7 ways to survive a solo parenting week

Before I begin, please know that I use the language of “solo parenting” intentionally – because I know my experience is not that of a single parent. Plenty of people are parenting in situations much more challenging than my own, including single parents, spouses of deployed military personnel, or partners working shifts around the clock. I’m simply writing out of my own experience of learning how to switch between two different dynamics in our household over the past few years. I hope to learn from diverse perspectives beyond my own, so I hope you’ll share your own ideas and experiences with me, too.

We did it again! Survived another week with only moi in charge and my husband on the other side of the globe. (Slow clap for the win, Rudy.)

The last few times I’ve solo-parented, I’ve thought about my friend Nancy’s wisdom in this post about how to thrive when your husband travels.

I still feel trapped in survival mode much of the time when my husband is gone. But I’m starting to accept that this is our life right now. He has a great job that he loves, and this is part of what his work requires. My goal is to move our family towards thriving, not just surviving, even when I’m the only one here all week, day and night.

So here are seven tips that help me whenever my spouse travels. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

solo parenting

1. Check in with yourself.

My friend Nell laughed when I told her this, but I check in with myself mentally every 10 minutes while solo parenting.

Self? I say. How are you doing? What do you need?

It sounds crazy, but it works.

Sometimes I sound like a cheerful waitress: Everything okay, honey? Can I get you another cup of coffee? Sometimes I sound like a wise best friend: You need to go lie down. For 5 minutes. And breathe. The kids will be fine. 

But this practice of checking in with myself has helped me back slowly off ledges (especially between 4-6 pm) because I catch my rising impatience/anger/frustration before it boils over. Like the unattended pot bubbling on the stove. Yikes.

2. Go easy on yourself.

No one gives grades or gold stars for parenting. So a slacker week of easy dinners, take-out treats, and skipped baths? It will neither tarnish my record nor scar my children.

At least once during every solo stretch, I must bow my head in gratitude to Trader Joe’s, without whom my family would not be fed. Because I have no shame in buying a freezer-full of frozen meals (the ones my friend Ginny brilliantly describes as the kind you “push around in a skillet for 7 minutes”) to feed hungry kids and give myself a break.

The smartest trick I discovered is creating a meal plan of super simple dinners that require only 2 pots that can be washed in the dishwasher. No need to scrub pans when you’re the chief cook and bottle-washer (actually the entire downstairs staff).

Click here for my super basic meal plan for solo parenting weeks!

3. Take care of yourself.

While it’s true that no one hands out gold stars for parenting (though sometimes I think they should? fill in your epic example here?), it’s also true that you have to reward yourself.

My sister, who has survived way more solo parenting weeks than I have, once gave me the wise advice that these long days are best survived by bookend treats: a cup of tea in the morning and a glass of wine at night.

Whatever your delight, some small glimmers of light on the horizon give hope for the day’s crazy moments. Sometimes I treat myself to a tall chai to-go when we’re out and about, or I sink into a hot bubble bath at the end of the night. Or I binge-watch something stupid on Hulu while folding mountain ranges of laundry.

Anything to restore spirit and soul after long days.

4. Plan ahead.

The weekend before my husband leaves, we try to clean the house so the chaos doesn’t overwhelm. I make sure the meal plan and grocery shopping are done (which includes stocking up on dark chocolate and wine, a mom’s basics).

But I also try to fill up our week with fun: play dates with friends, a special meal out, and plenty of trips to the park/library/indoor playground. The more we get out of the house, the faster the week flies.

We also make sure to plan something fun for the weekend when he returns. This gives a lovely light at the end of the tunnel. After his last few trips, we’ve been able to go up to his parents’ cabin on the lake and simply relax. It’s a perfect way for our whole family to reconnect, since the kids just get as wonky as I do when he’s gone.

5. Get enough sleep.

Easy enough, right? Sleep when tired.

Except my temptation is always to fill the quiet hours after children’s bedtime with a new project. Write! Blog! Bake! Clean the whole house! Start that belated baby book for poor #3!

NO. Do not do it. Get directly to bed. Do not pass Go.

Every time I choose sleep over the seductive allure of me-time-till-midnight? I am eternally grateful that I crawled into bed at 9 pm. Everyone wins when mom is well-rested.

6. Set expectations low.

Someone will get sick. Someone will wake in the night. A major appliance will break. Crisis happens like clockwork in life with kids. Now I simply plan for it.

So when the washing machine stops or the air conditioner dies or the dishwasher floods to the basement? Or the baby breaks out in a mysterious rash or the kids get the stomach flu or all three take turns like whack-a-moles popping up in the middle of the night?

I still freak out, but I expect it. And I can cope with it much better when I can laugh.

(And text my girlfriends 72 times a day to vent about it.)

7. Pray. Just to make it today. 

(You knew I was going to slip this one in here, didn’t you? It always circles back to God ’round here. #sorrynotsorry)

Like everything else chez nous, my spiritual life reverts to survival mode during these zaniest of weeks when I run the roost.

I wish I could tell you otherwise, that I pray fervently for my husband while he’s gone, that I make sure to get up extra early to fortify myself with prayer, that I offer up all my sacrifices with saintly serenity.

I don’t. I coast. I complain.

But I do make sure to call upon divine patience/love/forgiveness/compassion whenever I start to feel things spiraling away from me. I mutter the Jesus Prayer under my breath until I start to simmer down – Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner – and it always brings me back around to the right way. Even if it takes 27 repetitions.

And I do make sure to practice abundant gratitude throughout the day – for my kids (even when they’re going berserk), for my husband (even when he’s gone), for his good job (even when it takes him away from us for a while), for all the friends and family that check in on us when I’m flying solo.

Calling God into the craziest moments of my week is an invitation for me to dig deep and trust that love and patience and enough-ness will help us survive.

And trust that soon we will thrive, too.

What are your tips for surviving or thriving when parenting gets tough in your own current situation?

there is another way

All these things are in the way, I sigh. Shuffle and shove to make space again.

I am tired of working like this, I mutter.

I want to sweep everything aside – the papers and the clutter and the laundry and the bills and the books and the toys and the shoes – and stare at a vacant desk. A spotless office. A shining house of sparkling minimalism.

It will never be.

Call it the sacrifice of the mess. Call it the holy beautiful of right now. Call it life with kids. Call it our tired thirties.

Whatever you call it, call yourself to look upon it again.

I look again.

All the things cluttering my view? They accompany a full life. Piles of doctors’ bills. Art keepsakes from two more years of school. Photos of loved ones to frame. Books to read. Seedlings to plant. Work to finish. Newspapers to recycle. Bank statements to file.

It will never be done. It will never be clean. And this is okay.

This is another way.

image

Somewhere between the trend to accumulate (more and more, bigger and better) and the trend to purge (less and less, sparser and lighter), there emerges a third way: finding peace in the chaos.

The way that says we do not need more; we need to care for what we have.

The way that accepts how a life lived with people will always be full – of clutter and conflict, yes, but also comfort and companionship.

The way that knows if cleanliness stands next to godliness, then messiness shrugs and smiles to take its place on the other side. God in the middle. All the rest, all around.

Because God is not found only in peace, quiet, polished, decluttered, 10 easy steps to simplify. God is also found in mess, chaos, muddle, question, oh help me everything is a disaster.

God is not confined to clean, sparse monastic cells. If God is present everywhere and always, then God is also present in a life lived in places, with things, among people.

This is another Way.

image

Three months from now looks wide open on my calendar. It is an illusion.

The chore chart, the labeled bins, the meal plan, the synchronized schedules – they promise perfection. It is a lie.

Life will fill up then just as it fills up today. Love and work expand within whatever space we offer them.

And despite our best efforts, we continue to be mere mortals. We walk through grassy dirt, we cry hot tears, we breathe dusty air. Crumbs fall from our lips while we chew. The dog never stops shedding, no matter the season.

So we need this third way, the stumbling path that trips over sneakers on the floor and mountains of unfolded laundry. The way that invites us to see the miracle, not the drudgery, of sharing our lives with real, messy people.

(Even small people who leave push carts – a lawn mower? – on top of the sofa. I promise you this photo was utterly unstaged.)

image

The same themes surface whenever I write these days. Letting go. Looking up. Learning to embrace the ordinary and the imperfect.

For a long time now I have felt a turning, and I can finally name it as the settling into mid-life.

My tired husband and I laugh about this a lot. We collapse into bed, and one of us mumbles back in college, we wouldn’t even be going out for another 3 hours. But we are happy here. A deep and satisfying joy, albeit exhausted and cluttered. I wish I could tell my younger, anxious, ambitious self that life could be this good while being so far from smooth.

This settling joy is what I wanted all along, and I only found it in the middle of the mess.

Bump, blemish, brokenness – we know ourselves by the edges of what we brush up against. We learn the limits of our being.

And a full life – bursting with people to love and things to do – it is a marvel even as it overflows. A to-do list that never shrinks. Work that keeps going. Children who arrive and grow and explore. A world that keeps needing our attention and compassion.

It will never be done. It will never be clean or easy. And this is another Way.

The way of peace and patience. The way of realism and release. The way of laughter and letting go.

(The way of remembering that we cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.)

And the way of gratitude to God right in the messy middle: of each day, of this life, of what we are becoming on the way.

. . .

If you want a deeper theological reflection on life with kids, check out Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. I can never bring myself to put Bonnie’s book back on the shelf, so I keep it bed-side during these wonderful, wiped-out years of so many small children. With three boys of her own, she makes this way through chaos seem possible and wonderful to me.

7 reasons I love the Eucharist {the feast of corpus christi}

Bodies. Blood. Bread. Brokenness. My children bring all of this into my life.

Care for their bodies takes up hours of my day: washing faces, changing diapers, giving baths. Boyhood brings bloodied knees, scraped elbows, tears and band aids and doctor’s visits. Feeding our family is nearly a full-time job in itself: planning meals, buying groceries, cooking dinner, baking bread.

And brokenness? Well, families don’t have to go far to find proof of faults and flaws and failings. We rub up against each other all day long.

The Eucharist has never felt more real than it has since I became a mother.

IMG_1063

This is my body; take and eat; blessed and broken – almost everything I have learned about the love and sacrifice of parenting is wrapped up this sacrament at the center of my faith.

So in celebration of this Sunday’s Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body and Blood of Christ), here are 7 reasons I love the Eucharist – and 7 favorite posts to explain why…

It re-members me back into the Body of Christ: What Your Kids Taught Me About God

It helps me notice the ones that the world rejects: We Care About The Crumbs

It changes how I understand my own flesh and blood: This Is My Body, Given Up For You

It reminds me that the ordinary is holy: Diapers and Chalices

It teaches me about forgiveness and reconciliation: On Bad Moods and Breaking Bread

It trains my eyes to see with deeper imagination: Start Seeing Sacraments: Eucharist

It inspired me to write this book! Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting

What do you love about communion? How has this sacrament shaped your faith?

mountains and horizons and kindergarten graduation

What I will remember is this.

Not the way he flashed our I love you sign when the principal told the kids to wave to their parents in the crowd.

Not the way he snapped his fingers all cool-jazz-like to the peppy beat of the classic kindergarten songs, a happy hipster belting out tunes about flowers and sun and roots and wings.

Not the way he asked twice (twice!) for his picture to be taken with a friend, our shy guy now hamming it up for the camera with his arm draped around his buddy.

Not the way his teacher teared up at end of the ceremony and my husband standing at the back of the room, jostling the tired baby, said to me later that’s how you know she’s one of the great ones, isn’t it? That she still gets misty after 25 years of teaching.

I hope I remember all that, of course.

I hope I remember the moments wrapped around the milestone.

But what I know I will remember is the astonishing sky as I drove away tonight. Heavy grey storm clouds peeling away in layers. A giant, jagged line of blinding white thunderheads rolling onto the horizon, so thick and startling that they seemed like snow-capped summits, like we’d been spun around and set down in the middle of mountain country.

imageI drove west, into the faux white peaks, nearly careening off the road twice because I couldn’t stop looking up and around. Couldn’t stop seeing the metaphor stretching out in front of me.

Because what rushed over me tonight in the wave of emotion I expected as a first-time mom at a first-child milestone was not nostalgia for the meaning of the moment or a preview of future graduations or the wonder at the baby becoming the boy.

It was the dizzying realization that a whole year had whizzed by.

While I barely blinked.

Older and wiser parents love to tell we new ones this head-shaking truth, that the years fly by and before you know it, they’ll be graduating from high school and I can’t believe how fast it went. I thought they said this because that is what you’re supposed to say. That is the natural voice of nostalgia. That is the happy satisfaction of having parented.

But tonight I kept driving towards those billowing clouds, mountains of white rising on the horizon. And I realized the sadness caught in my throat was because I knew that each staggering summit that seems to rise before my eyes today, daunting and towering and oh-so-important, will become like every other looming line of thick clouds before it.

I will pass through. A new horizon will emerge.

Time will keep rolling on, thunderous and true.

I wanted the years to fly by then. When I would one day be the mother of sprawling teenagers or beaming college graduates or wondering young adults. I wanted to look back then and see time speeding up, picking up pace with each passing year.

But I feel it now, the days peeling by under my feet, the months lunging forward like storm-swept clouds, a whole year whooshing away with the startling speed of a subway train that never even slowed down at this station, that is racing on elsewhere and I am left staring at the empty tunnel as its shadow shrinks behind to nothing.

What I will remember from tonight is this startling truth mirrored in billowing clouds. That today’s mountain is tomorrow’s horizon. That milestones mark what we cannot bear to see every day. That time is already racing by. 

And that it is a still-startling gift that I get to be here. That I get to love these children. That I get to watch a whole horizon of beckoning unknown stretching out before all of us.

And he took one more step toward it tonight. Right before my eyes.

 

feed, tend, repeat.

image

(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.

image

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)

image

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.

1stbirthday3

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.

1stbirthday2

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

image

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.

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.

image

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.

IMG_3104

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. 

img_3106

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.

2014 Photos 290

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.

image

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.

image

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.