Hurry

It's a late Sunday afternoon at the start of spring break and I am thinking about time - how it's passing so quickly, how it drags between the hours of 4 PM and my kids' bedtimes, how I both savor and feel drained by this season of parenting small children. This year the Minnesota winter was mild and ended so gradually that I hardly noticed. These first warm days of April feel unearned - less like Resurrection and more like Grace.

Sara Kay Mooney is emailing out a poem per week during Lent, and I can't stop thinking about this one called "Hurry" by Marie Howe that she sent recently. It goes like this:

"We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store   
and the gas station and the green market and   
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,   
as she runs along two or three steps behind me   
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.   

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?   
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?   
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,   
Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry—   
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.   

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking    
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,   
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands."

I both love and hate this poem, seeing it's truth while pushing back and saying "how can I possibly not hurry when I have stuff to do? Where is this mythical perfect balance of unhurried living? Who can possibly be present all the time?" But I know its wisdom as I think about my harried impatience while dressing my kids, getting them into the car and out the door for preschool or for daycare, even while going for a walk to the library - I often hurry hurry hurry them and not always for good reason.

Yesterday I got the latest Geez Magazine in the mail (do you subscribe? you should) and lo and behold, the issue is all about time. The magazine bends toward to the slow movement - slow church, slow food, slow relationships - over the economized notion of time and instantaneous connection (and distraction) we encounter via technology and the internet. I am no Luddite; I have daily interactions with people via my smartphone that are as real and meaningful as those I have in my physical life. And yet, I know my relationship with the internet can easily slip into addiction as I seek out a quick escape from the monotony of the present. My perception of time is often one of scarcity -- there is never ever ever enough! --and yet I somehow manage to spend a good chunk of it scrolling my Twitter or Facebook feeds.

As I wrestle with "hurry" and my relationship with time, I am looking into apps that limit my social media use to a certain amount of time each day and implementing rules for my smartphone use (like locking it in the office from 5-8 pm.) I am certain there is no fool-proof answer; that perfect balance is a myth that drives modern mothers into the mud of guilt. Still, I know it's a conundrum worth wrestling.

I can't deny that my spiritual antennae are more attuned to the Holy Spirit when I have "moodling time" during my day -- when my mind is free to drift. When I can step back and wonder at my daughter's voice as she makes up a silly song, or my son who picks up every rock along the sidewalk.

Birth Story, Part Two

It was around 4 PM when they started, the achy pains that swept across my abdomen, down my thighs and around to my lower back. I am not someone who welcomes pain. I don't push my body to do CrossFit or regularly run long distances. In high school, I was on the cross-country team but was notorious for starting out really fast then getting winded and pained halfway through the race. But, with every 30 second contraction, I found myself smiling. There was ample time in between to send a few text messages (I am having some contractions, mom!), to throw my toothbrush into the bag I had packed for the birth center. After so many days of anxious waiting, I hardly dared to let myself believe this was finally it.

If you’ve never been in labor, imagine that you are running hill intervals. You start at a slow jog, then kick up the intensity as you sprint up the hill – your legs and abdomen cramping underneath you, your breath shallow - until, at last, you crest the top, and plod down the hill to the other side. Now picture yourself doing those intervals once every 10 minutes for a few hours, then every 7 minutes for a couple more, and so on. Imagine that the hills get gradually higher and longer while your rest time in between gets shorter. Imagine not knowing if you have one more hour of hill intervals or 10 more hours until you can finally stop. No, wait. Not stop. Until you can PUSH A HUMAN out of a very small hole in your body. It's crazy.

When the contractions started, Josh ran out to get pizza while I puttered around at home. I remember thinking: I better get some calories in now, I might have another 54 hours (the length of my first labor) ahead of me. When he got back, we ate pizza right out of the box, grinning like fools, daring to hope we would have our baby soon.

A few days earlier, we brought home a $10 live Christmas tree from Menards. It was lopsided and spray-painted green. We propped it up in the corner of our kitchen, though it still crashed over onto the kitchen table a few times. As the hours of early labor went on into the evening, I laid down on the couch with the overhead lights off, staring at the crooked strand of twinkly lights on our tree. It was calming, watching the soft glow. Josh lit candles. The contractions were becoming more intense, but there was plenty of time to recover in between.

But they kept coming and, at around 9 PM, we called Melanie. She said she would come over in an hour.

Labor. Looking back now, it’s hard for me to really remember it. I know that it got more painful, that I needed Josh and Melanie to rub my legs and lower back during contractions. I took a bath. I tried to rest by lying on the couch upstairs. I sat on the birthing ball; Melanie gave me a foot massage.

The contractions hurt, they did. But they weren’t getting any closer together, still just 5 to 7 minutes apart. Because my first labor was so painfully long, I began to anticipate hours and hours ahead. I was anxious and tired. At 2 AM, Melanie suggested that we go to the birth center. "Maybe," she said, "once you're in the place where you know you will give birth, your labor will pick up."

We piled into our car and drove the 10 minutes to the birth center. It was 2:30 AM, so there were hardly any cars on the road. The 35-W bridge took us over the Mississippi river; I remember looking out over to the historic Stone Arch Bridge, the old flour mill ruins cast in an orange haze from the street lights. I had one, maybe two, contractions in the car. Melanie leaned over the seat to help massage my legs while I concentrated on my breathing.

Josh drove into the alley behind the birth center. Martha, one of the midwives, was waiting for us at the back door, her arms wrapped around herself for warmth. It was a clear, cold, snow-muffled December night. There was no one else at the birth center.

We entered the birthing suite: a large room with a king-sized bed, a couch, a rocking chair, and a giant water-birth tub. I had decided earlier not to have my cervix checked to see how dilated I was during labor; I was afraid that if I wasn't making much progress I would be easily discouraged. (Women who have vaginal births must dilate to 10 centimeters before they can push the baby down and out. In my first birth, I was stuck at 6 centimeters for 9 hours.)

I got into the birthing tub for a while, then moved into the shower. Melanie and Josh took turns feeding me small bites of cheese, frozen blueberries, spoonfuls of yogurt. I sat on a stool in the shower for what felt like hours. Melanie encouraged me to relax my face and shoulders, to groan downward -- deep, low, out. Still, I was getting tired. My contractions were about a minute long and only 5 minutes apart.

I was sitting in the shower, naked, exhausted. I turned to Melanie and said, "I can't do this anymore. I just want it to stop, it's not working. Just take me to the hospital now."

Melanie looked at me closely, her brown eyes locking with mine. "I know," she said, carefully. "It's really fucking hard. It fucking hurts. But you just need to get through the next contraction."

I closed my eyes as I felt another contraction slowly coming on, I motioned to Melanie to rub my legs, I breathed down and low and deep.

I got back into the birthing tub; the water felt wonderful on my tired body. At one point I turned to Melanie, "My contractions don't hurt as much in here. Maybe they're not working?"

She encouraged me that it was okay if they were less painful, that I was doing great, that my contractions were doing the job they were supposed to do. All I needed to do was keep eating, keep resting in between contractions. I gradually started feeling stronger, fortified by the small bites of food and small sips of coconut water and gatorade that Josh and Melanie kept offering me.

The hours blur together now in my memory. I was in a trance-like state, my mind entirely present to the moment. I didn't make eye contact with anyone; I felt entirely folded inward. We had sounds of ocean waves playing on our ipod; crash, crash, crash.

After a particularly hard contraction, I vomited all over the bed. It was one of the most encouraging moments of my entire labor. Finally, I thought, I must be really working hard. I must be getting closer. I was desperate for any sign that my labor was productive.

Martha, the midwife, had mostly left us to ourselves. ("You guys are such a great team!") But after we had been at the birth center for 4 hours, she asked if she could check my cervix to see how things were going. She promised not to tell me how dilated I was. I agreed, and after the exam, she couldn't stop herself from smiling widely.

"Stina," she said. "You are so close. Your bag of waters is bulging, it should break during your next few contractions. After that happens, you can get back in the birth tub. You will be pushing this baby out soon."

I didn't really believe her at first. I was still having contractions at only 5 minutes apart, and I had it fixed in my mind that they needed to be coming every 1 or 2 minutes before I was fully dilated. But then I had a super painful contraction, one that wretched down my back, and I was forced back in the animal present of breathing down, low, out. After a few more like that, I felt a popping, then a rush of fluid. My water had broken.

Josh and Melanie helped me get up, supporting my arms as I climbed into the birth tub. After a few more contractions, there was a pause in my labor. Martha had alerted the labor nurse and midwife intern that we were close to pushing, so two more women joined us in the room wearing scrubs and long gloves.

Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to push. And by overwhelming, I mean absolutely uncontrollable. I would feel the beginnings of a contraction, then a crazy powerful rush of energy down, down, down. Josh climbed into the tub with me, he straddled my back and supported me as I pushed.

I distinctly remember thinking, in between pushes, I am having a baby right now. I am pushing a live human out of my body.

In the same pattern as before, I would push for a minute, then rest for 4 or 5 more.

"I can see the head! Reach down, you can feel it."

I pushed again and felt a huge burning move downward, and then back upwards inside. With each push, I bellowed a loud, terrifying yell. I couldn't have stopped it if I wanted to.

"That's good, just like that."

A few pushes later, and my son's head was born into the water. I waited like that for a few minutes: my son's head outside and under the water, the rest of his body still inside. He kept moving his head back and forth; apparently, babies have the instinct to move their heads to help navigate their way through the birth canal. It was the strangest sensation of my life.

One more giant push, and he was out. Born into water. Dark purple and mewling and slippery on my chest. I held his sweet head against my collarbone, barely seeing more than his sticky hair; Josh held me from behind, reaching around my body to touch his head.

My son, he was here, born at 8:43 AM. I had just finished the longest, hardest endurance race of my life.

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This is Part Two of my birth story. Click here for Part One.

Birth Story, Part One

It feels strange to return to this space after my son was born four months ago. It feels strange because I had a beautiful birth this time, a birth so unexpected and different than my first one. I think about what I wrote about God as a laboring mother and find it difficult to connect those essays to my latest experience, which was astoundingly good. A writer-friend remarked to me once that I like to write about failure. That struck me as devastatingly true -- I do tend to frame stories by my mislaid expectations and the crashing disappointment of real-life-living. Even the title of this blog, "What Life Does," refers to a quote that reflects that sense of disillusionment.

But I don't want to be a person who always frames her life in terms of failure. In writing out this birth story, I am taking a small step in exploring the positive in my life.

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I was overdue. I was approaching the deadline, 40 weeks plus 14 days. Instead of needing to produce a paper or article, I needed to give birth. By December 4th. Otherwise I would become a “high risk” pregnancy because there is greater chance that the placenta may atrophy once you pass 42 weeks. And, if you’re high risk, you can’t deliver at a birth center, you have to deliver at a hospital.

I had my daughter at a hospital three years prior and the birth hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. Somehow, I had it fixed in my mind that giving birth in the hospital again would mean re-experiencing the same birth I had the first time. I wanted a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.

It was December 3rd and I wasn’t in labor. I woke up in the morning feeling angry. Contractions still hadn't started. I had been doing all the things people tell women who are waiting for their babies to come: have sex, take castor oil, climb stairs, eat spicy food, acupuncture. The midwives at the birth center told me that, if December 3rd came around and I still wasn’t in labor, I could go into the birth center to have my water broken manually. Something about a knitting-needle hook that would be inserted into my cervix. A friend of mine had delivered at the same birth center and had the procedure done to help jumpstart labor; her daughter was born 10 hours later.

I was desperate to have a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.

I called my doula, my friend Melanie, a friend who I have known for years. Our families have lived together and we’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst. We’ve had fights over unloading the dishwasher and cried together during house meetings and watched each other parent our babies. We’ve talked about our family issues, about old hurts and ways to move beyond them. She has influenced me so much in the way she mothers. She knows how to grow beautiful plants and run a greenhouse, the little seedlings bending toward her careful knowledge and light. I trust Melanie in the way you can trust someone who has known you, who you’ve watched caretake vulnerable things: small children, small plants. The way she nourishes life, gives it the light of her attention, the water of her diligence. And she knows a lot about maternal medicine, having doula-ed countless births.

So I called Melanie, and she didn’t give me advice straight out, but I could sense she didn’t agree with the breaking your water strategy. If your water breaks, you have 24 hours before the risk of infection rises and before medical professionals will hook you up to Pitocin to jumpstart labor. Choosing to break my water could open up my birth to the possibility that I would need more interventions later.

Still, not breaking my water would mean that I would be delivering at the hospital, it would mean that my dreams of a birth center birth would go unrealized. And I wasn't ready to let that go.

Melanie came with Josh and I to the birth center to discuss the procedure with the midwives. I remember being in one of the birthing suites, seated on a couch, and sobbing as I finally chose not to get my water broken to induce labor. I was letting it go, I thought I was deciding to have a hospital birth. It felt like giving up, it felt like history repeating itself.

The hospital was across the street from the birth center, so we walked over icy sidewalks to visit the brand new Mother Baby Center. It’s a new wing of the hospital, done up in rainbow hued glass and futuristic couches. It looked fine, it was all fine, but I longed for the soothing green walls of the birth center, the tasteful art, the giant water-birth Jacuzzi-style tubs. I know, in retrospect, it may sound selfish and privileged to be whining about where I give birth – a top-notch hospital is among the better places (or so I imagine) to have a baby. Yet, I'd been picturing myself delivering in another place for months; I had all my prenatal appointments at the birth center. Switching to an unfamiliar hospital at the very last minute made me tense.

After touring the hospital, Josh and I tried to decide what to do next. My three-year-old daughter was staying at her grandparents for the day. Should he go back to work? Should I take a nap? Try something else to get labor started?

Melanie suggested we visit an herbalist midwife friend of hers. I wasn’t sold on the idea, but I was desperate. There was still a slim chance that I could go into labor that very day and be able to deliver at the birth center.

So we went. Her office was in her home, the upstairs of a duplex, beaming with light, with hanging plants and warm neutral wall hangings. There were bookcases lined with Ina May Gaskin’s books and several copies of Birthing from Within. She asked us a few questions, she scoffed at the birth center’s rigid two week post-due-date time frame (your gestational length is perfectly normal! There is no real reason NOT to keep waiting, besides for insurance). If you were my patient, she said, we wouldn’t be trying anything to get labor started. We would just trust that it would start in the next few days. And then I felt guilty for not having chosen a home-birth in the first place.

She had me stick out my tongue and she listened to my pulse. She pulled out black eyedroppers full of herbal tinctures and placed a few drip-drops on my wrists. She gave me a few brown bottles of "strong uterine herbs" that are supposed to jumpstart labor. I felt foolish when I wrote the check for $50 – we were barely making our monthly budget – and wondered if this would work.

We went home, I took the herbs, I took a nap. I felt utterly depleted, my tears and decision to deliver at the hospital feeling like giving up on my hopes for a beautiful birth. But when I woke up an hour later, I was having a contraction. And then another. And then another.

Expecting Newborns, Winter

DSC00611The weather is changing here in Minnesota, no – it’s punching, it’s swinging. On Sunday evening I read the forecast: an estimated six to eight inches of snow would fall by Monday evening. Just like that, fall to winter.

I’m not ready, I thought. For the cold, for the darkness at 4:30 PM, for freezing hands on freezing car steering wheels.

My unborn baby boy is due in seven days. I feel like a ticking time bomb, knowing I will give birth anytime. It could be tonight. It could be after Thanksgiving.

But I’m not ready, I keep thinking to myself. I have awesome pregnancies. I don’t have awesome labors. But even once that part is over, once he is here, I will have two kids to manage in wintertime. Minnesota wintertime. Two little bodies to bundle into snowsuits and strap into car seats and drive through blizzards.

I couldn’t sleep on Sunday night. That anticipation, the cusp of major change kept my eyes open as I stared at shadows in our dark bedroom. My mind was awake, running ragged. Please sleep, I told myself. Instead, I kept thinking: will I be able to handle it? Will I be okay? The sleep deprivation, the nursing and diaper-changing whilst my toddler jumps on and off the couch, the putting on and taking off so many pairs of tiny mittens?

My mind scanned the mental to-do list. We still haven’t decided on a name; we still need to put away the air-conditioner that is sitting in our living room; we still need to pack a bag for the birth center. I need to write thank you notes from my baby shower. We have to sell our car.

I got out of bed and pulled out bags of last year’s scarves and hats to sort. I traded sandals for heavy winter boots on the closet shoe-rack. I pulled out my winter coat and put my hands in the pockets, uncovering remnants of life from six months prior: a granola bar wrapper, the set of dice I used for math games in my job as a tutor, a cheap pair of stretchy gloves. I tried to remember what I was doing in April when the last snows were here. Before the glory days of spring, summer and fall, back when I was putting my hands in coat pockets. I know winter had dragged on and on; that I was thankful when the snow began to melt and I put this coat in storage.

Anticipating a second newborn feels like that seasonal cycle; it feels like going back to winter you barely remember. I know it was hard the first time, really hard, especially those first 18 months. I know there were days when I felt like I was drowning in the needs of my needy infant, unable to detangle myself from my role as mother long enough to take a shower. But then it got easier. My daughter started sleeping at night, we had only one nap a day to worry about, and life got into a rhythm. I felt more confident. I started going to writing classes. I worked part-time.

Those were the spring, summer and fall days of life with my daughter, my one and only darling child. We were chums, just the two of us. We had easy days out on the playground or meeting friends or visiting the children’s museum. I had some flexibility in my schedule to pursue other interests.

But now it’s approaching wintertime of parenting again: time to pull out the baby clothes, install the infant car seat, and dig out the bibs and bottles.

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I actually like winter. I was born and raised here in Minnesota; I know how to layer long underwear and what brands of winter boots to buy. Some of the most magical moments of my life have been spent cross-country skiing through evergreen forests, their heavy limbs bending with snow. My sisters and I could tell you painful stories of our family’s epic winter trips to the North Woods: long treks on wooden skis in below-zero wind-chill and having our parents wipe our bottoms with snow balls after we pooped behind trees (true story). But we could also tell you about the muffled quiet of the cold and the brilliance of the blue sky and the steam from the sauna. I have so many good memories, so much love for this season. I’m a northern girl at heart.

But last winter nearly broke me. Last winter was a long string of subzero days, going on and on like pearls on a rope-length necklace. Just when you thought it would be warm enough to pull your toddler in the sled, 30 below zero winds would force you inside for another cabin feverish afternoon. The cold kept coming, the winds numbing our faces so our cheek muscles couldn’t flex enough to smile.

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I like babies. I remember hazy fragments from my daughter’s newborn days: the way she stretched her arms and arched her back in a milk-drunk stupor, the way she lumped on my chest like a warm potato. We have so few pictures of her from that stage; we were naïve to think they would stretch on and on and on. That we would always remember how she smelled or how she cooed. We were too fogged in by sleeplessness, too overwhelmed by new parenthood.

DSC00686 My family of three took a walk around Como Lake on Saturday, before the snowfall. It was only 4:30 PM, but the sun was already dipping low and the Narnia-esqe street lamps were glowing. We wrapped up our toddler in a scarf, stuffed her hands in mittens.

“Look back,” my husband said. “Look at the sky.”

I turned. The sky was lit, alive, all oranges-pinks-reds with streaks of dark blue. It was moving, it was different each moment; it cast a pink-red sheen on the lapping lake water.

We kept walking, the sunset behind us, but we sped up to reach the curve that would place us in front of the colors all over again. We paused to marvel, and then started talking about baby names, about how we don’t have one that we can agree on, about how this name honors that side of the family but that name has a significant meaning.

And then I remembered to look up at the sky and it was gone. A few faint edgings of pink-purple laced the darkness, but the moving cosmic colors were gone.

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When we started talking about when her baby brother would be born, I told my two-year-old: “When the snow flies.” On Monday we woke to a steady slow snowfall, the ground already layered in white. She raced to the window. Ready or not, it was here.

“Mama, it snowed! Let’s go outside!” she said. After sending her downstairs to where my husband was already making breakfast, I flopped back on the pregnancy body pillow, a thin white snake that supports my oversize belly. Of all the things about parenting, waking up to a chatty toddler ranks among my least favorite.

Later, after I had my cup of coffee and some oatmeal with chopped bananas, she asked me: “Mama, is my baby brother going to pop out now?”

I smiled to myself. Pop out, if only. I walked over to the window and looked at the transformed apartment courtyard, the way everything seemed closer together between stretches of white snow. It’s finally here, I thought. The acidity in my stomach was gone.

It was 20 degrees and we had errands to run. We got on our boots and our coats and our hats and our mittens. I grabbed my green winter jacket, the one with poufy ribs reminiscent of Michelin man. I tugged on the zipper, thankful that I could get it up and over my 9-months-pregnant belly.

I held my daughter’s hand as we walked across the parking lot and got into our car. I scraped the windshield. We drove through the icy streets, following long lines of snowplows and trucks. Despite the memory of last winter’s sub-zero weeks and lingering snowstorms, I found myself marveling the slow-moving snowflakes drifting by. How beautiful, I thought. And, somehow, I remembered how to steer in the snow.

When The Waves Overwhelm You

Florida Memory “You’re still at six centimeters,” the nurse midwife said after checking my cervix for dilation.

I turned to my husband with wild eyes.

“We’re still at six centimeters,” I repeated.

Despite the medical interventions I already had undergone – the synthetic Pitocin pumping into my blood stream through an IV, the manual breaking of my bag of waters – I wasn’t even one centimeter closer to delivering my baby than I had been nine hours earlier.

I closed my eyes, absorbing the news. My breathing grew shallow; I could feel the panic in my throat like a hard knob. The past nine hours of contractions didn’t “do” anything.

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Some women experience textbook labors where everything progresses in timely, ordered stages. Pre-labor, active labor, transition, pushing. But many women I have talked with describe how unpredictable their labor was, how unprepared they were for the slow, hard work it is, unaware of how labor can stall and stop all together, for hours or even days.

In almost every birth story, there comes a time when the excitement of meeting the new baby has vanished, when the overwhelming, pounding, spiting, relentless contractions crash down like waves. That is the moment when the mother needs her doula to encourage, uplift, and bolster her. Look in my eyes, the doula might say. You can do this; your body was made to do this.

Some women turn inward and zone-out, they find a place deep within themselves. There is a sense of letting go, of first kicking to swim to the surface and then floating, letting the waves do the work, but staying above the water, not allowing the waves to drown you in their all-powerful, relentless movement.

Other women get lost under the surf, they panic, and they lose all control. Maybe they don’t have a supportive medical team, maybe they are beyond exhausted, maybe they hear discouraging news about their labor’s progress and they can’t see any other way forward.

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“I just need to get through this!” I said, crying between contractions. “I need this to be over.”

We were entering our third night of labor, our eyes bloodshot and our limbs heavy, as though filled with sand. My husband squeezed my hand as the midwife explained that I might need an epidural to help my cervix relax. Extreme fatigue can cause women to tense their muscles and prevent dilation, rendering hours and hours of contractions as ineffective.

This wasn’t in the birth plan; this wasn’t how I wanted it to go. I had high hopes for an unmedicated birth.

“Yes,” I said. “Do it.”

After waiting for an excruciatingly long time for the anesthesiologist, I had a needle inserted into my spine. My body relaxed. The contractions continued, but I couldn’t feel them. And in just 30 minutes, I had dilated from 6 to 10 centimeters. I was able to vaginally birth a 9 pound 11 ounces healthy baby girl.

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Does God ever feel that discouragement, that exhaustion? Does God feel the pain of a non-progressing labor? Does God ever look around wildly for rest, for pain relief, for a break in the relentless, ineffectual pain? Does God ever look at the world – with its vast inequalities, its senseless suffering – and wonder if these labor contractions are really working to bring God's kingdom?

I think about the moment in the garden, the moment when Jesus knows true fear, when he sweats blood and asks God, “Please, Lord, take this cup from me. Don’t lead me through the pain of crucifixion, the agony of nails in palms and soles, the terror of broken bones.”

Jesus asked even though he knew his death would mean the redemption of the world; he knew that all sin and sorrow would be washed away. He knew all these things, yet it didn’t stop him from asking God to take away the cup. Was some part of him afraid that resurrection wouldn’t come? Like a laboring mother, who fears her own death or the death or her child?

I relate to Jesus in the garden. In my own labor, I lost sight of the baby to be born and just wanted it over. I thought I couldn’t go on. It’s amazing to think of God in the same position, God who knows what important work God is doing through labor, but loses sight of the end goal.

It’s cathartic because reflecting on labor is a mixed experience for many women. Lots of us assumed we would be strong and have beautiful natural births. But labor is not something you can learn about from textbooks, it’s not something you control by writing a perfect birth plan. The expectations don’t often reflect the true experience of one’s birth.

In my case, I wasn’t “strong” in the way I thought I would be strong. But Jesus isn’t “strong” in the way I imagine God should be strong – he asks God for another way. He hits a wall of fear. He understands how hard it is to surrender, to trust God to make a way through.

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It is now November, the month my baby should be arriving, and I am still aiming for un-medicated birth. I picked a freestanding birth center to deliver my child, one where I will be in a supportive environment and won’t have access to pain relief during my labor. My midwife has assured me that second labors are often easier: the mother knows what to expect and her body has muscle memories to propel the baby down more quickly.

Indeed, I know more this time. I know God as a struggling, birthing woman. I know a God who asked for the pain to stop, who sweated blood in the garden. I know that, even if I hit that wall of exhaustion and muscle fatigue, and even if all the support of my midwife and doula fail to propel me to have to birth I hope for, and even if I have to be transferred to the hospital across the street for pain relief or an emergency C-section – I know that God understands. I hope this knowledge will enable me to have more grace for myself, however the birth proceeds.

And, once I have my newborn son in my arms for the first time, I know how quickly I will forget my labor, how I will forgive the hours of contractions and pushing and pain. This is what I imagine heaven will be like: a relief at finally seeing the new creation, an immediate release of all sorrows that preceded it.

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This is the final post in a series about the image of God as a laboring mother found in Isaiah 42:14. Read the first post here and second post here.

Images via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here and here.

My Unabashed Love for a Good Story

I may be 30 years old, but I sometimes feel like I am 30-going-on-13 because I love reading the occasional Young Adult (YA) novel. I am privileged to be guest-posting at Christiana Peterson's blog today about why I devoured The Hunger Games series during early motherhood.  ...

“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “…is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.” “I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.” - Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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The Hunger Games

Call me lowbrow if you must, but I loved reading The Hunger Games series.

It was the winter of 2012 and I was learning how to be a mother. My newborn daughter was fussy, nursed constantly and rejected both pacifiers and bottles, forcing me to spend many hours trapped on the couch underneath her weight. I reserved books from the library in droves, looking up titles that I found on top ten lists from esteemed literary critics over the past few years. I read and read, and when I couldn’t read anymore, I watched Downton Abbey on my laptop until thirst drove me off the couch and into the kitchen.

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When You’re Having One of Those Days

Note: I'll be back with more of the God is a Laboring Mother series soon, but I thought I write a quick post today about battling the blues. After all, it's day five of rainy weather here in Minnesota and SNOW FLURRIES are predicted for this weekend. Take a deep breath, make some tea, and share your bad-day-survival tips in the comments. Rainy Day

They happen a couple times each month, those dogged depress-o days where I can’t get outside my head. Often it’s tied to not getting enough sleep, of not meeting my own high standards, of comparing myself to other people who “have it together” in ways I can never seem to match. Sometimes I’m having an especially difficult parenting day – child won’t nap, child gets up at 5 AM, child is pushing ALL MY BUTTONS.

Do you have those days, too?

Maybe it’s the weather change, maybe it’s the impending due-date of baby #2, but I’ve been having more than my fair-share of these days lately. And, when I’m home with a 2 ½ year old, I can’t simply soak in the tub and light candles and binge watch some mindless TV show on Netflix. For my daughter’s sake, I know I need to pull it together.

So, how do you snap out of it? I’ve been working on my action plan for downward spirals and I thought I’d share some things that are working for me. Also, I want to hear your suggestions… God knows I need them.

  1. Go outside. Is it raining? 20 below zero? Blustery winds? Even if it’s just a walk to the car, getting out in the elements helps. The fresh air, the wild-waving trees, the sight of other people walking around reminds me there is a big ol’ world out there beyond my molehill-turned-mountain problems. If you can go for a walk or a run, even better.
  1. Take a shower. I realize this is hard when you have multiple kids or a newborn, but if you can find a way to shower DO IT. Feel the water streaming on your face, give thanks for indoor plumbing, do a few deep sighs.
  1. Call a friend. It’s hard to admit when I’m struggling, but I have a few go-to people who I know will listen and not judge me when I’m moping and ridiculous. Some of my best friends are the world’s greatest encouragers. So call a friend, and bonus points if you can schedule a time to meet-up with them in person.
  1. Turn off the melancholic music. Turn on the top 40 station. I have a long-standing love affair with sad music. Give me some Patty Griffin and I’m lying on the couch feeling deliciously forlorn. But add a toddler who is jumping on your head and, no, this is not working. It’s time to turn off the Bon Iver and find something more upbeat. Nostalgic music from your teenage years (for me it’s 90s grunge music or ska, remember ska?) also works, or Motown.
  1. Wash the dishes. I know, I know. You can’t get off the couch, why am I telling you to do chores? All I know is that, if I can just turn on the happy music (see #4) and tackle one thing (dishes, put away laundry, make the bed), I feel better. If you are lucky enough to have a toddler in your house, washing dishes is a great activity to do together.
  1. When you start wasting time online, have a plan. I really struggle with the internet time-suck, especially after my daughter is in bed for the night. The worst part about it is that it often compounds my negative feelings. I have some writer friends who use Freedom to help them block time-wasting websites (hello Facebook) for a set amount of time so they can focus on being productive. One thing I’m going to try is making a list called “THINGS I’D RATHER BE DOING” and tape it to my laptop. Things like: writing, reading a book, going to bed early. What things have you tried? I’d love your advice.

I should also mention here that depression is a real thing so if you are having more down days than not, it’s time to get help. Even if you’re not ready for counseling, try telling one trusted friend how it’s really going. Just make one step at a time. Life is too short to be ruled by this disease.

What am I missing? What do you do when you’re having a hard day?

***

Image via Flickr's Creative Commons can be found here.

Birth Plans

Ask yourself: Will this satisfya woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth? -- Wendell Berry, from the poem The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front

Pregnant Profile

When I took childbirth classes the first time I was pregnant, the instructor – an impossibly peppy woman named Missy – encouraged us to write a birth plan. A birth plan is a set of hopes, preferences, and goals for birth that are typically shared with the labor and delivery staff. Missy assured us that writing a birth plan would help us prepare for all the big and small decisions we might encounter during our hospital stay.

It has been three years since I wrote that birth plan. I finally reread it for the first time last week, smiling and cringing to myself all the way through. No to pain medication and immodest hospital gowns. Yes to dimmed lights, water-birth, and my own nightgown. Oh, and if possible, we want my husband to catch the baby.

These were all good aspirations, all good goals for birth. And they seemed reasonable enough. After all, I read only positive birth stories, about how labors progressed quickly, how laboring mothers overcame their fears with support of their doulas and midwives, how women’s bodies are built for labor. The books I read encouraged me to shut down negative conversations about birth before they had the power to instill fear or doubt.

Intellectually, I knew that things could go wrong. I had friends who experienced dangerous complications and emergency C-sections despite their plans for a natural birth. Still, I chose to write a birth plan for myself that assumed the best, that only skimmed the possibility that I might need medical interventions.

But there is a problem with only hearing positive birth stories. There is a danger in writing exquisite birth plans that do not take into account potential complications that may arise. The laboring mother is left completely unprepared if things veer off course.

//

I wonder if reading your birth plan after the fact is a little how the disciples felt when they realized that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus, this rabbi scorned by the religious elite? Jesus, born in a barn? This was the long awaited Savior of Israel?

I wonder if they looked back on their Hebrew Bible, on the predictions and prophesies about the coming Messiah with a hint of embarrassment, or distance, or wonder at how far off they had been.

You see, the Messiah was supposed to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, the Messiah was supposed to restore honor and dignity to the Jewish people. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to be crucified like a common criminal. He wasn’t supposed to be whipped or have a crown of thorns crushed upon his head. No, the kingdom was supposed to come with trumpets and fanfare. The kingdom was supposed to come through military triumph.

But instead here is Jesus, this strange teacher with his strange teachings about “turning the other cheek” and “losing your life so you can find it.” Jesus, the Messiah who didn’t expel the Romans or restore the temple. Jesus, the Messiah who suffered and died.

//

When I imagine God as a laboring mother, I wonder if she had expectations for how her birth should go. I wonder if she felt thrown off by how labor was actually progressing (or not progressing), I wonder if she felt weak while enduring incredible pain at waiting for the Kingdom to finally come.

Do I trust a God in labor, who feels painful contractions, who wonders if she can make it through? I’d rather imagine a God who is strong, steadfast, a pillar, a rock. But God as a woman in labor feels wild, it feels scary, it feels out of control.

Maybe that’s part of why I’ve never heard a sermon about God as a laboring mother. It’s not an image that makes us feel confident. It makes us wonder if God knows what God is doing in this supposed big plan for the world.

//

“Alright class,” Missy said, clapping her hands in excitement. “I want you to take the index cards in your folder and write “healthy baby” on one card and “healthy mom” on the other card. Now, take the remaining stack of six and write one hope for your birth on each card.”

Women in flowing maternity shirts and yoga pants turned to face their uncomfortable-looking husbands, taking out pens, placing the cards awkwardly on their knees or backs of the thick childbirth prep folders to begin writing. I sipped my ever-present bottle of water while we wrote out our hopes like the good students we were: no pain medication, quick labor, vaginal birth, no interventions, and so on.

“Now, I want you to look at your cards and pick two cards to throw out,” Missy said. “Sometimes labor doesn’t go the way you want it to, so imagine you have no choice in the matter.”

My husband and I looked at each other. We debated the cards we had, deciding we could give up the short hospital stay and labor under eight hours.

When the murmuring from the room died down, Missy spoke again. “Now, I want you to pick two more.”

We looked through our stack of cards again, weighing inducement and episiotomies against each other. Missy spoke again. “Now pick two more cards to throw out.” At the end of the exercise, we had two cards left in our hands: “healthy baby” and “healthy mom.”

“Birth can be different than what you imagine or expect,” Missy said. “And I don’t think you will have to throw out your entire stack of cards. But, if at the end of the day you have a healthy baby and a healthy mom, then that’s all that really matters.”

Later, in the car, my husband and I had a heated conversation about some of the choices we elevated differently. Somehow Missy’s words about the most important thing, the healthy mom and healthy baby, were lost on me.

//

God is a laboring mother, the book of Isaiah tells us. God has many hopes for the world God created; God wants the Kingdom to come, to wipe every tear from every eye.

When I look at the terrible beautiful world around me, it helps me to imagine that God feels pain at how this labor is going, it helps to know that God expects more for humanity than war, disease, and poverty. When I rub up against the inequality in the public schools where I tutor, when I hear a story about burned villages, when I read about another shooting in my city, I know this isn’t what God wants for this world.

It’s not what I expect, it’s not what I hope. But I have to remind myself that, despite this confusing labor, God will birth a healthy baby in the end. Though it comes in ways I don’t understand, God is bringing new life into the world.

**

This is the second post in a series about the image of God as a laboring mother found in Isaiah 42:14. To read the first post in the series, click here.

God is a Laboring Mother

Birth I am seven months pregnant and it only recently occurred to me that I will have to push this baby out.

The details of my first labor are murky in my mind, like sludge at the bottom of an undisturbed pond. I haven’t stirred around in the muck since my daughter’s birth, but I know some of what it contains: fear of pain, lack of confidence in my body’s ability to progress through the stages of labor, an overall feeling of dread.

My first labor was nothing like I had expected. I had pumped myself up with natural birth literature: I was ready to enter labor like a woman warrior; a strong mama who knew her body was built for this. But at the end of my 54-hour labor, I felt broken down by the whole process. Wildly out of control. Weak.

When I finally held my newborn daughter in my arms, I felt like a failure for not meeting my own expectations. Those thoughts eventually flitted down to the bottoms as I rejoiced in a healthy, squishy baby girl. Praise God, we made it through.

But now I am facing down another birth and it’s time to dip back into the pond. There is a lot of mud I have to deal with, a lot of rocks. Because whether I like it or not, this baby has got to come out.

//

When people ask me why I am a Christian, one of the first answers I give is, “Because of the incarnation.” For those of you who are unfamiliar, the incarnation is the belief that God became a human in the form of Jesus and, thus, knows the ins and outs of being a person. It means God understands what it’s like to walk this earth, to feel hunger, to experience physical pain, to have mixed emotions. It makes God relatable to me in a way that the omniscient, omnipresent God somewhere in the sky can never be.

Jesus was a baby, a toddler and a teenager, a budding rabbi. He loved his friends, he partied with them and he wept with them. I pray to God knowing that he lived in skin just like mine, he yawned and had muscle cramps and drooled in his sleep.

But there is one point where the incarnation fails me: Jesus was a man. Sure, he was a marginalized man – from Nazareth, born to peasants, takes up wandering, is homeless – but still, Jesus will never fully understand my experiences as a woman. Most Biblical scholars would agree that God is neither male nor female, that God transcends gender. And there are depictions of God as female in the Bible: God is a mother hen gathering her chicks, God is a nursing mother, God is a nurturer.

Yet, when a friend recently shared a Bible verse with me, the one where God is compared to a laboring mother, I struggled. (“But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” Isaiah 42:14)

Imagine though I tried, I fought this idea. God? Moaning and clenching and relaxing? Breathing as pain soars, as muscles seize, as fears rise? God, birthing a live, screaming baby?

//

As I stare down my third trimester of pregnancy, I know I need to get back into the pond and sift through the mud and rocks in the muck: the feelings of failure from my first birth, the fear, the dread.

Over the next few weeks, I will share reflections on God as a laboring mother in hopes of preparing for my second birth. I invite you to imagine with me, to embrace this image of God sweating in labor, to let yourself feel a little uncomfortable.

Fragility

I wrote this piece in late March. Now that I'm into my second trimester of pregnancy, I feel ready to share it with you here. Announcing a pregnancy is a joyful thing but I know it can also provoke mixed feelings. If you are facing infertility or infant loss, I mourn with you and wait expectantly with you. ***

Soaring high

A few mornings ago I held a positive pregnancy test in my hands, the faint blue lines making a “+” sign on the plastic wand. There was no excitement, no rush of joy or sadness or anything in particular. I showed my husband, he nodded. I threw the test in the trash, moving into the bedroom to pack my gym bag. My two-year old daughter demanded help putting on her socks, I bent over to pull them on.

When I got to the YMCA and began running on the treadmill, my feet slapping the nylon, I watched the incessant CNN coverage of the missing plane. It was carrying 269 people and disappeared a week ago, swallowed up by the sky. It might have landed, one headline reads. The plane flew for four hours after the last communication, another reporter says. Families are pictured holding vigil, resting their heads in their hands, hugging and crying. They are in the worst kind of darkness, the one of not knowing.

I don’t think much about the tiny zygote burrowing into my uterine lining, only four weeks along. I don’t let myself wonder if it’s a boy or girl.

Later that evening, when I use the Due Date Calculator online, BabyCenter says the baby is the size of a poppy seed. I don’t click on the link to see what the baby looks like at four weeks. I wonder briefly about having a baby near Thanksgiving, about how this child would be three years younger than my firstborn.

//

We lost the last baby at six weeks. I was holding my toddler on my hip, striding across the library floor, my arms loaded with book bags and coats. There was a popping sensation, then a whoosh of fluid that soaked my underwear. A thought fluttered in my mind: “Am I having a miscarriage? I have to remember this moment in case I write about it.” I batted the thought away with the detached curiosity of someone who has never experienced real loss. Of all the things, it seemed so implausible.

I walked to the children’s section of the library and locked myself in the bathroom with my toddler. I sat down on the tiny child-size toilet while my daughter started pulling down paper towels from the automated dispenser, the mechanical “weee” sound jamming over and over. My jeans were wet; it looked like I had peed myself. But there was no blood, so I chalked it up to a weird womanly moment.

The next morning I started spotting. It was Sunday so we went to church and I tried not to worry. My husband had to stop by work, so I came home with my daughter. My upper thighs began to ache and my lower back pulsed with slow-moving pain. I called the midwife line and spoke to a nurse. “The midwife on call is delivering a baby right now,” she said. “But I paged her and she will call you back soon.”

The cramping continued and I searched online for clues. My daughter was cranky, ready for her nap, but I couldn’t pull it together to go through the nap routine. She sensed that something was wrong and she touched my wet cheeks gently.

“Mama crying?” she said. “Ooooh, mama. Sorry mama.” She patted my face, her tiny fingers moving up and down.

The midwife called back, fresh from ushering a new life into the world. I described my symptoms, my throat constricting as I tried to push the words out. She told me that spotting is very normal in pregnancy, but the cramping was not a good sign.

“This doesn’t sound too good for you, honey,” she said.

I laid my head back on the couch as I listened to her speak, my eyes squeezed shut.

“Are you still there?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, my voice thick. She told me to get an appointment at the clinic for the next day.

After I hung up, I started sobbing. I started thinking about all the late nights I had spent recently watching Netflix, about how I was still drinking several cups of coffee a day, about how I had missed a few days of prenatal vitamins. “This is my fault,” I thought. I had taken it for granted, what my body could do, conjuring up new life like magic.

The first pregnancy had been so easy, so straightforward. I come from fertile women, hourglass figures and broad hips. My sister always said that our bodies were the kind that can squat and deliver a child in the fields after working outside all day. We conceived the first time we tried. Having babies was something that I was confident I could do.

I never knew a baby could slip away from me, disappearing into the clouds.

//

Another week has gone by and my mind hovers on grocery lists and schedules and legions of library books to return. But I also start drinking decaf and swallowing the large oval prenatal pills, their smell nutty and healthy. Except on nights when I’m writing, I go to sleep before midnight.

We made it to five weeks, I think nonchalantly. Nobody besides my husband knows that there is magic happening in my womb. Nobody will know if the magic stops.

With the last pregnancy, we told our immediate families right away. So many joy-filled, Guess whats! What a thing to share, the news of a second life in your very body. And what happier news to receive than another grandchild that will toddle around during holiday meals?

Once the blood tests confirmed the miscarriage, I had to make sad phone calls, send the emails and texts. Yes, it’s a miscarriage. And the loss kept happening as I bled for days, a life leeching into giant maxi pads. We got a few cards in the mail, my sister sent flowers. Days kept coming and going, the bleeding finally stopped. Most of the time it felt like nothing happened.

But at the most random moments – in the post office, driving the car, stirring pasta – I would remember that the baby was gone. (Not dead, I didn’t think of it that way, he or she never was, never had become.) The baby was gone and the loss would stir up panic and the realization that ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS IN LIFE CAN HAPPEN TO ME. Lives can be magically conjured in my very body and lives can be ripped out before I even hear evidence of a heartbeat.

I’ve never been a worrier. I don’t dwell on worst-care scenarios or follow my kid around with a bottle of Purell. But miscarriage has cracked my glass half-full optimism; it has revealed how fragile it all can be. It’s a world where your loved one can board a plane and vanish in the sky and you don’t know whether they’re at the bottom of the ocean or waiting for rescue on a desert isle.

It’s also a world where magic can happen; I know, I have a zany pig-tailed toddler to prove it. For now, I let my body do its mysterious work while I busy through my day, trying not to jinx it. And as each week passes, I’ll sigh a little deeper in gratitude that we made it this far.

Mommy blogs as gateway drugs

When I first became a mother, I found myself doing what lots of other new moms do when handed a live baby: incessantly googling newborn won't sleep normal, 10 minute naps normal, crying all the time normal. My desperate late-night searches sent me into weird message boards on BabyCenter and outdated Yahoo groups from 2004. I even frequented a hippie message board from the Berkeley Parents Network. But it wasn't long before I found myself clicking into a world I never knew existed: mommyblogland. Mommyblogland is a snaking network filled with both snarky and saccharine tales of parenthood. There are let-me-tell-you-how-it-really-is diatribes alongside photo montages of dimpled baby legs and toddlers playing with wooden toys. There are real life accounts of how people survive colic. How-tos for washing your cloth diapers. Comic relief. Really, there is something for everyone.

Before mommyblogland, I didn't know blogs were - you know - still a thing. I thought blogs were for updating your friends and family on your semester abroad, an alternative to the mass email of yore. Most of my good friends didn't deign to social media. It was almost a contest amongst us to show how infrequently we could update our profile pictures on Facebook because, you know, Facebook is lame. I had even tried quitting it two different times. 

Though I burned with a secret shame, I loved mommyblogland. I would lurk while stuck under a newborn for hours and - hey - those mommybloggers understood. I was comforted by the vulnerability of others: honest words on postpartum weepies, co-sleeping and breastfeeding travails. It made me feel less isolated as a new stay-at-home mom, which is no small thing.

And mommyblogland led to another blog network: the Jesus storytellers and honest-to-God writers. The ones re-imagining the faiths of their adolescence, dismantling cliches and letting fresh air inside musty old rooms. There is only so much breathing of each others' air that will suffice in the Christian faith, and these ladies yanked up the windowsills for me when I needed it.

So, here I am, 30 years old today. I am starting a blog because I love to write and because I'd rather join the conversation than watch from the sidelines. Thank you mommyblogland for being my gateway drug to the writing and blogging life.

I still love you and I don't care who knows it.