“Have you ever asked what work your family is supposed to do together?”
It’s a question I came across this winter in Jennifer Fulwiler’s One Beautiful Dream as I recovered from a particularly nasty stomach bug. And sometimes, as on that day, the answer can be summed up succinctly: SURVIVE.
It was a striking question, because while I vacillate a lot about what work I’m supposed to do — tiny library job? pouring more of myself into writing? fully embracing this time at home? — I think I do have a sense of what our family is supposed to do together.
For one thing, I believe all families are meant to help each other grow in love and holiness. My friend Carey refers to her homeschool as a “school of love,” but Andy Crouch has the same idea in The Tech-Wise Family when he talks about a family as a training ground for wisdom and character. We are all grumpy, jagged stones and family life is a rock tumbler that can polish us into kinder, more beautiful people — if we let it.
But what is the unique Bowers family mission? There are, of course, several aspects: we want to have a warm, bookish home, introduce our kids to music (and food that isn’t Goldfish), live as more than simply consumers, practice hospitality.
There’s one unique component, though. I think it has been brewing in our discussions as a family for years, from at least the time when J was beginning to apply for teaching programs. It was then, I think, that we really started to talk about modeling family life for his college students and other young people we meet.
It was a call we’d seen embraced in different ways by many of my professors, by J’s parents, and by our friend Haley’s. The call requires warmth, commitment, flexibility, transparency — a willingness to let others into your life, stripped of any its glamor and pretense. In four years of academia, we’ve done this with varying degrees of intentionality, with varying degrees of success. We had one great experience inviting a college student into our family life through a church program, then foundered when we were assigned three more and I was socked with morning sickness. Some semesters we’ve invited over a subset J’s students; sometimes we haven’t gotten around to it. Bad Catholic Book Club sputtered out when we chose a truly terrifying story none of us grown-ups wanted to discuss. Mostly we just relax the militant separation many people maintain between their work and family lives. I drop in the department; students spot J with 1/+ kids, accompanying him to class or haunting his office, scaling the rock wall at the gym or trailing out behind him on his absurd bike situation.
But this summer we’re leveling up. We are taking our three little people as well as thirteen university students abroad for a five-week academic program. In close quarters, we recognize we won’t be able to hide behind a mask of beatific parenthood, to romanticize life as a young family. Instead, students will be seeing family life up close, with all its cuddles and squabbles and attendant exhaustion.
I’m hoping it’s a great experience for all parties: from my kids benefiting from the energy of the students, to the students getting a glimpse of grown-up life, to me and J being reminded of both the freedom and loneliness of that stage of life. My life has been so much richer and wiser for the friendships I’ve made with people ten or more years older than I am, and, increasingly, people much younger, too.
If things go tolerably smoothly, these study abroad summers may become one facet of our family work. Then again, maybe it will be all jet-lagged toddlers and wild undergrads and not enough sleep for anyone. Though I comfort myself that whatever happens, at least there will be a great deal of sticky toffee pudding.