feed, tend, repeat.

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(Meditations on today’s Gospel. Typed with one hand, lamb in lap.)

Do you love me?

I say the same things all day long.

Sit down. Use your fork. Don’t hit each other. Say please. Chew with your mouth closed. Don’t interrupt. Be kind. Say thank you. Hurry up. Take turns. Be gentle. Don’t yell. Watch the baby. Help each other. Say I’m sorry. Let’s clean up. I love you.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Feed my lambs.

. . .

Do you love me?

I do the same things all day long.

Feed the children. Wash the children. Make the meal. Clean the house. Comfort the children. Teach the children. Let the dog out. Let the dog in. Drive the car there. Drive the car here. Load the dishes. Unload the dishes. Wash the laundry. Fold the laundry.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Tend my sheep.

. . .

Do you love me?

I think the same things all day long.

I’m tired. I need caffeine. What time is it? We’re late. I should do that. I should clean that. I don’t know what to do. Help me. Deep breath. How much longer till naptime? Slow down. Try again. Love them. When is he coming home? I’m tired. Be patient. I love them. How much longer till bedtime?

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Feed my sheep.

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If he had cooked me breakfast, sat with me on the cold wet beach, stared up at the pale sky while we talked, what would I say if he asked?

What would I say if he kept asking?

God repeats. We repeat. It is the only way we learn. It is the only way we live.

Do you love me more than these? I hope I do.

Tend my lambs. You know I do.

. . .

Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. (Deuteronomy 6:5-7)

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he is one

When you are the third child, especially the third of three boys, nothing comes new. Clothes, books, toys – all are gently loved or well-worn-out by the time they reach your hands.

When you are still tiny, you accept this, of course. You don’t know the world to be any other way.

Your firsts are not earth-moving milestones. Your every move is not captured on video or preserved in photo albums. From day one your needs and wants cannot command complete attention.

This truth is hard and humbling and healthy. For you and your parents.

You are not simply a special snowflake. You are one among many. 

1stbirthday

One year ago we met for the first time. My memories of birth are fast and foggy, snapshots of scenes. The first flash of him, wet and purple, his radiant heat in my shaking arms. His wavy dark hair and deep eyes squinting to see. My astonishment at his existence, the breathing weight of him on my chest, still startling after I carried him for nine long months below my heart.

Twelve months later, he crawls, claps, chuckles at every silly dance his brothers perform to earn a smile. The tantalizing prospect of walking awakens as he reaches to pull himself up and learns to steady uncertain legs. Words slowly take shape within the babbles of his voice.

He is one for the first time. He has never been here.

. . .

Last week I crossed my legs on church basement carpet and watched his brother celebrate his summer birthday three months early.

He placed the Montessori mat carefully on the small table, set the candle for the sun in the center, and opened his hands to hold the small globe as his teacher told the story of seasons. How we are always moving around the sun, how we would never know time was passing if we didn’t stop to notice the changes around us.

As his classmates counted, he took almost-four trips around the table, circling the sun with the world in his hands. His teacher read the short story of his birth that I had written, a rainbow of markers telling his first day of life. Everyone sang the song he chose and listened to the book he brought as a gift. His face was squinched in a strange smile, equal parts proud and embarrassed to be at the center of attention.

Then he walked quietly around the circle again, tapping each child on their bowed head to send them off for the rush of shoes and jackets and lunch boxes.

A simple celebration, ended as soon as it began. Perfect for preschool. Maybe enough for all of us: to celebrate another whirl around this spinning sun, to remember our place in the world, to let light shine on us for an instant.

One among many. He could not have been happier.

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Christianity teaches these twinned doctrines of identity. Imago Dei: we are created in the image of God, each of us unique and unrepeatable, worthy and beloved in our own right. The Body of Christ: we are part of a larger whole, all of us interdependent and intrinsically connected, bound up in each other for the common good.

These two beliefs – that we are one and we are many – braid together to become two essential practices for my parenting. I want to teach these children that they are loved beyond measure for the individuals that they are, created and called by God to do their own particular good in the world. And I want to teach them that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, that their own joys and struggles are put in humble perspective within a world of seven billion others.

Let your light shine, but remember Who you reflect.

Build your life into worthy service, but remember you cannot do alone.

Trust that you are one and we are many.

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Last night we celebrated the baby’s first birthday. In such ordinary ways that I felt almost disappointed. Shouldn’t I have done more to make a fuss? Spread a feast or lavished him with bright bows? Would he know how wondrous his life has been in ours if we didn’t preserve perfect memories for posterity?

No. I see in the crumbs of this morning that all the love he needed was there.

Homemade carrot cake, the work of his brothers’ helping hands. Lilacs dripping out of the blue glass vase, picked proud by those same siblings. Hand-scribbled cards, a new CD, one book to replace the favorite he tore in half.

He loved the party hats, lunged for the candle as we sang, smashed handfuls of cake in his mouth. I stretched back to that exhausted, euphoric new mother I was one year ago that night, holding him and learning him and wanting nothing more than for him to be safe, loved, here with us.

And now he is: right here. This is exactly what we wanted.

It was what a birthday should be. A celebration of the blessing of a life, still fresh and unfolding before our eyes. And a reminder that all of ours are intertwined, that we are – thankfully – not the sun center of the universe.

I have to practice this truth each new morning, as I ready myself for another day. To remember that I am beloved but also beholden to others. To believe that I am called by the One who calls the many. To hold fast in the knowledge that my life is one small part of a much bigger story.

This truth is hard and humbling and healthy. For all of us, maybe.

He is one. We are, too.

the shadow side

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When my brothers and I were younger, we loved to tip over the big rocks that lined my parents’ gravel driveway. Often it took two of us to pull and pry and plop a stone onto its side so we could peer underneath. The dirt was rich and loamy, full of slimy worms squirming back into the soil and pillbox bugs scattering for shelter under safe darkness.

We’d lie on our bellies in the grass and poke at the world we’d discovered, hidden from the sun and our view just moments before. Sometimes we’d find a strange creeping insect or a shiny new rock to show each other. Eventually we’d grow bored and flip the rock right-side up again, trying to push it back into place.

But the stones never settled into their grassy grooves as snugly as they did before we went exploring.

Before we uncovered the shadow side.

. . .

Between Detroit and Beijing, my husband read this post in the airport on his phone, the post about my struggle with the shadow side of Mother’s Day. Later he told me that his first thought was that it was the kind of piece that went viral.

Call it Monday-morning-quarterbacking, but he was right.

I spent Mother’s Day weekend solo-parenting and watching stats spike and soar in the few spare moments I could snatch to keep up. I felt breathless.

Because this is what you want as a blogger, right? To write something that “sticks,” something that people share, something that sends traffic flying to your site.

But just like the last time this happened, when I wrote a letter on infertility and invisibility, the so-called success didn’t sit quite right with me. The whole reason my words were resonating with so many people was because of struggle and suffering.

It’s hard to sip celebratory champagne to that.

I finally stopped checking the stats. They were overwhelming. I had the introvert’s instinct to run for a cave and hide out as a hermit, safe and solitary. The thought of so many thousands of people reading my words, supposedly the writer’s dream, suddenly felt vulnerable and daunting.

And the nagging “what next?” question already was poking me in the side.

How to write something after Something Big.

How to write about joy and light after struggle and dark.

. . .

Do you know what matters to me the most as a writer?

When a reader takes time to write to me. And tells me that my book touched their life – their parenting, their marriage, or their ministry. These emails are treasures. I read each one over and over, still astonished that what I did could matter so much to someone else. They feel like a living, breathing gift in my hands.

But without fail? These letters tell me that what spoke to them was that I named the hard parts of parenting little ones. That I let light shine on darkness. That I helped them claim their own struggles as sacred. That I showed them God was there, too.

This is the only way I know how to write. The only way I know how to do hard and holy work.

To turn over the rocks and find the shadow side.

. . .

Clichés about light and dark abound. They are the easiest metaphors, greeting us at dawn, filling our days with play of cloud and sun, covering our world at dusk.

How do you even write about shadow in a fresh way? Maybe you say that darkness makes lightness even brighter. Maybe you play with paint and contrast and chiaroscuro. Maybe you set up opposites and then you tear them down or try to build bridges between them.

As emails poured in with people sharing their hopes and hurts about Sunday’s holiday, I kept thinking about the shadow side. I kept picturing grubby-kneed kids kicking over driveway rocks to discover a world underneath.

When you are willing to flip things over and see what lies on the unexamined side, you have to be willing to see shadows. You have to accept that everything will not settle back smoothly after you have gone exploring.

You have to embrace the hard and the hopeful, the dark and the delight. Any possibility of true, deep joy is only found in between.

. . .

Shadow itself is a word of contrasts.

It can mean gloom or fear. Or it can bring respite and relief on a hot day.

It can obscure what is still unknown. Or it can forewarn what lies ahead.

The opposite of shadow is no less clear. If shadow means darkness, then the opposite is light. If shadow means to follow, then the opposite is to lead.

If shadow is what falls behind us when we walk toward sun, then the opposite of shadow is whatever casts the contours of shade on the ground. It is us: humans, making our way in a world of conflict and contrast.

These are all things I care deeply about. Finding light in surprising places. Learning how to lead a good life and follow in faith. Trying to figure out what it means to be human.

Maybe this means there is no clear choice. Maybe this means I will always have to search for the shadows. Maybe this means it will always feel hard to write about the hard and holy.

But maybe it means that sometimes a calling chooses us, too. I am still that kid drawn to the world of mystery and possibility underneath what is seen.

I am still pushing over stones.

the problem (and the promise) of mother’s day

I am a mother. Mother’s Day is not supposed to be hard.

Glossy ads and glittery cards tell me this. I am supposed to enjoy a light and easy day! Put up my feet and pamper myself! Delight my children’s affection! Bask in my husband’s gratitude! Eat breakfast in bed or indulge in sweet desserts or let the waiter offer me a mimosa on the house because…motherhood.

But the reality? It’s much more complicated.

. . .

Do you know who I think about every Mother’s Day?

I think about my mom, of course. I think about how she still has to pause before answering the supposedly simple question of “How many children do you have?” Because my brother died decades ago, but he is still her son.

I think about a dear friend who dreams of adopting, who has been another mother to my boys, who lost a baby to miscarriage. Because the world would not include her among those we celebrate with brunch or flowers, but she is more mother than almost anyone else I know.

I think about the baby we lost, the life so small that some would never consider it real. Because I am still that child’s mother, but no one sees his or her shadow behind the three bright faces of my living boys.

I think about women I know who have had abortions. Who suffered abuse at the hands of men who were supposed to care for them, or who made decisions that haunt them for the rest of their lives, or whose future families were forever shaped by what came before. I mourn that we do not have good ways for them to talk about their pain and grief and loss.

I think about couples I know who have been trying to conceive for years. Who hate the Hallmark holidays of May and June because they are bombarded with constant reminders that they are still not mothers and fathers. That they might never be. I wish we could remember to pray for those with aching hearts when we bless parents, too.

Every year on Mother’s Day I am tugged in opposite directions. I struggle with how to celebrate such a complicated day.

It is a problem.

. . .

Because Mother’s Day is also a day for the mothers of children who died. Who will not get a homemade painting or a Hallmark card this year or any spring day to come.

It is also a day for the women who wanted to become mothers but never did. The ones who will hurry out of church before Sunday’s final blessing because it’s too painful to stay seated while smiling women stand all around them.

It is also a day for the mothers of stillborn babies, miscarried babies, and children who didn’t even get a dash between dates on their gravestones, whose birthday was their only day on earth. The ones who carry the memories, generations later, of what might have been.

It is also a day for daughters who lost their mothers. The ones who still grieve decades later and who mourn the grandmother their children never got to know.

It is also a day for everyone who had a complicated relationship with their mother. The ones who felt failed or forgotten or forsaken by the one person that we assume was never supposed to betray them.

So whenever May rolls around, I try to hold space for all of these people. I pray for hope and peace to be theirs. I try to love the ones around me, those I have been given to mother and those who teach me how to mother. I try to remember the shadow side of every celebration. I pray not to make assumptions about other people’s lives.

This is the only way I know how to celebrate Mother’s Day.

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Because when I think about what we want to celebrate on this holiday – and it is certainly worth celebrating – it is the love and compassion and generosity of the mothering spirits who have cared for us, whether mothers or grandmothers or aunts or godmothers or birth mothers or stepmothers or others.

And here’s the real rub. All those who fit this loving ideal? They would want us to include all those who are hurting and excluded, too. This is what they taught us to do. To live compassionately. To love deeply.

This is the only way Mother’s Day makes sense.

This is a promise.

. . .

This post is full of links (highlighted in pink above) to stories about the shadow side of Mother’s Day. Please take a moment to click and read a reflection or two, and share with someone who might need to know they’re not alone in their struggles.

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almost one: the mystery of a baby year

He sits beside me on the carpet, staring at a bright blue book about fish, patting its pages and gnawing its cardboard spine. Late afternoon sun slants through the nursery window, catching wispy curls of his hair, strawberry blond or golden brown as the light shifts.

Every time he catches my eyes watching him, his face erupts into silent grin. I am lying on my side and he leans over to bat his pudgy arms against the curve of my stomach, soft and forgiving after three babies.

Twelve months ago he was still curled inside me, kicking and squirming. Now he has small ham hocks for thighs, plump cheeks he stuffs with fistfuls of peas, whirling arms that reach out with clumsy waves at any smiling face he sees.

He is on the cusp of turning one.

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A baby year is a blur. In the beginning, night is day and day is night. Hours are days and days are hours. Life is flipped inside out like hundreds of tiny socks piled on the bed, laundry reproducing at stunning rates: burp cloths, spit-up soaked onesies, thousands of diapers tumbled to dry. Only the basics consume us: eating, sleeping, the occasional bath. The world spins by outside while we burrow into our cocoon: mother, baby, closest kin who love them. All the rest falls away and it does not matter.

The shifts happen softly and are undone as quickly as they come. The baby starts to sleep longer, then the pattern unravels. The personality emerges, then teething disrupts everything. The new normal is settled, then falls apart. Undaunted, the baby grows.

We parents sense – and rightly so – that the child we hold today is already transforming into a new creature by tomorrow. So we fumble to capture what is fleeting in photo or word, even knowing any secondary creation we attempt will fall short.

Because what we are trying to capture is us, too – in mid-transformation. We somehow sense that we are becoming, again, as this strange small person is becoming, anew. We want to remember exactly how we feel – which is exactly how this baby feels, smells, looks, and sounds, right now, today, in our arms – because it is momentary and momentous, all at once.

This is the essence of the baby year, the longest shortest time. It whizzes by us as each day drags. It lulls us into thinking we have regained rhythm and found our footing, and then it lunges forward into worlds unknown. It shifts like a kaleidoscope. We think we control the turning because we hold it in our hands, but the flash of color comes unbidden from the moving parts inside, the beauty we can never recreate.

I have been a mother for nearly six years. This is such a small sliver of my life. But conceiving and carrying and caring for these children has made me and unmade me and remade me in so many unexpected ways that numbers fail to capture.

On the floor beside me sits my third son, two weeks from turning one. Numbers fail to capture him, too. In the short span of twelve months he has gone from the dark womb to the bright day, from the muffled kicks to the determined crawl, from the first cry to the almost-word. Already I see glimmers of his grown self in his deep eyes, his ready joy, his centered quiet. He will not stop changing, even as he becomes himself.

A baby year transforms. It brings infant and parents around the sun just one time, yet we are transfigured for having seen all sides of this blinding bright, able and aware in ways we could not imagine a year before.

Maybe this is the truth my hopeful/jaded self wants to carry with me, into a world so tired from suffering and violence and evil and our own baffling self-destruction. That one year can change us. That we remain unpredictable. That today is important even as it passes.

My son will not remember a single day from his first year. I will remember it only in shadows and glimpses, a strange dream of deep naps on summer afternoons, tired hours on autumn mornings, moon shadows glowing through winter’s nights, spring green buds clasped in tiny fingers.

Still I pause in the blur, slowing to remember and recenter, steadying myself to witness a moment in the mystery of lives unfolding. One long sun-turned season of becoming again.

His and mine.

the holy sacrifice of the mess

In French, the word for the Catholic Mass is “la messe.”

First as a student and then as a resident of France, this translation always struck me as slightly irreverent. I understood its Latin roots (Ite, missa est – “Go forth, the Mass is ended” – gives the same root of the word for both French and English). But every time my roommates asked if I was going to “la messe,” the word always landed awkwardly on my Anglo ears.

Because Mass was anything but messy! Quiet and calm, peaceful and prayerful: these were the mot juste to describe Sunday mornings.

Way back then – in cool stone churches full of holy hush, pews lined with the reverent faithful, prayers intoned with perfect pitch, solemn and sacred – the whole point of Mass was that it was a foretaste of heaven.

And I soaked up its beauty like the bright-eyed girl that I was.

Now? Mass is a mess. With two squirming kids in the pew and a bored baby in our arms, we are living a different definition of that French faux-translation. Stuff gets dropped, spilled, scattered, and torn. Tears are shed, fits are thrown, whispers turn to shouts and (worse) screams.

But lately, as my husband and I try to stay faithful to the parental duty of herding cats in the pew while we half-hear the homily, I find myself seeing this holy sacrifice reflected in a whole new light.

Because our life at home is a mess, too.

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No sooner is Mount Laundry conquered than the baby soaks the sheets. No sooner is the kitchen floor mopped than muddy sneakers smudge trails from the back door. No sooner are the bathrooms scrubbed spotless than they are invaded by an eager tooth-brusher, a reluctant hand-washer, or – worst of all worst – a sick child who almost made it to the toilet.

We adults try to keep up, but kids rule the roost when it comes to livable levels of clean.

Translation? La messe.

Living in the mess can be a sacrifice. I idolize living without clutter, but I am called to live within chaos right now. Because the contours of my life these days circle around three small children and all the work that comes with loving, teaching, feeding, cleaning, and caring for them. This is the sacrifice I’m called to – to let go of my need for control and to let growing children live in all their wonderful mess around me.

It will not always be this way. Some day I will clean the house, and it will stay sparkling for a week. Some day I will have a single laundry day rather than an hour each evening spent washing, drying, and folding whatever three small bodies have produced. Some day, I hope, I will be delighted to discover how my grandchildren turn the house upside down with their visits, too.

But today? We are living in the holy sacrifice of the mess. 

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Sometimes I catch glimmers of what an un-messy life once was or what it might be again. The shiny kitchen counter after I wipe it clean at the end of the night. The quiet moment of prayer in a suddenly empty house after everyone rushes outside to play.

But such moments are rare. More often I am right in the messy middle. And I have to remind myself – a hundred times today, a thousand times tomorrow – that God is here, too. I wrote these words to myself in Everyday Sacrament, and perhaps I wrote them for you, too, that “if I’m honest, the God-in-chaos is the God I meet more often.”

So can I let my expectations slide in the church pew along with me? To embrace the holy sacrifice of the mess there, too?

I’m trying. I catch the eyes of tired parents around us, and I know they are, too. We smile ruefully at each other while we wrangle a runner heading up for the altar or a toddler toppling over the back of the pew. We know this is hard and holy work, living the sacrifice here and the sacrifice at home.

And we’re trying to trust – perhaps as all of us do who try to follow in faith – that the outward chaos of our lives does not define our inner center. Because a life full of love and service and sacrifice does not have to look beautiful to be good.

So into the mess we go, where life is still holy. Are you there, too?

Ite, missa est.

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what we hold tight & what we let go

I finally tossed the stack of papers into the recycling bin, the post-op instructions we brought home after surgery. That laundry list of every possible complication and horrific side effect, the worries you watch for like a hawk when you first come home from the hospital, clutching the doctor’s instructions as if they were a lifesaver.

I felt a little sheepish when I realized the papers had been sitting on the bathroom counter for so long, spying at me each time I helped a child brush his teeth or wash his hands. Why did I think I needed to keep them around for weeks, even after surgery went fine and healing went as hoped and that healthy boy now runs around laughing and shrieking, never skipping a beat?

But this is what you do when you’re struggling to keep your head above water.

You hold on.

 . . .

After each birth it took me weeks to throw away the official discharge papers from the hospital. What if something awful happened to me or the baby? What if we didn’t know what to do?

When nursing got hard after each newborn, I desperately clung to the lactation consultant’s suggestion sheet until it fell apart in my hands. What if what she said held the answer? What if I could just find the secret trick to make everything magically ok?

When we came home from well-check visits during each baby’s first year, I dutifully kept every list of developmental milestones, as if I could simply check off what I wanted like a shopping list. What if they didn’t grow on track? What if I didn’t catch the warning signs in time? What if I failed the ones entrusted to me?

Secretly I convinced myself as a new mom that the secret to surviving – healing, adjusting, learning how to live anew after each transition – lay hidden within some expert’s black and white words on the page.

But it didn’t. The secret lay within my growing ability to trust.

And to learn what to let go.

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I remember the day I gave away my stack of parenting manuals, the ones I poured through as a first-time parent. Sleep, feeding, development, illness, milestones – I read every chapter religiously. Those books became Bible to me in the wee dark hours with a screaming newborn or a sleepless baby or a feverish toddler.

But then one day, when baby #2 was nearing two, I realized I never read them anymore.

Sure, I sought Dr. Google’s advice on the regular like any modern parent. And I had long ago memorized our pediatrician’s phone number. But I had started to trust my intuition more, too.

And I learned the hard way, as every parent learns, that children never match the ideal descriptions in any book. We are all more mysterious and unpredictable (see also: human!) than any expert could predict with perfect precision.

This, I am discovering, is a huge relief.

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Guideposts are helpful along the way. We would be lost and frantic without them when we start down an unfamiliar path.

But then we have to set down the map, leave behind the guidebook, get our own bearings, and make our way into the wilder and wondrous world of getting to know reality as it looks us in the face.

Which, for parenting, means learning to read and respond to another human being’s needs, wants, fears, faults, temperament and challenges. Another human being who is as messy and stubborn and delightful and frustrating as we are, too.

Today the only books and guides I keep on the subject of parenting (see the photo above) are wise ones that offer more questions than answers. These are the companions I want on this journey.

Because what I am learning now is this. At each stage of life, a key question will arise: what do I hold tight and what do I let go? 

The measure of my peace will depend on my answer.

Right now I know there are plenty of things I cling to that I should let go. (A few small examples: my need to exert control over young children’s temper tantrums, my delirious desire to sleep 8 straight hours, my frustration with a home that will never stay clean for more than 4.5 minutes.)

I want answers to these questions, solutions for these puzzles, experts for my uncertainty. I am still holding tight to what would serve me better to let go.

In time I will grow some more and let these slip through an open hand.

I hope.

 . . .

There are deeper lessons here. About what faith means. What trust invites. What we let ourselves learn as we grow in courage to leave the experts behind.

This is another kind of knowing, a way in the darkness, a calling within the stillness of soul where God dwells.

Because nestled deep in the heart center, when all is stripped away and we are left alone with our God, there is nothing to let go but fear. Nothing to cling to but love.

And love, it appears, has been the answer all along.