The longer I am the mother of four children, the more I understand the science behind birth order theory. It’s fairly certain that you will always be the fun-loving, naturally charming, baby sister of the family.
I am constantly wavering between guilt and thankfulness as I watch you grow up in the chaos and shadow of your three older siblings. One guilt for example is that there are significantly fewer evenings where all of us happen to be home and ready to eat at the same hour, and even fewer evenings that I manage to find the energy to shop for and make a proper dinner. While I like to think you consistently eat two to three square meals a day, I am certain you eat way fewer green things and way more sweet things than any of your siblings would have ever been allowed at the age of 10. The evening or so a week when all six of us are home to sit down to a proper meal around our large circle table in the breakfast room, I am always filled with nothing but thankfulness. Thankful that many of our dinners include an extra friend or two to feed. Thankful that everyone always seems just as thankful to be together as I am, even as annoyances are freely expressed and arguments often break out. Thankful that the conversations are rich in meaning, ripe with controversy, and full of grace. This is of course quite different than the weeknight dinners we shared when Kori Jane was your age, and you were still a toddler. We still play the occasional dinner table games that used to dominate our mealtime conversations, but rarely do we make it through one round of “Two Truths and a Lie” without some exciting, interesting, or upsetting event someone encountered that day sparking a lively discussion or debate.
It is true that most often, you are wishing everyone would stop talking about teenage drama, current events, and theological truths, but there are plenty of times when you are jumping right in and asking one of your precocious and thoughtful questions. Many times, I fight the urge to change the subject, but instead I opt to silently cringe as you are exposed to subjects and vocabulary I was frantically trying to shield your siblings from at your age.
Even when our dinner table conversations leave me with some explaining to do, I am still thankful that you are growing up watching your siblings as they learn to think for themselves, really listen to others, defend their beliefs, disagree, give grace, vocalize doubts, and ask hard questions. After all, there is no better place in the whole world for those conversations to happen than around a dinner table. In fact, it might not only be my favorite place to have hard conversations, I daresay it is the ONLY place I feel comfortable having the hardest of conversations. At least in any sort of way that will prove meaningful, productive, and unifying.
There is no doubt that we are a passionate family with strong convictions and deep-rooted beliefs, but my sincere hope is that we are not known outside the walls of our home only by the convictions we hold, and I certainly cringe to think that we would ever be categorized or known by the way we voted in the last election. Better yet, unless you have dined at my dinner table, I prefer that you don’t necessarily even know who I voted for in the last election. Being that we have just come out of one of the most charged and divisive presidential election campaigns in US history, politics have been a topic of dinner table conversation frequently over the last year.
Last month, Lacey, it was your question that sparked what might be my very favorite dinner conversation of the year so far! You asked, “is Jesus a Democrat or a Republican?” First there was silence followed by awkward giggles and knowing smiles carefully exchanged, as we all wondered where this evening’s conversation was headed.
While somehow, I had never bothered to directly ask myself this question before, the answer was quite obviously, “neither.”
“Jesus was neither a Republican nor a Democrat.” Not only that, but Jesus was also not American, he did not speak English, and he looked nothing like our blonde-haired blue-eyed family. The constitution was not the law he preached, followed, or quoted, and His allegiance was not to any government, race, gender, political cause, or even to his own family line. When He laid down his life it was not for the sake of His country or for any social or political agenda at all. He laid down His life because He loves people, and He especially loves broken, hurting, and sinful people- people like us.
As Pastor David frequently likes to remind us, “Jesus would probably be far too conservative for the liking of most Democrats, and far too liberal for the liking of most Republicans.” I don’t think this means that Jesus would necessarily not have voted in this last election had He been alive and living in America today, but I do not pretend for even a second to know the mind of a sinless, all knowing, and perfectly compassionate Savior. His Kingdom is not of this world. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways. Who among us has understood the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct Him?
As you know from so many dinner table conversations, your parents proudly exercise their right to vote and have openly shared which policies each of us are most sensitive about. And while we always vote, we do not always cast matching ballots, nor do we expect that all of our children will always cast matching ballots. I hope that you will one day choose to take advantage of the privilege and duty you have as an American citizen to vote when you turn 18, but far more important to me than your political affiliation will be how well you love people- especially the people who think, look, act, and vote differently than you.
Please do not hear me say that you should not hold strong opinions or convictions. On the contrary, I want all my children to be compassionate deep thinkers who know what they believe and why they believe it, but I also want you to leave space for others to believe something different without judgement or personal criticism. We can never fully know the life experiences, natural bents, or the various relationships, hurts, joys, and griefs that have shaped another person’s world view. But what we do know is that God has placed in each of us unique passions, experiences, and gifts that He means to be pursued and shared as we seek to be instruments of peace in a desperately needy and broken world.
Please also do not hear me say that you should keep your strong opinions and convictions to yourself, and avoid hard conversations at all costs. On the contrary I want each of you to be passionate advocates for not only peace, but also for truth, justice, and love. The question to me is not whether we should be having hard conversations, but rather when and where we should be having these conversations. Of course, there are not straightforward answers to this question, but I implore you to give them thoughtful consideration, nonetheless.
Hard conversations tend to engage our emotions as much as our intellect and therefore they have tremendous power to divide or to unify, and to harm or to heal. I have made a deliberate choice to try to only engage when there is potential to unify and heal, and I make that determination by asking myself the when and the where questions.
For me, difficult conversations are worthy conversations WHEN I know and love my audience and they are convinced that I love them despite any of our differences, WHEN I have been asked my opinion, and WHEN I have had time to weigh the consequences of engaging in any such conversation. I’ve chosen the practice of avoiding having high-stake conversations on a whim, among people who are unwilling to listen and learn or who are easily offended, and on any digital platform- especially social media. It is incredibly sad to me how often the very conversations we avoid having face to face with people we know and love, all too often flow freely over the internet. We make blanket statements sure to hurt and offend someone, we hide behind news articles that prove our points, and we spout statistics that think for us.
Possibly even more important to me than asking when to engage in difficult and complicated conversations, is asking WHERE to engage? In my experience, the most meaningful, unifying and healing place for hard conversations is around a shared meal. This is why there are no off-limit conversations around my dinner table, and also why your vocabulary, your questions, and political acumen at the age of 10 might be a little more mature than I’d prefer.
Even so Lacey, may we be a family who is known foremost for our love, compassion, good deeds, and an extra spot at our dinner table. May our dinner table conversations always be full of deep and meaningful questions, controversies, opinions, wonderings, and observations. And may each shared meal end with a sense of unity and healing, not because anyone has been convinced of anything, but because we have all listened, we have all learned, and we have all felt loved.
Daddy and I both for different reasons hoped that our first child would be a boy. I’d always dreamed of an older brother, so I thought it would be ideal for my oldest to be male, but for your sports loving Daddy he dreamed of shooting hoops and playing catch with his son in a way that he never got to do with his own father.
Of course, once our first child was born a baby girl, we decided that we’d like another girl so the two of them could grow up sharing secrets and clothes. How thankful we are that we don’t always get what we want!
Well son, we set out to prepare for your arrival by creating the perfect sports themed nursery covered in soccer balls, baseball bats, and football goals. There was a coordinated quilt, floor rug, crib bumper, lamp shade, and these ball shaped pillows that we were convinced would be your favorite toys!
When you were born, we dressed you in Astros and Texan’s jerseys, and as soon as you were old enough, we signed you up for little league. After the first game Daddy offered to be extra hands on the field so he could stand nearby and whisper play by play instructions to you. Left to your own devices, you were lost with your head in the clouds completely unaware that you were part of a team fiercely competing for a win. Big sister Kori has always enjoyed being a part of anything that includes friends, snacks, and competition so she was eager to join whatever sport was in season. You never really seemed eager about much outside your own mind, but we signed you up for soccer anyway. We’d had a deal with Kori that for every time she scored a goal, she would get a scoop of ice cream! After you blankly wandered around the field your first game, we changed the rules for you so that every time your foot touched the soccer ball you would get your scoop. While I think you might have had two scoops the entire season, at least it kept you running back and forth with the other players giving the appearance that you were playing the same game as everyone else.
Basketball was the next and last organized sport you ever played, and that is when we decided to give Cub Scouts a try. Your Daddy found himself in the first Boy Scout uniform of his life leading your little Troop in flag ceremonies and earning badges. I remember him coming home after a large area wide Boy Scout event and sharing his curious observations. For starters you did not interact with any of your peers the entire night. Despite your aloof wandering during the Pack Leader’s lesson, it turns out that you had been listening because when dismissed for free time, you headed straight to the only station that piqued your interest. You sat alone the rest of the evening immersing yourself in a new world of pawns, rooks, and queens while everyone else spent their time floating between archery, football, and the various other stations. Your favorite Boy Scout event was the visit to Brazos Bend State Park where your troop stayed late into the night to stargaze from the enormous observatory. You amazed everyone there including the presenters with your questions and in-depth knowledge of all things space. You shared rather obscure details about each of the planets as well as a convincing and articulate argument explaining why Pluto should still be considered a planet. You were 6 at the time.
If it ever bothered your Father that you were not into sports or stood out from your peers, I could never tell. While often confused by your curious interests and behaviors, he remains eager to connect and engage with you, and he has always been proud to be your dad. He however never managed to bring himself to wear that Boy Scout uniform with pride, and thankfully for him, scouts was no more your thing than sports.
Your sporty bedroom lasted only a few years, and at your request was replaced by a ceiling covered in glow in the dark star stickers, and bedding and posters covered in spaceships and planetary bodies.
It was not just your lack of athletic ability, and your love of chess and outer space that set you apart from your peers at a young age. You started reading at 3, learning the periodic table at 5, solving rubix cubes at 8, doing algebra at 10, and auditing a class in Chemistry at Rice University at 12. By 14 (a freshman in high school) you had taken all the most advanced math, science, and computer science courses your high school offered, and had perfect scores on not only your math SATs, but on AP and SAT subject tests as well. This current school year, at the age of 15, you were invited by the Department Chair of Chemistry at Rice University to help do some research for the Center of Theoretical and Biological Physics. When the two computer programming languages that you had previously mastered proved too slow to run the molecule simulations you had built, you learned a third programming language and rebuilt the simulation in a matter of days. And next month, at the age of 16, you will graduate from high school.
I realize how impressive that all sounds, but what few realize is that for every one of the incredible gifts you have been given, you have also been given some weaknesses. This year has been especially difficult as the only high school classes you’ve had left to finish are in subject areas where you do not excel. PE for one! And then a bunch of humanities courses that have demanded you to engage in tasks that you find tedious and dull. When you are interested in something, there is no limit to what you will discover, learn, and remember, or how long you will be engrossed in the learning. You seem however to lack any ability to focus or work hard for any amount of time if you are not interested in something, or if a task is in any way repetitive. Unfortunately, you consider things like eating, chores, selfcare, homework, and organization as some of the most uninteresting, tedious and repetitive tasks demanded of you. And things like social skills and practical tasks are just about as unintuitive to you as computer languages, advanced mathematics, and theoretical physics are to the rest of us.
School was not created with a kid like you in mind, and it makes perfect sense that you almost failed first grade math, struggled to find a school where you fit, and you remain even now on a non-traditional path. Traditional or not, the path you have been on has not been easy and this year has proven particularly difficult for us both, and for our relationship! While you carry the burden of an insatiably curious mind that takes you places you never intend to go, I carry the burden of trying to get you where you are actually supposed to be.
When you were younger you never much minded my incessant reminders and questions, as long as you were allowed ample time to wander around the yard deep in contemplation and ample paper to write down your mathematical theories in the form of charts, graphs, and equations. You have always been happy, affectionate, and kind even when my reminders and questions bordered on nagging or yelling. You were content to be carted around to your siblings extra curriculars-usually the ball fields or the theatre- as long as you were permitted to wander off alone to wherever your curiosity and creativity took you. I assume you enjoyed your weekly 45-minute piano lessons since you never complained about going, and I know you enjoyed your occasional chess and pokemon tournaments. But by far your favorite past times have always been freedom to wander around thinking deeply and solving complicated puzzles and problems of all sorts.
Being your mom has always brought me tremendous joy but also tremendous frustrations. I wonder how someone with such a powerful mind can struggle with such basic tasks. I sometimes wonder if you will ever live independently, and then in the same minute I wonder if you might one day make a major discovery that changes the whole world. I wonder why you have been given such unbelievable gifts only to be matched by your unbelievable struggles. But I also rejoice in the beauty and complexity of your heart, mind, and soul knowing that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that your Creator has a plan and a purpose for your life- a plan and purpose that likely looks nothing like my wonderings might imagine.
I do know that part of His purpose and plan for my life is for me to be your mom. I also believe that He has been preparing me for that unique responsibility and privilege my whole life. For one, he gave me just a pinch of a couple of your strengths and a couple pinches of some of your weaknesses. I had (and have) this tendency to obsess over problems or puzzles that need solved, and while I never seemed to be able to focus on the right thing in a classroom, I have this strange ability to focus on certain things with such intensity that the rest of reality fades away. I know this drives you kids crazy when I am lost in my writing, problem solving (not math of course), or a good book, and I do not even hear you screaming my name or notice your hand tapping my shoulder. I can be impulsive and even absentminded, and practical skills are less intuitive to me than the creative, conceptual, and abstract. While there is much that I don’t understand about your mind, I believe I understand you more than most. When I am tempted to feel like a parenting failure, I remember the many differently abled children I’ve worked with who have grown up misunderstood or blamed (even in their own homes) for things that they have no control over. Even in my most frustrated moments, I do know that your struggles are not your fault.
Another way the Lord has prepared me to be your mom is to provide me with a 15-year career in Special Education and Consulting, where I have had the privilege of advocating for differently abled children and consulting with families hoping to help their struggling children find a place to belong and succeed. This year in moments of desperation, I have had to remind myself of the very same words I have spoken to other parents over the years in their moments of desperation. I’d ask if perhaps what needed to change was not their child’s behavior or performance, but rather their own expectations of their child’s behavior and performance. Or maybe what needed changed was their child’s environment, or their teacher, or the tools being used. I’ve encouraged parents to not measure a child’s success or worth by grades, test scores, a single teacher’s opinion, or even a single hard year. I’ve told parents to look for growth and not perfection, and I’ve warned parents not to set a bar so high that they don’t accidentally join the rest of the world in setting their child up to fail.
Even though I believe all of that to my core, I know I make many of the same parenting mistakes I’ve coached other parents through, and to say we have struggled lately is an understatement at best. You struggling under the burden of bars set too high in some ways and too low in others, low grades that do not reflect your intellect or define your worth, and endless lists of dull and tedious tasks for you to complete all in the name of getting into a good college. And me, I have struggled under the burden of setting you up to succeed and reach your full potential in a world and education system that seems hell bent on setting you up to fail.
While I know that college is not for everyone, I can’t help but ask myself where other than a university would your uniquely gifted mind be appreciated or enabled to soar? And with colleges now requiring a well-rounded resume, and hyper focusing on class rank and grades for their admissions decisions, what choice do we have than to play the college admissions game. I know the game is killing you, but there is just so much at stake- what choice is there but for us to squash all your curiosity, creativity, and happiness, and lay it all down at the alter of education and college admissions.
At some point this year you missed another important e-mail from a teacher, and forgot about yet another due date just after I had spent one more of my afternoons advocating for you behind the scenes. My frustration poured forth in a tidal wave of exceedingly harsh words spoken at exceedingly loud volumes. As always you were as disappointed with yourself as I was with you, but I know it has been my disappointment and harsh words that have hurt you the most lately.
I knew we needed a new plan and new tools, maybe even a whole new set of expectations. But more than all that, I needed my happy son back. That is when I reached out to a trusted counselor who could see things from the outside and asked for some help.
This is the same counselor who had helped me following Hurricane Harvey devastating our home. Even after everything lost had been put back together or replaced, I continued to struggle to find normal. I struggled to reengage with friends even though I had always thrived by being around people, and I struggled to reengage in daily rhythms and routines which had previously brought me such joy- I’d all but stopped reading, writing, and even making family dinners during that long dark season. Somedays I really struggled just to get out of bed, and I longed for the me that found joy in a full schedule and a full house.
I will never forget the day that counselor encouraged me to consider the racecar. After describing in some detail, the unique design of cars specially created to travel around asphalt tracks at extreme speeds, it did not take me long to realize he was describing me. He told me that cars that are designed to go fast are not designed to carry heavy loads. In fact, heavy loads prevent racecars from preforming at full capacity or with any precision or control. They struggle to stop in the pits to rest or refuel, and they swerve and skid getting back to the track until they reach their optimal speed. The faster they drive the more in control they are.
I got it. I was struggling to feel any sense of control because Hurricane Harvey had forced me into the pits. I was scared to get back on the track and start driving again because I felt so out of control. I suddenly understood that until I started driving (and driving at the optimal speed) I was going to continue to feel out of control. Once I gave myself permission to put my foot on the gas, the heavy loads left behind by the trauma and losses of the previous years started to fall off. I certainly still need to rest and refuel and occasionally there will be heavy loads needing carried, but it is helpful to think about and own the unique ways I was created. I was created to go fast, and it turns out that it is true that the faster I go the more in control I seem to be.
So what did my counselor have to offer me after I shared the joys and frustrations of raising a absentminded mathematical whiz? Well, he started by asking me questions. In response to my fourth proclamation that there is so much at stake, he says, “I keep hearing you talk about all that is at stake, what exactly is at stake?” I tried to explain that you can learn more in one day than the rest of us will learn in our lifetimes, and how there certainly must be some moral obligation tied to that. Even as I stumbled over my words, I realized that the only eternal thing at stake is your soul and the souls of those God means to bless with your gifts. All your gifts- your powerful mind yes, but also your kindness, faith, humor, creativity, integrity, and compassion. Then when I described our daily run-ins with boxes left unchecked and zeros in the gradebook, he asked me where exactly it was safe for you to fall apart. He helped me see that if I was the one who was setting the standard for your success, then you would have nowhere safe to go when you failed to meet unreasonable standards. And since life tends to be full of seasons of failure, he encouraged me to let the world set the standards for success and let home be a safe place for you to learn, grow, fail, and succeed. Then when I told him that I am looking forward to a day when I can just be your mom again, he asked me what exactly it might look like for me to just be your mom in this season. I thought back to the hours we used to spend playing nerdy board games, discussing your latest theories or computer programs, snuggling up to a good movie or book, or laughing at some silly meme or video. I thought back to the hours you used to spend just being quiet, unable to share your theories with me or even write them down because there were not yet words or equations to express them adequately. I’d beg you to give me just a glimpse of your thoughts, but until they were more fully realized I’d have to just let you be. There has simply been no time to learn, create, or to just be while getting through school.
Then it hit me- you are no racecar, Cade. You are not even a streetcar! I think son that you might be an excavator. Of course, I only know what an excavator is because (when you went through your transportation obsession as a toddler) you corrected me once as I pointed to one and exclaimed “look- tractor”. You are one slow moving, deep digging, powerful machine- created not to travel large distances at high speeds, but rather created to settle into one place and dig around a while. No wonder we both have felt so out of control this year. Here I am trying to reach my optimal speed while dragging this big heavy excavator around my racetrack. We are both exhausted and dizzy from doing things that we were not designed to do.
I am eager for you to walk across that stage next month and receive that piece of paper that declares you finished with high school. Not because it will say anything about your value as a person, but because it will mean that you can stop checking boxes and get back to thinking, puzzling, learning, and creating. You can get back to what you were created to do- digging! We have all agreed that there is no hurry and for now college can wait. Or maybe God’s plan for you does not include college at all. You have been offered a paid position as a researcher at Rice University starting this summer, and maybe you will have time for a class or two in subjects you enjoy. My only concrete plan this next year is to be your mom- to talk, learn, read, play, and laugh together, and to watch with pride as you wonder and wander, grow and create, fail and succeed in the safety of our home.
Over a decade ago your Daddy easily let go of his hopes of playing sports with his son once he realized that you were not created for that, and he began instead to engage, encourage, and even celebrate your love of outer space and all things math and science. Today I am letting go of my hopes of you being a speedy racecar like me, and embracing instead the fearful and wonderful design of my deep digging excavator.
Thank you for being so full of grace for your momma as she too is still learning, growing, failing, and succeeding.