Mommy, I just want to hug you around your scars!
His sky blue eyes flash. His brows furrow. The cheerful animals plastered across his summer pajamas – a grinning monkey and laughing elephant atop a fire engine – smile up at me in stark contrast to the glare on his face.
For weeks he’s been told not to fling his arms around my waist. He can’t plop down into my lap when we read stories. I can’t carry him down the stairs. And he’s just plain sick of it. Tired of dealing with the aftermath of my surgery. I am, too.
But the scars are still healing. We have to keep waiting.
I thought I had postpartum healing figured out the third time around. Lots of rest. Lots of help. Hot baths. Healthy meals. Slow walking. No lifting.
And it turned out that my recovery from birth was even easier this time than in the past. Four days after Joseph arrived, I honestly felt like my old self. No pain, no soreness, no need for Tylenol. Of course I took it easy for a few more weeks, having learned the hard way how quickly a new mom can overdo it and end up paying the price. But I felt amazing, and I was grateful.
We kept remarking on it, astonished, in the few moments of adult conversation we’d steal after all the kids were tucked into bed at night. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, “but you seem to be feeling great.”
I agreed. I joked about waiting for the other shoe to drop.
. . .
Healing became the theme of our summer, by no wish of our own.
First was recovering from the aches of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, of course. I expected that.
But then there was this awful appendicitis that landed me back in the hospital six weeks after giving birth.
And then we suffered a shocking death in our family.
And now people we love are waiting for test results and prepping for surgery.
In short, we’re surrounded by a lot of pain. Personal and communal, physical and emotional.
It will take a long time to heal.
. . .
Do pleas for healing get flung up towards heaven more than any other prayer?
All my life it seems I’ve been praying for someone to get better. Brother. Grandparents. Relatives. Friends. Teachers. Neighbors. Co-workers. Acquaintances. Strangers.
Many of those people stayed sick. Or got worse. Or died.
What exactly do I believe about healing anyway? Is it the reward of the lucky few? The result of the right treatment? The randomness of sheer luck?
And what does God have to do with it? Everything? Or nothing? I’m still not sure.
There are a few things I know. You need the right people to help you heal. People with expertise or experience or compassion or love. (Sometimes even all four.)
You need plenty of time. At least as much as experts advise. Sometimes much longer.
And things will never be exactly as they were before. Like the childhood scars that tried to teach us this truth. Pale pink ridges over once-smooth knees.
. . .
At first it seemed strange to see healing as a spiritual practice. After all, I had no choice in the matter: the baby and the appendix both had to come out. My body had to deal with the aftermath of each.
But when surgery shoved me back to bed after I thought recovery days were behind me, I started thinking about the cycle of suffering and healing. Is it an illusion whenever we think ourselves to be whole, as if healed were a past participle, tidy and complete?
I look around me and I see one family mourning a brother, another mourning a mother, another dealing with an awful divorce, another dealing with a terminal illness.
Around each of those wounds are circles rippling outward: relatives and friends and co-workers and neighbors who are affected by each of these losses. And the world writ large is groaning with pain, too. Russia and Iraq and Palestine and Israel. Too much.
Maybe the post-partum period is a microcosm of how suffering and healing shape all our lives. Some mothers have easy deliveries, some have traumatic births. Some of us have blissful babymoons, some have wretched recoveries. We do nothing to merit these experiences, but we must live through them as they come. We must try to heal as best we can.
To help our broken hearts to stay open, not bitter.
. . .
Three thin lines trace across my skin. Scars from the surgery. Still rosy red, still new enough to remind me daily of the difference between before and after.
This summer will be folded into my story just like soft new scars. This was the summer that Joseph was born and Uncle Jim was killed. (And my appendix failed in the middle of it all.)
But isn’t this the way our stories always wind? The physical and the emotional woven together. The personal and the communal weathered together. The beauty born of pain and the anger born of grief.
Eventually our skin will stretch to cover and accept the scar. We will be changed.
This is surely where God is found in healing. In our carrying of each other’s stories. And in our trusting that something good might be born of pain.
My child, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Do not let them escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
. . .
Where in your life are you healing? How have you been changed?
I thought I knew something about accepting help when a newborn arrives.
But then last Sunday’s I wonder why my stomach hurts… turned into maybe we should go to urgent care? to that appendix needs to come out stat and the surgeon is waiting for you in the operating room.
Nothing like an emergency appendectomy to land a postpartum mom right back where her summer started. Recovering, recuperating, resting in bed.
For five days straight I didn’t change a diaper. Didn’t run a single load of laundry. Didn’t read a single book to my big kids, cook a single meal for our family, or even brave the painful walk downstairs.
I needed help to do everything.
And I had to learn the practice of acceptance all over again.
. . .
Since the moment of his birth, we’ve been blessed with help. Friends and neighbors brought dinners to share and offers to babysit. My sainted mom came to stay with us for three weeks, cooking and cleaning and baby-whispering and big-kid-entertaining as only a grandma can do. And my in-laws snuck the boys away for afternoons or mornings so I could catch up on sleep or simply tend to the baby.
But it took a serious setback – a week where everything fell apart, not just mama’s health – for me to remember my utter reliance on others.
What a tough lesson it is to remember.
. . .
Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set.
(Exodus 17: 11-12)
What I love about this story isn’t the magical power of Moses to win battles.
It’s the sweaty, aching, all-day-long reminder that to do the work we’re called to do, we need others to hold us up.
. . .
When I was still in the hospital, groggy from pain meds and aching all over, I tried to nurse the baby again, for the first time. But with incisions all over my stomach, I couldn’t even cradle him across my lap.
So my husband had to cup the baby’s head in one hand and wrangle his wriggling feet in the other hand, to keep him from kicking my tender scars.
All I could do was sit there. With tears streaming down my face. And let him help me, ironically, do the thing that only a mother can do.
(And to think that I thought accepting help was about getting over my guilt of hiring child care while I’m on maternity leave.)
. . .
The truth is that I always need help to do this work well.
Take the case of the summer babysitter. Our family’s routine runs on a rhythm that has always involved help with child care, and now is no exception. When the sitter is here, I can clean, cook, write, run errands, nap or simply tend to a needy newborn. All of which is good and necessary for our family.
I’m learning to be a mom of three, and this cheerful college sophomore is helping me do that, two mornings a week. Thank God for her help.
But interdependence is never the easiest lesson for us to learn, is it? We independent Americans. We people-pleasers. We do-it-all multi-taskers.
And isn’t it ironic that for women who have just given birth, we run ourselves ragged trying to care for the baby and clean the house and write the thank-yous and entertain the relatives and show off the baby? (Hasn’t every first-time mom learned this one the hard way?)
In a time when you give so much – when you have given everything, in fact, yourself, your sleep, your blood, your milk, your sweat, your time, your energy – the hardest part can be accepting that you cannot give it all. That you depend on help from others.
And that this might be exactly the way God created things to be.
. . .
This time around the newborn bend, I have to accept help as a spiritual practice. Even when I had an easy recovery from birth, I still needed my midwives, an amazing lactation consultant, our rock-star pediatrician, and our peppy babysitter to make life with baby possible.
And now that I’m back to healing mode – forced to put my feet up and climb stairs slowly and ask someone else to lug around that bulky car seat – I’m relearning how to embrace humility. To surrender to the truth that I can’t do it all. Because it was never all mine to do.
God whispers, nudges, nods and reminds me – through the triage nurse and the ER doctor and the next-door neighbor and the smiling grandma – that we get through this world by the help of others.
Again and again, my hands grow weary with this work I’m called to do. Thank God there are so many others to help hold them, steady at my side until the sun sets.
Such a gift, to have armfuls of help, even when we hurt.
If I only have the grace to accept it.
. . .
For a new twist: the next time someone offers you help, don’t apologize or protest that you don’t need it. But simply accept, with deep gratitude.
How does it feel to accept when you cannot give back in return?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
In college I had two French professors whose advice I sought out during senior year.
That angsty season of trying to figure out what on earth one could do with a liberal arts degree, thanks to four delightful years of studying the humanities. And what on earth one should do with a heart that was getting ruined for Christ, thanks to four discomforting years of learning about service and theology and ministry.
The first professor had been a favorite since freshman year, first semester. I landed by luck in her Freshman Seminar and took every course she offered after that. She was brilliant, engaging, encouraging, funny and charming. (It didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous and lived all over the world and had a beautiful home where she hosted dinners at the end of every semester.) She mentored me through choosing a major, finding a study abroad program, and starting graduate level work in the department.
The second professor was a medieval scholar with whom I had several classes during junior and senior year. She was calm and quiet, patient and thoughtful, dedicated and hard-working. (Plus she had the most amazing curly hair that she could pin up in gorgeous buns a la the Renaissance damsels she studied.) She understood my passion for languages and let me explore creative approaches to her assignments.
So faced with the college senior’s perennial dilemma of what to do next, I thought of both of them. And in the span of one short month, tulips miraculously springing along every footpath on campus, I stopped by both of their office hours to pick their brains about how I might spend the next year of my life.
The first listened to me babble (in French! those were the days) about how I wanted to do something with my French degree but wasn’t sure anymore if the academic track was right for me. I’d found a few programs that would let me volunteer abroad in Francophone countries, and I wondered if I should try that while I figured out whether I wanted to be a professor.
She listened, nodded, asked good questions. I don’t remember anything concrete she said during the span of that conversation, but I left feeling affirmed – like this mentor of mine understood why I might not want to follow in her footsteps, yet encouraged me anyway.
The second listened to me just as attentively. But my concerns and questions didn’t seem to resonate in the same way. Sensing that she might not be seeing the crux of the question at the heart of my wrestling, I stopped and posed her a question. How did she integrate her faith and her work? This was really the weighty load I was carrying around for senior year – what did this nagging sense of God’s call for my life mean for the clear path I thought I’d set out on?
She looked me straight in the eye and said, You just have to learn to compartmentalize your life. I’m a Christian, and I do that.
She went on to talk about working during the week, dedicating herself to her students and scholarship, and then going to church on Sunday. And as she spoke, I realized with perfect clarity that she had helped me make up my mind. This kind of segregation was not the life I wanted.
At the end of our conversation, I thanked her for her time and stepped back into the corridor, closing her office door behind me.
To this day, I’m sure she has no idea that our conversation changed the course of my life.
. . .
Who are the midwives of our dreams? The ones who believe in our power, encourage our laboring, promise us that the end result will be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears?
For my first two babies, I saw a nurse-practitioner in my regular OB clinic. She was smart and sharp, witty and understanding, clear and confident. I liked her style.
But towards the end of my second pregnancy, I started noticing that perhaps she wasn’t as supportive of my questions as I’d hoped.
I asked whether it would be ok for our doula to be with us during the whole labor again, and she shrugged. Sure, I suppose. As long as she’s not in the way.
I asked whether I could deliver without drugs, free from pressure from the nursing staff, and she smirked a little. If you’re a glutton for pain, I guess. But you’ll probably end up wanting an epidural again.
I asked if baby could room in with us if everything went smoothly with the birth, unlike last time when our son had to stay in the level 2 nursery for the week. If you really want that. But you should give yourself a break and get some rest, too.
I started to leave my appointments with more confusion than clarity. And after a birth that went beyond my wildest expectations – so fast the doula couldn’t get there, so strong that my own power could match it, so smooth that we got to leave the hospital early with our healthy baby – I realized that I wanted something different from a future health care provider.
I wanted someone who understood.
. . .
Only a few months into this pregnancy, I realized why I love my current practice of midwives so much. It’s not because they encourage natural birth or talk about the emotional side of pregnancy or keep prenatal care as non-invasive as possible, although they do all these things beautifully.
It’s because they remind me of the other midwives in my life.
Friends who walked with me through the biggest decisions of college and grad school. Family members who coached me through challenges big and small. Teachers and mentors who guided by example and instruction. Even the 85 year-old Benedictine sister who has graced me with her wisdom as my spiritual director.
I see glimmers of all of them in these midwives. A spirit of gentle encouragement. A strength of loving support. A source of powerful wisdom.
And I wonder if I can be this for my own children one day, too. A midwife for their dreams.
The Psalms speak of God as midwife, guiding us from the first moments of our journey, caring for us from our mother’s womb.
Maybe we are all called to be midwives for each other, no matter our age, stage or situation. Maybe we are called to mirror God who companions us in our most vulnerable, painful moments and assures us that we are strong beyond our fears.
And maybe sometimes we are called to let others serve as midwives for us, too.
To accept their care and support. To surrender to their wisdom, even when we are so wrapped up in our worries that we cannot see clearly what lies ahead. To place our trust in their skilled hands and know that we will emerge safely on the other side.
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me
you have been my God.”
Who has helped midwife your dreams?
Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. How easily we pass over them, eyes set eagerly on Easter Sunday. Or anticipating Thursday’s opening of the Triduum.
Our first half of Holy Week probably looks a lot like yours. Work. School. Kids. Meetings. Chores. Bills. The lackluster pregame show before the big kickoff. The forgettable prelude before the fanfare. The ordinary before the extraordinary.
But the church’s calendar claims these three are holy, too.
The earliest days of the holiest week are in-between: not quite Lent, not quite Easter. It is a time of anticipating what is right around the corner, practically within reach. We are almost there.
The Main Event looms large on the horizon. All signs point toward its arrival, but the journey here has been so long – can it really be coming?
Ahead of us lies both pain and joy, suffering and peace. How can we possibly prepare for all that? How can we hold all this tension at once?
These are the last days. They matter.
Soon we will remember how everything changes.
. . .
The end of the third trimester is a strange part of pregnancy. The eagerness of almost, the frustration of not-yet.
Like Holy Week’s emotional extremes, this time swings wildly: something to celebrate, something to endure, something to savor, something to push through. Both quiet and flurry, both calm and storm. Each day adding to our anticipation.
My mental countdown clicks steadily. Five more midwife appointments. Five more prenatal yoga classes. Five more weeks to finish all those pressing work projects.
Each Saturday the nesting instinct kicks in with greater intensity. Scribbled To Do Before Baby! list in hand, I clean out closets and drawers, watch the boys build the crib with their father, wash baby blankets and fold diapers in neat stacks.
Ready and waiting.
Every friend and stranger I meet asks how much longer I have left. Around us bubble joy and anticipation. A growing readiness to be done. An impatience to discover what (and who!) comes next.
I wonder. Have I done enough? Yes. And no. Like Lent, this journey of expectation is always bigger than me, beyond my personal penances, my tries and fails, my awareness of my own limits. I am carried by forces greater than my own.
And a calendar that presses ever onward, oblivious to the emotions with which I fill the hours.
. . .
I wonder how to honor this time rather than race too fast towards the end goal. How to see the holiness of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in turn.
These neglected early days of Holy Week are a different kind of preparation from the Lent that preceded. More immediate. Here and not-here. Upon us, yet still beyond our grasp. The mystery of the middle time, when we think we know what awaits us (all the Easters have we been through before), when we remember that we can always be surprised (each year bringing its own gifts).
Do I remember to reverence these almost-days, these overlooked ordinaries?
The Celts spoke of thin places, spaces and moments when heaven and earth seem to touch, only the slightest trace separating their realities. Perhaps Holy Week is a small hole through which we peer into the deepest mysteries of the life of God. We could never understand all that it contains. But each year we might nudge a little closer, if we try, to imagine what its truth might mean for our lives.
I watch and wait in this almost-time. It could be long weeks till everything changes; it could be mere days. But God is here, too.
And it is not only Easter morning which makes it so. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. All the ordinary days matter, too.
Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.
Here are pastels, she said. Draw.
Here is clay, she said. Create.
A gathering of mothers. A time and space set apart. A whole afternoon to ourselves, to pause and pray and ponder what it means to approach pregnancy and childbirth as something spiritual.
At Peg’s retreat, I thought about birth and babies and becoming a mother all over again. But weaving between these weighty meditations were simpler sensations: the chalky smear of pastels on my fingers, the ghost-white trace of clay under my nails, the wavy curl of paper as watercolors dried.
When was the last time I let myself make art for an entire afternoon?
Sometimes I sit down with the kids at their small table in front of the sunny window and I doodle while they draw. Or I dip a brush and make soft strokes while they paint. Or I roll playdough into long coils while they squish and smash their creations.
But I never make art. Not on my own.
Why? Because I’m too busy. Because it’s not what grown-ups do. Because I’m not good at it.
. . .
All the way home from the birth retreat, I turned one question over and over in my mind: when did we decide that we were bad at art?
Many adults I know, who colored and drew and painted and pasted their way through childhood, no longer make time for artistic expression. It’s considered child’s play. Delightfully entertaining or developmentally enriching for little ones, but not a serious way to spend time as mature, productive members of society.
But when did this shift start? When did art cease to be an essential way we explored the world? When did it become reserved for the talented, the elite, the lucky few?
I used to love making art – at school, at home, in classes at our local art institute. I especially loved the pottery classes: the whirl of the wheel between my knees, the slippery slide of the glossy clay between my fingers, the surprising emergence of something new and warm between my hands.
But then I stopped. I can’t quite remember why – maybe sports seemed more important, maybe art seemed less cool, maybe the insecurity of adolescence whispered that I should shy away from somewhere I didn’t excel.
So now it seems daunting to start making art again – how? where? when? Why am I afraid of what used to seem so simple? Is it still the worry of looking like a fool? The intimidation of not knowing where to begin?
Or the primal, pulsing fear of failure?
. . .
Only six weeks left till the due date. Of course my thoughts wind birth-ward every day.
Heavy with baby, I watch my boys scrawl with sidewalk chalk, paint pages with watery doodles, color their latest crayoned masterpiece. I see how they trust themselves to create, how un-intimidated they are by the blank page, how much energy they pour into their work and how much delight they take in showing it to others.
At night when I dip into the childbirth books on my nightstand, I find myself turning over and over one question: when did I decide that I was intimidated by birth? When did this biological capacity become something to fear, medicate, suppress, or evade? Why do I have to psych myself up with the mental focus of a marathoner for a natural process that my body was created to do?
It’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated question, I know. The process of labor and delivery can be complex and dangerous, to say nothing of long and painful. Even if I had seen a hundred births in my lifetime, as other women my age would have in other cultures or eras, I might still be as terrified of the known as of the unknown.
But I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make to laboring women if we thought of ourselves as powerful co-creators.
If birth had remained at the center of our culture rather than being shoved to the side.
If we understood more about our bodies and their potential.
If we didn’t listen to the voices who told us we weren’t strong enough.
If we hadn’t decided we weren’t good at it.
. . .
I’m trying to practice, a little every day. (Easier said than done.)
Breathe, don’t balk, through the Braxton-Hicks contractions. Focus, don’t flinch, when the pressure of baby gets too intense.
Paint something, don’t write, when my mind wants to muse. Sit with the kids, don’t scurry, when they’re creating.
Step aside from the well-worn grooves of thinking one way. Sit with the possibility that there might be another path.
. . .
Yesterday afternoon my son came to me in tears because the tail of the monkey he was coloring had torn off.
“I can’t do it another way!” he wailed when I gently suggested that he might try coloring the animal before cutting it out, so that he didn’t have to color on such a skinny tail. “I only can do it this way!”
What if we tried it again? I suggested. What if he took a deep breath to calm down? What if we worked together to try a new way?
His bottom lip still puffed out in a quiver, he hesitated. And then he nodded yes as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers still stained from the morning’s markers.
What if we were all brave enough to try, again?
There’s the hospital bag, of course. Pre-registration paperwork. The Kegels you’re supposed to be practicing ten times a day. Delivery room playlist on the iPod. Deep breathing exercises. Child care arrangements for your other kids. Out-of-office email reply waiting and set to maternity leave.
But does any of that really prepare you for labor and birth?
Maybe I’m lazier this time around. (Ok, assuredly I’m lazier this time around.) But I can’t bring myself to motivate for so many pre-baby preparations that have typically consumed my thoughts by this point in previous pregnancies: cleaning and nesting, stockpiling frozen meals, setting up the baby gear, washing tiny onesies and newborn diapers.
Now whenever I get a free minute? I mostly want to sleep.
And instead of pouring over childbirth preparation books or crafting the perfect birth plan to hand to the nurses upon arrival at the hospital, I find myself shrugging whenever I think about Delivery-Day. It will come, it will be unexpected, it will be hard. And then it will be over and our baby will be here.
But just as I might have missed the opportunity for deeper reflection upon birth’s meaning the first time around when I was nothing but scared, I don’t want to miss the chance to explore the spiritual side of this huge transition simply because it’s my third time through.
Whether unknown or known, childbirth is a defining moment of a mother’s life. And I believe it is one of the “thin places” between heaven and earth.
So I’m wondering how to ready myself this time. How prayer can be part of the pain. How meditation can be part of my mindfulness. How each contraction can remind me that Christ is within me and beside me and before me.
I’ve already gathered a trinity of prayers for labor and birth. But as Lent surrounds me in the last months before baby arrives, I also find myself thinking about simplicity and surrender. How to let go of any lingering expectations and free myself to enter into whatever God has prepared.
In my latest piece for Catholic Mom, I wrote about the journey from feeling terrified at the prospect of birth to finding peace in what will be a painful but powerful day of discovery:
I’m starting to see the spiritual side of birth in ways that I never would have dreamed when I headed to Labor & Delivery for the first time. Birth as beginning, birth as sacrifice, birth as rite of passage – God is intimately wrapped up in all these ways we understand this work that women do to bring life into the world.
Being intentional about this process – a sort of sacramental preparation – has helped me to bring hope, not fear, to the prospect of bringing another baby into the world.
Lots of ink gets spilled in parenting manuals and glossy magazines about birth plans, birth preparations, even identifying your health care provider’s “birth philosophy.” But approaching a spirituality of birth invites those of us who carry new life within us – as well as those who love and care for us – to view this work as prayer and to place our trust in God who accompanies us from the first contraction to the final push.
Read the rest at CatholicMom.com…
And next week I’ll have the chance to enter intentionally into this deeper reflection, thanks to Peg Conway’s retreat on the spirituality of birth. Nell of Whole Parenting Family and I conspired to bring Peg to the Twin Cities (since both of us are now expecting #3!), and I can’t wait for this afternoon of exploring the prayerful parts of this sacred journey.
If you’re local and want to join us, please find more information on Facebook or at Enlightened Mama in St. Paul, MN, where the retreat will be held. And if you’re too far away to spend Saturday, March 22nd, with us, check out Peg’s wonderful book – Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth.
They’re discovering each other, finally.
Oh, they bumped into each other for well over a year. There were the Months of Glaring At the Loud Newborn followed by the Months of Stealing Everything from The Helpless Baby. The Months of “Did-You-Hit-Your-Brother-No-It-Was-An-Accident” followed by the months of “Mama-Make-Him-Not-Play-With-That-Toy-I-Need-It-Right-Now!”
Months full of angry slaps and indignant wails and gritted teeth and time outs. Months when I rolled my eyes at the Facebook feed of perfect photos of doting siblings gazing adoringly at new babies, months when I muttered “mmm…must be nice…” while fellow mothers rhapsodized about how beautifully their newly-two were getting along.
I’d look at my boys and wonder when – or if – the proverbial love would ever be lost between them.
And then, of course, it started right under my nose when I wasn’t looking.
Suddenly it was the baby’s second winter and we were stuck indoors for January’s cruel string of sub-zero days and I glanced up from my laundry pile in the basement to make sure no one was bleeding and I realized they were playing together. Interacting instead of ignoring, sharing instead of stealing, playing instead of pushing.
They jumped together on the trampoline, one up and the other down, then both bopped in time together, sparkling eyes on two grinning faces as they popped like carnival whack-a-moles. “Mama! We’re bouncing!” called the oldest; “Up! Up!” echoed the youngest as he fell over, chuckling.
Now they’re full of giggles and goofy words and silly games. Sure, they still steal toys and wail indignantly and hit in frustration. But they also laugh their heads off together. And I can’t help but laugh with them.
I love watching them become brothers.
. . .
Back when I was reading all those books about labor and delivery for the first time, I never realized I’d be birthing more than a baby.
I was so focused on my impending motherhood, on how this scrawny, slippery newborn was going to subvert the world as I knew it, that I neglected to realize how many other lives were going to change, too. How when I brought that baby into the world, I would also be birthing a grandchild, a nephew, a cousin – so many relationships born in that same instant.
And when I prepared to birth my second, I was equally clueless about the sea change that a sibling would bring. Sure, I knew it would shift our family dynamic, scramble the focus of attention, stretch the scope of love and patience that each day would demand.
But I never realized how long it would take my two to start growing into brotherhood.
By definition it happened in an instant, but by practice it stumbled slowly. Maybe every tried-and-true relationship is like that, fumbling, faltering through fits and starts, but plodding on, persistently, even painfully.
. . .
Most of us will end up knowing our siblings longer than anyone else. Longer than our parents, longer than our spouses, longer than our own children. “Your oldest friend,” my mother used to remind us as we glared at each other across the dinner table or banged shoulders in a huff on the way out the door to school, likely muttering to ourselves about not getting stuck with that loser as our oldest friend.
And now? Of course I see it’s true. That despite the twists and turns that our lives are taking, often away from each other, whether geographically or emotionally, my siblings remain stubbornly close. We share much of the same history, the same relationships, the same sense of humor. We can’t help but come back to each other every so often, to laugh and remember how surprisingly similar we remain despite our deep differences.
Maybe this is what it means to become brothers: to go through seasons of ignoring or hating or fighting or shunning or shoving, but to come back to the stubborn truth that you’re stuck with each other. They’re not going anywhere and neither are you, and if you’re going to share the same roof or parents or piles of toys, you better learn how to get along.
And sometimes even laugh your head off, too.
Yesterday the O-antiphons of Advent began.
But mine started early, driving home last Friday on a snowy freeway, catching the afternoon news after a day of meetings.
Oh God, no. Oh God, not again. Oh God, not children.
So many words have been spilled since Friday, and yet I keep struggling to voice how deeply this news wounds. As a mother, of course. But deeper, as a person of faith who tries to make sense of God’s ways, who wonders how we can respond in turn.
It was the familiarity of Sandy Hook that shook me up. The day before the shooting, a school was bombed in Syria, killing sixteen, half of whom were women and children. But that tragedy was a mere blip on the evening news, the daily digest of the continued slaughter of the innocents. My husband mentioned it over dinner and I shook my head. “I can’t handle Syria anymore. Too much. I can’t handle it.”
But now, school heaped upon school, bodies heaped upon bodies, babies heaped upon babies, I keep thinking of Sandy Hook and I keep thinking of Syria. As I finish my Christmas shopping, as I wrap presents, as I write cards. Everything seems surreal in the sight of parents sobbing over tiny coffins. Every year I wrestle with the consumerism of the holiday, feeling lonelier and lonelier as I whisper this is not what Christmas means. But this year, the contrast feels starker than ever.
. . .
Today was the first day I dropped my boy off at school since last Friday. As I rounded the car to open his door and unbuckle his car seat, I suddenly felt my heart leap into my throat. How was I going to leave him here? His safe little preschool, in the small town clap-board church, loomed large in a darker world where everything seems dangerous now.
I halted, hand on the handle, wanting to dash back around to the driver’s side, slam the door shut and squeal out of the snowy parking lot. Flee back home where everything felt safe.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
So I breathed in cold, crisp December air. I opened the door, bent down and smiled. “Let’s go, my love! Time for school!” False cheer in my voice, fake grin on my face.
I pulled his hood up over his small head, tucked his mittens into his coat sleeves, trying not to cry as I thought about parents doing the same routine on last Friday’s morning drop-off.
“Do you know how much I love you?” I asked as he smiled up at me. “I do,” his quiet response.
“And do you remember who’s always with you, in your heart, so you don’t have to be sad or afraid?” “Jesus,” he whispered.
“That’s right. God is always with you.” I hugged him extra tight.
Why did I need to remind him today? Did I need some small sense of protection, some meager assurance that if a murderer burst through the doors of his preschool, he might remember love in the midst of fear? So sick, the ways our minds spin right now, scared and wounded in the face of unimaginable suffering.
But still I walked him across the icy parking lot, swung wide the door and swept him inside. His lovely teacher greeted him with a warm smile as she welcomed him downstairs. And against every fiber in my being, I turned and pushed the door open wide to leave.
I started to tear up as I left the parking lot, memories rushing back of the first day I left him there, the first time I left him with a sitter to go to work, the first time I realized he was no longer snuggled up safe inside me.
How can I do it, over and over again, I wondered as I drove away. How do I keep pushing my babies out into the world?
And the answer came clear and quiet: I have to do it the same way I first birthed them.
Through my own inner strength. Surrounded by the support of others. Leaning into the grace of God.
This is the only way I know how to parent. Maybe it’s the only way I know how to live in this world. It’s surely the only way I know how to celebrate Emmanuel this year.
Remembering that Christmas is not something I do, but something that was done by God, for all of us.
Remembering that in so many corners of the world Advent is always held in this tension: a small light flicking amid death and violence and fear.
Remembering that the Nativity story starts with one scared mother, birthing her baby into a painful world, bearing light into utter darkness.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.