“Mom, can we just have fun?” It doesn’t matter if we are in Jackson, MS or Paris, France, this is the drumbeat of my oldest child. I struggle to have fun with him. How hilarious is that? Perhaps it’s the constant pressure of a middle child with special needs that infiltrates all my relationships with my children. Perhaps it’s because I am built as an organizer and thinker, and I would rather do mental gymnastics with my mind than spend a few hours in relaxed escapism. Perhaps it’s my childhood of having little structure nor intellectual stimulation that I feel obligated to create pathways for my children I wish I had.
Regardless of the reason, I am no fun – and this is a real problem. My oldest child is 22 months older than our middle child with autism. In a moment of vulnerability, he shared that he knows he is the firstborn. Yes, he gets all the presents and opportunities and firsts (first to ski, first to go to Honduras on a mission trip at age 7, first to have his Dad coach him in baseball, first to get a video game console). He looks me in the eye and tells me that Dad and I haven’t spent enough time playing with him – just for fun. If we were to weigh our individual contributions as parents, I fall short compared to his father. John Hugh revels in the same fun gene and he has carved out special movie dates – Marvel series and Star Wars – with our oldest.
Our oldest shared how lonely he felt growing up, mostly between the ages of 5-10. I was preoccupied with our middle child’s special schooling, therapies, and everyday struggles, and both of us were giving more time to our church than to him. I can see the disconnect clearly now. Our oldest is an easygoing personality. He will submerge his needs if he has to be vocal about them. What we mistook as independence was practiced isolation. He acted fine because he didn’t think he should demand more emotional space in the family.
How do you miss what is glaringly staring you in the face? What I noticed in his peer relationships in school – being quiet about his needs, elementary teachers noting he doesn’t fight for his spot – follows him home, but I assumed different. You talk to your child. You grill your child with questions. You fill his life with fun activities and numerous play dates – and you still miss his heart.
So in Paris this Spring Break 2020, we had two days without the fun parent – his father. While John Hugh was at Normandy for a Men’s Retreat, we decided to take on Paris on our own. We are both ill-informed and learning as we go. Instead of leading the way, I need him to help sort our way through Paris. Even without any French, he is not intimidated being in a foreign country. I marvel at his willingness to figure out Paris for me. He redirects me when I unknowingly hop on the wrong Paris metro line. He tells me it’s a “leg day” and we need to climb the stairs of the Eiffel Tower instead of taking the elevator. Don’t you know Mom? No lines means faster access and more fun. We stop at every pâtisserie to indulge the French version of a sweet tooth, much less sweet than an American’s yet quite suitable to my oldest. Fun means a little gluttony too.
We try our hand at ordering at French restaurants or snatching a few fresh baguettes before the afternoon rush demolishes the fresh, bountiful aisles of bread. We ride the Hop On Hop Off Paris Bus Tour and our oldest educates me, pointing out architecture and reciting back history from the headset. We test our knowledge of arcs around the world at the Arc de Triomphe’s multimedia display. With a bird’s eye view on top of the Arc de Triomphe, he tells me we are at the center of Paris, seeing all the boulevards strategically descend upon this circle.
Our oldest is thriving because he has my individual attention, my willingness to entertain his indulgences and whims, and my relaxed attitude. He loves Paris: the bustling of the city, the beautiful rooftops and historic architecture, the variety of cuisine and accessibility of les boulangeries, les fromageries, and les pâtisseries, the independent ease to traverse the city by foot or metro, the green spaces tucked inside neighborhoods, and the scooters whizzing past pedestrians. When asked if he prefers the Paris suburbs or the city, he responds quickly with the city. Even with the noise, congestion, and less appealing parts, our oldest loves the contrast from our life in Mississippi.
The city life sparks our oldest’s curiosity and taste for adventure. He walks more self assured, more willing to try risky things, and more willing to state his desires. We get questions all the time about what area of Paris we will reside during our first year incubation period. A good bit will depend on our oldest – his schooling options, his excitement about his surroundings, his handle on the French language.
This time, instead of assuming we know what is best, we will probe his heart – no small feat when dealing with a pre-teen boy. We will not be satisfied with a dismissive “It doesn’t really matter” because we have learned things do matter to children. Greatly. As adults, we are satisfied with quick answers that line up with our strategic plan. Probing unresolved emotions, learning about nascent, innocent dreams that are easily crushed, and indulging the adventurous spirit of any child takes loads of listening and compassion.
Our move to Paris will be challenging. So many unknowns exist, and COVID-19 has simply amplified them. On top of that, in our line of work, it’s easy to unknowingly neglect the family because a life in Christian ministry is a life interrupted by other people’s emergencies. After our heart to heart with our oldest and spending unending family time in COVID-19, you can count on one thing in Paris: fun will be a top priority for our kids. We will ensure each child finds treasures that make their hearts skip a little more, dazzles their eyes, or has them simply exclaim with joy: “I love this!”.
ARE YOU STILL MOVING? YES…
Yes, we are still planning to move to Paris this summer 2020 to start an international English speaking church. Thank you to our partners so far! We are humbled by those who are supporting us. For our partners, don’t forget to read our private blog posts (What Scares You The Most About Moving To Paris? & What Are Your Number One Hesitations In Marriage about the Move?)
We cannot leave until we raise 80% of our support. We are committed to this mission, regardless of a pandemic or other deterrents. If you are interested in partnering, please join us in our journey today.