Dear Jacob,

This month has felt monumental. For one thing, you’re growing like a weed. For another, we’ve finally decided to make a clean break with night-time diapers. This has meant a lot of grumpy, teary wake-up calls between 9:30 and 11:30 for trips to the bathroom, an almost-daily laundry load of sheets and blankets, and a couple triumphant $1 awards. (You have decided to save for a harmonica, thanks to your birthday story, Lentil.) You will get it. Eventually. By college for sure.

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But that’s just a small part of it all. You have been really tough on me the last few weeks, and I imagine some of it has to do with how you have had to re-orient to me twice, once after your trip with Daddy and then again after my trip to Colorado. I was away for eight whole days and, from the reports of it, they were pretty drama-free days in your life. But I bring out all the drama in you. All day every day. No matter what.

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I read someone else’s blog post awhile ago that suggested that what your strong-willed child needs is a brick wall and, yes, congratulations: “You are that brick wall.” Routinely, constantly, you crash into me. These are not accidental falls, these are fully-aware body-slams, like some sort of death wish. But more on this later.

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There have also been triumphs, and by that I mostly mean beautiful, poignant, significant moments to mark your growth. Daddy keeps coming back to his mind-blowing awareness that we’re almost one-third done growing you up. I personally can’t imagine surviving another two thirds of this business, but again, more on that later.

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The poignant moments were related to worship, and if you remember, that’s what I wrote to you about last month: “Not as we ought, but as we are able.” With that as backdrop you can understand my deep joy this month to get a text from Daddy as I got in the car to drive from Lawrence to Kansas City, and as you two finished early service back here in Eastern Time. Intensely sleep deprived, you’d been dragged out of bed early enough to accompany Daddy to church at his usual pre-7:00 a.m. time. Apparently you were not feeling very cheery or compliant about that and had endless attitude problems all through his practice and rehearsal. But then somehow the magic began (we call this the Holy Spirit) and, according to that text message, you’ve never done a better job in church, ever. It made me get a little teary, because I knew it was a significant date: 5 years to the day since your baptism, and the first time your baptism day fell on a Sunday again, and this moment of profound victory at the point of one of your biggest struggles this season. We leveraged that coincidence and celebrated.

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When I got home from the day after your Baptism Day we were so happy to be all together again, but that honeymoon wore off hard and fast. I don’t remember if Tuesday was bad because all I remember is how bad Wednesday was. Wednesday was bad. Simply put, I was showing up to be your parent and you were not having it on any level. By the end of the day I was so sick of how you’d treated me all day that I slammed a cupboard door and yelled at you that I was leaving. “I do not want to be your mommy right now because you are treating me like crap. If you want me to be your mommy you will have to treat me like a human being.” And then I left. It was partly wisdom: removing myself from your presence because I was too angry to be trusted. But it was mostly just leaving. I couldn’t do it anymore. Half an hour later I had come back and Daddy had staged a serious Come To Jesus in his office, centering around that horrifying concept familiar to young boys of all generations, You Don’t Get to Treat My Wife Like That. You came to whimper out some pathetic sham of an apology and I completely rejected you. I just couldn’t shepherd you through pretending you cared about me; couldn’t supply the emotional material for both of us. So a few minutes later you came and tried again because by this time you knew it mattered and you actually seemed to care a little, rather taken aback by my unwillingness to engage. I made it very clear that I forgave you then, and I told you I was sorry for being rude to you when I was angry, but I just couldn’t offer you attention and affection through the rest of that night beyond a simple bedtime kiss. I was feeling too traumatized by how shitty our whole day had been. I’ve been a bit withdrawn and severe with you for the past week since then and I think I’m on to something for now. As best as Daddy and I can figure it, you need a Drill Sergeant Mommy right now. Not as though I have a different standard for you right now than I do at other times, but right now you just need a very clear message that it’s no use messing with me. Once we have that groundwork re-laid we can have a little more fun again. But lately it’s been too easy, not costly enough, for you to give me shit and still feel like we’re friends overall, and it hasn’t been good for anybody.

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And so we arrived at the end of my re-entry week and your reactions to me had a couple days to improve a bit, but not a lot, and then Saturday we accompanied you to another poignant moment in your Christian journey. It was not as significant from a personal perspective as it might have been, since you’ve been celebrating at the Table alongside us since before you could really talk, and that’s what we believe in. But presently we are members of a church that welcomes young children to the table only upon profession of faith and we want to be team players where we belong, so we made much of this rite of passage anyway. Anyway, through this last year or so, after gathering around the Table at Church #1 (where Daddy works) and sharing “Jesus Bread and Jesus Wine” together, we go to Church #2 where you’ve struggled to understand why you aren’t welcome. I’ve handled this by dumping you in the nursery lock, stock, and barrel, and it’s been a welcome place of rest for me, having Church for Mommy. But now that you’re 5 you’ve been kicked out of the nursery nest and you’re beside me in worship again, so it was time for that conversation: We knew you were ready even by the church’s standards. So there we were at the end of this abysmal, traumatizing week of conflict and rebellion and scorn and contempt ushering you into our pastor’s living room.

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I confess I foolishly wondered if we had our timing wrong: if you have this heart bent on going your own way why are we treating you like you are ready for the Table?

You can go ahead and let the ridiculousness of that question sink in.

That is the whole point. We want you at the Table, and this was the right week for it: the week where you were up to your eyeballs (and mine!) in your sin, but still swimming in the ocean we live in unconditionally, irrevocably: the ocean of the grace and the peace of Christ. The cross is the context for all of this, and of course it is where you belong this week of all weeks. You need Jesus, my boy. So take him. Here he is.

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I must record, too, how tickled and proud we felt to listen to you carry on this conversation with your very own pastors about the world God made and its story. How you acknowledged with awe that God is even stronger than you. How you took over at one point with this hilariously frank “So here’s the thing” as you wanted to cut to the chase about what the cross is. How you explained that Adam and Eve, having sinned against God, had not been permitted on the ark and consequently died in the flood. How you jumped into the question “What did Jesus take from us on the cross?” with the answer “He took our shame!” (with credit to Jon Foreman)

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I have to fill in a few more details from this unfolding story of Jacob V. The Mommy. But first, a vignette from this morning that serves as a pretty good window into how most of life goes down lately. You’d gone into Joshua’s room to be the first to greet him and from my bed I heard you throwing things into his crib. It was sometime in the last three days that I made it very clear to you and Meredith that only grown-ups were permitted to put things in the baby’s crib, EVER, because of safety. I felt confident that you knew this and were simply choosing your own path. It’s typical: like the day I told you to do something and then stood there and watched you not even flinch. “Jacob, did you hear me?” “Yes.” “Why didn’t you do what I said then?” “Because I didn’t want to.” OK then.

When Daddy and I finally rolled out of bed and went to where you were playing by the crib we reminded you of this and instead of accepting it on the basis of authority you, as always, asked why. I’m glad you asked, because it was a clarifying moment for me: You don’t get to know why this time because you simply will not be able to understand how it might be dangerous for Joshua to have someone indiscriminately put things in his crib. It is out of your league. Quite literally above your pay grade. It was easy and obvious to answer you that you would not be able to understand why and that’s why you have parents: Your job is to obey, not to ask why. Daddy then instructed you to tell Joshua you were sorry and go get dressed and you compliantly, deafly turned and walked out of the room. “What are you doing!?” was the question. “Going to get dressed!” You replied, irritated at our obvious inability to observe your obedience. “What did I tell you?” Came Daddy’s response. “To go get dressed.” “No, I did not.” And once again you’d heard the Blah Blah Blah stuff coming from your parents’ mouths, but this time we were able to get at the underlying problem for you: Buddy, you are consistently not listening to us because you think you already know all the answers. You think you can make your own judgment calls on everything. You think you can weigh whether or not something is safe for Joshua. You think you already know what we’re going to say. And in trying to be your own leader you are blundering into all kinds of problems.

Mostly you are blundering into us.

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photo credit for these last four goes, again, to Hannah…

And that brings me to the rest of the story of last week, the week when “blunder” isn’t quite the right word for our scuffles. You were nothing short of flinging yourself at me, metaphorically. That afternoon I sat talking with someone I trust, someone whose job it is to tell people how things actually are, and he said Here’s The Thing: What you have on your hands is the classic Strong-Willed Child. As such, he does not fit the playground study, the one where kids with a fence scatter and play peacefully and kids without a fence huddle nervously in the center. Oh no, you are the kid whose life mission is to address himself to that fence and see if he can’t prove himself stronger. (Recall your wonder on Saturday that God is stronger than you. Clearly you think your strength is ultimate besides that.) The fence, as it happens, is me. And if you are like normal strong willed children you will spend most of two decades routinely, consistently flinging yourself against the fence just because you wish it wasn’t there. Which means my job is to be there. And, to be the kind of fence that is actually a brick wall. This reality – that you are still flinging yourself against me, that over and over in every season you will find more new and exciting ways to fling yourself – is not a measure of my failure as a parent. It is just your wiring. It’s how God made you. It’s material he will use powerfully someday. All I need to do is figure out how to stay strong, because being a brick wall is not your average game of parenting. All I need to do is figure out how to not get knocked down. How to fill myself back up over and over so that I can keep showing up for another two-thirds of this.

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And this was the other thing he said that has been ringing in my ears, so encouraging: Showing up is the point. I agonize that I’m not consistent enough, that this is a failure of mine, and that I’m therefore to blame for your flinging yourself against your Mommy Fence all day every day. This fear of mine, while it could have some truth in it (if I presented a more constant State of Brickness you would probably tire of crashing into me a little more quickly each day and each season) it does not mean I should see myself as a failure. Being consistent, he suggested, could be seen in a different way: Being consistent should mean that every morning, every day, every time, I show up again: I still love you. I’m still the Mom. Last week was shitty. But I still love you. And I’m still the Mom.

Good luck with that, buddy. Just keep flinging yourself against me. I’ll be here tomorrow, too. Tomorrow, too, I will hug you and tell you that yesterday wasn’t so good (Was it?) but that God has once again given us another day to try again and today, again, Jesus loves us. Today, again, the cross is ours. Today, again, I am your Mommy. And I, too, am even stronger than you. That is the kind of consistent I know I can be, and I even feel pretty confident that I am going to be able to do it for ten or fifteen more years.

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I love you.

Love,
Your Brick Wall

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2 thoughts on “Jacob: 61 Months

    1. I actually have never appreciated that phrase because terror doesn’t belong anywhere near the relationship of a parent and child. I understand that the idea is supposed to be funny, but it’s just too problematic for me: I want my kids to respect me and obey me, but always and only out of love. “Perfect love casts out fear.” One of the things I’m discovering in parenting is that fear is an easy substitute for love in a lot of situations, but the results are not good.

      I also don’t want to make peace with the sort of “temporary tune up” that this idea suggests, and its accompanying implication that it’s OK to be inconsistent or even lazy/un-strategic in the long term and broad scope, because I think that sends confusing messages to kids. My goal right now with Jacob is to adjust his perception of me, and that’s why I feel like I need to be more austere/severe than usual, even withholding some of my usual leniency or affection. I don’t see this as inconsistent, though, because once his perception of me is corrected and he is acknowledging my authority more successfully, the relaxing back into gentler patterns isn’t so much a return to a former place as a coasting on a newly attained level of wisdom/truth/functionality.

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