With an armful of children’s books and DVD’s, I make my way through the glass library door. I feel awkward as I carry these items, as foreign to me as the rocks on Mars. I feel like I should explain that these books aren’t for my children, that I don’t have any.
I’ve been visiting this library for nearly a year, yet I only stepped into the kid’s section for the first time during this visit. I felt like an intruder, like I needed to explain myself, justify my presence there. I guess I felt a bit lost away from my comfort zone, over in adult nonfiction.
I searched the shelves, then texted my younger sister and told her I was picking up some children’s books. Oh good! She texts back. We won’t bring any then. I felt satisfied, boosted with a gladness that I had thought of doing something to help. The next day she and my brother-in-law and their children would begin a two-day road trip across the Midwest, from the plains of Southern Iowa to the Northwoods of Wisconsin for a vacation, to visit me. I have been anticipating this week for over eight months, ever since we blocked out the days together on the calendar. I prayed for my sister and her husband, aware of how challenging it might be to drive that long distance with their two small children: my one-year-old niece and four-year-old nephew. I think of the kids in their car seats, their energy and eagerness coiled like a spring, the car humming with it. Tired, cranky, hungry. Frustration, tears.
When I wandered through the rows of books, I slowly realized that I didn’t know which ones to choose. It saddened me to think that I didn’t really know the current needs of my niece and nephew all that well. It’s been so long since I have seen them, and children grow so fast. What do they like now? What are they interested in? I haven’t spent much time with young children, so I don’t know which books are actually age-appropriate. I send my sister another text. How many should I get?, checking that the six titles I have in hand already will be enough. Her reply clues me in on how disconnected I’ve become from the children I hold most dear in my life: At least a dozen.
As a Franciscan Sister, a vowed celibate, I have sacrificed much to help build up the Kingdom of God, including the possibility of ever having my own children. Yet, I yearn for the influence of children in my life; my chest aches with a longing to hold my niece and nephew close. I teach teens and preteens in faith formation classes at church and am friendly with my peers’ children. Still, I am shaky with my questions and am dissatisfied by the gaps. Although I believe that I am one of those who Jesus was speaking about when he said that some have “renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:21) he was not saying that we had to give up the warmth, sweetness, and connection of relationships with children. I believe this, but I am still not sure how I am doing. I am unsure whether I have made enough room in my life for the influence of little ones.
Earlier this summer, there was a time when I let six weeks pass between phone calls with my nephew. When he picked up the phone, at first I didn’t even recognize his voice. I was frightened by how he had grown and changed so quickly.
I couldn’t shake a feeling of disturbance after that phone call. My mind kept stewing with a concern that I was missing out on his childhood. I worried that I would become to my niece and nephew as many adults of my childhood have become to me: not someone I felt a deep connection to. I want to be important to them, to be someone they know they can immediately call if they ever need help with anything. I want them to understand that I love and care for them deeply, even though I live two states away.
One of my greatest fears—as irrational as it may be—is that children will not know that I love them.
Jesus calls all of us to serve the vulnerable in our society, to center them into our Christian communities. Children are certainly among the weak and vulnerable. If we keep children close to the core of our churches, our families, our hearts, then I suspect we will come to know the wisdom of love, the truth of Christ.
Even though this is my faith, I still feel clueless and lost as I try to be in a long-distance relationship with my niece and nephew. I suspect my insecurities and inadequacies are not unlike how my parenting sister or peers may feel.
During my niece and nephew’s weeklong visit, I made choppy efforts to be open to the warmth of their presence. I taught my nephew how to make sand castles. I chased my niece as she toddled around the lawn. I played spelling games with my nephew and colored with my niece. I found that my spirit was strengthened by each hug and kiss that they offered me.
In another moment, I held my niece on my lap and my nephew sat in a nearby chair listening as I read the books I checked out for them at the library. After one story, my niece rolled over and fell asleep on my chest. I felt drowsy as our biorhythms synced, just I had heard many of my parent friends describe happening to them.
While spending time with my niece and nephew my hopes for a deep bond with them were strengthened. At one point, my sister commented that my nephew is very fond of me and that she was enjoying watching how we were together. In all the shared playtime, I discovered that God works despite my fears and insecurities. It doesn’t matter how awkward my efforts are, I am connected to the ones I love.