Lessons from 2019

The Cut recently informed me that although some people don’t keep a diary, most of us have inboxes that serve as a “fossil record of our lives.” In other words, ancient emails are a window into our stories. Reading this, a small chuckle escaped my lips. I’d been sifting through emails the day prior for evidence to corroborate dates for an essay I was revising. What struck me most about my old messages was their tone. My voice seemed strange yet familiar, young but not naive, kind yet scared. Who was this woman? Me but different.

On this 20th day of December in 2019, 48 hours from my 34th birthday and 12 days until New Year’s, I wonder: Who was I on the cusp of 2019? And who will I become in 2020? The whole truth lies not in emails but stories —  lessons — from the time between. 

One: Why does it ache?

Trapped with my mouth wide open and torso at a 45 degree decline, I examined vintage Chicago posters while the dentist finished cleaning my teeth.

“Well, that’s it,” he said, putting down the floss. 

“So, you’re sure there’s nothing wrong?” I asked him, craning my neck to the side.

“Your teeth look great, though you’ll probably want to start flossing more — the gaps between them grow wider with age.” With the flick of his switch, my chair whirred to eye level.

I repositioned myself and tried again: “It’s just my teeth, they were so achy.” 

For weeks they’d ached, pain fading in and out. They hurt first thing in the morning and at bedtime. They occasionally woke me up at night. They hurt whenever I switched from one activity to the next, almost as if my teeth were petulant children demanding my attention. I brushed, flossed and went back to work, ignoring them. 

Little mouths needed brushing, dishes of every size kept piling up in the sink and deadlines too were stacking up in my planner. Visiting the dentist never made it on my lengthy to-do list; it got lodged in my brain someplace between almost out of dish soap and don’t forget to file your check requests before sabbatical. 

“Right.” The dentist nodded.

I licked my teeth and tasted fluoride. “And now they’re fine,” I said. Coincidentally, the week I made the appointment, my pain disappeared.

The dentist shrugged his shoulders and stood to leave. We’d already gone over this — no evidence of grinding or gum disease. No cavities.

“Sometimes these things have a way of sorting themselves out.” He smiled and moved to the door. Conversation closed.

It bothered me that the dentist didn’t have an answer. What caused the pain? I wondered, picking up my complimentary toothbrush and toothpaste and summoning my driver. I zipped up my jacket and waved goodbye to the receptionist. Moreover, how did it heal?

Outside crisp leaves tumbled across the street and wind cut through my jacket. Fall in Chicago is a short, poignant season one must be careful not to miss. The neighborhood trees were showing off gold, crimson and burnt orange and I realized I had the entire afternoon free before my son returned from school. I could go for a run in the woods or cozy up with a good book. Maybe I’d start a chili.

Waiting for my ride it struck me: I was no longer in a hurry.

I’d replaced piles of dishes and deadlines with extra playtime and travel. After months of making appointments for my son but not myself, I had an eye exam, annual check-up and this dentist visit. I was officially on leave from work and yes, life was slow.

For now.

Eventually sabbatical would end and working motherhood would sink its claws back into me. I smiled up at the gray sky. I wanted to hold onto this feeling — hope — and carry it with me to the next season. I wanted to start paying attention to pain, and to its release.

Two: A messy dilemma

I hold two passions in my heart: one is my family, the other, my career. I’m lucky I landed my dream job as a magazine editor. I’m doubly blessed I realized my dream of becoming a wife and mother. I’m living the dream.

Yet these two dreams often seem at odds with one another, and though I believe that’s a false dichotomy, there are days I curse motherhood for crippling my career and days I blame work for my lack of presence with my family. Both are lies. Both are true.

When my son’s weeklong spring break from school approached,  I submitted my vacation days and cleared my calendar just for him. In my planner, I sketched out daily agendas: on Monday, we’d go to Cafe Little Beans, on Tuesday, we’d stay home and watch Disney movies, on Wednesday, we’d take a nature walk, and so forth.

Wednesday arrived and I loaded up my son Jack and our dog Gus into the car and drove to the forest preserve for our walk. The sky was clear and blue, pale green buds sprinkled trees, and when we approached a clearing, I let Gus off leash for a romp in the grass. Jack pointed and giggled as Gus sprinted out into the empty field. “Go on buddy,” I said, gently pushing him forward. The ground was moist and smelled of yesterday’s rain. With a little coaxing, Jack made a beeline for Gus, who appeared to be drinking out of giant mud puddle. 

“Oh no! Wait. Honey, don’t go in there,” I yelled out, waving him back. 

“Mommy! A mud puddle!” He said, stomping his feet with glee. 

Too late. In an instant, Jack’s shoes were caked with black-brown mud. Then he plopped on his bottom and the mud speckled our dog’s white fur. Safely positioned on the edge of the puddle, I sighed, thinking of the bath they would need later. This was not on my agenda.

“Mommy!” Jack cried, pushing himself back up. “Come splash with me!” 

I didn’t want to go in, but in that moment I knew I could either be the mom who played in the mud or killed the fun. I had only 10 minutes left for this walk and zero supplies for clean up. This would surely dirty my car, delay our daily agenda and screw up Jack’s nap schedule. Plus I was wearing white-soled shoes. No matter what, this was going to be a mess.

“Mommy! Mommy!” my son called again, grinning. Gus let out a little bark.

This time, I didn’t hesitate. I stepped out into the mud to play.

Three: Brave

What I remember most about our conversation was his attitude. Leaning over his scotch at the bar top, my friend was the definition of casual. This was the same carefree guy I knew from college and also someone entirely different. He was a pastor, after all.

So when I confessed to him over drinks I still had doubts about my faith, I couldn’t have predicted what he said next. 

“Imagine how it feels when you’re the pastor,” he said throwing back a swig of scotch.

My mouth dropped. I stirred my seltzer water and searched for the right response. “You too?”

“I mean, who hasn’t?”

What I’d wanted from him was theology. Wisdom. A Bible verse to help me grapple with why my husband got sick and my dad got sick and why people kept getting shot by angry white men with assault rifles. I wanted an antidote to doubt.

Instead of that, he offered, “Me too.” My pastor friend understood the doubts and the questions and the creeping worry that death was just the end. What I wanted wasn’t what I actually needed. What I needed was a companion in doubt.

This conversation wasn’t an anomaly. I talked to many other pastors this year who echoed similar sentiments.

On a walk in the woods, I got to know a pastor who admitted she didn’t have the best answers to age-old faith questions related to suffering. At coffee, my pastor listened to my frustrations at length and nodded with understanding, quietly holding space for me.

Over pancakes, one very important pastor I admired told me he hoped I’d write about it — my doubts. I wanted to tell him I’d been trying to write about doubt and pain all year. Instead I sat and sipped my coffee.

I often wrote in the literal darkness. Early in the morning before my family woke. Late at night when they were asleep.

Entering the darkness in words doesn’t necessarily stump me, it’s the getting out that does.

Another pastor whose writing I adore wrote this of darkness: “Those of us who should follow Christ, therefore, should expect a lot of darkness. That is where God finds us and also sends us.”

Later, when it was time to make edits to a story I wrote that seemed too sad and irreverent, I discovered a shred of Hope threaded through my prose. I set down my red editing pen.

Perhaps exploring doubt is a sign of evolving faith. I’m finding there’s beauty in the darkness. I’m learning to pay attention to my pain — and joy. I believe I’m entering 2020 a little braver than before.

I wrote this post as 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 read the next post in this series “2019.”

Jesus Christ, Advent and the grace of Christmas radio

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The digital clock on my dresser flashes 7:55. Late, we are going to be late. I sprint across the hallway, snatch socks and deposit them at my son’s feet. “I need you to put these on now.” “Nooo! I don’t wanna,” he screeches, folding his arms. The last thing we have time for is a standoff before school. I crouch to his level and grit my teeth. “You need to try because you are a big boy now and I cannot do everything for you and we are running late.” I say this in my mom-means-business-voice.

He puffs his lip out. “Mommy, you do it!” To which I cry out, “Jesus Christ!” Not my finest parenting moment.

Then: a whirlwind of tears and apologies, a quick sock tutorial, shoes, hats, coats. My heavy sigh as I lock the door. The dashboard clock reads 8:10. Late.

It’s December, a time when moms are supposed to be merrily gift shopping, addressing holiday cards and executing traditions. Our tree’s lit and we even baked Christmas cookies, yet I can’t shake the feeling that I’m running behind. That I don’t measure up to the other moms. I don’t have enough cheer to give my kid. (He’s never met Santa; our holiday budget’s tight.) Christmastime, it’s magical and a rush. I hate rushing.

My son does too.

I turn on Christmas radio as I back out of the garage, but I’m not really listening, too busy mind mapping all the mistakes I made that morning, ways I could have been more prepared.

While the masses deck the halls and check their lists, the church observes Advent, during which we assume the posture of expectation. Advent, with its moodiness and calls for repentance, is incongruous with the holiday hustle. I like this about Advent.

At the stop sign, my son shouts, “Mommy! Mommy!” “What honey?” I answer. Light snow falls, lining the trees and streets. I hope it sticks. “It’s a Christmas song,” he says, bobbing his head.

My ears register “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” “Oh!” I say, stunned by his sudden cheer, the mercy of fresh snow and forgiveness. “Fa-la-la,” he adds, beaming. This does not even go with the song.

Jesus Christ, I think to myself, smiling. That’s who Christmas is all about — the gift of a child, born to save us from ourselves.

Let it be love

“Wait, you still have to stay in his room at bedtime?” she asked, a hint of pity in her voice. We sharing stories and dinner in my home and my least favorite parenting topic had arisen.

“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “With all his ear infections and our failed attempts at sleep training, he just never got the hang of falling asleep on his own.” I looked down and cut at my lasagna. “Honestly, it’s easier this way.” 

“Oh honey, that’s so hard,” she said. It was definitely pity. “It sounds like you need some time for you.”

There was so much more to the story – how much better his sleep was compared to year one, how most nights I dreaded our exhaustive routine but occasionally I savored it — but I couldn’t bring myself to tell it. I took a bite and nodded, searching for how to change the subject.

“So, tell me about your new project…?” And with that, I steered our conversation forward.

// 

There’s something I need to tell you: I’m a bit of an overachiever. I took honors classes from grade school through college. I racked up extracurriculars — choir, cross country, steel drum band, student council — like girl scout badges. For the majority of my short life, I measured my life in grade point averages and activities mastered. The higher, the better. 

Naturally, when I achieved my goal of getting pregnant, I began to research every aspect of motherhood. I dove into Expecting Better and my app from The Bump, then lost myself in the mesmerizing world of Mom Influencers. Square after Insta-square they lined up proof of motherly excellence: heart-melting images of swaddled newborns, perfectly styled nurseries and stunning family photo sessions caught at the golden hour. 

I wanted that shiny life. Honestly, I still want it, even though I now know those images don’t tell the whole story. Not the back-breaking pain of labor and sleep deprivation or the piercing fear of your child dying. Nor can they fully convey the heart-bursting joy of seeing your child’s first radiant smile or lulling him to sleep with your favorite lullaby, the one dad used to sing at bedtime until you outgrew it. 

In 2019, it’s easy to engage in performative parenting — documenting our children’s wins online in exchange for “likes” and a little boost of satisfaction. Raising kids can be so thankless sometimes, and it feels good to be validated. But motherhood is not a race to be won or a course to be aced or a song to be mastered. Motherhood, I’m finding, is terribly difficult to measure. Deep down I know this, but I go ahead and try anyway.

//

“Please eat your peas,” I said, pointing to my son’s plate.

“I don’t want to!” he responded, edging his plate toward mine.

“Please honey,” I pleaded, nudging it back. I could have written this scene a plethora of ways, all varieties of vegetables and moods and tactics, all leading to the same, stubborn answer:

“No!” he shouted, crossing his arms. We sat at the table in silence, glaring at one another. In his eyes I saw his characteristic spark of defiance. Oh please not another tantrum…

“Fine,” I said icily, yanking the plate away. “Let’s get you cleaned up to play.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tried to push healthy food, how many times I’ve thrown up my hands and accepted my son will eat a medley of snacks for dinner. 

At the next meal, I’d try again, hoping this time the broccoli or fish or whatever I was pushing would stick. Some days it worked; most days it didn’t. I didn’t think I was doing such a bad job because I’d heard from moms in my circle that I’m not alone in this struggle. Then I got this text from my husband.

Him: Jack’s underweight

Me: Wait…what

Me: By how much?

Me: What did the doctor say

Him: I don’t know but he is in like the 16th percentile or something

Me: Oh God

Him: She kept drilling me about what he eats and drinks

The revelation brought me to my knees — I wasn’t feeding our son the right food. I wasn’t feeding him enough. I wasn’t . . . enough.

This wasn’t the first time I’d felt like I was falling behind as a mama. 

Once my son’s teacher reported that he’d been tripping and falling down too much at his Montessori school and maybe he should get involved in some sort of physical activity? That made me feel physically ill. Or there was the time our expensive sleep consultant told me I’d nursed my son for too long, implying that I’d “ruined” his ability to soothe himself to sleep. Gut punch. And, yes, there was that dinner table conversation about bedtime that left me swimming in a sea of self-doubt.

//

Her voice is sharp and judgy; she’s constantly criticizing me:

You shouldn’t have yelled at him that way.

You should have faxed in that medical form last week.

You shouldn’t be on your phone right now — play with him.

You should have been there for his big milestone, instead of at work.

More than any other marker, not the shiny moms on the internet or the ones I know IRL, my inner critic likes to remind me of all the ways I’m not measuring up as a mama. Ever the overachiever, she grades me against her great expectations.

My mom stayed home with my brother and me when we were little. I don’t remember the years well, but I do know she was an excellent mother — kind, patient, generous, slow to anger. Still is. I wish I could give my son what I had growing up, not what I’m actually giving him. Fits and spurts of weekday parenting plus long weekends doesn’t feel like enough to me. Often I feel I cannot keep up with motherhood and my career — the pace, the demands of each is too intense to do either very well.

So how do I address this nagging feeling I’m not measuring up? One option might be to ignore or reject it. Good in theory, but harder to execute. Another option might be to make peace with my inner critic, and maybe even give her a little compassion. It’s only human nature to compare yourselves to others, so why not just accept it? Plus swapping stories with fellow mamas has lent me some fantastic tools and tricks for navigating the grueling early years.

An additional way might be to consider what I’m measuring when it comes to motherhood. Yes, the importance of nutrition and sleep and education cannot be downplayed. (If you’re wondering: My husband and I did make a plan for our son to get his weight back on track. And bedtime’s been getting better.) But what if there was something else I could use as a benchmark?

In my work as a freelance parenting writer, I’ve found one theory of child development that keeps turning up, no matter if my story is about teaching your child to tidy up or to inherit your values. That common thread is: What we model, our children inherit. Children soak up the words we speak and the actions we take and reflect them back to us like a mirror.

Could it really be quite that hard and that simple? On the one hand, this is great news. I hope my son mirrors my commitment to relationships and health and creativity. On the other, I don’t know if I can live up to that sort of pressure. My flaws — my pride, my people-pleasing, my workaholism, my perfectionism, to name a few — are not what I want to pass on to him.

Thankfully, to borrow from a Lutheran pastor I heard preach last summer, “There’s grace for that.

There’s grace for the mom who yells. For the striving mom who always feels like she’s failing. For the mom who’s angry and overwhelmed and in need of a little validation. For the mom who invests so much in her children she forgets herself. For the mom who misses her freedom and wishes she could be more present. (I’ve been all these moms and more.) The good news?

Graces lift us up when we inevitably stumble.

//

Last week my son and I were in his playroom, sitting thigh to thigh in his mini Pottery Barn chair, chewing on a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Summer sunlight was streaming through the windows, and, as we chomped away, I relished the cookie’s sweetness. Out of the blue he remarked, “Mommy, sometimes I get mad.”

The simple expression stopped me mid-chew. Minutes ago he’d thrown not one but two tantrums when I explained that we could not have a popsicle and a cookie right now, we had to choose just one for dessert. This unexpected utterance made me think maybe all those episodes of Daniel Tiger and conversations about forgiveness were starting to sink in.

“I know buddy,” I answered, rubbing his back with one arm. “That’s normal.”

“Sorry Mommy,” he said, rising to wrap his arms around me, crumbs tumbling off his lips and fingers. “I love you Mommy!”

My eyes smarted with tears. I sure know I stumble often as a mama, but if my son can hold onto this sweetness, I will consider my work excellent.

“Oh honey, I understand,” I said, kissing his cheek and pulling him in tighter. “I love you too.”

If I’m going to measure anything, God, let it be love.

I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale — an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood led by the women of Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Measuring Up.” Image credit: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

Snapshot of a summer afternoon

She clicks her laptop shut and announces, “Well, that’s enough for today.” She considers her son’s laundry basket, the dirty dishes, scattered hot wheels in the playroom. Working is her default mode; she finds it hard to relax. But the sun is shining through the blinds, and there’s a kiddie pool filled to the brim waiting in the backyard. Finally a dry, hot day after weeks of rain. She will not waste this afternoon checking off to-dos.

“Honey, we have a surprise for you,” she says, rousing her son from his nap. “We got you a little pool.”
“Mama! We’re going swimming?” he says, eyes widening.
“Yes, we are — in our backyard.”
He squeals with delight.

They slap on swimsuits, tank tops, sunscreen. He races into the yard, and spies the pool. She watches him dip his toes, one at a time. Then: splash! He plops in the pool and stomps his feet in the water. She sighs and leans back in her lawn chair. Thwack! He throws a soccer ball into the water, mischief in his eyes — a flash of the future. She wants to freeze time, or at least make it slow down.

Now the sprinkler’s running, and he’s chasing after their neighbor. They zip and zag through matted grass. They spin and twirl under an arch of droplets, little bodies shaking with laughter. It seems deliciously sinful to be sitting here under the sun, with no agenda whatsoever. When was the last time she felt this way? A giggle rises in her belly. She cannot remember.

Last night she dreamed she was floating in the ocean, arms spread wide, rocking among the waves. What a gift to be freed from deadlines and bedtimes and appointments to make, from time marching on. What a gift to float — untethered.

”It’s after 5,” her husband remarks, breaking her thoughts. “Guess we better start grilling, huh?” She nods reluctantly, then calls out to their son, “Buddy, five more minutes!”

Later, she crouches in a tiny toddler chair across from her son, who’s lapping at a popsicle — a bribe to come inside for dinner. Ice cream drips down his chin and he closes his eyes, smiling. She pops her popsicle in her mouth. (She needed a bribe too.) A burst of strawberry, tangy and cold, sweetens her tongue. Together they linger, savoring the taste of summer.

Becoming

I don’t think anyone can fully prepare you for how pivotal it is to become a mother. It’s not that they don’t try. In fact, when you’re expecting, you may find everyone from your great aunt to your coworkers to well-meaning strangers dole out parenting advice. Whether they’re parents or not, many know the searing ache, the bliss of parenthood from their own lives and feel the significance of this new chapter of life of which you’re on the brink.

The journey to parenthood is in and of itself a new chapter, one that for many women and men is full of hopes and heartache. I remember this pain well. Several summers ago, while vacationing with dear friends from college and their families, I stood sobbing in a bathroom stall, wracked with envy. The only childless couple on the trip, my husband and I watched as their beautiful children shared hugs, spread joy and spilled Cheerios.

At the time, we were months into trying for our first child, and it wasn’t going great. For one, after months off birth control, my hormones were all out of wack. Getting pregnant was supposed to be easy, I thought. But now, at 30, it had become clear conceiving a child was much more calculated than others let on. I worried that my body was failing me. I worried we’d waited too long. I worried that my deepest fear — that we wouldn’t be able to have a child — might be true. Over that long weekend, while I observed my friends love on their littles, the thought that dominated my consciousness was, “I want that. Badly.”

Little did I know, I had that. I was actually pregnant with my son, and the hormones were making me tired beyond belief and weepy. The next chapter of my life was already underway.

Flash forward to today. Today is Mother’s Day, and I am actually spending part of it alone in a Starbucks writing. Time alone is a true gift for mothers of small children like myself. It’s what I asked my husband for this holiday, and he graciously granted my request.

Now I am two years and counting into motherhood and feel like an old veteran. I know this sense of security is sketchy at best. Like the time after my son began sleeping through the night consistently, but then began to act — as toddlers often do — in new, headstrong ways. Because I’ve been there before, I know I’ll forever be encountering new challenges and delights. Or, as my coworker and friend Karen says, “Bigger kids, bigger problems.” The constant change of motherhood is exhilarating and unnerving.

But going from expecting to birthing a baby, that change, that new chapter of life is monumental. And not just because your baby is changing. You are too. Those early, grueling months of learning to change diapers and feed a baby on demand are a time of becoming.

In her piece, “The Birth of A Mother,” reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks says it’s “an identity shift, and one of the most significant psychical and psychological changes a woman will ever experience.” I read this piece weeks into new motherhood, and it brought me so much peace and clarity, I teared up. This year I even had the privilege to interview Sacks for an article I wrote for The Everymom. When we spoke, Sacks said it’s time for us to shed light on this major life transition so that new moms know they’re not alone in their mixed feelings.

I only need look back on my posts from the early days of my son’s life — when caring for a newborn was all consuming, when sleep was a battle, when I felt a love so strong it scared me (still does) — to know the weight of learning to mother.

One of my favorite writers, Shauna Niequist, begins her book, Present Over Perfect naming a period in her adulthood in which she experienced dramatic change as a “sea-change, the journey from one way of living to another.”

And that’s exactly what happens when you become a mother. With a newborn in your arms you toss all your old habits and ways of living out the window and learn to live with and care for another person. Your person. You are no longer alone. You trade freedom for a new way of living. You are a mom! Niequist goes on to say this about her major life transition:

This is a love story, like all my favorite stories. It’s a story about letting yourself be loved, in all your imperfect, scarred, non-spectacular glory. And it’s about the single most profound life change I’ve yet encountered.”

–Shauna Niequist

I could say the same about my motherhood journey. And I’ll add this: loving my son was the most profound life change I’ve yet encountered. Being his mom is one of my life’s greatest love stories, and it’s still unfolding.

About a month before I gave birth to my son, I started this blog. Since 2008, after I graduated from college and became enamored with blogs, I wanted to have my own. I made a few feeble attempts at blogging over the years but in December 2016 I finally committed. In committing to this blog, I not only committed to writing, I committed to myself, to my story. I was beginning to believe that my words might matter to others.

Then, in January 2017, Jack was born and writing our story has been a tool for me to process, heal, share and reflect on all the highs and lows I’ve encountered throughout motherhood. What a gift to be a mother-writer, what an incredible gift. I look back and see my journey of becoming is written in my heart and on the page — of this blog, my journal, other publications.

In writing through motherhood and sharing it with others, I’ve connected with many other parents — a great blessing. Parents of older children often respond to my stories with comments such as, “Savor it!” and “This time goes so fast.” God, if they only knew just how much I agreed with them.

I’m doing everything in my power to savor this time, even when it’s boring (ever watched three episodes of Umizoomi in a row or cluster-fed a hangry newborn?) or hard to be present (when you have a million deadlines to worry about at work and dirty dishes piled up in the sink). That’s exactly why I’m writing through motherhood — so I can remember it. And give thanks for it. Also: I want others to remember too. Ultimately, when I give birth to a story and offer it up to others, I want it to be a gift that they might use to claim their stories as well.

My friend and writing mentor, author Callie Feyen wrote this about her daughter, “I am a writer because of her not in spite of her.” This resonated deeply with me. When I finally took ownership of my identity as a writer — when I realized I wasn’t just a journalist, I had my own stories to tell — was, consequently, when I became a mother. For that, I am deeply grateful.

A mother’s worry

“Jack got in a fight at school today,” she reports, pushing an accident slip toward me.

I take the slip and crouch down to examine a fingernail-shaped scratch on my son’s head. “Poor buddy,” I say, pulling him into a hug. I look up and ask, “What happened?” “He and another boy wanted the same toy,” his teacher answers. I pepper her with more questions — does this happen often, is Jack getting along with the others, is the other boy hurt — while Jack wriggles in my arms, eager to escape.

Later, as I slip Jack’s red Velcro shoes on his little feet, our eyes meet. “Honey, I’m sorry about your fight. Are you OK?” “Uh-huh,” he nods his head and looks away. I am not convinced. “Fights are gonna happen,” I go on. “We need to play nice with our friends. We say ‘I’m sorry’ when we mess up. And we forgive others when they hurt us.” The words hang in the air and I realize this is only the beginning. In three years, Jack will start kindergarten. Then he’ll face schoolyard squabbles and bullies and even lockdown drills. This thought hits me squarely in the gut.

One of the most painful truths of motherhood is that the more my son grows, the less I can protect him from getting hurt. I blink back tears. I take my son’s hand in mine and we walk out to the car in silence.

Later, at bedtime, Jack rests his head in the crook of my arms as I rock him back and forth. At two years old, his lanky legs spill over the side of the rocking chair. Together, we sing the ABCs, the rainbow color song and happy birthday (his current favorite). Someday he’ll outgrow this ritual, I think.

Despite Jack’s protests, I lift him out of my arms and gently place him in his crib. I kiss his head and whisper, “I love you buddy.” Jack stops whining for a moment. “I love you too, Mommy,” he sighs.

The world is harsh, but it is also beautiful. Although I cannot keep my son from experiencing pain, I can carry him with my love. And though I’ll never escape my unspeakable worries, I can hold onto this moment and let it carry me through the night.

Two

StrybisTwo years ago, I gave birth to you, little one. You burst into our lives in the most dramatic fashion and left us breathless, in awe of your tenacity.

Two years of singing lullabies, tickling your belly, making you pancakes. Two years of pediatrician visits, sleep deprivation, gnawing worry. Two years of surrender. Two years of joy. 

These days you’re wearing bigger jeans and bigger feelings — on your sleeve.

Suddenly your legs look longer; your grasp of language is stronger.

You run-jump-tumble-flip in the span of a blink.

Wasn’t it just yesterday I had you snuggled in the crook of my arm, smelling sweet and fresh?

Yet here you are, my not-so-baby boy. You are SO alive.

Lately you’ve been taking my hand and pulling me into your imaginary kingdom where Elmo, Mickey and Snoopy play together. You’re singing your ABCs and “Jingle Bells” at random and you’re obsessed with playdough. You have strong opinions about fruit snacks (love them) and socks (you prefer mismatched). You love to read. You hate bedtime. You chatter constantly. You notice everything. You still need us to help you get ready, but daily you’re becoming more independent. And strong-willed. 

Sometimes, raising you pushes me past my limit. For all the times I’ve let you down–and those to come–please forgive me. Hands down: being your mama is the hardest job I’ve ever had.

It’s also the greatest privilege.

The ache, the bliss of watching you grow heightens the tenor of ordinary days, blessing my life with meaning.

Two years of loving you deeply. The toughest two years of my life. The most beautiful too. 

Happy birthday, son. May your year ahead be filled with delight and discovery.

Gets better with age

In my early twenties, I worked for a large, progressive Presbyterian church on Chicago’s Gold Coast. I’d graduated in 2008 with dreams of working for a magazine or newspaper, but this was the year of the financial crisis and although unpaid internships beckoned, I could not afford to take them. I needed a paying job. That’s how I ended up at the church.

Unsurprisingly, working for the Lord wasn’t lucrative (still isn’t) but what my church communications job lacked in $$$ it made up for in other benefits—a chic location, colleagues and congregants with plenty of character and a relaxed workplace in which I could cut my teeth. Somewhere around my third week on the job, I stared out the antique window of the old parsonage-turned-office, at the bustling city street below and wondered: Is this it? Is this my life now?

I was privileged to have a secure, stable job but I couldn’t shake the feeling as though I’d abandoned a dream. Should I have moved to New York and maxed out my credit card on a fancy, insanely expensive publishing boot camp for recent grads? Should I have gone after that unpaid cub reporter internship in Louisiana? Or that unpaid magazine internship in Indianapolis?

Instead I was in a church, copyediting bulletins. And while I was grateful for the work, honestly, the thought of it didn’t exhilarate me. On the other hand, I had a two-bedroom apartment with my college girlfriend, health insurance and funds in my bank account. I was lucky. Though I pined for the freedom and flexibility of college life, I slowly assimilated to my 9 to 5 — meeting deadlines, taking lunch breaks to explore the city or chat with new friends, and navigating workplace politics and conflicts.

My first real job out of college exposed my inner demons, in particular, my penchant for perfectionism and people-pleasing. I struggled with confidence in my body, my work, my voice. I struggled with contentment in my relationship (long distance with no end in sight, everyone else seemed to be engaged) and my career path (describing my job often resulted in the response: So, you’re a church secretary?). In a way, I lived small. I read others’ blogs with delight and envy. I didn’t think I had the talent to write my own. I half-heartedly applied to grad school because it seemed like a good idea at the time (???). (It was not a good idea; I am grateful I did not get in.)

For five years I worked for this church, watching colleagues and friends come and go on to more exciting adventures. I replaced my old dream with a new one—advancing my career. I took on new projects, eventually landing a promotion. With new responsibilities and pressure, I agonized over my work, sometimes overextending myself. I secretly agonized over my slowing metabolism and weight gain, overanalyzing everything I ate and feeling irrationally guilty when I missed workouts. My third boss there, an amazing mentor and wise sage, once told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to see a therapist. (She was right.) She also gave me some advice about aging I’ll never forget.

“Your twenties are hard,” she told me. “But your thirties? That’s when it starts getting better. You’ll feel so much more confident in your own skin. And wait until you get to your forties–you’ll love yourself in your forties.”

Today I turn 33.

So much has changed for me since I was naive, young lass in the city. I’m married to my college sweetheart, we have a car, a dog, a mortgage and toddler (#adulting). I managed to land a job at a magazine I love and still pinch myself everyday because jobs like this are rare. And while I’m proud of my beautiful family and the trajectory of my career, what brings me the most happiness can’t be layered in a resume or posted on Instagram.

Here it is: I’m much more comfortable in my own skin now than I was at 23.

Aging well isn’t about looks–it’s about what’s on going on inside us. The inner work I finally did with a therapist acquainted me with my flaws, bad habits, negative self-talk and uncomfortable emotions. Because of her, I’ve recovered from crippling perfectionism and people-pleasing. I make mistakes all the time. I disappoint people regularly. I still feel bad about both. But it doesn’t derail me the way it once did.

After leaving my first job, I discovered yoga. Nearly two years ago, after my son was born, I ditched dieting for good and began practicing yoga regularly, which transformed my mind and body.

Today I’m so much more self-aware, confident, wise, grateful and compassionate because I’m older. I’m living bigger than before. When I get it wrong, I’m grounded by grace.

My boss was right. Like a fine wine, we get better with age.

Looks like surrender, feels like home

erin and jackI open the door and see him dead center in a sea of toddlers, tears streaming down his tiny, flushed face. “Mommy!” he sobs. “Oh poor buddy,” I say, rushing forward, folding him in my arms.

His teacher tried to reach me earlier, but I missed her calls. That Tuesday, while I sat in meetings, my son developed a fever — slight at first, but escalating to over 100. She reports she comforted him all afternoon, but he’s still in a lot of pain. My heart lurches. She, not me, held him. I feel like a horrible mama.

At home I treat his fever with fire engine red Tylenol, saving Motrin for bedtime. Even with painkiller, however, Jack is up every three hours that night, crying out in pain. I hold him; I rock him; I lie on my side next to his crib, rubbing his back, willing him to sleep while he writhes in discomfort.

Curled up on the cold hardwood floor, I feel angry. Angry because my son gets sick all the time, because my husband is away on business, because I know I’ll have to take yet another sick day tomorrow, because I’m selfish — all I want is to retreat to my warm, cozy bed. I will myself to stay.

I’m tired. I’m tired of juggling parenting and providing, feeling like I don’t do either well at all. At 32, I’m envious of 25-year-old me, who can go to bed early or stay out late — her choice; who can sleep in or get up early for a run — her choice; who doesn’t worry about interruptions — leaving work early or getting up in the middle of the night for her son. I used to be single — and free. My thoughts are interrupted by light breathing. Jack’s finally asleep.

The next morning, mercifully, Jack’s fever breaks. He still can’t go to daycare, though, so I call in sick, and we snuggle up in my bed — he watching Team Umizoomie on my laptop, me dozing in and out. I dream about my son’s first year of life, 3 a.m. nursing sessions, pumping, babywearing, washing bottles, complete and utter dependence, complete and utter exhaustion. I wake up grateful.

Eventually Jack’s hungry. “Waffle?” he asks. “Sure sweetheart,” I reply, peeling myself out from under the covers to shuffle toward the kitchen. I place an Eggo waffle in the toaster. I gaze toward my bedroom door. I know this in my heart: Motherhood is a place that looks like total surrender, with independence tugging at its corners. It’s also a place that feels like home.

What I mean when I talk about living gratefully

It’s been a difficult year for our family. So difficult some of our stories have been too painful to share here. My husband is healthy again, but inside we’re still healing from the trauma.

Reflecting back on it all, however, my heart remains full. I’m deeply grateful for the blessings God has placed in my life my family, my friends, my work, my home. I’m deeply grateful for this space, for the opportunity to connect with you. I’m deeply grateful for everything our family experienced this year — our joys and hardships.

I know giving thanks isn’t always easy.

We might be in a season of life where the lows outnumber the highs. We carry a heavy burden, we’re not sure how much longer we can lift it.

We might be looking at the world around us, seeing all the pain and suffering and hate, and feel utter despair. We might be watching our loved ones fight illness and feel utter helplessness.

We might be battling mental illness, addiction, depression, crippling anxiety or seasonal affective disorder. Happy pictures on social media make us envious or melancholy.

We might be feeling the weight of waiting. We’ve been waiting so long for the one, the promotion, the baby, the big break, the move, you name it — and we are tired.

We might be broke. We might be grieving. We might be barely holding it together. We are wrung out.

But.

We are breathing.

Let me tell you something about gratitude: I think living gratefully is an act of resistance.

In a world that tells us we are not enough, that what we have is not enough, gratitude pushes back and says the opposite. Gratitude says we are more blessed than we could ever imagine. When we live gratefully, we look beyond ourselves, rediscovering the invisible threads that stitch our lives together and calling them good.

You know what helps me cultivate gratitude? Yoga. When I practice yoga, I am reminded of everything within me I often take for granted:

  • My heart, beating strong and true as I execute a chaturanga jump back on my yoga mat.
  • My breath, heavy but comfortable as I flow in and out of shapes.
  • My mind, clear and sharp, listening to the instructor’s voice, tuning out to-dos and deadlines. Tuning in to my body, this space, this moment.

Gratitude, like yoga, is a practice. It’s the practice of tuning in, opening our eyes to the gifts around and inside of us.

Sometimes we become most thankful for blessings that were ripped away. We got sick. We got hurt. Someone else did. We moved. Someone else moved. We started a new thing; we miss the old one. Our car broke down. We broke up.

Through loss and hardship, we often develop a new perspective that helps us better appreciate all we have.

The lows I experienced this year gave me a deeper appreciation for my loved ones and my good health. I have a renewed sense of contentment with the life God’s given me. And I’m trying to use my blessings to bless others with love and kindness. I don’t always get it right. I mess up a lot. But I’m aiming to live gratefully.

This Thanksgiving and every day, my prayer is this: May God grant me the attention to pause and give thanks for all my blessings, big and small. May I live my life as an act of gratitude.

I think G.K. Chesterton sums it up quite nicely here:

You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

Amen.