Dear couple in the pew across from us:
I see the way you grip each other’s hands when you notice us. I see the way you try not to cry while you watch our kids. I see the way you kiss her forehead quietly; I see the way you lean your head on his shoulder, blinking back tears.
I see the way both of you stare straight ahead, willing yourselves not to think about it.
I see you.
While my husband and I are trying to corral the Mass chaos of three small kids, your eyes catch mine and then quickly look away. Turning from the sight of someone who has what you want.
Anything to keep from dwelling on what a young, growing family means to you.
I see you at the grocery store, too. At the park. At the restaurant. At the work party, the neighborhood potluck, the family reunion.
But somehow it feels even more painful when I see you at church. Maybe it’s because I know you’ll have to watch our motley crew for a whole hour, not just one quick turn down the store’s aisle or a sidewalk’s length at the park.
But mostly it’s because I remember sitting right where you are.
Praying with Kleenex balled in my fists, praying with tears at the corners of my eyes, praying for the strength not to envy, praying for this to be the month, praying to a God I clung to and yelled at, all at once.
I know the way you’re thinking, because I used to do the math just the same. Early 30s, I bet. Three kids. They’re so lucky. Our time is running out. It’s never going to happen for us. I hate this.
I wish I could tell you it gets better. I wish I could make the miracle happen for you. But besides my prayers – which you always have, and always will – all I can tell you is this: I see you.
I see your pain and I see your struggle. I don’t ignore it or forget it just because my arms are full of drooling babies and squirmy toddlers.
I remember that is one of the worst side effects of infertility. Not just the crazy hormone swings or the monthly disappointment or the gut-twisting ache when yet another friend calls with yet another excited pregnancy announcement.
It’s the invisibility. The way you feel like the world can’t see your pain.
And the awful truth? The church doesn’t always see your pain either.
Rare are the prayer petitions for couples suffering from infertility or miscarriage or stillbirth. Even rarer is an outreach ministry, a support group, a prayer chain – any resource to tell you that this community cares for you and grieves with you and hopes with you.
But things can start to shift once we start seeing each other. Once we remember that we are seen. Once we remember all the ways that the Body of Christ can be wounded.
Because when I see you, I remember those days, months, and years of infertility. I remember not to take my kids or my chaos for granted. I remember to pray for all those who are in pain or who are longing.
So while you’re sitting there at church on Sunday, feeling alone in your pew and alone in your heart, remember that someone out there sees you.
That there are those of us around you who have lived with that heartache, whether we went on to have children or not.
And we never forget what it feels like to grieve, to cry, to curse, to pray every Sunday, every day, again and again, for the one chance that will change everything. Or for the strength to accept a life that looks different from what we hoped.
We see you. And when we see you, we can start to be part of the change.
Part of the church that can pray for your pain. Part of the community that can support you in your struggles. Part of the Body of Christ that remembers that without each other, we are not whole.
This is how we learn, how we love, how we grow. By seeing what is invisible.
And I see you.
In love and hope,
From the mom in the opposite pew
. . .
The Lord, your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he acted with you before your very eyes in Egypt, as well as in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord, your God, carried you, as one carries his own child, all along your journey until you arrived at this place.
Notice your habits of holding your baby. Is your back arched? Are your shoulders slumped? Your wrists aching? Each time you pick up baby today, be mindful of the way you carry him or her. Make small adjustments to relieve the tension in your body.
Pray to God for the strength to carry your child throughout their life, not only when they are small enough to carry, but as they grow into adulthood.
Ask for the wisdom to know when and how to shift the way you hold your child, whether in your arms or in your heart.
. . .
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.
When your baby finally closes eyes to sleep today, let yourself lie down and rest for a few minutes.
Even if you have ten thousand other things you should be doing, even if the sink is overflowing with dishes, even if your older kids are running wild downstairs, even if you don’t have time for a real nap, simply let yourself rest and breathe deeply for several good minutes.
Take a Sabbath break in the middle of newborn time which follows no schedule. Allow your thoughts to settle and your love to rise.
Honor your body’s need to rest as a sign of strength, not weakness. Let yourself remember that it is not up to you to do it all. Delight in the truth that God’s ways, not yours, are ultimate.
. . .
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
Go outside on a clear night and look up at the stars. Remember how small your life is – your worries, your problems, and your fears – when seen against the vast universe above you. Give thanks to God who created the heavens and the earth.
Go inside and watch your baby sleep. Remember how big your life is – your joys, your loves, and your gifts – when compared to the tiny child before you. Give thanks to God who created this unique life and all its potential.
Continuing with the practical side of spiritual practices with newborns, here is the 2nd in this series of simple ways to pray while caring for a baby: all day long, up all night, in fussy moments, and in peaceful moments.
. . .
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I put my hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before each watch of the night,
that I may meditate on your promise.
Psalm 119: 147-148
Next time you are up with baby at 2:00 am (or 3:00 am, or 4:00 am – or all 3!), think of all those who are also awake at this late hour: employees working the third shift, tired parents tending to sick children, monks and nuns praying the hours.
Pray in solidarity with those who work while others sleep. Pray in thanksgiving to God who is always present, watchful and waiting.
. . .
… I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
As you rock back and forth with your baby, let the rhythm set the pace for your prayer.
Meditate on a two-part prayer that matches your movement forward and back.
A-men. Je-sus. Yah-weh.
Or choose the four-part cadence of the ancient Jesus Prayer:
Jesus Christ / Son of God / Have mercy on me / A sinner.
As you connect with your rhythm and breath and baby, let yourself be lulled and comforted as you quiet your own soul within you.
. . .
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Whenever you wrap your baby in soft blankets to keep her warm or tight swaddlers to help him sleep, think of Mary wrapping her newborn child in love and warmth. Ask for Mary’s guidance to love, protect, and care for your child.
. . .
But I will sing of your might;
I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been a fortress for me
and a refuge on the day of my distress.
O my strength, I will sing praises to you,
for you, O God, are my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love.
Psalm 59: 16-17
When you sing to your baby, think of someone who sang favorite lullabies to you as a child: a parent, grandparent, older sibling or baby sitter.
Hold their love in mind as you repeat verse after verse. Give thanks to God for the small, simple ways we share love with each other.
And when you run out of ideas for songs to keep you awake while you help baby fall asleep, try a church hymn – an old classic from growing up or a new favorite from today.
Add your voice to the church’s song of praise to God, who is faithful in the morning, all day, and at night.
. . .
Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – in fussy moments!
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.
. . .
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.”
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.
. . .
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.
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.
. . .
Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.
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!
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you…
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.
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?
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:
First, gather the flowers.
At Mass a few weeks ago, my oldest boy leaned into my side while we stood to say the creed together. I recited the words on the projector screen, still prompting us with the new translation of the prayer after decades of The Version We Used To Say.
Absent-mindedly, I stumbled as happens so often, tripping over clumsy words that once were clear:
“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was born – dah! was incarnate! – of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
Without thinking, I rubbed the basketball of my belly in that unconscious instinct of expectant mothers. I thought about birth and babies and started to grumble about why we didn’t say “born” anymore, why the abstract theological was deemed better than the concrete physical.
Then I felt baby’s quick jab to my right side, sharp enough to make me wince. And I felt my son’s tired lean into my left side, heavy enough to make me shift my footing.
And I realized. Maybe incarnate was a truer truth.
. . .
Second, arrange the stems.
Here’s the fact I forgot about incarnation: it was not a one-shot, abracadabra magical minute. Not the mysterious instant of the Spirit making a virgin Mary pregnant. Not the painful moment of pushing the baby into the world of cold and air.
If incarnation means God becoming fully human, that process took time.
Days and days of dark growth in the womb. Weeks and weeks of babyhood in his parents’ arms. Months and months of toddling steps and babbling words and bubbling emotions. Years and years of learning childhood’s lessons, adolescence’s growth, and adulthood’s maturity.
And she was helping to incarnate him through all of that.
Of course I understand theologically what we’re claiming in the creed. That the second Mary said yes and the divine light that was Jesus sparked within her, his life was fully human. I remember learning all the councils and heresies and theologians that fought to argue passionately for Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. I know why it’s essential Christian doctrine.
Yet I can’t help but think we lose sight of incarnation’s depth if we confine it to an angelic visitation or a virgin birth. I believe it was longer and messier and more exhausting. The lifelong journey that a mother’s love sticks around to see through to the end.
All the way to the cross.
. . .
Third, set in sunshine and water.
How long does it take to raise our babies?
Is it the nine months we carry them within us, or the years we spend waiting for the phone call that will bring them to our door?
Is it the eighteen years of childhood that society (and sarcastic jokes) dictate we’re in charge of their upbringing?
I think of all the parents I know with adult children, how they still lose sleep worrying at night. How they still hope they’ll check in after a long trip. How they still pray for their safety and dream of their success.
If it takes us a lifetime to become fully human – to try and grasp the beauty and the pain of this mysterious, fragile existence – then maybe bringing our babies to the fullness of life takes years, too.
Maybe “incarnate” is a better word than “born” to wrestle our arms around what it meant for Mary to give her daring yes to a life that she never imagined. To a life that would change our own.
. . .
Fourth, drink in the blooms.
If my boys ever offer me the chance to pick the book for naptime or bedtime (which rarely happens), I always reach for the same favorite.
Mama says be kind,
Mama says the rain will come,
But still the sun will shine.
I found the book in our college bookstore when my first baby was brand-new, and of course I cried as I flipped through the pages. Mothers from cultures around the world teaching their sons life’s essential lessons.
Mama says be loving,
Mama says be caring,
Mama says you’ve done God’s will
every time you’re sharing.
To be blessed with one, then two boys to pull onto my lap and share this story – of course it feels like pure gift. There is so much suffering in the world, so many couples crying for a child, so many children who know too much pain. That I can sit in a sunlit corner and rock these small, safe boys in my arms means all my jumbled heart can pray is thanks.
Because motherhood is the work of incarnation. Of daring to partner with God in helping these children become fully human.
A truth which one short line of our creed speaks each Sunday, easy to skip over if you miss it:
“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
And a truth which one children’s book states clear as a bell at its end:
Mama says help others,
And be the best you can.
I listened to what Mama said,
And now I am a man.