Comfort and Dis-ease

I am over at the Good Letters today with a blog post about my surprising need for comfort.

The essay starts like this:

When I was in college my theology professor, lecturing on the Kingdom of God, turned to me and asked, “So, Stina. When you are older and own a home and have a perfectly good kitchen and dining room and so on, I want to know: Will you spend thousands of dollars updating it? Redoing it?”

When I was the invincible age of twenty-two, the thought of having thousands of dollars to spend on anything—let alone owning a real home—seemed a million years away. And what a silly question: Of course I wouldn’t spend my fictitious money on frivolous home renovation projects. I wouldn’t settle for a domesticated life of fine things.

We were talking about the Kingdom of God, after all. About upside-down priorities—of the last, first. Of giving all that we had to the poor. I never imagined myself wanting comfort; I who grew up with it and never knew life without it. My head and heart were fixed on higher, nobler things.

“No,” I replied to my professor, my voice bold before my classmates. I looked around importantly. “No, I would never do that.”

Read the rest here.

The Year of Being My Baby's Person

The first year of my baby boy's life has already come and gone. There is nothing quite like that year carefully measured in months and milestones: first smiles, first crawls, first teeth, first time sleeping longer than three hours. This year of unpredictable schedules, of near-constant sleep deprivation, of alarming bodily indignities -- it's like getting lost in a thick haze, where days are barely distinguishable from one another. I've hardly known the day of the week, sometimes not even the season.

I read once that there is no such thing as a baby singular, only a baby plus a person. A baby could never survive without a caregiver to hold it, feed it, change it, protect it. We love to post pictures of these darling babies on social media, so helpless and dimply cheeked and soft-skinned, and we have the illusion that this baby exists by itself. But really, it's like we've posted a photo of half a head, or someone's toes (and not in some artsy, avant garde fashion). We don't see the person who makes the baby's very life possible - the mother or father or grandparent or auntie - standing just outside the camera's shot, wearing a faded bathrobe with smeared snot on the sleeve. The person with the slightly manic look in her eye, her heart swollen with love for this little sweet-smelling appendage, her hands clutching a mug of coffee gone cold. Don't let the cute baby pictures fool you: they aren't the full story.

2015 was the year of being my baby's person. It has been an honor and a struggle and frankly, I am glad to be on the other side of postpartum. My body has shifted into its new normal, my baby is somewhat regular in his napping and sleeping. He is one now and so I'm getting back to it -- this job of being my own person. It's a slow process.

Earlier this week I went up to Du Nord (which literally means "the north"), which is a clustering of cabins along the border wilderness with Canada. On the last day of our vacation my husband and I went for a morning cross-country ski while my parents watched our little ones (bless them), and we hit the trails hard. It's impossible to overstate the beauty of northern Minnesota in winter, especially when you've just had a few inches of deliciously thick snowfall. We took turns breaking trail along the track to Slim Lake, the tips of our skis breaking upward through the snow like shark fins cresting in water. It was a grey morning; it had been a grey couple of days. We crossed the frozen lake and all was still except for the sound of my muffled breath and the wind. 

As we skied along the shoreline, looking for the Druid Pines trail entrance, my mind wandered. For once I wasn't thinking about my son, about whether he had eaten enough for breakfast or if I should be concerned about that diaper rash or how long it was until he needed to nap. I didn't wonder if my daughter was getting enough attention or if she had brushed her teeth this morning or whether we had read enough books to her last night. No, my mind was as blank as the unbroken trail through the towering pine forest. As my husband and I skied together, taking turns leading, I felt untethered. I climbed a small hill, my skis making herringbone v's in the snow, and I turned around to look back at the woods. Over the tops of pine branches I saw it: a patch of cerulean sky. Sunshine was cutting through the grey. 

We smiled at each other, my husband and I, as we paused to let the wild and quiet and light wash over us. It felt luxurious -- to let my mind and body exist in space beyond my children. It was a shifting moment: one small milestone on the slow road back to being my own person.

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.

DSC05862

//

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.

//

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.

Overdue

It's the first Sunday in Advent and I couldn't bear going to church this morning with my ten-days-overdue belly. Of course everyone understands that babies don’t follow any kind of schedule (at least mine don’t – inside or outside the womb, for that matter); of course, normal gestational length can vary by as much as six weeks. Still, when you pass that magical date that you’ve been spouting out to curious well-wishers for the past few months, everyone starts getting antsy. It's enough to make me want to hide forever. Hide from questions and small talk, hide from hope that he will be here soon.

I know there are many parallels to entering the season of Advent with being "overdue" with child -- but frankly they make me grouchy, even if they are apt. Yes, waiting for this birth reflects the greater waiting we are doing for Jesus' birth, for the Kingdom to come, for peace to reign on earth. But in the actual calendar season of Advent, I know Christmas is coming on December 25. It will come on time. I already know that story; I can make plans.

This physical knowing I will give birth but not knowing when? This is different. With Advent, I can intellectualize its meaning. I can check out emotionally and passively move through the season until Christmas morning. I can even skip ahead to joy by playing Christmas music early and setting up our tree. But there is no sneaking in snuggles with my baby before labor; this is a wait in utter darkness.

Up until this weekend, I have felt okay waiting. I’m not physically uncomfortable or roiling in pain. Sure, it has been wearying -- the not knowing, the wondering if I should do a big grocery shop or make play-dates for my toddler, the pressure to be doing things to go into labor (primrose oil, walking, doing stairs, eating spicy food, castor oil, acupuncture, squats and lunges to name a few). I have known that, no matter what I try, there is always the underlying reality that nothing that I “do” will push me into labor until my body is ready.

But the past two mornings I woke up at 4 AM with panic so thick in my throat that I thought I would choke. Somehow I had it in my mind that the baby would come this weekend; that the baby would be born before December 1. Instead of waking to labor pains or to the rush of my water breaking, I blinked awake to hope unmet and stomach acid. Nothing was happening.

I’ve been surprised by the anger that I have felt at having my hopes misplaced.

The unease I feel now is more of an agitated readiness, a frantic desire to meet this being who is sharing my body, to endure and be done with labor, to finally have the anticipation put to rest. It’s a thirst to move forward, not remain stuck here in limbo, in wondering.

For so many days now, I’ve been on top of everything house related – all the dishes done immediately, the toys always picked up, the manic check-things-off-the-list mentality driving me forward, lest we go into labor. Ask my husband; he will tell you about how we dusted the tops of every kitchen cabinet this morning.

I had been so hopeful that my baby would be born by today. Every Braxton Hicks contraction pain has stirred anticipation -- is this it? But nothing real has happened, nothing tangible. I feel despondent, uncertain whether to keep preparing or sink into hopeless grief.

December is nearly here; my baby is not. And, though the parallels make me grouchy, I wonder if this is exactly what Advent is supposed to feel like: an angry anticipation for the thing we most long for, a discontent with the ways of this world, a bitter hope teetering on despair for wrongs to be righted, a desperation for light to overcome all this darkness.

It’s this restless hope that is forcing me to pace the hallways of my apartment building, to do circuits of stairs wherever I can find them. It’s forcing me into a more active wait, not a passive one. It’s forcing me to try small things to get labor started, though I have no ultimate control in this process.

I keep going through the motions, though the oil in my lamp is burning low. Draw your flame a little closer, wait with me.

***

Image via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here

Due Date: A Few Thoughts

"Time is of utmost importance to Americans. Time is something to be on, kept, filled, saved, lost, wasted and even killed. Americans tend to be more concerned with getting things done on time than they are with interpersonal relationships. Americans stop discussions abruptly in order to make appointments on time and to be productive." - 13 Commonly Held American Values, by L. Robert Kohls

//

Last night I was checking my email when a new message popped into my inbox.

Notification: Stina’s Due Date @ Thu Nov 20, 2014.

Thank you, Google Calendar; I am well aware that my 40 weeks of pregnancy are up. I’ve received texts and phone calls from friends and family over the past few days.

“How are you feeling?” or “Thinking of you!” they read.

“I’m feeling good!” or “Thanks, xoxo!” I respond.

But really, what is there to say? I am waiting to go through one of the most defining experiences of my adult life. I am waiting to add a new member to my family, something I may never do again. I am waiting for life to emerge from my very body, to hold my wet newborn son to my chest, to watch him take his first breaths.

There is no other time like it, this waiting for a baby to rip through your pelvis. When else do you have a notification pop up on your email – “it’s your due date!!” – like it’s high school graduation or your wedding, but instead of going ahead and putting on your cap and gown or wedding dress, you sit down on the couch and take a deep sigh. It’s here! So hurry up and wait. You wonder if you should make plans for the days ahead, fielding the curiosity and excitement and anticipation of everyone around you. You imagine them thinking: When will your body get it together?

The waiting. There is so much waiting. I want it to be here, to be on the other side of birth, to know that we made it through. I want it, even though seasoned parents of more than one child say, “Get your sleep!” or “You don’t know how good you have it!” or, my favorite, “It’s two on two now – you’ll never get a break!”

Even if it is as tiring and achy and emotional as I imagine parenting a newborn and toddler in wintertime will be, at least I will be in it. It will be there and I can take the next step, even if it’s crying into my bathrobe.

//

I wonder if all my discomfort with waiting has something to do with being steeped in a productivity-and-deadlines obsessed culture. We Americans like to be in control of our time, we’re not used to sitting around and awaiting an unknown fate.

In the three years since my last birth, I forgot what it felt like to be waiting for a newborn. When I’d watch acquaintances approaching their own due dates, I couldn’t remember what to say, how to empathize, or what ways to support them.

“How are you feeling?” I’d ask, forgetting that they’d likely fielded that question several times already that day.

I’d wonder about them in subsequent days, curious if they were in labor yet. But life would go on, I would make my toddler lunch or get the mail, until I’d absent-mindedly check Facebook. “Oh!” I’d exclaim. “They had their baby!” And I’d marvel that my friend had been sweating and pushing and undergoing one of the most intense experiences of their life while I had been eating a sandwich.

(Does it ever feel strange that so many things, so many experiences can co-exist at the same time? Right now, someone is being born. Someone is dying. Someone is getting married. Someone is having sex for the first time. It’s mind-blowing to me, the plurality of human experience.)

It’s hard to be the one waiting; it’s hard to encourage the one waiting. We struggle with trust, with open-ended and uncertain answers. But with every “how are you feeling?” or “happy due date” message that I receive, I am reminded that I am not waiting alone. I have a web of interpersonal relationships that surround me, eager to welcome this new baby into the world.

When I went into labor the first time, my friends and family lit candles for me, to remind them to pray, to acknowledge the struggle for new life that was happening while they went about normal routines. I take comfort in that image of tiny flames, of small lights of hope. All I can do is take it moment by moment, trusting that my baby will come when he is ready. In the meantime, I will keep fielding those wonderful texts, phone calls and conversations about all that is to come. Each one reminds me that we’re in this together.

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.

//

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.

//

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.

//

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.

//

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.

//

“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.

//

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.

//

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

//

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.

Click here to read more.

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.

On Spiritual Abuse

Hey everyone. I wrote a guest-post about my experience with spiritual abuse over at my friend Amy Peterson's blog for her series on finding a second simplicity in faith. It's a personal story, one that I continue to wrestle with.  

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There was a time when I didn’t know if God was good. 

It was the summer I fell in with a group of fire-breathing Pentecostals and the summer I questioned the salvation of nearly every Christian I had ever met. It was the summer I interviewed migrants in a Kenyan refugee camp as an intern with the United Nations and the summer I nearly lost my mind from secondary trauma.

It was the summer when everything unraveled. My ideas of good and bad, true and untrue blurred into a swirling mess, a cyclone that ripped through the faith that had been growing steadily since childhood.

Some days I peer at the landscape of my faith and see the devastation that lingers even now, nine years later. It looks like the path a windstorm can wrack through an old-growth forest. It looks like a trail of downed trees. Sure, I can see regrowth among the broken limbs on the forest floor; I can see new saplings poking upward in sunlight. But I can’t help staring at all those snapped trunks and exposed roots, wondering at all that I lost in that storm.

Read the rest here.

The Book That Changed My Life

I wrote an essay about The Irresistible Revolution over at D.L. Mayfield's blog. irresistiblerevolution

The Irresistible Revolution: The Book That Changed my Life

What was it about that book?

It was the gee whiz let’s do something. It was the stories of hope. It was the promise of a glittery but gritty revolution where the kingdom breaks through cracked concrete, mustard plant by mustard plant.

It was the acknowledgment that not all is well with the world, stop pretending. Instead, let’s move into the neighborhood and tithe our money relationally; let’s reject the investment in sprawling suburban church campuses when so many are scrounging for grocery money. Be a new kind of believer, a prophetic witness who takes Jesus at his word.

Shane Claiborne came to speak in chapel at my evangelical college in 2004, two years before The Irresistible Revolution was published. It was the week before finals and I skipped his talk to write a paper; I had never heard of him. But I saw the impact he had on my friends, how they came back from chapel pumped up by his words about authentic faith, by his dreadlocks and patched jeans. Some of my crowd looked a lot like Shane that way, and I have a faint recollection of a drum circle that he performed with students on campus.

Shane, it was decided, was very cool. The New Monasticism movement that he headlined buzzed with words like “intentional community” and “downward mobility,” setting my idealist heart ringing. It dovetailed with the “you can change the world” message I had long heard growing up. And I believed in my heart of hearts that I, too, would never settle for a stale and materialistic Christianity.

But, if you’re like me, the sounding gong of radicalism eventually faded into disillusionment.

Read the rest here.

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.

A Tribute to My Mom

Things have been quiet here on the blog as life has picked up (and I admit to letting my inner Eeyores run amok). Last weekend I flew to Connecticut for a whirlwind 24-hour extravaganza in honor of my mom’s 60th birthday. We surprised her with a party filled with family and old friends from her high school and college years. I was supposed to give a little speech, but, after sharing a slideshow with all her photos from babyhood until today (including footage from my parents wedding that I had never seen), I got too teary-eyed and thick in the throat to say what I had planned.

So, mom, this is what a meant to say.

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Mom. You are 60 years old today, exactly twice my age. And that gives me some hope, because I have 30 more years to grow and become as wise and kind and grace-filled as you are. I am learning that motherhood can be a crucible through which these traits are formed.

Mom. When I was collecting these photos of you, I learned from your high school friends that you were once voted “Most Fog-Bound.” You always were dreamy but that only tells the easy story, doesn’t it? You are complex and gifted: a peacemaker, a creative force, a smarty theology talker, a storyteller, a proclaimer of God’s love and grace.

elementary1Mom. You make the best MorMor. You tell slightly off-color jokes, let my toddler jump on your couch, and sign up for mommy-and-me dance class so I can have a break on Saturday mornings. Thank you for loving my baby so well.

Mom. You may be getting older, but you can still sleep like a teenager. New wrinkles are showing but you shine with the beauty that comes with a well-lived life. You are aging well.

IMG_0007Mom. You have taught me how to always listen first. Thank you for never criticizing or cajoling, even when my choices didn’t make much sense. You are always even, always safe, always there when I need you. Thank you.

Mom. You let insults bounce off your back, like water droplets on waxy feathers; yet, you know when to stand up for yourself and fight back. Keep it up, it’s good for daughters to see their mothers engage with conflict.

PICT0006Mom. Thank you for going to seminary when you were 40. Thank you for trusting God’s call on your life: to preach, to teach, to minister. I know that this road has had its sorry potholes, but I am so proud you took it anyway. Thank you for being the person that God created you to be. You have shown me that I can be brave.

Mom. If this is what 60 looks like, then I can’t wait for the next 30 years to fly on by.

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I love you.

How to get Young Adults to Church

Qualifier: No one person can write definitively on an entire swath of diverse people, I created this list out of my own experiences as a young adult (which I am defining here as ages 20 to 35) in the church. It reflects my own biases. Here we go.

  1. Be authentic, be yourself, be the church.

Are you an aging church that only uses hymns? Don’t try to reinvent yourself with a zippy new worship style just to attract young adults. We are cynical and have been going to church all our lives; we can smell fake a mile away.

Stay true to what God is doing in your church and trust God to draw the right people. Authenticity is a rare thing. Don’t abuse it by trying to be something that you’re not.

  1. Be friendly but not too friendly.

Young adults are used to church shopping, aka frittering away months and months jumping from service to service without any firm commitment. In most of my experiences church shopping, I would rarely be greeted by a member of that congregation.

A warm welcome can make a huge difference. If you are greeting a young adult, ask them questions but don’t be too overwhelming. Back off if they look uncomfortable, especially if it’s their first time visiting. But, if they come back a few times, now is the time to invite them over to your home for dinner or out for coffee. Personal invitations versus a “sign up for this program” are always better.

  1. Intergenerational churches are a plus, not a minus.

Young adults are often in communities of their peers, especially if they’re recent college graduates. We crave interaction with the “older wisers” who have gone through the life phases we find ourselves in. Young adult groups are great, but don’t be afraid of encouraging intergenerational community. Mentoring programs, meal groups -- any way to match older folks with younger folks is a plus.

  1. Regularly ask young people to do something in church.

Many young adults are non-committal and kind of lazy. We’re used to being catered to, being programed for in church. But, if somebody asks us point-blank to read scripture in the service next Sunday or to write about our experience living in Guatemala for the church newsletter, we’ll do it. Find out what your young adults are passionate about and invite them to use their gifts in church. We’ll be grateful that someone thinks we have something to offer, we’ll be more invested in the church. And, we’ll have to show up the Sunday we have a job to do.

  1. Throw wedding showers and baby showers.

Young adults are in a season of transition, making big life decisions, some of us getting married and having babies. If a young adult in your church gets engaged or has a baby (even if they only come to church sporadically), throw them a shower!

There is nothing more beautiful than having the corporate church come around you during a season of major change.

  1. Create a safe space for doubters, for askers of hard questions, for disbelief.

If you have young adults attending your church, chances are good that they have struggled with unanswered faith questions and doubt. Chances are even greater that they’ve been wounded by a church in their past. Churches are notoriously bad at welcoming people who are on the fringes of faith, who are asking hard questions.

Creating safe space for doubters can look a lot of ways. The pastor can host a theology night, or an “Ask Anything” event. Even better, personally invite young adults out for coffee to talk about their faith. Whatever form it takes, it’s important to listen to and affirm the experiences of the young adults in your church. Having “the answers” isn’t as important to most young adults as feeling welcomed despite doubts.

  1. If you want parents with young children to participate, arrange for childcare.

Do you want young mothers and fathers to serve on worship team or speak during adult education hour? Providing childcare is a must. Ask the young parents in your church about their child’s nap schedule and plan meetings during times that they can make it.

  1. Have a web presence, but it doesn’t have to be fancy.

We do like the i-net. A lot. And most churches have a website these days. But you don’t have to invest lots of money into making a fancy new website or join twitter just to cater to young adults. We just need the address, the service time, and little blurb about the church. That’s it.

  1. Invite Young Adults into Leadership Roles.

Young adults can be a fickle bunch. But, if we’ve been attending for a while, it might be time to ask your young adults to serve in leadership roles in the congregation. Even better, offer to mentor a young adult in a certain role if they’re feeling non-committal. Ask, ask, ask.

10. Be a community.

Young adults are a transient bunch. We move a lot and might be new in town. Church is a great way to meet new people. And there is nothing so beautiful as a community that cares for one another in good times and bad.

So… be friendly! Have potlucks (and ask us to bring something)! Invite people over! Invest in relationship! You’ll never regret it.

Ash Wednesday

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You were unprepared.

Chagrined, you look up the local Episcopal church website and discover the evening service is at 5:30 PM. Call your husband to see if he can stay home with your two-year-old daughter. You want to go alone.

Drive through the snow-packed streets to the stately stone building. You swing open the heavy oak doors and slip into the church. An elderly gentleman in the foyer hands you a bulletin as you enter the dark sanctuary, the stained glass glowing like a lit lantern. Your body slides onto a hard pew towards the back, the floorboards creaking under your feet. Tasteful mandolin and guitar chords strum the first lines of "What Wondrous Love is This." The congregation sings heartily, the familiar notes soaring then falling.

It has been years since you last attended a liturgical service. Stand up, sit down. You stumble through the "Thanks be to God"s and "Glory to you Lord Christ"s, yet it feels good to be here.

The scriptures are read. Raving mad prophets, gentle Psalms. Everyone stands when the Gospel is carried to the center of the church. The priest reads the voice of Jesus, his Sermon on the Mount. You listen, believing and unbelieving. You are so thirsty.

She preaches a homily, words on ashes and death, about reconciliation to God and our neighbors. The person next to you pulls down the red velvety kneeler with a loud thwack and together you confess your sins. When it’s your turn, you come forward to receive ashes on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sight of dark smudged foreheads in the congregation startles you when you turn around. You, too, bear that sign.

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Nothing stirs you, but you are glad you came. You rifle through the bulletin and check the time, wondering about what is happening at home. Communion is next.

You can’t remember the last time you took Communion. The tiny Mennonite church you attend now rarely offers the sacrament. In your high church days it was the service's climax, the one thing required of you each and every Sunday. Can I take this cup? Can I eat this bread?

The priest prepares the table and launches into the familiar liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving: The Lord be with you. And also with you. We lift up our hearts. We lift them to the Lord.

Your attention drifts during the long liturgy describing the Last Supper. But you snap back to present when the priest invites you back to the table, saying:

This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
 It is to be made ready for those who love God
 and who want to love God more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
 you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time, 
you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
 Come, not because I invite you: it is God, and it is God’s will 
that you who want God should meet God here.

And that’s when it all hits you, the burning behind your eyes and sharp twinges in your nose. You give in and let the hot tears fall. You who have little, you who have failed, you who are woefully unprepared.

You walk forward and take what is yours, that bread dipped in wine.

*Photos by LifeCreations and  The Cleveland Kid, Creative Commons via Flickr

Growth Mind-set

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I started this blog a week ago and I already feel paralyzed. There are so many talented writers out there and, though I love to write, I can’t help but twist my hands with jealousy when I see others' elegant sentences slip down my computer screen.

I stumbled across this article in the Atlantic last week, have you seen it? It’s called “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators.” It details a phenomenon that I am all too familiar with: the terror of being unmasked as a fraud. The sinking feeling that, maybe I’m not good with words after all. The Eeyore inside, flicking his tail, “Oh well. I guess I won’t even try.”

The article details research on failure and makes a distinction between people who have a fixed mind-set, that is, belief that success is dependent on talent (the Eeyores), versus the people who have a growth mind-set, the ones who are enthralled by the things they find difficult and, instead of worrying about failure, plunge in because they know they will learn something in the process (those Little Engines that Could).

The fact that there are people out there who naturally are enthralled by difficulty kills me. I, on the other hand, might mutter, “I think I can” one or two times before giving up to make myself a snack.

This morning I was grumbly and short with my daughter. I had stayed up way too late after discovering the blog-hater website, Get Off My Internets. As I read the scathing reviews of some of my regular blog reads, I shrunk downward on the couch. These comments were so harsh, so cruel. It was enough to make any fledgling blogger want to burrow back into the nest where there is no risk of attack by anonymous vultures.

As I got ready for my job, I grumped around while preparing appropriate worksheets and materials for the three tutoring sessions I had this afternoon. I am not a teacher, just another liberal arts educated adult who wants to help struggling kids on the margins (for which I am compensated generously). And I often feel at a total loss for helping my students catch up two and three grade levels in math and reading. Teaching, it turns out, is really hard. And sometimes, I’m not good at it.  But the thing about a job is that you have to go, even if you’re feeling like an absolute fraud while driving to it. Today, just showing up with my hastily planned lessons was enough to help a hard-to-teach 4th grade boy with equivalent fractions. I'll take it.

Every piece on this ol’ blog will not be spellbinding prose, profound, or even remotely good. Strangers will read it and judge my abilities. Even typing that sentence spins me into web of fear and loathing. But I know that, if I never hit “publish," if I never try, I will never grow into a mature writer. And this blog is good accountability (and motivation) to adopt a growth mind-set.

For you readers, thank you. I am honored that you are here, reading my words. And I pledge to show up, to throw off my inner Eeyore as best I can. I can’t promise it will be stellar writing, but I can promise to be honest. At least I’ll keep telling myself, “I think I can.”

Sand and Spoons: This is 30

I turned 30 this weekend. I woke up on Saturday morning, flipped the calendar from February to March. I made coffee, helped my toddler climb into her high chair, got out yesterday’s waffles from the refrigerator. Really, not much was different. I was still here, in my life, doing my mom-things.

Why does turning 30 cause us to pause, reevaluate, and freak out? Is it because we had an idea of where we would be by now? Is it the faint crow’s-feet at the corner of our eyes, a symbol of how we’ll never be “young” again?

Maybe it’s realizing that, whether we intended to or not, we’ve all made some irreversible decisions this past decade. The world is no longer our oyster. We’ve all gulped the saltwater out in the real world, and some of us have gritty sand remaining in our mouths.

When I was in college I would collect study abroad brochures, glossy and bright, and lay them out on my narrow dorm room bed. Each one felt slippery between my fingers. Semester in Fiji. Printmaking in Italy. Mountaineering in Patagonia. I liked to make four-year plans with my freshmen roommate, devising plots of how we could maximize our time away from campus.

And I loved having my options spread out before me, glistening like heavy spoons on a country farm table. I liked picking them up one at a time, feeling the weight of each piece, admiring this one’s filigreed handle and that one’s clamshell grooves. I would smell their metallic smells and slide their cool silver stems against my cheek in chilly strokes. My distorted reflection would stare at me from their arcs. And I treasured them as I counted and recounted, always returning each spoon to the table with a gentle thud, never fully grasping one and walking away.

Spoons

It’s terrifying to hear the sound of spoons clattering on the hardwood floor, to realize some options are gone forever. That early 20s hubris, that feeling of limitless time and possibility, has disappeared.

Yet, there is grace in spoons clanging to the ground. It shows that I did choose: in my case, I married, became a mother and decided to stay home with my daughter while she is young. I am grateful most of the time, yet I admit that there are days when I watch my peers advancing in their careers with jealousy. Those days, I can feel the gritty sand in my mouth. I taste the sour brine of expectations being unmet.

It’s in those moments that I remind myself that life, God willing, is long. I remember hearing a 90-year-old woman talk about her life, her voice tremolo as she recounted 25 years serving as a missionary in Korea and 20 more years working in affordable housing. And that was after the 15 years she stayed home with her kids.

Nowadays I don’t spend much time considering the spoons left on the table, or mourning the ones heaped on the floor. Instead, I am welcoming my limits and living in the dirt of now. Along with the laugh lines at my eyes, I have more confidence. God is showing me again and again that he didn’t make junk when he fashioned messy old me, and I am starting to believe it.

I cling to the belief that God is moving toward me, pursuing me, taking that sand in my mouth and pressurizing it into something beautiful. Maybe the world is my oyster after all. Ask me at 40, and I may just spit out a pearl.

* Photo by NikiMM, Creative Commons via Flickr