Talking “Small Talk” with Amy Julia Becker (and a giveaway!)
Amy Julia Becker is one of my favorite Christian women voices out there. I appreciate her commitment to excellent writing, both on her blog and in her books. If you haven’t yet read A Good and Perfect Gift, go to Amazon and snag it. It’s lovely. I’m so happy to have her here with us today to chat about her newest book, Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most.
I’m grateful for the chance to introduce you to her book and (perhaps) to Amy Julia as well…
MB: I’ll try not to get too fan girly over here, but I just have to remind you again that I love your writing. It is clear and crisp and beautifully constructed. You have this gift for guiding us into the emotion of the moment without telling us that we’re going there. I love how the small stories of your conversations with your kids are such a perfect gateway into the intensity and vulnerability of parenting. I felt like your book took me to my own life and showed me where God was at work in my own small moments of mothering. You reminded me to pay attention to God at work around me.
Your book begins with a conversation you have with your daughter, Penny, in which you share with her the complications of your feelings at discovering that she had Down Syndrome after her birth. It’s probably my favorite essay in the collection, because of its emotional vulnerability and genuine joy. Why did you want to start the collection there?
AJB: I have to start by saying thank you. It’s so nice to hear that the book ministered to you! It took many drafts of this book for “Birth” to become the first chapter, but once it found its way there I knew it was right, for a few reasons. One, the essays in this book hold together through a loose chronology that begins when I am pregnant with our third child. So the chapter served a practical purpose by locating the reader in time. It also allows the first chapter of this book to echo the entirety of my previous book—A Good and Perfect Gift. In telling Penny her full birth story—both my initial fear at her diagnosis and later our joy in receiving her into our family—readers get the summary of the previous book whether they’ve read it or not.
But beyond those practical purposes, “Birth” also anchors the narrative as a whole. For a long time I thought Penny’s birth was more complicated than those of her siblings, but eventually I started to wonder whether Penny’s birth was the true story of every child, of every one of us, really, because it was filled with joy and grief, fear and gratitude.
MB: You start chapter five by saying, “Becoming a mother has been as much about failure as anything else.” What has failure taught you about motherhood?
AJB: Hmm. It might be more accurate to say that motherhood has taught me about failure. Before I had kids, I didn’t fail at much. Which sounds as though I was good at everything, and as a classic type-A overachiever that’s certainly what I wanted to believe about myself. As I look back on my life, I realize that the reason I was good at things was because I gave up or didn’t risk things where I might not succeed. There was a class in college, for example, that I was really interested in taking but I heard people only got B’s. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t take the class because I didn’t want to risk getting a B in it. Yikes.
Anyway, with my kids I can’t get away from taking risks on their behalf. Take Halloween, which comes up in the “Failure” chapter but also just came up for every family across America. Halloween is not my strong suit. I don’t like decorating. I don’t like costumes. I don’t like trick or treating. I can’t even manage cute pictures of my children. But I also can’t back out of Halloween, and so every year I get a little bit closer to letting go of my own perfectionism about this holiday and being able to enjoy it with them.
MB: In your chapter “Christmas,” you consider how “the whole point of Christmas, theologically speaking, is that the abstract became physical, the conceptual became concrete…it’s important to celebrate Christ, not only through words and hymns and spiritual practices, but through the embodiment of celebration and delight.”
I really connect to that longing. I want my children learn to celebrate not just Christmas but the entire Christian year through in a way that teaches them to delight in the goodness of God. That’s not such an easy task though. What does celebration of entire Christian year—the whole Story of God—look like in your home?
I do try to make both Christmas and Easter as physical as possible. We order sticker calendars and we have a nativity scene that the kids can play with and stuff like that. For us, it’s music and churchgoing that make the abstract concrete the rest of the year. As I write about in Small Talk, I sing hymns or praise songs to our kids every night, and we sporadically sing those same songs together as a family. I can still remember the words to songs I learned at Vacation Bible School as a kid, and I think music communicates to our souls in a more lasting way than almost anything else.
I also have a chapter on “Church” in the book, talking about how unspiritual it often feels and yet why we continue to go to church and participate in our small congregation. Maybe some of why church feels unspiritual is because it is so physical—handshakes and hymnals and even the bread and the wine and certainly those three children of mine who are scribbling and wriggling in the pews. And yet when we connect our spirituality to our physicality, we connect ourselves to the incarnation and understand something more of Jesus’ physical entrance into our world.
MB: In your chapter on rest, I really resonated with your reflection on “the common grace that proclaims our value because of who we are as God’s children and not because of what we have produced.” Now, I know that you are a productive woman. No one writes three books while being the mom of tiny kids without being an extremely motivated person. So how have you learned to really believe those words in the way you live your life? How have you learned to find your value in how God sees you, not in how much you accomplish?
AJB: I’m not sure I fully believe them even now! I reread the “Rest” chapter and feel convicted every time. Still, I do think the Lord has used my kids to teach me about rest and about rhythm, particularly through our time together on Sundays. I write about my thoughts on the Sabbath in that chapter, and even though I’ve been theoretically convinced for years of God’s invitation to rest and celebrate for one day each week, I still find it hard to put into practice.
I’m often puttering—folding another load of laundry, filling the birdfeeder, cleaning the kitchen—but I sometimes hear that sweet whisper inviting me to cuddle with the kids on the couch or sit in front of the fire with a book. We do almost always go to church, eat a leisurely family lunch, and take a family walk on Sundays, and those weekly times have been gifts in helping me to remember that God is God and I am not. Resting and celebrating helps me to remember the goodness inherent in that statement.
MB: One of your many ideas that I’ve been contemplating lately is from your chapter on “Happiness.” You talk about The Beatitudes and how Jesus’ signaling out of the meek, and the spiritual seekers (as opposed to those who already have it all together) as the blessed ones. You say, “If true happiness, as Jesus tells us, is being out of control, dependent, and needy, then parents must be one of the happiest groups of people on earth.” Then you go on to recount a conversation with Penny when she asks you if you’re happy “because you are loving me?”
I love that idea and it has challenged me to think about how my kids view my own happiness. Am I communicating to them that my happiness is dependent on order and control and things going my way? Or am I communicating that loving them and being loved are the real makers of happiness?
Have you learned how to be intentional in how you live out your stress and joy in front of your kids? How do you show them that “loving” is where you find happiness?
AJB: One of the things we’ve started doing as a family is a more-or-less weekly prayer time. In the prayer time we each have an opportunity to say “Sorry, God.” I don’t know how much our kids understand their parents’ confessions, but they do hear us admit the stress that can impede our joy.
As for loving being the way I find happiness… Well, first of all, I need to remember my own belovedness that comes from God independent of my achievements. The “God” chapter in the book gives an example of experiencing God’s faithful and tender care for me in a time of faithlessness and anger on my part. But with my kids, there’s also just the necessity of laughing together in order to communicate both love and happiness. And the laughter happens when I’m not tired and stressed out and ready to receive them as they are.
MB: There’s so much to chew on in these pages! I feel like I could have asked questions for miles. Do you have a favorite story in this collection? Maybe one that still speaks loudest to you or one nugget of truth your kids have helped you recognize that you’re still learning to believe in your everyday life?
It is really hard to choose! My kids have their own favorite stories. Marilee likes it when she says, “You was a jerk, Mommy?” William likes when he tells me a funny joke and breaks me out of a dark place. And Penny likes the scene where she coaches William on how to escape from their room after bedtime. Personally, I find myself returning to the anecdotes from Beauty, Forgiveness, and Prayer fairly often, probably because I’m still learning the lessons contained in those pages.
Still, I think it’s the overarching story that I hope this book tells that matters most to me. As you know, it’s divided into three parts—Holding On, Letting Go, and Growing Up. Penny is almost nine so it has been almost ten years since I first got pregnant. Now that I can look back over the past decade I can see that all those hours that felt defeating and exhausting and impossible were actually adding up to something. God was using the “ordinary hard stuff” of diapers and dishes and doctor’s visits to break me and put me back together again.
Amy Julia Becker is the author of Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most (Zondervan, 2014), A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations and a Little Girl Named Penny (Bethany House), named one of the Top Books of 2011 by Publisher’s Weekly, and Penelope Ayers: A Memoir. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she blogs regularly for Christianity Today at Thin Places. Amy Julia lives with her husband Peter and three children, Penny, William, and Marilee in western CT.
Amy Julia is giving a copy of Small Talk away today! Click on the Rafflecopter icon below and leave a comment about what the small voices in your life (whether your own kids or other children in your life) are teaching you about “what matters most.”
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