mothering

spiritual practices with newborn: beholding

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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: accepting help

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I thought I knew something about accepting help when a newborn arrives.

But then last Sunday’s I wonder why my stomach hurts… turned into maybe we should go to urgent care? to that appendix needs to come out stat and the surgeon is waiting for you in the operating room.

Nothing like an emergency appendectomy to land a postpartum mom right back where her summer started. Recovering, recuperating, resting in bed.

For five days straight I didn’t change a diaper. Didn’t run a single load of laundry. Didn’t read a single book to my big kids, cook a single meal for our family, or even brave the painful walk downstairs.

I needed help to do everything.

And I had to learn the practice of acceptance all over again.

. . .

helpingWhen I first wrote this post two weeks ago, accepting help meant reflecting on my gratitude for all the generous care people shared with us after Joseph arrived.

Since the moment of his birth, we’ve been blessed with help. Friends and neighbors brought dinners to share and offers to babysit. My sainted mom came to stay with us for three weeks, cooking and cleaning and baby-whispering and big-kid-entertaining as only a grandma can do. And my in-laws snuck the boys away for afternoons or mornings so I could catch up on sleep or simply tend to the baby.

But it took a serious setback – a week where everything fell apart, not just mama’s health – for me to remember my utter reliance on others.

What a tough lesson it is to remember.

. . .

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set.
(Exodus 17: 11-12)

What I love about this story isn’t the magical power of Moses to win battles.

It’s the sweaty, aching, all-day-long reminder that to do the work we’re called to do, we need others to hold us up.

Sometimes literally.

. . .

When I was still in the hospital, groggy from pain meds and aching all over, I tried to nurse the baby again, for the first time. But with incisions all over my stomach, I couldn’t even cradle him across my lap.

So my husband had to cup the baby’s head in one hand and wrangle his wriggling feet in the other hand, to keep him from kicking my tender scars.

All I could do was sit there. With tears streaming down my face. And let him help me, ironically, do the thing that only a mother can do.

(And to think that I thought accepting help was about getting over my guilt of hiring child care while I’m on maternity leave.)

. . .

The truth is that I always need help to do this work well.

Take the case of the summer babysitter. Our family’s routine runs on a rhythm that has always involved help with child care, and now is no exception. When the sitter is here, I can clean, cook, write, run errands, nap or simply tend to a needy newborn. All of which is good and necessary for our family.

I’m learning to be a mom of three, and this cheerful college sophomore is helping me do that, two mornings a week. Thank God for her help.

But interdependence is never the easiest lesson for us to learn, is it? We independent Americans. We people-pleasers. We do-it-all multi-taskers.

And isn’t it ironic that for women who have just given birth, we run ourselves ragged trying to care for the baby and clean the house and write the thank-yous and entertain the relatives and show off the baby? (Hasn’t every first-time mom learned this one the hard way?)

In a time when you give so much – when you have given everything, in fact, yourself, your sleep, your blood, your milk, your sweat, your time, your energy – the hardest part can be accepting that you cannot give it all. That you depend on help from others.

And that this might be exactly the way God created things to be.

. . .

This time around the newborn bend, I have to accept help as a spiritual practice. Even when I had an easy recovery from birth, I still needed my midwives, an amazing lactation consultant, our rock-star pediatrician, and our peppy babysitter to make life with baby possible.

And now that I’m back to healing mode – forced to put my feet up and climb stairs slowly and ask someone else to lug around that bulky car seat – I’m relearning how to embrace humility. To surrender to the truth that I can’t do it all. Because it was never all mine to do.

God whispers, nudges, nods and reminds me – through the triage nurse and the ER doctor and the next-door neighbor and the smiling grandma – that we get through this world by the help of others.

Again and again, my hands grow weary with this work I’m called to do. Thank God there are so many others to help hold them, steady at my side until the sun sets.

Such a gift, to have armfuls of help, even when we hurt.

If I only have the grace to accept it.

. . .

For a new twist: the next time someone offers you help, don’t apologize or protest that you don’t need it. But simply accept, with deep gratitude.

How does it feel to accept when you cannot give back in return?

spiritual practices with newborns: comforting

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As a mother comforts her child,

so I will comfort you…

Isaiah 66:13

The poor babe is sick. Gift of a cold from his big brothers, generously passed along a week after they finished hacking and sniffling and crying for us all night long.

Neither of them were ever sick so small, and it breaks my mama heart to see his tiny newborn face turn beet-red as he struggles to breathe when he coughs. And when baby is only a month old, there are no cold meds to clear his congestion, no Tylenol to help him sleep. We can only watch and wait for the cold to run its course.

Life with a sick baby increases the yuck factor exponentially, too. He snarfs sticky trails on my shoulder, spits up sour milk puddles into my lap, sneezes a germy spray all over my face.

But all I want to do is comfort him. Every cell in my body screams out, hard-wired to cuddle and cradle him. To try and help what I cannot heal.

. . .

When we pick up a crying baby, we revert to the rhythms which comforted us as children, too. The most ancient rhythms – snuggle and rock, cuddle and coo. The body leads and the lullaby follows: knees soften, hips sway, arms cradle, hands rub, lips hum, eyes close.

There isn’t much to comforting a baby. There is only everything. The filling of the moment with the emptying of the self.

Has it been 10 minutes or 2 hours since we started rocking in this chair, or pacing the path of the upstairs hallway?

And who are we becoming in the process?

. . .

The thing about having a baby and older kids is that you realize how the same soothing rhythms stay with us. Sam wipes out on his older cousin’s bike, and he comes flying around the corner, wailing for a hug. Thomas’ nose runs like a leaky faucet, and he cries out in a most pathetic plea – I just want you to hold me!

I cradle them with the same sway that rocks their baby brother whenever he wakes. The same rub of the heaving back. The same murmurs whispered low. The same lingering kiss on the sweaty forehead. All the instincts that quiet the newborn give comfort to the big kids, too.

Perhaps deep down we are all always this small soft child. Crying out to be seen, soothed, loved.

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Shouldn’t soothing be the simplest subject? Something about it is so instinctual that even our 4 year-old starting shushing in his baby brother’s ear the first time he held him.

But all week I’ve been struggling to write this. Not only to steal away enough time to fill the page, time away from rocking and holding and cuddling and nursing.

But also because it seems like a saccharine subject at first glance. The spirituality of soothing? It’s convenient to conjure up a God who comforts. Isn’t that the stuff of the opiate of the masses – creating the God we crave?

Yet I believe comforting is not simply some handy attribute of the divine. It’s an imperative at the heart of faith. The catch with Christianity is that we are called – even compelled by our very nature, created in God’s image – to comfort in turn. And there’s the rub indeed.

Because it’s hard work to comfort. It aches the back and tires the arms and rasps the throat and wearies the head. Comfort is not just about the calm, but the storm.

Sometimes when I’ve held an inconsolable newborn, on one of those crying jags that pound in your eardrums and pulse in your blood, I’ve wondered how God could possibly stay with us – all of us – through our own shrieks and screams and sobs. The only answer I can find is that this practice of love is about deep faithfulness – not some token pat on the back, not mere temporary relief.

Behold, I am with you always. As a mother comforts her child.

. . .

And it’s so sweet to soothe these small ones, too. So undeniably full of love and loveliness – to have the sleeping head finally loll onto your shoulder, to hear the smooth steady breath that once was ragged, to watch the peaceful eyes stay closed when you gently lay the baby back down.

Both sides of soothing – the challenge and the comfort – whisper something about who God is and who we are invited to be in turn. Consolers. Lovers. Peace-makers.

The ones who stop and stoop and scoop up to soothe. The ones who murmur quiet words over the wails and whimpers. The ones who keep watch over the sick, the weak, the wounded.

Come to me, all you who are weary. Christ like a father who crouches down and opens arms wide to embrace the sobbing child, the smallest who comes seeking only one thing, the desperate need in the painful moment.

So I will comfort you. God like a mother clasping her child to her chest, wrapped in the most intimate embrace, beating heart to heart.

This is love with skin on.

. . .

For a new twist: next time you’re comforting your children, remember who has comforted you through past hurts. Have you been blessed to know someone who comforts as God comforts?

Where do you need comfort in your life? What comfort are you called to give?

(And if you missed the rest of the series on spiritual practices with newborns, check out feeding and cleaning…)

spiritual practices with newborns: cleaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if the cleaning never ends.

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Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

Psalm 51: 7, 10

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

God cleans, clearly.

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

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

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

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

There’s a lifetime of spiritual practice in that.

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

spiritual practices with newborns: feeding

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

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

Feeding the baby is a full-time job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So feeding these smallest and weakest among us?

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

These are spiritual practices, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

spiritual practices with newborns: a new series

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Here we go again! Settling into Newborn Land…

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: here’s the complete list of posts on spiritual practices with newborns!

And my 4-part series on how to pray with a new baby in your life:

new J

the best secret we’ve ever kept

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Dear world:

He’s here!

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And he’s beautiful.

And we knew it was him all along.

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

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

We’re keeping it a surprise, I’d say.

My hunch is it’s a boy, I’d offer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nearly half a year spent waiting to spill the beans.

He’s the best secret I’ve ever kept.

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