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.
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.
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.
Lots of people love Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
I am not one of them.
I know it’s mostly good-hearted cheer, encouragement for the journey, and wise words from a man who’d seen enough of life to know that the secret lies in looking ahead.
But these two pages drive me crazy: “…a most useless place. The Waiting Place…”
“NO! That’s not for you! Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying.
You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.”
What’s wrong with waiting?
Most of us spend much of our lives waiting. Waiting for a situation to change. Waiting for a relationship to heal. Waiting for health to improve. Waiting for a holiday or a homecoming. Waiting for test results, an acceptance letter, a job offer, a new opportunity, a shift in scenery or season or mood.
Aren’t we all waiting somewhere in these winding lines? For crying out loud, Christians are supposed to be waiting all the time.
Lest I be accused of being too harsh on Dear Seuss, I get what he’s saying. Don’t be passive. Don’t get stuck. Don’t expect life to magically improve if you’re not willing to work hard.
But to be true to life’s reality, the book could just as aptly be named Oh, the Places You’ll Wait!
Because we spend just as much time idling at the stop light, itching to accelerate, as we do with the wind whipping through our hair as we race ahead.
Waiting isn’t an evil to be shunned, a burden to be avoided, a drain to keep us from enjoying life. Waiting is life.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
. . .
Around here, we’re waiting all the time now.
The clock ticks painfully slowly. Each morning over breakfast, the kids ask when the baby will be here, and I shake my head at the sink, attempting to smile cheerfully while I scrub dishes.
We don’t know! We just have to wait!
I’m an eager and impatient person by nature. Waiting can be excruciatingly hard for me to bear. At 39 weeks pregnant, weary and waddling, I’m consumed by waiting. How I’d love to breeze past these pages of boredom and in-betweenness, of long lines and longing faces.
But life never works like that. Waiting is where we grow. Where God works on us in the long and quiet dark.
Waiting is work, but it’s holy work. God is here, too.
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.
. . .
Ironically I wrote this almost exactly one year ago. I didn’t know how much of the next 12 months would be filled with waiting: waiting for a baby, waiting to heal from losing that baby, waiting for another baby, waiting to work through my fears.
When impatience starts to get the better of me, when I find myself straining forward to see what’s next, when I tire of trying to live in the present, I wrestle with waiting.
But wrestling never wins; it is only when I stop to catch my breath that I realize there is only This. In preparation for That, perhaps. But waiting is about the present, not the future.
It’s the only way I can live right now.
To parent is to wait: to watch, to witness, to wonder what comes next, to want more for your child than what they have today. But to wait is also to be forced to slow down, to relinquish the illusion of control, to put your desires on hold while life makes other plans.
What could be harder than waiting?
This life is a relentless pull, asking us to stop when we want to go, making us release when we want to grab tight. We have to wait in the midst of all this back and forth. We never know what’s coming; we waste our time worrying about what never happens.
But when we wait – that is an act of faith.
Waiting is holy time, not wasted time. Psalms sing it; Jesus spoke it; centuries of Christians believed it.
So maybe the wild Technicolor imagination of the esteemed Dr. was right all along. Everyone is just waiting.
But I believe that’s not half bad.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6
In college I had two French professors whose advice I sought out during senior year.
That angsty season of trying to figure out what on earth one could do with a liberal arts degree, thanks to four delightful years of studying the humanities. And what on earth one should do with a heart that was getting ruined for Christ, thanks to four discomforting years of learning about service and theology and ministry.
The first professor had been a favorite since freshman year, first semester. I landed by luck in her Freshman Seminar and took every course she offered after that. She was brilliant, engaging, encouraging, funny and charming. (It didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous and lived all over the world and had a beautiful home where she hosted dinners at the end of every semester.) She mentored me through choosing a major, finding a study abroad program, and starting graduate level work in the department.
The second professor was a medieval scholar with whom I had several classes during junior and senior year. She was calm and quiet, patient and thoughtful, dedicated and hard-working. (Plus she had the most amazing curly hair that she could pin up in gorgeous buns a la the Renaissance damsels she studied.) She understood my passion for languages and let me explore creative approaches to her assignments.
So faced with the college senior’s perennial dilemma of what to do next, I thought of both of them. And in the span of one short month, tulips miraculously springing along every footpath on campus, I stopped by both of their office hours to pick their brains about how I might spend the next year of my life.
The first listened to me babble (in French! those were the days) about how I wanted to do something with my French degree but wasn’t sure anymore if the academic track was right for me. I’d found a few programs that would let me volunteer abroad in Francophone countries, and I wondered if I should try that while I figured out whether I wanted to be a professor.
She listened, nodded, asked good questions. I don’t remember anything concrete she said during the span of that conversation, but I left feeling affirmed – like this mentor of mine understood why I might not want to follow in her footsteps, yet encouraged me anyway.
The second listened to me just as attentively. But my concerns and questions didn’t seem to resonate in the same way. Sensing that she might not be seeing the crux of the question at the heart of my wrestling, I stopped and posed her a question. How did she integrate her faith and her work? This was really the weighty load I was carrying around for senior year – what did this nagging sense of God’s call for my life mean for the clear path I thought I’d set out on?
She looked me straight in the eye and said, You just have to learn to compartmentalize your life. I’m a Christian, and I do that.
She went on to talk about working during the week, dedicating herself to her students and scholarship, and then going to church on Sunday. And as she spoke, I realized with perfect clarity that she had helped me make up my mind. This kind of segregation was not the life I wanted.
At the end of our conversation, I thanked her for her time and stepped back into the corridor, closing her office door behind me.
To this day, I’m sure she has no idea that our conversation changed the course of my life.
. . .
Who are the midwives of our dreams? The ones who believe in our power, encourage our laboring, promise us that the end result will be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears?
For my first two babies, I saw a nurse-practitioner in my regular OB clinic. She was smart and sharp, witty and understanding, clear and confident. I liked her style.
But towards the end of my second pregnancy, I started noticing that perhaps she wasn’t as supportive of my questions as I’d hoped.
I asked whether it would be ok for our doula to be with us during the whole labor again, and she shrugged. Sure, I suppose. As long as she’s not in the way.
I asked whether I could deliver without drugs, free from pressure from the nursing staff, and she smirked a little. If you’re a glutton for pain, I guess. But you’ll probably end up wanting an epidural again.
I asked if baby could room in with us if everything went smoothly with the birth, unlike last time when our son had to stay in the level 2 nursery for the week. If you really want that. But you should give yourself a break and get some rest, too.
I started to leave my appointments with more confusion than clarity. And after a birth that went beyond my wildest expectations – so fast the doula couldn’t get there, so strong that my own power could match it, so smooth that we got to leave the hospital early with our healthy baby – I realized that I wanted something different from a future health care provider.
I wanted someone who understood.
. . .
Only a few months into this pregnancy, I realized why I love my current practice of midwives so much. It’s not because they encourage natural birth or talk about the emotional side of pregnancy or keep prenatal care as non-invasive as possible, although they do all these things beautifully.
It’s because they remind me of the other midwives in my life.
Friends who walked with me through the biggest decisions of college and grad school. Family members who coached me through challenges big and small. Teachers and mentors who guided by example and instruction. Even the 85 year-old Benedictine sister who has graced me with her wisdom as my spiritual director.
I see glimmers of all of them in these midwives. A spirit of gentle encouragement. A strength of loving support. A source of powerful wisdom.
And I wonder if I can be this for my own children one day, too. A midwife for their dreams.
The Psalms speak of God as midwife, guiding us from the first moments of our journey, caring for us from our mother’s womb.
Maybe we are all called to be midwives for each other, no matter our age, stage or situation. Maybe we are called to mirror God who companions us in our most vulnerable, painful moments and assures us that we are strong beyond our fears.
And maybe sometimes we are called to let others serve as midwives for us, too.
To accept their care and support. To surrender to their wisdom, even when we are so wrapped up in our worries that we cannot see clearly what lies ahead. To place our trust in their skilled hands and know that we will emerge safely on the other side.
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me
you have been my God.”
Who has helped midwife your dreams?
They are buddies, our two boys.
Far from best friends from birth, but now constant companions. Since full-time school doesn’t separate them yet, they still spend most of their waking hours together. And even though they’re lunging at each other’s throats as much as they’re hugging sweetly – after all, they’re siblings, not saints – they are still an inseparable duo.
A duo that’s about to gain a third.
I listen to them play together before nap. They read books to each other, jump around the room to their favorite music, laugh at jokes that only they understand. Secret words, secret games – they have a world all their own, and it is good that I am not part of it. But I still savor the listening.
Watching them hold hands when they walk through a parking lot, glancing in the rearview mirror to see them singing in matching car seats, I catch myself wondering how their dynamic will change when another is added to their mix.
Three is an odd number. Pair up and someone’s always left out. Instead of the straight line between two points, they will become a triangle of personalities, with all the pointy edges that can come with it. More energy in a trinity, to be sure, but also more complexity.
It will take time to sort out and settle. Reconfigure and renegotiate. As all life changes do, for all involved.
Even the smallest ones.
. . .
One of my professors in grad school used to interpret the Good Friday story from John’s Gospel like this: Jesus rearranges the family unit at the foot of the cross.
To Mary: Woman, here is your son. To John: Here is your mother.
A new family configuration. A small gain in the face of huge loss.
We talked about this Scripture in the context of ministry to families dealing with divorce and remarriage. But I think her wisdom applies to plenty of changes that families face, both good and bad.
Even in the happiest moments of a family’s life – like an engagement or a birth – there is loss. What was the original unit will be no more. Everything is rearranged. Relationships changed, dynamics shifted. We will never be the same.
Because human nature pulls us toward the positive, we tend to gush about what is gained. The best gift you can give your child is a sibling. Isn’t it great when a family grows? But the flip side of every good gain is real loss. And acknowledging this truth does not lessen the joy. It merely sets the change in honest context.
What has been was good (and hard and real). What will be can become the same.
So the image of Jesus rearranging the family at the foot of the cross is a comforting one for me. In times of birth as well as loss, marriage as well as divorce, joy as well as sorrow, we can find blessing in what is broken open.
. . .
What is lost?
The ease of the present time: everyone sleeping (mostly) through the night, no one wearing diapers, each child speaking his needs.
The convenience of being the perfect family size by society’s standards: 2 parents + 2 kids that fit easily into a sedan or a museum pass.
The dynamics we’ve long established, the habits we’ve come to enjoy, the schedule we’ve taken for granted.
What is gained?
The wonder of welcoming a new relationship into our lives.
The love that increases when we stretch out of our comfort zone.
The mystery of a new personality that will bring us joy and growth.
We decided long ago it was worth it, the costs and sacrifices and inconveniences of having another baby. This is the dream we have for our family. But even when we conclude that the gains outweigh the losses, change still brings challenges.
Is there still Christ among us, rearranging our family unit? I think so. In all kinds of situations. Reminding us that God intended family to be a growing, expanding, embracing love.
So whenever our newest member arrives and the sibling squabbles start afresh, I hope I can remember this truth. That the beauty of what we have right now as a family was born of blood, sweat, and tears at its beginning, too.
And so can be again.
Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. How easily we pass over them, eyes set eagerly on Easter Sunday. Or anticipating Thursday’s opening of the Triduum.
Our first half of Holy Week probably looks a lot like yours. Work. School. Kids. Meetings. Chores. Bills. The lackluster pregame show before the big kickoff. The forgettable prelude before the fanfare. The ordinary before the extraordinary.
But the church’s calendar claims these three are holy, too.
The earliest days of the holiest week are in-between: not quite Lent, not quite Easter. It is a time of anticipating what is right around the corner, practically within reach. We are almost there.
The Main Event looms large on the horizon. All signs point toward its arrival, but the journey here has been so long – can it really be coming?
Ahead of us lies both pain and joy, suffering and peace. How can we possibly prepare for all that? How can we hold all this tension at once?
These are the last days. They matter.
Soon we will remember how everything changes.
. . .
The end of the third trimester is a strange part of pregnancy. The eagerness of almost, the frustration of not-yet.
Like Holy Week’s emotional extremes, this time swings wildly: something to celebrate, something to endure, something to savor, something to push through. Both quiet and flurry, both calm and storm. Each day adding to our anticipation.
My mental countdown clicks steadily. Five more midwife appointments. Five more prenatal yoga classes. Five more weeks to finish all those pressing work projects.
Each Saturday the nesting instinct kicks in with greater intensity. Scribbled To Do Before Baby! list in hand, I clean out closets and drawers, watch the boys build the crib with their father, wash baby blankets and fold diapers in neat stacks.
Ready and waiting.
Every friend and stranger I meet asks how much longer I have left. Around us bubble joy and anticipation. A growing readiness to be done. An impatience to discover what (and who!) comes next.
I wonder. Have I done enough? Yes. And no. Like Lent, this journey of expectation is always bigger than me, beyond my personal penances, my tries and fails, my awareness of my own limits. I am carried by forces greater than my own.
And a calendar that presses ever onward, oblivious to the emotions with which I fill the hours.
. . .
I wonder how to honor this time rather than race too fast towards the end goal. How to see the holiness of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in turn.
These neglected early days of Holy Week are a different kind of preparation from the Lent that preceded. More immediate. Here and not-here. Upon us, yet still beyond our grasp. The mystery of the middle time, when we think we know what awaits us (all the Easters have we been through before), when we remember that we can always be surprised (each year bringing its own gifts).
Do I remember to reverence these almost-days, these overlooked ordinaries?
The Celts spoke of thin places, spaces and moments when heaven and earth seem to touch, only the slightest trace separating their realities. Perhaps Holy Week is a small hole through which we peer into the deepest mysteries of the life of God. We could never understand all that it contains. But each year we might nudge a little closer, if we try, to imagine what its truth might mean for our lives.
I watch and wait in this almost-time. It could be long weeks till everything changes; it could be mere days. But God is here, too.
And it is not only Easter morning which makes it so. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. All the ordinary days matter, too.
Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.
Here are pastels, she said. Draw.
Here is clay, she said. Create.
A gathering of mothers. A time and space set apart. A whole afternoon to ourselves, to pause and pray and ponder what it means to approach pregnancy and childbirth as something spiritual.
At Peg’s retreat, I thought about birth and babies and becoming a mother all over again. But weaving between these weighty meditations were simpler sensations: the chalky smear of pastels on my fingers, the ghost-white trace of clay under my nails, the wavy curl of paper as watercolors dried.
When was the last time I let myself make art for an entire afternoon?
Sometimes I sit down with the kids at their small table in front of the sunny window and I doodle while they draw. Or I dip a brush and make soft strokes while they paint. Or I roll playdough into long coils while they squish and smash their creations.
But I never make art. Not on my own.
Why? Because I’m too busy. Because it’s not what grown-ups do. Because I’m not good at it.
. . .
All the way home from the birth retreat, I turned one question over and over in my mind: when did we decide that we were bad at art?
Many adults I know, who colored and drew and painted and pasted their way through childhood, no longer make time for artistic expression. It’s considered child’s play. Delightfully entertaining or developmentally enriching for little ones, but not a serious way to spend time as mature, productive members of society.
But when did this shift start? When did art cease to be an essential way we explored the world? When did it become reserved for the talented, the elite, the lucky few?
I used to love making art – at school, at home, in classes at our local art institute. I especially loved the pottery classes: the whirl of the wheel between my knees, the slippery slide of the glossy clay between my fingers, the surprising emergence of something new and warm between my hands.
But then I stopped. I can’t quite remember why – maybe sports seemed more important, maybe art seemed less cool, maybe the insecurity of adolescence whispered that I should shy away from somewhere I didn’t excel.
So now it seems daunting to start making art again – how? where? when? Why am I afraid of what used to seem so simple? Is it still the worry of looking like a fool? The intimidation of not knowing where to begin?
Or the primal, pulsing fear of failure?
. . .
Only six weeks left till the due date. Of course my thoughts wind birth-ward every day.
Heavy with baby, I watch my boys scrawl with sidewalk chalk, paint pages with watery doodles, color their latest crayoned masterpiece. I see how they trust themselves to create, how un-intimidated they are by the blank page, how much energy they pour into their work and how much delight they take in showing it to others.
At night when I dip into the childbirth books on my nightstand, I find myself turning over and over one question: when did I decide that I was intimidated by birth? When did this biological capacity become something to fear, medicate, suppress, or evade? Why do I have to psych myself up with the mental focus of a marathoner for a natural process that my body was created to do?
It’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated question, I know. The process of labor and delivery can be complex and dangerous, to say nothing of long and painful. Even if I had seen a hundred births in my lifetime, as other women my age would have in other cultures or eras, I might still be as terrified of the known as of the unknown.
But I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make to laboring women if we thought of ourselves as powerful co-creators.
If birth had remained at the center of our culture rather than being shoved to the side.
If we understood more about our bodies and their potential.
If we didn’t listen to the voices who told us we weren’t strong enough.
If we hadn’t decided we weren’t good at it.
. . .
I’m trying to practice, a little every day. (Easier said than done.)
Breathe, don’t balk, through the Braxton-Hicks contractions. Focus, don’t flinch, when the pressure of baby gets too intense.
Paint something, don’t write, when my mind wants to muse. Sit with the kids, don’t scurry, when they’re creating.
Step aside from the well-worn grooves of thinking one way. Sit with the possibility that there might be another path.
. . .
Yesterday afternoon my son came to me in tears because the tail of the monkey he was coloring had torn off.
“I can’t do it another way!” he wailed when I gently suggested that he might try coloring the animal before cutting it out, so that he didn’t have to color on such a skinny tail. “I only can do it this way!”
What if we tried it again? I suggested. What if he took a deep breath to calm down? What if we worked together to try a new way?
His bottom lip still puffed out in a quiver, he hesitated. And then he nodded yes as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers still stained from the morning’s markers.
What if we were all brave enough to try, again?
There’s the hospital bag, of course. Pre-registration paperwork. The Kegels you’re supposed to be practicing ten times a day. Delivery room playlist on the iPod. Deep breathing exercises. Child care arrangements for your other kids. Out-of-office email reply waiting and set to maternity leave.
But does any of that really prepare you for labor and birth?
Maybe I’m lazier this time around. (Ok, assuredly I’m lazier this time around.) But I can’t bring myself to motivate for so many pre-baby preparations that have typically consumed my thoughts by this point in previous pregnancies: cleaning and nesting, stockpiling frozen meals, setting up the baby gear, washing tiny onesies and newborn diapers.
Now whenever I get a free minute? I mostly want to sleep.
And instead of pouring over childbirth preparation books or crafting the perfect birth plan to hand to the nurses upon arrival at the hospital, I find myself shrugging whenever I think about Delivery-Day. It will come, it will be unexpected, it will be hard. And then it will be over and our baby will be here.
But just as I might have missed the opportunity for deeper reflection upon birth’s meaning the first time around when I was nothing but scared, I don’t want to miss the chance to explore the spiritual side of this huge transition simply because it’s my third time through.
Whether unknown or known, childbirth is a defining moment of a mother’s life. And I believe it is one of the “thin places” between heaven and earth.
So I’m wondering how to ready myself this time. How prayer can be part of the pain. How meditation can be part of my mindfulness. How each contraction can remind me that Christ is within me and beside me and before me.
I’ve already gathered a trinity of prayers for labor and birth. But as Lent surrounds me in the last months before baby arrives, I also find myself thinking about simplicity and surrender. How to let go of any lingering expectations and free myself to enter into whatever God has prepared.
In my latest piece for Catholic Mom, I wrote about the journey from feeling terrified at the prospect of birth to finding peace in what will be a painful but powerful day of discovery:
I’m starting to see the spiritual side of birth in ways that I never would have dreamed when I headed to Labor & Delivery for the first time. Birth as beginning, birth as sacrifice, birth as rite of passage – God is intimately wrapped up in all these ways we understand this work that women do to bring life into the world.
Being intentional about this process – a sort of sacramental preparation – has helped me to bring hope, not fear, to the prospect of bringing another baby into the world.
Lots of ink gets spilled in parenting manuals and glossy magazines about birth plans, birth preparations, even identifying your health care provider’s “birth philosophy.” But approaching a spirituality of birth invites those of us who carry new life within us – as well as those who love and care for us – to view this work as prayer and to place our trust in God who accompanies us from the first contraction to the final push.
Read the rest at CatholicMom.com…
And next week I’ll have the chance to enter intentionally into this deeper reflection, thanks to Peg Conway’s retreat on the spirituality of birth. Nell of Whole Parenting Family and I conspired to bring Peg to the Twin Cities (since both of us are now expecting #3!), and I can’t wait for this afternoon of exploring the prayerful parts of this sacred journey.
If you’re local and want to join us, please find more information on Facebook or at Enlightened Mama in St. Paul, MN, where the retreat will be held. And if you’re too far away to spend Saturday, March 22nd, with us, check out Peg’s wonderful book – Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth.
Lenten Approach #1 (aka The First-Time Mother):
Step 1: Read everything you can to prepare. Stock up on all the experts’ manuals. Consult all the conflicting schools of thought. Aim to stack at least five sizable books on your nightstand.
Step 2: Consult everyone you know for their advice. When in doubt, turn to the Internet. Start a Pinterest board for inspiration. Post Facebook statuses asking for suggestions. Email every trusted friend to find out what worked for them.
Step 3: Chart daily progress. Check off each to-do. Secretly compare your progress with others. Start to feel guilty. Worry that you’re doing this all wrong. Entertain temptations of giving up.
Lenten Approach #2 (aka The Second-Time-Around Mother):
Step 1: Check the calendar to confirm that weeks are indeed flying by. Resolve to do something to prepare.
Step 2: Dig out something that worked last time. Try to remember what you liked about it. Decide to use it again anyway.
Step 3: Marvel at how the same book/technique/discipline/philosophy that worked before now produces an entirely different result. Start to let go.
Lenten Approach #3 (aka The Too-Tired-Third-Time Mother):
Step 1: Find yourself shocked to be on the threshold and utterly unprepared.
Step 2: Sigh. Shrug. Sit back.
Step 3: Jump once again into the unknown. Trust that things will work out. Rejoice when they do. Forgive yourself when they don’t. Embrace the unexpected.
. . .
Throughout my life I’ve had all three of these Lents (regardless of gestational status). Maybe you have, too.
The Lents I swore I’d fast like a fanatic and pray like a pro and give like a saint. The Lents I scrambled to remember what worked so well in the past. The Lents when life was already complicated and I didn’t need to go searching for spiritual challenge.
Each one brings its own promises and pitfalls. Each one depends an awareness of the season’s gifts. Each one opens a door of invitation to draw closer to God.
What will this Lent be for you?
Six weeks start here. I still haven’t “decided what I’m doing,” as we say in our Catholic circles. What to fast from. What to pray for. What to give alms to.
Plenty of ideas swim round my mind; good intentions crowd my thoughts. But this year I’m feeling called towards the unknowing. It’s fine to have a Lent that clamors for no contest or competition.
Living as a pregnant mom brings plenty of opportunity for discipline and self-denial. Counting down the weeks till a new baby joins our family makes preparation a daily practice. And looking ahead to a time of great change means that I’m already turning inward to ask God where I will be led.
Lent feels like it’s been here for a while. The question is how I go deeper.
By the time Easter Sunday arrives, I’ll be 4 short weeks from my due date.
I could choose to go Route #1: read a bunch of books to remember what birth and babies are like; email every friend I know with 3+ kids to ask how they do it; make a detailed to-do list of everything we have to finish before baby arrives.
Or I could choose to go Route #2: mentally nag myself to start getting ready; paw through boxes of baby books and gear to figure out what we did before; ignore my midwives’ advice that this time around will likely be completely different from the last.
Or I could choose to go Route #3. Remember that labor – and Lent – come whether we are ready or not. Remember that the more I wrestle, the harder both will be. Remember that the joy and peace and beauty that are God can never be contained by my own control.
How to live Lent as a pregnant mother? Probably the same way we’re all called to live it.
According to the ashes in our life this year. Towards our hope of what an empty tomb might mean.
I do not like the experience of pregnancy. There. I said it.
I like the fact of being pregnant. I love the gift of life, the sheer blessedness of getting to bring a child into this world. I love the answer to prayer brought by pregnancy after infertility and miscarriage, the undeserved grace that this is how our story turned out. I love the overwhelming abundance of a healthy pregnancy, knowing that – for now – everything looks good with the baby growing within me.
But I hate the way I feel and think and act while pregnant.
I hate morning sickness that drags months beyond what every expert tells you is “normal.” I hate taking medicine merely to function beyond the overwhelming nausea. I hate the exhaustion that sends me to bed at 8:30 most nights. I hate the nagging back pain and the chronic discomfort and the unmentionable side effects. I hate how big I get so quickly, how eyebrows raise when I tell my due date because it doesn’t fit anyone’s mental math of how I must be packing my hospital bag already.
I do not glow. Mostly I glower.
And then – because of the infertility and the miscarriage and the awareness of how pregnancy and parenthood have brought unexpected suffering to so many people I love – I feel guilty on top of everything else.
No wonder the baby’s estimated arrival date is circled and highlighted and exclamation-pointed on every calendar I can find.
. . .
When I started reading Sarah Jobe’s Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy, I was wary. Of course I love a good practical theology as much as the next girl with a Master of Divinity degree, but I could not bear a feel-good tribute to pregnancy’s bountiful blessings.
Thank God, the author felt the same:
Pregnancy is at the heart of God’s work in the world. Pregnant women are the image of God among us. But those truths are sometimes hard to see…I still can’t bring myself to say that I love pregnancy. But deep down, I really do. Pregnancy is a place where heaven and earth meet and constipation takes on cosmic significance. What’s not to love?
I decided I could stomach this spiritual spin on What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Over the past few weeks, Jobe’s book has made me think about pregnancy in a different light.
When I threw up in the kitchen sink on the morning of week 22.
When I admitted to my husband that the maternity coat that was supposed to last the long Minnesota winter was perhaps getting a teensy bit snug.
When my chiropractor whistled and said, “Wow, you’re one tough cookie,” at the last adjustment to relieve my throbbing low back pain.
None of this was what I wanted. But this is simply the reality of pregnancy in my life.
So where is God in all that mess?
Jobe’s book reminded me to look at the flip side of pregnancy’s suffering. To see the grueling work of creation, the giving work of laying down your self for another, the groaning work of birthing new life into the world.
All of it is shot through with God. But not the doe-eyed Precious Moments God plastered across Hallmark cards and nursery decorations.
The God I meet in pregnancy and the work I do in pregnancy are nothing like I expected. But I’m realizing that they might reveal even more about God’s truth than I want to admit.
God’s work in the world is nauseating. Feed the poor? Care for the sick? Visit the imprisoned? Most of what that demands makes my stomach churn.
God’s work in the world is uncomfortable. Love your enemy? Give all you have to the poor? Forgive 70 times 7? I’m already squirming just thinking about it.
God’s work in the world is unpredictable. Set my people free? Come and follow me? Go and make disciples of all nations? None of those detours were in my plans.
God’s work in the world can be peaceful and glowing, joyful and thrilling. But it can also be tumultuous and dark, unsettling and disruptive.
And if the work we’re called to do in the world is God’s work, and if the image we’re called to bring to the world is God’s image, then I don’t get a nine-month reprieve from this deepest calling of the Christian life.
If I’m trying to see the God-image in other people, I have to try to find it in the mirror, too.
. . .
So maybe it’s ok if strangers stare when they see me pregnant.
Maybe it’s fine if I look bigger or feel sicker than everyone thinks I should.
Maybe if we all bear the mystery and likeness of God to each other – and I believe we do – then pregnant moi is a visual reminder that the image of God stretches far beyond our expectations.
Whether we feel beautiful or broken, sick or strong, there is still God behind our eyes and in our bones.
Even tired mama eyes and aching pregnant bones.
Yesterday I made a shocking discovery.
(For a book-lover, that is.)
I was rummaging through my bookshelves, trying to find something for work. When I suddenly realized that I had completely failed myself.
I hadn’t organized a single book I’d read since I became a mom.
Allow me to back up for a minute. Of course I’ve shelved all the books I own. (It took us months longer to get settled into this new house when we moved with two teeny kids, but I did manage to get that essential unpacking done in short order.)
And of course, the book geek in me did find time to arrange by genre: all the theological tomes together on one towering bookshelf in my office, fiction on another, poetry and art history on a third, and old French paperbacks (and even a few of my husband’s books I let him sneak in) on the fourth. Perfect, right?
Because here’s the full geeky truth: the only way I really want my books arranged is autobiographical.
(When John Cusack whispered that same line about his record collection in High Fidelity, I swooned.)
I’ve done this ever since I was a little girl. I kept books together on the shelf that I read at the same time (because of course, true book lovers are always reading more than one book at a time). And as I finished each book, I filled up the row.
I loved looking back and remembering the serendipitous connections I’d made between books – the novels I read during that winter, the poetry I dove into after that breakup. My life made sense through books, and my shelves told the story.
Fast-forward a few years? I’m lucky if I find a home for the stacks of books that (still, to my husband’s dismay) steadily enter our house year after year. Now when I finish something, it sits on my nightstand for six months, then on the floor of my office for a few more weeks, and finally – in the last-minute flurry before visitors are coming over – I shove it thoughtlessly onto the shelf where most people would assume it belongs: novels with novels, non-fiction with non-fiction, and so forth.
So since I became a mom, I have no record of what I’ve read. Fail.
It’s not looking good for my housekeeping skills to improve any time soon, especially not with #3 on the way. But I realized that I could still chronicle my reading adventures if I only wrote them down somewhere. This combined with the fact that I’ve gotten some of my favorite recent reads from other bloggers’ suggestions means that I’m inspired to pull together the list of what I’ve been reading lately (or rather, what I’ve read since the beginning of this pregnancy, because – let’s face it – pregnant women are obsessed with documenting the passage of those long weeks till the due date.)
And because I’m always eager to get new suggestions, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading lately, too! Make no mistake: we’ve got many months of winter to go in Minnesota, and I need all the good reads I can get while the wind howls through the blizzard outside.
So without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading. The beginnings of a virtual, chronological bookshelf of reading through maternity (five years after this journey started):
What I read to make myself feel better at the beginning:
Let’s start serious. Pregnancy after loss is hard and dark. I needed help and hope to boost my spirits during that tentative first trimester. Roxane recommended After Miscarriage: A Catholic Woman’s Companion to Healing & Hope, and I was so glad I took her advice. This small book is a comforting collection of stories and suggestions, gentle and healing, about grieving and opening yourself up to the possibility of another child. I’d highly recommend to any mom who’s suffered a miscarriage.
Moving on. (My sense of humor is too twisted to stay in the melancholy forever.) When I was sick beyond anything you’d want to imagine in those first few weeks, I could barely make it out of bed some days (and every evening). Curled up with my trusty Kindle, I tried to find any offerings from our library’s e-collection that would take my mind off the gut-wrenching reality that is me in the 1st trimester. And I came across this – riveting? harrowing? choose your clichéd but true adjective here – story of a catastrophic climb up Mt. Everest in 1996. I flew through Into Thin Air, grateful for every awful description of altitude sickness and toes lost to frostbite, because it reminded pitiful, pathetic moi that things could be much, much worse. Always a good lesson.
Anyone who knows me in real life knows I never care if I’m late to the party. Even if I’m years late. I Don’t Know How She Does It was so hyped when it came out a decade ago that I was too annoyed to read it then. But – returning to pathetic, pukey me confined to my comforter – I came across this one from the aforementioned e-library offerings and decided to find out what all the fuss was about.
I hated this book. The narrator’s frenzied descriptions of her life as a working mom stressed me out just reading them. And yet I made myself finish it, just to see how things turned out. (Which proves to you how desperate I was for distraction.) But it’s still worth remembering on my chronological shelf since it does define one image of motherhood our culture is wrestling with today: the woman who tries to have it all.
What I read when I started feeling 2% better:
For me, the second trimester doesn’t bring so much relief as sheer annoyance at how long I’ve been feeling sick. So once I made myself get out of bed for good, I stopped reading solely on the Kindle and started dipping into real paper books again. These three were perfect to read in short snippets (even while pretending to hide in the bathroom – let’s be honest about how mothers of young kids sneak in their reading time).
I adored this book. Katrina Kenison’s writing is beautiful, and I’d long admired it from afar. These short pieces in Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry felt like deep breaths in my frenzied days, like sitting down with a dear friend over a warm cup of tea. Katrina is wise and real and thoughtful and inviting, and when I reluctantly finished the last essay, I started scheming which book of hers to read next. I wish I could buy this for every mom I know.
I doubt I would have ever read this book if a dear friend hadn’t literally dropped it in my lap. I’d heard of Nadiz Bolz-Weber in the blogosphere and appreciated some of her radical Jesus-thoughts as an edgy Lutheran pastor. But I’d never spent any real time with her writing until Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. And I thoroughly enjoyed it: thought-provoking, challenging, laugh-out-loud hysterical at points.
This memoir-ish collection of essays made me think hard about bad habits it can be easy to fall into as a person of faith – I especially loved her notion that whenever we draw a line between ourselves and another group to declare ourselves in the moral right, Jesus usually winds up looking back at us from the other side – and I’m so glad I took a chance on a book I probably never would have picked up otherwise.
Another book I wish I could give to every parent I know, new or experienced. On a rare bookstore jaunt at summer’s end, I found this volume tucked in the back of the poetry section. I tend to be wary of poetry collections (too often full of the schmaltzy and sentimental), but I was drawn to flip through this one and immediately I ran up to the counter to buy it.
Morning Song: Poems for New Parents is a wonderful collection of poems celebrating everything from conception and birth to sleepless nights and first steps. But the poems chosen so thoughtfully by its editors resonate far beyond the first year and the first year. These are classic and contemporary poets reflecting on the deepest truths of what it means to bring new life into the world. I’m still savoring this one.
What I’m reading now:
Eowyn Ivey’s incredible novel The Snow Child almost convinced me that the frozen north is a beautiful place to live. I’ve rarely read such vivid, poetic descriptions of the land as a character (1920’s Alaska, in this case), and her creative spin on the traditional fairy tale versions of a heart-breaking story about a childless couple and the fantastical child that changes their life was simply a gem to read. One of those where you let out the long sigh when you finish the last page, wishing it weren’t over. This book was brutal and surprising and nothing what I expected when I started reading, but I won’t soon forget it.
A few years ago, I started noticing a pattern in my favorite essays from Notre Dame Magazine. They were all by Brian Doyle. Then his words started showing up in reflections in Give Us This Day, and I read his words again in the National Catholic Reporter, and I started wondering why I’d never sat down with a good stack of this man’s brilliance?
This book is incredible. I’m savoring it in small bites, like one of those delicious restaurant desserts you want to make last, and I’m elbowing my husband in bed every other night to make him read one of the zinger reflections in Grace Notes. This will assuredly not be the last book I read by Brian Doyle. (Here are a few teasers to convince you.)
Sarah Jobe’s theological reflection on the joys and pains of pregnancy is the other book vying for my attention on my nightstand these days. In a bittersweet way, her book’s title – Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy – rings even truer for me today than when I first bought it for myself, back in late July when I was delighting in the prospect of baby #3. When we lost that baby, the confusing become much more real. For months I couldn’t pick this book up, remembering how excited I had been to buy it, my treat to myself to get through that first trimester of blech and burden. But just a few days ago I came across it again (at the bottom of a stack in my unorganized office – see, dear reader, it all comes full circle!). And I’m so glad I decided to jump in.
The author writes in such a thoughtful, unsentimental way about the power of pregnancy as an experience of co-creation with God, of bearing the marks of Christ, and of embodying the practices that draw us closer to the Spirit. Much more to say about this in weeks to come; she’s really got me thinking about pregnancy in a whole new light. (Every other page is underlined or dotted with exclamation points, so you know it’s good stuff.)
So there you have it: nearly 22 weeks of reading. What will the next 18 bring? Only the library and my Kindle can tell… But I want your suggestions!
What are you reading these days?