Transcript - Get Your Spirit in Shape: Parenting, Chaos, and Community
In the studio
Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
When United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder, found out she was having triplets, she knew her life was going to change dramatically. Some of what she had learned she shares in her new book Stepping on Cheerios: Finding God in the Chaos and Clutter of Life.
Betsy and I recently talked about what she learned about the church, getting help, imperfection, and so much more. Enjoy.
On the phone
Joe: Hi, Betsy, Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape. I am really happy to have you on the podcast.
Betsy: Well, I’m really happy to be on the podcast. Thank you for having me.
Joe: Absolutely. You are a pastor, a missionary, a wife, a mom, a blogger, and a new author of a book called Stepping on Cheerios-Finding God in the Chaos and Clutter of Life. So let’s explore some of that if you don’t mind.
Joe: Tell me about your ministry as a United Methodist pastor.
Betsy: Oh, I’ve been at it quite a while now. I actually got my call at my home church where ironically I now serve.
As a United Methodist pastor a life-long United Methodist, I was baptized in the United Methodist Church as an 8-month-old on Palm Sunday. So my roots go very deep in the Methodist tradition. So, that call evolved over a long period of time.
To be quite honest, I didn’t see a lot of United Methodist female pastors. I was coming of age when that was really just beginning to get going in the ‘70s, even though we had been ordaining, as of last year, for 60 years. It was a progression of what our forefather John Wesley said, you know, the process of and the journey of sanctification really, the process.
I have an older brother who had also followed that path and started nagging me about the reality that he thought I had a call. T hen once I finished college and began to prepare for graduate school in writing, another nuisance was my associate pastor who began to say he thought I had a call. Then I started to think I had a call.
I wound up in seminary at Perkins at SMU. Graduated in 1991. So I’ve been in ministry now, 28 years now.
Joe: And somewhere along the way, you married a U.S. Congressman, right?
Betsy: Yeah, yes. It took a while for us to find each other. We’re both, I like to say in terms of family stuff, we’re both late bloomers. I had always wanted kids and honestly I had been in a relationship prior, a marriage that did not go well. So I didn’t know if that was gonna happen.
I thought about adopting on my own. I met this man the year I turned 40. And he happened to be out United States congressman from our district, Vic Snyder, represented our 2nd. I really admired him.
He was a physician. He had gone to law school at night. Yes, he’s no slacker. He’d also done a lot of medical service abroad. And so the night we actually really met and sat down and visited, we talked about our travels in terms of mission and service. His had been medical missions and mine had been church related. That was one of the things that I hadn’t realized about him.
Yeah, he’d already served 4, almost 5 years by the time we started dating. So I started dating a congressman and that was a little odd for me to be out in the public.
I began to adjust to it pretty well because one of the things I learned is that being at a political event is a lot like being at church events for a pastor. There’s a lot of potlucks and a lot of church events that you go to locally. So there’s a lot of things that as a pastor I found myself pretty at home.
And the funny part of that was some of the times when we would go to a place more people would know me than him, if it a Methodist event…you know, United Methodist.
Joe: And then you became a mom, which is a lot of the focus of your book. Can you tell me about your journey toward becoming a mom?
Betsy: We realized when we got married…. We dated 2 years. And so I was almost 43 when we got married, and he was 55.
So, I guess most people probably would have thought, Yeah, a little too late. But we knew we wanted to at least try to have one child. I had hoped more because I wanted our child to have siblings probably because of the awareness that we’re older parents. And also, I am the baby of five. So I love having a big family.
We embarked on starting to have a family. We realized pretty quickly in the process, our doctor sent us to in vitro, the IVF process. And we tried for a while and then we stopped for a little while. But we ended up in Dallas. It was very exciting for me because I had lived in Dallas, during my seminary years, and I felt very at home there. Through United Methodist clergywomen friends of mine…that’s how I connected with my doctor.
Joe: That’s fantastic.
Betsy: So women are just so resourceful.
I met another woman, an older mom, who had gotten pregnant at this clinic. And it was a highly reputable clinic. We went down there. And that was wonderful. I could connect with friends while I was down there. It felt very homey to me.
It took a couple of tries but I finally did get pregnant with our son Penn. And it was the most magical experience and deeply spiritual experience for me. It was a really pretty easy pregnancy. Something I had really waited for all my life, I think.
Right after he was born I said to my husband, we have to do this at least one more time. So, we tried again. And it was very, very hard because we only had 2 embryos left. The doctor said, Well, you do have a 50/50 chance of getting pregnant with twins. The embryologist consulted at the same time saying, I think probably this isn’t the time to be cautious.
So we decided to put 2 embryos in. And after the first 6 weeks we went in for an ultra-sound… I knew back then I was pregnant with twins because of my symptoms. They were very high… and my blood revealed that my hormonal levels were really high.
So we knew that. So we had our first ultrasound. It was confirmed we had twins. And we went back a several weeks later and I was having my ultra-sound and my husband leaned over and, because he’s a physician, saw the screen and said, Ah, (to the doctor), there are 3, aren’t there?
The doctor said, yeah we need to talk. I’m sitting there saying, what’s going on? What do you mean? What are you talking about three?
My doctor leaned over and took a hold of my hands and said… He’s from Guatemala, a really nice man. He said, You are going to have triplets. I have never, ever in my life been so shocked and so surprised. And it lasted for quite a while. It still sometimes is pretty shocking.
When we told our church family…. We’d told them a little earlier than we might simply because it was a high-risk pregnancy. And the church I was serving at the time, very unique congregation, I was senior pastor there. They were all so… such cheerleaders for us in this process. And I sit…we were sitting there. My husband held our son and I announced that we really needed their prayers because I was pregnant with triplets. And it really was just an absolute audible gasp!
Joe: I can imagine. I can imagine.
Betsy: You know, better you than… I know they just didn’t see how we were gonna manage in our age and stage of life. It was at the time it was very serious, but I can look back now and can laugh about those crazy days that we had at the beginning.
Joe: Oh, that’s fantastic. And so a lot of your book which, again, is called Stepping on Cheerios: Finding God in the Chaos and Clutter of Life, is about your family life and your adventures in raising 4 boys which sounds fun at times, but also can be a little bit overwhelming.
Betsy: Well, absolutely, because I embarked on this I thought surely at the ultrasound where we found out the gender of our kids, I thought, well, surely there’s a girl in there somewhere. Nope. No girls.
I thought, I wonder if I can do this because if you’re gonna go into the ministry as an ordained clergy and as a woman, it is still not a piece of cake. There is still a lot of heartache, a lot of obstacles. There’s still a lot of sexism. And it can be quite a challenge. So, what did I have to offer these boys?
That was probably one of the things …. I learned very quickly that boys are very, very physical. Now, I’m not going to say that girls aren’t, but it’s just observation and talking with mothers, too, that had a girl and then they had a boy and they’re like, Oh my gosh, it’s so different. And I do hear that on a regular basis so there must be some truth to it.
Once they got mobile … I think it was difficult when they were in diapers. I mean, I can remember having them all laid out on the bed and getting clothes on ‘em before they could really roll over. But once they are on the move it really is almost non-stop watching, because you never know what they can get into, no matter how hard you try to babyproof. So just sheer physicality of keeping up with four little boys. And our son was only two and a half when they were born. So he was, you know, a toddler.
Joe: A toddler and 3 infants. That’s a lot of…
Betsy: Yes, yes. And I had lots of help, and by that I mean…. Of course at this time my husband, he was still in Congress. So we had the babies December 9th and by January 15th… that was Barak Obama’s first swearing in… so, you know, in January … first 4 years. And so my husband goes off to the inauguration and we had a person….
In fact, the gifts that people gave us were…they gave us money into a special fund for a nanny to come, an infant nanny for newborns. So she was with us 4 nights a week from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. while he was gone, for that 12-hour shift because I was also trying to breast feed, which is not easy. The sheer volume of bottles, to make up the bottles once a day.
I did have to quit breast feeding after 9 weeks because, in addition, (and I mention this in the book,) I had heart failure after they were born. So I had to get on these different kinds of medications that would not allow me to breast feed or use my milk. So we went to formula.
So, we would put all these bottles in a little mini-frig upstairs. And we used a can of the large formula every day, every single day. And it’s not cheap. I had breast-fed my first one, and I never bought formula. So all of a sudden, whoa.
But my husband was gone pretty much every week… for 3, 4 nights a week before he could come home. And sometimes he couldn’t if there was work on a particularly difficult bill, like the Affordable Care Act for example. I remember one time he didn’t come home for about 12 days or something. So, you know, that kinda…that was crazy.
I have such respect for our military families and those whose spouses travel a lot. It’s very hard if you’re trying to juggle all this as the primary parent at home.
But I did have a lot of volunteers. We had volunteers out the ears—from church, from the neighborhood, from the community, people who heard, Oh, the Snyders are in trouble. It was like George Bailey! They’re in trouble. They need help. So we had tons of people.
I think I said in my book it was wonderful. It was a different kind of experience than my first, because I wasn’t alone with my little baby, playing with them every day. I was in a survival mode. And I had a lot of people in my home. And it taught me about community, but it also can be very, very hard sometimes to never be alone and just to teach volunteers and go through the…. Well, I mean, I’m a southerner from birth, and so you have to be hospitable. And sometimes that gets exhausting being nice.
Get Your Spirit in Shape
Joe: Sometimes it’s hard for those who are trained to be caregivers to be care receivers. Was that part of the learning process you’re talking about?
Betsy: Yes. And also to let go of the reality that other people are not gonna do it like you. And that’s okay. I talk about that in the book as well. But it’s very hard for perfectionistic people who are driven to do it a certain way—and that would be me because I have vision…I’m a vision person. So I like it…keep it my way.
Even though I’ve been a pastor and certainly shared in vision and helped execute those with a lot of wonderfully creative laypeople, having people come into your home where it’s most private—your sanctuary and working with your children and helping your children—it means you’re not fully in charge.
So I really had to learn that God gives us the gift of community and it’s not always easy. It’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be work in a ministry, I think. I don’t mean like work as in just toil, but it’s a vocation to learn to live in community is not always have it your way. So it’s good for church people to learn that. It’s good for Christians to learn that, and it’s good for moms to learn that, for parents in general.
Joe: Along those same lines—and I’m not gonna get this exactly right ‘cause I’m doing this from memory—but in the book somewhere you said something about not trying to be the perfect Facebook mom. What advice would you give to keep that from happening?
Betsy: You need to let some people know when to say they’re not great, when it all goes south, because I’ve come to see that…that even when it’s not pretty…. I mean, I’m not suggesting that people have to get extremely personal, and personally that can be rather dangerous. But I do think if you’re gonna be in community through social media, you need to let people know where you’re at.
I’ve always found that people respond to that in a powerful way because they realize also that the pictures that we post of our children always standing in front of the door of our porch or sitting nicely on the couch—that took a lot of effort to get that picture. Or the beautiful plate of food that somebody takes a photo of. You know, that didn’t just happen. There’s work in all of the beautiful outcomes that we have and we see.
I posted a picture last year of…. My husband was building a butterfly garden, and I wasn’t excited about the location of it, to be honest. He had these teeny tiny plants and it was right near the road…our street. And he had toiled up all of this lawn there… tilled it up.
My kids were all over the place. There was just mud everywhere. And I just…gosh, I’ve gotta trust him because he’s…we have another garden he built and it’s beautiful. It’s a tier garden. And he’s amazing with doing kind of wild-looking gardens. So I said, Okay, okay just chill out. But I posted that picture of my kids’ feet because it’s always a little hard for clean freaks and to really let that happen. I knew that was not going to stop at the garage door, you know, the carport door. That dirt was gonna come in my house.
As we get caught up in competition I think it’s natural on the part of the human condition to look around and see where our inadequacies are, what we perceive to be our inadequacies rather than to realize, Hey, we are the creature. We’re the creature, just the human beings that God has created.
We’re not meant to be perfect. We’re meant to be unique and we all have something to bring to the table, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Joe: One of the other pieces of advice that you give in the book that I found really refreshing and a little bit different is that you talk about being able to talk to your kids about the difficult things of life as well. It’s not just doing this on Facebook, but there’s also sometimes kids hit some sad times or some difficult times. And you encourage parents to share that with their kids and not protect them from it.
Betsy: Yeah, it is a little bit different. I think, of course, we have to keep in mind the age of the child. But I do mention a time when our 2½-year-old, our oldest son, he was probably about 3 at this time, maybe 3½. I took him on an escalator and you know you’re always talking about safety. And unfortunately, he got a shoe caught in the escalator.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Betsy: I had to really pull to get it out. He was fine, but it scared him to death. We were in a department store, and I got to the landing and I just pulled him out. He screamed a couple of seconds and he let out a shriek of incredible fear that came out. I could see the faces of the clerks all around me. They were looking at us like, Oh, you poor thing. But I just thought, you know, this kid is gonna be afraid of escalators, something that he thought was… In fact, I had been shopping and said we would ride the escalator as part of our treat when we’re though.
So I took him back up. He did not want to go. But I carried him up the first time and then we came back down. And he stood. And it was all okay.
Now, there are other things that have happened in the world that I don’t think you can totally shield from your children. We’re a family that has been involved in politics. And, as a United Methodist pastor, I need to know what’s going on in the world locally and globally. We have a global church. And so I don’t want to shield our kids from the bad things.
Even Mr. Rogers, one of the things he said I think is so important is talking directly to children, respecting children as human beings who have the same … We have fears. And children have fears. I think they just are more out there. We learn over time to push ours down and to not deal with them.
So my kids know when I get tired I get grouchy. And I tell them, Look, I’m getting grouchy. I’m getting…. I’m feeling bad. I’m not feeling well today. They don’t have to guess, Oh, did I do something wrong? No.
Own your own stuff and the not-so-pretty part of yourself. You’re giving them permission to also say, I’m not feeling so well today. And then say, Well, tell me about that. Talk to me about that. But I think that’s really important work that parents can do.
Again, as a pastor, you know, we talk about… if there’s an earthquake or a natural disaster we, as United Methodists, have this wonderful thing called the United Methodist Committee on Relief. We’re all over the world!
What I was gonna say, and I’m sorry I dropped that thread. …was Mr. Rogers used to say that when bad things happen, look for the helpers. Of course, he was a pastor, too, right? So that’s a very…a very good theology. Look for the helpers because that’s what the role of the church is, is to be helping when bad things happen. That’s a part of our task. And we’re all over the world trying to help people in war-torn situations and famine and disaster.
I tell my kids I keep our house to be a part of the church that loves people all over the world, that can help people all over the world, not just here for us, but in places that we physically can’t be. But we can be.
So we make a big deal out of putting together health kids. And of course I’m a huge, passionate person about mission. That’s part of my job. But that’s one of the ways that you can share that, how to alleviate suffering and how to be with people when they are suffering. And by modeling being with … and also modeling that when you’re suffering, even though as first world people our suffering may be different. In our homes, upper middleclass, middleclass people, we also have neighbors.
One of the things I do every year is…every church I’ve been in, the last 3 churches, we do the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade march. It starts in a part of the city that is divided by—and this is a big part of our city’s unfortunate history—the freeway, the interstate. We start over in this part that divides the neighborhoods in class and race, and we march, as a church, with our African American brothers and sisters all the way to the capitol. And that had a really profound impact on the adults and on the children. They ask questions about why is this neighborhood different from ours? Why is this the way it is? And so we…we have an opportunity to talk about difficult subjects when we put ourselves in a place to be present. And so I believe Jesus wants us to be with those who are outsiders, who are…either they’re suffering, they are looked down on, they’ve been rejected socially, they’re oppressed. I mean, those are things that Luke recounts Jesus saying was his number one mission.
Joe: And throughout your book you also weave Scripture to help your children grow into their faith.
Betsy: Exactly. One of the things I find is there’s still a block of us who are not familiar with the Bible in the way that our forefather John Wesley would want us to be. And so there are so many stories we’re not aware of. And we think that we have to have a secret code to unlock them. And yes, there’s a lot of resources certainly that pastors learn in seminary.
But I have found, if I tell the stories, the parables that Jesus told and the stories, looking at, for example, as I did in my book, at Mary… Mary, the mother of Jesus. Well, a lot of people way before me and for the last 2,000 years have talked about Mary. But I try to talk about Mary like a real, live mother. I don’t think we should put Mary up on the pedestal as a cold, statue figure. Mary is a living, breathing, amazing woman who …who heard God’s call and walked with her son through it all.
A lot of people don’t pick up on that, you know. They don’t really notice that she’s there. Whether it’s at the wedding at Cana, or whether she’s trying to get him to quit hanging out with the people that she’s not sure about. I think it’s very annoying probably to her when he says, Who is my mother and my brother and my sisters? Anyone who hears the word of God and lives it. Oh my goodness. If my son told me that it probably would pierce my heart, too.
But it’s the truth ‘cause baptism…and I think Will Wilimon said this first (I think it’s where I first heard it)…that water in the church is thicker than blood. Water, our baptism, our baptismal vows and by virtue of our baptism into the church, into the community will are united. We are family. And so I’ve taken to actually calling it framily—friends and family, framily.
Betsy: A lot of our folks need to hear these stories put in a more contemporary context. So that’s one of the things I’ve tried to do in the book, so they wouldn’t be so frightened by Scripture…
Joe: Well, we are coming up against the time and we have barely scratched the surface of everything that’s in your book. I just want to list a couple of things we didn’t get to talk about: You give some advice on marriage, what you’ve learned from gardens and dogs and cats. We didn’t get to talk about the parable of the thrown confetti or leading children’s time in church, and Christmas trays. I mean, there’s just so much here. And I recommend your book to moms and dads, especially maybe those who are feeling a bit busy or overwhelmed, to pick up your book and to get some encouragement there. It’s just a great read, and I’m sure a lot of help for lots of parents.
But before we go I want to ask you the question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape, and it’s simply this: Is there a practice or an exercise that’s meaningful to you, that helps you to grow closer to Christ in your faith experience?
Betsy: Yes, I have several, but my practice and I try to weave this into some of my writing as well, is we have a movie night with our kids. We’re not much on television per se. We’re more of a family who likes books and films. So we talk about it, too.
So on Friday nights, if at all possible, if we’re not involved in something or the kids don’t have a…. They recently had a big ice show, for example. Yes, it’s true. You, too, can learn to ice skate in Arkansas.
The Wizard of Oz was what the show was about. So my boys love The Wizard of Oz, and there’s a lot in that movie to talk about.
We talk about The Little Prince, and this incredible Japanese film, some artists who are incredible animators. And we talk about those. And of course we watch, you know, we’ve watched the regular Disney crew as well. And recently…I think the last thing we saw was Beauty and the Beast.
My husband and I, also, on our date night we go eat dinner and almost always, I confess, cheese dip. And then we go to the movies and we try always, especially to see all of the Oscar-nominated films. Those for me, always bring up Scripture and always bring up faith stories, which challenges that we find in the Bible stories that are a deep part of our human experience. They’re told from a quote, secular point of view, but there’s so much in there because I think God’s the creator. There’s handiwork in all of art. I feel God’s hand in that. I perceive it in that even if the artist doesn’t.
Joe: That’s something that we can certainly give a shot, bringing our faith to the movie theater or to our couch.
It has been a great pleasure talking to you, Betsy. And I really appreciate all the time that you’ve given us today.
Betsy: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Back in the studio
Joe: That was the Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder, United Methodist pastor, mom, and author of Stepping on Cheerios: Finding God in the Chaos and Clutter of Life.
You can follow Betsy at WomenadeStand.com.
While you are there, send me an email about your experiences in motherhood, receiving help from your church, or whatever else you want to share.
Next month we will be talking to those who created The United Methodist Church’s ad campaign that features questions from children. That is sure to be a fun conversation!
Thanks for listening and subscribing to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.