The Gift of Family


Surprising my brother at his home in Ann Arbor

When I was fourteen, I went through a weird stage where I wanted to be an only child. I can’t remember why, though I imagine being the oldest of eight kids had something to do with it. So much noise, so much activity! I had dreams of living in a home with wall-to-wall carpet and a giant room devoted to my favorite person — me!

I don’t think that phase lasted too long, but I remember it well. It’s not that I didn’t love my own family; it’s just that in my teenage mind, I could (clearly) see the benefits of time away from them. I had a good friend who was an only child until she was thirteen; her room was amazing.

Fast forward all these years later, and my siblings are now among my very best friends. I can’t tell you when it changed, but time marches on and people grow and mature and you look back on everything you have together — so much history, so many hours logged — and suddenly you can’t imagine life without these goofballs.

And so it was, last week, when four of the Swenson children and our beloved parents, drove thirteen hours to surprise our brother for a monumental birthday. Josh was turning 40 and we wanted to celebrate with him.

We loaded up in my van at 4 a.m. and within the first 90 minutes I had already laughed more than I had in weeks. And I like to laugh. And my life isn’t boring! What is this, I marveled, because I have plenty of fun in regular life.

But that’s the thing about siblings — they reach a part of your heart, of your being, that no one else gets. You are YOU when you’re with them, the whole of it all. For better or for worse, you can let it all hang out and just relax, and sure being the oldest maybe that includes a little bit of bossy. But there is nothing like it, what an incredible gift.

We headed out on our thirteen hour trek and the only item on our agenda was time. Being together. Spending time together. No grand party planned, no lavish gifts bestowed. We were driving to be together, to enjoy time together. And we did, and it was wonderful.

Family is such a mystery. It can feel like the greatest gift God’s ever given you, but it can also be hard. There are hurts and conflict, ways of relating that aren’t always ideal. No family is perfect and the minute you can get on board with that, that’s when you can start really loving the family you got.

Believe me when I say there is no perfect family out there; everyone gets stuck with an element of crazy. But I’d like to think God knows what he’s doing when he puts us all together. Appreciate the gift of family, of your family. Don’t compare! There is freedom in loving the people around you, for who they are warts and all.

For me, spending time with my siblings gives me a deeper appreciation for my mom and dad, for the sacrifice they’ve poured into our life. They taught us family is important, not in any lecture, but by their actions. My parents put time and energy into family life and we learned that building family isn’t always easy but it is time well spent.

Over the weekend with my parents and siblings, I reflected on my family back at home. I thought about my husband and our efforts as we raise our crew. I prayed for the same love and joy to permeate the relationships of our six children, that the seeds planted now will yield the same deep friendships and joy in time together.

“Miss you goobers already,” was the text I sent my siblings the morning after our trip, a heart swelling with love, grateful for these companions on the journey of life. Family takes work, but it is always worth the effort.

Pro-life, Pro-Family

ell isa read

One of those sweet moments in the midst of all the crazy that God, in his kindness, let me catch

This past Sunday, as I was walking back from communion at our early morning Mass, I noticed a young mom with two small children. The mother was holding a tiny newborn while also working to keep her toddler next to her.

I had a flash of admiration for this woman, here at Mass by herself with such young children, and just as I turned to head down the aisle back to my pew, I heard loud wailing from the little girl.

The cries continued and once I was back at my seat and moving to kneel, I noticed a friend of mine had stepped in to help. She was seated closer to the front of the church and clearly saw that the toddler’s meltdown was not going away. My friend walked over to the mother and offered to carry the little girl back to the cry room. The mother gratefully accepted.

It was such a simple thing, offering to carry that small child, but also brave and courageous. How many times do we see a mother struggling and hold back. We don’t want to intrude, we aren’t sure how we will be received, we don’t want to insert ourself or offend someone.

But in this instance, my friend pushed past all that doubt, got up out of her pew and walked over to help. She knew, because she had been there, what it’s like to feel helpless and overwhelmed. Like mothers everywhere, she recognized that sometimes you are just in over your head, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

After Mass I told my friend I was proud of her. She admitted she had all those normal doubts and reservations, but decided she was willing to risk it to get that mother through the difficult moment.

“That,” I said to my friend, “was one of the most pro-life acts I’ve ever seen.”

It seems silly to say, but I really believe it. In that moment, standing in the gap, my friend was the support and encouragement this young mom needed. She was there for her, in a desperate hour, not to say “what in the world were you thinking?” but to say “you’re going to be okay, you’re going to make it through.”

If you’ve never felt like you’re drowning in motherhood, that might sound crazy. But I’ve been there, in the deep, deep trenches, when I’m trapped with my brood or in over my head and someone offering me a life line is what has kept me going.

And lifelines can look different. Sometimes a lifeline is a friend telling you “it’s going to be okay. You’re going to make it.” Sometimes it’s a stranger helping you walk to the back of the church.

But in those moments, when someone is there to recognize you are low and that you need a hand to get up, that is the encouragement that can make or break you.

I went through a hard season, years ago, when I felt like every time I called a friend I was on the verge of tears. Or maybe already crying. I can’t remember the details of the season (maybe not a bad thing) except I had a lot of little boys in my life and felt overwhelmed on a regular basis. I was tired, I was worn thin.

I had good moments too, but what I remember about that season is that I started living in five-minute increments. “The next five minutes are going to be great, you can get through this.”

And what I needed in those days was someone encouraging me, being there for me with love and care. It takes someone being willing to speak truth and offer help, not to help you figure out how you can be better, but to tell you how wonderful you already are and you will indeed survive this challenging season.

This originally appeared in The Southern Cross.

The Best Plan (for you)


My laundry system…might not work for everyone (but I swear by it!)

I had a strange conversation with my parents the other night that went something like this: “Do you think I’m doing a good job as a parent? Is the Family Balducci doing a good job as a unit?”

It’s silly to think I’d ask my parents this. They tell me all the time how proud they are, what a wonderful job Paul and I are doing. I’m blessed and lucky that my mom and dad have always been so generous with their love, so quick to encourage.

But it’s a funny thing I’m going through lately, being on the brink of something new. The territory of growing children, of no-longer-little babies. I find myself taking stock of everything I do as a mother, examining my methods and approaches to life. It’s not that I doubt myself, I’m just making sure.

This year we have a son graduating from high school, a son being confirmed and a son making First Communion. So many milestones and I feel like I’m standing on the edge of this cliff, about to enter a new season. And it has me thinking, a lot. Have we done our best? Do we do what’s right? Can we do better? Do I need to just relax?

I think a lot about the way I was raised, the kind of household my parents so ably managed. There were eight of us Swenson children, and I have vivid memories of daily family prayers and organized chore charts, of breakfast as a family and dinner together too. It was a tight ship my parents ran and I’m inspired by the job they did.

I’m inspired, but also tempted to compare. Because while I love so many things about the home of my youth, I recognize there are aspects of it that don’t work for me. There are ways my parents worked and functioned that don’t bring peace for me and Paul, methods that don’t work for our brood. As much as I hold it as an ideal, I can’t copy it completely.

It wasn’t until my candid discussion with my parents the other day that I realized exactly why that was. How I sometimes put pressure on myself to recreate something that was beautiful for the Family Swenson, but doesn’t completely work for the Family Balducci.

I’m able to see all the ways that I’ve tweaked their approach, and then melded that with Paul’s preferences, to create a system that works for us. My parents needed a system that worked for them, that complimented their schedule. My dad was the headmaster of the private school my siblings and I all attended; he came and went with us. And while he often had meetings after school, our family life included a schedule with very little flux.

I’m married to an attorney, someone who works completely different hours than an educator. And we have five boys in a row — which makes for a unique and interesting family dynamic. In our home, I’ve realized, we’ve created a system, a sense of order that works with those dynamics in mind — the way I approach mealtime and chore charts and so many other details is a reflection and me and Paul and our unique make-up as a family unit.

It’s such a relief to be at peace with where we are, to operate the way that works best for us. It’s not about a path of least resistance; it’s about a rhythm that makes sense. Comparing is good, but only when it inspires. If it leaves us feeling depleted and defeated, it’s time to reset our thinking.

Order brings peace, and schedules bring order. But those plans and details are here to serve us, not the other way around.

What matters most in parenting is humility and love. If I focus on that, if I’m open to being who God made me to be as a wife and mother, then I will continue to have peace and joy. I can only be me, I cannot be anyone else.

This originally appeared in The Southern Cross.

Observations on Life with (teenage) boys

food for days

Where the eating never stooooppppsss

1. The eating never stops. I don’t even know where to start in the Daily Circle of Life, but let’s just say the only time the kitchen is clean and not in use is when everyone is gone at school for the day. I treat that eight-hour time frame as the new Evening Peace. You know, that blessed chunk of time when all the babies are in bed and you clean the kitchen and go to bed and then you wake up and everything is just as you left it? With teens, that no longer exists. I go to bed and inevitably hear someone, a few minutes later, walk into the kitchen and pour some milk. And make a sandwich (which I don’t hear being made, but find evidence of the next morning). Lesson learned: take baby steps. I let the boys eat when they are hungry, but they need to clean up after themselves. I’m okay with dishes in the sink; don’t leave stuff all over the place, though.

2. There is a lot of talk of growing. Growth spurt that just happened, one that is in the near future. You are acutely aware of the inches, how those boys will (I’m not even exaggerating) come downstairs one morning and you can literally see that they grew overnight. And then there are lags and you wait and wonder. And so will your son. When will I grow again? How tall will I be? And it’s all this grand adventure, watching to see who they will become, as it unfolds in front of you.

3. It’s not as scary as you might imagine. I mean, ten years ago this version of me probably would have freaked me out. Boys, big teenage boys, coming and going. Being all around my house, eating all my food, driving my van, going to hit golf balls in the afternoon, just because. Wha? How can you manage it all? How do you keep track? You just…do. Somehow. Like mothers the world over, our little boys turn into young men and there is grace for it. Some days are more grace-filled than others, but you manage. You learn that you can’t treat a 16-year-old like an eleven-year-old. You have moments of grace and clarity when you realize it’s time to adjust the approach and you just do it. And you love it. Trust me on this. Paul and I will sometimes catch ourselves just beaming with pride and joy. These kids! What a delight.

4. There are some days when everything I just wrote in that last graph feels like a complete lie and total hogwash. Some days are hard and you question everything you are doing, how you are doing it, why you are even trying. Usually it’s just a flash of emotion, but just push through. It’s gonna be okay.

5. Another graph about food seems warranted. These boys! They eat A TON. But it’s not necessarily what you would think. It’s like, some meals they will devour everything in sight. Some nights not so much. But just buy the foods that you feel good about feeding your family, and they will figure out how to get it down the hatch (for me, I’ve gotten away from a lot of processed foods in part because of the health factor but really? Because I’m cheap. And a box of Froot Loops is gone in ten minutes flat. Might as well just burn the $3.97).

6. That’s all I’ve got. I’m off to sew buttons on a blue blazer (more life with teen boys!) because that becomes part of our school uniform in October. Also, I’m sure there is a new round of dirty socks to be picked up (by THEM, which means I need to direct that traffic as well).

7. Last thing: Don’t be afraid. This is advice I’m giving myself. Do everything out of love. Apologize when you mess up. And require that these kids do the same. Give them opportunities to earn your trust, and pray that whatever is going on under the radar will come to light. It always does!