Racing the Storm: Spiritual Self-Care for Motherhood

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My back was to the storm cloud when I heard the initial thunder. I should have been more aware; my husband had mentioned we wouldn’t have much time on the kayaks before the storm rolled in. I was distracted between the three little bodies who needed sunscreen and the custom-order life jacket that we needed to exchange on the way to the reservoir. By the time we dipped our kayaks into the water, it was nearly lunchtime and consequently, almost naptime. 

Our leisurely pace on the water and my concentration on being present in the moment with my boys, pointing out dragonflies and honeysuckle, distracted me. When the thunder offered its first warning, I used every ounce of strength to abruptly turn my vessel 180 degrees toward shore. I struggled to maintain momentum of the long, heavy kayak, weighed down with an additional passenger who did not understand our rush.

“What does it feel like to be electrocuted?” he wondered aloud.

I didn’t want to find out as my husband and I raced our kayaks across the reservoir. Suddenly, I felt like a novice at what appears to be a leisurely, uncomplicated sport. It was then that I noticed all the other kayaks were nowhere in sight; their owners had all heeded the storm’s early cues and headed back sooner. Or maybe their timing was just lucky, and they were all now eating lunch.

Regardless, the five of us in our two kayaks were the only ones still out. My arms were exhausted even as I rejoiced that yesterday’s trampoline park excursion left only my legs sore.

We closed in on the shore, glancing back at the black clouds, an unspoken race against Mother Nature.

I believed my kayak could beat the clouds, but their fury was mounting as they arrived above us. I saw the raindrops on the glassy surface of the water long before I felt them, thousands of tiny droplets creating concentric circles. Next, I heard the wall of rain. A thin white running cap was the only barrier between me and those clouds. Despite managing to remain dry during our outing on the water, I was drenched in seconds, just minutes from shore. There was a small queue of other canoes, boats, kayaks, and paddleboards at the loading dock, but everyone was in a rush to get to shore, to solid ground and into their vehicles, so we didn’t wait long. We kept our life jackets on in lieu of the raincoats we had left behind in the truck. 

The summer rain was invigorating, breathing a sudden sense of urgency into our leisurely outing. We huddled around our kayaks as my husband left to retrieve the truck. I contemplated taking shelter under a tree but feared lightning strike. The truck arrived shortly after, and we hoisted three dripping boys into the truck. They squealed with delight in its shelter while scrambling for their towels and dry clothes. The air had gotten cooler and we still needed to load the kayaks and paddles. We divvied out belated lunches. The planner in me knew we were pushing our luck, cutting into naptime. Sure enough, one of our kids threw a tantrum over what we had packed for him. His exaggerated meltdown warranted pulling over, rain and all, and necessitated a long talk on the side of the road, only a few hundred yards from the reservoir’s entrance. Finally, we resumed the drive home.

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I love kayaking, I love rainy days and my birthday and storms and my boys, but somehow the combination of all of it overwhelmed me and I exploded. My words crushed. Even worse, they had little effect on the intended four-year-old recipient, who response was to spit on me (quite a feat from the backseat!). We pulled over again.  I stayed in the truck, my fuse too short in the heat of the moment, while my husband talked to him once again.

I wish, for the sake of closure, that this is where I’d now offer a tidy lesson I learned from all of this, the parenting changes I made, the self-perspective I gained. But I was still at a loss for how to handle my tongue and his, when they clash constantly, all day every day, despite my own best school counselor parenting advice. We’ve tried it all — routines, consistency, individual time and attention, special “helper” jobs, a designated calm-down area, dietary changes, sports, his own room, trips to work with daddy, and heart-to-hearts. 

I prayed fervently over this delicate stage of his life and started over with incorporating the Jesus Storybook Bible in our nightly routines. Initially, bedtime remained chaotic, the boys vying for our attention and crawling over each other on my son’s queen-sized sheets as my husband read from the Bible. Consistency in this daily habit was the only way to create the quiet family time I envisioned. 

I turn to my own Bible for answers. For reassurance. For a reset. I read throughout Proverbs about the tongue and its life-giving tendencies.

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit (Proverbs 18:21, NIV).”

I think about the discontent I sometimes feel in my own home, the place where I should be able to recharge. I wonder if I am placing my energies into the wrong places, searching for distractions in fleeting ideas: a new dog, a new home, a new career path, when really what refills me lies written across the thin pages of my leather-bound Bible, its truths sustaining through all time and certainly through thousands of weary, exasperated mothers before me. 

I seesaw between taking action, making plans to restore order at home, but I know that’s not what I need. I need to be listening more, grounding myself and my family in the reassurances of Jesus, His promises of life and truth. His calming presence. His unconditional love. Jesus wants my time and attention even more than my four-year-old craves mine. 

For all the energy I exert analyzing how I spend my time, I sometimes neglect to recognize its place in my walk with God. Doesn’t He crave my time and attention, too? Shouldn’t I be pursuing His? He’s rolling out all the stops for me if I’d just open my heart to notice it. He comes in the fog rolling in, and I shouldn’t be running away. 

Long after bedtime on his seventh birthday, my oldest son padded downstairs and caught me writing him a birthday letter in his baby book. He asked to sit with me, and he poured over each page. I read my letters aloud to him. He asked me to record his height on his growth chart ruler. All these simple mile-markers I established back when I had all the time in the world, those things that hold meaning and our memories and milestones, the moments I noticed, bits and pieces of ourselves and of our past and what we are made of. These moments are always there, if I could just take the time to look up and really notice. And to think, if I had said no when he came downstairs that night, I would have missed that precious time together. What else have I missed, then, when I say no to God and raced onward with my own plans for my time? How do I begin to say yes when the path ahead is hazy at best? 

What thunderclouds am I trying to outrace, when I could be dancing in the rain?

 

Practicing Mindfulness and Gratitude

Practicing mindfulness and gratitude

Mindlessly, I flip through my most-frequented apps. I check to see what new kids’ clothes I’ve sold on Kidizen. I pop between my Zillow and Trulia real estate apps just for fun — are any good properties for sale in our town? We’d love to downsize and simplify a few things. I check my monthly sales total on my Teachers Pay Teachers app and calculate my goal progress for the month, right on track to surpass my April goals. I open Instagram to whichever of my accounts is logged in and then toggle between the three of them. Without thinking, I open TpT again, only to realize that I just checked that app a minute before. I set my phone down and exhale. My toddler picks it up and hands it back to me, as if it should be a permanent extension of my left hand. He’s so accustomed to seeing it there. I place my phone under the cushion of the outdoor patio furniture behind me and reach for the other things I brought outside with me on this gorgeous spring day — my leather-bound journal, my Bible, and a book, “Not the Boss of Us.”

I read a few paragraphs from Kay Wills Wyma’s newest book and look up, pausing to really take in my own backyard. We’ve lived here two years now and are reaping the benefits of the landscaping put in by the prior owners. The first thing I noticed was the wide-open sky. It reminded me of my honeymoon in Montana, aptly-named “Big Sky Country.”

I’m praying about a lot of things these days. God has been placed a calling on my heart that I can’t quite comprehend without having to unravel a lot of other things. I’m not sure what to do. I want to be obedient, and I’ve been praying for over a year now. It’s hard to not wonder, worry, and try to take control.  I take a break from my futile attempts to play out every possible scenario in my head.

I look around my backyard, practicing a mindfulness exercise I teach my elementary students regularly: Notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

It’s an exercise in grounding oneself when thoughts are racing, whether from anxiety or the general overwhelm life so often seems to spiral within us.

I record a few of my observations in my notebook. Later, I’d transfer them to Instagram to steward my words in case they can bless someone else.

  • I see: my toddler eating a lollipop and playing with his fairy garden, my breastmilk ring and all that it symbolizes to me, my neighbor’s dogwood tree, and tall grasses waving in the wind way up on the hill behind my house.
  • I hear: songbirds, trees rustling, far-off train, wind chimes.
  • I smell: familiar scents of springtime and new mulch that remind me of childhood and home.

I also note what I would have missed by staying inside today, on this gorgeous 70-degree spring day: my new neighbor painting a canvas on her patio, wind chimes, the baby figuring out the swing, the way our trees throw twinkling shadows on freshly-cut grass.

My gratitude list:
1. The baby all to myself this weekend while the big kids are camping with daddy
2. Pink dogwood in bloom
3. A fragrant backyard
4. Gentle breeze
5. Everything we need
6. Vacation one month away
7. Chorus of birds outside
8. Good friends
9. Summer within reach

Recently I spent several nights away from home, traveling solo to a conference. I knew, going into it, I would have a chance to meet one of the most famous authors in my profession and ask her my questions about the next steps in publishing my first children’s book. I didn’t know, though, that her keynote would resonate so much with me that I’d spend the next several weeks contemplating hope and its role in combating anxiety and depression. I wondered how I could use the information to help my families at school.

During her keynote, we watched this powerful video by Nature Valley. I’m glad I grew up in a generation when playing outside and interacting with the world around me was natural and expected. Now it seems like going outside has to be intentional. Meanwhile, our fixation with technology seems to be stripping us of hope.

I watch my toddler playing in the fairy garden. “Fade-ees! Fade-ees!” he squeals in delight as he moves the small plastic fairies around the miniature garden we made last summer in a large ceramic planter on our deck. Without his brothers here, he has his pick of any fairy he wants, and he clutches all of them in his tiny fists. He drops one, and it rolls under the woven ottoman. He points up to the playground we built up on our hill and asks, in his words, to go play in the mud kitchen.

“You can go up there,” I encourage him, easing back onto the couch and reaching for my Bible and notebook.

“No. Mommy come,” he demands. I put my books down, thinking longingly of the quiet time I’m so desperate for, but I follow him up the hill and watch as giddily he transfers measuring cups’ full of muddy water back and forth from the 99-cent Goodwill cupcake pans to the matching pans in the sink. A little mulch drips down the front of his striped romper and he is concerned for just a moment, then returns his attention to the cakes he is making me. I notice the blue handprint painted near the sink, the pink dogwood blossoms near the swings and peer through the lilac bush, its blossoms already dropping in the short-lived Virginia spring. If it hadn’t come up here, I might have missed them entirely. I watch my neighbor mow her lawn, amazed at the checkerboard pattern she seems to so effortlessly create every single time. I appreciate whoever hung wind chimes far enough away that I can enjoy them without interrupting sleep over them.

These grounding exercises lead me to a conversation with our Creator that only He can orchestrate. The feels of the breeze against my face slows my own racing thoughts of what I could be doing right now to prepare for the workweek ahead and the rest of my family’s return from their camping trip. The scent of lilac brings me back to the present moment. God has called me to notice this very scene before me. “Truth,” Wyma writes, “Truth that tomorrow’s worries and yesterday’s happenings don’t get to overinform or steal from today.” My two-year-old has not a care in the world as he enjoys his red lollipop and sloshes water around the mud kitchen we fashioned from a yard sale kitchen sink, old wooden pallets, some extra boards, and a corrugated steel roof. It is their favorite activity, and all three of my boys still fit side-by-side in front of the sink. Just as spring will segue silently into summer, there will come a time when they won’t be able to all fit across, forming and serving mud cakes together. And so I’ll soak it up now, instead of looking ahead to the next thing, the next house, the big picture. God is calling me to see this very moment before me before my littlest toddles back inside the house to snuggle against me for a nap. Laundry and packing lunches and Friday folders from school can wait a little longer.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NIV).

Great references for getting outside with kids:

  • “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” by Linda Akeson McQurk
  • “Free Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy
  • “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv 

More of my thoughts on mindfulness:

 

Trading Gridlock for Slow and Steady Rhythms

IMG_8206Driving back to my hotel after a day spent just outside Washington, D.C. at a work conference, I needed to get on the Beltway and go South. I had been dreading this particular stretch all day, knowing I’d be up against the D.C. commuters returning home in rush hour on a Friday, a Friday which, for many, was also the start of spring break. Not even on the Beltway yet, I could see its ripple effects on the on-ramps and even spilling up onto the highway where I was, cars already at a standstill.

Ignoring Siri’s insistence to get into the right lane to begin merging, I believed there must be another way. A slower way. I glanced at my anticipated arrival time.

6:09 pm.

I continued on the slow, steady highway, and sure enough, Siri rerouted — this time, to a toll road. Again, I held out for a slower way, and she recalculated, making small adjustments to keep my commute moving forward.

Suddenly and without warning, my lane became a right-turn-only lane, and I was forced to ease off of the highway onto a side street. My steady road had ended, and without knowing my way, I planned to make a U-turn, but Siri had other plans. She recognized another route, and I continued forward.

This newest route wound through sleepy neighborhoods, a mixture of older homes and McMansions, the off-street parking so tight, the roads appeared one-way. Still, I was grateful for this quieter unplanned route, and I continued to weave through the stop signs and quiet streets. Eventually, the road spit me back onto the main highway leading to my hotel, with only a stop sign against a steady stream of traffic in both directions, and with an additional two-way cross-street between me and the stop sign to the main thoroughfare.

Finally, my opportunity came, and I darted into the first available lane and then watched for opportunities to get over. I persisted and was soon swinging into one of the last parking spots in front of the hotel. I breathed a sigh of relief, my car finally in park, and glanced at the clock.

6:07 pm. Earlier even, than the Beltway would have delivered me.

The route I took had its own unique obstacles, but it was another way, albeit the uncommon way. And in this case, uncommon meant less-congested. When I felt gridlocked in traffic, I sought a new direction, a slower, quieter route.

I’ve been practicing this in my life for several years now as well, and I know this season with three little ones, working a full-time job, and now publishing my first children’s book will not last forever. I’m learning as I go, stepping out in faith. My responsibilities, while all good, do not leave wiggle room for much else, and that is both frustrating and stressful.

Tonight I finished Emily P. Freeman’s “Discern and Decide” course, one of her pre-order bonuses accompanying her latest book, “The Next Right Thing,” a national bestseller just days after launch. I loved diving deep into exploring the rhythms I’ve established in this season, reflecting on what is and isn’t working. I love the suggestions Emily gave for how to reflect on the past season. An avid writer, I didn’t think I needed this extra direction, but her practical suggestions encouraged me to reflect on things I might otherwise have missed. Breaking down my personal and communal practices, I was able to highlight rhythms to ingrain and rhythms to abandon. Instead of feeling guilt over the places where I’ve said “no” lately, I felt affirmed. My decisions lately have aligned with what I value most.

I fought for the space to have time of reflection this weekend. Here I am, at a hotel, sans kiddos for the first time in years. When I first asked if I could go on this work trip, I was met with resistance. My admin said there was no money. I decided to pay for it myself, and in the meantime, found funding another way. My husband, of course, was supportive of my going, but it meant a lot of sacrifices on both of our parts. I’d miss my oldest son’s school recital and my middle son’s soccer game, and I’d have to pump milk for the days spent away from my youngest. It also meant several hours of writing lesson plans for my substitute. Meanwhile, my husband was doing 100% of the things.

But I persisted, knowing I needed the time to slow down, and so here I am, relishing the white space I carved for myself. I’ve had time for uninterrupted thought, uninterrupted writing, and mostly-uninterrupted quiet. (There was that charter bus of middle schoolers just outside my door that pulled in and unloaded at 11:45 last night…)

Today I went to a huge shopping center and perused slowly — another luxury I’ve never had. At my conference today, I talked to an author I’ve followed for 13 years now. (Check out @counselorstation on Instagram today to see who she is!) I tried a new face mask. I moved slowly and finished entire thoughts. For once, I didn’t have to leave unfinished projects scattered around. I savored my coffee and strawberry crepes in a quaint little French cafe.

The small adjustments Siri made so that I didn’t have to join the gridlock on the Beltway are not unlike the small adjustments I make in my life to stay balanced, avoiding a gridlocked schedule but also recognizing that a kid-free retreat will not always be realistic. I learned from my “How Things Work” college physics professor that a bicycle can stay balanced on its own if it’s pedaled (he was making the point that it’s not all that impressive when people ride a bike without touching the handlebars). I like to think that pedaling with these tiny, almost unnoticeable adjustments helps keep it balanced. Right now I’m pedaling between these two extremes, the gridlock and the quiet. And I’m finding where I can dip into each, covering my responsibilities and saying no as needed, while also taking time for self-care. But if I lean too far into either one, I become unbalanced and something major gets neglected.

The steady rhythm of moving forward, listening for cues from the Lord, being open to consider unexpected opportunities, and seeking out those uncommon paths help keep me from falling. I’m grateful for it all.

Navigating the Messy Middle

this tension -- wanting to pursue my calling, but having to surrender something else in order to do so.

Do you ever feel restless to move?

Is it to a new home? A new job? A new city or town? Do you need a mindset shift? A new perspective? A new workout routine?

Who is moving? Is it you who needs to move, or is time to finally acknowledge that God is moving in your life, making big changes and offering to shoulder your insecurities and self-doubts?

Perhaps my word “move” for the year is drawing me from my own sense of security and allowing Him to move within me.

God,

You filled me with awe in worship this week. I want to surrender to your call, but I fear losing the security I’ve worked for. Some people earn degrees and never fully use them in the field they intended; I fear stopping too early. I know I can use my education moving forward, regardless of what I do, my knowledge and experiences will alway be a part of me. God, why am I put in this tension — wanting to pursue my calling, but having to surrender something else in order to do so. It feels like I have to let go of one thing to switch to another, letting go of one trapeze and trusting that I’ll catch the next — and I’m afraid of flying. I want to serve more fully with the gifts you’ve laid upon me. I am in the mess of this tension every day and I do feel anxious and restless about it. I don’t have time to myself to devote long stretches to what I love doing. I can’t even schedule time and guard it — I have three small boys and a full-time job! I have to accept time where it comes organically, and that unpredictability is stressful for me. I can’t be creative on a schedule, anyway. When the mood strikes, I might be nursing a tiny human on my lap or teaching a class at school. I may wake up early, and my kids wake up minutes later. I know you will make a way because it is your will for me, I’ve seen you do it over the past year as you’ve opened many doors for me (and closed even more), and I am so thankful for all of it. Amen.

Right now I feel like I’ve found a “partial solution,” as Tsh Oxenreider calls it, but I also feel like I can only commit partially, even though I want to give my all–thus the tension I’m constantly mulling over in the back of my mind. My pastor recently encouraged us to ask ourselves how we can lean on our church to pursue God’s call.

This is probably one of the hardest parts for me. It isn’t that I intentionally put walls up. It’s just my personality makes it difficult for me to process things out loud with others — I process quietly –internally– and usually through writing. Inviting someone into my mess means attempting to sort through jumbled thoughts before I’ve had a chance to make any sort sense of them. As my uncle says, I’ve always held my cards very close to my chest, and I’ll admit to this. It has always made it harder for me to ask for help and it makes people assume things come easily for me, which drives me crazy because it couldn’t be further from the truth. Usually by the time I share something, I’ve had quite a bit of time to pray over it and wrestle with it, and I’d rather just share things with a few close friends, anyway.

Jennie Allen writes, “Because he didn’t call us to something alone. He carries the yoke for us, so we can run with power” (Restless, p. 147). When I am not ready to invite others in to the mess (even though I know I need to, that vulnerability fosters connections and relationships), I know that I can count on God to meet me, already knowing the details of my mess, reassuring me that He also knows how it will all unfold.

So for now, I’ll continue to pray through this messy middle and try to encourage others to join me in this tension.

For more reflections on my one word for 2019, “move,” check out my two previous posts:

My One Word for 2019: Move

Knowing How to Step Out in Faith

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Knowing How to Step Out in Faith

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When my husband and I were first interested in getting a Prius for our new family vehicle, suddenly, they were everywhere.

Every time I was pregnant, or wanted to be, or had just miscarried a precious life, it seemed like there were pregnant women everywhere.

With blinders on, with intense focus on something, we tend to notice it more.

Only two months into 2019, I see and hear the word “move” everywhere– in books, music, scripture, sermons, and podcasts. I know in part, it’s because it’s the word I’ve chosen to pray over and reflect upon this year. But I also know God placed this word on my heart in the same way that He has placed a calling in my heart and His Spirit in my soul to tend it, and He is continuing to encourage me by revealing a deeper study of what it means to really move toward Him.

My journal lately is starting to sound like a broken record as I continue to revisit the same tensions in my quiet time. I may not have my own expectations for exactly what “move” will mean for me this year, but I also know that my wonder and unknowing is what will stir me to lean on Him for direction.

In Restless: Because you were made for more, Jennie Allen writes about God moving to meet us, willing to meet us as far as we jump, multiplying what we give Him as He did with the loaves and fishes. (This also reminded me of a beautiful essay written by my dear friend Christina, “He Makes Much Out of Little.”)

How can I serve the community where I am right now? How can I stop trying to guard the security I’ve come to know in order to step out in faith?

Lord,

Thank you for the gift of time You provide for me to listen. Thank you for where I am right now and being willing to move to meet me, whether I stay or go, whether I give a little or give much. I know you will take what I can offer. Help me to see where I can serve right now. Help me to share my gifts in the places where you’ve intentionally placed me right now, instead of always questioning whether I’m in the right place. I can serve my community right here. Thank you for this renewed perspective and mindset shift. I can look at where I am though the lens of gratitude and service. Amen. 

If you ever feel guilty for just craving alone time to indulge in self-care and uninterrupted reflection on pursuing the next steps God is calling you toward, I’d be honored if you’d head over to Kindred Mom to read my essay published on Kindred Mom this week, Seeking Solitude in the Midst of Motherhood.

For more thoughts on my one word for 2019, “move,” you can find my recent essay one post back.