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.
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.
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.”
Growth in this season doesn’t look like I thought it would.
Sometimes growth is a giant leap, a trust fall into the unknown.
Other times, it’s incremental, a series of small steps taken again and again. Growth is showing up to the path, putting one foot in front of the other, falling into bed at night exhausted, and waking up the next morning to walk again. It’s taking a detour or a rest when circumstance calls for it.
Almost always it’s a bit uncomfortable.
There’s a certain kind of vulnerability to growth too, trusting and leaning into the change and knowing there may be old habits you have to shed in order to reach your full potential. Like a gait that needs to be improved, change requires practice and time.
I’m leaning into that tension. I’m recognizing that much of the growth I have to do in this season is slow and unseen, and it cannot be rushed.
Ultimately, growth is a product of faithfulness and courage.
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.
The morning you turned five, you rocketed out of your bed first thing and crawled into ours. I held you close and wished you a happy birthday. I asked, “Are you excited to be five?” You squealed “Yes!” and woke up your father.
The night before I’d baked you a chocolate birthday cake with blue buttercream frosting and a Superman cake topper, just like you requested. You love blue, and Superman is your favorite hero. At bedtime, you always ask for “a little superhero story” featuring him, you and our dog, “Super Gussy.”
I’m not sure how or when you decided Superman was your favorite hero. All I know is after you were born, your grandmother gave me a stuffed bear dressed in a Superman shirt and cape. I think she meant it to represent me, though I felt anything but heroic. Nothing about your birthday had gone according to plan — and I love a good plan — resulting in an emergency c-section for me and your stay in the NICU. Honestly, I thought I’d failed you.
Yet five years later, I can see the strength in both of us. You bravely scale trees and the heights of playgrounds. You’re sounding out phonics so well and on the verge of reading. You love science experiments and going to swim lessons. I’m proud of the super boy you’ve become, with your kind heart, generous spirit and boundless imagination. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned by mothering you.
My prayer for you at five is that, when faced with conflict, you’ll make a heroic choice. That you’ll voice your values and strive for peaceful resolution.
I pray you keep noticing the beauty of creation and urging me to join you.
I pray you continue loving and learning from stories — from your children’s Bible, favorite shows and books that inspire you. I trust you’ll glean empathy and wisdom from grappling with difficult stories.
I pray you see yourself and everyone you meet as a beloved child of God, including those who think, pray or look differently than you.
Most of all, I pray you know how deeply Dad and I love you and how deeply your Creator loves you. That you keep sharing that love with your neighbors near and far.