From the Other Side

Two weeks into my maternity leave after having Luke, I was laid off from my job. Since I was a property manager living onsite, we were given 72 hours to vacate our home. My then husband was unemployed, and our savings were nil. It was truly one of the scariest times in my life.420776_110079595817575_861439767_n

I had a sixteen-month-old and a newborn baby and nowhere to go. Our parents helped us find an apartment in town. The youth group from a local church moved us in within hours. And even though it took about three months, I found a part-time job that would keep us afloat until I went back to school to eventually become a teacher.

91437800_1595259927299527_4447399636704952320_oI found this mug in the Walmart clearance section that Christmas. I sipped my coffee most mornings during that season in my life with tears streaming down my face and anxiety crippling my mind. It would be just six months later that I would make some big life-changing decisions and start on a new path that led me where I am today.

This mug reminds me that no matter how scary and impossible life feels sometimes, it is temporary. It reminds me that I am strong as hell and can rise above my present situation. It reminds me that there’s nothing like a woman with a made up mind. And that on the other side of what I’m going through is something beautiful and worth holding out for. I needed this reminder today. Maybe you do, too.

The Home Within Yourself

“My husband and I divorced six months ago. Shortly after the holidays last year, we ended our marriage. In many ways, I feel more relief than grief. Things had been falling apart for some time. And now that it’s all over, I am completely certain that we did the right thing.

Our separation and divorce were pretty nasty. Lots of accusations and mistrust. For my part, I have been able to shield our children – they are 6 and 9 years old – from most of the back and forth, but this has been a tough year for all of us.

Thanksgiving is coming up next week, and I am really messed up about it. I have never had a Thanksgiving or Christmas without my children before, and I worry that I won’t survive this separation. I know that sounds dramatic, but I don’t know how to do this.

I have family and close friends in town, but I am afraid that I’ll drag everyone down with my grief. I don’t want to fake-smile through the weekend. But I also don’t want to be alone. This is my conundrum. What the hell am I supposed to do?

I know you have done this before, so I am hoping you can give me some advice. How do I make it through this first holiday without my babies?

Thank you,

Lost”


Since I started telling the truth about my life, this is a question that finds its way to my inbox often. Figuring out how to do the holidays after divorce can be so scary and sad.

I first want to say a big “Congratulations!” to you. Making big life changes can be tough, and I think divorce is one of the most difficult things to do. It sounds like this was a healthy decision for you, and I applaud your courage.

You have done this hard thing, and now you will continue to do the next hard things with that much more kindness and tenderness and strength.

On this morning seven years ago, I woke up with a lump in my throat. I had dreaded this day for months. Within an hour, I would say goodbye to my boys as I dropped them off at before-school care just as the sun was waking up. And I wouldn’t see them again until the next Monday after school. All of those hours of family Thanksgiving memories – 123 hours, in fact – I would miss for the very first time. To say I was devastated would not be an overstatement.

On the way to school, the boys and I talked about keeping our Christmas tree up until at least January (it turned out to be February that year, and on purpose!), what presents we’d like to get our puppy and kitty cat. I kept my eyes forward and my grip tight on the steering wheel, channeling all of my focus on the drive so I didn’t have to think about how much my heart was breaking. At least not yet.

After saying our goodbyes and kissing their pink cheeks, I walked out of the school gymnasium toward our car, my body wracked with grief. Slamming the door shut in outrage at what my life had become, I did the only thing I knew to do that would release the pent up rage and fear and agony in me – I screamed “NO!” about a dozen times and sobbed. I beat the steering wheel, too. (That always helps until you accidentally hit the horn.)

The rest of that Thanksgiving holiday is a blur for me. I remember snippets here and there, but the one thing I know for sure is this: I survived it.

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Lost, I know what it feels like when the anticipation of this weekend and all it entails is sitting so heavy on your chest you’re afraid you’re going to stop breathing. When your throat aches from screeching out anguishing cries in a whisper so your children don’t hear. And I am here to tell you it’s moments like these that wear down our rock-hard, jagged edges and soften us into the tender, open-hearted people we are meant to become.

On really tough days like this, my friend Bess would text me with some truth bombs. We all need to be reminded of the truest things sometimes, so here are some for you.

You are strong enough to weather this.

No matter how much they hurt, feelings can’t kill.

Being alone is not necessarily a bad thing.

Your people love you and want to shoulder your pain. It’s okay to let them.

…..

My first piece of advice to you is this: feel your feelings.

It is easy to self-medicate with a million things to dull our pain. But it never works, Lost. I have tried nearly everything there is, and I’m here to tell you: it. never. works.

So sit in your grief. Let it seep into your bones. And then share it. With a trusted friend, with your therapist, with the pages of your private journal… Whatever makes sense for you, do it.

Because this taking in and sharing of grief has transformative powers, I believe. Like the caterpillar that hides away in its cocoon, quite literally consuming itself
so that it can come back together again to emerge a butterfly, we must first become undone in order to be made whole.

And then, we must learn how to look inside ourselves to find that safe place, home.

For human beings, I believe the active ingredient in this process is grief. So hold this grief, this gift, tightly to your chest and let it shape you as you share it with those who are standing with you in this season.

One of the biggest challenges for me in parenting after divorce was all of the open time I instantly had when my children were with their dad. It is still a challenge, honestly.

For so many years, mothering consumed my time, my thoughts, everything. Because, well, it had to. Those early years of parenting demand so much of us physically and emotionally.

And then, in a breath, I had 122 days every year without my children. 122 days. That’s a lot of days.

At first, I tried to fill this time with things like browsing the aisles at Target, lining up dates or lady dates so I wouldn’t have to eat a meal by myself, or traveling to visit friends and family out of state. But after a while, that grew so exhausting (and oftentimes financially irresponsible, quite honestly).

One weekend, I had too much month left at the end of my money and had no choice but to stay home. I was admittedly nervous about this predicament I’d found myself in, but it turned out to be one of the most life-giving and replenishing weekends I’d had in a long damn time.

That weekend was the start of me learning to find a home within myself.

On Friday night, I fell asleep to an Austin City Limits re-run streaming on my laptop. Saturday morning, I slept in. Made French press coffee and scrambled eggs in smooth butter for breakfast. Took a long walk with Polly at a park nearby. Finished Cheryl Strayed‘s moving book, Tiny, Beautiful Things and bawled my head off in the best way. Sunday brought church and lunch with my parents and lesson planning for my classes the following week.

I cared for myself the way I would care for my best friend who was going through a crisis and needed a weekend to just breathe and be. It was uneventful and quiet and soul-feeding.

Lost, on the days when you find yourself in an empty home with nothing to keep you busy, learn to care for yourself as if you were your own best friend. It will change your life.

…..

Since that first Thanksgiving without my sweeties, I have had three more like them. It does get easier, but the ache of missing my boys never leaves. I still get choked up when I have to say goodbye for a break. Thoughts of them are always running in the background of my mind, and that’s okay. Beautiful, even.

As you walk through this first Thanksgiving without your babies, I hope you find comfort in your grief, remembering that experiences like these can be catalysts for growth and change that otherwise might be impossible. And I hope you find a home within your beautiful heart, remembering that all the love and care you pour out on others is meant to be poured out on yourself, too.

Yours,

Ellie

To Hell and Back

In less than a month, Charlie and I will celebrate three years of marriage. It has been a beautiful unravelling and weaving for me, learning how to build a life with another person. Here’s a glimpse into what made me fall for him in the first place.

On our road trip to Philadelphia this summer, Chapman and I wore out some of our favorite albums. From Thomas Rhett and John Mayer to Maren Morris and everything in between, by the end of the six-day experience, we had a road trip soundtrack that was GOLD.

While driving through farmland and hillsides in Pennsylvania that week, a song came on that quite literally took my breath away and nearly forced me to pull the car over.

Smoke was coming off my jacket and you didn’t seem to mind. I left a long trail of ashes and you said, “I like your style.” Now, heartbreak ain’t a competition but I took it in a landslide. The skeletons I wanted to bury, you liked out in the light.

As the words faded in and soaked into my mind, gratefulness and grief simultaneously rushed over me. You see, when I met Charlie, I was coming out of a season of real heartbreak and loss. Because of choices I’d made – some not-so-wise and others best-decision-evers – much of what I’d known life to be as an adult was smoldering, and there were parts of me that felt as if they’d been burnt straight to the bone.

My heart was bruised and sore. But my Rescuer had pulled me out of the fire and I was fighting my way back to the kind of life I wanted to build for my kids and me. But life was really tough, y’all. I’m sure you’ve had times in your life like this, too. Those nights when you bawl yourself to sleep out of sheer exhaustion or loneliness or fear or a mix of all of the aforementioned and plus some. It’s heart-wrenching, right?

You didn’t save me, you didn’t think I needed saving. You didn’t change me, you didn’t think I needed changing. My wings are frayed and what’s left of my halo’s black. Lucky for me, your kind of heaven’s been to hell and back, to hell and back.

Sitting across the table from Charlie on our first date, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that he was deeply religious and came from a strong family, that he loved his kids and was devoted to important relationships in his life.

At least that’s what he told me.

I was ready to find the lies and run for the hills. So many people before had stretched the truth or failed to hold up their end of the relationship or ghosted me altogether, and I was ready to add his name to the list.

But that never happened.

Day after day, week after week, this handsome man kept showing up for me and serving me and just loving me. And I came to believe – after years of pain and doubting – that love like that really is out there for us.

Charlie saw me – and still sees me – as a whole person. He embraced – and still embraces – those parts of me that I don’t want anyone to see.

I don’t have to hide myself from him. I don’t have to worry if my past or my brokenness is too much for him. When my demons come calling, because they do and probably always will, he really doesn’t bat an eye. He stands with me in that fight and reminds me of things that are true.

The safety and acceptance and home that I’ve found in Charlie is something I’d never thought I’d find. And even though life is still tough in many ways, I’m so thankful that I get to walk side by side through it all with this man.

Lucky for me, his kind of heaven has been to hell and back.

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Photo courtesy Erin Alaine Photography

Modeling Failure for Our Kids

 

Your kids know you’re not perfect. Use this as a tool in your parenting toolbox to your advantage.

Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

Brené Brown

As a parent, I often find myself trying to present the best version of myself to my children. I want them to see me as a strong, confident, empowered woman. I want them to learn from me how to do the right things and how to avoid the wrong things.

But as life unfolds, it doesn’t really work out that way, does it? While I might want to model the right things for my children, there are going to be lots of times that I make mistakes and show them in my words and actions things I hope they will never replicate.

We are all flawed, broken human beings. The idea that I am not going to sin against my children, that I am not going to wound or disappoint them is a lie.

I’m going to have failures in life. So how can I use those mistakes to help my children grow?

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Admit Mistakes

Verbally acknowledging our mistakes helps our kids see that we are human just like them.

One of the ways that we can use our own failure to teach our children is by simply owning it. Verbally acknowledging our mistakes helps our kids see that we are human just like them. It also empowers us to have healthy, open lines of communication with our children.

By talking through a mistake I made with my children, I’m helping them see that admitting wrong is not weakness but is instead a very healthy way to live. Admitting mistakes also equips our children with the tools they need to admit their mistakes to us and others as they go about their lives.

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Discuss Solutions

Many times in my life as a child, I knew that I had failed at something and I honestly didn’t know what to do with that. It hurts to not get something right, especially if you’re at all prone to perfectionism like me. Instead of developing a healthy language for talking about failure and mistakes, I simply tried to medicate those negative, messy feelings. Ultimately, this devolved into serious self-loathing and unhealthy coping skills.

Navigating failure with our kids shows them that living a life of grit and determination is worth it.

When we discuss our failures with our kids and let them in on the conversation, we’re modeling for them what it looks like to figure something out and try again. We’re showing them that grit and determination is worth it. We’re using our frustration and struggle to help our children see that making mistakes is simply a part of life. And we’re giving them tools for how to self-reflect and grow from their failures.

Doing this equips our children with the confidence they will need to embrace failures in their life and allow those experiences to mold and shape them into stronger, more self-sufficient people. It helps them see that there is a way out of the situation and that it’s okay – healthy, even – for one to admit that they don’t always have the answers.

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We as parents need to make ourselves vulnerable to our children and open our hearts up to let them see what goes on inside a person when they work through failure in an appropriate way. As we continually do this, we will build bonds with our children and help them develop important skills they will take with them into adulthood so that they in turn can also live a life characterized by openness and care for the people around them.

It’s not easy, I know. But like most good things, I’ve found it to be worth the work.

Parenting and the Political Divide

Parenting through tough topics ain’t for the faint of heart. And partisan politics is no exception. But shying away from this uncomfortable issue hurts our kids and leaves them ill-equipped to navigate their world in a meaningful way.

Over the past couple of years, I have found myself drowning in frustration and sorrow at the political climate in our nation. Raising kids in a culture that looks to “other” groups of people for differing beliefs and use emotional manipulation in an effort to pull a person from one side to the other is exhausting.

I don’t want my children to grow into partisan men who elevate their political allegiances above loving and serving their neighbors.

I don’t want my children to grow into partisan men who elevate their political allegiances above loving and serving their neighbors. I don’t want my sons to equate their political beliefs with their religious beliefs. I don’t want my sons to demonize others because their political stances don’t perfectly align.

I want my sons to be known for their lovingkindness, for their servant hearts, for their ability to see needs in others and meet them where they are. Yes, I want my children to be grounded in truth, but I also want them to live as Jesus did, looking for those who are most in need of empathy and grace.

If I want these things for my kids, then it’s my job to do what I can while they’re in my nest to build those values into their lives. That’s a pretty tall order, but it’s not impossible.

Here are a couple ways you can help your children steer clear of the partisan path and empower them to love others – all others – well.

Model Empathy

One way to help our children fight against societal norms of stereotyping and negatively labeling others based on their actions or beliefs is by teaching them how to empathize. If our kids can place themselves in someone else’s shoes and picture life from a different perspective, they will be that much more open-hearted and accepting of people who are seemingly different from them.

One way to help our children fight against stereotyping and negatively labeling others is by teaching them how to empathize.

In my teacher training, I learned that if I want my students to do something well, I need to walk them through the process of how to get there. That starts with modeling my thinking out loud for my students before I even give them the task they are to complete.

The same process works with our kids. As I am living a life of empathy for people around me, I walk my kids through what that looks like. The conversation might go something like this:

Boys, I had an interesting experience today. One of my friends snapped at me when I asked her a question about her plans for this weekend. It caught me by surprise because she’s usually not like that. At first, I was hurt. And then I was angry. But before I responded to her, I tried to think about what she might be going through that could make her react that way to me. And then I remembered her husband has been sick all week. I figured she was probably pretty stressed out and not upset with me at all. So instead of responding back with a bad attitude, I asked her if everything was okay and let her know I was there for her if she needed anything. 

Even though my kids weren’t present when my friend lost her cool, they can still benefit from that experience. All it takes is me being vulnerable and bringing them in to see the situation up close. Letting our kids in on how we handle situations like the one I had with my friend empowers them to take a deeper look in their relationships when conflict or differences arise. It gives them tools to use in order to be more empathetic people. And it helps them prepare for when someone might respond inappropriately to them, too.

PROTIP: Watch how you criticize others around your children. If you speak critically of other people, then your kids will pick up on that and it will become a part of their behavior as well. I can’t ask my children to be empathetic and look for the good in others while also making negative comments about people’s appearances or judging them for their choices. Your words matter.

Talk About the Tough Stuff

A couple of years ago, Luke said, “Mama, what’s abortion?” as he was getting into the car after school. His question took me by surprise, and I must admit I hemmed and hawed for a minute. I didn’t know what to say.

How do I discuss this topic with my nine-year-old? How do I do so without my emotions and feelings about abortion dictating how we communicate with each other?

I could have shut the conversation down by telling him that it’s something he shouldn’t worry about until he’s older (my natural response). But that would have been avoiding. And we work hard at not running from tough stuff in our family.

So I took a deep breath and carefully waded into the water, so to speak. For the next thirty minutes, we spoke thoughtfully about what abortion was, why some women choose abortion, and how different groups of people feel about the issue. We talked about the struggle women face when they find themselves with an unplanned pregnancy. We discussed how Jesus might view a woman in that situation and how he might treat a woman who has had an abortion. It was a gut-wrenching, beautiful, tear-filled discussion.

If we avoid tough topics with our children, we are doing them a disservice.

If we avoid topics like these with our children, we are doing them a disservice because they will be left to find someone else to answer their questions. By keeping lines of communication open about difficult issues, we are helping our children find a safe place in us as their parents. We are giving them space to wrestle with difficult things and taking opportunities to guide them in their thinking. This is powerful!

I want my sons to be critical thinkers, to soak in the world around them and, based on their love for God and their understanding of who He is, make decisions about their lives. All of that starts with educating our children with age-appropriate language about things that happen in life. Shying away from tough stuff won’t make any of it go away. But it will stifle your child’s perspective of the world and will rob you of opportunities to help them find their way into adulthood.

Check Your Own Biases

If you think you don’t have bias, you’re wrong. Each of us has implicit attitudes towards people in society that affect how we view and treat people around us. According to this article, these biases cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on a person’s ethnicity, race, appearance, or age. We develop these pervasive perspectives over time starting from a very early age.

Making judgments about someone’s value as a person based on how they look or what race they are inadvertently teaches our children to do the same.

Not seeing or understanding our hidden bias is dangerous, because these attitudes can lead us to act in discriminatory ways. Making judgments about someone’s value as a person based on how they look or what race they are or what political beliefs they have inadvertently teaches our children to do the same.

You cannot help your child love and serve all people around them if you are teaching them to see groups of people favorably or unfavorably based on your own bias.

Growing our children into empathetic, critical thinkers is not an easy task. It requires effort that many parents aren’t willing to invest. But I can promise you from my own experience over the past ten years that the work is worth it.

My sons are now 11 and 12 years old, and perfect strangers tell me on a regular basis how caring and thoughtful they are. I have watched them stand up for others who were being mistreated. I have seen them seek out the marginalized. I have heard them call friends out for speaking disrespectfully about someone who was not in their close friend group.

And as they grow into men, I see them walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Loving those cast out in society, seeking the lost and broken, giving of themselves to meet the needs of others, embracing people who live or believe differently than they do. What a gift my sons are and will continue to be to this world. I hope your child is right by their side doing the same holy work.