Yesterday was the first day of school for many children in our community.  I received an email with the annual photo of the Dennis girls (Abby, Katie, and Dani), seated on the front step, backpacks on, ready for the big day.  It was a bittersweet day this year, because their mom, Wendy, was missing her mother (Jan) who passed away in the spring.  As I thought about Wendy and Jan, and the three girls sitting expectantly on the step, I found myself ruminating on parenting — and what a difficult undertaking it is.

It may seem strange for a woman without kids of her own to write about parenting.  However, there are many children in my life: nieces, nephews, children who think they’re my nieces and nephews, children who know better but call me Aunt Jen anyway.  I love these kids without reservation, and I love that their parents let me be part of their families.  In the course of these relationships, over years of observation, I think I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a “good parent”.  And while I have observed parents making some classic blunders, I stand in awe of what I have seen them do out of love for their offspring.

One of the things I’ve learned, that I didn’t realize until I started hanging out with these little people literally from the day they were born, is that they are born that way.  I mean, their personalities may still be forming, but some essential part of who a child is arrives with them, day one.  The happy ones, the morose ones, the serious ones who seem older than their years — good parents accept and nurture them for the unique humans they are.  My friends Ryan and Jill have two sons, whose personalities couldn’t be more different.  Watching them parent Myles and Ryker is like watching a golfer select the right club: the tools are different, but the same love and skill guide their use.

A few years ago, I received a call at 11:30 on a weeknight in August.  On the other end of the line was Ben, approximately 12 years old, nephew of friends.  He said, “Jen, can you come over and play truth or dare with us?” The “us” he was referring to was a group of 10 cousins having a slumber party.  It was a work night in the busiest month of the year for my job, but there was no way I would have said no.  And it turned out to be a truly memorable night!  I can never thank Wendy enough for being the kind of parent who said yes to calling an unrelated adult that late at night. (She also trusted me with a bowl full of flour for the most awesome “dare” ever).  In parenting, the small choices are often the telling ones.  We worry over what to tell our children about war or God, or when it is ok to leave them alone without a babysitter.  But the accumulated minor decisions may carry more weight in determining who children become as adults.

Good parenting means putting your children first.  This is extremely difficult in a world that says we deserve to put ourselves first.  Giving them everything they want is not what I mean by putting your child first.  I mean they are first in your heart.  When I asked my brother, Jeff, what his favorite thing about his family’s trip to France and Italy this spring was, his answer was perfect: it was listening to his daughters giggling together in the next room.  Not the Louvre or the Amalfi coast, but hearing his nearly grown girls enjoying their time together as a family.

Something else I’ve learned from watching my friends and siblings parent is that a child may have every advantage and excellent guidance, and still screw things up.  They behave badly, they have temper tantrums, they poke a pen through the new baby’s soft spot (wait, that was me…sorry, Gwen!).  They don’t appreciate what they have or the parents who have sacrificed for them.  They sometimes do bad things or terrify their parents by threatening the unthinkable.  When this happens, it is easy to blame the parents, and in our culture, we are very judgmental toward parents whose children behave in these ways.  I believe this is a defense mechanism which allows the rest of us to feel safe from having these terrible things happen in our lives — they must be bad parents, not like me.  But the real truth is, bad things can happen to good parents, too.

Last week, I became a great-aunt for the first time when my nephew Tim and his wife Nikki became the loving parents of little Emma Joy.  And in November, I will become an honorary aunt to Molly and Derrick’s daughter.  I will adore both of these little ones.  I already know these children have awesome parents. To these new parents, as to the other parents in my life, I promise to help when I can, to forego judgment, and to offer you my love and support in this most difficult of life’s roles.

The Story

The following is a true story.

“The girl in the teal shirt, with the long blonde hair, is studying hard. And when she takes a break to gaze out the window she is working hard, even then, to not meet anyone’s eyes or connect in any way. The only other customer is a dark, small man whose attention is completely on his computer screen, though there are books and notepaper piled on the table all around him.

The woman in the corner puts down her book and stares at nothing for a minute before picking up her coffee cup and, pausing with it halfway to her lips, peering at its contents as if reading her future inside. She takes a small sip and returns the cup to its saucer.  There are tears floating in her eyes. They do not overflow.

She takes a deep breath and refocuses her attention, turning her head so one ear is cocked toward the staff behind the counter, who are alternately joking and bickering.  Outside the window, her eyes follow two women and a child in identical orange shirts, then shift to a thirty-something couple attempting to settle a large German shepherd into the back of their car.

This is what the woman in the corner is thinking:  She is thinking about one summer back when she was in college, and they had a small apartment downtown. There was amazing art on the walls, which belonged to the professor who owned the place.  She remembers the white walls, wood floors and the paintings.  She remembers the long summer of wasting time, of endless talking and smoking, of quick walks down the block to the bar or the Maid-Rite.  She remembers feeling the life ahead of her will be anything but ordinary.

She knows it is useless to wish for the past to come back, to wish for a different chance, to have been a different person. That doesn’t stop her from wishing it. Doesn’t stop her from wishing she had chosen differently. It occurs to her that she can choose differently for herself now, that beginning with this moment she can try for something other.  But then she thinks of the work piled on her desk. She thinks of the bills that must be paid. She thinks of her timid nature, her indecisiveness, and she can’t believe in her own ability to change.  She thinks, “I am like that German shepherd, acting like I have a choice when, in actuality, I am always going to sit in the back seat.”

And she knows she can never say these things. She knows that anyone hearing these thoughts would argue or, worse, console her.  Instead, she picks up the pen and opens the notebook in front of her.”

April 22, 2007. I wrote this story in my journal as I sat in Starbucks on a Saturday or Sunday morning telling it to myself.  I thought of it yesterday, when I happened to stumble onto a Tony Robbins video clip.  Now, I’ve never really paid attention to Tony Robbins, motivational speaker extraordinaire, so I was surprised to find myself listening carefully.  Paraphrasing what he said, “Suffering doesn’t come from life events.  Events happen. Suffering comes from the meaning we attach to them.  The story we attach to the event is the secret.”

In the story I used to tell about myself, I was a sad observer of life. I’d never merit the front seat.  My “glory days” were behind me in an apartment in downtown Dubuque, Iowa circa 1983.  I never really liked that story, but I thought it was the only one I had.  After all, you cannot go back and change the past.

But I can change the story.  The woman, sitting in the corner of the coffeeshop can, after picking up her pen, can write:

Snap out of it! Its a beautiful day. No need to brood over gloomy thoughts of the past when you have today.  Today, anything is possible. The more you believe that, the more you know in your heart it is true, the more the impossible will take shape in your life.  Who you have been has led to who you are. And who you are is someone who will put down this pen and walk out into the sunshine.”

We can always change the story. I know, because my story has changed substantially. You should try it.  I can promise you this — it is way more fun to be the author of your story than just another character in it!  To quote another great motivational performance (the band Sugarland): “…find out what it means to be the girl who changed her mind and changed the world…”


A couple of years ago, I was experimenting with a new journal style (for those of you who don’t know this about me, I’ve kept some form of journal or diary since 1973).  I bought a blank book, then wrote a list of words on the first page.  The challenge was to take one word at a time and write about it until I didn’t have anything else to say. 

Most words on the list took two or more pages to fully explore, though a couple took less.  For the word “fulfillment”, I wrote:

“My life has always been full.  Full of work, full of activity, full of obligations, full of  ‘shoulds’, full of food, full of fears, full of expectations, anticipation, potential.  It was so full I was completely overwhelmed much of the time.

It has only been recently that I’ve realized that a life can be very full without being filled.  My goal now is to figure out what I need to do or change to experience ‘filled’.  The paradox is that the first step is to pare down, purge, create space. There has to be less to make more.”

So, here I am, a couple of years older and, hopefully, worlds wiser.  My life is still full, especially in August.  But it is also much further along the way to being filled.  And by filled I actually mean something akin to sated or satisfied.  The activities on which I spend my energy are meaningful in ways that I hadn’t really experienced when I wrote the journal entry above.  And I was definitely onto something when I said the first step was to create space. 

In the quest to make space in my life, I have had to examine my time and figure out what stays and what goes.  I purged my closets, my craft room, my psychic baggage.  I now spend a lot less time filling time, and a lot more engaging in experiences that are satisfying at the soul-deep level.  I’ve learned that really good, and good for you, food sates your appetite in a way that junk never will — and this is true for the things I put my heart into, as well the things I put into my mouth.

A few weeks ago, an old friend said to me, “You have a very full life.”  I hadn’t thought of it, but I loved hearing  it.  My life is full in the sense I imagined it could be when I wrote that journal piece.  This kind of full, this style of fulfillment, leaves plenty of room for growth and adventure. For new people and places. And it creates its own atmosphere of contentment even in the harried and difficult seasons of the year.

What’s in a name?

My birth certificate reads: Jenifer Ann Hanson.  My parents told me, when I was young, that they spelled Jenifer with one “n” so that they could call me Jenny but spell it J-e-n-i.  Until I was in graduate school, everyone in the world called me Jeni.  Once at the University of Iowa, my faculty called me Jenifer because that was the name on the class lists, and I didn’t bother to correct them.  I liked the new identity that going by my full name provided.  Jeni was young, uncertain, self-conscious, girl-y.  But Jenifer was a mature and professional woman.  Pre-1986: Jeni.  Post-1986: Jenifer.

A lot of other life-altering events and processes took place post-1986 as well.  Including an almost complete break with the friends who had been important in my life until then.  I held onto family, and one or two people from graduate school.  Every five years or so, I’d be in touch with my college roommate, Vicky Powers Wong.  But other than that, there was a defining line that broke my life into two halves: before and after.  Some of those relationships ended in the normal course of life events which take us into new arenas, keep us busy with the daily tasks of living, and generally make it difficult to maintain contact (especially in those days, before cell phones, text messages and facebook).  Others ended over hurts, breakups, misunderstandings.  And some just from my own laziness about staying in touch, and friends who eventually gave up when I clearly was making no effort.

After a while, I realized I missed these people who had been such a part of my formative years.  By then, though, I didn’t know how to bridge the gaps and I lacked the self-confidence to believe that they would want to have me in their lives again.  There were no high school or college reunions for me…well, there was one disastrous reunion at Clarke where my nerves led me to drink too much and say exactly the wrong thing to everyone I saw.  That cemented my belief that the past was sealed to me, and since no one would speak to me by the brunch on Sunday I know I wasn’t imagining it!

This summer, when I least expected or looked for it, reconnection has happened.  I owe much of it to facebook, the rest to people with loving and forgiving hearts.  While each person I’ve reconnected with has been a joy and gift, there are three in particular to whom I owe a debt – Mike, Carol, and Marty.  And here’s why:  these three people knew me intimately at times in my life when I was both my best and worst self.  They saw me grow, strive, learn…they also saw me smoke, puke, make a fool of myself in public.  They always believed in the person I could be, even at times when I was far from behaving like her.  And after years of silence, these three who have reason to shun overtures from me, welcomed me back into their lives as if I am my best self now.

As part of this incredible summer, people from the before and people from the after have been meeting one another.  For me, this has been a little surreal at times  (as it was for Mike when everyone knew his name before my introduction).  When my sister Gwen’s family finally met the Dennis family, after more than a decade of hearing about one another, I was surprised by how much fun we had (and that my neices think its a good idea for us all to vacation together next summer).  Suddenly, people who have always known me as Jenifer have decided they have permission to call me Jeni — and those who have always called me Jeni have adamantly refused to call me anything else, unless they are making a point.  There is no longer a separation between people based on the name they use for me.

More important, I feel like there has been a reunification within myself, as stunning on a personal level as the reunification of Germany was on an international level.  I am whole in a way I wasn’t before – I embrace all versions of my name,  my self.  There are still unmended relationships from my past, a couple of people who haven’t accepted my friend requests.  But I want Carol, Marty, Mike — and all of the rest of you who have taken me back into your graces — to know how grateful I am.  The truth about real relationship is this:  how I feel about myself and/or you in a particular moment may vary. But below that, in the deeper always of my heart, there is love.

Affectionately yours,