Seeking Contentment in Every Season

Seeking contentment

When was the last time you felt true contentment in your life?

For months now, I’ve relished a feeling of peace and contentment that I’ve been missing for years. But just recently, I feel like something is off, as if there’s a hole in my life, and I’m desperately trying to put my finger on the crux of it. Perhaps it’s a certain longing, knowing that the infant stages are slowly slipping through my fingers as I begin to purge my house of baby gear and infant boy clothes. And, if we’re being honest, the girl clothes I had been saving, just in case.

I go through phases of wondering what it is, trying to fill this longing myself.

Is it staying home with my baby? I pray relentlessly about that option, knowing that my heart wants nothing more.

Is it writing? Writing has always fulfilled me, and it’s the one dream that has remained constant since I was seven. I build a blog, start a new writing Instagram account, join a writer’s membership group, and submit articles to magazines. I write 62,000 words and then let it sit for two months. I debate about going to a conference with an all-star lineup of motivational author-speakers.

Is it throwing myself more into my school counselor role? I continue to build yet another Instragram platform and create content for my Teachers Pay Teachers store for other school counselors to use. I write a children’s book and keep it under wraps, wondering whether to seek out a publisher. I make a spreadsheet comparing different publishers.

Is it a combination of some of these things? Staying home and writing? I look into my options for opening a daycare in my home to fund my dreams but quickly realize that would not fulfill the longing in my heart, instead adding wear-and-tear on a house that’s already impossible to keep clean underneath three small boys and their messes.

Is it a new pet? I research cats, visit SPCAs, donate to local shelters, and fill out endless adoption applications all over the country. I clear my schedule for a last-minute trip to another state to meet a potential puppy to rehome, my family just one of several other families hoping to be considered. I take my boys to play with puppies both at the pet store and at a breeder’s farm, just to hone in on which breed/age might be the perfect to later adopt for our family from a rescue. My arms are empty, with nothing to show for it except a newfound cat allergy and 13 applications that were never quite fast enough despite relentless searching and refreshing.

I return to something that absolutely fulfills me, one of the fondest memories with each of my babies.

I commit to rocking my baby during his naps. It’s that simple. I turn on my essential oils diffuser, close the blackout curtains, and for two-to-three glorious hours every afternoon, I rock my sweet baby. Desperate to make up for all the naptimes I miss when I’m at work August through May, I attempt pack 10 months’ worth of snuggles into two months. I let my friends and neighbors know I’m not available in the afternoons for playdates. I race home from whatever summer morning adventure we’ve been on, obsessing over getting lunch on the table before noon because I know that around 12:15, the baby will start fussing from his highchair, anxious for his nap and that blissful quiet, one-on-one time with Mommy.

My older boys (ages 3 and 5) know not to disturb naptime, although that doesn’t stop them from running full-speed into the nursery, flinging the door open to tattle or ask for snacks a dozen different times in piercing whispers and whines. But the baby’s afternoon nap has become a sacred tradition in our home. My Hillsong playlist cued up on iHeart Radio and the scent of Sweet Orange diffusing in the nursery cue my baby’s whimpering to become giddy coos when we enter his darkened room. This time is just as important to him as it is for me, especially since he is the youngest of three little boys and cannot always have my full attention. He nurses and is asleep within seconds, it seems, but I don’t put him down in his crib. This is as beautiful a rest for me as it is for him. I never fall asleep– despite only sleeping 5 hours each night– instead, I marvel at how unfathomable God’s love is for me, as I rock my sweet boy. I know that one day, he’ll have dreams and goals of his own, but for now, his love and need for me is probably at its greatest. I also realize my mom’s love for me as I rock my baby the way that she rocked me. She always sang to me, no exceptions. I don’t always, if we’re being honest. I let iHeartRadio take care of the soundtrack most of the time.

The baby’s still-fuzzy newborn hair turns sweaty and strawberry blonde with the full weight of his melonhead pinching my left forearm. His baby toes are too adorable for words and I know that even as we rock, they’re quickly becoming dirty, stinky, little boy feet.

My heart is already sick knowing that these special moments will come to an end when I return to work on July 30, less than two months away. I’ll still have weekends, of course, but I’m afraid we’ll lose this bond once he’s back at a sitter and our weekends are full with family time.

I fiercely guard my sweet time with him. The house is almost quiet. I bury my nose in his soft cheek and marvel at the beauty of this baby. He was completely a gracious gift of God, one for whom, for a long time, I felt undeserving. So much on social media makes it seem like some mothers are more worthy of a pregnancy than others, that some babies are more of a miracle than others. That guilt has always ridden my pregnancies of the full joy I should have been embracing, along with the burden of fear of yet another miscarriage.

It took me years –and four pregnancies–to realize that I am responsible for my own feelings about these things. My wise sister told me during my 4th pregnancy that I was just as deserving of that pregnancy as anyone else. No exceptions. I’ve stopped trying to stifle my own joy to protect myself, to guard my heart from fully embracing the gift, one for which I’ve never felt deserving. I’ve stopped trying to please everyone at the expense of my own mental health. Because, for the most part, it’s just wasted energy, and will hurt my confidence and stamina as a mother.

As I rock, I still wonder about this longing in my heart. Ultimately, I am the only one who will pursue my dreams; I care the most about them. I am on this journey with God. Other people have their own paths, and while I have the beautiful option to encourage and support them, ultimately they are going to see their dreams through (or not), because they most likely care more about them than anyone else.

I wish I knew, six years ago, that family time is one of my most cherished gifts. I wish I knew that I could say no to other things–good things, even– to commit more time to family. I never realized that simple family time is just as valid a commitment as any appointment on my calendar. My oldest went to a sitter at only 7 weeks old because I didn’t know I could take 12 weeks of maternity leave. I’ll never get that time back.

I’ll never get it back.

So mama, take care of yourself. Look out for yourself, because no one else is going to walk God’s marvelous path for you. No one is going to pursue your dreams for you because you care about them the most. This includes your priorities. If rocking my baby to sleep is a priority, I treat it just as importantly as I would a doctor’s appointment, and I refuse to feel guilty or indulgent about it, because it is just as worthy an excuse as anything else. Our priorities are worth it. Our relationship with God is worth it. My 15-month-old is certainly worth it.

Philippians 4:8-9 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Feature image by Kathy Denton Photography

Navigating God’s Call

Compass

Have you ever felt God calling you in one direction, but you chose something else? Perhaps God was calling you to adopt, and you didn’t, or He was calling you to leave one place to pursue a completely different calling. Maybe He was preparing and leading your heart in one direction, but you were too afraid to listen.

Is it possible to disappoint God? Sometimes it feels like choosing His direction requires a huge leap of faith that we just cannot summon. What does that say about our faith–and our faith in His provision? I’ve said no to God’s plans before, when the dream didn’t seem to work out on paper, or when others in my life were not on board. I’ve talked to people who said no to God’s call. With what, then, are we left, when we try to navigate on our own? Will there be a second chance later? Will God ultimately bring us toward His calling even despite our own weak attempts at navigating?

What do we do, then, on the other side of our decision? There is a sense of guilt weighing on my heart even as I pray for a heart change. The prayer for a heart change isn’t even to do what I feel God nudging me to do, because my heart is already there, too. My prayer is that my heart will change and be rejuvenated for where I am now, in my current season, even as I continue to seek what I know God is calling me to do. I’m not abandoning His call. In fact, I’m actively pursuing it, even as I write this morning. But did His call for me require a bigger leap of faith than I am taking right now? Why am I allowing it to be about my comfort zone instead of His beautiful promise of provision?

I’m continuing to put one foot in front of the other toward my God-shaped dream, always seeking what Emily P. Freeman refers to in her podcast as “The Next Right Step.” I have so many goals this summer. Self-care is also very high on my list, especially after last summer.

But even so, I continue to wonder, am I disappointing God? Can we ever disappoint Him, even as we remain in the very seasons He once called us toward? Psalm 90 in the Message ends with, “And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us, confirming the work we do. Oh, yes. Affirm the work we do!”

“And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us, confirming the work we do. Oh, yes. Affirm the work we do!”

Lord, I pray that you will inspire me in my work, when it’s easy to feel defeated by situations I cannot fix. God, you have given me a strong faith. I cannot disappoint you if I believe in You and love You and continue to work through this, always seeking You. I want to listen so badly, and allow you to grant my anxious heart peace. I made a decision in fear because I was scared to step out in faith. I continue to seek Your holy wisdom even as I allow my current season to slowly make way for the dream you have placed on my heart. Amen.

A Prayer for the Mother in Crisis: PPD/PPA Essay Feature

 

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The nurse handed me the clipboard of thick paperwork, the metal clip strategically covering the name of the depression inventory. I knew what it was — this was my third rodeo with childbearing — and I’m a counselor. I knew which boxes to check to avoid raising any red flags about my mental health.

But at only six weeks postpartum, I was still feeling pretty good. I had been living in the glow of a new baby, a magical newborn photo session, and still marveling about how I had gotten myself into the predicament of mothering THREE boys.

My failed homebirth attempt was sensational enough that even though I hadn’t had the chance to truly process it, I had spent weeks retelling the drama to anyone willing to listen. The quiet place of introspection would come later. I hadn’t yet processed my disappointment over losing control during some of the most critical minutes of my birth story.

To read more of my story, please join me over at The Joyful Life Magazine, where my essay, “My Journey Through Postpartum Depression and Anxiety” is featured on the magazine’s blog!

If this post resonates with you, I’d love to hear how in the comments below, and I’d love to pray for you.

**If you recognize some of the same symptoms that I faced, I urge you to contact a medical professional or a crisis hotline right away, and also let your loved ones know how they can help you. You are not alone!**

Striving for Work-life Balance

Storm clouds roll in over the hill in my backyard, pregnant with impending rain, much needed with the forest fire raging an hour away, already doubling in size despite the frontline of firefighters poised for battle. The seven-degree temperature drop and the rolling clouds blocking the sun cut the edge off the blaze of the 88-degree afternoon just hours before. My boys set buckets around their homemade outdoor mud kitchen, excited at the prospect of full buckets for tomorrow’s muddy culinary pursuits.

I love the way that even as the gray-blues of the sky darken, the grass turns a bold and vivid green. The coming storm catches my breath as I inhale the refreshing smell of spring and freshly-cut grass. Just minutes ago, my husband and his John Deere raced the storm and won. The wind gathers momentum, ferrying sweet fragrances of my neighbor’s pink dogwood across my patio.

My husband is the first to notice that the tree beside the patio, for so long bare from winter, now has tiny new translucent green leaves emerging, the first layers of shade over the outdoor wicker sofa my husband insisted on last season. I am so grateful for the sofa now, my outdoor writing and reading perch. My boys rush to get the cushions inside as the storm clouds threaten, their tiny bucket brigade passing and tossing pillows past the glass door. I count 15 more working days until summer and a much-needed respite from my counseling office and the near-daily deluge of conducting threat assessments with children born just this decade.

@TENDINGWILDASHLEYBARTLEY.COM

People often ask me why elementary school children need counselors, even as I drown in the busyness of appointments, classes, small groups, parent phone calls, drop-in meetings, and schoolwide projects. I’ve seen everything from friendship drama and separation anxiety to abuse and neglect, suicidal ideation and pacts, and parents incarcerated for drug use. In fact, I hope I’m not becoming hardened in my position–in ten years as a school counselor, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Children are not immune to their own problems and to those of their parents. I’ve had so many children lose parents through death or incarceration that I’ve run small groups so that kids can see they’re not the only ones who’ve faced significant losses. Groups offer them a safe place to learn and practice coping skills. It is a fine line in finding time for prevention activities in the classroom in the midst of putting out fires in the confidentiality of my office.

Our realms as school counselors fall into the acronym ACES – academic, career, and emotional/social. It’s up to us to prioritize the demands that come on a daily basis. I’ve learned not to make promises even as a recovering people-pleaser.

Maintaining balance between this heavy work and raising three small boys forces me to simplify routines and prioritize commitments. After nearly six years of juggling both roles, I’ve established many new habits that have just become a way of life, from the layout of our home to my carefully crafted yeses and nos. I’ve intentionally created functional spaces throughout our home, once problem-areas, to make life run more smoothly. We just changed the guest room off the kitchen into a playroom (the day my baby swallowed a screw), which corrals many of the toys and large ride-on vehicles out of sight. We also made a mudroom of sorts using a blank wall across from the garage door, where each kid has his own hook for a coat and backpack, basket for shoes, shelf, and hanging area for schoolwork. We transformed the sitting room by our front door, once lost in its purpose, into my personal library and writing space, my retreat without leaving the house.

Sometimes people assume that I’m too busy if I have to say no to a perfectly good offer. But that’s not the case at all. Yes, we’re busy, but I use my yeses and nos judiciously so that we are not overwhelmingly busy. Being available for quality time with my boys, especially after being away from them all day, is just as legitimate excuse as any. I love being able to come home and enjoy time outside, time with my boys, traditions with my family, without rushing out to one obligation or another. Being open to spontaneity in spite of being a meticulous planner by nature is rewarding in its own rite.

Sometimes I even wonder if I say no too often! But then I remember my life of yeses, the life I used to live, and how hectic and unfruitful that time was. In fact, I have a hard time remembering it all because it was so frantic. Even back then, with a baby in tow and another on the way, we were out of town most weekends running half and full marathons, pulling long hours at work, and racing to get out of the house in the mornings. We were involved in all areas of our life and were quick to say yes if someone asked a favor of us. I’ll admit that some of that hasn’t changed, but we’re much more cognizant and careful about it now.

My work as a school counselor offers a much-needed perspective of gratitude on a daily basis. I have a plaque from Hobby Lobby on my desk at work that reads, “Children only have one childhood.” The reminder is both heartbreaking and inspirational, both for my students at school and my children at home. I constantly wonder whether I’m doing the right thing (see previous post), if I’m doing enough by dividing my time and attention. Do my students know I care about them, even if I struggle to remember all 700+ of their names? Do my own boys know that I’d spend every waking minutes with them if I could? Are they aware of the sacrifices their daddy and I make for them?

There’s no right or wrong solution to this. I’m doing what I know, and I admire those who can walk boldly in whatever path they choose for their own family. But I’m also trying to keep an open mind, reevaluating each season what else I can simplify to avoid spreading myself too thin. The worst thing that could happen would be that I’d burn out. That I’d lose heart in my pursuits. And sometimes I already feel that way!

Self-care comes in many forms. Unfortunately the many options that work for me happen so infrequently, but it’s up to me to recognize the importance of self-care and build it in, no matter how small. I know I’m a better person for it, as a mama to my kids and a confidant to my students. I just pray God will continue to cultivate and guide my heart in His calling, whether what that looks like changes or remains the same in all the different seasons of motherhood.

And speaking of seasons, my curly-haired five-year-old redhead just came in and asked me if he could shave his head for summer.

What does simplifying and self-care look like in your current season?

Making Godly Decisions

Have you ever been in the position of having two really good options at the same time? And each has advantages and disadvantages unique to that path alone? Knowing in your heart of hearts that one of the paths is where you want to step out boldly in God’s calling, but, out of habit, you begin drifting back to the comfort of the familiar, the predictable, the safe?

I begin to question whether allowing fear to step in undermines my faith in God’s plans. I believe I have a strong faith, but in situations of fear and the unknown, I tend to want to steer. To cast my own safety net under the tightrope of God’s calling as a backup plan in case I fail.

God’s calling doesn’t promise success. The fruit comes in the way we approach the decision itself. Did we lean in and listen to God, or did we build walls around our hearts out of fear and trepidation of the unknown?

Whose plan am I tending to? Whom am I allowing to steer my course? If I choose to ignore God’s tug on my heartstrings, what will happen? Will I relish the safety of my current path, even if it feels complacent, or will I always wonder, “What if?”

Will He bring another opportunity around, or is this it?

complacency | a feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, often combined with a lack of awareness of pending trouble or controversy (Your Dictionary).

What was waiting for me down that other path? What would my life have been like? How would my faith have been strengthened? What will it look like to boldly commit to one path over the other? These are the questions I imagine will follow.

When I pray, one path stands out. But my tendency to over-analyze naturally begs the question, “How? How will this all work out if I pursue God’s call?”

In this moment, I realize I’ve been directing my question of “How?” all wrong. I’ve been asking it of myself when I should be directing it to God. God knows the specific answer. He has always known. And it is not for me to know those details right now.

Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law. (Proverbs 29:18, NIV)

I think of what I stand to lose at each path, and what I stand to gain, while reminding myself to be grateful to have a choice at all. I pray how my decisions will affect those I love and whether they’d be resilient in the face of change. Who, ultimately, will gain from my decision?

I pray desperately for clarity and peace, but it seems this is one that I’ll just have to live out to find out, as peace might just hold out until the decision has already been made, and clarity may follow suit only in the hindsight of my decision.

“Sometimes a little CHANGE can open your world to BIG possibilities.” (Rachel Bright, The Koala Who Could).

What decisions are you facing today? How will you allow yourself to boldly follow God’s call in the midst of facing your big decisions? I’d love to hear how you approach the process, especially when following God’s call involves taking a big risk and venturing into the new and unknown.