Vulnerability on Mother’s Day

vulnerability on mother's day

May 8, 2016 – It was Mothers Day, and I was in tears. For the fourth year in a row, I found myself in a vulnerable place. I texted five mom friends that night and realized we all found ourselves in difficult places on what was supposed to be our holiday.

These sorts of holidays set a standard of expectation that seem to bring to light some of our greatest insecurities, the ones we especially try to squelch on these special days, the same way in which Valentines Day often and brutally singles out singles.

I was desperate for alone time.

In my wallowing, I began to doubt myself: How does my husband put up with me? Am I worthy of God’s love? Do the terrible twos reflect my worth as a mom?  

As mothers, we may feel as if we fall short in all areas of life, despite our best efforts. We feel invisible, insignificant. We want to regain control even as we’re spread thinner and thinner across our roles. When I am barely scraping by on two hours of sleep, I fear the place of irritability and irrational thoughts  my doubts carry me. Why do I maintain a facade of confidence as if I have any inkling of what I’m doing trying to wrangle a few toddlers?

I dread asking for help and get frustrated when I’m misunderstood. I’m not even striving for perfection; I would just like to function on all cylinders like I did before having kids, when my bar was set much higher because it could be.

Where am I? What is missing? What might God be using to reveal to me?

In “Making a World of Difference Right Where We Are,” Deidra Riggs wrote, “The seeds of our gifts were planted in us as young children…I can use them to grow into my ministry.” Writing is my best form of worship. It is God’s gift for me to steward, and He also wants me to give it back to Him in my own quiet times. Writing has always focused my attention on God as I pray–it’s much harder to be distracted if I am writing my prayers. Although not everything has to be formally published, I have become more confident in sharing my words, especially since granting myself permission to call myself a writer. I have slowly and intentionally learned each “next right thing,” as Emily P. Freeman calls it, by allowing myself permission to admit to not knowing, but commit to finding out each new step of the writing process as it began to unfold. It wasn’t not long after that I became pregnant with my third son. That pregnancy would lead me on a 19-month journey that eventually brought me right back to this statement again.

If I knew what all I still have left to learn in my calling, I’d be drowning, discouraged at the work before me. But God’s glorious fog hides all of that, leading us forward to see only the very next steps, encouraging us to follow Him, to see the next step, and the next, and the next. That in-and-of-itself is a gift. Curiosity drives me forward each time, until I learn that step and move onto the next. And in the meantime, I’m learning to practice mindfulness and gratitude to be content right where I am.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV). 

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:

 

Releasing Worry Over Circumstances We Cannot Control

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I needed a release more than I knew. I realized it today in a small 4′ x 4′ dressing room on the second floor of the hospital, where my trembling arms cinched the ties of a deep pink hospital shirt, the color of hope. The color of strength. The color of fear.

My shaking hand signed the paperwork minutes before. My stint in the waiting room wasn’t long enough, much preferring to be there over learning of any new news back in the exam room. Older women sitting around me complained of their grown children’s entitlement at holidays, but all I could hear was their bitterness. I wondered if this was how they avoided bigger worries, the sort that brought them to this particular waiting room on the second floor of the hospital, here in the cancer center.

Someone outside my dressing room talked about her breast cancer diagnosis at 35. A concerned nurse asked me if my doctor talked to me about early mammograms. I wondered if she knew something I didn’t, if her question was actually a suggestion, though my insurance policy doesn’t agree.

“Hop up on the stretcher here,” the tech instructed as we entered the tiny exam room. Her tone was warm. I recognized her from every other time I’ve been here and was relieved that I wouldn’t be going through this ultrasound alone.

Lying on my back, I breathed slowly and methodically. In this supine position, the tears could only pool unless I allowed myself to release them. I counted tiles– six across, six down. Another square room, this whole place just a grid within the hospital, with all news delivered in the style of Russian roulette.

The news came quickly. The tumor had disappeared in a year’s time. At the sight of my tears, my tech was quick to reassure me that although it might have just shrunk, it would never turn into cancer. She didn’t actually use that formidable word, she strategically used the word “anything.” I knew what she implied. She made a few jokes trying to ease the burden of my spilling tears. She assumed they came from a place of relief for the good news, and I suppose they did. I had kept them at bay, all the worry I hadn’t allowed myself to dwell on in the midst of holiday busyness, work obligations, and all that accompanies motherhood. I hadn’t allowed myself to think about it for 367 days, the span since the last time I was here.

But this release would have come regardless of whether the news was good or bad. All the worry my body had been carrying gave way in the knowing. This news meant that I could still nurse my baby, that my own body had not betrayed me. In those short moments before the doctor walked in, I had finally allowed myself to consider every possible scenario, and I was scared.

I looked at the ultrasound and thought what a slap in the face it is that ultrasounds can be used to deliver both good news and heartache. It was an ultrasound that first informed me that I had lost my first pregnancy. Other ultrasounds allowed me to see healthy, growing baby boys. And this very wand would detect a tumor and then, a year later, lose track of it.

“One act of thanksgiving made when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well.” – John the Cross as quoted by Madeleine L’Engle in “Walking on Water,” 156.

Back in my car, my head throbbed. My heart ached despite the best news I could have gotten today, and for that news, I am so thankful. I’m grateful for my doctor and tech with wonderful bedside manner. I can only imagine them having to sit alongside women going through so much more than I’ve had to go through, reassuring women with much bigger fears and problems than I have. But they also made me feel as if my concern was not insignificant. It wasn’t unnoticed. And it was unfair and worrisome. It’s my burden to deal with, but ultimately it’s not my burden to carry.

It has always, always been God’s burden. It was there in God’s hands before I ever noticed it. and He will keep his hand on it even when technology can’t find it.

In an hour, it was all over. Suddenly, I’m desperate to get home to coffee and warmth and to get out of this cold December rain. Carrying an umbrella through the cancer center parking lot on the way in felt ridiculous; raindrops were the least of my concerns. But gripping that umbrella was within the realm of my control when everything else was not.

Today I expected to wake up and wrap presents all day. Instead, I spent the morning in much-needed prayer, filled with both worship and worry. I overheard my six-year-old explaining to my four-year-old why I had to go to the hospital this morning, that I have bumps near my milk that I have to get checked. That was the best way I could explain it to him so that he wouldn’t worry but also know that this was something important for mommy to get checked out, so that one day when he’s a dad, he can support his wife if she ever has to go through this. Or hold his own daughter’s hand and let her know that she’s not alone even when it feels that way. That God is always with her and that she is always, always prayed over. God will hold onto our worries until we are ready to release them completely.

Finding Home

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Steam from my coffee fogged my glasses. After padding back to my bed after hours spent rocking my early-riser, I found my flannel sheets cold and uninviting. I love having the house to myself in these quiet morning hours, and that longing overruled any chance at returning to sleep. I was up for the day.

I made oatmeal and frothed cream for my coffee, feeling lucky on this icy morning when most of my county was without power. I lit a pine candle, its wax nearly gone, and sat down to write, hoping my words would offer direction. I had some big things to sort out.

“… this is what good writing allows us to notice sometimes. You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 84).

Dancing is complicated when there are two leads. My heart is dreaming, but my mind is the voice of reason. I feel God’s tug on my heart, but I can’t visualize the next step. I’m tied to a place I was called over a dozen years ago, and now here I am, in a completely different season of life, still fulfilling that pursuit. God planted a different calling in my heart as a child, and I yearn to water it, nourish it, and allow it to thrive. Is God calling me to move back home? If I move home, will I become that version of myself– the dreamer, the creative?

How do I embrace the risk of stepping out in faith when I am not a risk-taker? Is my hesitation from a place of fear of disappointing myself, other people, or God? Or is it a fear that I will lose my spot if I give it up and then fail?

Watching others step out in faith offers me hope as I see God bless their efforts. I look for answers from other people when His Word is where I need to be.

My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:2, NIV)

While I cling proudly to my area code of origin, I’m not feeling called to return there right now. My heart is here, with my friends, my church, and my boys’ entire lives.

I don’t know where you’re leading me, Lord. Clearly you are stirring my heart, drawing me out of complacency. You recently gifted me two ice days at home with my boys — we took things slowly. We ate lunch together, read books, and worked on creative projects. I am happier having stayed at home with them those days. My time with them wasn’t relegated to the few hours between homework and bedtime, dominated by the routines of homework, piano, dinner, bath, reading, and sleep. These windows offer me glimpses of a different life.

The more margin I make to write, the more strongly I feel God tugging on my heartstrings.

To simplify. 

To let something go.

To live smaller so that I can live bigger.

To open my eyes more, to see the world.

How do I surrender when I’m not sure where to step?

I know that “how” is not for me to understand, but I grant myself permission to write out my dreams. I list my questions, my concerns, and my doubts. What can I do now? I write four action steps ending with, “Continue to listen and pray.”

Lord, where am I supposed to go to follow You? Where do I feel your presence? What gifts lie dormant as I yearn for a quiet space to draw them out? Lately I’ve heard the message, “go where the love is.” I’m struggling to discern exactly where that is when we have family and friends — loved ones– in so many different places. Is it about the actual decision, Lord, or the process? I can’t stop thinking about all the small details and logistics, and I need you to show me where home is. Amen.

What is home?

“The Definition of Home. Be it ever so humble, it’s more than just a place. It’s also an idea — one where the heart is.” Verlyn Kinkenbord

Whenever I return to my childhood home, I stop in all my favorite places. I remember the traditions and routines of my youth. Those traditions allow me to relive my memories through a more-experienced perspective and offers me a chance to invite my husband and children into my past.

As I grow older, I also crave for my boys to experience my childhood traditions. Does that mean I need to move back home to recreate those opportunities? For a moment, I feel homesick, second-guessing the life we’ve created here over the last decade. But when I sit down to list all of the places where my heart is now, it’s in the life we’ve built here. I reflect on words I associate with home as I allow God to guide my heart: hygge, sanctuary, comfort, safety, family, gratitude.

Home | the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household; (verb) — of an animal, return by instinct to its territory after leaving it

I find home in writing. I’m homesick for this first calling, homesick to get back to a place of feeling fulfilled in my work. My heart bursts with a longing to create. Until I sat down to write, I assumed I should be looking for a new house in a familiar town. But for all the perusing real estate apps I’ve been doing, I’m not going to find home listed there. Home arrives with my pen against the page, soft music playing, a candle flickering nearby. Home is the time spent listening to God.

“A black man at my church, who is nearing one hundred thundered last Sunday, ‘God is your home,’ and I pass this on mostly because all the interesting characters I’ve ever worked with– including myself– have had at their center a feeling of otherness, of homesickness. And it’s wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people’s baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, 200).

Lord, I don’t want to present you with plans. I pray that you offer me the next step. Where do I look? Where can I find the breathing room to savor what I have here? What if I have to unravel all the little pieces I’ve worked into place? I surrender these questions to you, Lord. Amen.

God isn’t giving me a next step–not yet, anyway. He is drawing me home–here, at this writing desk– to keep going, to keep writing, to keep bringing myself closer to Him in these quiet moments. God’s welcome mat is always out, ready to receive us, to invite us into His presence. The pineapple of hospitality hangs on His door, no matter the season. 

I am homesick for that younger version of myself. For the little girl who not only dreamed of writing, but did it with confidence. She wrote books with her best friend in second grade. She wrote action stories with her next door neighbor in 4th grade. She won countless writing contests and did all of this without self-doubt or inhibition, only the pure joy that comes with doing what she loved.

Naysayers tried to discourage me when I wanted to be a photographer, a teacher, and so many other ambitions. “Everyone wants to do that, you’ll never succeed” they challenged, or “You don’t want to do that.” But nothing has ever discouraged me from writing, not even the rejection letters.

No, my roadblock in writing is finding uninterrupted time. I constantly seek the quiet space I need to draw out my very deepest thoughts, longing to make those connections, and I become anxious knowing that other commitments demand my attention or interrupt. Morning quiet time is never long enough — my boys are awake and asking for breakfast, and my concentration is lost, my attention demanded elsewhere in the rush to get out the door to work and school.

I am so desperate for a retreat alone to spend time in quiet reflection over the life we’ve created. I have so much to process. With seven consecutive years of pregnancy and breastfeeding with no break, I’m homesick for alone time. I’m homesick for me, for the girl I once was before motherhood took over. I struggle finding the words to explain it to people who don’t understand. Even now, I’m balancing a toddler in my lap as I type an essay I’ve been working on for weeks.

Passion | pati (Latin) – to suffer | a strong and barely controllable emotion; an intense desire or enthusiasm for something

This longing for home is a desire for the time and space to write, think, and be in my head, and somewhere along the way I’ve come to believe that unraveling all that I have accomplished is going to take me back to that place. But it won’t. I have to advocate for it, because no one else will. Others continue to stack demands on my time if I allow it. Work obligations suffocate my quiet time.

When I was little, I placed so much expectation on my birthdays that I often met the day a little sad that it had finally arrived and thus was already ending. I wanted it to go by slowly and perfectly after a year’s worth of anticipation. In the same way, I am already putting so much pressure on this elusive writing retreat that I’m going to take once my toddler is weaned. I’m so afraid that once it is here, it will vanish too quickly, and that it won’t have been enough. That I’ll get sick, or that one of my kids will get sick, or that I’ll feel self-indulgent and invite my family along at the last moment because they won’t understand why Mommy needs space alone. But the truth is, I need time to be home. To be that little girl who loved to write, and had all the time in the world to get lost in doing what she loved the most, embracing God’s gift before she knew it was a calling.

Simplifying Holiday Traditions

Simplifying Holiday Traditions

The kitchen clock approached 2 A.M. as I pulled my orange Williams Sonoma apron over my head and scrubbed flour and gingerbread remnants from my fingers. Cooling racks covered every surface with the walls and roofs of identical A-frame gingerbread houses, enough for each child to decorate his own at our party the following evening.

With the gingerbread finished, I ran through the remaining tasks. I skimmed a new recipe for the homemade gingerbread roll I’d attempt in the morning. I lined the candy bowls along our dining table. Soon I’d make the icing that would frame and set the gingerbread walls together. And I still needed to make sausage dip for the adults.

Five families came over to join the festivities with us that first year, each bringing their favorite candies for decorating and arriving in their favorite holiday pajamas. The Polar Express soundtrack welcomed them into our home. My then-two-year-old and eight-week-old wore matching organic cotton Christmas pajamas.

My husband ran out to grab peppermint coffee for me before the party and returned, musing, “Oh, they had those gingerbread roll things in the checkout line at the gas station,” pointing at my homemade effort, which had consumed literally my entire morning. Never one to enjoy baking, especially last-minute, I threw up my hands.

“Of course they did!”

Four years later, our gingerbread pajama party has evolved into one of my family’s most anticipated and treasured holiday traditions. But now that I’m a seasoned mom with three young boys underfoot, I set more-realistic expectations for myself, and I don’t feel guilty about it. I just can’t pull off the same dedication anymore, one that requires hours of focused planning, when I’m juggling so many other responsibilities in this season of my life.

I defined my expectations for throwing a party, and the subsequent parties got easier as I granted myself permission to simplify. That ridiculous homemade gingerbread roll was the first to go. What began as a last-minute touch had taken painstaking hours. 

I also took the pressure off myself to make the gingerbread from scratch. The next year, I purchased gingerbread train kits at our local craft store. The following year, I waited too far into the holiday season and sent my husband out for some kits, and he returned with pink Shopkins candy houses, the gingerbread section completely wiped out. Lesson learned: simplify, but don’t procrastinate.

Last year, we dropped the houses altogether and decorated homemade gingerbread people. In fact, a dear friend baked the gingerbread herself (from scratch!) and brought it over with her, because she enjoys baking. Other dear friends brought toppings and yummy Grinch fruit skewers. Sharing the responsibilities made the event more enjoyable. I even had time to do something I truly enjoyed – sewing tiny gingerbread man ornaments monogrammed with the date for each guest. My husband loves to make delicious wassail, another favorite from my hometown.

Jen Wilkin said, “Entertaining seeks to impress. Hospitality seeks to bless.” When I began to identify my purpose behind this tradition – the desire to get together with close friends – I left behind those elements of the party that were too stressful for me to undertake alone. Other people might let go of other tasks, depending on what they value and what they find to be stressful. Kendra Adachi of The Lazy Genius says it best with her wisdom: “Be a genius about the things that matter and lazy about the things that don’t.”

The gingerbread houses that first year were stunning, and that first party was so much fun, but I also remember the overwhelm that came with trying to curate the perfect holiday party. And the overwhelm is not what I want to remember. In such a busy holiday season, I wanted my party to be worthy of my friends’ time. 

As the holidays approach year after year, it’s still one of the first dates I block off on my calendar. The tradition matters. The friends matter. But for me, the presentation was never what it was all about for me. (It might be for some, and that’s totally fine — you do you!) Once I was able to identify the part of the tradition that I valued most, I was able to let go of the pressure to entertain in favor of bringing my friends together for a festive, cozy evening spent together.

And the sweet Christmas pajama group pictures we take? They long-outlast those perfect, made-from-scratch A-frame gingerbread houses, anyway.