The Sophomore Slump

The Sophomore Slump

The sophomore slump.

 

I came up with that term after working for several years with university students. Most of the students I interacted with had a fantastic freshman year, full of intense growth and exciting experiences. Although they began their sophomore year with anticipation, most became discontent, disillusioned, and critical. Of course, there were always exceptions, but the trend was so great and so terrible that it deserved a name.

 

This summer closed the books on our second year of living overseas as a family. In the late winter, I had encountered my first personal sophomore slump. Just as I had never identified exactly what triggered university students to slip into it, I have yet to completely rationalize why and how my despondency came.

 

I have no doubt that this is a common experience among people living abroad, and whether it comes in their first, second, or tenth years makes little difference. Even some of you who don’t live overseas may have experienced or may be experiencing a deep downturn. For that reason, I’ll write a bit about what the slump looked like for me.

 

Crying. Lots of tears. For three months, from January through March, I cried every single time I went on a date with my husband. Once a week for three months. Can you imagine? My poor husband. We would be at a restaurant when I would break down, and because staring is accepted as normal in this culture, people would start looking. And because it’s rude to blow your nose in this culture, I would dab at my nose with dozens of tissues, while all of the people would stare even more at this strange foreign lady who had tears streaming down her face.

 

In addition to the tears, I became withdrawn, critical, negative, and decidedly lacking in joy. Even things that would become the greatest blessings to me in the spring began for me with no emotion. A friend had asked me about the beginning of something new, “Are you excited about this starting this week?” I shot back a quick reply. “No. I’m not excited about anything. But it will be good.”

 

What I can say for certain about those three months is that I felt as if I were drowning in purposelessness. And comparison wasn’t helping me feel any better. I knew coming in that I would have six months of resting and waiting to see what it was that I was supposed to be doing in this place while my husband was working. But after a year and a half of learning humility and patience, I was done. I found it incredibly stretching and difficult to have such a wide background in public speaking, administration and event planning, advising and supervising, leading and facilitating, and to now be known solely as the mother of three children. I wanted to be happy and thankful for the gift of time to work at home with my kids. While I had always viewed being a wife and mother as one of the highest callings, I couldn’t suppress the sense that there was something additional that I was made for and wanted to do. But I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t want to add more activities to my life just to fill the void.

 

At the same time, I felt alone. We were contemplating a change of schools for the kids along with a potential change of homes, the house we lived in had problems that I needed to somehow address with our landlord by using my broken Mandarin, one child developed itchy eyes due to an unknown allergic reaction, and another child began wrestling with questions of what is real. At the time, all of these things were under my jurisdiction. All together, they overwhelmed me.

 

In the midst of that season, I had thoughts about my life that a person doesn’t dare to speak aloud. All I can say is that I am so thankful that I’ve been trained to reject those lies immediately and to replace them with truth.

 

Having come out on the other side of those months, I’m amazed at the grace I received in the midst of it. I learned some things that seem now like no-brainers, such as the fact that I have a husband who is wise and can help me with some things! A group of extraordinary women from several countries unknowingly influenced our decision to keep our kids in the same school, and that decision was confirmed quickly after we made it. I saw clearly some of the darkness in my own soul that affected my marriage, and I kicked it out. My children have grown in relational and emotional development, and I’ve savored the deep conversations that we’ve shared together.

 

I recently read a Psychology Junkie article from August 2, 2015 entitled How Each Myers-Briggs Type Reacts to Stress (And How to Help). While personality and temperament indictors do not dictate how a person lives, they can be helpful in understanding more about yourself and why you respond in the way you do. For me, this article stated what I experienced but would not have been able to put into words.

 

Here are some of the things, according to the article, that stress my personality type.

 

“Having to focus too much on sensory/concrete details” – check. Think laundry, housecleaning, cooking, and all of the tasks that consume a mother’s time.

 

“An overload of sensory stimulation or noise” – check. Think renovations next door that sound like a jackhammer in your living room from 9am to 6pm, and when going out to get some relief from that, there are always the 24 million people who call this city home.

 

“Interruptions” – check. What can I say? I’m a mom.

 

“Not enough alone time. Too much extraverting” – check. People in my house, people outside of my house, people everywhere.

 

“Lack of appreciation or understanding” – check. It’s getting better actually, but there’s not much affirmation by little ones for all the tiny things you accomplish for them each day.

 

“Unfamiliar environments with overwhelming amounts of details” – check. Moving to a new country will do it.

 

“Not having a clear direction” – check. I’m still waiting…

 

“Not being able to use their intuition or envision the future” – check.

 

“Having to focus too much on the present” – check.

 

Having a basic understanding of these stressors will hopefully enable me to take better care of myself in the future. I can find a place of quiet, I have a plan for alone time thanks to my husband, and I can let housework go sometimes so I can have space to dream.

 

The most important thing is that I know Someone who gives hope instead of despair and joy instead of mourning. And that Someone has not abandoned me.

 

I’m quite happy to say good-bye to year two because I’m planning to take into year three the things that I loved: my friends, my good conversations, my stronger marriage, my commitment to raising my children, and my joy.

 

And junior year is always better.

 

So long, sophomore slump.

The Humility of Motherhood

The Humility of Motherhood

Four days after I gave birth to my first baby, I thought, “What did I get myself into?!” I simply wanted to eat when I was hungry, take a shower when I was dirty, and sleep when I was tired. But even that was a luxury in those early days and nights of three-hour feeding cycles. I prayed, “God, I really didn’t want to learn how to become unselfish…”

The second and third babies weren’t such a shock. I knew what to expect, and by then, I knew that I would come out of that phase to see daylight on the other side. I knew that five hours of sleep in a row makes a person feel like a normal human again.

The newborn stage thrust me into the graduate school of servanthood: learning to lay down my rights for the sake of someone else’s success. But now my youngest has just flipped over the three-year-old mark, and we have hit the preschool and elementary school stage.

I would love to say that I’m a rockstar mom, but my children know the truth. Most days we get along alright, but sometimes after interacting with my kids, I walk away with the sense that I totally said or did something wrong toward them.

Today, I took one of my children to the doctor for this child’s eyes have been stinging for over a week. It’s definitely not pinkeye, but it’s something strange that the doctor called “very unusual.” The doctor quickly added to try to stop said child from rubbing the eyes. Right. So at bedtime, I tried to say something that would motivate this one to keep the hands away from the eyes. I said goodnight, went upstairs to get ready for bed, and was immediately convicted that my “motivational” speech was fear-based, untrue, and hurtful.

Sometimes, exiting their bedroom, after tucking the kids into bed, is a miraculous feat. I really didn’t want to go back in for fear that I would never get back out. But I did. I laid down beside my child, and I said, “I’m so sorry for what I told you earlier. It was wrong for me to say that to you.” And I went on to explain the truth of the situation, and then the truth of who that child is and always will be: loved.

And I realized tonight that I’m in a new graduate course, the humility of motherhood. I could pretend in front of my kids that I always get things right, but they would know it’s a sham. So I want to be honest before them. I want to lay down my pride, admit when I’m wrong, and ask for forgiveness. I want to be sensitive and quickly responsive in those moments so that there is little time for bitterness or for walls to be built between us.

Each of us mothers (and fathers) have so much influence and authority over our children. What stops us from coming clean with our kids? Sometimes we are too arrogant because the truth is that we know more about almost everything than our children do. Sometimes we are too fearful that our children will despise us if we admit that we are imperfect. But our small children observe and internalize much more than they can consciously interpret or verbalize. The way that we respond to our own wrongdoings, whether ignoring our faults or dealing with our faults, will be noted and copied.

May each of us be filled with the courage to quickly and frequently humble ourselves in front of our children and ask them to forgive us when we have truly done something wrong. And may that example set the foundation for them to also have the courage to right their wrongs toward others.

One day, after my daughter stormed upstairs and cried about an argument we had, I went up and apologized first. I stated what I had done wrong, and I asked her to forgive me. She reciprocated, and we shared a good bonding experience together. She looked in my eyes and said, “I love it when we say sorry to each other. It feels so much better.” And I agree.

Head Wounds and Heart Wholeness: Receiving Love in the Midst of Chaos

Head Wounds and Heart Wholeness: Receiving Love in the Midst of Chaos

Have you ever had a day that is all planned out, and then something crazy happens? Yeah, me neither [dripping sarcasm].

This particular day began in the same way as most, except that my husband left that morning for a two-night business trip. We walked to the subway together, and we took trains heading in opposite directions: he on one train, and the two little ones and I on the other.

We walked through the park where the older folks practiced tai chi and the younger ones lined up to buy some aromatic breakfast fare. We turned around and went back to use the squatty potty in the park because one of the kids announced a need to pee and I told said child that they were getting too old to pee in bushes in the city. We counted all the water fountains we passed in the next two blocks and arrived a bit early to what I call “my moms’ group”.

I belong to this amazing group of moms who meet together as part of the International Church of Shanghai (ICS). I mentioned the group here. On this morning, the time with those ladies was so good and so sweet. Afterward, we decided to have some lunch delivered so we could avoid taking all of our children and babies out into the rain.

I was standing across the room when I heard a piercing scream. I glanced over to see my son kneeling on the floor with his head in his hands, and I immediately thought, “We might be going to the hospital.” He had run across the room and tripped just in time to bash his head on the metal-covered edge of a step.

I ran over, phone in hand, to pry his hands away and see a bloody gash on his forehead. Of course, any kind of head wound, even a tiny one, gushes disproportionate amounts of blood. But this one was dripping on his crocs, running through his fingers into his eyes, and splattering on my phone. The cut was too wide to heal without doctor intervention. I pulled him over to where I could grab some paper towels, and by now, all of the moms had realized the gory situation and were offering wet wipes, bandages, and suggestions on hospitals.

As I kneeled in front of my son, mopping up blood, I kept thinking of all the distinct issues of having this situation in China. In our home country, we would jump into our privately owned car and drive to the emergency room… five minutes away from our house. We don’t have that luxury here. Although I have my license to drive in China, we don’t even rent a car, much less own one. And sure, his older sister had to get staples in her head in China last spring, but at that time, my husband was home and could take her on his scooter while I stayed with the other two children.

As I consciously told myself, “You need to stay calm so that your son can be calm,” I verbally told him, “We will go to the doctor. It’s okay, no problem.” Simultaneously, I filtered through the options. Obviously, we wouldn’t have time to buy a winter coat for him in the afternoon. He might get upset about that. How will we eat lunch? I guess I will figure that out later. What about picking his sister up from school for gymnastics? Maybe I could have her ride home on the bus. And what about right now? Do we go out and get a taxi? It would be difficult to find one in the rain. Do we get an Uber? That’s the best bet, but probably no Uber driver would want blood on the seat of his car. Do we go to the clinic where I usually take the kids? I’m not sure if they have supplies for emergency stitches, but it is near my daughter’s school and we could pick her up right away after our emergency visit. Do we go straight to the larger hospital? Probably, but I don’t know the address or even the Mandarin name of that one.

But within five minutes, it was settled. One of the moms offered her van and driver to take us, another mom insisted that I leave my younger daughter with her, and the consensus was the larger hospital, where (thank God!) the driver knew the location and the exact roads to get take. Also by the end of that five minutes, my son had a bandage applied his forehead and a yogurt in hand to calm him down.

We had a peaceful, but seemingly forever long, ride to the hospital. When we arrived, I saw two different buildings that had emergency signs on them. I thought they belonged to the same hospital, and the writing was in English for both, so I chose the building with the big red sign and a smaller “pediatrics” sign as well.

I walked in and told the triage nurses that he needed stitches. One immediately said, “You can take him to the children’s hospital.” She named two crossroads that I had never heard of, and I thought, “I don’t even know how long it will take to get there.” She finally wrote the address for me in Chinese characters and began to say that I could take a taxi or bus number… I interrupted her and left, so frustrated. I messaged my friend to ask her driver to pick us up and take us to the other place, when she said, “Wait. Did you go to the local hospital?” Oh. Probably.

We walked into the second building, and from then on, it was pretty standard. My son got tape and some super glue, was super brave, and only cried when the glue stung his wound. The doctor and nurse kept asking me if he had passed out or vomited and then went on to explain that I should watch for whether he had a concussion.

And here’s the free advice interlude for those of you living in a situation similar to mine. Either carry your passport or a copy of your passport and visa at all times. I was asked for my son’s passport at the hospital and was so grateful that I had tucked a copy into my purse. You just never know when you will need it and won’t have time to go home to get it. Also, keep the hospital business card in your wallet with your insurance cards so that you can show it to a taxi driver and don’t have to take time to look up on the address on your phone.

We took my friend’s van back to where we had started, picked up my little one who had already been given lunch, got a ride home in the same van, called the school to have my daughter go home on the bus, and postponed gymnastics. I made my grandma’s homemade pudding and ordered burgers and fries for supper. It seemed like the right kind of day for comfort food.

When we arrived home, I had time and space to reflect on the previous three hours. And I wept. Sometimes there is so much stress that comes with living in a culture that is not completely familiar, and sometimes there is so much opportunity to receive love that comes with being in a culture that is not completely familiar. I cried from stress and I cried from thankfulness.

I’m thankful for three gifts that made my heart whole in the midst of the chaos. Maybe you can relate to these if you know life overseas or if you’ve found yourself an uncontrollable situation.

I’m thankful for the ways that my childhood prepared me for living here. We often lived or traveled in places that would require a lengthy drive time to a hospital. I also had the experiences of caring for one of my siblings when her tooth got kicked out by a horse and for another sibling when he cut his finger and fainted. My childhood enabled me to be calm in the moment.

I’m thankful for a community of foreigners who love each other so well. When you don’t have the option to be completely self-sufficient, it creates room to accept the strength of others. This group of friends stepped in to help and hand me tissues even when they seemed overwhelmed by the amount of flowing blood. A friend gave me a van and driver even though she didn’t know when I would return with them! Another friend bought lunch for my daughter and took care of her while I was gone, for an indefinite amount of time when she already had her own two kids plus a foster baby with her. A good friend and neighbor sympathized as I cried to her while waiting for the bus to come. A friend from another part of town sent a message asking how I was doing after she heard about what had happened. So many friends sent WeChat messages with prayers and notes of encouragement.

I’m thankful to know a God who loves me and my family. That same morning, I read this passage as a blessing for a friend’s 3-week-old baby: “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in Him, for He shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between His shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). I know that I am also the Lord’s beloved (after all, that’s what my name means!), and I could see glimpses of that love again even in the midst of the stress of that day. The Lord has surrounded me with friends who rally together, who grieve together, who pray together, and who rejoice together, who serve together. Basically, they are what the church is meant to be, and they were Jesus’ hands and feet to me. There were smaller gifts from Him as well. Many moms stayed for lunch instead of leaving right away as usual, and they were present to help me. One friend tossed one yogurt into her bag this morning, thinking that it was an unusual thing to pack, but left it in the bag anyway; that yogurt gave my son enough distraction and nourishment to fill him with peace. My son didn’t show signs of a concussion or any issue other than a wide cut. And plans that I could have had that night had fallen through, giving me time to rest at home with my on-the-mend boy.

What are you thankful for? My dear friend, even as you read this, may you have the grace to recognize and accept the gifts that you’ve been given.

Happy early Thanksgiving from the other side of the world!

A Late-Summer Night’s Dream

A Late-Summer Night’s Dream

Extraordinary. This is my life.

You know how Jim Gaffigan says that bedtime with children is a hostage situation – in reverse? On one of those nights, when my eldest daughter called me back into her room multiple times, she confided to me that she had some bad dreams. Nightmares, actually, in one of which an airplane crashed into the ocean and the people on board drowned and died. I helped her understand that she can use her imagination to create an alternate ending to the story, in which everyone is saved. With a smile, she observed, “That’s better!”

At that point, I could have left the room, and she would have been content. But I decided to go deeper. I prayed out loud that God would give Chaya good dreams. Then I said goodnight and let her fall asleep.

The next day, Chaya informed me that she remembered no dreams from that night. But the day after that, walking from her school bus to our house, she mentioned, “Mom, I had a dream last night.” I said, “Really. What was it about?” “We got a cat that had a broken leg. We brought it home and took care of it so that it could heal.” “Interesting,” I mused. Chaya added, “It was the best dream of my life. I hope it comes true.”

Chaya had been begging for an animal for over almost a year. I insisted on waiting until she showed enough responsibility to take care of a pet on her own, and my husband told her that we would talk about it after our summer trip to the States. Upon re-entry into China, Chaya reasserted, “When are you going to talk about getting a pet for me?” Josh and I discussed it and decided that a cat would be the easiest introduction into animal care for an elementary student who lives in a major city.

We did a quick internet search and found that our city has a couple of organizations which take in stray and injured animals. They give the rescued animals their vaccinations and find foster homes for them. We contacted one of these organizations and filled out a cat adoption application. The lady in charge of the feline adoptions replied and said that we could wait for a couple of weeks, and she would send recommendations to us of the cats that would fit best with our family.

We surprised Chaya with the news that we were getting a cat, and then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Chaya’s dream of the broken-legged cat came during that waiting time. After about a week, I asked, “What did the cat in your dream look like?” She didn’t know quite how to describe it. She said, “Black with… white spots. Well, not really spots… white stripes.”

After another week or so, Josh prodded me to send a follow-up email. So I asked my contact if she had any recommendations for us. I mentioned that my daughter was also very excited and had a dream about caring for a cat with a broken leg.

When my contact wrote back, she said that she had two recommended cats for us, which lived in the same foster house. And she said, “One of them has a broken leg! But it is completely healed. The bones calcified and scar tissue made it stable. You can’t even tell watching her that she has a broken femur.”

Josh and the kids went to visit the two cats, and shortly after their visit, the lady from the organization wrote again and said that it seemed the consensus that the cat with the broken leg was our ideal kitty. After all, she was the one that didn’t run away when the kids tried to play with her!

And so, less than a week later, our 6-month-old kitten with the broken femur arrived at our house.

What amazes me, aside from the laughter and playfulness that a kitten can bring to a home, is that God cares enough about a 6-year-old girl to give her a dream of the joy that was to come. A late-summer night’s dream about a cat seems trivial, but we asked God for a good dream, and He answered big.

Sometimes we don’t expect a living God to speak. On the other hand, our children are often open to hearing when God talks with them without demanding that He say something. It reminds me of the Lord’s call to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-10), in which Samuel responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” No wonder Jesus said we must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:2-3)!

A cat may not be able to change the world… but a cat, or a dream about a cat, can change my daughter, who can change the world. Welcome to our home, Lily!

Lily

A Letter To My Fellow Mamas Working Outside The Home

A Letter To My Fellow Mamas Working Outside The Home

Twelve months ago, I worked 30 hours a week outside of my home and in my “free time”, I cared for my three children, all under the age of five. Six months ago, I moved overseas and began a new season, in which I worked, and still work, fulltime within my home as a “stay-at-home” mom. I have lived on both sides of the street in the same year. It is out of the beauty of these two experiences that I write to you, my fellow mamas. Happy Valentine’s Day, mamas; you are loved.

TO MY FELLOW MAMAS WORKING OUTSIDE THE HOME

I sat at a tall restaurant table with two local businessmen, both highly respected in the community. I had called them together to request their help in networking with others who would possibly have an interest in partnering with my organization. Being very perceptive and knowledgeable in the business world, they began offering ideas and asking questions. At some point in the conversation, one of the men turned to me and queried, “How are you involved in the community outside of your work? What do you do to connect with people?”

That question hit my weak spot like a sharp arrow. I couldn’t control myself; I started crying as soon as I answered, “I don’t do anything. I have three kids.” The two men stared back at me dumbfounded. The meeting was a disaster.

When I had my first child, I discovered that my work life changed. For the sake of the child that I loved, I put boundaries on the time and energy that I spent working. For the sake of the work that I loved, I left my child in someone else’s care each week and was absent from home often on evenings and weekends. I felt that I could do well in both roles, but because my energy and attention were divided, I felt that I could not be excellent in either.

And so, after five years of pouring my entire self into two different worlds and juggling my time and energy between my children and my work, the businessman’s question brought my inadequacies to the surface. Of course I knew that I should be involved in the community. Of course I wanted to be involved in the community. But I was a mama stretched thin, who felt guilty for neglecting something that I had no capacity for.

Aimee speaking B&W
Snapshot of Life as a Professional
Snapshot of Life as a Mom
Snapshot of Life as a Mom

At some point, working mamas, we will fall short of expectations. Even with all of our energy and best effort, we will fall short of our employer’s expectations of us, or of our children’s expectations of us… or more likely, of our own expectations for ourselves.

Interestingly, the Bible paints a picture of what some people see as the “ideal” woman. Talk about pressure.

One thing I appreciate about this theoretical woman is that she works. She works hard.

Below are some excerpts from Proverbs 31:10-31.

“She considers and field and buys it;

Out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

She sets about her work vigorously;

Her arms are strong for her tasks.

She sees that her trading is profitable,

And her lamp does not go out at night.

In her hand she holds the distaff

And grasps the spindle with her fingers.

She opens her arms to the poor

And extends her hands to the needy.”

“She speaks wisdom,

And faithful instruction is on her tongue.

She watches over the affairs of her household

And does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children arise and call her blessed;

Her husband also, and he praises her:

‘Many women do noble things,

But you surpass them all.’”

“Honor her for all that her hands have done,

And let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”

This lady knows business. And investments. And finances. And social justice. And the right thing to say at the right time. And she receives the respect of her children and her husband. I want to be like her.

But seriously, when does she sleep?! Her lamp does not go out?!

Listen, mamas. You and I cannot be perfect women. I know, it’s difficult for those of us who care about meeting goals and reaching desired outcomes to admit that. But falling short opens us up to receive grace and truth.

Mama, you are a person of worth and value apart from your children. You are a person of worth and value apart from your career. Producing many well-behaved children does not make you worth more. Making a name for yourself or earning more money does not make you worth more. You have worth because God loves you.

Before Jesus began his ministry work, he was baptized. As he came up out of the water, God announced, out loud, “This is my Son; with him I am well pleased.”

God the Father was pleased with Jesus before Jesus accomplished anything. God the Father was pleased with Jesus because of their relationship.

Mama, God is pleased with you because you are His loved one, the one that He created and formed. Think about your own newborn baby. Before that baby could even smile back at you, you loved him or her. Because he or she was yours. And God loves you, regardless of your accomplishments, because you are His in Christ Jesus.

Even the Proverbs 31 description hints at this:

“A wife of noble character who can find?

She is worth far more than rubies.

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;

But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

What gives a woman noble character? Even our best efforts toward perfection are not good enough to meet God’s standards. Only trust in Jesus Christ can give you a right heart. This ideal woman has a major thing going in her favor. She lives in honor and awe of God.

When you build your life on a foundation of loving and honoring God, He will give you the strength and wisdom that you need to make a mark in your home and to make a mark in your workplace.

One thing from Proverbs 31 is clear. This woman’s work blessed her family. You also bless your family through your work, in more ways than bringing food to the table.

Your calling as a professional and your calling as a mom are not separate callings; they are linked by you and who God created you to be.

Can you lead a team of people? You can invest in your children with long-term intentionality.

Can you network? You can instill in your child the gift of knowing how to connect with people and show them grace.

Can you responsibly oversee finances? You can teach your children to manage their money for good purposes.

Can you speak with authority? You can direct your children to proclaim truth with gentleness and clarity.

Can you work ethically and faithfully in your field? You can influence your child to live with integrity.

Can you strive toward accomplishing a big vision? You can encourage your child to expect seemingly impossible things to become a reality.

Can you talk about your work with honor and pride? You can give your children hope to have a job for themselves that they can also enjoy.

The skills that your job refines are the skills that your kids need from you at home. God knew what He was doing when He called you into your work and also called you to raise up little ones to be wise men and women. And you, a mama loved and valued by God, are enough for your calling. May your children grow to look up to you and call you blessed.

Snapshot As A Professional Mom
Snapshot of Life as a Professional Mom

A Letter To My Fellow Stay-At-Home Mamas

A Letter To My Fellow Stay-At-Home Mamas

Twelve months ago, I worked 30 hours a week outside of my home and in my “free time”, I cared for my three children, all under the age of five. Six months ago, I moved overseas and began a new season, in which I worked, and still work, fulltime within my home as a “stay-at-home” mom. I have lived on both sides of the street in the same year. It is out of the beauty of these two experiences that I write to you, my fellow mamas. Happy Valentine’s Day, mamas; you are loved.

A LETTER TO MY FELLOW STAY-AT-HOME MAMAS

On a normal morning at home, I decided to call a friend who lives in the States. While we chatted, I prepared and fed my kids a snack, cleaned up the living room, and took toys up two flights of stairs to put them away in drawers.

After we talked awhile about the conference she was attending, she asked me a sometimes terrifying question, “How are you doing?” As I searched myself for the honest answer, I replied, “Not well. It feels strange to say that because life here is going really well. Nothing is wrong, we have good friends, we have all the things we need; I just know that I’m not doing well.”

My friend spoke gently, “I’m sure you hear this all the time, but I’m going to tell you again anyway. You are a good mom. God sees you. He sees all of the things that you do, all the little things like picking up toys and doing laundry. Every small thing you do for your children has worth and value to God.”

My sudden outpouring of tears caught me by surprise, and I realized that I had just heard words that I needed, but I didn’t know why I needed them.

Three days later, I dragged my exhausted self and my two kids out of the house to attend a moms’ group. A friend and I had arranged to try it together, and although I just wanted to stay home and sleep, I pushed myself to follow through on my commitment. After arriving, the leader first invited us to spend some time praying and worshipping the Lord. During a pause in between songs, a lady behind me, whom I had never met, started praying. Then she began sobbing and said out loud for the whole group, “God sees you. He knows what you are going through, and everything you do is of worth to Him.”

That’s when I decided that I’d better take this message seriously. I asked my husband for 24 hours by myself for my birthday, and during that time away, I started asking God why that truth was so important to me.

As moms who work all day at home with our children, our work never reaches completion, at least not within a year or two, or even a decade. In the middle of putting makeup on in the morning, one child frustrates the other, who proceeds to whip their toy at the instigator, pelting them in the back. In the midst of the screams, we pause everything for a “teaching moment”, aware that we will have the privilege of at least twenty more teaching moments before the sun sets. The laundry still tumbles in the dryer while a child dirties another pair of pants. Every dish is finally placed in the cupboard when a child asks for their third snack in two hours. While we pour the milk, popcorn seeds free-fall from the bag and scatter, bouncing across the floor. When the children lie in bed and the house sits hushed and quiet, we moms still reside in our workspace, with a list of a dozen tasks yet to begin.

We mamas know that it is a gift to work all day with the children we love, for little kisses and chubby-armed hugs; but it is not easy. We pour out our best work when we are alone, with little to show for it in the short-term, for small people who do not even think about giving us accolades for all of our labors.

Sleeping Spahr Kids

But mama, God sees you. He knows what you are going through, your love for your children poured out in a hundred ways per day, your energy and ideas given freely for others. Because God sees you, you are not alone. Every little thing you do for your children holds great worth to Him. He values your many roles as master chef, toy repairman, teacher of all subjects, counselor, social coordinator, nurse, athletic coach, entertainer, housekeeper, organizer, cheerleader, moral guider, security guard, etc. He knows that you are a good mom.

There is a famous story about how Jesus reacted to little children. You know, the one displayed in the paintings of Jesus with multitudes of serene children sitting on his lap. I think an artist should create a more realistic version of this scene, in which children race in circles around Jesus’ legs and shove each other over in order to sit in His lap first.

The real version, what we know for sure, is this:

“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” Mark 10:13-16

Simply put, God loves children and values taking the time to hold them and bless them. He considers children to be of so much worth that He even gets emotionally upset about a disregard for these little ones.

When you love your children, you engage in work that aligns with the heart of God. The long-term effects of your work are unparalleled. You bless ones who have open and tender hearts, who have the capacity to grow into men and women of strength and grace. You have influence.

I found this verse, which I now have posted on my kitchen cupboard.

“For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.” 2 Chronicles 16:9a

As you serve your children, even when you feel weary or alone or of little value, the Lord strengthens you for your work.

God sees you chopping vegetables.

God sees you spraying stains.

God sees you picking up toys.

God sees you bandaging wounds.

God sees you teaching children to forgive each other.

God sees you raising up the next generation of men and women who will love Him and change the world. And that is a work of highest worth.

IMG_6906

Building a Life in My Foreign City: A New Year’s Resolution

Building a Life in My Foreign City: A New Year’s Resolution
Wheat Field Credit: Brooke Jacobson
Wheat Field
Photo Credit: Brooke Jacobson

I grew up in this beauty. I spent so much time in the sun and fields that my hair turned the golden color of ripened wheat. I loved the prairie, the fields, the wooded groves, the creeks, and the freedom of walking for miles without seeing another soul.

This is me in the middle of a wheat field, hoisting my little brother up for a photo
This is me in the middle of a wheat field, hoisting my little brother up for a photo

I noticed a few adults who had lived their childhoods on farms but had defected to the city when they were grown. I always judged them silently, viewing them as traitors. I never understood how they could leave the land and lifestyle that had raised them.

After college, I worked at a university campus, so it made sense to live in town. A few years later, I married a man who worked at a company in the same town, and it made sense for us to find a house there. A few years after that, we had kids. And it made sense to raise them… in town. I had always planned on raising farm kids, allowing them to experience hard work, cooperation with their family, caring for animals, and the need to trust in God when you deal with uncontrollable conditions such as weather. Developing town kids did not make my list of 10-year goals.

As if town life weren’t stretching enough, six months ago we landed in a city of roughly 24 million people, with a commitment to do life there through the next three years. Just visiting a city in our home country counted as culture shock for me; living in a cosmopolitan city in another country added even more hurdles. Having traveled to China twice previously, this particular city was the last place in this country that I would have chosen to live.

To clarify, I was not dragged here kicking and screaming. I chose to live here, and although I have a deep appreciation for agriculture, I understand that it would not be the right fit for me. I am happy to be in this city. We have been blessed with so many friends and opportunities here. It’s just that sometimes the place where we find ourselves is such a world away from what we know that it’s a bit of a shock.

Shanghai Cityscape Photo Credit: Brooke Jacobson
Shanghai Cityscape
Photo Credit: Brooke Jacobson

After staying here for our first five months, we visited our home country to celebrate Christmas with our families. The spoken phrase “Welcome home!” warmed my heart. When our three-week vacation ended and we returned to our new house, I asked my eldest where her home is. She declared without a minute’s hesitation that her home is in America.

The Land That I Love
The Land That I Love

I feel the same way.

But one of the thoughts that came to me over and over as we stayed with our families was “How do we make this new place homey?” Problem #1: our house is reminiscent of a hospital (think expansive and completely white). How do I turn this house into a home of refuge and peace? How do I stabilize my children and myself with a life-giving routine? What do I cut out to make time for the people who are important to me?

I suppose that the overarching question is this: How do we settle down and make our home in a place that is foreign, unfamiliar, and so far from the place I envisioned for myself when growing up?

Although we are far from being in exile, I am reminded of God’s words to His exiled people.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’” – Jeremiah 29:4-7, emphasis mine

This is the prelude to the often taken out of context verse, Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

I imagine that I feel a little bit like these people may have felt, at least without the forced relocation. I’m in a new city far from home, trying to understand an indiscernible language, and navigating an unfamiliar culture. As I walk around, it’s painfully obvious that I don’t belong here. Transportation and shopping require effort and thoughtfulness, and to be honest, it’s exhausting.

The Bund Shanghai Skyline
The Bund
Shanghai Skyline

As the experience is similar, so God’s word to me is similar. In the midst of all of the change, I am called to bless this city. The settling down, the building a life, the seeking the good of the foreign city, the praying for this place to prosper is what opens our eyes to see the hope and the future that God has for us. We must not spend years, even just a few, biding time until we can leave a place, when we could instead make our home there and bless it.

So this is my new year’s resolution: to build a life here, in my foreign city.

I Love Shanghai