted a few mantras to help me keep the crazy under control. These came in handy, say, when I would lie awake and sift through the midnight mental flotsam that would wash ashore in a panic of what-ifs and to-dos. Or when the low-grade stress of helping to coordinate a wedding weekend from the other side of the world eroded the joy of the whole thing. These are mindset reboots I found helpful rather than specific tips on planning a wedding--although at some point I'm sure Sarah and I will share some hints & lessons learned along with some of the details from both weddings. So here are my notes to self, wedding mantras to remember for next time. I didn't master them but they were helpful reminders:

Love, love, love: Invoke this mantra often. This whole wedding undertaking is ultimately about celebrating the love, marriage, and sprouting of a little two-person seedling of a family. Try and infuse the process with love--from your hundreds of coordinating texts & chats with your daughter to your communications with all of the families, your interactions with vendors, and your deliberations about the budget. Let go of the pressure to plan a perfect Pinterest wedding-to-impress and focus on creating an atmosphere where the couple and their guests will feel the love. They'll all remember how they felt that day much longer than they'll remember any little nitty gritty detail, anyway. 

She's the president, I'm the chief of staff: (i.e., Let it go/it's not my wedding): It's hard. In some ways this feels like familiar territory--like another party you're throwing for your child, kind of a birthday/graduation celebration on steroids. You might be used to calling the shots and making all the choices.'s not your wedding. Even if you're paying the invoices, it's still not your wedding. Follow your daughter's lead on how much involvement and advice to give.  She's the president, you're the chief of staff. (Also, related mantra: it's his wedding, too.)

Tiny scene in a long play: You're starting out a brand new relationship with a new son and your daughter's inlaws, don't start it with hassles over some little wedding details. The wedding day comes and goes but their marriage will last much much longer than that. Not only that, but this wedding marks the beginning of a new configuration of your own family, with a new son joining your crew forever more. When it comes down to it, choose to invest in building positive relationships over clashing or gnashing teeth on the logistics of party planning. After all...

It's just a party: This helped rein in my wedding anxiety sometimes. Hey, it's just a party! One night with friends and family. It's a big party but still. Just a party. Don't give in to the crazy.

The arrow has flown: I remember a few days before I got married my mom came home from someone else's reception and said "Annie!  we forgot to order the paper napkins with your names embossed on them!" (These were popular then. Are they still a thing? If so, we forgot to order them this time, too.) Meh. At that point the wedding arrow had left the bow and was on its way to the target; there was no point in chasing it down. Likewise, at a certain point you've done all the planning and arranging.  If something pops up in the last few days, fix it and/or forget it. It's time to just let the plan unfold and ENJOY IT. The arrow has flown. 

Serenity now!: Just kidding. That's the Seinfeld mantra. But it's a good generic one in a pinch.

What else? I'd love to add more mantras to my supply. What mantras have helped you in times of stress/planning/weddings?

photo by Chelsie Starley Photography

Throwback Thursday: On letting go

Every time I think I have this "letting go" thing down, it bounces right up and smacks me in the face. I've had plenty of occasions to write about my girls moving out and moving on (See here and here). In fact, daughter #3 has, just in the past week, signed up for her dorm room -- meaning we are on the official move-out-countdown. "It's okay," I tell myself. "It's good." "It's normal."

Yesterday, I was anxiously awaiting the Postwoman because I was expecting Jordan's wedding invitations. (Yes! I'm invited to my own daughter's wedding!) Actually, she's handled the ordering and addressing and stamping all from Utah, so while we have talked about these invitations ad infinitum, I had yet to see them in real life (IRL). Finally, at about 5:30, the post arrived. And it was there! A shimmering, dark green envelope just sitting in my mailbox. I grabbed it and raced inside. I opened it carefully, pulled the cards out and read each line carefully.

At the same time the television was on in the background. After reading through the invitation I swung around to see Cookie Monster, advertising the new Siri On-Demand feature. Instantly, I was reminded of an incident involving a two-year-old Jordan and Cookie Monster:

When Jordan and Madison were wee babes they were obsessed with the Sesame Street characters. They watched the show, played pretend Sesame Street, talked about Elmo endlessly. So, when I saw an advertisement that the Sesame Street characters were coming to Sea World, I decided we would put what little vacation money we could scrape together towards a trip to San Antonio. My babies needed to see Big Bird. Once in the park, we attended the scheduled Sesame Street show, wherein the larger-than-life characters danced and sang. When the show ended, I just knew Jordan would want to see the characters up close and personal. She seemed reticent about actually approaching them, so I swung her up on my hip and marched to the front of the theater. Jordan was mesmerized. I was mentally patting myself on the back for making my baby's dreams come true.

As I held her, I pointed out Big Bird. And Ernie. And Elmo. And then Cookie Monster started moving right towards us! "How lucky!" I thought. Cookie Monster approached Jordan and reached out to pat her little tummy. As those furry blue fingers met her little strawberry romper, Jordan let out a primal scream. She arched her back and almost seemed to convulse for a moment. I did my best to keep her from flailing to the ground and quickly retreated.

She was inconsolable. She cried. And sobbed. And after a good five minutes, she finally looked me in the eye and screamed out, "Cookie Monster touched me!" Her rage was part fear and part blame. How could I have allowed such a travesty to occur? For the next hour or so she inhaled raggedly, muttering to herself, "Cookie Monster touched me." Honestly, I'm surprised she didn't require some type of trauma counseling. We did hug on her a lot and promised a Cookie Monster restraining order. Over time, the "Cookie Monster touched me" mantra became somewhat of a catch phrase, reminding us of those moments when our kids needed an extra hug and some added protection.

It's difficult for me to convey here how this memory tore me open inside. Maybe it's the realization that I'm no longer in charge of making her dreams come true. Maybe it's a mourning for the loss of that sweet little baby girl. Maybe it's an understanding that I'm not her sole protector, that my role in her life is moving further and further to the periphery. I'm sure it's a combination of these factors. But it hurts.  And there's nothing for me to do about it, except to feel this uncomfortable pit in my stomach and to write about that glorious, spunky baby of mine.


Big news at our house! Over Thanksgiving weekend my daughter Lauren got engaged! We had a bit of an inkling in advance and they've been kind of pre-engaged for a little while. (Is "kind of pre-engaged" even possible? Or are you either engaged or not? This question has been a topic of conversation around here for a little while. Please advise.)  Early last week Patrick skyped with us to ask for our blessing and let us know it was happening soon, which was much appreciated--maybe even more than is usually the case in these situations, since we feel so very far away at times like this and we were happy to feel a part of it.  We had a good heart-to-heart and feel delighted to welcome Patrick into the family.

Side note: When we moved to Australia I joked with G that maybe we'd have a little Australian surprise addition to the family while we were here. Turns out he came fully grown, ha! And not Australian. Much easier to grow a family this way.

In case you're curious (and I always am about these things): They've known each other for four+ years--they met their freshman year at university when their apartments were assigned to the same FHE group. They were good friends and never dated but spent a lot of time together--I remember that Lauren thought he was terrific. They kept in touch on and off over the years and then when Lauren moved back to school after her mission in April, they ended up living right across the street from each other and the friendship picked up again. By the time we came to the states in July they had grown close and Lauren invited him to our family reunions on both sides--so he's had the chance to see what he's getting into, mwahaha. The engagement took place in Logan after several days of Thanksgivinging with G's side of the family. It was just the two of them on the grounds of the temple, lovely words, a ring, and a few tears, she said. Hooray for the kind souls who snapped a picture afterwards:

So bring on the wonderful world of wedding planning! From afar! (Insert emoji that combines joy and anxiety and anticipation and homesickness. With a dash of inherent but contained parental-control-freakery and hopefully twice as much go-with-the-flowness.) 

Although this is definitely not all about me (or even a little), it does feel surreal to be at this stage. I'm a mother of the bride! It's a stamp in my grown-up passport, for sure, to return to this land of weddings as a mother when I was last here as a bride over 25 years ago. Do I need to pass a certification of some kind? Have a badge? 

 The wedding will be fun to plan and I am eager to get any and all hints and recommendations for planning a lovely, hyggelig celebration--I'll pass along as much as I can here, too. Ultimately, though, it's about that marriage relationship and their future. It's about my daughter being happier than I've seen her. And it's about adding Patrick to our family with open arms, expanding even as we are shrinking, gaining even as we lose. I love what my good friend told her son as he was dating and getting close to getting engaged: "all I ask is that you choose someone who will let me love her." I can definitely get behind that sentiment: more people to love.

High school, over and over and over

According to the high school powers-that-be, monogramming is the newest fad. This makes me inexplicably happy. I do love a good monogram.

According to the high school powers-that-be, monogramming is the newest fad. This makes me inexplicably happy. I do love a good monogram.

Two nights ago Sterling, Rebecca, and I were up to 1:30 in the morning completing a meter-high roller coaster made of wood, rubber tubing, nails, hot glue, and a whole lot of naive hope. We could not, for the life of us, get that darn ball to stay on the track for both a vertical AND a horizontal loop. Also, per the requirements of her physics class, Becca had to build a mechanism to move the ball from the end spot, back up to the top. Every fifteen minutes or so one of us, in absolute frustration, would shout out, "This is a ridiculous assignment for a group of teenagers!" But then we just soldiered on because the project counted for two major grades. At one point I was chanting (mostly to myself), "Joneses don't quit. Joneses don't quit!"

Sure enough, as the new day rolled in, we persuaded that darn 3/4" ball to roll the entire length of the coaster, dizzying swirls and all. All on it's own the ball mounted a large wheel and then vigorously launched itself into a cone . . . starting the loop again. Sweet bliss.

I'm not convinced Becca learned a ton about physics, but hopefully she got the message that family pulls together, that perseverance pays off, and that her momma is quite handy with a glue gun.

Three roller coasters down, one to go. Help me.




You take the good, you take the bad . . .

Ice cream date with Maddie and Parker.

Ice cream date with Maddie and Parker.

This is the last week of summer for our family. The kids start back to school on Monday, and on Wednesday I'm helping Maddie drive her new-to-her car up to BYU. It's been a good summer in many ways -- but there has also been a good deal of heaviness. There have been hospital stays, and deaths, and bad news, and heartbreak all around us these past months, which makes me anxious and panicky. I know these sorrows have always circled, but normally I'm better at pretending they don't exist. The pretending bit gets hard when it's RIGHT IN YOUR FACE.

On the other side of the equation, there have been beautiful, joyful moments this summer. There has been midnight laughter from the kids upstairs, beautiful sunrises as we drive to Crossfit, the complete feeling of having Maddie home again. There have been fun dinners in The Heights, farmer's market breakfasts, that feeling of warmth as the gulf coast breeze washes over you when you step from the ultra air conditioning of the supermarket. Last night all of our kids (except Jordan, of course) piled on our bed and did their best to pick on one another. It was so annoying and so comforting -- all at the same time.

Maybe it comes with age -- this living with joy and sadness all intertwined. It seems that in my 20s I bull-dozed through life, knocking aside what I didn't like, greedily claiming those things I thought would make me happy. But now, as my babes leave the nest one by one, I'm more circumspect about my joy -- more careful to savor the everyday pieces of happy that come my way. And still, more prone to worry in the night that tragedy is lurking in every corner.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the schedule of the new school year will set me right. I do like extreme order. But also, a little good luck and peaceful vibes wouldn't hurt either. Here's to new beginnings, soft words of encouragement, and a year of kindness. Goodness knows we all need it.

Don't you forget about me

Recently This American Life aired a segment featuring Molly Ringwald's experience watching The Breakfast Club with her daughter for the first time. It was an interesting and surprisingly poignant conversation with her daughter (and, later, with Ira Glass) about seeing things differently years later through mama eyes, subjective memory, expectations, and the sometimes surprising messages and moments that kids internalize.

A snippet from the interview: 

Ira Glass: So this is the first time that you saw the film as a parent. Did you see it differently?

Molly Ringwald: Absolutely. I really did. I really kind of felt for the parents.

Ira Glass: For people who haven't seen The Breakfast Club, a lot of it is about the kids being disappointed in the parents.

Molly Ringwald: Yeah. And how alone and isolated and frustrated you feel with your parents. And now I see the movie and I just think, oh, their poor parents. And I think that when it was pointed out to me that the movie just talks about how all parents suck, you know, then I thought in my mind, well, actually that might be kind of good because then she can see that she doesn't have parents like that. And then she can, you know, appreciate us. [Laughs.]

. . .

What actually happens when she discusses the movie with her daughter unfolds both in the way she wanted and in a way she didn't expect. You can read the full This American Life transcript here, in segment three. Or have a listen (starting at 38:48):