It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
We’d planned it perfectly. A baby in early spring, before work got too busy and the summer too hot. The worst of the morning sickness would be passed in time for the holidays, and I could curl up on the couch for football season in the fall when exhaustion set in. We’d have a few months to get the boys adjusted to our addition before the oldest went off to kindergarten, and then I’d have just two at home again.
Of course, in hindsight I see the hubris of thinking we were in control, of micromanaging the most mysterious realities in our lives. We struck out boldly into the prospect of baby #3, assuming that we’d frontloaded our share of heartache on the infertility side of parenting.
But pain and loss know no quota. There was never any divine promise that suffering could be skipped over. Only that we will be companioned the whole way through.
. . .
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I was early in the pregnancy, far enough along for us to celebrate the giddy joy of finding out and making plans and scheming how to share the news. But even when the signs started to point south and the tests confirmed our fears, I figured that since I was so early, it wouldn’t be too painful or drawn-out even if it did happen.
Instead I was overwhelmed by pain that felt like the worst wrenching of labor, contractions that came so fast I could barely breathe, shaking and numbness in my limbs that finally made me crawl to the phone and call the nurse who told me to get to the ER as fast as we could. I’d never heard stories of the real, raw truth of what it means to miscarry, so I had no idea what to expect.
But just because a death comes early does not mean it is lighter to bear or let go.
. . .
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Carrying was supposed to be the part I could do. Sure, there would little deaths all along: the wine, the caffeine, the favorite foods, the comfortable sleep. But I knew what it meant to feel sick for six months; I was ready to make the sacrifice again; I needed no convincing that the end product was worth it. Infertility was the struggle we knew, so we figured that once the lines blurred clear on the test stick, we’d be sailing straight ahead till delivery day.
Instead I have to learn what missing means. To white out the appointments already marked on my calendar. To stop mentally scheduling around a due date that is now a ghost. To take the time – the infinite long ache of time – that my body needs to heal. To let a dream die. To mourn a baby that will never be.
. . .
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In my heart. In our plans. In everyone’s hopes.
But supposed to is a shimmering mirage. One of the few truths I know is that if you’re lucky to do enough living, it will inevitably break your heart. We forget that supposed to means a guess, a wonder, an attempt. We craft an illusion of control believing that supposed to means the right way, the my way, the only way.
Only when life and death crash up against each other in one powerful smack of a wave do we remember that we exist at the mercy of greater forces than our own mind, and that supposed to was never a magic potion to wave away mortality.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But it is.
I wanted to carry. But now I learn to miss.
. . .
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the surpassing power may be of God
and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
(2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
She sits across me in the suburban coffee shop, hands cupped around a warm cardboard cup just like mine. Soccer moms with their teams in tow troop through the store, swarms of kids buzzing in and out the door in the morning sunlight.
Her eyes are bright as she talks, but I see the sadness behind her smile, steal a glimpse back into the dark mirror of my own once-waiting.
They’re seeing a new doctor, starting a new treatment, charting cycles and crossing fingers. She’s got a good feeling about this month. Sure, it’s been two long years of trying and she’s creeping closer to forty, but the doctor said her numbers were looking up. And there’s no reason not to be hopeful, right?
Waiting. To have a baby in her arms.
. . .
We’re getting ready for bed in the midnight dark, zipping window blinds down with a snap when I notice that the porch lights are still on across the street. The sleepy home of our quiet neighbors now stands on high alert, beacons shining bright and bold in the black of night.
“What do you think that’s for?” I wonder out loud to my husband. “They never leave the lights on.”
“It’s prom night,” he shrugs as we turn to sleep. “They’re probably waiting up.”
Waiting. To have their baby home safe.
. . .
Parenthood starts with waiting. Nine months at least, sometimes years longer before the due date countdown starts to tick.
But no one told me that pregnancy would be only the beginning of the waiting.
Waiting outside bedroom doors for the baby to stop crying, exhausted after every expert’s advice fails to secure sweet sleep.
Waiting next to the phone for the doctor to call with the test results, heart thumping to hear the news that life will soon ease back to everyday-ok.
Waiting in airport lounges to catch the last flight home, arms aching to get back to the kids and cuddle them close.
Waiting for the baby to wean, the toddler to walk, the preschooler to potty train, the spouse to get home, the fever to break, the teeth to cut through, the school year to start, the summer to arrive.
Some waiting is the natural nervousness of a novice. I look back on the few short years since I became a mother and marvel at how often I made mountains out of mole hills, worrying about milestones they missed or markers that seemed delayed.
Some waiting is the weary work of weathered wisdom. I look around me at parents in all stages of this lifelong calling, waiting for their kids to find a job, to move out, to fall in love with the right person, to follow their own path.
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.
. . .
I lie there in the quiet dark, long after he’s fallen asleep next to me, and I wonder what it will feel like to wait for my boys to come home.
I waited so long for them to arrive, and some days I’m so impatient waiting for them to grow up, and I realize that all this work is a waiting game.
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? I wonder in the warmth of my comfortable bed, two blessings of boys tucked in their rooms down the hall, no one I love speeding out on the slippery roads too late tonight.
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.
“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision…He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
I always thought Abram was staring up into a dark night sky, dazzled with stars-as-descendants, breathing in cold crisp air as he tried to believe the impossible for a childless man of his age.
Turns out I was wrong.
Read the rest closely. The sun sets later, as the story slips into Act Two of the fateful covenant, as Abram and God seal the deal over a nighttime sacrifice and a burning torch of hope in the darkness. So the day was likely still bright and blazing when an aging Abram was first asked to trust in stars he could not see.
I’m deeply grateful to Ignatian Spirituality’s Just Parenting blog for this insight that turned this Sunday’s Scripture inside out for me. Because I never realized how the time of day adds a final layer of implausibility to the story: God drags the old man outside into noontime sun, tells him to count all the stars he can see and then trust that he’ll have offspring so many.
Either the cruelest joke or the crucial test of faith: to trust what you cannot see.
. . .
Infertility is the foundation of my parenting.
When I’m sinking into a dreadful day of tired tempers and toddler tantrums, when I’m floundering and grasping for air as I spiral downward, infertility is always the solid ground I finally touch with my toes, the reassuring firm beneath my feet from which I pause and push off to rise, to gasp up to the surface again. I remember and right my thinking:
At least I have them. At least we were able to have children. At least they exist.
Any small annoyance is relativized in the face of my babies’ being, the sheer graced gift of their lives. No matter the current crisis, my view is widened to the scope of what matters. My momentary maternal failings become but a blink.
I remember that I have the blessing of a bad day as a mother.
Because it means I mother.
I wonder when these daily, weekly, monthly reminders of the blessedness of bearing children will start to fade. Like the people who live tucked in the foothills of towering mountains or stretched along the edge of the vast sea – I always wonder when they start to take the landscape for granted. Time settles us into the way-it-turned-out as if it were always given. But it is never simply given.
The immensity of what we’re asked to trust, in those rare times when we’re asked to truly trust, only becomes visible later. We see what was obvious only in a different time or season.
But in the blinding sear of midday, when the sweat runs in rivulets down our back, when our necks crick from craning skyward, it is easier to wave it away, shrug off with a sneer.
It is always easier to walk by sight than faith.
. . .
Now the stars are clear as night. Now I start to sense the scope of what I was called to trust when parenthood seemed far from predictable. Now I see the bright sparks against the black sky, the wider span of a greater plan than I could grasp during long months of waiting and wanting and wondering and wallowing.
Did I trust the noontime promise, the prospect of distant lights that would shine brighter when I needed them in deepest dark? Mostly what I remember from our years of infertility is sadness, anger, bargaining with God, weeping with jealousy at others’ good gifts.
But from where I watch tonight, staring out at a winter’s wash of white stars shining through cold darkness, I see clearly. How the wrestling with God, the willingness to trust the divine with my deepest desires, was trust enough for that time. Because it saw me through the heat of day to the calming cool of night.
I wonder what I am called to trust today. What noontime stars am I unable to see, squinting into the sun? What promise of a wider view, a multitude beyond imagining? What prospect so much bigger than my one small life, but of which I am still a part?
I stand at the window watching stars and I marvel at Abram’s trust.
All that he believed he could see at midday.
You know those years when you just don’t feel like celebrating your birthday?
Such was my attitude toward Mother’s Day this go-round. I was just not all that into it.
My mothering lately has been grumpy, impatient and frazzled. It’s a stressful season of our family’s life, so I’m trying not to take it too seriously. But I still didn’t feel much like celebrating. Even though I believe firmly that Mother’s Day isn’t something we earn, I decided I’d rather have a normal, quiet, low-key Sunday than a Hallmark holiday.
But as I nursed Grinch-like sentiments this past week, the notion of Alice in Wonderland’s un-birthday wryly popped into my head. What would it mean to celebrate an un-Mother’s Day instead of the normal flowers-chocolate-&-brunch festivities?
First I thought it might mean indulging in a day of activities that had absolutely nothing to do with mothering. For example, uninterrupted sleep! Adult conversation! Spa treatments! Wine! Gourmet meals that someone else cooked! Plenty of geographic distance from one’s progeny!
So then I started from a truly unconventional standpoint. What if I spent the day thinking of un-mothers instead?
Un-mothers could be fathers, the paternal yang to the maternal yin. So yesterday I prayed for fathers – for their work outside the home to provide for their families and for their work at home to nurture their children.
Un-mothers could be children, the necessary and opposite other half of the mothering relationship. So I prayed for children who daily seek the love of a mother to help them grow.
Un-mothers could be women who want desperately to have children, those who suffer through infertility, miscarriage and failed adoptions. So I prayed for the women whose hearts break as the years pass, whose stomachs sink when strangers ask questions, whose hands ache to hold a baby.
Un-mothers could be women who have chosen not to have children, those who feel called to different paths. So I prayed for women whose vocations lead them to other nurturing relationships, rewarding work, and life-giving commitments.
Un-mothers could be women who have suffered the loss of a child, whose motherhood has been broken and reshaped by pain and death. So I prayed for women who grieve for their children, who struggle to redefine themselves as mother after loss, who seek to go on living after the life they held closest to their heart has stopped.
Un-mothers could be women who do not want the children they have. So I prayed for women whose motherhood was forced on them, or who made decisions to end their child’s life, or whose deep sorrow and anger at the world causes them to hurt their children.
In the Christian tradition, one way to describe God is the via positiva: what God is like. God is like a mother. Another way to describe God is the via negativa: what God is not like. God is not like a mother.
One way to understand mothering from a spiritual perspective is the via positiva – what it is to be a mother. Much of my thinking and writing in this space takes this slant. But another way to understand mothering is the via negativa – what it is not. Broadening my perspective to embrace those who are not mothers helps me to understand my own parenting better, situating my cares and concerns within a wider view.
And praying for those whose lives and loves differ from mine reminds me that all of us, mothers and un-mothers, are swept up into the mystery of who God is.
Which is a question well worth pondering, no matter what day it is.
We’ve been tackling lots of house projects lately – windows, floors, closets. So I find myself thinking a lot about this home we’ve created, this place we became a family.
There is a deep joy in making a house a home, a fulfillment I never imagined when I was an energetic twenty-year-old, hauling tattered boxes in and out of different apartments every year. Today I find myself having lived on this street for longer than I’ve lived anywhere except my childhood home. My address hasn’t changed in years, but my perspective has.
Through the seasons I’ve spent gazing out the same windows at the same trees, I’ve learned that settling in isn’t the same as settling. The joy of owning a home is putting down deep roots so beauty can grow. It’s the wisdom grown from tending to one small piece of God’s green earth. It’s the wonder of taking someone else’s place and filling it with your own dreams.
We’ve planted gardens and fruit trees, rose bushes and lilacs. We picked out new appliances when old broke. We hauled furniture upstairs and down when inspiration struck. I’ve watched crews of construction workers tromp in and out of our yard, putting on new roofs or tearing up old floors. My handy husband even built a bedroom and a basement of bookshelves.
In short, we’ve made this place our own.
But when I think back on this house, my strongest memories will be the transformations that took place within us, within its walls.
This house was full of infertility’s charts, tests and meds before it was full of babies’ clothes, books and toys. It was full of couple love before it was full of children. This “starter home” is where we became partners and parents. Where we started writing the story of our life together.
A few days ago I took a break from wrangling the bottomless heap of kids’ clothes in the closet. Sweaty and tired, I laid on the floor and stared up at the spinning fan. The fan that my husband installed, in the room that my mother and mother-in-law painted for our first baby. I thought about the home we have made while I listened to my son pretend to read from one of his favorite books:
We’d dreamed a baby, we’d wanted a baby, we’d planned for a baby, we’d waited and waited and waited for a baby.
Until finally there was you.
As he flipped the final pages, I turned my head on the carpet to watch him sing: And oh, how we love you!
Watching my baby-turned-boy, I realized that perhaps this chapter is the most important one we’ve written in the story of this house. Not the herb garden we planted out front or the strawberry patch we dug out back. But the family we became along the way.
When we were giddy newlyweds rushing in the door from our honeymoon, we had no idea how the early years of our marriage would be shaped by the wanting and hoping and praying for children. This was the place we dreamed our babies, wondering how they would look and when they would arrive. This was the place we planned for our babies, worrying as the months stretched into years. This became the place we waited and waited and waited for our babies. Until finally, they were here.
And oh, how we love them.
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:26-31)
The announcement of a child’s arrival rarely comes the way we planned.
For some it is an utter shock – unexpected, unplanned, unprepared. For others it is the culmination of years of trying – astonishment, delight, but still surprise.
Sometimes the news is revealed in the quiet of one’s own home, a breathless waiting for the lines to appear on the test. Sometimes it is announced in the sterile light of the doctor’s office. Sometimes it breaks into everyday life with a phone call or a letter that the long-awaited child is here.
But the news is never quite as we expected.
When we are far from parenting’s beginning, we picture how the announcement might look, feel, or sound, and how we will share it with others in turn. But the reality – the years of infertility, or the recurring miscarriages, or the “oops!” baby, or the failed adoption – can be darker shades of grey than we ever imagined. And even when the child is hoped for, longed for, prayed for, we still find ourselves overwhelmed by emotions. Joy. Fear. Love. Anxiety. Wonder. Despair. Hope.
Parents often find themselves younger or older than they would have liked. They don’t have the money or the job or the partner or the resources to raise the child in the way they wanted. They ask, “How can this be?” They wonder how they will bear the news. They grieve the loss of their former life even as they prepare for the future to come.
“The world is never ready for the birth of a child,” wrote one of my favorite poets. It has always been such: parents have never felt fully prepared, completely ready, absolutely certain that they knew what they were getting themselves into.
Zechariah was troubled. Joseph was troubled. Mary was deeply troubled. Each had to lay aside expectations of what a child or a family or a parent should look like. Each had to give themselves entirely to trust in a strange and surprising God. Life was never the same after the news.
Is this Advent’s reminder to us, year after year? That Christmas is never quite what we expected, either. That our plans are not always God’s plans. That we can only prepare so much before giving over to trust in our surprising God, for whom nothing is impossible.
Our hopes and dreams for ourselves, our children, our lives all exist within God’s greater dream of love for us. A love which we will never fully understand or grasp or even imagine. A love which will challenge us and demand from us things we never wanted to give. A love which asks us to trust what we cannot see.
May delivery be easy,
may our child grow and be well.
Let him be happy from time to time
and leap over abysses.
Let his heart have strength to endure
and his mind be awake and reach far.
But not so far
that it sees into the future.
that one gift,
0 heavenly powers.
– from “A Tale Begun” by Wislawa Szymborska
When the baby was first born, I could spend hours just staring at his brand-new self. I marveled at his movements. Jerky leg kicks. Graceful arm stretches. Twists and turns, quick and sudden. Even now, two months later, his muscles are still learning how to move, figuring out what it will mean to reach and roll.
Once in a while I’ll be cuddling him on my chest, and he’ll drag an elbow or foot across my stomach, and I’ll think, “Hey! I remember that – from the other side.” Newborn movement is womb-like, an embodied reminder of how we spend our first months of life flipping and kicking in safe, snug darkness as we grow.
Eventually babies grow out of the froggy legs and balled fists, but it takes a while to leave behind the gestures and postures of the womb. Even as adults we revert back to the fetal position to sleep or self-soothe when scared. It takes time and effort to overcome the habits bred into our instincts, and some of them we never lose.
It’s been nearly three years since our season of infertility ended. I have a beautiful, grinning, wild reminder of that fact running around my house every day. And yet sometimes I plop down in front of the computer at the end of the day for some idle-Interneting, and I find my fingers instinctively dragging the cursor to click on this blog. Or this one. Or this one. And lately I’ve been asking myself why.
Why, when my life is so far from those days of infertility, do I return to the stories and the sorrow of those who are still there? The women who yearn to be mothers. Or the lucky ones who have “crossed over” to parenthood through adoption or pregnancy. Why do their stories still speak to me?
It takes a long time to break our habits or turn our hearts. Finding other women who shared my sadness and frustration and fears during the months in which we were trying to conceive was a lifesaver. I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel desperate. I didn’t feel abandoned.
The power of sharing stories and finding soulmates cannot be underestimated. Even across the invisible Internet, we can connect and reach out, find friends and companions to share the path we journey on. Back then, it was other women who were struggling with infertility and their faith. Today it is other mothers of young children. Instinctively I search them out for insights and answers to the concerns of today.
Like the baby’s womblike moves and motions, my habits send me back again. I haven’t been able to let their stories go, because it’s important for me to remember that season of my life. The challenges and the grief, the unknowing and the doubting, the hoping and the praying. We are our journeys. And I never want to forget that part of my story that forever shaped our family’s beginning.
I’m sure my fingers won’t always gravitate towards the blogs that tell their stories. Just like I know my baby won’t always curl his little fingers around my thumb or instinctively turn his head when I graze his cheek. Over time, we slowly grow out of our old habits and the wombs that once held us safe.
But remembering where we came from is important, to help us move forward with gratitude and mindfulness.
For me, it is gratitude for the gift of two wild and precious boys. And mindfulness of those who still wait, hope, and pray.
“Oh, honey!” She shrieked as she came running towards us, nightgown flapping. “Look at you!”
I smiled, the meager smile of a large pregnant woman, bracing herself to hear the usual round of “you’re due when?!” or “you’re sure it’s not twins?” Be nice, I admonished myself. She’s a sweet neighbor. Let the comments be.
But it was the first decent day we’d had in weeks, cool enough that I could finally take my son for a spin in the stroller without my head spinning from the heat. I just wanted an escape, half an hour to myself in the cool breeze and quiet.
She practically skidded to a halt in front of me. “You look beautiful,” she declared in a breathless tone, the wonder in her voice filling the air like we were in some holy cathedral.
“Oh, honey. Pregnant women are so beautiful. It’s just amazing, you know? Amazing! One time my sister-in-law invited me to go along to the ultrasound, and I just cried and cried – I mean, fingernails! And eyelashes! I was so excited! Everything is growing in there – it’s just incredible. Incredible!”
I smiled back, a wide and genuine smile. How could I have forgotten her story – what I meant to her, welled up in her, reminded her of as I waddled past her front door?
“Thank you,” I said. “You’re so kind – I feel huge these days and uncomfortable in all this heat. But you’re right. It really is a miracle.”
“Oh, honey,” she lifted up her eyes. “It is. I was never able to have children of my own, but I did day care for about 100 years and I got to be pregnant with all those mamas…every time I just cried for joy with them. What a miracle! So beautiful!”
I thought back to other walks past her house, in other seasons and years. When she first referred to her beautiful garden as “therapy.” When she delighted at my first rounding belly. When she laughed that if she had been able to have babies, she’d still be pregnant at 60.
Above that bulging, kicking baby inside me, my heart welled up. Empathy and hormones and reminder of the sheer blessedness of my discomfort.
I thought about what must have been her years of pain and longing, watching those pregnant mothers around her bloom and swell, gathering her day care children into her lap where no baby of her own ever grew. I marveled at her pure joy in my own blessing, the utter lack of resentment or jealousy or bitterness that the gift was never hers.
What grace, what acceptance to come to a place where you can rejoice in others’ journey down a road you were never let to travel.
“Can I touch your belly?” she squeaked, ready to lunge.
I forgot all about my usual aversions to the invasion of personal space. “Of course,” I replied.
She reached out her hands, eyes closed, face glowing with joy in the sunlight. She held my sides with the reverence reserved for a sacred vessel.
“Oh, honey,” she breathed in as she took her hands away. “You are just beautiful.”
No, I thought. You are.
I have had a deep and abiding love affair with mix tapes for most of my life. Since the days of recorded cassettes, through the era of burned CDs, and finally to the dawn of the iTunes playlist. My nearest and dearest know there is nothing I love more than concoting the perfect mix for the party, the birthday, the anniversary, the season.
So when we set off on our first drive of the vacation and I plugged in the ipod, I realized to my horror that I had completely forgotten to make The Esesential Yellowstone Playlist.
Utter fail. How could I have let this tragedy befall our trip?
Call it the magic of the shuffle; call it the intervention of the Holy Spirit (whom I firmly believe must have excellent musical taste). However you spin it, we ended up with perfect songs appearing at precisely the right moment, all week long.
U2’s “Elevation” began to grind just as we crossed the Continental Divide.
Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” started to strum just as we passed under yet another “WATCH FOR FALLING ROCKS” sign.
And even (to F’s delight) the synthesized strains of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” picked up as we rounded Yellowstone Lake.
But it was another tune from Bono and the boys that really got to me. (Not just the elevation. Pun intended.) As our car zoomed up the mountain pass, my favorite track off their last album filled the air: “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” And I flashed back to another sunny afternoon, at much lower altitudes, nearly two years earlier.
Exhausted that day from newborn cries and nursing and all that new motherhood demands, I had reached my wit’s end. Irish temper flaring, I declared to F that I Was Leaving The House And He Could Stay With The Baby And No I Didn’t Know When I Would Be Coming Home But He Could Figure Out What To Do While I Was Gone. (Door slam.)
Not my best moment.
Followed by another less-than-stellar page in the Annals of My Early Parenting, wherein I drove around town sobbing for at least an hour while the aforementioned new U2 album played. I think I hit “repeat” on track 5 approximately 28 times so I could hear the good man from Dublin sing these lines over and over again:
It’s not a hill; it’s a mountain
When you start out the climb.
Do you believe me, or are you doubting?
We’re gonna make it all the way to the light
But I know I’ll go crazy if I don’t go crazy tonight.
Motherhood felt like no small hill to me during those first months. It was a tall mountain, staggeringly tall, towering over my small self who barely knew how to start out the climb. Many days felt like that helpless struggle to gain footing on a rocky slope where each step slides you backwards, frantically grasping out for anything solid to cling to.
So that day in early fall, I sang and I sobbed and I thought about mountains and after awhile I started to feel better. The magic of solitude and cathartic crying. I drove back home and I loved up on that baby and that husband again. (I’ve since learned you can’t expect much more from the newborn days than regular breakdowns and lots of mutual forgiveness.)
Remembering that day as we dipped and curved round rugged roads, I thought about mountaintop moments. The Biblical ones, of course: Moses meets God; Jesus turns transfigured. But the personal ones, too. The times when I felt the thin spaces, the closeness of the divine.
Ironically, those early days of learning what it meant to mother – how bodily and exhausting it all was – those hard weeks were mountaintop moments. I had to lean into my most basic knowledge, my deepest loves, my grasp of faith, to believe that I could do this work, that I was called to this life, that I could learn through these challenges. I prayed hard then, lots of desperate early morning prayers for patience and help, lots of bone-tired late night prayers for sleep and quiet. But also prayers for gratitude, prayers of awe and thanksgiving that we had been blessed with this beautiful, mysterious, exhausting, sweet miracle of a baby.
Mountaintops are like that, too: overpowering mixtures of beauty – closeness to the divine – and struggle – the challenge of reaching the summit. As human beings we’re drawn to mountains and yet we’re terrified by them. They represent obstacles but also overwhelming, irresistible desires: the possibility of triumph and achievement.
At several points in our trip, the altitude of the still-snow-covered mountains made me woozy. (Not recommended for women in their eighth month of pregnancy.) But once back at boring sea level, I can see how the mountaintop moments in our spiritual lives are like that, too: sometimes the suffering or need or desperation that leads us closer to God feels like it is sucking the very life from our lungs. But when we finally fling ourselves over the mountain and begin to leave its rocky summits for more sure and steady ground, we find ourselves missing something: the feeling so near to God in our hours of need. The transition from the season of infertility to the season of pregnancy felt like that for me: I knew how to find God in my grief and my longing, but could God be as close in my joy and my preparing?
Like Peter and James and John, we want to stay up on the mountaintop with God. The air is thinner, the view is grander, the presence of God feels nearer. But we can’t pitch our tents to stay; we have to go back down into the plains. And so the mountaintop moments become our touchstones, perhaps, the markers of our spiritual journeys: the highs and the lows, the ups and the downs.
The signs of how far we’ve come with only God (and not even the perfect playlist) to lead us.
This past week we made public the news that we are expecting again. We gave our families the go-ahead to tell extended relatives; we emailed friends who didn’t yet know; we shared the news on Face.book. Although I’m not quite to the second-trimester-mark, it’s been a rough first trimester, and frankly, we needed a little joy in our January. So we indulged and let ourselves shout the news from the rooftops a week early.
It was wonderful, affirming, uplifting to hear all the well wishes and congratulations. For a couple who waited for months and months through infertility’s uncertainty for their first child to arrive, the astonishing delight of #2 being so simple to conceive still feels like a surreal surprise. We planned, we hoped, and yet we still never dared to dream it would ever be this easy.
But that’s precisely what breaks my heart about the shadow side of sharing our happy news: we know it’s not easy.
When I typed that announcement this week, all I could think was I am going to ruin someone’s day with this news. The cold, hard reality is that unbeknownst to me, someone I know is struggling with the loss of a baby, or the emotional roller coaster of infertility, or the realization that they will never be a parent, and these blissful lines of annunciation are going to crumble their hitherto happy day into that sinking pit of ugh that I remember all too well.
I recognize that is a terrible thing to think, on one level. This is my baby! a new life! a gift from God! a blessing to be celebrated! This is the best darn news we could share, and we’re over the moon with gratitude and expectation. God is so good!
And yet all I could remember were the seemingly endless string of pregnancy announcements we received while we were living through infertility. The worst was when a dear old friend and a close relative both announced their joyful news all on the same day, and we had coincidentally just finished an unsuccessful round of hormone treatment. I sobbed for hours that night, weeping on F’s shoulder, blubbering into a (large) glass of wine, yelling at God that it was an awfully lousy thing to put a desire into someone’s heart and then frustrate its fulfillment at every turn.
Each time I responded this way to a pregnancy or birth announcement, I felt even more rotten for having such a selfish, sorrowful response to someone else’s good news. But I couldn’t help it. The reaction was visceral, immediate, and complete. What they had, I wanted. And there was nothing I could do about it but cry. And pray. And hope that one day it would be us.
After the experience of coming to know infertility so closely, F and I are forever changed in many ways – the least of which being we tread extremely lightly around the topic of children and pregnancy in conversation. One in six couples struggles with infertility, and one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. The odds are sadly high that one of these sufferings will weave its way into the journey of a marriage. So we never ask our friends anymore, “Are you thinking about having kids yet?” We never joke around that “you two will be next!” Because you never know what they’re going through behind the brave front or the public facade. And even well-meaning words can cause so much pain.
So I struggled this week to make the news public. There was great joy, but a tinge of sadness for its unintended impact on those whose burden is still hidden to us. This is the legacy, the lingering vestiges of our infertility days. As with other experiences of suffering, infertility brought us solidarity, a widened heart, a changed perspective. We – and our family, our parenting, our marriage – will never be the same because of it.
I know some people would counsel me not to worry about this, to focus on the joy, to celebrate our blessing fully so that we can celebrate others’ blessings in turn. I recognize the love and wisdom in this response, and yet I realize that my call to compassion and caring is not reserved for my own joys, my own family. If God allows our hearts to be broken, and remains with us through the pain and the sorrow, then I believe we are called to live differently as we journey beyond. That is dying and rising with Christ. That is the shape of the Christian life.
So this week my mothering spirit is rejoicing and also remembering. Remembering what we went through. Remembering how many others are on that same path. Remembering that this blessing, this baby, is pure gift, not to be taken for granted. Remembering that just because one is no longer innocent of the shadow side that joys can bring, the light does not have to be hidden. God is good, all the time. Then and now; them and us; have and have not. Somehow, way beyond my understanding, God is good, all the time.