The Breastfed Gospel.

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I spent my 30th birthday in bed, moaning in pain from a knock-out case of mastitis. Mastitis is an infection you get from breastfeeding, except it affects the whole body. It’s like the flu, if the flu was trying to kill you. My incredible mother-in-law Debbie used an entire week of leave from her job to stay in town and care for me and my kids, since my husband had to work and I could not get out of bed. It was the sickest I have ever been; at one point Debbie was spoon feeding me applesauce as I deliriously cried in her arms, unable to lift my own head. I hadn’t showered in three days, I was sticky with breastmilk, sweaty from my fever, and could not stop weeping. It was quite the birthday party. And also, GOD BLESS MY MOTHER IN LAW.

I have had a baby at my breast for most of the last 4 years. I have taught myself and three newborns how to nurse, I have kept three children alive with my milk, and I have suffered greatly at times in order to do so.

Breastfeeding seems like a normal, easy task when you see other women doing it. They sidle their baby up to their chest, an invisible transaction occurs, and then they both go back to their lives. I love nursing my babies, but it is most certainly not the easy task I once assumed. It demands physical and emotional sacrifices that can’t really be explained: I can tell you that it hurts to have a baby learn to suck on my nipple, and I can tell you that when my milk comes in a few days after birth I can’t sleep from the pain of engorgement, and I can tell you that setting aside all other responsibilities every two hours all day long means that I lead a life of constant disruption; but none of that makes sense until it’s your own baby, pressed tight to your own chest, trying to drink milk from your body.

The complications of breastfeeding often feel like the hidden shame of new mothers. Because we’ve seen so many depictions of it happening so freely, when problems arise (when, not if) we wonder why we didn’t know how hard it would be. We wonder why everyone else nursing looks like an oil painting that might be entitled “Peaceful Mother and Baby at the Brookside,” when our own experience looks more like uncomfortable latches and too much milk and choking babies and not enough milk and infant reflux and painful breast infections and tied up tongues, and wanting to give it all up because we are tired. 

Damn the brookside, we say.

I’ve never wanted to give up nursing my babies until my birthday bout of mastitis. I wondered why in the hell I was putting myself through such madness. Because there is another way, of course, and baby formula is a remarkable answer to how we can feed our babies when breastfeeding isn’t working. I have no qualms with formula. I’ve seen both sides of the bottle-fed equation: the mom grappling with her guilt over using it, and the happy, healthy babies drinking it. I know there are lots of studies that tell us breast is best, and I think breast milk is a miracle from our bodies, but I also can’t tell a lick of difference between the kids given formula and the kids given milk. The kids are all fine.

I know this about myself- it’s not about bottles versus breast for me. I don’t keep breastfeeding for the baby’s sake; I do it for my own.

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I keep nursing because – and maybe this is petty, maybe I shouldn’t admit it- breastfeeding cleanses something in me. That’s why it’s so important. Not because I think my kids will be ruined by formula, or because I want to prove something to someone, or because I think breastfeeding will make an enormous difference in the lives of my kids; I breastfeed because it requires an offering.

Like a lamb on the altar, I offer my body for the sake of a greater cause, and pour out my life to save the life of another. It is a hallowed act, one I find hard to match. There simply aren’t many ways to sacrifice myself so easily. My privileged way of life doesn’t naturally produce opportunities for pure, selfless giving. Even sex with my husband, the most raw and exposed of interactions, can exist in a vacuum of self. I have to be deliberate in that space, be mindful in the giving of myself and accepting of his vulnerability, to become one out of two when I often prefer to just be one, if only for the beige ease of being independent. 

Motherhood is a balancing act on the pendulum of martyrdom and selfishness; somewhere in the middle is a meeting, joy in the giving, but also peace in receiving what I need to be healthy. I don’t want to be a shadow of myself, burning at the stake of my children and their future. And I don’t want to be a shadow of a mother, cooly standing in the corners of my children’s lives.

And though I live under a gospel of grace, the law now abolished by love, there is still an essential element of sacrifice in my faith. A sacred transformation takes place when I offer myself on the altar, when I lay down my own life for the sake of another. That’s what breastfeeding is to me- here is my body. Here are my open arms. Here is my time. Here is my life. Let me nourish you. I wonder what would happen if I could find that depth of love for everyone, not just my babies.

This is something that continually draws me towards the Christian faith: the fact that though my salvation is complete, and God has finished all that is required to forgive me, there is still a wholeness yet to come. We will be made whole. He is writing love into me, circumstantially and holistically, through pain and suffering of every weight, through the mundane and the grand. So though the work of being saved is done, there is still a great work being made in my life to reveal the goodness, the completion, the truly loved and realized version of me. That’s beautiful. And it is unique to the God I worship- no other god or religion makes this distinction. There is no earning anything from the God of the Bible. There is only grace. Only sacrificial love, righteous justice. And there is no perfected version of human on earth, no priest or holy woman or prophet above anyone else, because we are all being perfected until the day of Christ Jesus. I love that.

We can’t be perfect. I can’t. I can barely manage to be kind of good, and only on a few odd days. But I can pay attention. I can look for ways to be softened, to be humbled. I so badly want to be made whole. And if I know anything, it’s that being made whole only comes after being taken apart. For me, right now, breastfeeding takes me apart. It makes me pause. It makes me give up time and space in order that a baby might live. And in that time, in that space? On my couch, on a park bench, in a public bathroom, at church, at the booth in the restaurant, in a class that I’m teaching or a group that I’m leading, I sit with a baby at my breast and offer my body up to another, humbled and amazed.

When I pray outside my house at night, under the hazy stars of a suburban neighborhood sky, muffled street sounds a block away, breathing in the air of home, I always ask for more of God. And over the roofline, across the horizon, settling like dew on the windows to the rooms which hold my sleeping children, I always hear these words come floating right back:

Pay attention, dearest.
I’m right here. 

 

 

 

Always wear nice underwear to buy groceries.

I should have seen this coming when the lady at Albertsons saw me in my underwear, but listen: I cried a lot on my birthday this year. I tend to feel an expectational forcefield around holidays and special events, and I work hard to create happy, lovely holidays. This was an easier feat before we had three small children. Not that our kids don’t make life happier and shinier in exponential amounts; they are the reason we keep traditions at all. Those three beautiful faces are the reason I make pink pancakes in February, the reason I stay up late hanging decorations before birthdays, the reason the dollar section at Target suddenly seems like a very important stop before any holiday (Tiny buckets. Tiny sponges. Tiny buttons. All useless.) I love to make my kids’ lives happier, even though I don’t want to worry if they’re happy, because I know happiness doesn’t really matter or last. They have to choose joy, eventually. (This is the absolute conundrum of motherhood- to love giving them what we know does not have much to do with us in the end.)

My kids are 4, 3, and 1, which means their world keeps spinning on special days and they just keep on being themselves, which is a fast way to ruin a party, I am sorry to report. “Kids ruin birthdays,” I told my brother the morning I turned 31, hoping my kids didn’t hear me say it. But also kind of hoping they did. I was in a bad place, ok? The morning was hectic and full of fits. Then the older two injured the baby because of their wild wrestling, and I was furious. Like, wicked stepmother tossing people into dungeons, furious. I don’t like animals but I found myself wishing for a mean pet to follow me around and scare my kids straight.

On a normal day, my kids are 85% wonderful and 15% mean-pet deserving. On my birthday last week, I cried because their percentages took a dive in the wrong direction. Bear markets all around. Again, I should have seen this all coming when the night before my birthday, I ended up nearly naked in front of an Albertsons grocery store employee.

In every grocery store, there is a sign outside the bathroom that says, “No merchandise permitted in bathrooms.” Which, fine, I understand, and who wants their cart full of groceries in a public bathroom anyway? But what- and I am asking this in all sincerity, and would appreciate tips- what are you supposed to do with the baby and the cart when the other kids need to use the restroom and they’re not big enough to go on their own? I never know what to do. Leave my cart and food in the hallway and hold the baby and my bag while helping the other two kids? Leave the baby and take the bag and pray that no one wants a grumpy baby with a runny nose anyways?

On this particular occasion, I was in a very small hallway that barely fit my cart and the bathroom was small too, and only one child needed to use the toilet. So I left Clara, my four year old, in the hallway, with the baby and the grocery cart, and tried to take Sammy in as fast as I could so the girls wouldn’t be alone for too long. We went in the bigger stall together, and after he was finished I sat down to pee, knowing it would be a long time before we were home and everyone was unloaded and I was allowed a few minutes to go to the bathroom.

Here’s where the trouble starts.

Toddlers, as a people group, love two things:

-opening and closing doors

-not listening to their parents

This is especially true in bathroom stalls, I’ve found. They love to turn that shiny latch and let themselves out, I think simply for the power of it. But since I always have to be the one who pees last, and we all use the same stall, they’re always opening the door while I’m still sitting there. I’m usually sitting on a public toilet with gritted teeth while anger-whispering “Do. Not. Open that door” and slapping my kids’ hands away from the handle.

Again, my kids are actually decent human beings whom I enjoy very much.

But public bathrooms aren’t their sweet spot.

So I’m sitting there in the Alberstons bathroom with my pants around my ankles and I hear a small commotion in the hallway where my girls are, and then I hear the baby crying. I stand up to put my pants back on, and in a perfectly timed sequence of humiliation:

  1. Sammy opens the bathroom stall door,
  2. I stand up in my underwear,
  3. An Albertson’s employee opens the bathroom door,
  4. I am still standing in my underwear,
  5. The employee looks at me standing there in my underwear,
  6. I hastily pull on my pants,
  7. Sammy marches out of the stall,
  8. The Albertson’s employee apologizes,
  9. I apologize,
  10. The employee gestures towards my crying baby,
  11. I rush out to the baby,
  12. The employee informs me that the baby is ok, she’s just crying because a  man who came out of the men’s restroom said hello to her,
  13. I finish buttoning my jeans and then pick up the crying baby,
  14. Clara loudly retells the whole story,
  15. I hustle Sammy back in the bathroom so we can wash our hands,
  16. The Albertson’s employee steps around us so that she can use the restroom,
  17. I get my kids out of the hallway and hurry up to finish my shopping,
  18. I field 100 questions about life and liberty and where gum comes from while in a long line to check out,
  19. I get out my debit card to pay for our groceries,
  20. and hand it to the checker,
  21. who in turn asks me if the baby is doing ok,
  22. because it is the lady who minutes ago saw me basically naked in a bathroom stall.

On our way out of the store, as Clara was singing a love song at the top of her lungs and Audrey was throwing a screaming fit because she wanted out of the cart, Sammy walked in front of me and I didn’t see him before his heel got clipped and he fell to the floor crying. Not a huge problem, of course, because he was wearing his new bike helmet that he refuses to take off, so his head was fine. This all happened right as my friend Stephanie waved hello from where she was watching us stumble down the aisle in mass chaos. I was sweating profusely at this point, from my efforts to contain Audrey’s 18 pounds of fit-throwing, and also from the kind of humiliation reserved for mothers with small children.

After putting all our groceries away that night and staying up late to clean my whole house (because the only way I wanted to wake up on my birthday was to a spotless home), I woke up tired and surprisingly surprised at how the next day went with my kids. Because really, people who bust open bathroom stalls and sing loudly in public and lay down on dirty linoleum floors to cry cannot be trusted to make sure you have a happy birthday.

They cannot.

Still. I had many beautiful surprises on my birthday; flowers and sandwiches and cherry pies and friends who love me; it was a sweet, sweet day. And when my little family sang Happy Birthday to me at home that night, my three year old son, that helmet-wearing bathroom bandit, was so overcome with emotion he couldn’t even finish the song- he just lovingly kissed my cheek and buried his head in my shoulder with tears in his eyes, and told me he loved me “the whole world, even to heaven.”

Happy birthday indeed.

So, now I know. This is my version of 31- sticky and exhausted, and often surrounded by bare bums- and as humiliating as mothering can be, it’s the ultimate gift. My joy is deep, and their love is as good as it gets.

Now I just need to find a new establishment where I can buy our French bread, and everything will be fine.

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Birthday with my babes.

Blessingway.

e0f7c-clarahorney_073 I gather birth stories like smooth pebbles along the shore. I know some people hate to hear them, hate being forced to listen to “horror stories” from birth and labor and becoming a mother; but I’ve never seen the stories in that light. I gather birth stories like precious stones, made smooth by enough time and space and distance from the actual event, smooth from being turned over in a mother’s warm palms over and over again, formed by the shocking event of birth no matter how many times you’ve been through it, forged in the heat of a brand new human heart beating it’s way through a birth canal and into the light of day. I gather birth stories and mothering stories and stories of grand and brave women because story is what guides us. Stories are true. Stories are the best gifts of all, small round weights that anchor us to each other and steady us in the storm. So I collect them. I hold them in my own hand, touching the strange turns and curves of another woman’s truth, touching in reverence and awe, so glad to be a part of this tribe. So glad to be of those who create, those who cry out, those who mother whether their children come from their womb or from the body of another.

My friend Alyse is due with her third baby any moment now, and last week she invited me to a different kind of a baby shower. It’s called a ‘Blessingway.’ There’s no gift giving and no games, no registry or awkward sitting around. (And by the way, why are men not forced to attend parties with terrible games and stilted conversations? Is this part of the curse? Baby showers, bridal showers and direct-sales parties? Is this our self-inflicted, hummus-soaked punishment for all of time and eternity?)

Alyse had a very strange kind of baby shower, the kind where women actually get to encourage each other and move right past the boring games and dive right into the oldest kind of gift-giving. The gifting that women invented from the moment they spoke across the fire, to each other and their daughters and each other’s daughters:
The gift of story. The gift of encouragement. The gift of love through shared experience.

But since I didn’t get to attend Alyse’s ‘Blessingway,’ I thought I would write to her on here, and share my encouragement in this bigger space, because I love this tribe of women I belong to. Here in my community and over beyond every boundary, beyond every barrier and cultural shift and difference in opinion: a mother is a mother is a mother, and the best we can do for each other is recognize our oneness and celebrate each of our strengths. So.

Dear Alyse,

Any day now you will hold a new child to your breast. You will suffer the pains of contractions, that tightening grip over your body, those insistent rolling waves of change. Your breath will catch. Your eyes will close. Your blood pressure will sway with the heated pressure of your body, all four heart valves straining ever so slightly with the incredible bearing down of motherhood.

Others will guide you through this journey, just like our mothers and their mothers and all the mothers who came first; we carry each other not because it lessens the pain, but because it eases the burden. Those are two very different things, aren’t they? The pain and the burden? We can mask the pain. We have the modern miracle of the epidural, that magic eraser of a needle. But even if the pain is gone, the burden remains.

And that’s why we hold each other up.

That’s why our husbands whisper over us, and our mothers pray, and our tribe gathers round.

The burden is great. The journey is not a sure one. I’ve seen lots of births, cried with relief at the stuttered first wail of many newborns, and never once has a new life arrived with no surprises. Whether in how early or how late it all began, how difficult or easy it all came, how the birth twisted and turned down unknown paths and plans gone awry; delivering a child is a shock. This is your third baby. You’ve done this already. You know the births of your children, of your daughter and your son, you know their stories like you know the smell of their skin. But this baby is his own story. This baby will come on his own time, with his own plan, with his own surprises and disappointments and stunning tear-soaked joy. Yes, yes, yes, he will come! Your son!

And someday soon, as you cradle him to you, leaning into the exquisite folds of his neck and wondering how you ever lived without him in your arms; you will suddenly remember his birth. You will feel the achievement of his arrival, the scars of his growth on your body, the lingering pains of his exit; you will feel and remember, cry and remember, hold him and remember how he felt fluttering inside you. And someday, when you’re watching him play with his siblings, smiling as the sun warms their fair heads while they crouch in the grass counting ants; you will remember his birth and marvel that this boy with skinned knees was ever small enough to sleep in your arms.

Someday his birth will belong to you, and you only. He will grow up, he will take steps away from you in every meaning of the word, and though you will always be his mother, he will not always be your baby. His labor and delivery, those painful minutes that build into hours and evolve into a birthday: that will be his birthday, yes, but also yours. The day you mothered three. The day your family changed. The day you learned again, forever and always, that parenthood is a harrowing experience, one that wrecks you and rebuilds you, through the dark and the agony to the glaring light of midday.

Treasure these days in your heart, my dear friend. Let yourself be wrecked, and as the rebuilding comes, moment by moment of each day with each child, gather the stories like stones. Remember their births. Remember the pain of raising them. Remember the joy of being their mother. Gather the stones and let them anchor you and steady you, and when the time is right; share them. With your sweet girl. With your precious boy. And with this new baby who has yet to come.

We will never be perfect parents. Or even great ones. Some years we will not even be adequate ones. But this is your story. And as their mother, it is their story too. That’s a family. Stories intersecting. Birth stories, bad days at school stories, crying all night stories, laughing in the car stories, when you were my baby stories, wedding toast stories, begging for forgiveness stories, you always meant everything to us stories. I love you stories. Funeral stories.
We carry their past. They carry the future. We carry on together, smooth stones of stories in our pockets.
May this birth be beautiful. May this son be a blessing. May this day be a perfect metaphor of motherhood: a surrender and a victory all in one. The end of your family as is; the beginning of your family anew.
The end of you, again, just like every other day as mother,
and the beginning of you, again, just like every other day as a mother.

Love,
Jessie

why we don’t have another baby yet.

There’s a fast-approaching date on the calendar that I’ve been waiting to experience. It’s the day that Sammy turns 16 months and 16 days old, the exact age of Clara when he was born. I look at him every day and can’t imagine having a newborn at home as well. I don’t know if it’s because Clara is our oldest, or because she’s always been a little more observant and socially aware than he has, but Sammy seems so much younger at every stage. We dote on him, it’s way too easy to dote on him, and he also has Clara to direct and control his life (which she attempts with great pleasure and a small iron fist), and for these and many other reasons he still seems like a baby to me. Let’s be honest, it probably also has something to do with the fact that he is still nursing. I never really knew how I felt about “extended” breastfeeding until I found myself doing it, and it turns out I am not a fan. Every time he sits up afterwards and says “Ahhh! All done!” I am embarrassed for everyone in the house.

Maybe it was just ignorance, honestly, that convinced me to get pregnant when Clara was 8 months old (she’ll be so much older when he’s born! I said. She’ll practically be an adult! I said) but when it came time to think about our third baby, I felt a definite hesitation. Not in the longing for a baby; I daydream about our other children constantly, and pray every day that I can have more. But I haven’t felt a peace about trying again. Isn’t that strange? I never felt this kind of pause with our other pregnancies. I don’t normally pause for anything, in fact.

My family, my big family of my siblings and their spouses and my parents, recently struck a conversation about our Meyers-Briggs personality profiles. We all took an online version of the test and then read through each other’s profiles, gawking at how accurate they were and how different all of us are. I am an ENFP, an introverted kind of extrovert, full of ideas and love and short on follow-through and common sense. I’ve read through lots of information on my personality lately, trying to figure myself out and how to be a better person.

Mostly what I’ve noticed is that I am impatient. I am the opposite of a perfectionist: I am a “it’s good enough and if it’s not I’m sure we’ll all survive anyways” kind of a person. This is mostly because I have so many ideas and dreams that I couldn’t possibly be expected to spend any time finishing and perfecting just one of them, how dare you suggest it. Also, I am lazy. These traits cause problems for me, especially with my husband, who is too particular to even let me do the laundry because I forget which t-shirts don’t belong in the dryer. I just don’t care about doing things right, or about how they will get done, and I fail to see any value in following a set of rules for something that can be done faster and or easier.

And what a surprise, but I pay for this mindset constantly. My teachers always said, “You have so much potential if only you would finish something,” and they were right. I am impatient and I suck at being faithful in the details.

But now, as a mother, there’s not a lot of room for that part of me. Mundane tasks, maintenance chores that no one notices unless I don’t do them, a day revolving around the essentials of life; this is my new normal. (Do you know that children must eat at LEAST 3 times a day? It’s never-ending with these people!)

This is hard for me. It is hard almost every single day. But you know what? And this is my qualm with all those personality profiles, all of those lists of strengths and weaknesses: They don’t leave much room for grace or transformation. Because I can change. I mean, I can’t change who I am. I will always prefer major projects to small tasks. I will always enjoy creatively solving complex problems to doing the actual simple, good work of everyday life. But I am not my own person anymore. I don’t answer to Jessie, I don’t worship at the altar of Jessie, and I sure as hell don’t need Jessie and her personality traits determining my life. Simply put, Jessie makes a lot of messes. She’s not exactly my role model.

Inside of those four letters- those ENFP traits and ticks- I depend on the God of mercy to sift through me. Like the farmer methodically sifting wheat and chaff, like a judge and her intuition sifting fact and fiction, I pray for refinement as God sifts through me and presses the truth of who I am into my soul, letting the unsightly habits fall away one by one.

What does this have to do with babies? Well. We don’t have another baby yet because God said Wait. I know it was God, because it wasn’t me. Impatient, jump head first off the cliff me- she would have tried to get pregnant a long time ago. And I know it wasn’t the devil because he actually normally sounds a lot like me, which tends to make him  more convincing of course, and I would have told myself YES, go for it, now is always the right time.

I haven’t always heard God so clearly. Motherhood has chastened me, gripped me, led me into a lifestyle foreign to my tastes and behaviors. This isn’t some creative project I’m working on, these children and my home like some grand masterpiece preparing to be revealed; this isn’t one of my plays or my essays or even a full day of creative work culminated in a finished product. This is a long study. This is devoted work. This is work of the heart, produced by steady movements of my hands and my body, a work that is making me quiet down the demons of my personality and be still. Be steady. Listen. 

And in the listening, I heard Wait.

So here I am. With my two beautiful kids, an ache in my skin for many more, and a renewed trust in the One who knows me and keeps me, loves me and cherishes me, and is doing the work of sifting and refining me.

Wait. Be still. Be refined. 

Waiting is so hard! Waiting is the worst! But in the waiting, I’m hearing so much. I am mother; but I am more. And I am less. I am Jessie, which means I am impatient and impractical, foolhardy and visionary; but I am learning to listen. Learning to be the truest version of me. With kids, without kids, whatever: the sifting is necessary. And it’s good. So- I wait.

 

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(Imagine her sunscreen budget.)

 

 

Clara’s stutter

For months and months, Clara has insisted on saying our prayer before we eat dinner. Every night it’s the same rushed breath of thanks,

“DearJesusThankYouFoodAmen.”

She folds her little hands and bows her little head, squeezes her ocean-tide eyes shut in a squint and her two year old liturgy tumbles out in a hurry. Sam and I barely have time to close our eyes before she finishes. And though sometimes we’ll follow up with our own prayer, we grin about the swift manner of hers every night, smiling across the table at each other as we pick up forks and napkins and start our meal together.

For awhile, Clara didn’t want to pray until her baby brother assumed the posture she deemed necessary; that is, bowing his head and closing his eyes, and folding his pudgy hands on his tray. He never obeyed her requests for stillness, of course, and she would sigh in exasperation at his incompetence, then proceed with her nightly thanks-giving ritual. This first born girl of ours loves a good ritual, and she especially loves a sense of order.

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For most of this winter, I’ve been worried about a stutter that Clara developed sometime in December. She started losing the start of sentences- it wasn’t the kind of stutter where a syllable is repeated, it was the kind where a syllable is held. So she would have a thought and get stuck on the first word of her sentence, or maybe just the first letter. Instead of a quick two-syllable “Mama,” her lips would press together in a long and forceful “Mmmmmmm,” unable to move through the rest of the word.

The stutter came out of nowhere, like a wall of flood water, rushing over her speech and drowning her voice. She’s always been verbose, babbling coherently since four months old, but hearing this stutter take over stole my confidence in her communication. I had to hide tears as I watched her try to speak, her eyes rolled back in concentration, her entire body tense, fists at her side, perched in frustration up on her tip toes; if I could have spoken for her, I would have. She had something to tell me and she couldn’t. She had a need and didn’t have the words to ask. She wanted to talk with me and instead found herself wading through the thick mud between her thoughts and her tongue. It was the first time I’ve had to wonder if there was something wrong with her, and I spent many nights laying awake thinking about it, sick with concern.

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After a few months of no improvement, and seeing the exhaustion on my little girl’s face when other adults or children couldn’t understand her, I reached out to my friend Danielle, who is a speech pathologist. I wrote with Clara’s symptoms, her ticks and struggles, and wept as I typed. There was nothing physically ill about her, and her health didn’t seem to be in danger; it was the emotional toll of her speech difficulties that was killing me. I watched again and again as she gave up, starting sentences and then quitting, frustration radiating from her body. It broke my heart to see her in that kind of darkness, her world cloaked in jittery misunderstanding.

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I didn’t have to wait long for a reply. Danielle wrote back the next day with advice, and with a blessed ray of sunshine: don’t worry, she said. Don’t worry! Stutters are very normal for kids her age. They almost always start at 2 1/2 (which was almost her exact age) and wouldn’t be considered a problem until she turns 5.

Between Danielle’s advice and some research, I counted the things we needed to avoid:
-Finishing thoughts or words for her (did that constantly, whoops).
-Telling her to slow down or take a deep breath (did that every day, shoot).

And a few things that would help:
-Sam and I speaking s-l-o-w-l-y and clearly, modeling a relaxed speaking style.
-When we saw her getting irritated with herself, gently remind her that we were listening and that we weren’t in any hurry.
-React to her message, not the delivery. Basically, pretend there was no stutter. Just respond to what she said, no matter how long it took.

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It’s March now, spring unfolding on sunny patios, floating on afternoon breezes, stretching into trees heavy with blossoms. It’s spring and it was 75 degrees outside today, so I took my kids to the park. Truth be told, I’ve taken my kids a lot of places this week. More places than usual. I tend to be a “one outing a day” kind of a mom, if that, but this week I blew off our normal pacing and we went. Despite the fact that my kids have spring colds. Despite the fact that they’ve missed a few important naps. Despite the fact that sometimes they just didn’t want to go. They wanted to stay. But the sun keeps getting warmer and I have that energy I get at the rise of new seasons, so we didn’t stay much at all. And today my house of cards came tumbling down, joker sides up all the way around.

Neither of my babies slept last night. Their coughs choked them awake every hour, their bodies restless without the anchor of decent naps all week. This means, of course, that I didn’t sleep either. But I plan a park and playground meet-up for a bunch of my friends every Friday, and I didn’t want to miss today. So I gathered up my coughing, weary kids and wished for the morning sunshine to clear our heads. Clara was a mess. She cried all day. She didn’t nap again, too tired to find sleep. Wilted by the sun and my somewhat reckless scheduling, she fought me all day. Her attitude was impossible to deal with, not only because I felt responsible for her exhaustion but also because she’s not usually so volatile. So we fought, and I was tired, and she was tired, and Sam is on call so it’s been a lot of parenting alone this week, and Sammy ate an old sticker off the trashcan at the park, and yes. It was a long day.

We finally sat down for dinner, happy that Sam was home with us and that bedtime was finally in sight. Our dinner, a lackluster collection of leftovers and cut up fruit, wasn’t exactly inspiring. But at least we were eating together. We bowed our heads to pray, Clara taking the helm as usual, and I snapped my head up in surprise as she began.

“Dear Jesus, Thank you for food. Please keep Nona and Poppi safe. Thank you for Mommy making our dinner. Amen.”

She pinched a green pea in her fingers and popped it in her mouth, oblivious to my tears and Sam’s shock. It was the first spontaneous prayer she’s ever shared at dinner. It was the first time I’ve ever heard her thanking God for me. And it was a moment, for me, of two points in time touching in delicate completion.

Her stutter has vastly improved over the last few weeks, and her language has taken on a new sophistication as her speech corrected, marked with a new sense of memory and time stamps, correct sentence structure and polished thoughts. It’s a noticeable difference to everyone who knows her, but especially to me, and tonight was a tender reminder of how far she’s come.

It was just like Danielle told us: She was stuttering because her mouth was working to catch up to her rapidly forming 2 year old brain.

And it was just like we pray for our children every single day: That we would raise them to be observant, kind, and thankful people.

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She is both. She is sharp like flint, soft like moss. She’s our baby but so, so quickly becoming a little girl. She fights us and she whines when we say no. She rushes to her brother when he wakes up each morning, eager to reconnect and kiss his soft cheeks. I love her so- I love her so. I love the synapses firing in her head, I love the bruises on her shins, I love the curls on her head, I love the blue and the green in her eyes, I love when she laughs and I love when she teases, I love all the ways we are different and all the ways we will one day be the same.

My God, what a gift. What a gift, this and every part of motherhood. This and every day with her and with him. The babies sleeping as I write. The children I longed for. The ones we get to call ours. 

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When you love your kids but also they are the worst.

When Clara was three months old, my friend Josh was holding her, trying to make her smile, and asked me,

“So, have you ever hated her yet?”

I was appalled. Hated my precious baby? Hated this incredible newborn I was lucky enough to call my own? What in the world was he talking about? And this coming from the guy who was the most annoying new parent in the world just a few years before, believing his son was the best and only child that had ever taken a breath. Talking about hating a baby? Laughing at my outrage, he assured me that one day, maybe soon, there would come a time when I would want to throw my darling daughter out the front door. It would probably be in the middle of the night, he said, when I hadn’t slept in days and she was crying for no apparent reason and I would be completely over parenting in one fell swoop. I didn’t believe him, of course, he was just jaded with two little kids at his house driving him bananas; I would never feel that way. Never.

You know what? I didn’t. Not with Clara. Not for a long, long time. It wasn’t until after her brother was born, when she was suddenly a toddler and not my delicate newborn anymore, and no one was sleeping, and none of my clothes fit, and I spent day after day with the two cutest, MOST SELFISH PEOPLE I had ever met; that’s when it happened. That’s when I thought to myself,

“These babies totally suck. And I want to throw them out the front door.” 

But you can’t tell people that! You can’t say that! People shouldn’t talk about their blessings like that. Because kids are a blessing and I wanted them so badly, and I am so glad they are mine.

But also, sometimes they totally suck. I was so glad Josh had unwittingly given me permission to feel that way. To be able to love with abandon and also want to run with abandon. To admit that though we would die for these kids, we also at times want to get on a plane and fly far, far away. We feel all of these things. All at once. Altogether. One and the same.

My friend recently asked me: “Do you ever feel judged or looked down on for trying too hard? Like your passion or talents make people dislike you?”

She was referencing an article from a mother asking people to stop assuming you’re judging them based on your own performance, or thinking that you are annoying for doing something you love. I had to laugh when Abra asked me if I ever feel this way, because I definitely tend towards the other extreme. Mostly in an attempt to be transparent and to avoid self-inflation, I spend a lot of time highlighting the harder parts of parenthood and the rougher edges of myself. Also because my siblings and friends read this stuff and they know WAY too much about me for any falsehoods to make it safely across the pages, so. Truth it is. But because I focus so much on these difficult areas of me and my life, people tend to assume the worst about me and my kids. I cannot begin to tell you how many sympathy messages I receive when I write about rotten days, nor could I catalogue the volumes of unsolicited parenting advice, or tell you all the times people have assumed things about my kids or my life that just aren’t true. And this is my fault, I know that, because this blog represents about 8% of my life but reads like 100% fact, and I get that. And for the most part, I’m fine with that. I don’t want to share everything, I don’t want to tell stories that aren’t mine to tell, and I try to be very careful about details and intimacies that do not belong solely to me.

ON THE OTHER HAND.

I don’t want anyone to think my kids are awful, or that being a parent is a nightmare, or that I’m day-drinking my life away. The real truth is that just like everything else in the whole wide world, parenting these little people of mine is a complicated clutter of joy and heartache; grief and satisfaction; fun and monotony. And while I have no idea if the internet will be around in this form when they are old enough to read these pages about themselves, someday I want my children to have this virtual record of our life together. Sliver in time though it may be, and a simplified version of all the days and years we have together, I want them to read this and to know that it was hard AND good. Ugly AND beautiful. Fulfilling AND draining. All at once. Altogether. One and the same. So while I try not to brag about my kids and I actually don’t think anyone’s children are as wonderful as their parents might believe (sorry, except yours, I’m sure your offspring are those rare perfect ones) I do have some good guys on my hands over here. And I do happen to think they are fascinating, lovely people, and I want them to know that. Here and in person, now and when they are older.

Sam and I are not the kind of people who are going to worship their kids. And even when one of us is tempted to do so, the other is quick to find some grounding in reality. We have to be able to groan about and laugh at our kids just as much as we adore them, or we’ll go nuts. What I’ve noticed in writing about parenting is how many people don’t have that kind of reality check in their lives. You know how I learned that? The onslaught of texts, e-mails, facebook messages, and even phone calls from people needing to share about a hard time with their kids. And I’m not just talking about my sisters or my best friends; I’m talking about people I’ve never met before. Almost every day of the week, some mom or dad reaches out to me in hopes of getting some solidarity in how difficult parenting can be, how awful our kids can act, and how tired we get of teaching the same lessons. We are all desperate for someone to say, YES. I hear you. My kids are the best thing that ever happened to me and also I can’t wait until I can get away from them for a few hours.

I hope you have friends to talk honestly with, about your job and your family, your good days and bad. I hope you have someone in your life who loves your kids enough to absorb your annoyance about them without assuming the worst about them. If you don’t: If all of your people think admitting the bad days makes you a bad parent – I’ve got your back. I know what it means to love your kids and also grind your teeth in exasperation. I get it.

Our family recently suffered through a long round of stomach flu. Early one morning, Clara came to my bed to tell me that her tummy hurt and promptly threw up on my pillow and my face. Puking is not a great part of motherhood. It’s just not. But after we cleaned up (and after Sammy crawled crying through a trail of Clara’s throw up because I wouldn’t pick him up, since I was busy cleaning up throw up), after everyone was bathed, I settled Clara on the couch and laid Sammy down for a nap. As I stood in the middle of the living room, worn out by nine in the morning, my sweet, thoughtful daughter said, “Mama, do you want to do your yoga while Sammy sleeps? I’ll get out your yoga mat if you want.” Which she did. She dragged my mat across the floor, unrolled it carefully and then snuggled back into her blankets, watching while I stumbled through my balance positions, encouraging me with lots of “You’re doing a good job, mommy. You’re trying hard with your yoga!”

And that’s it. That’s all of it. It’s vomit on your face and it’s yoga mats twice their size, it’s tired tears and it’s earnest cheering from the two year old on the couch. Altogether. One and the same. I hope I share enough of both elements for you to know that my kids are incredible and incredibly frustrating, one and the same. It’s ok to feel both.

All I want my kids to know is this:

Sammy and Clara,

On the teeter totter of my life with you, on that long rough plank of ups and downs, in the balancing act of motherhood-

My love for you can not be outweighed. Not by anything. Not ever.

Those kick-you-out-the-front-door days are like blades of grass in rolling fields of wildflowers. Recognizing them is important to the landscape, to the integrity of the vista; but they are simply a part of our story. I share them to be a welcome heart for other parents, to give permission for honesty and relief to the exhausted, but please know how little I care about those bad moments. How often I just sit and watch you play on the floor, watch with delight as you pretend to cook me pancakes, how I kiss your hair and trace your shoulder blades while I hold you, how I count each breath as you fall asleep on me. How I write down the funny things you say and clap with pride when you learn to walk. How I can’t wait to put you to bed and then miss you after you’ve fallen asleep. How my days are wound up with you and your needs, but with a wary eye to the future, when your needs will extend beyond my reach and I will long for these hours on the floor together. Please know how much we treasure you, how much you are adored, how much you drive us crazy, and how much that doesn’t matter.

You are loved. 

 

And if nothing else? You’re real, real cute when you’re asleep. That’ll save you most days, trust me, kids.

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They have their own beds, I promise. She asks to sleep in the crib with him almost every night, and I can’t say no to this level of cuddliness. 

sammy’s birth day video

You know, it’s strange. I can write about a lot of things, from the ridiculous to the deeply personal.  But when it comes to the birth of my children, I find myself stumped. I have so many different starts with so many different angles in the telling of Clara and Sammy’s births, but the words never flow. They never seem to stick without getting sticky, you know what I mean? I don’t know, maybe one day I will sit down and stop self-editing long enough to just tell the stories without worrying about telling them right; until then I’ll choose an alternative mode for organizing their birth stories, which is to keep making poorly edited movies and slide shows. (Cause if you can’t do something right, just keep doing it worse. I think that’s a saying, isn’t it?)

I know it’s almost March and that means my son turned one almost two months ago, but I finally finished the video I wanted to make for his birthday. This movie is much more intimate than anything I’ve ever shared about my kids’ births or their first few days. I’ve gone back and forth with myself wondering if I should post it at all, if maybe it’s a little too much to give the world. But, Sammy’s life has been shared by many friends and family and strangers even, a whirlwind of prayers bookmarked by two frightening January events, cold days bitter with wind and fear. The video opens with my baby hooked up to IV’s and ends with him hooked up to IV’s, stark images that bring back a lot of feelings.

Due to some complications with my pregnancy and some impossible decision-making, which you can read about here, Sammy was born 2 1/2 weeks early weighing 4 1/2 pounds. That’s a small kid. When I watch his birth video I feel sad for the mother I see on that hospital bed, sick with worry about the baby that she knows is too small and the panic of not knowing why. Nothing was wrong- we just make tiny babies. But I didn’t know that. I just knew that the boy I pulled up onto my chest was the tiniest human being I had ever seen in person, a bundle of bones and tight skin, dark hair and the most impossibly skinny legs. We spent the week in the NICU letting him gain weight and learn to stabilize his own blood sugars, and then took home a four pound three ounce human, ours to feed and nurture and keep safe from a world full of germs and idiots.

It was terrifying. I wasn’t very happy: in fact, I was depressed. I didn’t see it at the time, I just knew how tense I felt about his health and how pressed in I felt for the two months we weren’t allowed to leave the house. But now when I watch these videos, these 3 minute snippets of our new life as a family of four, I can see that tension in my shoulders and the aging on my face. Over the course of the year I watch my baby get fatter and the sun start to shine again and it is a peculiar phenomenon to actually watch yourself climb out of a hole and back into your own skin.
It’s reassuring.
It’s emotional insurance for when dark days most assuredly come again.

It makes me ache for that woman I see on the screen, and it makes me love her very much. For straining towards the light, for opening her white knuckles one by one to let the fear drop like stones into a pond; I want to hug her long and tight. God was so faithful to me this whole year, as I was squeezed and shrank and then grew again, as I learned a new way to be myself and found joy in the morning. Joy in each morning, joy in the letting go, joy in the new life that filled each corner of our house. New life in our children and a whole new life for me as well.

I graduated from college a few weeks before Sammy was born and didn’t look for a job afterwards. We decided to keep our kids home and that meant that I would stay home, after 12 years working and 3 years pursuing my writing degree, after a decade of paychecks and staff meetings and projects and leaving my house every morning with a cup of coffee and my hair looking good; I chose to stay home. This was the first year since I was 15 years old that I didn’t receive any W2 forms in the mail for tax season, and quite honestly, that wasn’t easy for me. Money is such a straightforward measure of success, a spendable way to know you are appreciated. No one pays me for anything I do. No one really knows anything I do, nor do they care. That’s also hard to swallow. It’s not for lack of opportunity- I’ve had job offers almost every month this year, but it’s never been work that was worth time away from our family. So I keep saying no, and I keep wondering what the future holds, and I keep holding tight to these precious, quiet years that I have with my babies. Sam’s job affords me this luxury, and it is a privilege I don’t take lightly, but it’s been an ego and identity adjustment all the same. And I see that too, as I watch this video- I get to see where my time went, get a visual of the dividends I am paying into my family and see fruit from my labor as my children grow and change and live good lives with me, their mother. Not just their mother; a million other things as well, but for now: mother most of all.

The video closes with pictures of Sammy back on hospital beds and monitors, his face swollen with fluids and anesthesia. His infection and emergency surgery (talked about those here and here) were an arresting reminder that his life is completely out of our hands. He started his life scaring us and brought his first year to a close scaring us again. What a potent message from that happy little son of ours:

That no matter what we feed them, no matter how many times we check both ways on the street, no matter the brand of carseat or which direction it faces for how long; no matter what meager measures we put in place to protect the heartbeats of our beloveds, we cannot control their breaths. Each day with them is a gift, truly, even the shitty days, and if I’m thankful for a million things from this last year, the simplest is that their blood kept flowing and their lungs kept expanding.

God brought me back to life after a dark season, and gave me 365 more days with my kids than I could have given myself. So I sing my thanks, and I cry silent tears for the grace of it all, and I hope in the light that reflects on this crashing river of love. Darkness will not win. Tragedy will not triumph. No matter what comes, no matter the loss we carry or the fear we fight, hope will come again. Because hope never left.

 

This video was so fun to make. Our son was, perhaps, the happiest, easiest baby we have ever met. I forgot how early and often he smiled- it was almost impossible to find pictures of him NOT smiling. Every time I watch this I fall in love with him and that twinkle in his eyes all over again. He’s a lover, that Sam guy of ours!