Pandemic Survival Guide: Throw All the Advice in the Garbage

Sometimes I feel like my life’s work can be boiled down to two messages: “you are incredibly loved” and “you’re allowed to feel your feelings.” Admittedly those aren’t very original messages, but that’s usually what’s on my heart. So, here goes for today.

Mamas practicing quarantine and social distancing, listen unto me: This time with our children is a gift and you are allowed to use it as you see fit.

If you want to focus on academics and stretch those homeschooling muscles, you’re allowed!

If you want to snuggle on the couch and watch 8,000 movies a day, you’re allowed!

If you want to tackle all the project ideas you’ve ever pinned on your Pinterest board and learn to make homemade bread and read all the read alouds and journal all the nature journals and perfect all the math skills, you’re allowed!

If you want to park the kids in front of the computer and let the kind souls of the internet entertain and educate them while you eat chocolate chips in the pantry, you’re allowed!

If you want to try elaborate baking projects and let the kids help, you’re allowed!

If you want to throw a family sized bag of Lucky Charms out in the middle of the floor like you’re feeding chickens, you’re allowed! (Let’s be honest, it’ll all end up on the floor anyway.)

If you want to construct elaborate mazes and obstacle courses through your house, you’re allowed!

Repeat after me: There is no right way to parent in a quarantine.

People are doing such good things for our kids in all this. Zoos, museums, children’s book authors, celebrities are all pitching in to help entertain us while we’re stuck at home. What a gift! Teachers, neighbors, friends, and internet celebrities are furiously sharing actual tons of phenomenal resources and information to help our kids learn and be engaged while coronavirus does its thing.

But what I fear might be happening is that you moms are hearing a subtle message in this flurry of sharing. I have a sneaking suspicion that in the midst of the links and the videos and the educational games, you’re hearing a voice that whispers in your ear, “You’re not good enough if your kids aren’t doing fill in the blank.” I worry that you’re feeling pressured to achieve certain standards, to make the “most” of this time at home whether that consists of drilling them on multiplication tables or making perfect memories. I suspect that you might be feeling “less than” because you’re not doing all of the things.

If that’s how you’re feeling, you just drop that right now. Put it down and don’t pick it back up. Mama, if you’re making sure your kids know they’re loved, you’re doing enough. This is just like when you brought them home from the hospital and everybody and their grandma had an opinion on every move you made as a new parent. Friend, everyone has opinions on how to best navigate this unprecedented time at home, but no one knows your family like you do.

I wouldn’t call myself a Pinterest mom, per se, but I do love an elaborate theme party, and face paint on a Tuesday, and creative cooking, and science experiments. I’ve toyed with homeschooling. I’ve been reprimanded by my husband for using glitter in the kitchen…on multiple occasions. I used to lead a popular family story time at a public library. I’m also a former Disney cast member. Entertaining kids is kinda my jam. But even I am a bit overwhelmed with the amount of resources streaming in from various sources. Not gonna lie, the internet is making me feel a little pressured to make everything a Magical Moment (registered trademark) and I’m not sure I have that in me right now. As a side note I think it’s important to consider the mental and emotional toll social distancing is taking on us. Sometimes you can’t stay sane and do all of the internet story times even if it is Mo Willems performing them.

There’s no way to do it all. There’s no expectation for this or for you. If you are a “Pinterest mom” or you’re the opposite, you are enough just as you are. And for your children, you just being you is more than enough. We’re not getting a grade for how much we accomplished during the quarantine. As Teddy Roosevelt so famously said, comparison is the thief of surviving global pandemic and quarantine.

The only way to win or lose at this goes as follows.

You will be losing if:

  • …you spend the entire time ignoring your children with your face stuck in a phone obsessing over news you can’t control.
  • ..you spend the entire time ignoring yourself and your own emotional/mental needs. We gotta self-care the heck out of this, friends.
  • …you kill yourself and make everyone miserable trying to be something you’re not.
  • …you let fear control you.

You will be winning if:

  • …you find some sort of balance. As Olaf says, “all good things, all good things.” All these resources and websites and projects are great, but even with all the time in the world there’s not enough time to do it all.
  • …you make certain every single day that your children know how precious they are to you.
  • …you look in their faces and listen to them when they speak.
  • …you cut yourself some slack and give everyone some grace. Sometimes grace looks like extra screen time that isn’t remotely educational and sometimes it’s taking the time to say a family rosary together.
  • …you prioritize prayer and quiet. For everyone.

At the end of the day, you are the exact mama your babies need. Dig in and love, love, love them whatever that looks like for your particular situation. No one can do it all, but you can do small things with great love.

And for the record, yesterday we had a dance party with balloons. As usual it ended in fisticuffs and tears. However, no blood was shed so we’re calling it a win.

Peace and perseverance in all things,

Mary Susan

True Connection: Hiddenness, Solitude, Truth and You

In a world that predisposes us to yearn for social connection, hidden seems horrible. We’re surrounded by promptings to share our lives, compulsions to photograph our food, document our days. Pinging phones remind us that people are waiting, posting, moving, doing and if we don’t check in, we’re missing out. 

Now obviously there is so much merit to the community found on social media. Now more than ever, the ability to socialize via the internet can 100% be a lifeline for those weathering tough seasons of life. We’re in a unique time when many of us are literally unable to socialize in any way other than social media. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. These are all the connecting threads binding us together in a bizarre time when we need each other. And that’s good. What a gift it is to communicate and connect.

But the other side of this connection is the compulsion to share, to be relevant, to create content. We’ve seen it before when tumultuous headlines light up our Facebook feeds: there’s also the compulsion to panic, vent, share our unfiltered opinion, comment on every post that irks us. I can only speak for myself, but I have frequently felt the urge to chime in with something in order to feel…important, valuable, noticed, preferred, validated. I want to be noticed and social media is my stage. If I get enough comments, enough validation through likes, then I’m not hidden.

But, y’all, hidden doesn’t mean forgotten. Read that again: Hidden does not mean forgotten. Hidden doesn’t mean unloved or unloveable. Hidden doesn’t mean irrelevant or unimportant.

We have been drawn into a time of hiddenness against our will. None of us has chosen this pandemic, none of us desired this time of separation. This is hard and it’s scary and it’s lonely to be hidden away like this, to suffer in this strange way.

I’ve written before that the Lord has spent the last year and a half or so leading me into solitude and silence. It has taken (and still takes) extreme focus and discipline for me to settle down into silent prayer, to be still when I’m with the Lord in Adoration, or to quiet my thoughts just to be with Him.

Henri Nouwen said the following and I think it’s so beautiful and true:

Every time we enter into solitude we withdraw from our windy, earthquaking, fiery lives and open ourselves to the great encounter. The first thing we often discover in solitude is our own restlessness, our drivenness, and compulsiveness, our urge to act quickly, to make an impact, and to have influence; and often we find it very hard to withstand the temptation to return as quickly as possible to the world of “relevance.” But when we persevere with the help of a gentle discipline, we slowly come to hear the still, small voice and to feel the gentle breeze, and so come to know the Lord of our heart, soul, and mind, the Lord who makes us see who we really are.

Henri Nouwen

We Americans are really terrible at slowing down. We value productivity, measurable achievements, checked off to-do lists, profits. We have bought into the lie that we’re only worth as much as we produce whether that be in the currency of dollars or follows. We have to make, do, create, impact, influence in certain ways in order to be “worthy.” For us to be forced to stop, for us to be isolated, unable to do is unthinkable. Our society has enslaved itself so intimately to this lie that we literally have people licking airplane toilet seats during a pandemic in order to be noticed. How deep must our addiction for notoriety and attention be if we are willing to prostitute ourselves to these ideals so easily.

Y’all, I call bullshit. I’ve spent the last year and a half learning over and over and over again that it isn’t what I produce that makes me valuable. My identity as created human being, Beloved of the Father is what makes me valuable. Period. This is such a difficult lesson to learn and I’ll keep learning it until the day I die. The lies are loud, but the Truth is deep: I will be just as valuable if no one comments on this blog post as I’ll be if it gets shared across the entirety of the internet. I will be just as valuable if I impact people with my words as I’ll be if I’m ignored.

This deep desire for acceptance, validation, recognition is what spurred me to give up social media for Lent. If I’m honest with you, every time I publish a post, I stalk it. I check back minute by minute (not exaggerating) to see if anyone liked it or commented. Because if you like my writing then you like me. If I get lots of attention from a post, then I get a dopamine hit and I feel worthy. Perhaps I’m less dramatic than the girl licking toilet seats, but I’m just as much as slave to the lie as she is.

Now is a time when we’ve all been put in an uncomfortable place and we get to choose how we respond. Will we fight and rail and scroll, scroll, scroll, starving for connection that won’t truly satisfy? Or will we use social media as a tool for connection, mindfully utilizing it to feed our hearts and minds with content that leads us closer to Truth? Will we use this time to connect with the people who have been gifted to us: our partners, parents, children, roommates, friends? If we’re alone, will we call and check in rather than letting Twitter updates do our talking for us? Regardless of our station, will we take time to do the hard work of silence and solitude, allowing it to transform us?

Solitude is hard, uncomfortable, and pushes us to a place where we’d rather not be. It’s up to us to decide if we will put ourselves at the service of the problem. My prayer for us all is that we would suffer well, that our interactions, whether online or via some other medium, would be truly connecting in meaningful and helpful ways. My prayer is that we would not be slaves to the internet, but rather let our solitude transform us and, after connection to Christ through this time set apart, that social media might serve us and be the medium through which we communicate the Belovedness of others.

Hidden is not forgotten. He will not leave us orphan. Christ is present, He is moving, He is real, and He adores you. Go be a light and walk in the truth that you are incredibly, indescribably loved just as you are, no matter where you are.

Peace and perseverance in all things,

Mary Susan

Note: Take a listen to the Abiding Together podcast to hear more about this idea of hiddenness and our identity as Beloved. They’re discussing Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen for Lent and there is so much good truth being shared there.

Corona Virus Got You Down? The Antidote to Fear is Faith

I gave up social media for Lent, so naturally my defense mechanism has been to compulsively check the news every five seconds. I’m working on it. The headlines are just saturated with Super Tuesday and ugly politics, but the biggest story of all is corona virus. I cannot escape it. The dread, the worry, the state by state analysis of its spread, the death toll, the potential vaccines, the worry, the worry, the fear, the panic.

It has been fascinating to watch it all unfold, fascinating to experience it playing out in my own heart. I’ve tried to check my emotions because I know that the media is fueled by clicks and site visits and there’s money to be made by inciting panic. And yet. Every now and then I find myself gripped by a fear that I can’t shake, my mind walking down the road of what if’s and could be’s. As I watch the internet reinvent headlines over and over, as I listen to people talk about it on the radio and see the numbers on face mask sales soar, I see an entire world that has been shaken to its core by something that has been here all along.

It’s our mortality and we don’t like it one bit.

Corona virus is new and scientifically impressive because of its characteristics as a disease, but perhaps more so because of how it sheds a light on our privilege. Most modern day humans living in the developed world have no concept of the imminence of our mortality. Even a hundred years ago, people grappled with death on a more daily basis than we do in the year 2020. 

Even as I type this, I find that last admission laughable. While we’ve got the benefit of modern medicine, disease control, better living conditions, etc, we’ve also got a whole slew of things out there that our ancestors didn’t grapple with. Lock down drills, active shooter warnings, chemicals in our food/water, and global warming are all things that our distant relatives probably never worried about. Sure, we’re not necessarily worried that our children will die due to scarlet fever and our dinner (usually) isn’t dependent upon what we grow or catch, but the fact remains that death is a part of life, like it or not. Always has been, always will be. 

The difference between us and our ancestors is distraction. We fill our minds and our schedules with invincibility, controlling and scheduling every moment of our days. If we’re allowed any free time at all, we fill it with scrolling or gaming or texting, anything to keep us from sitting alone with our thoughts. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, sitting in silence sucks. It’s uncomfortable to be confronted with ourselves. Our humanity, sinfulness, regrets, and discontent are difficult and its so delightfully easy to avoid them. Our mortality even more so. 

However, distracting ourselves doesn’t change the fact that some day we will die. No amount of internet research or hand washing will ever make our mortality go away. We can’t control it, or anticipate it, or make it fit into our vision of how we want things to go, so we ignore it. 

The trouble with that is that by ignoring and trying to control, we attempt to make ourselves into God and we all know that will never end well. I’m not saying that we need to live in fear, constantly looking over our shoulder for the Reaper ready to mow us down. What I am saying is that we need to befriend death. We need to remember that we have each been created by a loving God whose deepest desire is to know us and to draw us into His heart. All of life is an opportunity to grow away from the worldly things that tie us down, our selfishness, pride, greed, power, all the things that separate us from that love and to move forward toward Him. It is only through death that we can move on to the next stage of knowing and loving God. 

I know this is easier said than done. I am as desperate to live a long and happy life as the next guy. Stepping out into the unknown requires vulnerability and trust, both of which are incredibly scary. But when we get caught up in the fear, when the loss of control taunts us, I think it’s important to remember what’s true. I ask my kids this set of questions all the time when I see that the enemy is speaking lies to them or I see them struggling with fear: Who are you? Who made you? How did He make you? He made you good and He made you for good things. Christ conquered sin and death and if we make of our lives a daily offering to Him, constantly offering up all that we have, all that we’ve been given as gift to the Father, then death has no sting.

I realize that this is too simple an answer for some. It is for me some days. Living life to the fullest doesn’t erase the fear of death or the unknown. However, I do think that there’s merit in looking our mortality in the face. It gives us the opportunity to ask hard questions of ourselves. Why am I so afraid to die? What is it that I am afraid to lose? Who or what am I holding onto? Am I willing to give those things to God? What unhealthy affections am I more loyal to than to Christ? What sacrifice is it that death would require of me?

These aren’t fun questions to ask ourselves. They aren’t enjoyable dinner conversation starters. However, if we truly seek to serve God, if we truly desire to be held in the arms of our Savior, to give our lives to His provision, these are questions that must be asked.

For me, the thing that I’m most afraid to lose is my children. The thought that a disease could come along, sweep them away, and there would be nothing I could do to stop it is a horrifying realization. But what I have to remind myself if that they’re not my children. They’re God’s. They are eternal souls given left to my care. If I am frightened by my mortality and theirs, then I need to be making sure that I am doing my very best to honor their eternal souls, to teach them love, and to bring them as close to Christ Jesus as I possibly can.

And that’s what fear can do. It can either paralyze us or give us purpose. Pope Benedict XVI famously said that we are not made for comfort, we are made for greatness. Greatness requires sacrifice and self-awareness. Any suffering that life could possibly throw at us can either isolate and ruin us, or be a channel through which we encounter the Lord. 

We’re not in control, but we do have a choice. At the end of the day, we have no say in who contracts a highly contagious disease and who doesn’t, but we have a choice in how we respond. While there’s certainly no good time for a global pandemic, Lent does happen to be a particularly good time to contemplate our mortality. We live in the shadow of death, it’s true, but what that means is that we live in the reality that each moment is a gift. Each moment is a grace and we get to choose whether we live our moments in fear, or make the conscious decision to live our lives running to the Father in thanksgiving. And when we struggle with the trust, struggle with having enough faith, I think it is enough to pray, “Lord, help my unbelief,” and to step out in faith anyway.