Gathering

The past couple of months there has been a lack of peace in my home, and I often thought, this mothering gig really isn’t my thing anymore. 4 teenagers, one with profound special needs, a pre teen, a 10 year old, a 9 year old, and a four year old who has no lack of confidence. It was a lot. Between health and job and hormonal issues which led to emotional issues and arguing and backtalk and snarkiness and bad attitudes and the older kids teaching the younger kids things they had no business knowing; the whole thing was a big honkin cup that overfloweth… or perhaps, it was more like a kitchen sink or the bathtub spilling over & it was causing significant damage. And we – the parents – should have immediately steered the ship back on course, but instead we bickered & bitched & complained as we held on for dear life to the raft boat the kids threw us when they made us walk the plank.

This sudden change in the family dynamic was attributed to a few circumstances: one, everyone was getting older and hormonal and becoming more opinionated & two, our move to an urban community where the kids had opportunities for activities, sleepovers, and jobs and the focus slowly shifted from the family unit – a strong unit we had in rural America where we relied heavily on each other because it was all we had – to individualized focus “You take care of you, and I’ll take care of me” & as long as the older crew took ownership of themselves: jobs, food, school, homework, play – we didn’t question much. We reasoned it was simply a stressful time in our life and “this too shall pass” and then…

Then, a few weeks ago, I said to my husband “I really miss family dinners.” You see, with the introduction of jobs and late nights and neighborhood kids to play with and everyone fending for themselves, and in turn each individual grabbing a bite to eat here and there, dinner time as a family had become almost obsolete – the rare exception in our family since our conception in 2011. For 8 years, we have religiously sat down at the dinner table and enjoyed a meal together – religiously until the move this past December. When Ryan and I married, we knew this tradition would provide a foundation to our success as a blended family – the art of gathering around a table for a home cooked meal and offering a blessing for not only the food we were about to eat but also for his faithfulness through our lives. We knew that the table would provide the foundation for community and connectedness in our newly blended home and the absence of the table would only leave a void and disconnect.

We recently reincorporated family dinner night. It looks a little different than it did in rural America, and we eat later – around 6 now because of play time with the neighborhood kids. We’ve made it a requirement for any child who is home that evening, and my oh my, what a difference we’ve seen already. Attitudes have changed and lightened as we laugh around the table partaking in fresh pasta and warm bread. I like my kids again & I think they might like me too as the focus has shifted, and we get to know each other on a heart level – on a real level- rather than just co-existing.

There is so much chatter in the world today about how lonely we all are, how depressed and isolated and longing for community, and this is not only true for ourselves as adults, but it’s desperately true for our kids. Our homes need to be safe places of respect & connections and what better way to foster these desperately needed essentials than around a table? What better way to encourage conversations? And what better way to show love than to invest our time, our most precious commodity, in them? Give it a try. You won’t regret it ❤

Just keep livin.

Dream Team Coloring Book – A Dream Come True for One Educator.

It all started when I was an 8th grade literature teacher. I remember pacing near the whiteboard, looking at my teacher’s manual, when I noticed a quote in the book I hadn’t seen before. I wish I knew the quote (and I’ve searched for it many times), but essentially it said this: “How do you know when a society values a person? When you see that person in their children’s literature.”  I remember at the time being so struck by this idea, and how this seemingly simple concept was quite a good litmus test.

Fast-forward six years and I was now a mom to my beautiful four-year-old daughter with profound special needs. My husband and I met Abiella when she was living in Ghana and finalized her adoption a few months before her second birthday. As soon as she turned three she began attending an inclusive preschool. In her classroom, fifty percent of the students had special needs, and fifty percent did not.

On one of her afternoons off from school, I found myself in a familiar scene: my daughter was relaxing on a quilt on our living room floor while I was searching through our baskets of books and toys to grab something she might find entertaining. As I pilfered through our dozens and dozens of options, all of a sudden I was back in my classroom, standing as a teacher in the front of the room, reading that quote. In that moment, it dawned on me that out of the massive number of children’s books, activity books, coloring books, and games in our house- not one had a single picture that represented her or her world. Was it possible that my daughter had never seen herself in a piece of literature?

I began thinking about her other friends at school. Had they seen themselves? What about the young child with a tracheostomy- had he seen himself? What about the young friend with a limb difference- had she seen herself?

I later found that yes, there are pieces of literature out there (thank goodness), that are very often created by other parents facing a similar gap. I decided there could always be more and that I wanted to add to that body of work.

With the help of an illustrator, I began the process of creating an inclusive coloring book. I modeled it off my daughter’s pre-school experience. Among the pages, there are many stories. There are children who use walkers, wheelchairs, braces, splints, and sensory headphones. There are also members of The Dream Team who do not have hair, have limb differences, or breathe with a tracheostomy. I also included a happy hospital scene, as many children with medical challenges often spend quite a bit of time in these environments.  Additionally, you will be introduced to amazing children who do not have a diagnosis or perhaps have a special need that is invisible. All of these children are a part of The Dream Team (Volume 1): A group of kids who love hanging out, living life together, and enjoying the awesome magic of inclusion.

While I certainly couldn’t fit every situation into a 20 page book, I do believe it’s a start. Illustrations range from simple to complex and my hope is that individuals with unique circumstances might see themselves portrayed in a happy, positive way. Lastly, I hope this book offers a place for curious minds to ask questions when they see something that feels unfamiliar. It is certainly a coloring book for everyone.

The Dream Team Coloring Book is a free resource, and since I hit publish two months ago, it has been downloaded nearly 700 times. Many individuals have told me they are also making copies for their classrooms, clinics, family and more. This is incredibly exciting and I absolutely love seeing pictures of young children putting their own touch on these awesome pictures.

The book can be found on my website at www.marysusanmcconnell.com/dreamteamcoloringbook . It can also be uploaded into various devices, allowing individuals (like my daughter) who color with assistive technology to have fun with the pages as well.

This coloring book was a joy to create and it has been an enormous thrill to see it out in the world being enjoyed by families across the globe. Thank you Jess for the opportunity to share the book on your incredible platform.

– Mary Susan

  • Mary Susan McConnell is the host of the popular Mama Bear Podcast, a space she created for fellow women raising children with special needs. As a former middle school teacher, she has her Master’s in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment and is currently working on her Doctorate in Special Education. She is also the creator of the inclusive Dream Team Coloring Book, a free resource she developed to provide an opportunity for children with a variety of unique circumstances to see themselves in literature. In her spare time, Mary Susan likes to make pottery in her at-home studio. She resides in Tennessee with her husband, 8 year old daughter, 16 year old dog, and 10 chickens.

 

Aldi & Raging Women – Lessons in Grace.

I went to Aldi the other day.

It’s where I do most of our family’s grocery shopping these days since the move. I put my groceries in the car and puttered back to the store to drop off the cart and retrieve my quarter. My head was down, lost in private thoughts as I was happy to be alone for the first time in days due to the freezing temps which had shut down the school system leaving me newly employed as a zookeeper with eight bored monkeys – or so it seemed.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed an old suburban slowly backing out of a parking space. The vehicle was a tad bit ahead of my lackadaisical strides, and so I began to walk in a wide circle to avoid the oncoming vehicle. I managed to move in time and allowed for plenty of space between the two of us, or so I thought, when out of the blue I heard –

“HEY!

Not that I was backing up or anything BITCH!”

I looked up shocked. An older, morbidly obese woman was staring at me from the driver’s seat and shaking her head in disgust. She was livid. I felt my blood pressure quickly rise and my heart begin to beat hysterically as I stared back equally as livid. I never let my gaze leave hers as I marched the cart back to the dock. I was fuming mad. If I wasn’t a woman of faith, and if I didn’t have 8 children who looked to me as an example, and if I were in an Roman arena with this woman centuries ago, it would have been a different story altogether. For Sure. But here I was, in an Aldi’s parking lot, and just as these thoughts angrily caressed my mind and began to scootch Jesus right out of my heart, she screeched off before I could give her a good solid piece of my mind.

“What is going on with people nowadays?! Where is all this rage stemming from?!”
I thought as I began to employ deep slow breaths to regain my composure and then a memory flashed – a memory from only the night before, a memory which involved me not so gracefully chewing my husband’s head off for something so insignificant when viewed through the lens of time – the lens of only 24 hours later.

And another memory from the previous long day, a bored 14 year old special needs child screaming almost nonstop “Shoes! Go to school! Shoes!” because he could not comprehend nor understand why his schedule had been interrupted by cold weather and a few choice four letter words forming in his mother’s mind as she attempted to soothe him yet again.

I was no different.

Absolutely no different from the raging woman who called me the B word, and in fact, I may be worse. She was raging at strangers while I had raged at those I claimed to love; children I had birthed and a man I had chosen to do life beside. I was her and she was me, and we were both the sum of sinful humanity.

Exactly the same.

Both in need of grace. The Almighty’s and one another’s.

This revelation caused me to pause; to wonder and to ask –

“Why was she so mad?”

Had someone died? Did she lose her job? Did her husband recently receive a terminal diagnosis? Did her husband leave her for another woman? Had to be her husband’s fault – just kidding… but I’ll never know what had caused her rage.

But empathy. And Compassion. And second chances. And a new lens which included seeing myself in her. Seeing all of ourselves in the vastness of humanity even those whose political temperaments may not align with ours or those anti vaxxers or pro-lifers or wall haters.

“And the second greatest commandment is this, to love thy neighbor as thyself” – all of our neighbors, including those we live with and gave birth to. Extending grace. Extending love.

Just keep livin