“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed” — Mary Oliver, from “The Summer Day”
I stand in an open field, watching for signs of rain. An hour ago, I hollered to my family, “I’ll be back later!” and strode toward the woods outside our neighborhood. I walked and walked until my legs ached and landed here—in the company of fading wildflowers.
Gray clouds coat the sky. Somewhere not far from here, leaves are burning. Their scent twists and lingers in the air like incense.
Walking usually soothes my nerves, but today my whole body feels restless. It’s been half a year since my husband and I pulled our son Jack out of preschool due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Months without childcare support have left me utterly exhausted, but I can’t go home. Not yet. A friend once told me she finds peace by grounding herself. I take her advice and collapse into a cross-legged position. Then, instinctively, I fold my hands to pray.
Images clip through my mind’s eye. Another negative pregnancy test in the garbage. My son playing alone in our backyard. Another period come and gone. Why can’t I get pregnant again?
The calendar turning—my 35th birthday marching closer. When Jack asked, “Mom, can we get a baby?” Another pregnancy announcement. Please help me.
A breeze rustles through my coat, and I blink my eyes open, watching it wave through straw-colored prairie grass. I splay out my legs, roll onto my back, and shift my gaze toward the hazy heavens.
God, I think, twitching at a hair that blows across my forehead, are you out there?
Because he woke up early from his nap. Because he was calling “Ma-ma! Ma-ma!” Because when I collected him from the crib, he nestled his head against my shoulder. Because he needed more sleep. Because I needed him, too. Because I could *not* answer another email or tidy another toy or wash another dish. Because being his safe space is more important to me than being productive. Because even though sleep experts say to avoid “bad habits,” they can’t deny that nursing a baby to sleep is positively delicious. Because he just turned one, and his babyhood is slipping away like fine sand. Because an hour ago, he stuck his hand in the toilet, then dumped out the dog’s water bowl and wailed when I changed his diaper and I just needed to recall his sweetness. Because here, in the curve of my arms, he looks like an angel. Because he is likely my last child. Because one day I’ll tell him, “When you were a baby, your favorite place to fall asleep was in my arms.” Because he’s not ready to give this up. Because I can’t let this go — not yet. Because someday I’ll look back on this season — when the house was a mess and I wore tiredness like a uniform and my baby stuck to me like my shadow — and realize all of it was magic.
If you liked this post, you may enjoy my book, The Beauty of Motherhood, releasing March 21. Preorders are so important; I’d be honored if you purchased this devotional for yourself or a new mama you love. For more information, visit my book page.
It’s surreal to think that this book will be born so soon, and, to follow the birthing metaphor, the exhaustion of expectation has set in. I’m overjoyed and terrified. I’m still finishing up a few more things that need to be done before the (book) baby arrives. Everything aches, literally and figuratively.
Indeed just yesterday I came down with a dreadful set of chills, undoubtedly passed along by my sweet — but sickly — kindergartener. At bedtime, I shivered in bed under a stack of blankets, sipping tea and ruminating over the many emails I had yet to answer and the title of our book. Why had we decided on The *Beauty* of Motherhood again?
“Beauty” was the last word I’d use to describe motherhood at the moment. Overwhelming, yes. Crushing, yes. But beautiful? Well, I wasn’t feeling it after a day of struggling to care for my kids and barely hanging on to health myself. This led to an angsty journal session from which the following prayer emerged:
There are messes upon messes in this house, the baby and I are playing an epic game of spill or save the dog’s water bowl (for the record, I’m losing 3:1), my oldest is home sick from school and passed his cough onto me… I confess, on days like this, I count the hours until bedtime, I fantasize about being anywhere but here (Hawaii sounds nice, don’t you think?) I need a prayer to snap me out of this funk.
After bedtime, instead of praying, I open my photo app on my phone and see life more clearly how my oldest wrapped his arms around his baby brother in the kiddie cart at the grocery store, how my baby isn’t much of a baby anymore, he’s toddling here – there – everywhere
and, I forgot to take a picture, but a few days ago my oldest lost a tooth and found he could read Go Dog Go on his own and you know I took a picture of that (!),
I took a picture of light cascading through the trees when we visited the playground, I took a picture of my shadow while I held my youngest, his weight pressing against me,
Thank you for this weight, O God, for this humbling, holy call for the privilege to nurture my children
Let me taste it all — their sweetness and sourness Let me embrace it all — our messes and our milestones Let me hear it all — the cacophony and melody of grace in their small voices
Let me feel the beauty of motherhood again.
My friend Kim and I wrote The Beauty of Motherhood for every mama searching for spiritual refreshment while raising young children. As moms in the thick of the early years, we’re acutely aware that the messages of grace we crafted for readers’ growth are words we still need to hear — daily.
Because we know motherhood manifests in a variety of ways and thus, our stories are limited, we encouraged our reader to share her story, too. I adore connecting with other mothers through storytelling, and so, to both raise awareness of our book and elevate the stories of other mothers whose backgrounds contrast ours, my coauthor Kim and I organized a Writing Tour for The Beauty of Motherhood. Over the course of this March and April, mothers in our network whose voices we admire will respond to the prompt, What does the beauty of motherhood look like in your life? Our first writers will debut their stories this week.
Kim and I will be sharing these stories on social media, and you can follow along on Instagram with me (@erinstrybis) and Kim (@kknowlezeller) and #thebeautyofmotherhood. All are welcome to join in this writing tour, simply tag us when you write and we’ll share with our networks. At the close of the series we’ll offer a concluding post that links to each story.
Today is Adam’s first birthday. From our couch, I watch him cruise the living room, weaving in and out of midwinter sunbeams. He picks up a blue building block and passes it through the mail slot of our front door. Turning to me, he exclaims “Da-da-da!” while I hover my pen over my notebook.
“Good job, baby!” I reply, setting my pen down. I’m trying to think of a metaphor that encapsulates his spirit, but everything I write sounds stale. I guess love does that to you, doesn’t it? Sometimes love leaves you wide-eyed and bewitched, unable to translate the heft of your feelings into words.
Some call the first years of a child’s life “the wonder years” and for good reason. A year ago Adam was just a tiny babe who wanted nothing more than the comfort of my arms, but now he’s crawling and toddling. He’s hungry for new tastes and faces and experiences. And I’m stuck wondering how he underwent metamorphosis before my very eyes. How did he turn from shy smiles to rich giggles? How did he outgrow those tiny onesies? How did he move from tummy time to banging pots in the kitchen?
If my life was a sonnet, Adam would be the volta, the turning point where the speaker shifts her focus and entertains a new perspective. He burst into my world and gave me the courage to claim a new beginning. He was born the day Kim and I received an offer to write The Beauty of Motherhood. He was by my side as I wrestled words to the page in the midst of feeding and diaper duty. He woke me over and over at night and taught me there’s beauty in the darkness. He’s helped me laugh, slow down and appreciate the person I’ve always been and who I am becoming.
I read today that we’re approaching the halfway mark between winter and summer. Outside snow dresses the ground, trees and homes in our neighborhood. Steam rises and twists in the twenty degree air. Inside Adam abandons his game and scrambles toward me. I gather him up in a bear hug, relishing the warmth of his love. I could call him a wonder. I could call him a turning point. I could call him the midwinter sun.
You are an athlete. You sprint across the soccer field, swing from the monkey bars, scale trees, slides and rocks then leap into your next adventure. Motion is your oxygen.
You were an angel in the Christmas play, and though you wouldn’t wear your wings (“too scratchy”) and you might have ignored a few stage cues, you sang so sweetly to baby Jesus. You have an active, playful faith — and a propensity for mischief.
You want to be a “scientist who mixes chemicals” for work, and like your dad, you have a knack for numbers.
Yet, to me, you bear the soul of an artist: You splash color and doodles outside the lines of your kindergarten assignments, you’re the one who says “First, I have to show you something beautiful,” you’re always building something or in the middle of an epic Lego story. Your imagination is boundless. You have a big heart and a lot of love to give, like your mama.
Much of my work in midlife, I recently realized, is launching you into this stunning, cruel, crazy world, where there are dreams to chase and gorgeous places to explore and stories to discover.
My wish for you at six is that you never forget who and whose you are, beloved child. The world will try to stifle your kindness and your sense of wonder. Don’t let it. Cling to hope. Trust your faithful foundation. Use your gifts to spread peace and healing to everyone you encounter. Make your mark: Keep playing and caring and creating.
Happy sixth birthday to the boy who made me a mama.
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” —Zora Neale Hurston
It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m trapped in a sunroom making small talk with a child psychologist.
My husband Jay is here somewhere, as is my oldest, plus our dear friends from college. We’re staying with them for the weekend, and tonight we’ve accompanied them to a neighborhood house party.
“The truth about picky eating,” the psychologist says, and I hold my breath because I don’t want to miss this, “Is that it ebbs and…”
‘WAAAH!” my 11-month-old screeches and arches his back while I pull him away from a very fascinating (and dangerous) outlet. My cheeks burn.
“Excuse us,” I shout over Adam’s screams. “I think this baby’s expired. So nice meeting you.” I dart toward the laundry room, where our coats are stashed. I spot Jay in the kitchen and wave him over. “Here, hold this baby for a sec,” I say, transferring Adam into his arms while I put on my puffer jacket. “He needs to go down now.”
On the trek back, I survey the Christmas lights adorning my friends’ neighborhood. Back when we were young and well-rested, the four of us celebrated New Year’s in the heart of Chicago. I remember cocktails, a private party room, kissing at the stroke of midnight. No doubt I spent part of the night quizzing my friends on their goals and resolutions. I’m a New Year’s gal through and through — I love the champagne toasts and dressing up and dancing. I love big dreams and vision boards and setting intentions. There’s something about the promise of a fresh start that’s irresistible to me.
Adam shifted in my arms and laid his head against my shoulder. The past few years, I haven’t wanted to celebrate New Year’s. The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and a country struggling with political discord, racism and gun violence tempered my mood and dashed my social plans. Hope was hard to hold onto. How could anyone plan or dream when the day-to-day was so precarious?
I let myself into my friends’ place and start Adam’s bedtime routine. By the time he’s asleep it’s only 9 p.m. Going to bed early seems really lame tonight so I creep into the kitchen and help myself to a shortbread cookie before settling into the easy chair to watch a movie.
Our hosts’ new puppy whimpers from her crate. I better give her what she wants, I think, finishing off the cookie. I open the crate and Macie bounds right into me, all gangly legs and a thumping tail. I pet her back and chuckle, “Did you miss everyone?”
She races around the room and stares at me expectantly. With an older, wiser dog at home, I’d forgotten about New Dog Energy (™). “What do you want, Macie?” I ask lightly.
She cocks her head to the side, and without warning, leaps into the easy chair.
“Scoot over, girl, that’s my spot,” I laugh, sliding into the chair pulling her onto my lap. Macie rolls onto her back and cozies up against me. I run my hands across her belly, grateful for the company, this comfortable chair and the gentle entry into 2023. Maybe a new year is like a puppy. She’s eager to be released, whether we’re ready or not. She’ll need a little guidance, but also space to explore. Before we put too much pressure on her, we might step back and pay attention to what the new year wants to offer us. Only she knows what she can become. Perhaps we can see her newness, her energy, her possibility for what it’s always been: grace.
I close my tired eyes and snuggle up with Macie. For the first New Year’s in years, I feel something akin to hope.
A version of this reflection first appeared in my monthly newsletter, Nourish.
On my 37th birthday, what I wanted most of all was time to write. I put the baby down for his first nap, pacified my older boy with his tablet and retrieved my pale green journal. Before sitting down, I lit a candle, which is my writing ritual. I like imagining the flame as my artistic spirit or even the Holy Spirit, calling me to create.
Curled up in an armchair, I held my pen above an empty page. What could I say about the past year of my life? It’s been a whirlwind, a time of change and, in many ways, a joy. I glanced at the Christmas tree glowing in our front window. Lately getting ready for Christmas had consumed my time, and I was grateful for the chance to let my mind wander.
The page stared back at me. I have written professionally for over a decade and yet every opening humbles me. I rifled through the files of my mind for the perfect words and I quickly realized the naptime clock was ticking — better to pick words that were good enough. So, I wrote:
Chapter 36 It was a year of growth and a year of grace.
The year I birthed my second baby and the year I signed my first book deal. The year I learned that dreams-come-true sparkle from afar, but close up demand grit and labor. The year I stretched my body and mind while nourishing a baby and my stories. The year I realized the most rewarding part of having dreams-come-true is how you tend them.
It was the year I left my magazine job. The year I struggled to adjust to staying home with my children. The year a fog of depression descended and didn’t budge until I began taking my mental health more seriously. The year I received a proper diagnosis for the doubts that haunted me daily.
The year I cried my eyes out and picked myself off the floor and summoned strength to care for my family. The year I trusted my gut and leaned into faith and slept very little but embraced the beauty of the darkness.
It was the year I danced in the kitchen and paced the halls with a restless baby and lived for the laughter of my children.
It was a year of admiring sunsets, the blue of the smoky mountains, the blaze of fall leaves in our woods and the glittering snow that graced Chicago just in time for Christmas.
The year I prayed over my kids and penned more prayers than I ever imagined. The year we found a closer church so we could start going to in-person worship again. The year we baptized our new baby.
It was the year everything seemed heavier with two children. The year I boldly sought help with childrearing and cultivated a stronger village. A year of holding the weight of motherhood and finding others to help me carry it.
The year I watched my oldest grapple with friendship hurdles and expand his social circle. The year he swam, played on a team, and began kindergarten. The year he built with Legos, rode without training wheels, became a big brother. The year I saw my baby’s first smile, roll, crawl and babble, and each left me breathless with wonder. The year I witnessed ordinary miracles.
It was a year of taking turns with my husband, learning to be a team, falling deeply in love again. A year of unloading the dishwasher, doing the laundry, paying the bills, returning library books. A year of shared glances, warm embraces and deeper knowing.
The year I learned the power of silence. The year I paid closer attention to what’s unsaid and tried to say less myself. The year I listened deeply for the voice of my Creator.
It was my phoenix year. The year I burned down my old way of being, the false tales I told myself about myself and reemerged equipped with theknowledge I need to shine brighter.
I nested. I mothered. I cuddled. I messed up. I apologized. I read. I wrote. I gave it my all. I let it all go. I failed. I soared.
My son’s cries came from the bedroom. I set aside my pen and stopped writing. The rest of the day unfolded, same as usual: I scrambled eggs, changed dirty diapers, and loaded the dishwasher. We walked the dog and marveled at the snowflakes and I tripped on a stack of Magna-Tiles.
Later that night, we gathered around our kitchen table for white chicken chili. It was the first family meal we’d shared in seemingly ages given my husband’s aggressive end-of-the-year work schedule. After I put the baby to bed, my older son, my husband and I enjoyed slices of pumpkin pie, my traditional birthday dessert.
I lit my birthday candle and smiled back at my boys while they wished me a happy birthday. Gazing at the flame, I held a simple wish in my heart: More. God, give me more time with them. More beauty. More life. I’ve reached my 37th chapter and I am not yet finished writing a beautiful story.
stars glittering the night sky, when I’m up late feeding the baby, falling into bed & the arms of my spouse for a few more hours of sleep before daybreak fresh coffee & hot oatmeal little hands reaching for me for games of peekaboo songs & cuddles for the wide embrace of our village — grandparents dear friends good neighbors teachers pediatricians therapists our congregation — with whom we raise our children for music while I’m doing dishes and folding warm towels just out of the dryer for naptime, blessed naptime, a moment of peace amidst the chaos of Legos & crayons & rounds of Uno & kitchen dance parties & “another snack please!” & playdates & playgrounds & tag long walks in the neighborhood the scent of burning leaves & the way sunight catches in the leaves at golden hour dinner to make, bathtime bubbles & squeals, for sharing stories & poetry & prayers, goodnight kisses & “I love you”s & when the dog curls up on my lap & the whole house is quiet holding a freshly sharpened pencil & a blank page on which to praise this one holy and beautiful life.