Big Day, Big Thoughts

Today is a big day for our family. My mama arrived at Emory at 5 a.m. this morning for an angiogram and then will have a procedure that will hopefully successfully treat at least one of her brain aneurysms. My dad gave us an update and there’s another procedure before hers, so we won’t know anything until at least 3 p.m.

As for me, I’ll be headed to my midwife’s office this afternoon to get an ultrasound to check the length of my cervix and how this baby is growing as well as to receive another fFn test. If it comes back positive, I’ll be admitted to the hospital again (ugh) to start receiving steroid shots to give our little one’s lungs a boost. Then I’ll likely be placed on strict bed rest (rather than this modified business). I’m very hopeful we’ll get negative results, which will buy us more time. But either way, I’m ready.

Like none of my quasi-bed rest* experiences in the past, these last few weeks have offered the baby and me much growth. Each day we avert labor, the baby grows physically as I feel like I grow spiritually. In my previous pregnancies, I learned small lessons, but I don’t feel like I experienced anything truly transformative. This time is different, and I know putting it into words probably won’t sound all that life-altering to others, especially since many of these themes seem to resurface in my emotional and spiritual landscape (and on this blog and in my other writing). But I’ll do my best at sharing some of what’s been going on in my interior life and the lessons I’m slowly learning.

This enforced quiet time has made me realize how much I need to make solitude a priority. There’s just been too much noise in my life, and for too long I defined time alone as blogging or exercising when what I really needed was to just sit and do nothing but listen (even if it was only for five minutes).

Elizabeth Foss said this book was for me. I believe she was right. One of the habits of healthy mothers, the book’s author says, is cultivating solitude. (More on the book in a minute.)

Since about January, I’ve been trying to convince myself that I haven’t been burned out; I was simply on the fringe of frying but since I was aware of the flames, I could keep myself from becoming so overwhelmed that depression or anxiety or a total lack of enjoyment in mothering would take their hold on me. Everything was under control.

I was being foolish. You don’t have to be completely fried to feel the pressure – or to eventually collapse under it.

For example, what about my tone when a child spilled something or another sibling squabble erupted? I may have appeared to handle it calmly if you didn’t pay attention to the tightness in my face or my clenched fists or the hard tone of my voice, but I often felt as if I was ready to snap at any moment. And sometimes I did.

Yet, I kept telling myself my antsy, irritable moods were rooted in my being chronically tired. Nothing needed to change in my life except that I needed more sleep, and since squeezing in more shut-eye seemed like an impossible task at this point of my life with too crowded of a family bed, a toddler who had started waking up in the middle of the night again, and the typical pregnancy-related insomnia, I might as well just suck it up, offer it up, and just keep plodding along, dragging my “mombie” feet.

The truth is, sleep is most definitely an elixir for more happiness and more purposeful parenting, but a shortage of Zzzzzzs was not the only thing that left me feeling like I was always on edge and that one unplanned catastrophe – say a toddler writing with pen on a new couch – would cause me to lose my footing and send me on a frightening free fall.

Peaceful contentment or just plain happiness sounds simple enough. Don’t worry, be happy. Smile. Enough said. But it’s more complicated than that, especially for someone like me who has this annoying tendency to over-analyze everything and/or assume that I don’t deserve happiness because I’m such a screw-up (or because I’m not thin enough). That sounds a little harsh, but even when I wouldn’t admit it to myself, these self-deprecating thoughts were often just waiting to rise to the surface and show their ugly faces.

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A Cure for the Blues

Been suffering from the blahs?
Me, too.
But not so much anymore. Not after all this.
Here’s what offered just the pick-me-up I needed (but rest assured, you really don’t need a beach or even a trip. What you need is faith, hope, and unhurried time with your family. Good food doesn’t hurt either.):
Take one understanding and amazing husband who takes it upon himself to plan a little detour during a scheduled trip to see friends. The detour lands him and his girls at the beach where they’re all refreshed by a much-needed change of scenery.
Sprinkle in some soft sand for little feet to tread upon.
Add a feisty toddler with ragamuffin hair who wants to eat said sand.
Some ridiculously big sunglasses help to keep you smiling, too, because they make you feel like a dork yet chic at the same time.
And don’t forget the frilly, little girl swimsuits.
Stir in some gratitude for the scent of your friend’s baby – so fresh out of the oven and scrumptiously edible.
“Are you smelling his head?” Your husband asks.
“You bet I am,” you say taking one last whiff of the rainbow baby.
Breathe in the baby and then inhale the salty sea air. Walk into the gust and listen to the soundtrack of Creation: the Atlantic’s waves and your children’s peals of laughter.
Search the sands for shells, and marvel at the beach’s bounty.
Then, after a lazy day of burying your feet in the sand and collecting shells side-by-side your little girls, look out to the ocean. Pay attention to the waves that never stop and the far-flung water that seems to go on forever, and know that God is greater, vaster, closer, and more constant and more powerful than any ocean. His love for you never stops, never wavers. Neither will your love for that little lost soul who’s behind your blues.
Feel the warmth of the sun that doesn’t ever get too hot because there’s a nice breeze, a harbinger of the cooler weather ahead. Yes, it’s true what a friend once said, that sunny, fall days are God’s way of cheering us up.
Go on an evening walk and sip the sunset. Drink it all up – the pink blush of dusk. The end to another day where you found joy. Or maybe it found you.
After the beach and spending an evening with good friends, wake up refreshed. Add a spinach and feta omelet and some good, strong coffee. Note your children’s berry-stained fingers and lips from the blueberry pancakes they gobbled up. Spend time with this family you love. Hop in the car. Drive a bit and take another spontaneous detour. Mosey on into the town where you spent your first years of marriage. Show your daughter the little cottage you were renting when she made her big debut. Head to you and your husband’s favorite restaurant that you loved to eat at when you were newlyweds and had no idea how much time you really had to just talk over tapas. Eat the same meal (goatcheese bruschetta, tortilla espanola, and coconut curry panang) you had the night you went into labor for the first time and your life changed in ways you could never have imagined. You think of your tired but happy new-mom friend who says parenting is more exhausting and wonderful than she ever could have guessed, and you think, “Yes, that’s it.” More exhausting and wonderful than you ever could have guessed and you keep on guessing, thinking you’ll have an idea of what the next stage is like.
But you have absolutely no clue.
There are so many things you have no clue about (like are those ridiculously big sunglasses really still cool to wear?). You didn’t realize how raw you’d feel after losing a baby. But you also didn’t realize how the prayers and kindness of others and the love of your husband and his thoughtfulness to bring you to the beach – one of your most favorite places in the world – could warm you up and soften up the rough edges of your heart.
Once you make it home in the dark of the night with three sleeping children, you unload the bags. You notice your home doesn’t feel quite as empty as it did before you left. Kiss your sweet girls good-night. Then kiss that husband of yours whose very presence in your life is a benediction, and be thankful for the simple but not quite cure for the blues.
“At dusk weeping comes for the night; but at dawn there is rejoicing.” Psalm 30:5 (Thank you, friend.)
I’m enjoying my dawn.
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“However slow we are to answer, however unable or unwilling we are to do his bidding at once, we need not be downcast or discouraged. God is willing to wait for us for many a day, and even many a year, especially when perseverance and good desires are in our hearts.”

-Adapted from the words of Saint Teresa of Avila in the book Let Nothing Disturb You: 30 Days with a Great Spiritual Teacher

You know those motivational posters that have an encouraging word or two accompanied by a picture of something in nature or some object that’s catching to the eye?

(As an aside, my husband and I have had a conversation about the one that says “TEAMWORK” above a photo of the Great Wall of China and have found it to be a little off putting, considering the structure was the product of the forced labor of slaves and prisoners, many of which who collapsed from exhaustion or starvation. That’s the epitome of teamwork? Really?)

Well, a perfect idea for one would be the word “PERSEVERANCE” with a picture of a toddler, grinning defiantly, as she attempted to kill herself for the umpteenth time either by scaling a bookcase, squeezing her way through the slats of a safety gate, or sticking her chubby fingers in the one outlet you somehow missed in your childproofing efforts.

Mary Elizabeth, who will soon be 16 months, is a little spitfire. She’s always been gregarious and curious, but in the past few weeks I’ve observed a blossoming sense of daring and adventure. Maybe it’s because everything is new to her since our move. She’s exploring every nook and cranny, emptying drawer after drawer and cabinet after cabinet. Everything she gets her hands on is a treasure to behold. “Look at this, Mommy. Wow-oh-wow.” Unfortunately, she also regularly buries her treasures in hidden places. I keep finding my makeup or my husband’s contact solution in a kitchen drawer. Her toothbrush is still MIA.

Although she’s still a mama’s girl who frequently lifts her arms to me for me to scoop her in my arms, she’s starting to become ferociously independent. She knows what she wants, and she’ll stop at nothing to get it.

The other day Mary Elizabeth was upstairs with me when she discovered her big sisters and Daddy were downstairs in the basement. She wistfully stared through the bars of the child safety gate.

Then she began to screech.

When the screeching was not effective, she screeched more loudly.

She continued to screech as she attempted to scale the gate. I picked her up and tried to divert her with a pile of books. She squirmed out of my arms and returned to the gate. She repeated the screeching and then the climbing. I took her into a bedroom, shut the door, and returned to whatever domestic task I was trying to get done. (I can’t even remember what I was doing; all I remember was what Mary Elizabeth was trying to do.)

Mary Houdini figured out how to open the door, and she was soon running toward the gate again.

My little escape artist knows a thing or two about perseverance. If at first you don’t succeed in swallowing something hazardous, emptying your mom’s makeup bag, or finding a way to repel down a staircase to join your big sisters, then try, try, try, try again.

It’s been about one year since I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Although I’m at a completely different place than I was last summer, I’m still on guard against burnout or flattening feelings. I’m taking vitamin D and fish oil. I’m trying to take regular walks despite the oppressive heat around here. I’m still working on getting more sleep. (Mary Elizabeth has yet to receive the memo about the merits of sleeping through the night.) I’ve been to confession once since our move. I’m working on forgiving myself as God has already done for some past hurts and for the dark moments in my mothering journey.

And I’m trying to pray unceasingly.

When I was desperately sad and suffering from dreadful insomnia, I continued to show up to pray and to talk (lament) to God, but I rarely felt like it was very effective. I’ve come out of my postpartum darkness and yet, praying continues to be a great challenge. I wonder if my prayer life will ever get easy. Probably not. If Mother Teresa had to overcome constant hurdles in her prayer life, then I doubt I’ll ever find myself strolling down Prayer Easy Street.

Lately I’ve been easily distracted. Sometimes the distractions are of my own making. I attempt to quiet my restless mind, but my attention starts to dart from thought to thought like a hummingbird on speed. What should I make for dinner? Did I remember to send a thank you note for that housewarming gift? I wonder when Dave will be home tonight. I have so much laundry to do. My left armpit really itches.

Other times the distractions come in the form of a hungry, needy child. Whatever their source, I find myself getting very frustrated at my children’s inability to not need me for five freakin’ minutes or my own inability to stay focused and centered on God. I’m tempted to just bag the whole prayer effort all together. What’s the point? the rational part of me starts to ask. But deep in the depths of my soul – a soul that yearns for a living relationship with God – I know the point is to just keep on opening up a dialog with God, even if it’s a fragmented conversation full of interruptions, a conversation where I too often do most of the talking when I should be listening.

My good mom friends and I frequently have very similar conversations. We’ll be talking and then suddenly we’re refereeing a squabble or preventing a child from shoving a raisin up her nostril. Somehow we keep picking up right where we left off, and eventually we get the story out. Even if we don’t, my friend knows I really did have a point even if my words were a jumbled mess or I forgot what I was even going to say.

God is such a faithful friend. He knows the desire of my heart. He can finish any conversation I start. He’s always ready to pick up where I’ve left off. I’ve found a lot of solace in knowing that He’s willing to wait for me even when I’m being stubborn and not wanting to pray because it doesn’t make me feel better. He’s willing to wait for me when I can’t find the time or the words to speak to Him. He’s willing to wait to speak to me when I finally come up for air and stop my constant chatter. He’ll slip in a word or two of wisdom then. He is willing to wait for us for many a day, and even many a year, especially when perseverance and good desires are in our hearts. The door doesn’t have to be open wide for Him to enter. It takes just a crack, just a tiny corner of a heart that begins to seek Him, a slight seed of faith for Him to start to replace my anxieties, my fears, my doubts, my darkness with light, hope, peace, and belief.

So I keep trying. I’ve always kept trying in the spiritual department, which is contrary to my perfectionist personality. Typically, if I stink at something, I avoid it. I can only assume it is God’s grace that has kept me praying all these years.

Once I went through a very dark spiritual time in my life when I went so far as to question God’s existence. I spent very little time praying. While prayer was not a part of my everyday life at all, something kept me going to Mass. This past Sunday the priest reminded us that the Eucharist is the most holy prayer of all. It is not a rote string of words, but a way to bodily receive Christ within us. It’s a physical and spiritual prayer. We cannot reduce God to a thing, empty words, or a gesture. At the table of the Lord, we experience God. It is a holy, living prayer. I must have at some level felt this. I have no other explanation for why I continued to show up at Mass Sunday after Sunday.

Whenever I am wrapped in my doubts or discouraged, God starts to feel very far off to me. So what draws me to Him every Sunday? Why do I continue to persevere? Why keep praying even when it seems some of my most impassioned prayers go unheard? It’s a great mystery. Or is it? Maybe the answer is simple. Maybe I’ve been blessed to have some spiritual sixth sense and my soul knows what my mind and my body cannot: That God is right where I am wherever I am, and He is patiently waiting for me to acknowledge His love for me.

I am very slow to answer Him. When I do answer, it’s too often begrudgingly. I’m no good at contemplative prayer. I’ve repeatedly attempted to pray the Liturgy of the Hours*, but I continue to struggle with it. I continue to fail. I continue to mumble rushed, distracted prayers. However, I also continue to approach prayer with a toddler’s tenacity. I stubbornly continue to seek God over and over, not because He’s handed me everything I need right now or answered my prayers the way I think He should, but because I trust He will. His grace is sufficient, and so, thanks be to God from whom all good things come, is my perseverance in prayer.

*Melanie B. has a great post that’s full of helpful tips on how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours as a mom to little ones. Even if you’re not familiar with this particular devotion, the post is well-worth the read for anyone who has struggled with their prayer life (and who hasn’t?). One of the most helpful tips for me was to focus on the habit of prayer rather than the quality of prayer. Do read the whole thing.

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