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.
I would like to create a home in which there are rarely any messes, but that seems impossible given the fact that children live here, considering the Legos that sprinkle our playroom floor and prick our soles, a deck of cards fanned out across the coffee table, oodles of library books littering the kids’ bedrooms, each object a portal to another realm where imagination reigns and couch cushions meld into the body of a race car, a swingset transforms into a shuttle rocketing to Mars, stones unearthed from the flowerbeds become marble.
“We could be rich!” my son cries, cradling his prizes, holding them out to me like offering. Dirt speckles his grin, dresses his hands and feet, piles next to him on the patio, I sigh, send him to rinse up, pick up my phone and scroll the news, confronting a barrage of harshness. I sigh again, but he laughs, unaware, spraying his palms clean with the garden hose — or is it a fire-breathing dragon?
(I would like to create a world in which there are rarely any messes but that seems impossible given the fact that humans live here, and they keep hurting each other.)
I glance at my son’s hands, fresh and five years young, whatever they graze shape-shifts from ordinary to extraordinary. Could they fashion marble from our muck? Maybe we could be rich.
This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale — an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Ordinary Inspiration.”
And on this splendid summer day, a boy learned to ride his bike.
He zoomed down the alley while Dad jogged behind him and Mom stood with the baby, holding up her camera. The boy couldn’t quite understand the funny look on Mom’s face — was she smiling or crying? Maybe both?
“Wonderful, wonderful,” she kept saying. And it was wonderful to push through the wobbles and ride strong and steady, to feel the slight breeze on his face, to gain speed, to move through the city all by himself. What kind of adventures awaited him this summer? Where would he go? Who would he become?
Last Wednesday, I bid farewell to a job I loved. It was my dream job, the job that combined my passion for words with my deepest held beliefs, a job that rattled and refined that faith, a job where I encountered the Divine in the voices of others. It was more than a job, it was a call.
Most days, I worked from the office. Pre-pandemic, I had a cube with a view of the courtyard, my space nestled next to five of my favorite coworkers. I met dear friends here — kind, talented people who laughed and cried and did excellent work alongside me.
All in all, I spent nine years stewarding sacred stories for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — years of listening and telling, growing and becoming.
There are occasions in life when you look around and realize that the tidy nest you built no longer fits, and you’ll need to leave in order to fly. After much prayer and discernment, I resigned to pursue my vocations as a mother and a writer.
There will be time to reflect more, to announce what’s coming next.
For now, I’ll close with this: It was an honor and a privilege to play a role in making known the immeasurable love of God.
At the foot of Hart Lake, wisps of breath swirling in the alpine air, marveling at the breadth of sky and pines and Cascade Mountains, feeling so small, feeling the expansiveness of God’s presence;
In the Chapel of the Resurrection for 10 p.m. worship, surrounded by classmates, basking in the glow of candlelight, singing “Jesus Christ is the light of the world — the light no darkness can overcome”;
On an operating table at Lutheran General, hearing his cries, seeing his face for the first time, tears of joy rivening my cheeks, my heart full of awe and thanksgiving;
In the kitchen, peeling and chopping carrots, swishing the mirepoix with hot olive oil, delighting in each crack and sizzle;
At the beach in Cinque Terre, raking my fingers through fine sand, sweat beading at my chest, already sore from the day’s hike, already dreaming of the night’s gelato, young and alive and enamored with the world’s beauty;
Snuggled up in my son’s bed, asking for forgiveness and safekeeping, pleading for peace, giving thanks for shelter, love and family;
On my yoga mat, arms splayed out wide, forehead and knees and palms pressing down, surrendering to gravity, my whole body curled in a posture of devotion;
At Fourth Presbyterian Church, pausing in the aisles to notice how to the stained glass crafts a mosaic of color on floor, lifting my eyes to the pews to see the ones who find sanctuary from the biting Chicago wind on an ordinary weekday;
On the sidewalk with my son, knees powdered with pastel, chalking rainbows, hearts and flowers, the words “Run with Maud” and “We’re in this together”;
Flat on my back in the middle of a field of wildflowers, exasperated by negative pregnancy tests and abandoned drafts going nowhere and the isolation of the pandemic, lamenting the loss of life and lack of justice, searching the clouded sky for hope and answers, whispering, “God, are you out there?”;
Facing the altar of Resurrection Lutheran Church, cupping my hands to receive the bread, the body of Christ, the grace that grounds me and sets me free;
On the pages of my journal, scribbling thoughts, seeking wisdom, searching for direction, asking God what would you have me do, how will you use me now, how can I attune my ear to your calling;
At my childhood dinner table, fingers interlaced, head bowed, voice intoning “let these gifts to us be blessed”;
One of the holiest places I prayed: In the woods near the North Branch Trail with my son, clutching a dandelion puff, scattering seeds into the breeze with one exhale, wondering where and when they’ll take root and blossom.
Eugene Peterson said, “Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.”
I am trying to remember this, that prayer is less about asking and more hearing. That I can encounter God in the woods or in a sanctuary, at the table or under a veil of stars. That prayer can happen anywhere, if only we have ears to listen.
I fastened my hospital-issued smock and hefted my achy body onto the bed. Machines hummed. The smell of disinfectant permeated the air. A Christmas morning kind of excitement buzzed inside of me. Today was the day! After 39 weeks, we were going to meet our second child.
A fierce kick jabbed my belly. I looked over at my husband and grinned. “Baby boy’s moving and grooving in here. He’s ready.”
“Oh good,” Jay said, looking up from his phone. He surveyed the room’s white walls, tiled floor and medical bassinet. “Babe, I’m pretty sure this is where you stayed after your first c-section,” he said.
“Really? This room…” I said, trailing off, scrutinizing the space. Five years ago, I came to this hospital to deliver our first child. After hours in a birthing suite, contractions pulsating through my pelvis, fear rising in my throat, body laboring to deliver and failing, I was rushed to the operating room. Following our newborn Jack was swept away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with my husband, and I supposedly landed here. “I don’t remember it,” I continued. “Maybe I was in shock?”
To mother a NICU babe is to walk the fine line between fear and joy, hope and heartache, holding on and letting go. We were lucky enough to bring our miracle home within the week, but like the c-section scar above my uterus, the trauma and relief of it all still marked me. Something about today’s procedure felt like closure. If this could just go smoothly, I prayed. If you could give us peace, O God. Please.
A resident appeared at the front of my bed with a clipboard in one hand and pen poised in the other. My nurse stood at my side, working to attach my IV while the resident fired off a series of medical questions:
Do you smoke or drink?
Is this your first c-section?
What went unsaid: the first was an emergency. My OB, who performed the surgery, recommended this planned c-section for our second baby. I wished she was here now so I could stop answering these questions.
The IV finally landed, pricking my hand. I flinched. “Sorry,” the nurse said. “That had to hurt.”
“Any other surgeries?” the resident asked.
“Yes, I, um, had a D&C last spring,” I replied, straining to keep my voice even.
Her face dropped. “I’m sorry.”
I glanced toward Jay from his chair near the bed. He grimaced. I hated how this line of questioning laid bare our greatest pains. I would always remember the baby we lost, but I would not let grief darken this joyful day. “It’s okay,” I said, placing my hand over my belly instinctively. A tremor of movement grounded me.
Mercifully, the resident had reached the end of her list and excused herself. The heart rate monitor quickened, its percussive beeps filling the void.
“Your baby’s heart rate just kicked up a notch,” the nurse clucked. “He’s fine. He must know today is his birthday!”
“Oh yes,” I laughed, sensing the tension in the air dissipate. “Let’s get this kid out of here!”
Medical staff in blue scrubs and hair nets milled about, readying the Operating Room for surgery. I sat on the edge of the table and thought of Jack. My five-year-old would love all the blue here — it’s his favorite color. Would he also love his baby brother? Or would the transition from only child to big brother upset him?
From the age of three he’d cajoled, “Can you get me a baby brother?”
“It’s not that simple,” I’d explained.”You can’t just ‘get’ them. Babies are a gift from God. All we can do is pray for one, and even then it might not work out. ”
So, during bedtime prayers Jack began asking God for a baby brother. Jay and I prayed too. For years, I thought the answer might be “no.” Today, we’d get to hold our holy “yes.”
“We’re going to have you curl your torso forward,” a nurse commanded, bringing me to the present. Tightness coursed through my body — Jay wasn’t yet in the OR, and I missed his calming presence. Softening her voice, she said, “I’ll hold your body against this pillow, like I’m giving you a hug. Ready?”
I held my breath and leaned forward while my anesthesiologist began his work. The position grew more and more uncomfortable by the minute. Soon my legs would begin to tingle, I knew. Soon they would position me on the table. And then what?
Up until this point the c-section had sat on my calendar as a finishing line, the glory at the end of a marathon pregnancy that included two jarring hospital visits for monitoring preterm contractions. But it wasn’t the finish line at all — first, I had to endure this surgery.
Unlike my last c-section, I’d be awake for much of the procedure. I’d been so focused on making it to this day I hadn’t considered what it would feel like. I shifted in my seat.
“Erin, I’m gonna need you to be still just a little longer,” the anesthesiologist directed.
“Almost done,” the nurse murmured. “Lean into me again.”
With one final push, the dosing was complete. A fuzzy feeling crawled up my legs while the nurses repositioned them on the table and assisted me in laying down. While they prepped my stomach and groin for surgery, I felt a strange sensation, almost as if my soul was suspended over my body. Let this go smoothly, I prayed. Let his life begin peacefully.
Jay appeared at my side, bringing me down to earth. I couldn’t feel my legs or wiggle my toes but I felt his hand on my shoulder, an anchor.
“How are you doing, babe?” Jay asked.
“OK,” I exhaled. “A little nervous.”
“You’re doing great. Once this is over, we’ll have our baby.”
When my OB entered the room, I don’t remember what she said but I do remember hearing her voice and feeling comforted.
Tools clattered behind the blue curtain separating me from the lower half of my body. Surgery had begun. As the medical team worked, I busied myself with visions of holding my newborn skin-to-skin post-delivery, an experience I didn’t get with Jack. The nurse had assured me this time would be different.
The surgery progressed slowly. At one point, my OB called for extra support and I felt my breathing quicken. A queasy sensation came over me. I turned my head right, then left, then faced the ceiling. Was this what a panic attack feels like? I turned to the anesthesiologist and said, “I think I’m feeling sick.”
“I’m adjusting your medicine,” he said. “Hang in there — you’re almost done.”
Almost done — almost at the finish line. I closed my eyes and focused on the warmth of Jay’s hand on my shoulder. My breath, flowing in and out. The cold table against my upper back.
Something was happening behind the blue curtain. “Nay, nay, nay!” rang out across the OR.
In a moment reminiscent of the opening to The Lion King, a chunky baby held by gloved hands soared above the curtain. Our Adam. He was alive. He was healthy — he looked so healthy. I blinked back tears of joy.
“He’s here,” I whispered to Jay. “He’s finally here.”
“I know!’ he replied, smiling wide. “Good job, babe.”
While the staff cleaned and tested Adam, my surgery continued behind the curtain. I felt slight pressure as the medical team worked to clear the placenta from my uterus.
A friendly nurse placed a swaddled Adam in Jay’s arms so we could greet him. I kissed his forehead and turned to Jay. “He’s just so beautiful,” I said, eyes shining.
“You have to get a picture,” the nurse gushed, and just like that Jay was handing over his phone and we were crowding around our newborn.
In the photo, Adam’s sweet face squishes against mine while Jay’s hand cradles his small body. You can see my oxygen tube, hospital smock and silly hairnet. Jay, too, wears a hairnet with his mask and scrubs. You can see a mom and dad beaming so big, we appear to be glowing.
Daylight fell softly through the blinds of my maternity suite. Propped up in bed, I held Adam to my chest and studied his face while Jay dozed on the pullout couch in front of us. Adam’s eyes may have been shut tight, but he was awake and hungry, his tiny mouth nuzzling my skin in search of nourishment.
It’s funny how some life events create a full circle. Adam was born five years and two days after his older brother. In the same hospital. Same procedure. Same doctor. Like his brother, Adam is a miracle.
Two boys born five years apart was not my original vision for my family. I had a plan for us and my life now looks nothing like I thought it would. In fact, it’s better.
While I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, I trust that God is the author of all that is good. I trust in little graces — moments when God’s presence shines through and wakes us up to our identity as God’s beloved. Preceded by a difficult birth, two cancer diagnoses, a pandemic and a miscarriage, Adam is a very good gift only God could bring forth.
Adam began to nay softly. My free hand positioned him in my arms for breastfeeding, laying his body sideways atop a stack of hospital pillows. The movement took herculean effort after surgery. I felt the sharp jab of his mouth latching to my breast, then leaned my head back against a pillow.
In Hebrew, Adam means “(hu)man” or “the one formed from the ground.” Jay and I chose his name less for its biblical origins and more because we liked how it sounded. Nevertheless, I can only attribute Adam’s arrival to the faith that grounds me. God had given me a second chance to become a mother. God had held Adam and me throughout surgery, keeping us safe. And God was holding us now as we learned to love each other.
Satisfied for the moment, Adam pulled his head back and pursed his lips, settling into sleep. Soon I’d need to rouse Jay so he could help me swaddle him. For the time being, I cradled our little grace in the sunlight, delighting in every breath he took.
These are the days of his small head nestled against my chest skin — velvet smooth, unmarred by time — to skin — a soft place to dream, drink, rest, grow (some days, I swear, I can see him thickening in the shelter of my arms) and some days blur into nights cradling him close feeding and being fed by his warmth our two hearts beating in sync his slate blue eyes searching for mine, which of course, are bloodshot and glad (some nights, I swear, holding him feels like heaven on earth) some nights I feel suffocated by all he needs and these are the nights that blend into days when golden light lingers at the edge of the crib each day becoming a little longer as if to say, “Take heart, change is coming, so be sure to treasure these days.”