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.

where i’ve been lately…(and the book is here!!)

Here’s where I’ve been lately. Scurrying around behind the scenes to get ready for this:

Everyday Sacrament

BECAUSE THE BOOK IS HERE!

Surreal is all I can say. I thought the moment I held this baby in my hands would be emotional and powerful and symbolic.

But the package arrived on Halloween afternoon, and thirty seconds after I opened it in tender awe, the baby started howling to be nursed, the boys started screaming at each other over fistfuls of Halloween candy, and the pot of pasta I’d left on the stove started that seething simmer-over – suffice it to say, I did not have a single moment to savor.

Yet I’ve come to love that this book on my desk is doing exactly what I hope it will do in other families’ homes: sit right in the middle of the craziness and chaos and remind us that God is here, too.

I’m planning a “blog book tour” for early December with lots of lovely blogging friends who are helping me to get out the word. Till then you can buy the paperback or e-book from Liturgical Press (it’s already out of stock temporarily on Amazon – thank you, friends!). I am humbled and overwhelmed and deeply grateful for all your love and support.

. . .

And even while I’ve been keeping the blog stocked with series of pregnancy prayers and Instagram shots of sacraments, I’ve actually been doing real writing elsewhere, too.

First, if you haven’t yet heard of Blessed Is She, now is the time to check it out. A bunch of brilliant, inspired bloggers I know have gathered together to create a daily devotional site for Catholic women. It’s beautiful and thoughtful, and it fills my inbox with Word and image every morning.

Here’s an example of a devotional I wrote last week – on the household of God (and why my husband and I often flounder at running our own):

When I got married, the challenges of running a household only magnified. Yes, I had a partner to help with this work, but we also brought different approaches and expectations for household management.

Enter kids into the picture? More laundry, more dishes, more questions about how to pay for it all. I wouldn’t trade this life for any other, but these are still the verbs I use: stretch, crunch, juggle, squeeze.

The household of God? Those words stop me in my tracks. As Saint Paul describes it, the household of God is about people, not perfection. About holiness, not achievement. About community, not isolation.

It’s not about having it all together, but about becoming holy together. Whether we’re single or married, parents or children, friends or neighbors, we are part of a household bigger than ourselves and our to-do lists….

Read the rest at Blessed Is She.

Speaking of our household, we seem to have hit the November slump when all of September’s bright intentions have fallen by the wayside in heaps of leaves. Sound familiar?

Last week I reflected on how setting aside our high hopes for doing All The Things to raise our children in faith might actually be the healthiest and happiest way to live our faith at home. Check out my latest post at Practicing Families on the importance of small habits and tracing tiny crosses:

So often I confuse our practice of faith with excellence in faith. If this family is going to follow Christ, then we’re going to do daily prayer and weekly catechesis and church attendance and Scripture study. We need to do it all and we need to do it right, or else everything fails.

But maybe it’s not about getting all the big things right. Maybe it’s about getting all the small things right.

As a parent, all I can hope to do is trace tiny crosses on my children’s foreheads. Sweep aside their messy hair, wipe off the sweaty smudges, and bless their brows with the smallest sign of the One who calls and claims them for love.

Read the rest at Practicing Families.

And since I have sacraments on the brain these days, my latest at Catholic Mom asks how we can talk about the meaning of sacraments in our lives with those closest with us. Check out these simple ideas for starting conversations about sacraments with your spouse, children, friends or relatives:

Sacraments are central to our Catholic faith. We believe that we encounter God in a powerful way through the experiences of baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders. And we believe that Christ instituted these seven sacraments in order to share grace with us in powerful and particular ways.

But how often do we talk with our children, spouses, friends, or relatives about the impact of the sacraments in our lives?

This week, take a moment to share a story of sacrament with someone close to you. Invite them to share their own stories or to ask questions of curiosity, especially if they’re not Catholic.

See what happens when we start talking about God’s presence in our lives through the sacraments…

Read the rest at Catholic Mom.

a summer of paradox

My mother sang while hanging clothes
The notes weren’t perfect, heaven knows
Yeah, but heaven opened anyway
This I knew was true

Carrie Newcomer, “Leaves Don’t Drop (They Just Let Go)

It was a year ago that I spent hours listening to her music in the kitchen. Swirling my hands through streams of soapy water as I washed bowl after bowl, pot after pot.

Putting up the summer harvest was part of my healing after losing the baby. Doing something concrete for my family. Saving something good from the soured summer. Looking ahead to a time when it all might not hurt so much.

soup

I blanched brimming bowls of beans. I cut corn from piles of cobs. I stirred so many pots of soup and sauce, all of it spooned into bags and stacked into the basement freezer. With love, I suppose, but also longing. For what was and what wasn’t and how I had no control over any of it.

So for weeks I listened to Carrie’s albums on repeat: gentle, soothing, pulling me away from myself. There was so much light and darkness in her songs that they made me weep, let me break open to all that needed to rush flooding out.

And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die and live is life’s refrain

This past week I found myself pulling out the same albums again. Popping the Sesame Street Classics! out of the stereo and setting the soft, sweet music to spin. Her voice filled the kitchen again, and suddenly I was right back to a summer ago.

Only now I was thinking of the baby we lost and the baby we gained. Of the summer that was and the fall that will be. Of all the impossible opposites clinging together around me. 

God speaks in rhyme and paradox
This I know is true

It was a summer of new life and new loss. Our family welcomed a baby and lost an uncle. A quick arrival and a too-quick departure. Their names twin together, Joseph and Jim. One waking to his first summer and one who had his last.

It was a summer of healing and hurting. A birth that was nearly perfect and an emergency surgery that was anything but. A natural process that healed with no complications and a painful procedure that left permanent scars. Three intense hours that brought new life into the world and three dramatic hours that may have saved my own life.

photo 2

It was a summer of no work and lots of work. Maternity leave and full-time mothering. Leaving one kind of labor and taking up another. The freedom of pausing some responsibilities and the weight of taking on even more.

It was a summer of chaos and calmness. The busy buzz of two big boys and the quiet moments with the tiniest. How much louder the house vibrates when all three are yelling at the same time and how much sweeter the house settles when all three are sleeping soundly upstairs.

And then at the end of this summer of paradox, more people started reading this blog than ever have before. Thousands more. And shouldn’t I be delighting in this? Isn’t this exactly what a writer wants?

Yet, ironically, the reason my words struck such a clear chord is because so many people are hurting and isolated. I can’t bring myself to rejoice in that.

I can only hope that what I write might help us try to open our eyes wider and see each other, together. In the messy midst of all our paradoxes.

Leaves don’t drop, they just let go
And make a space for a seed to grow

I had that post on infertility and invisibility sitting in my drafts for a long time. I only pulled it out to finish after my heart broke again at the news of a loving couple – you know the kind, the ones who want kids so badly it hurts, the ones who should have a babbling brood jumping all over them like wriggling puppies – whose last round of infertility treatment failed.

I was saddened and frustrated and angry when I heard their news, wanting to shake that furious fist at the universe and demand why.

Instead I sat down one early morning in the dark and finished writing the world this letter.

And for the past week I’ve been sitting back, somewhat stunned, watching so many people read it, watching these crazy numbers climb, watching everything spin out of my small control after how many years of thinking this blogging business depended on me. It doesn’t. It depends on you.

So when I look back on all I will carry with me from this summer, I see how I am leaving with a widened heart and a longer list of prayers to pray. In a season of pain and paradox, these are unequivocally good things.

photo 1

A summer ago I was mourning a miscarriage, and now I have a bouncing baby boy on my lap. I can’t help but find God in paradoxes thick around me. That Joseph would not be here if that baby had lived.

Now knowing him in all his perfect particularity, I cannot imagine a world without him. Which does not reconcile any death, but does make more space for mystery in the shades of grey that smudge together to make this life.

A portrait of paradox.

. . .

In a fitting end to my maternity leave, my thoughtful co-workers put together this post on our Collegeville Institute blog about my summer series on spiritual practices with newborns. I’m touched by their words and hope you will enjoy it, too!

what to do next: supporting couples through infertility

I never expected this.

Since those words swam in my head every single month that we were waiting for a baby, I should not be surprised that infertility continues to shape my life in unexpected ways.

But this post? More people have read it – and are continuing to share it – than have read anything on my blog in the four years since I started writing it.

The comments on that post are only a sliver of the stories shared with me through email, on Facebook, and in person. I’m floored by how many people are yearning to hear that they are seen.

So many couples are suffering the invisibility of infertility. And so many of them wish their churches would speak a word of peace to them in their pain.

What can each of us do, whether we’ve struggled with infertility or not, to support the couples suffering around us?

IMG_5943Watch your assumptions. That young couple you see? Don’t assume they’re wrapped up in their careers and are choosing to delay parenthood. That older couple you see? Don’t assume they never wanted kids. Those neighbors with an only child? Don’t assume they didn’t want more. Those co-workers with one boy and one girl? Don’t assume they stopped simply because they got their “matched set.”

Plenty of people have complicated situations when it comes to the question of conceiving and raising children. The less we jump to conclusions about someone based on what we know about them, the more we open our hearts to the more likely truth that we do not know their deepest struggles. We offer people such refreshing freedom when we refrain from slapping on labels or squeezing them into boxes by the judgments we pass from a distance.

Watch your words. Sitting with people in pain is uncomfortable. Our natural tendency is to try and fix the situation. But the words we use to show our concern can wound when we want to skip over someone’s suffering and start to offer advice.

My one pastoral suggestion in almost every situation of suffering is to avoid “at least” statements. At least you’re still young. At least there’s always adoption. At least you have other children. The grief and anger surrounding infertility, whether primary or secondary or after miscarriage, are complex emotions. They cannot be easily smoothed over by statements suggesting that the situation is not as awful as it could be.

Honoring the particularity of someone’s pain by simply sitting with them, listening, and letting them know you care for them is a rare gift. You cannot fix their circumstances, so you do not have to try.

You have so much to offer instead: your prayers, your presence, your patience in letting someone give voice to their own story.

IMG_5831Watch yourself change. Don’t make the mistake of holding back from reaching out, simply because you have not experienced their same sorrow. One of the gifts of believing in the Body of Christ is the reminder that we are not confined by the contours of our own life. We are deeply united with each other. We can share our joys and wounds on a deeper level than mere sympathy because our lives are caught up together.

Let your heart be stretched and your prayer life be widened by the experience of allowing others to expand your understanding of the suffering around you.

And once your eyes are opened to a new kind of struggle – like infertility – keep going. Start to see some other silent suffering sitting next to you: on the bus, in the pew, at the coffee shop. Reach out with one kind word.

See what happens.

When we open our eyes, the invisible becomes visible. Pain is no longer ours to bear alone.

And isn’t that what our communities of faith hope to be? Places where we care for each other. Places where we are pulled out of the worries and wants of our own worlds.

Places where we remember that we belong to each other. And to God.

. . .

If you are new here, welcome! Check out a few favorite posts or more reflections on infertility. And please take a moment to subscribe, or follow Mothering Spirit on Facebook or Twitter.

If you’ve been following for a while, thank you! Here are a few more places I’ve been writing this week: at Practicing Families on raising three white boys after Ferguson and at Small Things With Love on why we owe our babies to NFP.

where i’ve been this week

Babysitter’s been off this week, so free time/writing time has been nonexistent. But I have been slowly working on the next posts in the spiritual practices with newborns series to start back up next week! (Note to self: setting the bar low for postpartum expectations should be a spiritual practice all itself.)

In the meantime, check out feeding, cleaning, and comforting if you missed them.

And this week I had the chance to be elsewhere on the Interwebs:

First, an “interview” with the lovely Nell of Whole Parenting Family in her spotlight on three bloggers of faith. She asked us great questions, and I loved the chance to reflect again on what this space and practice of blogging have meant to me.

Second, Practicing Families re-ran a post I wrote after Thomas arrived on 10 Spiritual Lessons from Newborns. Turns out this post still rang true the third time around! And it was what first got me thinking about the new series on spiritual practices and babies.

Third, Catholic Mom has a bit of levity for your weekend church-going. Inspired by the Honest Toddler’s Bunmi Laditan and her latest viral post, I offer you 5 Minutes in a Mom’s Head At Mass. In which you will discover that despite writing a blog about spirituality, I pay full attention about 5% of the time our rowdy crew is at church. #lifewithlittles

Next Sunday I swear I’m getting everything ready the night before. And waking the kids up early. And making them eat breakfast at a normal – not snail – pace. And no potty tantrums before we leave. But then we won’t even need to come to church because IT WOULD TAKE THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST TO MAKE ALL THAT HAPPEN. 

Read the rest at CatholicMom.com

And last – but certainly not least! – I discovered this week that you can check out the cover of Everyday Sacrament here!

Apparently the book is already available for pre-order, so I am officially geeking out about seeing my name on Amazon for the first time, too!

Happy weekend to you & yours…

what is deliberate motherhood?

If you’d asked me this when I knew the most about parenting – you know, back before I had kids – I would probably have replied along these lines (if I answered at all, staring back at you strangely, wondering why you’d ask such an odd question):

Deliberate motherhood? I guess that’d be getting pregnant on purpose.

(Real deep. Also real naïve.)

But if you’d ask me now, just a few years into a ride that will last the rest of my life, I’d answer very differently (that is, if you can hold on just a minute while I refill someone’s spilled milk and break up a slapping squabble over trains and finish making breakfast so we can get out the door to school on time without flipping out over finding everyone’s shoes):

Maybe it’s mindfulness. Thoughtfulness? A desire to be intentional about the way I raise them. An awareness of how important this work is.

And maybe it’s not, maybe it’s none of these things, maybe I still have a long way to go to figure it out, but here’s the difference: I’ve thought about it. That to me is the heart of deliberate motherhood.

It’s the mission of Power of Moms to be a gathering place for deliberate mothers. When a friend first set me a link years ago to a story published there, it felt like a deep breath amid the frantic “what to buy / how you have to do this / why you need to worry” tone I felt from so many parenting magazines and websites.

I loved that Power of Moms was a gathering of different voices, a celebration of diverse perspectives, and a community of women who were trying to be mindful about what it means to approach motherhood deliberately.

None of us are deliberate all the time. Plenty of days I parent on auto-pilot. But the moments that we’re able to be mindful, that we chose to consider why our words and actions and attitudes matter, that we realize how much this journey is shaping us as well as our kids – these are the deliberate moments that make the rest worth it.

Power of Moms just published their Deliberate Motherhood book (and, full disclosure, sent me a copy to review). And my whole-hearted endorsement is that it echoes exactly what I love about the Power of Moms website. It’s a collection of diverse voices, it’s a positive approach to encouraging moms, and it offers just enough concrete tips to make me think positively about how I could bring a little more mindfulness into my life.

The book is organized around 12 “powers” of motherhood – deliberate practices or attitudes that can shape how we face mothering: acceptance, love, patience, individuality, progress, balance, priorities, organization, fun, optimism, and moments. Each chapter is written by a different mom who also draws in stories, insights and ideas from many other mothers who’ve written for Power of Moms. I love the collaborative community voice that emerges here, affirming that our backgrounds and beliefs may be different, but our love for these kids in our lives is fierce. So let’s think together about why it matters how we raise them.

Deliberate Motherhood inspired me to sit down and think about the “powers” that guide my parenting – the attitudes or practices that I want to cultivate and pass on to my kids. Without editing myself, I scribbled down my own list of 12love, forgiveness, faith, joy, gratitude, hope, laughter, curiosity, community, wonder, mindfulness, compassion.

Since then I’ve been sitting with my list, wondering what it says about the practices that sprang immediately to mind – whether I try to live them out or only hope to aspire to their ideal – as well as the ones that didn’t. (Note that perfection and competition never made the list. Neither did peace and calm.)

What about you?

Which one of the Deliberate Motherhood powers is most important in your parenting? Which is the most challenging? Leave a comment below for your chance to win a free copy of Deliberate Motherhood, generously offered by Power of Moms. (Comments must be left by Friday, September 20, 2013 at midnight, CST, for a chance to win; winner must reside within the U.S. to be eligible.)

Check out Power of Moms to learn more about their work (including another forthcoming book that I’m delighted to be a part of – more details to come!) or connect with them on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. And as part of a special giveaway, for anyone who purchases Deliberate Motherhood in September and sends their receipt to dm@powerofmoms.com, you’ll receive complimentary access to the Deliberate Mothering Podcast series (valued at $20). On October 4th, 10 Grand Prize Winners will be selected to receive the Power of Moms Premium Package (valued at $224)!

blog awards & bad moods

I’ve been in a rotten mood the past few days. Kids didn’t nap, sun didn’t shine – if only the dog had up and left, it would have felt like a true, twangy country song.

My attitude towards Eeyoresque moods has been largely informed by the Julie Andrews School of Facing Storms: start ruminating on things I love and the dark clouds slowly lift. I’m not particularly partial to raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens, but you get the idea.

So as I brooded, I found myself thinking about two delightful surprises that had recently come my way – blog “awards” from fellow bloggers who let me know they like my writing.

The first was from Sherry Antonetti at Chocolate for Your Brain. Sherry is a mother of ten and a free-lance writer. To think that my work is enjoyed by someone who knows heaps more than I do about 1) parenting and 2) writing was a lovely boost to my mothering spirit. Sherry passed on the Liebster Award, a German word meaning dearest or beloved. The idea behind the award is to create new connections among up-and-coming bloggers. When you receive it, you pass it on to five bloggers that you enjoy reading in order to spread the love.

The second was the Versatile Blogger Award from Natural Mama Nell at Whole Parenting Family. (You can read more about this award geared towards sharing the love here.) For this award, you’re supposed to share 15 blogs that you follow regularly and then share 7 facts about yourself. Since Nell is quite a versatile blogger herself, I was encouraged to think she enjoyed my writing in the same light.

So for a week where my mood has tended too sour, let’s sweeten things up a bit, shall we? Here are a few** blogs that have become favorites. Some I’ve shared in the past; others are new finds; all are well-worth your time. Simply listing them here has lifted my mood, proof that kindred spirits can always be found, no matter what medium we use. Enjoy.

Small Town Simplicity – Lydia’s writing is breath-taking: poetic, thoughtful, crystal clear. Her reflections on raising her children and living life simply make me slow down and notice small beauties around me.

Homemade Mothering – Talk about a versatile blogger: Maureen touches on everything from healthy cooking to green housekeeping to the joys of life with little ones. And her writing has an eager, honest spirit that I just love.

Peace Garden Writer – “Purposeful pondering from the prairie” is this writer/mother’s tagline, and the articles and columns Roxane shares from her newspaper writing fit her purpose perfectly.

First Day Walking – When I stumbled upon this blog from a “Twin Mom / Pastor’s Wife / Presby Minister / Amateur Writer / Silly Dreamer,” I knew I’d discovered a gem. I love Mihee’s writing about motherhood, ministry, and Asian-American and feminist theology. Check out her Motherhood Mantras series; I’ve clung to a few of these words myself.

What’s Up, Jesus – One of my guaranteed sources of wit on the interweb. Over years and miles and winding vocational paths, Rev. Love-It-Or-Leave-It and I have held onto a friendship based on mutual love of sarcasm and stubborn faith. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Random Acts of Momness – I’m a shameless fan of Ginny’s writing. Few people connect parenting and faith with as much grace and depth as she does, every time. Her blog is a bright place that never fails to disappoint.

Sense of the Faithful – As a thoughtful mother of young adults, Peg offers wisdom from the other side of parenting. She shares stories of brutal honesty about her struggles with the Catholic Church as well as thoughtful reflections on spirituality. (And her upcoming book on pregnancy and childbirth is amazing!)

Rosemary’s Blog – And if you have no time to read but simply want to rest with something beautiful for a moment, this artist’s work is amazing. Seeing Rosemary’s photography each day lifts my spirits.

** I’m too busy these days to read zillions of blogs, so you’ll have to forgive me on sharing less than 15. And does anyone really care about 7 random facts about me? Nah.

Any favorites or new discoveries you’d add to the list?