Dear couple in the pew across from us:
I see the way you grip each other’s hands when you notice us. I see the way you try not to cry while you watch our kids. I see the way you kiss her forehead quietly; I see the way you lean your head on his shoulder, blinking back tears.
I see the way both of you stare straight ahead, willing yourselves not to think about it.
I see you.
While my husband and I are trying to corral the Mass chaos of three small kids, your eyes catch mine and then quickly look away. Turning from the sight of someone who has what you want.
Anything to keep from dwelling on what a young, growing family means to you.
I see you at the grocery store, too. At the park. At the restaurant. At the work party, the neighborhood potluck, the family reunion.
But somehow it feels even more painful when I see you at church. Maybe it’s because I know you’ll have to watch our motley crew for a whole hour, not just one quick turn down the store’s aisle or a sidewalk’s length at the park.
But mostly it’s because I remember sitting right where you are.
Praying with Kleenex balled in my fists, praying with tears at the corners of my eyes, praying for the strength not to envy, praying for this to be the month, praying to a God I clung to and yelled at, all at once.
I know the way you’re thinking, because I used to do the math just the same. Early 30s, I bet. Three kids. They’re so lucky. Our time is running out. It’s never going to happen for us. I hate this.
I wish I could tell you it gets better. I wish I could make the miracle happen for you. But besides my prayers – which you always have, and always will – all I can tell you is this: I see you.
I see your pain and I see your struggle. I don’t ignore it or forget it just because my arms are full of drooling babies and squirmy toddlers.
I remember that is one of the worst side effects of infertility. Not just the crazy hormone swings or the monthly disappointment or the gut-twisting ache when yet another friend calls with yet another excited pregnancy announcement.
It’s the invisibility. The way you feel like the world can’t see your pain.
And the awful truth? The church doesn’t always see your pain either.
Rare are the prayer petitions for couples suffering from infertility or miscarriage or stillbirth. Even rarer is an outreach ministry, a support group, a prayer chain – any resource to tell you that this community cares for you and grieves with you and hopes with you.
But things can start to shift once we start seeing each other. Once we remember that we are seen. Once we remember all the ways that the Body of Christ can be wounded.
Because when I see you, I remember those days, months, and years of infertility. I remember not to take my kids or my chaos for granted. I remember to pray for all those who are in pain or who are longing.
So while you’re sitting there at church on Sunday, feeling alone in your pew and alone in your heart, remember that someone out there sees you.
That there are those of us around you who have lived with that heartache, whether we went on to have children or not.
And we never forget what it feels like to grieve, to cry, to curse, to pray every Sunday, every day, again and again, for the one chance that will change everything. Or for the strength to accept a life that looks different from what we hoped.
We see you. And when we see you, we can start to be part of the change.
Part of the church that can pray for your pain. Part of the community that can support you in your struggles. Part of the Body of Christ that remembers that without each other, we are not whole.
This is how we learn, how we love, how we grow. By seeing what is invisible.
And I see you.
In love and hope,
From the mom in the opposite pew
August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption. The Catholic Church teaches that at the end of Mary’s life, she was assumed into heaven, body and soul.
You might assume, if you knew I was an Associate Missionary of the Assumption, that I had something to say about today’s feast.
But here’s the truth about how I started my AMA year in France.
I came to Compiegne, jet-lagged and jumpy to start this post-graduate service stint, with just a wee bit of cradle Catholic baggage stuffed inside my giant backpack.
Fresh from college graduation, ink barely dry on the diploma, I felt shaky-sure about faith but full of questions about church. What was the role of women? What was Catholicism’s hang-up with sexuality? Where was my place in the whirling middle of it all?
When I showed up in the pebbled courtyard of 3 Square Eglise Saint-Germain, I wasn’t even sure what I was seeking. Clarity? Conviction? Christ-in-others? Maybe all of the above.
But what I found the moment that big front door swung open was one single certain truth: these Sisters of the Assumption knew how to welcome. They were all wide smiles and warm embraces and let-us-take-your-bags and can-we-make-you-a-cup-of-tea and we-are-so-delighted-you-are-here!
Until that moment I had known few French people and even fewer religious sisters. But suddenly these five women buzzing around me in long burgundy skirts and pale violet veils were bursting apart all of my stereotypes.
They were loving and laughter and compassion and generosity. They were a Mary-and-Elizabeth welcome every time I stepped over their old stone doorstep, before Mass or after work or any time they invited us volunteers over for dinner, which was so often I still hear Sr. Anne’s wise words echo every time I set an extra plate at my table for an unexpected guest: if there’s food enough for five, there’s food enough for six. And if there’s food enough for six, there’s food enough for seven. You see?
Every year I think of the sisters on this feast day. The women I knew who gave their lives to the Assumption. They taught me a different way of being in relationship with others: the women praying and working beside them in their community, the children running around the pews in the parish, the adults with disabilities whom they served in L’Arche homes. They taught me how truth and love are embodied – in laughter, in dancing, in dessert, in daily prayer.
And they helped me change my mind about Assumption. They helped me come to see that embodied love is what today is about.
I think back to a time when I tripped on Marian feasts like today, when I stumbled on my own assumptions of what dogma and doctrine meant. Then a year spent in community with women whose love for Christ and the church hummed in their every breath, who gave the length of their years and the strength of their bodies in quiet service to all who needed welcome – that year changed everything.
Did I know then that the sisters’ faces – wizened and youthful and pale and dark – might be the closest I could glimpse to Mary’s own? Over time my assumptions shifted, slowly like the soft rub on stone over a well-worn step. I weigh what I believe now – about women and sexuality and Christ and the church – with what I thought I understood then. And I realize that I see a feast like today in different light: shades of mystery and possibility.
And above all love and relationship, which is the essence of who God is and what we are called to be.
Assumptions. Do we grip tight to them? Or are we willing to let ourselves be lifted above them?
Beyond the way we think things should be, beyond what we think bodies are capable of, beyond what our beliefs think possible?
What do we assume today? About the world, relationships, religion, church, God, each other? How might God’s embrace of us – our whole lives, body and soul – begin to soften our hard edges?
Today’s feast is about welcoming the unexpected and celebrating the goodness of love, in flesh and faith. What Mary did all her life.
May it be for us today as well.
Five minutes late (aren’t we always these days). Smudged nametags, courtesy of Crayola markers. Pile of coats on the end of the pew (will it ever be spring?).
Loud whispers requesting books as soon as the lector starts to read. Why can’t we sing that psalm again – I like that one.
Puzzle pieces scattered on the floor during the Gospel. Homily about poverty and divorce and addiction and all the wants we bring before God. Tears over who gets to put the envelope in the collection basket (next Sunday remember to bring two).
No, we are not going to the potty like that little boy. Because you went before Mass and you can hold it, that’s why.
Eucharistic prayers for a bishop at the center of the latest sex abuse scandal. Whining about how hard it is to keep standing (I know, sweetie, I get tired, too). Eyes that light up at the Our Father – I know this one.
Shaking hands with every person within lunging range. Can you be gentle for the Sign of Peace? Headlocks between brothers broken up while the priest breaks the bread. A smiling whisper from the grandma behind us: of course they’re fighting but you have a beautiful family.
Wandering up behind us for a blessing at communion time. Why can’t I have the bread yet? Why doesn’t Mama drink the wine while she’s growing the baby? Snuggles while we sing. Watching babies in the communion line (7 more weeks and everyone will stop asking when I’m due).
Yes, we can read the book about the saints again. Use a Kleenex, not your fingers.
Announcements about a new unemployment support group. Careful practice of the Sign of the Cross at the final blessing. If there’s drumming on the last song, you can dance. But sometimes in Lent we sing quieter songs because it’s a solemn time. Solemn means quiet.
Requests to visit the tabernacle and light a candle and I want to pray for the baby and rainbows and everyone and God. Put down the kneeler carefully, please. Squabbling and a shove over who gets to pick the candle to light.
Why can’t we have donuts during Lent and are we going to Trader Joe’s on the way home? High-five from the priest on the way out to the parking lot. Please hold hands.
You boys did a great job at church today. Thank you. Attempts to revisit the homily’s high points over mounting requests for a favorite CD for the drive home. Brainstorming babysitters for Holy Week services (7:30 on Thursday night will be a disaster otherwise).
Closing antiphon from the littlest one, car seat in the back, dirty boots swinging against the driver’s seat, can you please stop kicking, sweetie:
I love going to church.
. . .
Has it always been so small and so huge, all these questions and concerns wrapped under one roof of one church? Maybe.
It’s the juxtaposition of the miniscule and the momentous, the ordinary and the overwhelming – praying for mudslide victims and pulling up trousers that were indeed too big for Mass this morning, hearing stories of healing in the Gospel while rummaging around in the diaper bag. The whiplash back and forth that defines this time in our lives. All of this is church right now.
Some day we may find ourselves just two again, a quiet couple that takes up only part of a pew. But for now church is chaos. And that’s ok, too.
. . .
Today at Practicing Families I answered our oldest son’s question from last Sunday, a response to his tantrum at the back door:
Why do you have to go to church?
I thought I wasn’t going to have to answer that snarly question for a few more years. Maybe even a decade before you started stomping around with teenage eye rolls of disgust when I ask you to get dressed on Sunday morning, and not in those ratty jeans with the holes in the knees, either.
But here we are today, already five minutes late and you’re standing at the back door whining in protest, coat clenched in your fist and your stubborn stocking feet kicking the mud-caked boots you refuse to put on so we can scramble into the car.
Do you want my answer? Ok. This is why you have to go to church.
Read the rest at Practicing Families…
If you’d asked me this when I knew the most about parenting – you know, back before I had kids – I would probably have replied along these lines (if I answered at all, staring back at you strangely, wondering why you’d ask such an odd question):
Deliberate motherhood? I guess that’d be getting pregnant on purpose.
(Real deep. Also real naïve.)
But if you’d ask me now, just a few years into a ride that will last the rest of my life, I’d answer very differently (that is, if you can hold on just a minute while I refill someone’s spilled milk and break up a slapping squabble over trains and finish making breakfast so we can get out the door to school on time without flipping out over finding everyone’s shoes):
Maybe it’s mindfulness. Thoughtfulness? A desire to be intentional about the way I raise them. An awareness of how important this work is.
And maybe it’s not, maybe it’s none of these things, maybe I still have a long way to go to figure it out, but here’s the difference: I’ve thought about it. That to me is the heart of deliberate motherhood.
It’s the mission of Power of Moms to be a gathering place for deliberate mothers. When a friend first set me a link years ago to a story published there, it felt like a deep breath amid the frantic “what to buy / how you have to do this / why you need to worry” tone I felt from so many parenting magazines and websites.
I loved that Power of Moms was a gathering of different voices, a celebration of diverse perspectives, and a community of women who were trying to be mindful about what it means to approach motherhood deliberately.
None of us are deliberate all the time. Plenty of days I parent on auto-pilot. But the moments that we’re able to be mindful, that we chose to consider why our words and actions and attitudes matter, that we realize how much this journey is shaping us as well as our kids – these are the deliberate moments that make the rest worth it.
Power of Moms just published their Deliberate Motherhood book (and, full disclosure, sent me a copy to review). And my whole-hearted endorsement is that it echoes exactly what I love about the Power of Moms website. It’s a collection of diverse voices, it’s a positive approach to encouraging moms, and it offers just enough concrete tips to make me think positively about how I could bring a little more mindfulness into my life.
The book is organized around 12 “powers” of motherhood – deliberate practices or attitudes that can shape how we face mothering: acceptance, love, patience, individuality, progress, balance, priorities, organization, fun, optimism, and moments. Each chapter is written by a different mom who also draws in stories, insights and ideas from many other mothers who’ve written for Power of Moms. I love the collaborative community voice that emerges here, affirming that our backgrounds and beliefs may be different, but our love for these kids in our lives is fierce. So let’s think together about why it matters how we raise them.
Deliberate Motherhood inspired me to sit down and think about the “powers” that guide my parenting – the attitudes or practices that I want to cultivate and pass on to my kids. Without editing myself, I scribbled down my own list of 12: love, forgiveness, faith, joy, gratitude, hope, laughter, curiosity, community, wonder, mindfulness, compassion.
Since then I’ve been sitting with my list, wondering what it says about the practices that sprang immediately to mind – whether I try to live them out or only hope to aspire to their ideal – as well as the ones that didn’t. (Note that perfection and competition never made the list. Neither did peace and calm.)
What about you?
Which one of the Deliberate Motherhood powers is most important in your parenting? Which is the most challenging? Leave a comment below for your chance to win a free copy of Deliberate Motherhood, generously offered by Power of Moms. (Comments must be left by Friday, September 20, 2013 at midnight, CST, for a chance to win; winner must reside within the U.S. to be eligible.)
Check out Power of Moms to learn more about their work (including another forthcoming book that I’m delighted to be a part of – more details to come!) or connect with them on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. And as part of a special giveaway, for anyone who purchases Deliberate Motherhood in September and sends their receipt to email@example.com, you’ll receive complimentary access to the Deliberate Mothering Podcast series (valued at $20). On October 4th, 10 Grand Prize Winners will be selected to receive the Power of Moms Premium Package (valued at $224)!
Pray to Mary, she told me.
Your grandma did, when she had her miscarriages. She didn’t understand Mary, but she still turned to her.
It was the last phrase that stuck with me. Not the admonition to pray, not the reminder of solidarity, not even the memory of a relative I loved.
But the honest truth of another Catholic woman who didn’t automatically feel connected to Mary, who didn’t adore her with the thrill of May crownings and the comfort of rosary beads, who admitted that she didn’t always understand her but who still turned to her.
So I tried to make room in my heart. For her.
Whose motherhood likely looked nothing like she imagined, either.
Who learned, from the moment she found out, that love and loss go hand in hand.
Who stood in a long line of women who wrestled with their wombs – Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Elizabeth.
Who fled to the comfort of kindred spirits when the world proved too much.
Whose words were Fiat and Magnificat, the humility of hope and the awe of wonder.
Whose prayers spoke truth of a God who lifts up what is bent low.
Who heard awful words that a sword would pierce her own soul.
Who treasured all these things in her heart, even as it grew heavy.
Who might have wanted to carry again, too.
Who had to let her child go.
When I think of what this awful August has been, of all the people who have rallied round us, I see how half the women who held me close have known the pain of miscarriage themselves, who remember and reach out to say that it was a life, that it was a loss, that it will take time to grieve.
But the other half of the women who are helping to carry me never knew this heartache themselves. Yet they love me through it just the same.
Maybe I have to stop holding up similarity as the way to sympathy.
I’ll never be like Mary; she’ll never be like me. But if I stop at the contours of the immaculate conception and the boundaries of the virgin birth and the defenses of the dogmas we construct to keep holy the God-bearer, then I might count myself out of a kindred spirit before she ever has the chance to surprise me.
Maybe we do not need to mirror each other’s experiences to share the same story.
These days I don’t know where I stand, on the shifting sands of a loss so small the world cannot see it, a grief so heavy it drags down each step I take. But the one thing I know as the days keep arriving and leaving, as I ache to turn the page on this month with too much living and dying, is that I do not stand alone.
And all the women – who sent flowers and dropped off dinners, who wrote cards and keep writing emails, who pray me through and listen me through and cry me through and love me through – maybe they are Mary to me.
Even if I do not understand, I keep turning.
Laundry round here is eternal.
Diapers, dirty dishclothes, daily heaps of socks and shirts and pants and bibs and towels. It piles up in towering heaps overnight, and just when I slam the dryer door shut with a satisfying thwack and declare it tackled, I turn to find my boys covered in marker or yogurt or (worst) mysterious unknowns.
I sigh, strip them down, fill the tired barrel of the washer once more, and set it again to spin.
Laundry without ceasing.
. . .
I have a handful of friends who are pregnant, most of them expecting number three or four, none of them amateurs at gestation but all of their hands and hearts already full to the brimming. I’ve promised them prayers, dip into their days with a quick email to inquire how they’re doing, but it never feels enough, not when I know how dark and depressing and downright overwhelming the burden of bearing baby can be. I wonder what more I can do, especially for the far-flung friends, the dear ones far across the country that I can’t surprise with a casserole and a hug and a how are you really doing?
What can any of us do to help carry the load?
Of course it’s prayer, I know that’s the answer, but it seems so small and trite sometimes. An easy promise to hold up, to keep in mind, to whisper good thoughts and happy hopes to smooth the way. I’m still learning, slowly, stumblingly, what I believe about prayer, but I’m quite sure it’s nothing like the power of positive thinking or the secret that stops the universe to grant my heart’s desire. If prayer is about bending myself to the way of Christ, allowing myself to be changed, humbling myself back into the heart of the divine, what does it mean to carry other’s intentions with me as I go?
I’m still not sure.
But I do know one thing: prayer reminds. Even when it may not help or heal, it reminds.
. . .
I pause from the pile of laundry to read a favorite blog, clicking through the pages as I ignore the clothes around me on the couch, half stacked in neat piles of designated owner, half still strewn in a messy dump from the dryer. When I stumble upon the simple post about praxis of prayer, a tangible mindfulness of uniting intention with the everyday, the idea falls into my lap like a soft jumble of small socks:
I’ll carry my laundry for them.
How many times a day do I bend to grab the plastic handles of the bulky baskets, lug them up and down stairs, stagger them around corners, fill them to the back-breaking brim? How many times a day could I easily remember those expecting, each one of my friends who carry something much weightier and more wonderful than even clean laundry? What difference might it make – for them, for me – if I slowed to remember when I stooped to carry again?
The more I muse, the more laundry I fold, the more it seems right. This is how prayer becomes incarnate: in everyday actions.
. . .
Laundry seems endless in these early years: the late-night laundry, the soaked and stained laundry, the kid clothes and grown-up clothes all tumbling together in the dryer. Pregnancy can feel like that, too: endless and oh-so-bodily. Good work, necessary work, but so tiring, so cumbersome, so overwhelming.
I remember at the end of my pregnancies when my husband rushed to grab the basket out of my hands before I lugged it up or down the stairs, balanced on my basketball of a belly. Let me help! he’d say with exasperation. Let me carry that – you’ve already got enough.
I’d laugh to myself (what did he think I did while he was gone all day?) but without protest I let him help. Let him carry the load. Let myself rest for a moment and remember how much I was already carrying.
Maybe prayer’s like that, too: a willingness to carry and be carried.
To learn when to remember and when to rest in each other’s arms.
The joke regularly circles round the Internet and church bulletins this time of year:
What if the three Wise Men had been women? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts!
But beyond the silly stereotyping, the harmless joke always rubbed me the wrong way, though I could never put my finger on exactly why.
Until I was musing about what to give for a dear friend expecting a baby, and I realized I didn’t feel like buying her anything practical. I wanted to give her something beautiful, something lasting, something lavish.
Thoughtful folks always offer diapers and wipes when a wee one arrives. Bibs and burp clothes, toys and teething rings flow as freely as advice at baby showers. But the wisest women in my life were the ones who brought me impractical gifts. Handmade blankets. Tiny knitted sweaters. Wee white booties. A shiny silver cup.
Nothing for the day-to-day messes of babyhood. Everything for the wonder of welcoming a new one into the world.
When I look around our home’s endless kid-clutter of ever-changing clothes and once-loved toys, I realize these gifts – the impractical ones, the indulgent ones, the ones never found on a registry – are the lasting treasures.
In my youngest’s room, the rocking chair is draped with a quilt handmade by a dear friend. Propped on the floor by his favorite books is a pillow from my sister, stitched with his name and birth date.
In my oldest’s room, a warm white blanket from my husband’s aunt rests on his trunk. Keeping watch from atop the dresser stands a small statue of a mother cuddling her baby, a present from my sister-in-law. Gifts from mothers wise enough to know that babies deserve to be welcomed with beauty.
And lavish impracticality.
So every time I hear Epiphany’s Gospel of the Magi, and someone snickers about the impracticality of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I think no, the wise men got it just right.
And maybe it was the women they loved – the ones they left behind to journey so long and far, led by a star’s strange stirring – who were the ones that whispered in their ears bring something beautiful, something rich, something lasting. Maybe the women beside the wise men were the ones who knew just what a birth deserved, especially a sacred birth like this one.
Not the practical help that a young couple with a newborn needed. But the lavish gift of honoring a new and noble life in the glint of gold, the scent of frankincense, the perfume of myrrh. All the extravagance they could offer for such a child as this.
The wise men got it right. And wise women would have done the same.