spiritual practices with newborns: cleaning

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Yellow-stained diapers are hanging outside on the deck, bleaching in the sun. Pump parts are drying on the kitchen counter. A rolled heap of wet mattress cover and crib sheet waits on the floor in front of the washing machine. Burp cloths are draped across couches and chairs.

(And as I type this one-handed while nursing, the baby spits up a whole mouthful of milk on my last pair of clean jeans. Ok, my only pair of postpartum jeans.)

If feeding is the most basic of human needs, cleaning up after feeding feels like the most bodily.

Babies bring with their cooing charm every imaginable smell, shape and color of bodily fluid. New parents almost universally agree that they never dreamed so many discussions would revolve around the state of their offspring’s output.

Wiping dirty bottoms, swabbing runny noses, washing soaked sheets, and chasing curdled spit-up – there’s nothing romantic (or even vaguely pleasant) about such tasks required by newbornhood.

But there’s something powerful about the transformation of cleaning up after small children. (Even though it’s always temporary. Another explosion inevitably occurs five minutes later.)

As a parent, you have the power to deal with whatever mess is currently distressing your child. You can change dirty into clean. Wet into dry. Foul into sweet.

As children age into adolescence and young adulthood, the messes become more complicated, less easily fixed. So for now, amid the diaper pails and laundry heaps of the baby stage, there’s something satisfying about being able to help in simple ways.

Even if the cleaning never ends.

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Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

Psalm 51: 7, 10

In Scripture, there’s nothing small about cleansing. Ritual washings to make humanity holy. Baptism’s plunge into a rushing river. Even a great flood to wash the world anew.

God cleans, clearly.

And for us? Cleaning means forgiveness, too. Transformation. A second chance.

Of course we have to keep practicing it over and over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Because that’s the deeper lesson we need to learn – of how to live with each other, how to acknowledge what is damaged and dirty, and how to keep starting fresh.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Every new morning that starts with a leaky diaper and a shoulder drenched with spit-up.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. So that I can care for those around me, through their stains and smells and splatters and shortcomings. (And my own.)

There’s a lifetime of spiritual practice in that.

You bathe the baby, and he wets all over the dry towel. You change the dirty diaper, and the fresh one stinks as soon as you snap up the onesie.

The saying holds true: cleaning while your children are growing is like shoveling while it’s still snowing. Cleaning never ends. But neither does forgiveness.

(Good to remember while scrubbing dried spit-up off the car seat buckle. Again.)

. . .

For a new twist: while you’re washing and wiping, think about some struggle or sin in your life that you wish could be scrubbed clean. Or pray for the strength to help your child get through the bigger messes they will face as they grow.

What cleaning task do you find satisfying? What do you dread?

spiritual practices with newborns: feeding

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With a summer baby we slip into bed while the sun is setting behind the hill and we wake up when the sky is already bathed with light. And still we haven’t slept a solid stretch. Because all night he is nursing.

All day and all night and all the hours in what feels like the one long day since he was born.

Feeding the baby is a full-time job.

On the surface it seems a simple response to a simple need. You hear the hungry cry. You offer breast or bottle. But nursing newborns has never been easy as pie for me.

Sam had to get a hefty dose of antibiotics right after birth and wound up with a raging case of thrush that we passed back and forth for four months. (My whole body still shudders to think about it.)

Thomas started off with a terrible latch that led to all kinds of bleeding and crying (mine, not his).

And poor little Joseph came into the world tongue-tied. So we’re still waiting to round the corner to that magical moment where every feeding ceases to be Toe-Curling Pain and becomes Smooth Sailing, clear skies ahead.

But no matter what bumps we encounter along the road to keeping babies well-fed, it’s the all-consuming-ness that can feel most overwhelming. How often newborns need to eat. How long it takes to feed them. How their needs never follow a neat schedule.

It’s no exaggeration to say that baby’s hunger sets the pace for the rest of life spinning around it.

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When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ (John 21: 15-17)

This is Jesus’s pastoral charge to Peter, of course – to lead and to serve. But it’s also a commission for each of us. Feed. Tend. Feed.

Sometimes we can generalize how we interpret Scripture’s commands – care for those who are hungry in the spiritual/emotional/symbolic sense. But sometimes we have to take the words at face value, too. Jesus is speaking about feeding after he cooked breakfast for his friends, after all.

Feed my lambs. The youngest. The neediest. The ones who cannot feed themselves.

To feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty are the first two Corporal Works of Mercy in the Catholic tradition. And we all know food and drink are the most basic of human needs. We cannot survive without them.

So feeding these smallest and weakest among us?

The teeth-gritting early weeks of learning to breastfeed? Or the tired task of warming up bottles for a screaming babe in the middle of the night? Searching for the right formula, cutting out dairy to fight fussiness, dealing with engorgement or mastitis or low milk supply?

These are spiritual practices, too.

Feeding the hungry. Caring for the least. Giving to those in need.

Scripture’s full of stories of God feeding us. Manna from heaven and bread from the table. John’s resurrection story of Jesus feeding his friends – with fish, then forgiveness – and asking them to do the same. It matters how we feed others.

And when we back up from the bleary-eyed bumble of feeding baby day and night, we can start to see that we are literally sustaining this little one’s life. That we are nourishing another human being while giving deepest comfort. That we are building up their bones with the knowledge that they are heard, loved, and cared for.

Even when baby starts to eat solids, and feeding begins to feel like just another cooking-and-cleaning chore, we can choose to remember that these acts mean more than three-square-meals-a-day. Because this is how we love in the body.

So maybe this is exactly the work we’re meant to be immersed in, day after day. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

It’s all he asked of us. Do you love me?

spiritual practices with newborns: a new series

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Here we go again! Settling into Newborn Land…

It’s a strange place to live. Everyone keeps odd hours. Crying is common. Spit-up and strange smells are expected. Nothing is ever clean.

But it’s a sweet place to stay, too. Newborn neck nuzzles and curled froggy legs. Milky breath and fuzzy fine hair. Sleepy smiles and softest skin.

The newborn time turns brains to mush. Hearts, too. It reverses routines and casts aside comfort. It makes you crave quiet and sleep so desperately you can taste it.

But it also reminds you how simple life can be. Sleep, eat, repeat. No lofty demands, no stressful schedules.

Just the babymoon cocoon of those dearest and nearest, wrapped up in the needs of the littlest.

. . .

On our third sojourn into Newborn Country, I’ve noticed how quickly the days are spinning by. Mostly thanks to Joseph’s two big brothers who never got the memo on “sleep when the baby sleeps,” choosing instead to play/yell/laugh/eat/whine/run/tantrum while the baby rests.

So the only long, lazy stretches of gazing at my sweet babe are reserved for the wee morning before anyone else stirs.

In those hazy hours before dawn, I think about the practices of caring for a baby. How simple, yet how laborious they can be. How feeding, diapering, and comforting a newborn fill every hour of every day.

If you’ve spent more than five minutes surfing round this blog, you know how my thoughts wind God-ward. So lately, as I nurse and change diapers and rock and swaddle and soothe, I’ve been thinking about how these simple acts can be spiritual practices.

How everyday care for babies teaches us about God and who God created us to be.

Over the next few weeks, as I’m adjusting to life as a mother of three (and a writer with fewer brain cells), I’ll be wandering through Newborn Land, eyes open to the spiritual practices that come with caring for baby.

Feeding, cleaning, rocking, singing, holding, soothing, and resting – to name a few.

Clichés about babies pile up faster than dirty laundry, and advice for new parents abounds. But would you believe Scripture has something to say about these spiritual practices, too?

For those of you in the trenches of Newborn Land (or Toddler Territory, or Preschool-Ville), I hope this new spin on well-worn activities might breathe fresh air into your tired bones.

And for those of you whose days of diapering and nights of rocking babies are now far behind you, I hope you’ll share your wisdom with those of us who still have far to go!

So stay tuned for some spiritual enlightenment on spit-up and soggy crib sheets.

Till then, sweet dreams (ha)…

new J

introducing…all three!

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As soon as you announce that a new baby has arrived and it’s a boy/girl, one question immediately follows:

What’s the name?

We ask the question even before we ask about baby’s stats (height/weight/length?) or current status (mom & baby doing well?) or arrival details (how did labor go?). We like to react to the choice of a name, and we love to hear stories behind their selection.

We know names matter. 

So when it came time to share our new baby’s name with family and friends, I thought back to a chapter in my book where I write about names and calling. How the gift of a child’s name can call them forth into a hope, a faith, a dream of what they might become.

Whether named after a beloved relative or a famous leader or a biblical figure, a child who is blessed with a story behind their name can carry their story with them as they grow.

Since I started blogging 4 years (!) ago, I’ve always held back on sharing my children’s names here. For all the usual internet concerns about privacy and protection, sure. And also my heightened awareness of the tension between writing from the perspective of a mother and knowing my children’s stories are rightfully their own.

Keeping their names to myself seemed like the safer way to go.

But as I’ve been finishing final edits on the book (!!) – in which I not only used their real names, but shared the stories of their naming – I realized that it was time to loosen my clutch. Their wonderful names will soon be out into the world in a new way, and this chance to tell the stories of the early years as their mother is a gift I’ve been given to share.

So without further ado, today I introduce to you not just one, but three boys…

Our first:

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When we were expecting after infertility, our heads and hearts were still full of the longing and pain of that waiting. Hannah’s story meant much to us then: her stubborn cry for the child of her heart, her refusal to keep quiet when she knew that God would listen, her song of joy that rang out when her prayer was answered. So we settled on our boy’s name pretty quickly, knowing “for this child we had prayed.”

(Plus, I still swear I’ve never met a Sam I didn’t like.)

Samuel. A name of hope.

. . .

Our second:

t baby

After the first blurry year of new parenthood had miraculously passed, we started daring to wonder if we might be able to try for #2. Infertility strips you bare of any illusions about ease and control when it comes to family planning, but we knew we’d been graced with a gift before, so we felt brave enough to try again. Lo and behold, we were one of the lucky ones for whom it was much easier the second time around.

When we chose a boy’s name, we wanted a name that resonated with the deep faith we felt had brought us to this moment of welcoming another child into our lives. So we gave him a name with echoes of scholars and saints, and the strongest apostle in the bunch (in my opinion) – the one who dared to voice his doubt as proof of his belief.

Thomas. A name of faith.

. . .

Our third:

j baby

This time we knew he was a boy, so we had fun playing with boys’ names from the beginning. But we’d also named ourselves into a corner, so to speak, having started a trend of Strong Catholic Saints’ Names That Are Easily Nicknamed And Also Sound Like Linebackers To Be Feared When Paired With A Strong Italian Last Name. Thus somewhat limiting our field of options for sweet baby boy.

In the end, there was one name that we kept coming back to throughout the year we waited for him to arrive.

The weeks I spent rewriting this curriculum, searching for Scripture stories of calling and pausing every time I read about the two Josephs called by dreams, in Genesis and the Gospels.

The months when his older brother were obsessed with the Technicolor Dreamcoat soundtrack and we listened to GO-GO-GO-JOSEPH! for hours on end on the old stereo in the living room.

The Advent season at our parish (whose namesake of the saintly worker inspired us, too) when one of our pastors preached about how Joseph always headed straight into whatever mess to which God called him.

It was the perfect name for the baby whose coming felt all the more like gift after loss. Whose arrival I dreamed of whenever fears grew too strong.

Joseph. A name of dreams.

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So there you have it – three sons, three stories, three names. It’s a joy to share them here. How about you and yours?

How has the story of your naming shaped you?

How did you choose your children’s names?

the best secret we’ve ever kept

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Dear world:

He’s here!

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And he’s beautiful.

And we knew it was him all along.

For 20 long weeks we kept the secret. From family. From friends. From every perfect stranger who would stop us in the grocery store and ask if we knew what we were having.

No matter who inquired whether this baby was a boy or a girl, my response was always the same.

We’re keeping it a surprise, I’d say.

My hunch is it’s a boy, I’d offer.

And if you listened carefully to my phrasing, I never told a lie.

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I always swallowed back the smile when people would assure me it was a girl. I can tell by how you’re carrying. I knew from the moment you told me you were pregnant. It’s got to be a girl this time.

I’d nod and chat about how it would be fun to have a daughter – because I always entertained a healthy dose of doubt, even with ultrasound techs and crystal clear pictures that claim to be “99% accurate.”

I wouldn’t know for sure until I held that baby in my arms.

But still we knew. And it was the loveliest secret we’ve ever kept, just the two of us calling him by name, delighting in the prospect of three boys, imagining what new personality might be added to the bunch.

We’d always loved the surprise before. Turned our heads away with resolve at the ultrasound tech’s instructions. Marveled at the discovery in the delivery room. Loved sharing the news with each family member and friend we called in the hours after delivery.

But after our miscarriage last year, my perspective changed. The loss of the unknown and the possibility was the hardest grief to bear. I wanted to know as much as I could about our baby.

So I wore him down, my dear husband who can be as stubborn as I. After a few months of convincing, he agreed to find out – as long as we kept the surprise to share with friends and family once baby arrived.

(And of course we never whispered a word of our secret to the two biggest blabber-mouths we know: Brothers #1 and #2, who openly had their hearts set on a little sister. “Mama, we already have a little brother!” our oldest would remind us exasperatedly.)

So on that freezing cold Epiphany day, we found out. And we both loved it. I will never forget the grin we shared in that dimly lit ultrasound room. Three boys!

Knowing made the waiting that much sweeter, that much more eager, that much more impatient. And now he’s here in our arms.

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So it’s a story of revelation – of secret and surprise. And a story of change and conversion. The choices we made for one child don’t have to be the choices we make for another.

But what a joy to share the news we’ve known for so long. Our boy.

Not simply a third variation on a theme. Far from any disappointed attempt to “try for a girl.” Nothing but a beautiful boy and brother and son and child of God all his own.

Sometimes I wondered, in that abstracted telescopic view we sometimes try to sneak on our own lives, whether I wished this baby had been a girl. After all, everyone around me was sure I wanted a daughter. Some of the bold ones went so far as to declare that they hoped I’d “get my girl” this time. Once or twice I felt that twinge of ohhhh when I saw an adorable dress in the baby department.

But when I wrote that I was smitten with this baby the second I saw him, it was no exaggeration.

Every time I thought of him – him - a goofy grin snuck across my face that I can only compare to that feeling of falling in love for the first time. He is exactly the baby I dreamed of.

So there you have it, world. From the girl who can’t keep a poker face, who always bursts to let loose the secret, who can barely hide a joke’s punch line.

Nearly half a year spent waiting to spill the beans.

He’s the best secret I’ve ever kept.

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dear dr. seuss: you’re wrong

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Lots of people love Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

I am not one of them.

I know it’s mostly good-hearted cheer, encouragement for the journey, and wise words from a man who’d seen enough of life to know that the secret lies in looking ahead.

But these two pages drive me crazy: “…a most useless place. The Waiting Place…”

dr seuss

“NO! That’s not for you! Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying.

You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.”

What’s wrong with waiting?

Most of us spend much of our lives waiting. Waiting for a situation to change. Waiting for a relationship to heal. Waiting for health to improve. Waiting for a holiday or a homecoming. Waiting for test results, an acceptance letter, a job offer, a new opportunity, a shift in scenery or season or mood.

Aren’t we all waiting somewhere in these winding lines? For crying out loud, Christians are supposed to be waiting all the time.

Lest I be accused of being too harsh on Dear Seuss, I get what he’s saying. Don’t be passive. Don’t get stuck. Don’t expect life to magically improve if you’re not willing to work hard.

But to be true to life’s reality, the book could just as aptly be named Oh, the Places You’ll Wait!

Because we spend just as much time idling at the stop light, itching to accelerate, as we do with the wind whipping through our hair as we race ahead.

Waiting isn’t an evil to be shunned, a burden to be avoided, a drain to keep us from enjoying life. Waiting is life.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:13-14

. . .

Around here, we’re waiting all the time now.

The clock ticks painfully slowly. Each morning over breakfast, the kids ask when the baby will be here, and I shake my head at the sink, attempting to smile cheerfully while I scrub dishes.

We don’t know! We just have to wait!

I’m an eager and impatient person by nature. Waiting can be excruciatingly hard for me to bear. At 39 weeks pregnant, weary and waddling, I’m consumed by waiting. How I’d love to breeze past these pages of boredom and in-betweenness, of long lines and longing faces.

But life never works like that. Waiting is where we grow. Where God works on us in the long and quiet dark.

Waiting is work, but it’s holy work. God is here, too.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.

Psalm 62:5

. . .

Turns out I write about waiting quite a lot.

Ironically I wrote this almost exactly one year ago. I didn’t know how much of the next 12 months would be filled with waiting: waiting for a baby, waiting to heal from losing that baby, waiting for another baby, waiting to work through my fears.

When impatience starts to get the better of me, when I find myself straining forward to see what’s next, when I tire of trying to live in the present, I wrestle with waiting.

But wrestling never wins; it is only when I stop to catch my breath that I realize there is only This. In preparation for That, perhaps. But waiting is about the present, not the future.

It’s the only way I can live right now.

To parent is to wait: to watch, to witness, to wonder what comes next, to want more for your child than what they have today. But to wait is also to be forced to slow down, to relinquish the illusion of control, to put your desires on hold while life makes other plans.

What could be harder than waiting?

This life is a relentless pull, asking us to stop when we want to go, making us release when we want to grab tight. We have to wait in the midst of all this back and forth. We never know what’s coming; we waste our time worrying about what never happens.

But when we wait – that is an act of faith.

Waiting is holy time, not wasted time. Psalms sing it; Jesus spoke it; centuries of Christians believed it.

So maybe the wild Technicolor imagination of the esteemed Dr. was right all along. Everyone is just waiting.

But I believe that’s not half bad.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;

my soul waits for the Lord

more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.

Psalm 130: 5-6

a bouquet of incarnations for mother’s day

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First, gather the flowers. 

At Mass a few weeks ago, my oldest boy leaned into my side while we stood to say the creed together. I recited the words on the projector screen, still prompting us with the new translation of the prayer after decades of The Version We Used To Say.

Absent-mindedly, I stumbled as happens so often, tripping over clumsy words that once were clear:

“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was born – dah! was incarnate! – of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

Without thinking, I rubbed the basketball of my belly in that unconscious instinct of expectant mothers. I thought about birth and babies and started to grumble about why we didn’t say “born” anymore, why the abstract theological was deemed better than the concrete physical.

Then I felt baby’s quick jab to my right side, sharp enough to make me wince. And I felt my son’s tired lean into my left side, heavy enough to make me shift my footing.

And I realized. Maybe incarnate was a truer truth.

. . .

Second, arrange the stems. 

Here’s the fact I forgot about incarnation: it was not a one-shot, abracadabra magical minute. Not the mysterious instant of the Spirit making a virgin Mary pregnant. Not the painful moment of pushing the baby into the world of cold and air.

If incarnation means God becoming fully human, that process took time.

Days and days of dark growth in the womb. Weeks and weeks of babyhood in his parents’ arms. Months and months of toddling steps and babbling words and bubbling emotions. Years and years of learning childhood’s lessons, adolescence’s growth, and adulthood’s maturity.

And she was helping to incarnate him through all of that.

Of course I understand theologically what we’re claiming in the creed. That the second Mary said yes and the divine light that was Jesus sparked within her, his life was fully human. I remember learning all the councils and heresies and theologians that fought to argue passionately for Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. I know why it’s essential Christian doctrine.

Yet I can’t help but think we lose sight of incarnation’s depth if we confine it to an angelic visitation or a virgin birth. I believe it was longer and messier and more exhausting. The lifelong journey that a mother’s love sticks around to see through to the end.

All the way to the cross.

. . .

Third, set in sunshine and water. 

How long does it take to raise our babies?

Is it the nine months we carry them within us, or the years we spend waiting for the phone call that will bring them to our door?

Is it the eighteen years of childhood that society (and sarcastic jokes) dictate we’re in charge of their upbringing?

I think of all the parents I know with adult children, how they still lose sleep worrying at night. How they still hope they’ll check in after a long trip. How they still pray for their safety and dream of their success.

If it takes us a lifetime to become fully human – to try and grasp the beauty and the pain of this mysterious, fragile existence – then maybe bringing our babies to the fullness of life takes years, too.

Maybe “incarnate” is a better word than “born” to wrestle our arms around what it meant for Mary to give her daring yes to a life that she never imagined. To a life that would change our own.

. . .

Fourth, drink in the blooms. 

If my boys ever offer me the chance to pick the book for naptime or bedtime (which rarely happens), I always reach for the same favorite.

mama saysMama says be good,

Mama says be kind,

Mama says the rain will come,

But still the sun will shine.

I found the book in our college bookstore when my first baby was brand-new, and of course I cried as I flipped through the pages. Mothers from cultures around the world teaching their sons life’s essential lessons.

Mama says be loving,

Mama says be caring,

Mama says you’ve done God’s will

every time you’re sharing.

To be blessed with one, then two boys to pull onto my lap and share this story – of course it feels like pure gift. There is so much suffering in the world, so many couples crying for a child, so many children who know too much pain. That I can sit in a sunlit corner and rock these small, safe boys in my arms means all my jumbled heart can pray is thanks.

Because motherhood is the work of incarnation. Of daring to partner with God in helping these children become fully human.

A truth which one short line of our creed speaks each Sunday, easy to skip over if you miss it:

“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

And a truth which one children’s book states clear as a bell at its end:

Mama says help others, 

And be the best you can.

I listened to what Mama said,

And now I am a man.