In many ways, I had a very sheltered childhood. I was only allowed to watch black and white "Nick at Nite" reruns and nature documentaries. I got in trouble when I was caught listening - at age 13 - to a song more contemporary than Neil Diamond (Wilson Phillips' "Hold On"). I was only allowed to go over to play at the homes of nice little girls from nice families. My parents had to know the little girl's parents. They always knew who would be at home with us and what we'd be doing. But I was about 7 when I saw "adult" magazines for the first time and only 11 when I was first exposed to an "adult" movie. At the tender age of 13, I was shocked by the pages of a graphically illustrated Joy of Sex manual and had filthy passages from an "adult" novel read to me. All in the homes of nice little girls from nice families. All different nice families- families of church leaders, scout leaders, ministers -all the kinds of parents that other parents trust.
These experiences were devastating. In particular I recall a sleepover party in 6th grade: the birthday girl turned on the TV and we were all absolutely stunned by the X-rated movie playing on the screen. Some of the little girls began laughing. All were mesmerized. I was the only one who turned away. I began trying to brush another little girl's hair to distract myself but I couldn't block out the horrible audio. I remember how much my hands were shaking and the feeling of fear and shame. I went to the bathroom and ran the water for a long time but it couldn't block out the sound or the dirty feeling in the pit of my stomach. It didn't wash away the images burnt into my memory. The girl's mother suddenly came downstairs to check on us and she screamed. She screamed at her daughter to turn off the TV and then we heard her run upstairs and scream at her husband. He was watching the movie upstairs and had somehow streamed it accidentally down to us. We all waited downstairs, expecting to get in trouble. We didn't. The mother didn't tell our parents and neither did any of us.
These experiences all left similar aftertastes of shame and filth, though all were foisted upon me unsought. These were horrible, horrible experiences that seared through the precious innocence of a very sensitive child. Short of locking me in a box until I was 25, there was literally nothing more my parents could have done to try to protect me from these dark elements of our culture - but I nonetheless try to think what I can do to shelter my little ones from similar experiences. Maria is less than three years younger than I was when it all began. The Box-Until-25 Plan is looking better and better.
This week she was invited - for the first time in New Zealand - to play at a friend's house. The invitation came from the little girl at preschool Maria has most desperately wanted to befriend - a little girl who has kept Maria at arm's length for eighteen months (no small feat, might I add). The child's mother offered to pick the two little girls up after school and have them play for an hour at her house. I'm positive she intended to be kind and helpful, but... Over my dead body. I mean, Maria is four. Even when she used to play at her friends' houses back in the States, I was there too, and those were the houses of my closest friends. I have to work hard to remember this mother's first name when I see her at preschool. I've never met her partner. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that they don't have stacks of Playboy magazine laying carelessly around their home, but how on earth would I know? You can't exactly ask people about that. I can't really casually say, "You know... Maria isn't allowed to have a Barbie - or watch any TV or movies - and the filthiest word she knows is bum-bum-poo - and in our house we don't really read too many pornographic magazines, so I'd kind of rather she wasn't exposed to any of those things this afternoon....." Plus how on earth would I know if any of those rules were broken?
I decided to just frankly admit to the other mother that Maria had never gone to anyone's house without me. She wasn't in the least offended and said she had the same rule with her daughter. So instead of fretting about the potential bad influences Maria might receive, I instead got to go and watch her give bad influence for an hour this afternoon. She was rude to her friend's mother and baby sister, ungraciously threw the unappealing parts of her snack off her plate and onto the floor, whined loudly about the "yucky" taste in their apples, demanded another helping of marshmallows, invented annoying potty words and was disobedient and bratty to me when it was time to leave. If I was the other child's mother, I would never invite her back. I might even transfer my daughter to another school. Or emigrate. I was completely mortified. And yet, I hope she does get invited again. I realize that Maria needs practice and instruction and coaching in how to behave graciously in someone else's house. Lots of it. She did things today that she would never do at home. Christine, brimming over with birthday wisdom, had the insight to suggest that Maria is a bit insecure in social settings and goes wild with "nervous energy". Man, does that sound better than the words I used in describing it all to Richard.
By far, the most difficult ministry in New Zealand has been my ministry to Maria. For some reason I keep thinking that she'll turn the corner once we get back to Pennsylvania. I guess I feel like I'll have more control over every part of my life once we're back home, including the part of my life labelled Maria. I don't know who I'm kidding - I had very little control over Maria when we last lived in the USA. She was the kind of child who got a head start on her "terrible twos" at eighteen months old: tantruming daily - kicking against doors while screaming all the worst words she knew in one hysterical raving screech: "Stop it Stupid Dang it POOOOOOOOP!" Some kids are verbally precocious. Others are more intensely physical. Maria is both. So I'm always wondering if the nuns ever found out how do you solve a problem like Maria? They sort of just married theirs off - but for us, finding a steadying Captain won't be a real option for so many years.
Last week I was invited to give a presentation to 35 school principals. (Topic: the value of having students involved in a youth ministry program.) It was my first time in a truly professional setting in four and half years. I wore Banana Republic, I ironed everything, I tidied my hair and used a touch of perfume. I don't do any of those things anymore. I wear hole-speckled t-shirts and my jeans are two sizes too big. The girls hide my hairbrush for days at a time. Rather than keep track of a back-up, I just have a body wave. I've not been in a board room environment, speaking in collected, confident tones to colleagues since Maria's birth - until last week. And it was awesome. Seriously. It felt amazing. I literally was a different person for 60 minutes - like Cinderella in a twinset. I felt competent and sane. I felt intelligent and experienced. It only lasted an hour and then I was back in the chaos and the noise and the mess and the POOOOP. I know the beautiful thing to write would be to say that I realized that being with my children was far more enjoyable than the self-satisfied highs of the morning, but that would be a lie. Or a Nicholas Cage movie. For the first time in my short season of motherhood, I felt tempted to ditch the home scene - at least part time. So I've had to clarify my understanding of motherhood for the umpteenth time (is it for me or is it for them?) and embrace it again as ministry - a ministry in which I will not always (nor often) feel competent or sane or tidy. I am certain that it is the ministry to which the Lord is calling me to give my whole self for this short season of my life. But He gave me the freedom to choose again. I looked longingly at the neat and peaceful grown-up world. But I chose the chaos. Freely.
I'm passionate about youth ministry. I feel really good at it. I'm far, far more invested in motherhood - even though I'm not nearly as skilled at it. I told the principals last week that youth ministry programs offer students an alternative culture and nurture their spiritual development. I think that motherhood for me is going to be a lot of trying to introduce my children to an alternative culture and nurture their spiritual development - while trying to contribute to the alternative culture and my own spiritual development. (Maybe this is what my spiritual director means by "You take life a bit too seriously"). With the amount of ugliness stalking the child in 2011, it's a demanding ministry. I want to give it my all. I'm grateful for the luxury of doing it full time. And still I will fail. They'll hear bad words and give bad example. I'll never really be competent or sane and hopefully at some point I learn to accept that. But maybe it would feel nice doing it occasionally in Banana. At the very least, it's time for pants that fit.