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.

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.

how to speak their language

He loves math. I do not. We have to learn how to love each other.

When I say he loves math, I do not mean it as mere preference or interest or opinion. I mean it as the air he breathes, swallowing numbers in hungry gulps, pushing answers back into the swirling world of equations around him.

I mean it as the water in which he swims, life-giving and all-surrounding and impossible to isolate from the basic fact of his existence.

He watches the numbers at the gas pump like a hawk, tallying up how much more we spent last week. He clutches the grocery receipt like a treasure map, rushing in the back door to his toy cash register to add up the sum again. He does division as a kindergartener that I worked on as a fifth-grader.

This stumps me sometimes.

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A few weeks ago when he came out of surgery, barely able to flutter open his eyes, still groggy from anesthesia, he started multiplying the numbers on the monitor screen next to his bed: if you take the oxygen rate times the heart rate, you get 9800. 

The nurse turned, wide-eyed. He’s a math guy! An engineer, maybe? A scientist?

I do not know. He is mystery.

. . .

I never intended to have children to pass on any particular part of myself or my spouse. Heredity is too strange and humility too important for anything else to have factored in.

Yet I still puzzle over how drastically different these children can be. Yes, this one has his nose, that one has my cheeks. But their minds are wildly and blessedly their own.

I cannot even comprehend how differently they see the world, even though each is his own unique product of the equation of same mother plus same father.

Thankfully we are more than the sum of our parts or the product of our parents. How pale and predictable the world would be if our temperaments or talents could be so easily summed up.

But a child who sees the world in numbers? Words fail me.

I know how to snuggle up with our boy who loves books. He and I can pull a pile of tattered paperbacks onto the couch and lose ourselves in a sunny afternoon. I breathe in the warm scent of his hair, dark like mine, and remember hours of my own book-strewn childhood stretched out on the library floor.

I trace the words on the page with my finger like my father did for me. I watch my son’s brain turn and click as he starts to understand how letters make words and words make sentences and sentences make stories. He loves this. I do, too.

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But I cannot choose to connect only with what is easy and immediate. What looks like me or my experience. I also have to meet my children in strange lands and unfamiliar territories.

I must let each of them lead me.

And right now one wants to teach me how numbers are as fascinating as words, how equations are as beautiful as paintings. I make jokes about how I would be lost without my iPhone calculator, but this is unhelpful in the long work of learning to love deeply and differently because of having these children in my life.

So what if one of my sons surpasses me in knowledge long before I feel ready to let him take the lead? So what if another one’s personality seems so different from mine or his father’s that it baffles us at times?

Stepping back and learning from each of them is my daily challenge. And a grateful gift. They remind me that faithfulness, not comparison, is the heart of this calling.

. . .

Years ago I heard the physicist and author Brian Greene talk about how his father encouraged him as a child. Even though they spoke different languages.

He was a composer, musician, singer, vaudevillian. So music was his language. From a young age, I got very excited not about science, but about mathematics. Because my dad taught me early on the basics operations and I became captivated by the idea that by using these little operations, you could do things that nobody had ever done before. My dad would set me 30 digit numbers by 30 digit numbers and have me multiply them, big sheets of construction paper. No one had ever multiplied those numbers before.

His dad didn’t love math, but he loved music. And he loved his son. So he realized that he had to learn to translate and nurture a gift he didn’t himself possess. Or even understand.

This is why I have to learn how to love math (at least a little).

Because each child will need something different from me. Each child will invite me to grow in new ways. Each child will grow into someone beyond my imagining.

And as their parent, I want to meet each of them where they are.

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the empty due date

I wrote this on the second anniversary of the due date that wasn’t. 

I wasn’t going to share it here. Then I was reminded that we all carry our handful of hard days each year: the death of a loved one, the anniversary of an accident, the memory of a loss, the date of a tragedy.

If we live long enough, our calendars fill with these days. Empty and full. 

How we remember them is what matters. 

. . .

There are no rituals for this, what you’re supposed to do with a day that would have been circled in red and bursting with exclamation points and ticking with excited countdown.

An empty due date.

This day came and went last year, and it comes and goes this year. It will always be yours. You wake up in the morning; you know it is here; and there is nothing to do but go forward.

Maybe you are grumpy or maybe you are weepy or maybe you are just plain pissed at the world. Maybe you lose your temper at the kids or maybe you squeeze them extra tight while they squirm away silly or maybe you find yourself looking into their squinty laughing eyes and realizing that someday you will tell them about this. Someday when they are older.

Maybe you pull out some proof that it happened, because your hands need to hold. A picture of an ultrasound or a card from a friend or a bittersweet beautiful thing you bought to remember. Maybe you light a candle or play a song or try to pray even when the words ring hollow because it feels like today’s darkness should be sacred somehow.

Maybe you carry this day silently, not wanting to tell anyone what you’re mourning. Maybe you confide in a friend who understands, who won’t judge your sadness when the world seems stumped that you still think about it. Maybe you let yourself cry into the collar of your husband’s shirt when he walks in the door, because even if he doesn’t hold the memory of loss in flesh and blood like you do every day, it was his baby, too.

And maybe you simply move through the day’s hours with the motions that keep all of us afloat when we do not know what else to do. You wash dishes and sweep floors and cook dinner and switch laundry from washer to dryer. You catch glimpses of the clock out of the corner of your eye, mentally calculating when this date will depart for another year and not a moment too soon.

You don’t know what to do with an empty due date. No one does.

You just do. And you let that be prayer enough.

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