how to pray with baby: all day long

First: a confession. The series on spiritual practices with newborns? Turned out nothing the way I expected. What I thought would be a practical guide turned into my philosophical wanderings as I processed this summer. Great for me, maybe less for all you new parents who told me you were excited for the series. Thanks for reading along anyway!

Second: an inspiration. All those practices I wrote (and rambled) about? Still wonderful ways to pray when you have a new baby in your life. For those of you drowning in diapers and midnight feedings, I’ve compiled a list of short Scripture verses and quick prayer practices that you can do while caring for baby.

All day long. Up all night. For fussy moments. For peaceful moments. 

Starting today…

. . .

feeding

Feeding

To pray:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25:37-40

To practice:

The next time you’re tempted to check the clock when feeding the baby – how long has it been since he last took a bottle? how long have I been sitting here nursing her? ­– close your eyes instead and give thanks for all the good meals you have enjoyed in your life. Thanksgivings, Christmases, date nights, nights out with friends, family dinners at home.

Pray for someone with whom you shared a memorable meal. Pray for you and your child to nurture generous hearts to share with those who are hungry. Pray in gratitude to God who feeds you.

. . .

cleaningCleaning

To pray:

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

John 13:12-15

To practice:

Each time you clean up after your child today – diaper change, bath-time, spit-up, wet crib sheets or worse! – offer up a petition for their future.

May they always know love. May they always be surrounded by people who care for them. May they always grow in the ways they care for others.

. . .

healingHealing

To pray:

Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.

Jeremiah 17:14

To practice:

When your baby gets hurt – from shots or diaper rashes or bug bites or scratches – remember that your role as a parent is not always to protect them from every harm, but to help them handle life’s bumps and heal from life’s wounds. Humbly ask God for the strength and wisdom to love like this.

Each time you try to soothe your screaming newborn, hold in mind one way that they may need to heal from hurts as they grow: rejections by cliques and crushes, disappointments in sports or extracurriculars, academic failures, high school heartbreaks, challenges in college, professional and personal setbacks.

Ask God to guide your child through the journeys of hurting and healing that lead into adulthood. Pray for resilience and forgiveness for both you and your baby.

. . .

Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – up all night!

 

spiritual practices with newborns: holding

Be still and know that I am God.

Your hands have held things that terrified you. Your first set of car keys. A boy’s sweaty palm. The college admission letter. Cold cans of beer. A brand-new passport.

All gripped by fingers that trembled, knowing the weight of what might come next, the thrill as well as the terror.

God was there somewhere, in what you held.

Be still and know that I am.

Your hips have carried things that taught you. Armfuls of books down high school hallways, then grad school library stacks. Piles of file folders from one job, then another. A niece, then a nephew, then three more.

All slung on one hip, shifted to the side as you walked, aware that what you now held was changing the way you moved, subtly but for good.

God was there somewhere, in what you cradled.

Be still and know.

Your arms have embraced things that overwhelmed you. Sobbing friends after break-ups. Exhausted relatives after funerals. A brand-new family of in-laws. Your first child. Your second son.

All wrapped round with arms that wondered if they could stretch wider, if they were strong enough not to shake even as they tired.

God was there somewhere, in what you accepted.

Be still.

armfulBut maybe nothing else you’ve held has mattered as much as what you hold now, all day and all night, upstairs and down, inside and out, while you soothe and sing and stave off sleep, while you make breakfast and eat lunch and cook dinner.

One small baby, who squeaks and squawks into your neck, who aches your shoulders and slows your steps to heart’s pace.

This is not to say that bearing children trumps all other experiences. Or that parenting’s importance makes other callings pale in comparison. Or that everything up to now has been mere practice. You know none of this is true.

But the weight of what you carry now is no longer your own life. It is possibility within your hands. It is a brand-new person unfolding. With all the beauty and terror and wonder that offers. You know this is true.

Be.

Everything is changing because of what you are learning to hold.

Watch the world shift as you pick him up. As you cradle him to your heart. As you hum in his small curl of an ear.

Watch your life stretch, then settle to embrace what you’ve been asked to hold.

Watch yourself becoming someone new because of what you carry.

Watch God find you there. Again and always.

Be still and know that I am God.
(Psalm 46:10)

spiritual practices with newborn: beholding

He gazes at me, steel blue eyes searching. He gazes. And gazes. Sometimes so intently, for so long, that I have to work to hold my own gaze steady, to meet his eyes with mine.

beholdThis is part of the (happy) work of having a newborn. Watching them. Watching them change in front of your eyes. Cheeks rounding, lashes lengthening, hair thickening, thighs plumping, fingers uncurling.

Wondering what they will become. Wondering who this person might be, whose life I hold in my hands.

My grandma used to call this stage “the baby’s face unfolding,” waking to the world. My mom tells me this each time she visits to help and hold our newborns.

It is the same story all parents watch, over and over again. A first chapter opening in a brand-new book.

But you have to look to see it. Behold.

. . .

He’s an old soul, my friend declares, handing the baby back to me. You can always tell by their eyes.

Later I think about her words and wonder if we’ve gotten them backwards. Even setting aside reincarnation, as we Christians do, the saying suggests that contemplative, quiet babies are wise beyond their years. That they hold some distant, ancient knowing behind their eyes.

But babies are able to hold our gaze so intently precisely because they are brand-new. They have no filter yet to smudge up their view of the world, no hurt, no grudge, no knowledge of evil. Their innocence is what permits them to disarm us by their unrelenting gaze. They will not avert their eyes out of shame or drop their glance from embarrassment, not yet. They have not learned that lesson.

What we see blinking back at us in their eyes is not the wisdom of the aged – as clear as their vision of the world can be. Instead, babies bring utter openness. Unclouded vision. Eyes not yet dimmed by the cruelty or sorrow they will inevitably see. Not worried or weathered or wearied by years.

He is a young soul, in fact. Behold.

. . .

What does it mean to behold?

In Scripture it’s the greeting of the angels. Behold, for I bring you tidings of great joy.

In church it’s the reminder that recaptures our attention every time we gather round the table. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.

In literature it’s an air of importance. Lo and behold… There’s a weight to beholding, beyond watching or seeing. You are witnessing an impressive sight.

Even the parsing of the word – to be and to hold – signals a notable duality: you must take a certain stance and accept what it offers.

And when you contemplate in the way that beholding invites, something will happen. You will appreciate or perceive or understand or discern differently than you did before.

You will be changed.

. . .

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.”
Revelation 21:5

This summer I’m beholding my own life, too.

For the first time in a long time, I’m looking around at everything I have and finding it so good. Yes, there is the exhaustion of the newborn days. And yet I have felt profoundly happy ever since this baby arrived. For a while I joked about it to friends as “really good hormones.” But now I start to see how much deeper this joy and gratitude runs.

I found new motherhood hard, really hard. I remember in the early days reading about the shift that happens when your first child turns five. All of a sudden you glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel – that your life will not always revolve around dirty diapers and 2 am wakings. That your child is growing up, and quickly. Becoming a person before your eyes, a walking, talking, someday-even-rational human being with all the fullness and wonder of what it means to be human.

And I feel that now, with Sam heading off to kindergarten in the fall. Perhaps for the first time, I feel myself settling into motherhood with deep-seated joy, less tinged with the anxiety that accompanied his birth.

I look around me at our growing family, this beautiful bunch of boys, a husband I adore, work that I love, writing that sets my heart on fire. And I feel so blessed, so deeply wrapped in the presence of God. It has been a hard summer already, physically and emotionally, and yet I have not lost sight of the deeper joy here, the stream of goodness running through it all, clear and fast and strong. I can behold my life in bright sunlight, eyes open and willing to hold the gaze.

And I am able to be what I hold.

. . .

The babe is at that lovely stage where smiles start, now only small bursts of wide-cheeked delight, fleeting rewards for the monkey faces I ape at him, over and over, hoping to catch a grin. I have to watch him for a long time to see them. He is teaching me the practice of beholding: the discipline of deciding to stop and see what is right before my eyes.

Perhaps that’s the lesson in beholding: that you have to be here and hold on if you want to witness the joy, to catch the goodness that rushes behind, beyond, underneath the surface.

These things are trustworthy and true, these moments of joy we know to be of God.

Watch the beauty unfolding before you. Watch your own life blossoming. Watch it bring you joy.

Write these words down. Behold.

. . .

For a new twist: today look your child or loved one in the eyes. Behold them. How does it feel to hold their gaze without words? Where do you see the good – the God – within the life you love?

spiritual practices with newborns: feeding

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.

boppy

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

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!

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:

IMG_6198

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.

IMG_6169

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?

dear dr. seuss: you’re wrong

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

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.

midwives of our dreams

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.

. . .

DSC_0103_2Only 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.”
(Ps 22:9-10)

Who has helped midwife your dreams?

what is gained and what is lost

They are buddies, our two boys.

Far from best friends from birth, but now constant companions. Since full-time school doesn’t separate them yet, they still spend most of their waking hours together. And even though they’re lunging at each other’s throats as much as they’re hugging sweetly – after all, they’re siblings, not saints – they are still an inseparable duo.

A duo that’s about to gain a third.

IMG_0179

I listen to them play together before nap. They read books to each other, jump around the room to their favorite music, laugh at jokes that only they understand. Secret words, secret games – they have a world all their own, and it is good that I am not part of it. But I still savor the listening.

Watching them hold hands when they walk through a parking lot, glancing in the rearview mirror to see them singing in matching car seats, I catch myself wondering how their dynamic will change when another is added to their mix.

Three is an odd number. Pair up and someone’s always left out. Instead of the straight line between two points, they will become a triangle of personalities, with all the pointy edges that can come with it. More energy in a trinity, to be sure, but also more complexity.

It will take time to sort out and settle. Reconfigure and renegotiate. As all life changes do, for all involved.

Even the smallest ones.

. . .

One of my professors in grad school used to interpret the Good Friday story from John’s Gospel like this: Jesus rearranges the family unit at the foot of the cross.

To Mary: Woman, here is your son. To John: Here is your mother.

A new family configuration. A small gain in the face of huge loss.

We talked about this Scripture in the context of ministry to families dealing with divorce and remarriage. But I think her wisdom applies to plenty of changes that families face, both good and bad.

Even in the happiest moments of a family’s life – like an engagement or a birth – there is loss. What was the original unit will be no more. Everything is rearranged. Relationships changed, dynamics shifted. We will never be the same.

Because human nature pulls us toward the positive, we tend to gush about what is gained. The best gift you can give your child is a sibling. Isn’t it great when a family grows? But the flip side of every good gain is real loss. And acknowledging this truth does not lessen the joy. It merely sets the change in honest context.

What has been was good (and hard and real). What will be can become the same.

So the image of Jesus rearranging the family at the foot of the cross is a comforting one for me. In times of birth as well as loss, marriage as well as divorce, joy as well as sorrow, we can find blessing in what is broken open.

. . .

What is lost?

The ease of the present time: everyone sleeping (mostly) through the night, no one wearing diapers, each child speaking his needs.

The convenience of being the perfect family size by society’s standards: 2 parents + 2 kids that fit easily into a sedan or a museum pass.

The dynamics we’ve long established, the habits we’ve come to enjoy, the schedule we’ve taken for granted.

What is gained?

The wonder of welcoming a new relationship into our lives.

The love that increases when we stretch out of our comfort zone.

The mystery of a new personality that will bring us joy and growth.

We decided long ago it was worth it, the costs and sacrifices and inconveniences of having another baby. This is the dream we have for our family. But even when we conclude that the gains outweigh the losses, change still brings challenges.

Is there still Christ among us, rearranging our family unit? I think so. In all kinds of situations. Reminding us that God intended family to be a growing, expanding, embracing love.

So whenever our newest member arrives and the sibling squabbles start afresh, I hope I can remember this truth. That the beauty of what we have right now as a family was born of blood, sweat, and tears at its beginning, too.

And so can be again.