The other night as we dealt with the crazy, beautiful, occasionally maddening mess that is "bath night with four kids", Paul shouted out an observation from the nursery where he was getting Noah in jammies.
"You know, Jen, this time next year we aren't even going to have so many of these things. Diapers? Baby gates? A crib?"
My eyes got huge. I looked at my oldest, Philip, whom I was currently slathering with lotion in the boys' room.
"Oh my gosh, he's right!" I said to Phil, and started to shake my head.
"Yeah, Mommy!" Phil chimed in. "Or pacis. Or. . .(dun, dun, dun) Elllllmoooooooo?!" He looked at me with a little raise of the eyebrow, expectantly waiting for the tears that always come when I think about the boys growing. I was already lost in thought, trying to process the changes ahead. The baby things are going to be gone before I know it. Didn't we just get those back out?
Temporary, it's all so temporary.
A few nights later, after the kids were tucked into bed and Paul and I were on our usual spots on the basement couch, we started to talk about my return to the full-time-work-outside-the-home world. He brought it up almost apologetically, but there was no apology needed. We agreed when I left the classroom six years ago that this was a temporary arrangement, I would stay home while the kids were small. I just needed the reminder to get back into the right space in my head about it. Another year or so, and life will be so different. Still good, just different.
Temporary, it's all so temporary.
And now that I can see the end of the baby and toddler and preschooler years in sight, I realize how short it all was. My first few years as a stay-at-home mom, I didn't live it like it was temporary. The days with the two babies stretched on for what felt like years, yet the years were flying by so quickly that by the time I finally started writing 2009 on my checks it was time to write 2010. I questioned myself so much at the beginning. . .am I doing this right? Am I a good mom? I worried about everything. . .what if I don't potty train now? What is that diaper rash? Why is he crying? When will he sleep through the night? What should I feed him? I had beautiful moments to be sure, but I definitely worried my way through most of those never-ending days as if they would truly never end.
Then, I received a gift in the form of a blog post. Glennon Melton's post, Don't Carpe Diem, went viral at just the right time in my life, in the middle of winter 2011 with three kids three and under. Isn't it amazing how someone can give you such freedom through a few words they write? In the day I read that blog post (and read it 10 times again and forwarded it to everyone I knew) I realized that I did not have to love every MINUTE of my life to love my life. I didn't have to be good at EVERYTHING to be doing a good job. It was the most liberating thought I could experience. From that moment forward, my perspective of what a "good life" meant shifted. I began experiencing an inner freedom I had never felt before. A freedom from self-judgement, a freedom to be me. Silly, sentimental, clumsy, goofy, outgoing, imperfect, messy ME, living a silly, messy, imperfect, heartfelt life.
With my eyes opened, I began to see the freedom each of my children was calling me to as well. Philip is so trusting. His favorite song for me to sing to him at bedtime is "The Lord is my Light and my Salvation" In the beginning of my parenthood, I was sooooo afraid of messing things up. But, of whom should I be afraid, really? When I fear, it's likely because I've started putting my trust in my own power, in doing things "right" as the key to life. Phil's trust and hope reminds me to put my trust in God's help, not mine. Phil, in simply being Phil, calls me to freedom from fear.
Daniel is so silly and tenderhearted. He has so many of my traits, like loving stuffed animals and puns and popcorn and puppets and crying when others are sad. He is also just as clumsy and absentminded as his mama. He'll be putting on a pair of fresh pajamas to go to school while I'm putting a bag of potato chips in the refrigerator and a stick of butter in the pantry. He always gets the biggest giggle out of himself when he realizes what he has done, and calls me to that freedom to laugh at my mistakes as well.
Josh is so funny. He is the Michael Scott to my Holly. We talk in Yoda voices or play Uno together using a language made mostly of the word "nerp." We go out in public wearing costumes and sing songs to each other through the little "telephone" things at the playground. Every time he looks at me with his big brown eyes squinting with love, gives me that priceless giggle and flashes his dimpled grin, he gives me the freedom to be silly.
And Noah, sweet Noah. He loves and hugs and laughs and grows so fast. He's the icing on the cake. He reminds me daily of the two sides of the coin of life.
One one side. . .it's temporary.
But on the other side. . .it's temporary.
In that message comes a freedom I never knew I needed. The freedom to slow down, the freedom to enjoy the present moment. If we know it will all be over to soon, we worry less, regret less, judge less. In the frame of "temporary", problems that seem so large become but a blip on the screen of an enormous life. Moments that seem so small, however, can expand to fill our minds and hearts and sustain us in the years to come. That feeling of "temporary" makes me want to live more kindly and gently, and calls me to the freedom to be my authentic self in any given moment.
The next moment isn't guaranteed.
So I'm going to accept their little invitations to freedom whenever I can take them.
Freedom from fear.
Freedom from criticism.
The freedom to be silly.
The freedom to be still.
My children have no idea that they have given me this freedom, but hopefully someday they will read this, and someday they will. Thank you, boys. Thank you for being free. Thank you for being you.
When you are interiorly free you call others to freedom, whether you know it or not. Freedom attracts wherever it appears. A free man or a free woman creates a space where others feel safe and want to dwell. Our world is so full of conditions, demands, requirements, and obligations that we often wonder what is expected of us. But when we meet a truly free person, there are no expectations, only an invitation to reach into ourselves and discover there our own freedom.
Where true inner freedom is, there is God. And where God is, there we want to be.
It all derailed so quickly. The morning was sunny, joyful, peaceful. . .the perfect spring day was beginning, my to-do list already well underway. Josh helped me pack lunches, the big boys were woken up with hugs and kisses from their baby brother, Noah. . .I had even remembered to sign the "Go" folders before it was time to "Go" to the bus! WIN!!! This mom was on FIRE! It was THAT KIND OF MORNING. And then. . .it wasn't.
I heard the rumbling upstairs of little first graders who had gone from sleepy to wild and crazy in under the 30 seconds it took me to walk downstairs to my spot at the kitchen sink. I could hear their feet thumping over my head and doors opening and closing, laughter and shrieking traveling from their bedroom all the way to the kitchen. I let it play out, as I always do, waiting for the inevitable tears. Phil popped his head around the corner with a mischievous grin as he came bounding down the stairs, leaving a crying Daniel running behind him screaming, "SIRRRRRRR!!!!!!"
I looked at the clock. 8:02.
I looked at Daniel. In his underpants.
Teeth and hair unbrushed.
Guarantee the bed was unmade, too.
And I Just. Lost. It.
"Daniel Joseph Zink, get upstairs THIS INSTANT!!" I scolded, as I chased him upstairs with my finger pointing.
"But, MOMMY!! I'm SCARED!!" He pleaded. "Please come with me!"
"Daniel, I don't have TIME to come with you, don't you see? You wasted ALL YOUR TIME. You are going to have to get on the bus IN YOUR UNDERPANTS."
(this is not my finest parenting moment, OK?)
"But, MOMMY!! The monsters might get me!"
"Daniel, how many times do I have to tell you, there are NO MONSTERS in your closet!!!??? And you would be DRESSED by now if you hadn't been goofing around with your brother, and you wouldn't even HAVE THIS PROBLEM. See what happens??? You get left behind. You goof around and you get left behind and that is just going to happen to you for the rest of your life. . ." Blah, blah, blah, I can't even remember what I said but it was all mean and crappy and, again, nooooooooot my finest moment.
I stomped downstairs leaving a tearful Daniel on his bed with shirt half-on, feeling angry and righteous and justified.
Then I found the other three boys, saying grace over the gourmet cereal breakfast I had prepared for them.
The exact opposite of how I was just acting.
The exact thing that I very much needed at that instant. How perfectly timed that Grace is, right before a meal. It was just the reminder I needed, and as I turned my head toward the kitchen, I saw the Mary Engelbreit calendar for today.
"The winds of Grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail."
It was time to raise the sail.
Sometimes, we get so lost in a moment or in our feelings that it is easy to forget that we can stop. A little pause might be just what we need to raise the sail and remind us of the truth: Each moment is a new moment, we can always, always start anew. Now, I can't unsay the things I said, but I sure can apologize. I took a breath, and I took a moment to open the sail and let the grace fill it up. Because with grace, comes humility. And with humility, there is no room for anger and self-righteousness, just no room at all.
Daniel came down the stairs. Teeth brushed, hair combed, dressed for school. . .and tear stains on his face. Tear stains that were really my fault.
I ached as I knelt down beside him at the table. "Daniel, I am sorry I lost my patience with you. Can you forgive me?"
"It's OK, Mommy. I'm OK." He said, biting his lip and avoiding looking in my direction.
"Daniel, I didn't mean to say those things to you. I love you and I don't want you to be scared to be upstairs alone. I'll help you come up with a win-win. How can I help you?"
"Mommy, can you have someone stay upstairs with me while I get dressed? And not come downstairs even if they are done until I am ready?"
I took a moment to put myself in Daniel's shoes. Although I am not terrified of my closet, there sure are a lot of things I am terrified of. Being criticized. Letting people down. The drain at the bottom of the swimming pool. You know, normal stuff. And I know how much it means to me when someone is there for me and supports me through my fear instead of ridiculing it. (Also, I know that I don't always have the time to sit there with him through his fear because Lord only knows what his little brothers would get into while he put his shirt on.) So, I went over to Philip. My rock. My little right-hand guy.
"Phil, can you stay with Sir while he gets dressed in the morning and not leave him? If he promises not to be crazy?"
"Yeah, I guess, Mommy. I can just read my book until he is done."
"Daniel," I said. "Can you promise not to be too silly while you are getting dressed so it doesn't take so much time?"
"Yes, Mommy," he said, still not quite looking at me.
And he bowed his head to say Grace. And I could feel it washing over us all. It's something we need every day, that Grace. Sometimes I act like it is a one and done. . .as in, hey, I filled up with Grace! I'm set for life! But, unfortunately, I'm just a feeble human. I need grace, and grace, and grace again.
I like to think I have lots of good moments in the day. That just wasn't one of them.
Grace covers that. Thank you, Grace. Help me to remember that you are always there, I just need to take a deep breath and raise the sail.
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." Colossians 3:12-14
One day while cruising the aisles at Meijer after a particularly long visit to the lobster tank with my little gentlemen, I was approached by a woman wearing an airbrushed trucker hat that said "#1 Nana". She was being trailed by one of her adult sons as she inched her way through the produce section, and her face lit up like a Christmas tree when she saw me. She stopped and asked me about my boys and I smiled as we chatted for a bit.
"I had four boys. . .and two girls!" she said proudly. She grinned at my little guys and introduced me to her son before we parted ways. Truly, there are lovely people everywhere. And, everywhere one goes with little kids in tow. . .there are questions. And comments.
Are they all yours?
Are they all boys?
How old are they?
Are you going to try for a girl?
Are they twins?
My, you certainly are busy!
Wow, you have your hands full!
(and my personal favorite. . .)
You know what causes that, don't you?
If I had a dollar for every time I heard these things, I'd be on Spring Break in Hawaii or Fiji right now! My kids must have gotten used to being a novelty item (sorry kids, I like matching outfits and you are too small to shop for yourselves!) because any time when we are in the elevator at the doctor's office they just start blurting out things to the people around them, unprompted, in anticipation of any future comments or questions and in complete disregard of whether anyone in the elevator was actually wondering.
"There are four of us, no GIRLS, we are all boys!! ALL BOYS!! Can you believe it!!?"
I don't get too annoyed with the questions and comments (exception: the period of time where I was pregnant for like two years straight. By the end of pregnancy #2 I was 'bout done with people telling me I looked like I was going to pop.) People ask the same questions, I give the same answers. Repeat in Target, Meijer and Aldi weekly. Kind of like when I taught high school and I explained the same thing over and over and over to each kid who raised their hand just because they just wanted me to come over to their desk times thirty kids times six class periods. However, as much as I have grown used to it I never really understood WHY. Why do people ask you so many questions when you are pregnant or have young children? Why do strangers touch your belly or ask you if you planned that or ask you if you are breastfeeding or if you are going to try for a girl or if you have a T.V.?
Then something finally happened to give me my light bulb moment. Joshy, Noah and I joined a local group that merges the gap between senior citizens and the younger generations. At our first event, Josh was in my lap eating a popsicle and I was sitting next to a sweet man named Bill. Bill was in a wheelchair and was occasionally nodding off, but I came to mingle and I wanted so badly to strike up a conversation. As I fumbled for words I realized- WOW. My conversation skills are really rusty! I mean, I can handle sorority rush or teacher small talk or moms at the park conversation with the best of them. . .What's your major, what dorm do you live in, I like that diaper bag, your kid is so cute, what nice weather we are having, so good to get the kids outside, etc. . .but this was a different ball game. Um, I like your wheelchair? That sounds pretty, uhhhhhh. . . lame. And I ran through other question scenarios in my mind- like what if I asked him about his family and his wife is dead? Oh, no! Or what if he was never married? He lives in a nursing home, so he doesn't have a job, or pets. . .oh, man! I kept ending up at mental dead ends, and at that moment I realized why people make so much conversation with me about my kiddos. . .they are a bridge. A bring-along conversation starter if you will. A total visual, like a Neil Diamond t-shirt or a Donald Duck tattoo. I needed a BRIDGE! What would I say to Bill? How would I get to know him? I searched his arms desperately. WHY DOESN'T HE HAVE ANY TATS???!!! So, I started by asking him if he had always lived in the area. That was a good start. Conversation kind of flowed from there (he nodded off a few more times, but I think he was into it, too.) And it felt great.
And that was the day I got it. I really understood every past grocery store conversation, even the half-hour one with the guy in line at the 10th street Kroger that spanned everything from his thoughts on little league baseball to his government conspiracy theories. People are just looking for a bridge. Maybe they are just a little bit lonely. If you are like me and you are in the more-kids-in-the-cart than groceries phase, you are going to get the questions, too. But, I would guess that most of the time it is not because people are looking to judge or be nosy about our sex life or truly want to know our future reproductive plans as it sometimes feels, but simply because. . .they want someone to talk to. And we're there, with our shopping cart or our minivan or our pew full of little bridges. They probably aren't asking us if the baby is a boy or a girl because they need this vital information, or telling our daughter she is pretty because they are trying to objectify her, or asking the kids what they are eating because they are trying to judge our parenting. . .they are just trying to say some things to make a little bridge. Even if it's a super-awkward bridge, like the "You know what causes that, don't you?" bridge.
Shortly after I met "#1 Nana", I was in an elevator with Josh and Noah when a lovely octogenarian dressed impeccably in head-to-toe yellow struck up a conversation. I came to learn that she was a mother of five. . .all boys! How about that?! There were 50 years between us but a lot in common, too (besides our mutual love for pantsuits and the color yellow). As I stepped out of the elevator with her I had a vision of myself. I am sure it will feel like I blinked my eyes and I will be the lady with the full heart and empty hands, pushing the cart more for support than the need to fill it with children and cereal and chicken nuggets. Wow, I sure hope people smile and talk to me. No one will know anything about me just by looking at me, unless I get some tats or a Neil Diamond t-shirt. I'll still be a mom of four boys, but I'll need to get that airbrushed on something because I am sure by then they won't fit in my cart. Seeing how quickly time passes keeps me grounded and keeps me open and keeps me humble. I am trying not to rush by.
So, when I see an elderly man at Aldi with a hat on commemorating a military activity, I am always sure to go out of my way to thank him for his service. If someone has a shirt on that says "proud grandma" you had better believe that I am going to ask her about her grandkids. And when someone asks me about my cart full of squirmy boys, I try to stop and chat with them and be as gracious as I can until someone squirms right out of the cart and I have to go. And if they ask me if "I know what causes that", I laugh politely. And the best part is that they have no idea it is even my polite laugh, because they haven't even heard my real laugh which is like ten times louder/more annoying and they're happy because they think they are SUPER funny. WIN! And I'm happy, because I've been building a little bridge, to make the world a little less lonely- mine and theirs and ours. One shopping trip and elevator ride and polite chuckle at a time.
"Mommy, this is YOUR FAULT! You made this the WORST DAY IN THE WHOLE WORLD! You make EVERY day the worst day in the whole world!"
No sooner were the words out of Daniel's mouth than I saw his eyes fill with tears. Not the screaming tears he had been crying for the past ten minutes about having to put his (*gasp*) PAJAMAS ON and finish his laundry, but soft, remorseful tears, pooling up in the corners of his eyes. His legs stopped kicking me. He was almost breathless. Motionless. He look at me intently, searching my face for a reaction, hoping perhaps I hadn't heard it or maybe he could just suck the words right back in to his mouth.
Now, almost eight years into this gig, I'm no stranger to a tantrum. I feel like I can handle one with the best. I just try to hug my way right through them. I let the words roll off. But at this point it was 8 p.m., the end of a long day of being Mommy. It was a typical day- started about 5:30, grocery shopping at two stores, paying bills, cleaning, cooking, cleaning some more, laundry, wiped tears, wiped noses, wiped hands and faces, more cleaning and attempted positive redirection of about a million little boy activities. It's my usual Monday and I normally embrace it, but yesterday each child was in rare form and testing me in a different way. A way that alone would not have done much to ruffle my feathers but times four had me feeling simply defeated. One wild student is manageable, but this teacher felt like her whole class was out of control which is kind of the stuff of endless teacher nightmares! The first major discipline of the day took place with Josh before 8 am, so 12 hours later my resilience was gone.
Daniel's words hurt. I looked away. I stood up without a word. I went to my room and pulled the covers over my head, where I softly cried into my pillow until I fell asleep. Paul woke me up around nine after finishing the kitchen and putting all of the kids to bed to give me a hug.
"Daniel is really sorry"
"I know." I said.
"I'm not sure what happened, but he was really sad."
"I know, it was just a long day."
"Tomorrow will be a better day, OK?"
"I know, honey. Thanks."
And I did know. There is always tomorrow. Like Glennon from Momastery says: Forever tries. And I can't even blame Daniel for saying what he said. . .he is, after all, six. I'm his mom, still pretty much the center of his world, of course it would feel like I was to blame. And, gosh, don't we all know that feeling? Sometimes the cloudy things we don't like. . .which for a six year old are things like homework, showers, fish sticks and putting away laundry. . .block out the sun and become all we can see. Had he forgotten his joy when his long awaited Boba Fett minifig arrived in the mail? The way we held hands in the Meijer parking lot and spent a solid ten minutes admiring the lobsters? The half hour we spent cuddled on the couch reading his Lego magazine? The way we played catch in the backyard and battled with light sabers? Laying in bed last night, I am sure he might have recalled some of those things. Just like as I was hiding in my personal cocoon of tears I remembered all of the other things my little Daniel had to deal with that day. Like being up through the night with a cough. And how I let him have 50 cents for the stuffed animal machine at the grocery store but he learned they basically just steal your money with that lame-o floppy claw. And how he had to deal with his tired little brother when he got home from preschool, and tired Josh cries irrationally and frequently, but I STILL make the boys play with him. And that his new Boba Fett figure lost a part when he dropped it on the floor. And how he had to miss ice cream for dessert because he was too silly at the dinner table and miss a walk with his Daddy because he had to finish homework. AND THEN- the icing on the cake- the fish sticks, the shower and the laundry. WOW. I guess I could see why those clouds moved into his six-year-old sky.
But, it's my job, as mama, to teach him to look for the rainbow behind the clouds. To show him the grace that I would want to receive. We all have bad days (for Daniel, that's preeeeetty much always laundry day. And fish stick day. Note to self- don't put those on the same day), and sometimes there's not enough time in the day (for us grownups, that feels like pretty much every day. Note to self: don't always go to bed at eight, OK, Jen?) BUT. That's why there's tomorrow. And tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that. Until someday there won't be any more tomorrows on earth, but we can hope that the choices we made each day have left behind a legacy of love. I needed Daniel to know that as much as I needed to know myself. It is humbling to know that we don't know when the end of our time with these precious people will be, and that just makes me want to choose love. Every day.
Daniel came into my room this morning just as I was putting on some sparkly earrings to motivate me for my Tuesday. I caught a glimpse of him over my shoulder in the mirror, his eyes puffy, his lip quivering. I turned around and got down on my knees before my little boy.
He could hardly look at me, but he din't have to.
He wanted to apologize, but he didn't have to do that, either.
I took him in my arms and said, "Daniel, I love you. Every day is a great day when I get to spend it with you, OK?" And I meant that. With Every. Single. Cell. Of. My. Being. Even the kicking and screaming days. All of them.
"I love you, too, Mommy. I really, really do."
I bit my lip. He started to cry a little bit, but we dusted his tears and went downstairs. The kettle was whistling and there was a new Mister Rogers mug to fill with hot water and see his magical jacket change into a sweater. It was going to be a Snappy New Day for sure. Forever tries.
I am, without a doubt, one of the world's worst gardeners. I am the biology major with no green thumb whatsoever, but nevertheless Paul built me a garden in our new home in the hopes that I would grow some delicious tomatoes and herbs to incorporate into my recipes and wow him in the kitchen. I am sure that as he built it he had visions of me out there every day tending it and harvesting its bounty, in all my summery glory. . .
A few years ago, the entire bounty of my garden was this.
Yep, one (really tiny) pepper.
Paul and I laughed and took this picture of it, then we chopped it up and put it in a salad to eat VERY CEREMONIOUSLY. At least it was good?!
Gardening, not my special talent. Paul finally took over the garden last year, and he does way better. I'm in the season of growing little boys right now, and nurturing the little gardens of their minds is just about the best I can do.
Truth is, I used to get very frustrated with myself for the (many) things that I couldn't do in this season of life. When I went back to teaching, newly pregnant and with an infant to care for, I expected myself to continue my same level of professional involvement: sponsoring clubs, serving on committees, designing curriculum. My passion for teaching was still so strong (and still is) that I poured it all out to my students and made my commute home from work with literally nothing left. I would change out of my heels, put Phil in his Johnny Jump Up and doze off on the floor next to him while we waited for Paul to get home from work. I would disguise my growing baby bump with control top hose and my under-eye circles with concealer, I didn't want anyone to think that I had changed. I couldn't let myself slow down, and I definitely couldn't say no for fear of letting anyone down. I still wanted to be everything to everyone. When I went on my second maternity leave, I then struggled with the loss of the trappings of my previous season. I couldn't even figure out what to wear for this new life! I had a closet full of outfits requiring dry cleaning and people who liked to wipe their nose on me! I had no idea that it was possible to feel lonely and be surrounded by people, but when I was at home a baby and a toddler I knew it to be true. And it was hard for me to slow down to tiny people speed. I was used to a pile of papers to whiz through, a lab to set up, a lunch to scarf down, and always hurrying click-clack in high heels down the hall to my mailbox or a meeting or practice. There were bells and starts and finishes and lists and rosters and structure and hierarchy and curriculum and challenges and rewards and people who spoke in complete sentences to talk to all of the time. I found myself in a new territory, where everything that I was doing promptly got undone and there were no clear starts or finishes. Even the day didn't have a finish as it blurred into the next through the hazy lens of sleep deprivation. Wash the same dishes, fold the same laundry (didn't I just put that away?), read the same board books, sing the same songs, feed the same cereal, stumble out of bed and put in the same pacifier. . .repeat. Not to mention the expectations I put on myself to work 20 hours a week from home and maintain the same level of personal hygiene, house cleanliness, culinary variety, volunteerism and social interaction that I had achieved pre-kids. Lord, I was sweating it. It was like wearing my winter coat, hat, gloves, boots, thermal underwear and wool socks. . .in May.
That's a recipe for a hot mess! I needed to shed! Maybe not some clothes, but definitely time to shed some expectations. It was time for me to accept the forecast and to stop dressing for the wrong season. To use the words of the wise Garth Algar, Motherhood: It's kind of like a new pair of underwear. At first, it's constrictive. But after awhile, it becomes a part of you. It's so hard to get that at first, because society sends the message: "Hold on to YOU! Buy the gadget and it will be easy. Read this book and it will be clear. Do the 10 things in this blog post and you will be perfect. Don't let parenthood change you. You can manage it all. Don't miss a chance to do something. Hurry up, it will pass you by!"
But, baby Noah has shown me the deeper truth. Slow down, or you will pass it by. I needed to let motherhood change me. To bless and release the things of faster times and embrace the things of now. And as I look at my Noah getting ready to turn two, I can already feel the summer days shortening. Like the song of the crickets or the crunch of the river birch leaves in the drying grass. . .little milestones like two year molars and gap-toothed grins and tucking themselves under the covers let me know that this beautiful season of tiny little boys will end before I know it. Today, as Noah and I walked hand in hand with nowhere in particular to go but wherever he wanted to toddle, I felt the warm sun and the deep joy of knowing I was right where I was supposed to be. Right at that moment. In Noah's presence, in God's presence. . .the fullness of joy.
He wants His joy for each of us, so I believe that truly, we can have it all. . .if "it all" means the things that are important to us in the deepest parts of our hearts. We can have friends, a family, meaningful work, heck, even a garden if that's our thing. Don't let anyone tell you differently. I trust our God will provide us everything we need to do our life's work if we keep our eyes on Him. And those things might look different for each of us, and look different in each season, but they will be ever-present.
This. This is our season of planting. Tending. Watering. Waiting.
The winter is over. The harvest is later.
This is the season of shedding the layers, because, y'all, we can't garden in Uggs. The season of saying "no" so we can say "yes", the season of meaning a lot to a little, the season of asking for help. To do the things we can the best we can, slow down when we can, to let go of the layers of perfection and expectation, to let Grace cover the rest.
Every season, with a purpose, under Heaven.
Let's put our toes in the warm grass together and soak it in.
One morning last year, I was gathering bottles and getting ready to feed a hungry little Noah while herding kids out the door. . .and my helpful little Phil chimed in, "Hey, Mommy!! Why don't you just give Noah some of that milk you, like, make with your BODY?"
"Well, Philly, some mommies are really good at that, but let's just say it's not one of YOUR mommy's, uhhhh, "Special Talents."
"Oh. Well, I would be glad to help you if you need it, Mommy!" said my little Phil in his chipper and cheerful voice.
I giggled to myself as I watched my little kindergarten lactation consultant run to the bus stop, but I couldn't help but think- "UM, BUDDY!! Where was your lactation support at when we were trying to do this thang six years ago?"
I am, in fact, a horrible breastfeeder. I have tried each and every time to breastfeed my boys, but each and every time my body has failed to produce the right quality of milk for my children to gain weight. Now, the first time breastfeeding failed, I thought to myself, "I am a failure." I fed Philip that first bottle with tears in my eyes and a pain in my heart like I was feeding him rat poison and signing him up for certain death because of my inability to effectively lactate. "FAIL!! MOM FAIL!!!" I mean, I had decided that I was going to breastfeed in COLLEGE, when my sophomore roommate did a paper on it and came back to our room at the sorority house and told all of us girls about the benefits. This was pretty mind-blowing information to us back in 1998! I remember thinking, "Wow!! I need to do that!! That's amazing!" So, when I was pregnant there was no doubt in my mind I would nurse my baby. Paul and I took the breastfeeding class and I read the Dr. Sears and borrowed a pump and bought the nursing pads and I just felt so self-assured.
When Phil was still below his birth weight at one month and I started to supplement, however, I felt nothing but ashamed. I felt there was something that I was missing, something I had done so terribly wrong. Other girls can do it? Why can't I do it? I am a woman, am I not SUPPOSED to be able to do these things? I was a Biology major. . .wasn't this Biology 101? And then there's a girl with a cute chubby baby that she had BREASTFED. . .like all of that chub came from her MAGICAL MILK TALENTS and I looked at my scrawny, hungry little baby like. . .what am I doing wrong? But in the past few years I have come to discover this truth. . .I am perfectly made exactly the way I am supposed to be. I tried my best, but dragging myself through guilt about it would be some major arrogance on my part. So, I have let it go as not one of my "special talents" because I am pretty experienced with a lack of those!
Flashback 1985: My mom spent hours and hours trying to teach me to do a cartwheel when I was a little girl. I tried so, so hard but I could just not get my legs to go over my head just right! I saw all of the other little girls happily turning across the fields and felt like I should be able to do that, too. But, eventually, even my mom THE MOST PATIENT TEACHER IN THE WORLD gave up. I shed a few tears as the six-year-old who couldn't do cartwheels, but I shifted my attention to regular wheels and I turned out to be a pretty good roller skater! And back in the 90's when everyone could see those magic eye pictures and I would just stare at the thing in the mall and pretend I could see the dolphins or unicorns or whatever like everyone else but my ears would be burning with embarrassment because I had to read the caption on the picture to know what it was? Yeah, that was a bummer. But, I turned out to be a great baby sitter! The 90's was totally my decade for awesome babysitting, I always had a full calendar, moms and kids loved me! Oh, yeah, and when all of the girls could do their bangs in cute styles and braid each other's hair and curl it and look simply adorable? I can still barely do a ponytail. And I have 80 cowlicks. No one has ever asked me to braid their hair, ever. Even my son has told me it is a good thing God didn't give me any girls. But, I am pretty good at doing makeup! I've even done a few girlfriends up for their weddings, which felt pretty special.
So, you see, it was just me needing to make peace with the things I physically can do and the things I physically can't. The peace came slowly the first time, but it came. And I tried again to breastfeed each and every time. (I still look at those magic eye pics and try a cartwheel, too. . .just in case!) But all the pumping and the reading and the lactation consultants in the world four times over just couldn't make it work just right. By the fourth time around, I still shed a tear when I placed Noah on the scale but I came to a peace much more quickly. That peace came with the humility of knowing that I can't do everything perfectly just the way I imagine. Can I do it all? No. Can I do some things? Yes. OH YES! There are things as a mom that I can do really well. Like cuddling and dancing and singing songs and going off on crazy creative tangents with my kids and patiently answering thousands of questions a day, baking yummy muffins and reheating frozen food to crispy, delicious perfection. I will choose to celebrate those things in honor of the God who made me just the way I am.
I also know that the harm I inflicted on my children by not being able to breastfeed was a matter of projected fears more than reality. My happy, bright seven-year-old is still just as cuddly and lovey as he was when so many of us cuddled him and loved him and gave him his bottles- his daddy, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, great grandma, loving babysitters and neighbors. . .everyone loves feeding a happy baby. Seeing how loved each of my boys has been and how lovely it was for everyone to have that chance to feed them was pretty special. And I can't even be jealous of women who breastfeed, because A. I don't get jealous, TOTAL waste of energy. and B. I know firsthand how hard they are working and the sacrifices they are making. We all know breastmilk isn't truly free, it's a labor of love by you. You go, mamas. I feel blessed to be living in a country where it was a reality for me to have a readily available alternative, as so many of our sisters throughout history and still around the globe have not shared that luxury of choice if their child is hungry.
Parenting makes me more humble every day. There is so much I don't know. There is so much I can't do. However, I trust in the God who made me. He knit me together in my mother's womb and made me just right. . .all 5 feet 6-and-a-half-inches of non-cartwheeling, non-lactating me. I think it all boils down to this. . .we have to choose love and hope over fear. If we do things in love, we are doing OK. Everything on Earth could disappear tomorrow, but Love will remain. We do the things we can do with love, and trust that God will use our "special talents" to enrich our children's lives. If ANYONE loves them more than we do, it's the Big Guy! He's got them in the palm of His hand, and us mamas, too. So if you've got 99 talents and breastfeeding ain't one. . .that's OK! You're just the way you're supposed to be, too.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. Psalm 139:13
"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
After a few years of being a homemaker, I came to a frustrating realization. . .I was ruining ALL OF MY CLOTHES! Basically every top in my wardrobe had some sort of stain on it from cooking, washing dishes, putting lotion on squirmy kids, or from my primary role as "human Kleenex." Also, I was pregnant and my maternity clothes had a frustrating lack of genuine pockets. Why do they think storing a baby in your belly automatically negates your need to store other things. . .like, say, in YOUR POCKET? One day, after finding a Hot Wheel in my bra I realized it was time to do something real to solve this problem. So, off to Target I went (the solution to every problem seems to start at Target, right?) and grabbed the first apron I saw- white canvas with bright red apples, a nice full skirt and TWO pockets! Problem solved! I started to wear my apron every day, and stopped finding puzzle pieces in my undergarments and giant grease stains on by belly. It was lovely. After about a year, the apron started to look a little beat up and used. . .as it should! I wore it most of the day, every day, doing my "mom stuff". So, as husbands do, Paul insisted that he buy me an even NICER apron from a fancy website, with cute ruffles and even a diamondy-looking thing set in a bow on the front. It swooned over it that Mother's Day. I put it on and felt like the cutest mom of a two year old, three year old and almost one year old on earth. So long, old worn apron! New Jen is here and she is FANCY!
The next day was a pretty epic (and by epic, I mean standard) day of parenting three little kids. At 5:30 p.m. it culminated in a completely trashed house, a ruined batch of muffins that I forgot to add the sugar to and a three year old tantrum that ended in a mommy COMPLETELY covered in vomit (right in the middle of a visit from Paul's parents.) Oh, I was so upset, embarrassed, and discouraged, not to mention my new fancy apron was drenched in puke. And when it came out of the dryer it was completely ruined. . .wrinkly, floppy, sad and now a light gray as opposed to a vibrant black with polka dots.
I shoved the "new" apron in a drawer. If you can't handle a little vomit, you can't hang with me, cute apron. Back to the old apple apron I went. That was almost four years ago, and despite multiple offers from Paul to get me a "new apron", I now have a greater appreciation for the old model.
It may not be pretty anymore, but my kids know me in this one. One pocket may be falling off, but the other holds Lego minifigs like a champ. It makes a phenomenal Kleenex for thigh-high kids. I am pretty sure ingrained in my kids' childhood memories will be my apron, up close, because it is just the right height to be the recipient of a face-plant in every hug. I have grown to appreciate my ratty old apron for what it does, not for what it looks like these days.
Today as I hung the trusty little apple apron on its familiar hook, I came to a powerful realization. I need to extend the same grace I give to my apron to myself. I have been struggling a little lately with the changes in my body that I see in the mirror. My belly is, if I am being completely honest, COVERED with about a hundred stretch marks and wrinkles and floppy skin from the four pregnancies. In addition to that, I still have about 8 extra layers besides the ones my hairstylist adds from the waves of postpartum hair loss. Not to mention the wrinkles around my eyes and on my hands. When my husband looks at me, he says, "You are so beautiful! I have the most beautiful wife in the whole world!" But, sometimes, when I look at me, I just see someone who looks used up. Kind of like my apron.
But, just like that apron, this body right here is how my kids know me. They don't see any of my perceived flaws, they see me with their hearts. And when they do, they just see "Mommy". . .my squinty smile, my really loud laugh, my big old hugs. My belly may be permanently squishy, but it makes an awesome lap for cuddling. My eyes may be crinkly, but that's because I get to smile and laugh ALL of the time, and smiling's my favorite. ;) My hair might be eight lengths, but at least I don't have to wash it every day anymore (hello, dry shampoo!?) and my hands have aged about 20 years in the past 7, but that means they have been working hard to take care of a little family that I love. My body has worked hard for me. What a gift. I need to take care of it, because it is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that's my responsibility, but I need to stop criticizing the natural changes I see as I go about living my earthly life in it. I wouldn't trade the changes in my heart in the last seven years for anything, so if the changes in my body come with that I need to humbly accept them as the privilege they are. I'm working on that humility and peace within myself. Everything doesn't have to be perfect to be lovely. I'm getting there. Articles like this help. And my desire to walk the talk- if I tell my kids I love them as they are, I need to show them that I treat myself the same way.
And when my kids look back on their childhood, I want them to remember ME: a happy mommy, who kept their treasures in the pockets of her apron, read them stories in her squishy lap and loved them with her whole heart, JUST THE WAY they are.