how to pray with baby: all day long

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

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

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

Starting today…

. . .

feeding

Feeding

To pray:

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

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

Matthew 25:37-40

To practice:

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

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

. . .

cleaningCleaning

To pray:

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

John 13:12-15

To practice:

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

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

. . .

healingHealing

To pray:

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

Jeremiah 17:14

To practice:

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

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

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

. . .

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

 

spiritual practices with newborns: healing

Mommy, I just want to hug you around your scars!

His sky blue eyes flash. His brows furrow. The cheerful animals plastered across his summer pajamas – a grinning monkey and laughing elephant atop a fire engine – smile up at me in stark contrast to the glare on his face.

For weeks he’s been told not to fling his arms around my waist. He can’t plop down into my lap when we read stories. I can’t carry him down the stairs. And he’s just plain sick of it. Tired of dealing with the aftermath of my surgery. I am, too.

But the scars are still healing. We have to keep waiting.

hospital

I thought I had postpartum healing figured out the third time around. Lots of rest. Lots of help. Hot baths. Healthy meals. Slow walking. No lifting.

And it turned out that my recovery from birth was even easier this time than in the past. Four days after Joseph arrived, I honestly felt like my old self. No pain, no soreness, no need for Tylenol. Of course I took it easy for a few more weeks, having learned the hard way how quickly a new mom can overdo it and end up paying the price. But I felt amazing, and I was grateful.

We kept remarking on it, astonished, in the few moments of adult conversation we’d steal after all the kids were tucked into bed at night. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, “but you seem to be feeling great.”

I agreed. I joked about waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Thud.

. . .

Healing became the theme of our summer, by no wish of our own.

First was recovering from the aches of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, of course. I expected that.

But then there was this awful appendicitis that landed me back in the hospital six weeks after giving birth.

And then we suffered a shocking death in our family.

And now people we love are waiting for test results and prepping for surgery.

In short, we’re surrounded by a lot of pain. Personal and communal, physical and emotional.

It will take a long time to heal.

. . .

Do pleas for healing get flung up towards heaven more than any other prayer?

All my life it seems I’ve been praying for someone to get better. Brother. Grandparents. Relatives. Friends. Teachers. Neighbors. Co-workers. Acquaintances. Strangers.

Many of those people stayed sick. Or got worse. Or died.

What exactly do I believe about healing anyway? Is it the reward of the lucky few? The result of the right treatment? The randomness of sheer luck?

And what does God have to do with it? Everything? Or nothing? I’m still not sure.

There are a few things I know. You need the right people to help you heal. People with expertise or experience or compassion or love. (Sometimes even all four.)

You need plenty of time. At least as much as experts advise. Sometimes much longer.

And things will never be exactly as they were before. Like the childhood scars that tried to teach us this truth. Pale pink ridges over once-smooth knees.

. . .

At first it seemed strange to see healing as a spiritual practice. After all, I had no choice in the matter: the baby and the appendix both had to come out. My body had to deal with the aftermath of each.

But when surgery shoved me back to bed after I thought recovery days were behind me, I started thinking about the cycle of suffering and healing. Is it an illusion whenever we think ourselves to be whole, as if healed were a past participle, tidy and complete?

I look around me and I see one family mourning a brother, another mourning a mother, another dealing with an awful divorce, another dealing with a terminal illness.

Around each of those wounds are circles rippling outward: relatives and friends and co-workers and neighbors who are affected by each of these losses. And the world writ large is groaning with pain, too. Russia and Iraq and Palestine and Israel. Too much.

Maybe the post-partum period is a microcosm of how suffering and healing shape all our lives. Some mothers have easy deliveries, some have traumatic births. Some of us have blissful babymoons, some have wretched recoveries. We do nothing to merit these experiences, but we must live through them as they come. We must try to heal as best we can.

To help our broken hearts to stay open, not bitter.

. . .

Three thin lines trace across my skin. Scars from the surgery. Still rosy red, still new enough to remind me daily of the difference between before and after.

This summer will be folded into my story just like soft new scars. This was the summer that Joseph was born and Uncle Jim was killed. (And my appendix failed in the middle of it all.)

But isn’t this the way our stories always wind? The physical and the emotional woven together. The personal and the communal weathered together. The beauty born of pain and the anger born of grief.

Eventually our skin will stretch to cover and accept the scar. We will be changed.

This is surely where God is found in healing. In our carrying of each other’s stories. And in our trusting that something good might be born of pain.

My child, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.

Do not let them escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Proverbs 4:20-22

. . .

Where in your life are you healing? How have you been changed?

spiritual practices with newborns: holding

Be still and know that I am God.

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

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

God was there somewhere, in what you held.

Be still and know that I am.

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

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

God was there somewhere, in what you cradled.

Be still and know.

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

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

God was there somewhere, in what you accepted.

Be still.

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

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

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

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

Be.

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

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

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

Watch yourself becoming someone new because of what you carry.

Watch God find you there. Again and always.

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

spiritual practices with newborn: beholding

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

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

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

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

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

But you have to look to see it. Behold.

. . .

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

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

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

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

He is a young soul, in fact. Behold.

. . .

What does it mean to behold?

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

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

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

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

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

You will be changed.

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I am able to be what I hold.

. . .

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

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

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

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

Write these words down. Behold.

. . .

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

spiritual practices with newborns: comforting

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.

comfort1

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

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.

wash

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: a new series

Here we go again! Settling into Newborn Land…

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till then, sweet dreams (ha)…

new J

when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.

birth retreat 1

Here are pastels, she said. Draw.

IMG_6117

Here is clay, she said. Create.

birth retreat 2A 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?

my mom, my mother-in-law, and…st. benedict?

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This door marker greeted me on retreat last weekend. A small but important sign that I was in a place of hospitality, a hallmark of the Benedictines and their spirituality.

Welcome.

I thought about hospitality often while I was on retreat. When I saw the generous plates of snacks set out at every break. When one of the sisters helped me navigate their breviary books for evening prayer. When I noticed the basket of toiletries at the bathroom sink with a note to help yourself if you’d forgotten anything at home.

Small gestures that convey a deeper embrace of the stranger as guest.

. . .

In his Rule for monastic orders, Saint Benedict writes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. I remember seeing these words engraved in stone near the Abbey Church at Saint John’s when I first started graduate studies at the School of Theology.

During the next three years of studying and then five years of working within a Benedictine community, I’ve learned plenty about hospitality from the brothers and sisters within the monasteries.

But whenever I think of how to welcome guests as Christ, I still think first of two mothers I’ve been blessed to know.

My mom. She turns down the sheets and blankets at night, inviting her guests to slip into bed. She arranges bouquets in bedrooms and tiny bud vases in bathrooms. She chooses favorite books and stuffed animals to line each grandchild’s bed. She sets Martha-Stewart-worthy centerpieces on the kitchen table and pulls out homemade soup and sandwich fixings to greet late-night travelers who drag in from the airport.

And if you arrive so late that you’re sure no one could possibly be waiting up for you (she still is), she’ll leave a candle glowing in the dark kitchen, just enough light to let you see the “WELCOME!!!” sign scrawled and circled on the refrigerator white board, exclamation points barely enough to contain her joy.

My mother-in-law. She fills the table with family, friends, neighbors and strangers. She invites anyone who doesn’t have a place to go for a holiday – seminary students from Nigeria, new neighbors from Egypt, families from Colombia, shirt-tail relatives from Canada – to join any gathering she’s throwing. She rearranges the dining room to make one long table so that everyone has a place. She makes sure every elderly relative goes home with a heaping Chinet plate of leftovers to reheat the next day.

Every time I’ve brought a friend home who’s received their welcome, I hear my own thoughts echoed in their comments as we pull out of the driveway – Your mom is honestly the nicest, most thoughtful person I’ve ever met. Does your mother-in-law seriously make a spread like that for every Sunday supper?

Clearly they each have the gift.

. . .

Sometimes I feel intimidated by their hospitality. Both these women have the charism for welcome: a gift given for the good of the community. If I don’t share the same instinct, should I just give up? My welcome of guests tends more towards worry – is our home too messy? is the guest room a disaster? will they be bored by our current life with littles that sets our family’s days?

But then I remind myself that both these women are expert homemakers. The honor of their life’s work has been deeply tied to the warm center of the home they created as a place of welcome, not just for their families but for any who cross their doorstep. Whether their hospitality first came by instinct or desire, they’ve honed the habits that became a practice that formed a way of life.

I imagine it’s the same for any Benedictine.

So perhaps here’s hope for me yet, and hopefully many more years in which to grow in learning what it means to embody a gracious reception of those who show up at my door. Christ in the face of friend or stranger.

Knowing each of these women well, I’m sure they’d scoff at any compliment of themselves as Christ-welcomers. But I suspect the secret they’ve learned is something like this: when you welcome a guest as Christ, you become like Christ yourself. Generous, compassionate, and loving.

The wider your welcome, the wider your heart.

. . .

Today is a Benedictine feast, the anniversary of Benedict’s death in 543. They’ll celebrate in true welcoming fashion at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s.

If it weren’t for the fact that I’ll be posting this today and my mom will surely blush when she reads it, I’d doubt that she or my husband’s mom would ever know this is a day that celebrates their life’s work as well.

But isn’t that the gift of those who open wide their door for guest or stranger? Teaching the rest of us how humility goes hand-in-hand with hospitality.

My kids have already picked up on this ancient Benedictine truth. They’re constantly asking when they get to visit their grandparents next. Because even if they can’t yet name it, they know how it feels to be welcomed as Christ.

Like your arrival is the long-awaited gift that everyone’s been looking for.

how to prepare for a birth day

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.

prego

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.