Jenna turns 8 (and hits a MAJOR MILESTONE)

Hey, J.

You’re eight today. And this is where, especially with you, the oldest, and Lilly, the youngest, I get a little misty and sentimental about how fast time flies and stuff. And it does fly. And it takes me by surprise even though every single person from the generation before me  has told me how fast it goes. Seriously. Every one. And I’ll probably do the same someday, because it does. (Consider yourselves on notice, Millenials.)

Anyway. I could get sappy or I could give you tips from a version of you that is 28 years older, but today?

I need to celebrate a major milestone.

Last week, you asked if you could make something in the kitchen. You’re always asking if you can do that, and, when I pry into what you mean, it usually involves some bizarre concoction of melted chocolate, caramel, and food coloring. I always say no, because baking with small people makes me crazy, and nobody needs that.

But last week, and I don’t recall why, though it had to be a really good reason, I said yes.

Babe, you made lemon bars (from a box mix) and I didn’t do anything but verbally walk you through the steps. You cracked the eggs, you put the weird crust-powder in the pan, you put the pan in the oven and took it back out (which only caused a tiny heart attack for me every time) and… it was fine. I didn’t need hours alone in my room to recuperate from the chaos. I didn’t spend the whole rest of the day tamping down the urge to snap at all the people (with varying levels of effectiveness). It was… fine. The bars themselves were disappointing to us both, but I feel like that’s Krusteaz’s failing, not yours. They were beautiful and perfectly made. You did that.

I feel dumb writing this. There are moms who bake with their toddlers and love it, for crying out loud. And good for them. But baking with little people is simply not in my makeup.

I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

You, in that one afternoon last week, crossed from “little” to “not so little” and it astounded me. (Also, you used the word “astounded” this morning with a straight face and it cracked me up.)

You’re growing up just right, Jenna girl. We have our stuff, you and me. Part of us being so much the same is that you struggle in the same areas I do and that triggers all my crap, and I don’t always handle it well. But through all the mess of navigating how to raise a little me, you seem to be doing just fine.

I love you to pieces, not-so-little girl. I’m glad I get to be your mama.

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Baby Brian turns 4 (and loses just a little bit of innocence)

Hey, Brian Levi.

We’ve had a bunch of bath products sitting in the queue to go… somewhere… for  while. We inherited several bags from a friend who was moving around the world on a short timeline. I went through and grabbed what we could use, but I wanted to do something helpful with the rest. You’ve been bugging me for a week or more to take them out of the house. Because, yes, you’re only four today, but also you are pretty detail-oriented and you know those bags do not belong on that cabinet.

So, today when you asked if I could please get rid of the bags, I did it. I called the women’s shelter and got details to donate all the shampoo, lotion, and makeup. I was herding the four of you toward the door when one of your sisters asked, “Mom, what’s the women’s shelter?”

I took a deep breath and explained that, while I am trying to teach you all to always use your strength only to protect, some people use their strength to hurt and control and manipulate. And often the people who wind up getting hurt are women and children. And the women’s shelter is the place where they can go to be safe.

Jenna wanted to know why they can’t all just come to our house. Bless her. If only there were few enough that they’d fit.

You? You came undone. “I changed my mind! I don’t want to take the bathroom stuff out!” You were inconsolable. It took a minute to calm you enough to get to the root of your freak-out.

Precious boy, you have never considered a world where people use their strength to endanger. This is scary. I agree. This world is broken, and it’s sad and frightening. I’m a little sad to disabuse you of the notion that everyone is as safe as you are.

But here’s the thing, buddy.

You have a big heart. A kind heart. A gentle one. You’re strong, and only getting stronger. I need you to know that there are people in this world—your world—who are hurting and need protection. I know you’re going to want to protect all the people, and it’s going to be hard on your heart to be unable to. But here’s where I want you to start:

You.

Use your strength only to protect.

Don’t hurt people around you. Not when they steal your toys, not when your sisters are blocking your way to your room, not later when you are big and you want something that somebody else doesn’t want to give you.

You are made in the image of God.

He is love. He is power. He protects. Jesus redeems and the Spirit empowers, so you can go and love and be strong to protect, too. You’re only four, but I need to drill it into your head right now: don’t be that guy—don’t be the one from whom a girl needs protection. Be the guy who protects the people around him. Be safe for the people in your life. Seek to protect people who are in danger. You are sweet and you are strong and God wants to use your big heart for good.

You’re four today. You have some time to learn all this. But you’re growing fast, and you’re already a force. I’m praying for your heart as you grow and learn to navigate this broken world. You are made to bear light, son. I love watching you learn to shine.

Katherine turns 6

Hey, spunky girl.

I love you to bits. You know that, right? The sprinkle of freckles on your nose that you got from me and I got from your Grandpa. The resentful, huffy way you put your glasses on your face. The songs you make up when your baby sister goes to bed.

Baby Lilly, I love you so much
Sometimes you hurt me
and sometimes you cry
and sometimes you’re just ANNOYING,
But you’re my family, so I still love you
more than anybody else
who’s not in my family…

And then there’s the one that you made up a few months ago that you sing almost every night, without pesky hindrances like, say, words that make sense or a fixed key:

The mountains are quiet
The hills are bright
The sun beats powerfully on its little light
So sleep, sleep, little one
Sleep, sleep, little one
Sleep, sleep, little one, sleeeeeeeeep.

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Photo: Sarah Lewis Photography

Seriously, kid. Where do you come up with these? But you sing them with every ounce of earnestness you have which, believe me, is a lot. Every time I try write down the things you say, I have to use caps lock for about half of your words. Because you JUST have SO MUCH to SAY and it’s ALL so VERY IMPORTANT. There’s NOT A THING that comes out of your mouth that you don’t COMPLETELY OWN. You are ALL IN.

All in.

That basically sums you up, Katherine. And I adore you. This year, we’ll keep working to make that enthusiastic will of iron work to your advantage, okay? I see benefits already.

A couple weeks ago, it was Mother’s Day. I opted out of church because I’m a big ball of neuroses about this particular holiday and we went to a playground instead. I heard a boy say something truly awful to you:

“Your mom doesn’t even want you. Not really.” 

At first, I thought I misheard. Surely he said watch and he was commenting on my parenting (happy Mother’s Day to me), but we talked later and I learned that this isn’t the first time he’s tried to convince you that I don’t care about you.*

You are unfazed. Bless your oppositional little heart. I love this about you. You’re so sure of your place in your mama’s heart that there’s NO WAY this insecure child is going to get into your head or under your skin.  I don’t want him saying it to you, and we talked about it for a bit, but I’m floored by how legitimately fine you are. You remind me of your daddy. He knows who he is and he’s not especially bothered by people who don’t. (It’s not like this is the first time I’ve seen the similarities between you and him.)

I wish I were more like you.

Katherine, you are strong and you are brave and you are generous. (You keep giving your favorite buddies away to your siblings, certain that they’ll be as blessed as you are by your stuffed cheetah. You give gifts that cost you, and I love seeing your heart in this.) You are growing in self-control and wisdom and truth.

You’re a force, little girl. You’re going to change the world.

I know this already and you are only six. (Shoot, I’ve known it since you turned three.)

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Use your powers for good, not evil, okay? I know you can. I know you will. And I love you always. You’re growing up just right.


*side note for those following along at home: please don’t get too bent out of shape about this. It’s an awful thing to say, but I know just enough of this kid’s story to believe that he’s just transmitting his own stuff. We choose grace (with boundaries) and I look for a chance to speak life to this boy.

my very first seven-year-old

Happy birthday, sweetie.

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(image credit: Sarah Lewis Photography)

You’re growing up so well. I feel like you’re right on the line between a little girl and a big one. I’m sure part of this feeling is simply that you’re first. You’ve been the one that made me a mama, and then the one that made me the mama of a toddler and a preschooler and now a seven-year-old, so you always feel SO BIG. But that’s not all of it. Your heart and your mind are developing thoughts and words and feelings around big-people concepts in ways that you haven’t before. I’m not entirely sure how this happened; I only know that I’m not quite ready.

Last year, I watched you as you struggled with things I have wrestled with; this year, I am watching you fight with things I am wrestling. I was not prepared.


This birthday is the first I am truly nervous about. Not so much because you’re seven… it’s the day itself. This year, I’m blowing off parties, hoping to celebrate you in ways that allow me to be much more present and engaged in the day, and you’re really not sure how to deal. You keep telling me how boring it is that you’re not getting a party and how mad you are that you’re going to get fewer presents. It’s possible we won’t do it this way for you every year. Maybe this is a huge flop. But I so want you to learn the art of celebrating even in the quiet. I see your expectations and they just are not ones I can meet. (An Apple Watch and $200? Uh…) I want you to be happy and feel so very loved on your birthday, but with or without a big to-do (well, as big as my parties get, which is to say, not very big) I’m not entirely sure your happiness is up to me—it’s a matter of your attitude and expectations. I am trying to talk you through all of this, but I know in the deepest part of my gut and my memory: this lesson isn’t learned by listening to your mother. I remember these birthdays growing up where all my expectations (spoken or otherwise) were more than anyone could have fulfilled and I spent the day feeling sad and unloved. It’s hard for me to see this experience coming toward you, knowing that despite my best efforts and hopes, there’s not a lot I can do to teach you this lesson the easy way. It’s hard knowing I’m going to let you down today.

It’s hard to realize that I cannot be responsible for your happiness.

But then I remember our talk the other night. You told me, “I feel so small. I’m never good enough. I try to be kind to Katherine and Brian and they just ask and ask and it’s never enough for them. I try to be kind to Lilly, and she just shrieks at me.”

“I know this feeling,” I told you. “I know ‘never enough’ and I know ‘I can’t make them happy.'” The never enough is inside me. I have spent all of my years finding my worth in my usefulness, when the things I do were only ever meant to come out of who I am, not define it. I see this in you and I’m sorry. I still fight it, but I want you to know that you are lovely. You are fearfully and wonderfully made and so very loved. Your Daddy and I love you more than you can imagine (and you’re an incredibly good imaginer!) and God loves you so much more than we do. Your worth was clear to us before you ever did anything.

The can’t make them happy lives in the others. You can’t make Katherine or me or anybody else happy, at least not long-term, because her happiness is not your job. Watching you try to make me happy, especially on my hard days, is simultaneously the most heartwarming and heartbreaking thing. I love your compassion for others—that you want to make them happy—but then I see you assessing your value in your ability to pull it off, and you will come up short. Not because you’re not good enough, but because this job was never yours to do in the first place. We need to deal with our own expectations and insecurities and your job is simply to be kind and do right, not to make me or anybody else happy.


And here we are, with me struggling with my inability to make you happy for your birthday because I can’t do all the things exactly as you hope (and, truth be told, it wouldn’t be good for you if I did) and you struggling with your smallness and inability to make me and your siblings happy.

Baby, it’s going to be okay. Today might be tough as your expectations and reality collide. The story you’re probably going to tell yourself is that I don’t love you enough to do the things you want. Worse, that if you were somehow better—more worthy—I would love you enough to do those things. I know this because you’ve said as much and also because I’ve lived it countless times.

I will speak truth to your big, 7-year-old heart. It will take time for you to believe me—longer, likely years, before it sticks. (I’m still fighting this battle.) Eventually totes*, you will learn to recognize truth and speak it to your own heart and your own stories. It’s a really important part of growing up. I’ll show you how.

I love you, Jenna girl. You are such an incredible delight to my heart and a tool Jesus uses constantly to make me more like Him. I love watching you grow.


*for those of you listening in, “eventually totes” is a thing that Brian started saying a few months ago (“Brian, when do I get to go to bed?” “Eventually totes! Hahahahaha!”) It cracks us all up, and has become part of our family’s vernacular, so a lot of our “eventuallys” get followed by “totes.”

Happy Brian! (Turning three.)

Hey, dude.

You’re three today! Happy Brian! I love you to teeny, tiny, smoochable pieces. From your big brown eyes to your kiss-me cheeks to your sweet grin and your crazy toddler run, you bring me so much joy. I looked over your first and second birthday notes today, just to remind myself where you were a year and two ago.

I can’t believe how much you’ve grown. Last year, your sentences were more like a series of one-word statements strung together. (Sometimes, they were a series of questions, like an itty-bitty valley girl.) You called your sisters “Day day, Win woh, and Lay Mae.”

You still have this funny robot inflection I struggle to replicate in writing. Your voice is low for a little guy and your sentences mostly end with a low tone that denotes… authority? Certainty? Resignation? I’m not sure. But you are in a phase where you narrate everything, always drawing out the last (low pitched) word. “Daddy go to woooork.” “It’s time for naaaap.” “I eated luuuuuunch.” You are polite, almost without exception (in your words, anyway)… so many “pleases” and “thank yous” make my heart smile. You know and use the word “blame,” but you have it wrong in the most adorable way. If, for instance, Lilly kisses you and it’s a little wet, you say, “Lilly ated meeeee.” And I say, “Well, yeah. Can you blame her? You’re delicious!” You reply, “I caaaaan!” And then you gently thrum your chubby toddler fingers on your sister and sing in an abnormally high-pitched voice, “Blame!” Because that’s how you blame your sister. I don’t even know. It makes me laugh every time.

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I love that you’re still lovey. You give kisses and hugs and snuggles. When you get hurt or in trouble, you say (with the saddest eyes), “I need some loves,” and climb up for mama cuddles. Neither of the big girls have been cuddlers, and it’s fun to have my sweet boy who just likes to be held. I like how you love your sisters, too. You give the big ones kisses as often as they’ll let you and you take such kind care of the baby. I love how you sing to her when she’s sad. Actually, I love how you sing in general. You have a handful of hymns on rotation and a handful of other kid songs for variety, and I love them all.

You love to accessorize. Shoes. Sunglasses. Bags. Mardi Gras beads. Whatever, really.

You’ve finally hit the “NO!” phase. I suspected you weren’t going to remain totally compliant—you don’t have the genetic material for that business. But up until the last few months, you’ve been awfully easy to parent. Now, we see the standard displays of toddler power and rage that everyone kind of expects.

You know what, Bud? It’s fine. As I told your big sister back when she turned three, I love you plenty to help you figure out how to behave. I don’t mind that you have your own (very strong) opinions… that’s fine. But also, we’re going to temper that with a little bit of your parents’ wisdom until you get some of your own. Yes, it’s harder to parent you now than it was a year ago, but I don’t love you any less. Also, you’re even more fun than you were then, so it all kind of balances out.

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photo credit: Sarah Lewis Photography

The last few months, when I pray for you as you go down for bed, I always pray (among all the other things) “Jesus, please help him learn to obey.” At this point, you frequently interrupt me: “NO! Don’t ask Jesus to OBEY! I not WANT to obey!” I usually shrug at this and say, “I know you don’t, Buddy. That’s because you’re a sinner. We all are.” And then, your parting shot: “I NOT a SINNER! I’m BRIAN.” I carry on with the prayers, chuckling a little inside.

But a few weeks ago, you switched it up. After I prayed, you asked to pray, too. “Because Jesus WANTS me!” Yes, son. Jesus DOES want you. Go ahead. And you began… “Dear Jesus… [several seconds of nervous giggling]… fank you for…  [giggles]… obey… [more giggles]…” and so on for several minutes until you’d worn your giggly, delightful heart out and said, “Can I just pray to Daddy?” No, sweets. That’s not how praying works. But you can talk to Jesus like you talk to Daddy. That would be fine. So you do. The last little while, you’ve gotten more comfortable with it. There’s still a little nervous laughter (fine by me!) but it’s mostly just the heart of a nearly-three-year-old talking to Jesus as best he knows how.

I love you, Brian Boy. You’re delightful and growing up exactly right.

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first birthday of lilly mae

Hey, darling girl.

This is my fourth first birthday letter, and it may be my last. I always say (or at least feel) something like, “I can’t believe you’re ONE!” To some extent, that’s there a little- I’ve been reflecting on your birth today and it doesn’t feel so long ago.

But honestly? I can believe it. I know you’ve been with us for a whole year. I can’t really remember much of pre-Lilly life. This year’s been a whirlwind, much like Katherine’s first year was—something about the combination of a baby and a toddler makes it feel like the fastest and slowest year ever.

Anyway. Here’s the point. You fit, little girl. Some day when you’re older and these questions enter your head, you might wonder if you were just an extra. You weren’t. You fit perfectly in our family- we wouldn’t be us without you. Your sweet little scrunched up nose with the dimples (so many tiny dimples!) and your little bottom lip… You’re delightful. Jolly. Sweet-natured and chill. You’re patient with your siblings’ shenanigans.

Ever since we learned you were a girl, I’ve been excited about the big brother/little sister dynamic between you and Brian boy. I had NO IDEA. You two are so sweet together. He dotes on you, and you smile whenever you see him. I love when I have just the two of you together… He crawls around just to have you chase him, which you do with squeals of delight.

Your sisters adore you, as well. Jenna thinks she’s your mother, and Katherine is forever trying to get “the perfect setup” for you—she makes beds out of her blankets and pillows and stuffed animals “for when you sleep.” Sometimes, you even humor her by lying there for a bit.

Speaking of sleep, you’re still sleeping on the floor of my closet. I’m sorry. We really just don’t have another reasonable place for you right now. Hilariously, we’ve been swaddling you this whole time… we’re only just now giving you a free arm. This is because you’re… on the floor of my closet. Swaddling kept you still (and sleeping happily). So, as you’re fully outgrowing that, I have no clue where we’ll put you next. So that should be fun. I tell you all of this mostly to remind myself later. I’ve forgotten so many details of the last several years—apparently a lot of kids in not so many years does that—so this little quirky fact of your babyhood seems like it should be recorded somewhere, and I’m already writing here. So… Yeah. Anyway. (PS- Mama rambles.)

While I’m rambling… you’re currently crawling. This week, you started to pull up and I suspect, like your brother, you may be a late walker. (Hallelujah- mildly late mobility for the later ones is a gift.) You sing and chatter endlessly, but not much in the way of intelligible words, except when one of your siblings leaves the gate open. You crawl at top speed for the hallway and freedom, yelling, “GOGOGOGOGO!” Thank you for that, by the way—it helps me know when I need to chase you to close the gate and keep you from rolling down the steps. Again.

You’re mostly self-entertained (or sibling-entertained), which is nice. This makes it sound like I give you no attention. That’s false. You’re currently playing with my foot, and every few seconds, I look down and talk to you. You’d be fine if I didn’t, but you’re just too sweet to ignore. And, really, while you clearly have less of my attention than Jenna did when she was a baby, I think the amount of attention you get, counting the rest of the family, is far greater.

Whoops. You’re stuck under my chair. Silly girl.

(I fixed it.)

I love you so. I love that you snort when you laugh or cry really hard. I love your just-beginning curls and your sparkling brown eyes. I love how rosy you are when you fall asleep… your cheeks, nose, and lips are a bouquet of the most perfect pink. You’re growing up so well, little Lilly, and we adore you.

Katherine’s fifth birthday

Hello, darling!

I just reread through last year’s letter, curious how things have changed in the last 365 days.

Mostly, you have become more you. And I know that’s how it goes, but it’s fun to see you become. You are a delight. You’re full of fire, light, spunk, and determination. There is might and sweetness. There are cuddles and fits. Your skin is still baby-soft and your grin is as impish as ever. You fear almost nothing right now, which is both beautiful and terrifying to your mama.

Sweet girl, a few weeks ago, you and Jenna got into a discussion in the car. Jenna asked which parent she was most like (me) and you asked, too (your daddy.) Then Jenna, being Jenna and the oldest and sometimes less than gracious, was taunting you, holding over your head that she was more like me than you.

You spent the next several days doing and saying things, followed by “am I acting like you, mama?”

It was both flattering and heartbreaking.

I told you this then, but I want to have it in writing:

I don’t want a version of you that is more like me.

I mean, in the ways I’m growing to be like Jesus, by all means… follow me as I follow Him. But in all the other things?

I want YOU. Just you. The you-est version.

I know it’s not always easy to be you. You’re close enough to your sister to feel compared to her frequently, but tailing her by just enough that you feel less-than. (For the record, I don’t see you as less than Jenna.) Your personality is big and your feelings are big and your voice is big and your impulse control isn’t quite developed yet and that causes some friction.

Can I be honest with you? I am ever so excited to see what all of that means as you grow up.

You’re strong and fierce.

That makes you challenging to parent, but it also means you are going to be unstoppable as a big person. (Well, you’re basically unstoppable now.) And now, while you do the hard work of pointing all that strength and fierceness in the right direction, you manage to be delightful and hilarious.

I adore you, my girl. You’re growing up just right. I’m praying for you this year, that you grow in grace and wisdom and self-control. You’re doing a good job.