Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Perfect Parenting

It's Wednesday morning. My day began with an enormous night-time diaper blowout courtesy of Sean, which meant while Muriel cried to be nursed, I was scrubbing her big brother in the bathtub. Sean is half-way potty-trained– he's got pee down 95% of the time. Poop, not so much. A smattering of stickers on his "My Potty Training Chart" on the bathroom door testify to the few triumphs we've had of actually landing bowel movements where they're supposed to go. Most of the time, he just holds it in and poops in his nighttime diaper. Cue face-palm emoji.

This parenting thing is hard.

But Wednesday morning– Wednesday mornings are good. Wednesday mornings are when our wonderful babysitter, Kathleen, comes and takes Sean to the library, or to one of the many parks on base. Or, if I have errands to do, Muriel comes with me and Kathleen and Sean stay home. Wednesday mornings such as this one, I can sit and give Muriel her after-breakfast nurse without the energy of the universe bottled into a three-foot body cavorting around me, nagging to "watch a bideo" on my phone. I can text my friends instead– friends who are there in the trenches of parenthood with me– questions like, "What do you do when your kids are bullying their friends?" and declarations like, "My child is never ever going to potty train!" and laments like "I just want to get through one day without a tantrum!"

Thank the Lord for technology and instant communication. It has its downsides, certainly– I have learned that the fastest way to bring a massive burden of guilt and shame crashing down on my shoulders is to Google some behavior of Sean's that we are currently dealing with, and Dr. Internet will be only too happy to explain why all of it is ALL MY FAULT. (I will text my big sister, ten years older than me and ten years ahead of me in this parenting thing, to confess "going on the internet" for a parenting question, the way an alcoholic confesses to taking a drink.) On the other hand, without the ability to have in-the-moment  texting conversations with mom-friends all over the country, the loneliness and relentlessness of being a stay-at-home mom to small children would wear me down to a shell. I need the community of fellow moms to tell me that I'm not crazy and that I will in fact survive these little years, and since I'm a military wife, a lot of that community is going to happen on my phone.

Parenting Sean at this age is like living on the Florida coast in storm season (something we'll be doing soon– ha!) We never know when Hurricane Sean is going to hit. To the core of my being I love my little boy, and I would die for him, yet sometimes there are days when I feel like I will die just from being with him. We can go from giggles to tantrums in the blink of an eye. There are days when the nagging and whining feel like Chinese water torture; he is utterly deaf to my telling him "no." If I just ask another thousand times he thinks... drip... drip... drip... Mom will finally give in. There are days that feel like one long terrorist negotiation (thank you, Jim Gaffigan!) or else a complicated algebraic formula: "If you do x then you can have  result y or z. If you do a then you will have consequence b." I wouldn't trade him for the world, yet there are days when I feel I would trade worlds just to have a few minutes of peace.

In a recent email to my mother I wrote, parenting Sean has been the single most humbling and sanctifying thing I have ever done in my entire life. 

I need Jesus. My marriage has been turbulent with moves, separation, and the death of our twin girls, but none of that has brought home to me so much as a fiesty, strong-willed, stubborn, adorable little boy named Sean how much I need Jesus. The days when I've come to the end of myself by lunchtime and I'm crying in the closet, sobbing, Lord I can't do this, He whispers in my heart, Meredith, that's kind of the point. 

I need Thee, O I need Thee– every hour I need Thee!

Sean needs him too. My prayer for my children, before any other prayer, is that they will trust Jesus, find their true lives in him, believe him, follow him all their lives. That prayer is more like begging, because I don't care about their earthly success, whether they're rocket scientists or janitors, whether they make a lot of money or just enough to get by, whether they're famous or known only by friends and family– I want them to know Jesus. I want them to trust Jesus when He looks at them and names them and says, "You belong to Me." And Nate and I pray that our parenting, faltering and tattered and full of holes and mistakes as it is, somehow points our kids to Jesus, because there's nothing that matters more to us. I can talk to Sean about being kind to his friends until I run out of breath and words, but I can't make his little heart want to be kind– only Jesus can do that. I can't manufacture patience and kindness out of emptiness in my own heart– only Jesus can do that. It's very unpopular these days to talk about sin, and the words "sin nature" get a hugely bad rap– in part deserved, because it's become so associated with authoritarian, graceless, fear-based parenting. Yet I can't ignore that in my son's heart, in my own heart, there's something bent– curved inward on self, something that doesn't care about anyone else, something that wants what it wants regardless of how it hurts others, and the bent thing can't be reasoned away, disciplined away, diagnosed and medicated away. It can only be healed by the one who called himself the Great Physician.

My worst days are the days when I am subconsciously believing that I have to parent perfectly, because it all depends on me. (That's another popular message on the internet these days.) Certainly, there is such a thing as parental responsibility. Certainly, I have my days when the pendulum swings the other way, and I just want to be lazy in my parenting, take the easiest way out, shrug my shoulders and hope that if I just ignore the problems long enough somehow they'll magically disappear. But I'm much more likely to act as though I am the Lord of this little universe called my Home, and if I can just get my act together enough, then everyone will eat nutritious, delicious meals that won't cause cancer or obesity, and we will do mind-enriching activities that will ensure early math and reading skills, and we will get just the right amount of sunshine to maximize Vitamin D without causing skin cancer, and we will never look at screens, and my children will be happy and charming and kind and unselfish and grow up to be good people who impact the world in good ways and it will all be because of me because I'm the perfect parent. 

Well, there is a perfect parent. He's called God. And I'm not him.

It turns out humility is incredibly freeing. I remember in my college church group, one of the teachers who helped transform my faith defined humility as "telling the truth about yourself to God and others."

The truth is I'm not and never will be the perfect parent.

The truth is I will fail in my parenting. Every. Single. Day.

The truth is– Jesus has already paid the price for my failure. For my sinful reactions to my child's sinful behavior.

The truth is– Jesus holds my children and their lives. He asks I do my best, but at the end of the day my best will not be enough to give them new hearts and the realest, truest shalom life, both now and forever– only Jesus can do that.

The truth is– he is making all things new, including my heart. There are new mercies for me, for Sean, for all of us, every single morning.

In the morning when I rise
Give me Jesus
You can have all of this world
Just give me Jesus

When I am alone
Give me Jesus
You can have all of this world
Just give me Jesus

When I come to die
Give me Jesus
You can have all of this world
Just give me Jesus

Friday, December 29, 2017

New Year's Resolutions

Something in my soul really likes the idea of New Year's resolutions. A fresh start is so alluring: the new year like a snowy blank page before me, as yet unspoiled by blots or erasures or wrong words. When I first started journaling regularly at age sixteen, I bought myself a rather expensive Italian leather journal from Barnes & Noble and I waited until the first of January to begin writing in it.

What is it about New Year's that casts such a rosy light over my imagination, so that I envision myself capable of accomplishing all kinds of goals in this fresh new year that somehow I didn't complete in the old year? It's so much fun to spin gorgeous, Pinterest-worthy fantasies of how I will make my life look.

My Dazzling New Year's Resolutions for 2018

1. Read all 36 books on the book list I made out last night, prioritizing the books I haven't read before (2/3 of the list). 
I will not put off reading all the new books by re-reading all my Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and the Five Dolls series for the thousandth time.

2. Begin journaling regularly again. 
I will write every night after Sean is in bed and before Muriel needs to nurse again. I will certainly not cast a baleful look at my notebook and grab the remote to see if there's anything new on Netflix instead. I will not forget to journal for three straight weeks and then feel so embarrassed by my failure that I put off journaling for another month.

3. Read Scripture every day, and begin following the liturgical calendar with daily liturgical prayers, in the style of the Anglo-Catholic church with its set daily times for prayer.
Certainly this is more holy than hoping that the mealtime and bedtime prayers, with a glance at the Bible verses taped on the wall next to the kitchen sink, "counts."  Because isn't it somewhere in the New Testament that "by grace you have been saved, as long as you're practicing daily devotions and praying deeply theological prayers"?

4. Take Sean and Muriel out for an adventure once a week– museums or libraries or gyms or new parks. Also, have a sensory activity or craft to do with Sean once a week.
Chasing Sean around the tiny base library doesn't count. Nor does letting him stand at the bathroom sink endlessly filling with water and dumping out various cups, empty bottles, and empty spice jars count.

5. Go for a romantic date night out with Nate once a month.
Or, you know, a pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream in front of a movie rented on iTunes, collapsed on opposite ends of the couch after the children are asleep.

6. Bake something once a week, and try a new baking recipe at least once a month. Then practice hospitality by inviting friends over for home-baked treats regularly. 
My kitchen will be clean, and my 2 1/2 year-old will be charming and adorable and not go careening around the house like a caffeinated squirrel the second my friends arrive, and my house will be orderly and tidy and not look like a tornado hit it.

7. Make time and space every week to be creative with my hands– coloring, or scrapbooking, or other craft projects. 
My craft space will be beautifully organized and of course I will put everything away when I'm done and won't come in the next day to find Sean spilling glitter vials everywhere.

8. Send beautiful handmade "thinking of you" cards and letters to my far-away friends periodically.
Because you're a much better friend if you do that instead of texting! My friends will love me. 

I asked Nate if he had any New Year's resolutions, and he said, "I resolve not to make New Year's resolutions. Ta-da! Mission accomplished." 

There isn't anything innately wrong with goal-setting, of course. But I think that often there is a spiritual dimension to the idea of resolutions. We really want to believe that we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, grit our teeth, and just be better– prove to ourselves, or other people, or God, that we are valuable, because "look at all these things I've accomplished!" We don't really want the grace that God offers. We want to prove to him that we are worth it, when all he wants is for us to open up our busy, clenched hands and receive the gift of his love. 

I do want to read a lot of new books this year. I would like to start journaling regularly again, because writing is my passion, a part of who God made me, and I believe that there is spiritual value in pursuing our passions. And all those other things– well, sure, it would be nice if I could accomplish all those things. But I know that the reality is, now that I have two little people to look after every day, and a cross-country move halfway through the year, and my husband now heading into the most intensive part of test pilot school, chances are that a lot of the time I'm going to be feeling like I'm just trying to keep my head above water. My prayers are going to be quick, exhausted murmurs of help me Lord, give me patience, give me the energy I need. My hospitality will look like a package of store-bought cookies with some other moms while our kids tear wildly around my messy house. Date nights with Nate will mean being intentional about talking to each other for fifteen minutes after Sean is in bed, before Nate has to study. I will forget to check in with friends and send apologetic texts after months of silence. I will take Sean to the same playground down the street for three weeks in a row because I don't have the energy to take him and Muriel on the long drive off base and into town. 

I will feel weak. I will feel overwhelmed. I will feel frustrated. 

And then, hopefully, I will have the ears to hear Jesus' whisper to me, My grace is sufficient for you... my strength is made perfect in your weakness. I am your strength. Come to me, weary child, and I will give you rest.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Wheel

In the gray land, where does loneliness end and depression begin? Can they be separated, or are they like two flavors of ice cream swirling out of the same dispenser, to melt in a sticky dark puddle at the bottom of the dish? And what about grief– is that a third flavor, or just the cherry on top?

I had an idea, after Livia and Lucy died, that the shape of grief might be linear, something in line with the "five stages", and we would move through them at our own pace. But now I find that grief is really a wheel, and in all the circumstances of the last five months that wheel has rolled round again and I am almost as crushed under its weight as I was in those first bloody months of mourning. I find myself suddenly back in that Wasteland of grief, the literal desert in which I now live mirrored by the spiritual desert of my soul, and the only rain is my tears.

I suspect this rolling round of the wheel, this fresh foray into the world of trauma, flashbacks, sudden meltdowns and long, numb afternoons, has much to do with this third pregnancy of mine. The presence of the little Ladybug growing inside me re-awakens all the memories carried in my deepest mind and most hidden parts of my body. Even as she stretches out my skin, I am stretched back, back to the freshness of the first grief, re-living the death and birth of her big sisters. I crouch down in the dark, trying to convince myself that Ladybug's story will be different, trying to beat back the familiar fear of making preparations too soon, trying to convince myself to buy the baby clothes, to take delight in preparing for a little girl.

In the aftermath of our girls' death, we had a community to come around us, friends and family to sit and cry with us. I had friends to listen as I poured out my heart over and over. We had people living in the same town who prayed for us and sheltered us with love through the eye of the storm. And even more than that, I had a sense, from within and from our community, that all the gritty work of grieving was what I was supposed to be doing. Grief was my job, and that was right and good.

But that was more than three years ago. Now we live in a place that seems utterly separate from Livia and Lucy and their story. We no longer live in the house in which they were conceived, and in which we mourned them. We are far away from our families, and from their grave in Colorado. We have no one here who walked with us through their story, and yet here I am again, feeling myself in the eye of the storm. The wheel has rolled round again, but everyone else has moved on, and I am left feeling impossibly lonely. I know that no one would ever in a million years say, "get over it", but the unspoken assumption is that I will carry on and outwardly function as if I have "gotten over it." Grief isn't my job any longer, or at least, it's expected to be something I can just cram in around the very edges, by myself, because the rest of the world has moved on.

I am having Skype sessions with a psychiatrist who specializes in pregnancy and post-partum. I had the first session with her because of the darkness of depression, but we've spent almost every session talking mostly about Livia and Lucy. And I can't help but wonder– is this what we do in first world countries? When the wheel turns again and we find ourselves crushed again, but it's been however many years since the tragedy and we feel that no one else wants to hear, we turn to the professionals and pay money for a safe place to cry once more.

I don't know where God is in all of this. My heart hurts too much for theological explanations, and my prayers are choked by tears and weariness. But I did have this bit of encouragement, last week, in a section of a book that I pick up every now and then, when I feel I can. It is a book written for the hearts and souls of moms, a Christian book that, unlike many many other Christian books, does not heap more burdens on the already bruised shoulders of a weary mama like myself. And in addressing pain, the author writes of three spiritual practices in the midst of painful seasons.*
"Be honest. Whether you're suffering from plugged nursing ducts or postpartum depression, the loneliness of an emptying nest or a child's destructive choices, there is no benefit in pretending pain isn't there when it is. Be honest with yourself about what is happening and how you feel about it. Be honest with trusted friends– even if this requires great courage. Seek compassionate, professional help when you need it. Anguish is terrible. When we deny that we're suffering, we let the pain control and destroy us. In naming our pain, we have the chance to survive and even grow in the process."

I write this post to name my pain, to be honest with those of you from whom I am far away, but who know my story.

"Seek God. Just as the hunger pains of fasting remind us to let go of self-reliance and throw ourselves on God, the ache of life reminds us to seek him. There are many ways to do this, so find one that fits your temperament and situation. Sing a worship song, proclaiming a beauty that flies in the face of despair. Pray over and over, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" as you go through your day. Light a candle to remember that there is a flicker of light the darkness has not overcome. Kneel on the ground and practice surrendering to him, waiting for his fulness. Physically, literally hold up your hands to him, through tears if need be, just as your children do when they need your comfort."

This was the practice that I was scared to read, lest all I should hear was a long list of Law, of all the ways I was failing. I cried at the gentleness and compassion of what followed, the Grace that does not quench a flickering candle with expectations and lists. I've come back to this in the past days, whispering my plea for mercy again and again.
"Keep walking. Some days we have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when we see no light ahead. Sometimes we have to just walk until one day we realize we're in a better place than where we started. Treat the pain of life as you did the contractions of labor. Can I do this forever? No. But can I do it for ten minutes? Yes. And then ten more. And then ten more."

One foot in front of the other. Ten minutes more. I don't know how to get through the next three months, the next six, the next year. But I think I can do ten minutes. Ten minutes of ordinariness, ten minutes of mothering my son, ten minutes of bruised, bloody aching in my heart. Ten minutes of lightness, ten minutes of darkness. Ten minutes of laughter, ten minutes of tears.

*Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline. By Catherine McNiel. The excerpts I've quoted are from the end of Chapter 7.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Celebrating ALL of Pregnancy

I was going to write another blog post about depression, but then yesterday I read this hilarious piece from The Ugly Volvo called "Being Pregnant Turns You Into an Ethereal Wood Nymph" and I snorted and snickered my way through it and posted it on my older sister's Facebook (she is a midwife so pregnancy is kind of her deal) and then today we talked about it some on the phone and I've decided to write this piece instead.

I want to begin with a disclaimer– that if you are or have been one of those pregnant ladies who have had the beautiful, artistic, glowing pregnancy photo shoot, I am not making fun of you. I think it's great that you did that. Pregnancy is beautiful, and it's absolutely a wonderful thing to celebrate that by dressing up and having gorgeous photos taken of you. I am all about celebrating pregnancy bumps. I was remarking to a friend just the other day how I much prefer wearing the more snug-fitting tops that show off my bump, and that I'm so glad that maternity fashions no longer require pregnant women to wear tents.

I even get, to a certain extent, the current fashion in some pregnancy photography circles to dress up pregnant women to look like ethereal wood nymphs. There is a sense in which those types of photo shoots are trying to reclaim the natural-ness of pregnancy– that it's not just waiting rooms and exam tables and bloodwork, that there is something earthy about pregnancy and birth that will always be present no matter how clinical the language and environment we try to box them into is. Even though I would never in a million years do an almost-naked except for strategically placed hands/hair/scarves pregnancy photo shoot, I can admire the women who do, and join in the celebration that the pregnant body is something really beautiful, something we can celebrate, not something indelicate or indecent that should be hidden behind tent-like clothing. The human form has been celebrated in art for centuries, and I see this as another medium for that.

All that being said, I told my sister that what I want is to find some photographer who wants to rebel against the wood nymph pregnancy photography and do a photo shoot of what pregnancy really looks like. Partly just because I'm snarky like that, but partly because I think if we only celebrate pregnancy with the beautiful, glowing, ethereal photos, we're really only celebrating a tiny part of pregnancy.

Because let's face it, those photo shoots are an hour out of 40ish long weeks, and I don't think anyone– I'm willing to bet you no one on God's green earth, even celebrities that have their own personal makeup artists and hair stylists– looks glowing and ethereal every hour of the 6,720ish hours that your average pregnancy lasts.

If we are really celebrating pregnancy, and not just the ideal image of pregnancy at its absolute most picturesque, then where is the photo of me with my head in the toilet dry-heaving before breakfast? Or how about a photo of that time where I only showered once in a week, and when I went to bed each night I changed into a fresh t-shirt of my husband's– not because I was big enough at that point to need that size, but simply because the neckline of his t-shirts was high enough and close-fitting enough that I couldn't smell the reek of my unwashed body coming up through the neckhole? This was the same stage where I didn't eat any fresh vegetables for six weeks, because I couldn't stand the idea of eating them. "Do you want a salad, dear?" asks my husband. "No– no thanks, just give me more meat," I say, feeling like a mountain man. Or like Ron Swanson.

I'm halfway into my second trimester now, but I have yet to wake on any day feeling ethereal or glowing. In fact, the mornings are a toss-up– will I wake up and not want to get out of bed because of depression, or will I not want to get out of bed because I feel tireder than when I went to sleep? Or am I depressed because I am so tired? Can we please get a photo of me sprawled on the couch half-asleep, still in my pajamas at 11:30am, while my toddler watches Wall-E for the thirty-millionth time? Because this is pregnancy, folks.

The settings of the photos, too– let's pay attention to those. Frankly, I would love to be in a beautiful forest– or any beautiful nature setting anywhere (as long as there are flushing toilets somewhere close by, because you can bet me 25 Kegel exercises I am not squatting in the woods, sister!) Actually, forget nature. I would just love to be in a completely clean, completely picked-up house. I confessed tremulously to my sister my dreadful realization that I am never going to have a tidy house ever again. Or at least, not until Sean and this new baby are both big enough to be ordered to pick up their toys and have them follow through. Last week I decided I was going to pick up the playroom– I just couldn't stand it any longer. Sean helped me a little bit, but as anyone with a toddler knows, it takes five times as much effort and energy to supervise them in picking up toys as it does to just pick them up yourself. (There are times when I am intentional about making him pick up something he was just playing with, and I fully intend someday to have children who know how to pick up their own crap.) Energy is something I am sorely lacking these days, so I decided to just get it all picked up myself. And I did! I even swept the floor with a broom (yay laminate flooring!) I was so proud of myself– until I walked back into the living room, and the dining room, and the kitchen. (I didn't even think about Nate's and my bedroom.) Not only was the rest of the house still a disaster, but I had expended all the little amount of energy I could spare in just dealing with the playroom. I had nothing left to do the rest of the house. It began to dawn on me that I will never catch up– that by the time I had enough energy to deal with the living room, the playroom would no longer be spic-and-span.

So please, can we have a photo of my house– the house where I am just thankful we don't have a problem with rats the way one of Nate's test pilot school classmates has because frankly, my kitchen and dining room floors would be an all-you-can-eat buffet for a rat? We're celebrating pregnancy– and this is the setting for my pregnancy.

Okay, I'm being kind of snarky. Here's what I'm trying to say– can we start to see beauty in all the grime and grunge and messiness of pregnancy, too? If the only part of pregnancy that is beautiful and worth celebrating is the part where we look put together and our hair is done and we're wearing beautiful clothes and we're just big enough to have cute bumps (but we haven't gotten so big we start feeling like beached whales dressed in muumuus), then really what we're saying is that only approximately two and a half hours of pregnancy is beautiful. What about the rest of the time when we haven't been to the hair salon in four months (yep, that's me) and the only reason we're wearing this cute ankle-length skirt is to hide the fact that we haven't shaved our legs in two weeks (me again) and frankly if we had to do a pose that represents our strongest emotion about pregnancy then we'd look something like a dead cockroach with its legs in the air (except my back hurts so I can't keep my legs in the air very long.)

What about the pregnant moms who are depressed, like me? What about the ones who are so sick the whole pregnancy that they can't even function? What about the high-risk pregnancies that are full of fear and uncertainty? What about the rainbow pregnancies that are the same– because we are mamas who have lost babies and have a hard time experiencing any joy because we are so afraid of losing this baby too? What about all the pregnancies that are just really really ordinary– where you have those glowing moments, sure, but you also have constipation and heartburn and you wonder how you'll deal with having a tiny human being utterly dependent on you (or another tiny human being utterly dependent on you to add to those ones you already have). Can we start to see that there is beauty in all of those emotions, all of those moments, too? That a pregnant woman is beautiful all the time, not just when she looks like a photo out of a Motherhood Maternity add, because what's going on inside her body and her heart and soul and mind is so miraculous.

So– keep doing the ethereal and glowing maternity photo shoots. Absolutely. And if you want to strip mostly naked and wear a crown of flowers in your hair and sit in a field of wildflowers, you rock, sister.
Just remember– when you're wearing your husband's sweaty t-shirt and there's nothing in your hair but the oatmeal from your toddler's fingers while you try to wipe his face, and you feel like your back is breaking just lifting him down from his high-chair, and you try to remember how many days the laundry has been sitting in the dryer, and how many months it's been since you cleaned the bathroom, and you collapse at night in front of a mindless Netflix show wondering if you will ever be an interesting person and have interesting thoughts like you know you used to but it doesn't even matter because you are just. so. tired...
In those moments, you are beautiful. Your pregnancy is beautiful. The mothering work you are doing– whether this is your first or fifth baby– is beautiful. The beauty is not in spite of the grunge and grime and mess– the sweat and tears and blood. The beauty is because of those things– so let's celebrate them, too.

My wood-nymph pose in a realistic setting.