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August 29, 2013 |

Hope for Spicy Families

BY Jen Hatmaker

A certain scenario sets off a guaranteed, automatic reaction in me every time.

Although reduced, I categorize most families as either “sweet” or “spicy.” There are obvious pros and cons to both dynamics with tons of crossover on the Venn diagram, but still. In general, a family trends toward one or the other.

I’ll give you one guess which way the Hatmakers lean.

We are a spicy people. We love obnoxious humor and sarcasm and we are very, very loud. The lot of us suffers from Big Feelings About All The Things, which makes us a passionate, emotional bunch. We don’t really do gentle. We don’t actually know what that means. (My girlfriend Laura has the exact same family dynamic, and I die laughing every time she tells me her “kids are doomed.”)So any time I am around a sweet family for a while, I have a crisis. It simmers until a comment from one of their children to another – “Sister? Would you like the last brownie? I want you to have it since you did all my chores for me as a surprise for my half birthday…” – launches me into a watershed moment. Brandon knows this about me and has weathered the reentry numerous times:

Me: What is wrong with us? We need a new system to get people to talk nicer in this house. We are raising feral children. Why don’t any of our kids knit?? We need to quit raising our voices FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES or all hope is lost. Our kids are probably going to kill people one day. Like, I think they are on a dark path to incarceration or street violence.

Brandon:        Street violence here in the suburbs?

Me:                  THERE COULD BE VIOLENCE IN THESE STREETS – we’re near the end times! We need to figure out how to be more precious. I don’t even think our kids know any hymns! How are we supposed to break out in spontaneous family worship?? WWAVD?? (What would Ann Voskamp do?) Remy told me Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey “because he was so rich.” We are raising dullards. Let’s just throw in the towel.

Nothing makes me diagnose my family as catastrophic quicker than witnessing another family behave. It is a terrible comparison game that isn’t even fair, as I’m not privy to their atmosphere longer than that one hour. For all I know that darling sister who deferred the brownie gave the other a roundhouse kick to the temple the next day for calling her a sasquatch. We don’t know these things, and it’s easy to reduce another family to a condensed, crystallized version of their real selves, then compare our own undomesticated family to the prototype and flat despair, certain the children have been ruined beyond repair.

I don’t know if there is any worry like Parent Worry. We are responsible for whole human lives here. This is it. This is their one childhood that will carry them into adulthood, drawing from all the hours in this home, emulating what they’ve seen, GOD HELP US. Every parent I know worries that she isn’t doing this right, that she is failing in countless ways, seen and unseen. Our family faults seem so egregious; the omissions and breakdowns and missteps feel monumental, insurmountable even.

I heard someone say recently, “If you are worried about being a bad parent, you are probably a good one.” Meaning, this is the opposite, which is technically worse:

I took this in and wanted to believe it so badly and asked God to help me tamp down the vicious self-talk. Then something happened. I started jumping outside of my mind where all the crazy lives and watched me talk to my kids. I was so nice sometimes! I said very sweet and precious things! There were so many I love you’s and you are very smart and attentive mm-hmmm’s and sounds awesome and great job on that laced through all the days. I watched myself do the work of sweet parents, and it occurred to me I am my own worst critic, and sometimes I’m even a liar, convincing myself that nothing good is ever happening in this family, and it’s all my fault, or maybe Brandon’s fault, and the kids are horrid and we are a disaster.This is a really insidious way to keep a Mama down.

Why do we latch on to our failures and ignore our successes? I would never overvalue and recount someone else’s low moments to the neglect of their triumphs; why do I do that to myself? Why do any of us? Why do we observe other parents’ strengths with 20/20 vision while ours are all blurred? It is as easy for me to declare your goodness as it is to affirm my wretchedness; they are inversely proportional. I am savvy to each, conditioned to minimize your humanity and overemphasize mine.

Whether you are a sweet mama imagining the spicy mamas have all the fun (not true…we’re mostly breaking up fights), or a spicy mama assuming the sweet mamas have all the tenderness (they don’t…they are mostly, um, I’m not actually sure, I’ve never been in a sweet family):

If you are worried about being a bad parent, you are probably a good one.

Some of the good is obvious (the stuff we are quick to notice in others): the loving words, the endless attention, the eye contact, the praise. We are reading to our kids and tucking them in with kisses and using parenting language and attending all the games/recitals/tournaments/programs. We braid hair and tie ribbons and apply band-aids and act like our kids’ art is pretty. We are doing all that, and it is good, and it counts.

Some of the good is less obvious (the stuff we think is only going on in our homes): the apologies, the conflict resolution, the tough love, the boundaries, the making up, the hard lessons. We are molding failure into character; our kids, ours. Every parent blows it. Every kid comes unhinged. Every family goes off the rails. That doesn’t mean we are ruined; it means we are ordinary. Course correcting is part of the deal. These efforts often feel bad because they started bad, but they are actually good, and they count too.

This is my point no matter which temperament you lean towards: YOU ARE DOING A BETTER JOB THAN YOU THINK. The criticism in your brain can sometimes move you toward best practices, but it can also lie to you and probably is in numerous ways. You may need to step outside your mind and watch yourself for a few days – not just tuning in to the sharp moments but to the soft, tender ones, for I assure you they are there.

One of my favorite truths from Scripture is that condemnation is a trick of the enemy, not the language of the heavens. Shame is not the rhetoric of redemption, so if we are a slave to it, we have moved outside the protective covering of mercy. And it is harsh out there, debilitating actually. If your inner monologue is constantly critical, endlessly degrading, it may be time to move a few feet back under the umbrella of grace. For there the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Then we can breathe and assess our own parenting with the same kindness we extend to others.

You are doing a wonderful job. Parenting is mind-numbingly hard and none of us will be perfect at it and all of us will jack a thousand parts of it, and somehow, against all odds, it will still be enough.

And if stepping outside your mind to self-observe or planting your feet back under a grace covering doesn’t work, you may come to my house for one afternoon and be guaranteed to feel better about your family, as you may recall that after sassing off, I told my then fifth grader to get a shovel, go in the backyard, and dig his own grave.

Because THAT is WJHWD.