While writing my suburban mom confession, I need to confess to writing a long and unwieldy blog post. Whenever you combine suburban guilt and mother guilt, things get complicated, so I’m making this a two-part post.
This is my confession: I chose to raise my four sons in the safety of suburban life. I chose to protect them from the troubled experiences of my own youth and from a mean world outside. I knew living in a safe area never guaranteed an absence of danger, but I was going to try my hardest to offer them a secure childhood.
When I started bringing adorable babies home from the hospital and my strong maternal nature kicked in, I strove to keep these little guys safe. Certainly a safe upbringing would contribute to their ability to live meaningful and productive lives as adults? In my mind, protection meant giving them strong school experiences and an intact place to return to each day in a safe neighborhood with available parents who helped with homework in the evenings rather than guzzled down cocktails. (I grew up in a town where many of the parents behaved like the adults on a Charlie Brown episode, never seen on camera, only appearing as a wah, wah, wah sound from off-screen.) Protection meant attending to my sons’ emotional needs, being available as they processed middle school and high school heartaches, and pushing aside parental distractions and diversions to celebrate their wins and grieve with their hurts.
We raised them in a kind neighborhood where the residents supported each other by caring for one another’s children. Their homes mirrored our home with two parents, lots of support, lots of stability. Once, my middle son rear-ended a bus on his way to school with his twin brothers in tow, totaling the family van. When I showed up at the scene of the accident, a group of about 10 neighborhood parents stood encircled around him from a respectful distance, showing deep concern as he wept with embarrassment. None of the adults said a word, but I’ll never forget that caring gesture. Can anything really be wrong with this upbringing?
Yes and no. Our suburban life had much goodness to offer our sons as they grew up, and I feel deeply grateful for those influences. But unfortunately our full calendar held us all captive and dictated our values, whether we knew it or not, preventing us from moving outside our sheltered existence. We raised them under the demands of busyness: Boy Scouts, youth group, soccer games, swim meets, band practices, concerts, and then the jobs of their teen years. Who had time to go serve the poor, to bring the stranger into our midst? And birthday parties. Woah. They had to be excessive, themed, costumed, and absolutely exhausting. Each month as I added all the committments to the calendar, I had a nagging feeling something was deeply wrong with our frenetic pace, but I couldn’t find the brakes for the train.
I confess this all to you, dear reader.
I frame this as “a confession” because as the mother of four grown sons, I struggle with the disparity between the life we gave our sons and the life that remains out of reach for so many other parents and kids. I wish I had let more of the broken world seep in, not so that my sons were harmed but so that they had more opportunity to grieve with those who grieve. I wish they saw more poverty at an earlier age, more of the inner city and knew how many children desperately need good homes. In their adult years, they have seen it now.
I applaud anyone who adopts or does foster care, always wishing I was the kind of person who could bring kids into our home without having a nervous breakdown. I know myself well enough to know this introvert barely handled her own kids with the necessary grace. I don’t believe adding more kids to the mix would’ve helped anyone. I looked at my limitations and determined I wasn’t up to the task but feel deeply inspired by my heroes who raise kids in challenging—even dangerous settings—either the inner city or foreign countries, or who raise children born to other parents.
I stumble over stories about sacrificial living, wondering why I didn’t/couldn’t do the same, why I couldn’t be more like writer Dorcas Cheng-Tozun who moved to Kenya with her husband and child and writes about her experience in “How Moving to Kenya Made Me a Less Fearful Parent.” She made this move despite her own sheltered life growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area where her immigrant parents kept her in familiar communities as protection, and where she had internalized the message that the world outside their secluded community was scary. She faced her fears and moved overseas anyhow.
Author Meadow Rue lives in an intact neighborhood but decided to bring the broken world home when by adopting an abandoned child from Uganda suffering from cerebral palsy. Meadow tells her story in her beautifully written memoir, Redeeming Ruth.
Why couldn’t I be more like Meadow or Dorcus, moving overseas or taking in a child with severe health issues?
Because I am not Meadow or Dorcas.
I don’t believe I could’ve handled the strain, but I wanted to handle the strain. I wrestle and wrestle with my limitations and regrets, and then I settle on the words of Margot Starbuck who authored Small Things with Great Love . This book speaks with great encouragement, helping me to see I can start small and start where I live: “Small things happen when I learn the name of my daughter’s school bus driver,” Margot writes. “Small things happen when I listen to the dreams of a woman who lives in a group home on my block. Small things happen when I risk crossing a language barrier even though I look really stupid doing it.”
Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger write about their efforts to teach great compassion to their kids in the suburbs in their book, The Year of Small Things. After years living in radical urban Christian community, showing hospitality to the marginalized and the stranger in the inner city while sharing meals, possessions and living space, the Arthurs moved to the homogenous suburbs and discovered how to live out New Monasticism in their safe neighborhood where everyone seems to be fine.
In my own life, small things happen when my husband and I get in the car and drive to the maximum security jail located in our small city to volunteer. Small things happen when we work with refugees in our safe city which serves as a resettlement spot for World Relief. I’m finding ways to serve that fit my introverted personality and location. We do visit inner city churches in an attempt to walk across the street for relationship building, but I don’t see a move to an impoverished area in our future. I may not have been able to be Meadow, but maybe I can emulate Margot, Erin, or Sarah to some degree, serving and showing compassion right where I live. I can do small things—and I can do something.
My sons recall that we did do something as parents. We supported numerous children through relief organizations and raised our sons with these kids looking back at us from the refrigerator whenever we went for a glass of milk. We sent our sons to build a home for the disabled in West Virginia with Habitat for Humanity. They traveled to Jamaica to help those in need and packed meals for kids in other countries.
Relationships and community played a major role in developing passions within our sons. The people we invited into our inner circle influenced each of them in quietly powerful ways. One of my closest friends adopted three children as a single mother during my son’s growing up years: a bi-racial baby, a son with Down syndrome, and a little girl who had experienced eight foster homes in her first nine years of life. Today she lives alone in one of the roughest parts of her city. We stayed at her house for long periods of time for visits, and she spent long visits with us, often celebrating holidays and special events together. My sons witnessed firsthand the power of laying your life down for others even if I never committed to the same choices in my life. We can’t discredit the power of community. My sons emulate this friend today in so many ways.
But looking back, none of it feels like enough to me.
Over a dinner the other night with my friend, Kara, we discussed her recent trip to serve in a dangerous refugee camp in Greece. My thoughts on this topic of suburban guilt came up, and I told her how I feel we didn’t do enough to introduce the broken world to our sons. She graciously responded, “But what is enough?”