The wonder of one

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Jack, today is your first birthday. One year ago your daddy and I were on our way to Lutheran General Hospital so I could give birth to you. (You were in my tummy, but you decided it was time to come out!) At 8:05 p.m., when you finally took your first breath, we cried tears of relief and joy.

I thank God every day I get to be your mama. Watching you grow, learn and explore the world has been awesome. As I reflect on our year together, I think the biggest lesson you’ve taught me is that there is wonder in every moment of this life, great and small.

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In this picture, you’re only a few days old. You had just left the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and were receiving heat lamp treatment for bilirubin. Your daddy and I were eager to bring you home so we could all be more comfortable. (Although, as brand new parents, we were also a little scared!) We asked God for strength and wisdom to keep you healthy and safe as we learned how to be your parents.

I wonder what you were thinking and feeling this day. There was so much to see and process in your new environment! It was exhausting, and you took a lot of naps. I hope you felt safe, protected and loved when we swaddled you and held you close.

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Fast forward a couple months. We’re in your nursery doing tummy time. You don’t like it but Dr. Graham says we have to keep doing it so you can strengthen your neck! I have two weeks left for maternity leave and I’m savoring these slow, sweet days we spend together. After I took this photo, you lifted your head off of the knitted blanket and observed the gray walls of your room. You might have even watched our pug, Gus, playing on the colorful carpet. All the wonderful things around you were coming more into focus. A couple weeks ago you’d learned to smile at me and were trying it out a lot. This made your tired mama so happy and proud.

 

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At six months old, you’re working on pulling yourself up. When you discover daddy at the top of the couch, you burst into a smile. Your one-of-a-kind smile, with its dimples and cleft chin, lights up my heart. (Your unique cry, on the other hand, is terrifying–did you learn that at daycare?!) In this picture, your mama was delighted by your good mood and feeling worn down by the juggling act of working and motherhood. We had just started teaching you to sleep by yourself but it wasn’t going great. You eventually get the hang of it, some months later. I’m sorry that was so hard.

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You love your daddy so much, Jack. Many people say that you are a miniature version of him. While I agree, I also think you look a little bit like me. Nearing eight months, you are still especially attached to me but as you grow older, you and daddy deepen your bond. In this picture you are napping on his shoulder after your first visit to Valparaiso University, where mama and daddy met and fell in love. Watching you two spend time together makes my heart sing.

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Jack, I love seeing the world through your eyes. On this day, we were celebrating my birthday. We ate brunch at Ann Sather’s in East Lakeview, and you had the best time munching on eggs, fruit and potatoes. You also loved looking out the restaurant window. What did you see? Lots of dogs, I think, and neighbors waking to and fro. Daddy and mama were so excited to show you our old neighborhood that day. We lived there for more than five years before you entered our lives.

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Here you are peeking out the mail slot of our home. At 11 months and two weeks old your curiosity is insatiable. You’re getting into everything–the kitchen cabinets, the toilet paper roll in the bathroom, the dog’s crate. You especially love finding small corners and spaces sized just for you and snuggling up against them. Your little world is expanding and it’s such a blessing to watch you explore it.

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Now you are one year old and becoming more and more independent. I see how much you’re learning at daycare and feel grateful for the friends you’ve made and the experiences you’ve had there. This makes the time we’re apart feel a little bit easier.

Jack, I admire your adventurous, loving spirit. You’re constantly on the go, climbing, crawling and exploring. You show others how much you care by giving them hugs or pats on the back. I especially like your silly dance moves and your infectious laugh. You wave to friends and strangers, clap your hands to music, and make some funny noises with your mouth. You’re babbling “Ma-ma” and “Da” and “Na-na” (for banana) and you’ve even said “Hi!” and “Uh-oh.”

With you in my life, everything is new again. And so much sweeter. Happy first birthday, Jack buddy! We love you so much.

Motherhood is messy

black and white splattersIt is 11 a.m. and I am laying on the floor of my newborn’s room, covered in a cold sweat. My teeth chatter as I wrap my oversized bathrobe tight around my body and watch my baby play. He is well but I am not. I am overtired and running a fever and the only thing keeping me awake in this particular moment is adrenaline. My lips move but my voice fails me as I let out a silent one-word prayer: “Help.”

That morning, on the floor of my son’s room, I experience my first panic attack. I am so sick I can barely care for myself and I am scared sick that I don’t  have the stamina to continue caring for my three-month-old son. To top it off my husband is out of town for a week-long work trip and it is only Wednesday.

Sick. Scared. Alone.

This is not how I pictured my first week of solo-parenting to go.

I am in the middle of my maternity leave but my husband is back at work and on the road. He is a consultant, so travel is a regular part of the gig. After Jack was born we’d spent six stressful/blissful weeks together learning how to care for an infant. Now I’m on my own and feeling terrible and I am terrified. I fight back tears as I call my husband and he immediately insists I call my mother and ask for help.

“Mom,” I croak when she answers the phone, “I need you right now. I’m sick and can’t take care of Jack. Can you come help me?”

“Of course,” she says, “I’ll come as soon as I can tonight.”

A fresh crop of tears spill from my eyes as I hang up the phone. My mom is coming to help. I am relieved. I just have to hang on until she can finish up at work and make the drive from Chicago suburbs to the city proper where we live.

Jack’s starting to get hungry so I pick him up and take him to the rocking chair. My head pounds as I hold him in my arms and feed him. His 11-pound body feels surprisingly heavy in my arms but I will myself to stay awake. In my head, I count the hours until my mother will arrive. Then I try to channel positive thoughts: I am strong. I can do hard things. I can do this.

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There is something about motherhood that is incredibly physical, but we often fail to acknowledge it after our babies are born. Labor is taxing, yes, but long after children leave the safety of the womb, we continue to mother them with our bodies: our breasts a source of nourishment, arms a sanctuary place, sheer physical presence a comfort.

So what happens when mom gets sick? On this day when I feel like the walking dead, I draw a deep strength from within me and become a warrior. I get up, and I keep moving. I have to do this for my son.

Every day we sleep-deprived, exhausted mothers summon the power inside to persist, to endure hard things we’d never faced before we had children. We do it for them. We become stronger for our children.

Hours pass. When the doorbell finally rings, I rush to let my mom inside, holding Jack in my arms. When I open it I see my mom, arms full of a handful of bags and smiling at us and immediately I feel self conscious. My hair is dirty, my bathrobe sticky with sweat and I can’t remember if I’ve brushed my teeth. I am a mess, the house is a mess.

“Mom, you’re here!” I almost shout as I hand her the baby and take the bags she’s set gingerly on the ground. She’s brought Lipton soup and throat lozenges and ginger ale–all the things that she used to give me when I was sick as a child–and my heart just melts.

“I am so sorry but I just need to lie down right now…” I say, trailing off. “Are you OK watching Jack for a bit?”

“Of course.”

I retreat back to my room and flop down on the bed. My mom is here and I am safe and loved and so is Jack.

She rocks the baby, cleans the dishes and folds the laundry–she helps clean up my mess. She mothers me and my infant child.

I now understand what people meant when they told me becoming a parent is a lifetime commitment, because now that I’m a mom, I need my mom more than ever before and I’m so grateful to her for the ways she’s kept showing up in my life and mothering me, long after I left the nest.

Before becoming a mother, I had this idealized version of motherhood stuck in my head. I loved following The Bump’s instagram account and looking at perfectly stylized family portraits paired with witty captions. Motherhood seemed so fun and easy! And, certainly it is fun, especially seeing baby develop over time. Easy? Not so much.

What I’ve come to realize is that most days motherhood doesn’t look anything like the photos The Bump highlights.

Most days, motherhood is MESSY. And motherhood is about showing up amid the mess.

Motherhood on the internet is so often a performance, it’s putting our best foot forward for our friends and family and other strangers online. The images we love to share so often capture our parenting highs but don’t show the lows, the sick days, tears, tantrums or tremendous mounds of laundry and dishes waiting to be cleaned in the background.

Let me repeat: Motherhood is messy. In fact, as a default it’s messy and hard and infuriating at times, so why is everyone on the Internet so hellbent on making it seem otherwise?

Yes, motherhood is fun and rewarding and joyful, but it’s also: milk-stained shirts and dirty diapers and dishes piled up in the sink and three-day-old-hair and dark circles under your eyes and sometimes getting bailed out by your mom when you’re sick so you can just get some rest.

I have a request for all the mothers out there: Can we start talking more about this? About the messy stuff that happens in between our pretty family portraits? Can we honor mothers with more than words of gratitude in a card or Facebook post but with a heartfelt word of thanks for your incredible service, too?

Let’s stop pretending! Let’s embrace the joy and the beauty and the mess that comes with motherhood.

Maybe if we start talking more about how hard women work in the home, maybe our politicians will start working for women instead of against us (see: the war on women’s bodies, on women in the workplace, etc.).

Better yet, let’s just start electing more moms into office. Why? Because they understand what it takes to raise good citizens, they are experts at dealing with messes and also–they’re strong as hell.

 

Snuggles, spit ups and what’s surprised me most about motherhood

I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks. This probably sums up parenthood or at least life with a newborn pretty accurately. You have good intentions: you make plans, get excited about said plans, and then? Baby has other plans. Your plans go out the window.

Fixin’ to eat dinner at 6? Think again. Dinner’s at 9 and it’s cold stir-fry eaten standing up in the kitchen, staring off into space with a side of cheez-its because you forgot to eat lunch today (again) and you’re still hungry.

Want to go for a family walk with your dog and try out your new stroller? Once you’ve set everyone and everything up, baby will have an epic spit up and you’ll be back in house cleaning baby and the stroller and before you know it, it’s dark out and the opportunity to walk has passed.

Other parents I knew warned me through sly smiles that I, the perpetual planner, was about to get a reality check once baby showed up. In fact, I’m about to get interrupted by my crying little buddy so hold that thought.

::: Feeds, changes and snuggles baby :::

OK, I’m back.

Life lately is a pattern of feed, change, play and snuggle baby to sleep on repeat, then squeezing in chores and emails and texts and showers and eating (and mindlessly checking Instagram—note to self: cut back on that) while Jack naps, which can be anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours long. All the while, time passes. Hours melt into days and days into weeks and suddenly it’s been a month and my baby boy has grown and changed before my eyes.

Tiny Jack who used to fit into newborn onesies and sleep all.the.time is now wearing three month onesies (at one month old?!) and is awake and lucid for much longer stretches. I can’t wait until he gives us his first social smile, until he crawls for the first time, until says his first words and yet I want time to sloooow down because sooner or later I’ll have to go back to work. Honestly, I’m dreading it.

Maternity leave has been such a gift, and I’m savoring every moment I can, grateful to bond with my son mornings and afternoons when I’d typically be at the office. There is nothing quite like holding Jack tight and breathing in his baby smell while rocking him to sleep in his room. It feels like a tiny bit of heaven on earth.

To my parent friends: You were right, of course. My best laid plans are often undone by my son’s “plans.” I did get my reality check but I’m surprisingly OK with it. Motherhood has helped soften my rigid desire for order and allowed me to embrace chaos. The chaos didn’t surprise me—because you warned me about it—but there were plenty of other things that did surprise me about parenting a newborn, perhaps the biggest being the incredible range of emotions I’ve felt since giving birth to Jack.

A pastor friend of mine once told me that once you have children all your highs are higher and your lows are lower. Hey Pastor Hardy—you were right. I get it now. Not only am I more emotional due to hormones, but the fierce, mama bear love I have for my son is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Also I get frustrated a lot more than I once did, sometimes for no particular reason, just EVERYTHING because being a parent is so damn hard.

I get sad too, really sad. Sometimes I cry for no particular reason, or when I remember Jack’s birthday, which was terrifying and traumatic and nothing short of an act of God.

The first night Jack slept at home, actually the first few nights, I “slept” next to his crib, on the floor, waking up every few minutes to check if he was still breathing. I think I finally wore myself out enough to fall asleep only to be woken up by his hunger cries. I was so exhausted but so relieved he was alive I ran on adrenaline those first few days. My heart was so full of gratitude that my baby boy was safe at home with us.

Jen Hatmaker has a lovely blog about parenting, “I wish someone would have warned me about these BIG FEELINGS,” that I read hungrily and eagerly at the start of motherhood journey thanks to a tip from a fellow mama.

In it Jen writes, “I wish I would have known how new babies make all feelings MORE (and this from a girl who was already fairly high on melodrama): more thrill, more love, more anguish, more adoration, more fear, more gratitude, more doubt, more crazy. … A newborn takes your heart and mind, squishes them into pulp in her fat little baby hands, and turns you into a woman face down in despair over a Subaru commercial.”

Me too, sister. Me too. Those BIG FEELINGS? Yes, that’s exactly what surprised me the most about becoming a mother.

There have been, of course, other parenting surprises, both delightful and distressing, along the way.

Distressing:

  • Baby cues are super hard to read, it turns out
  • Learning to breastfeed correctly nearly drove me insane
  • Trying to get anything done—laundry, eating food, showering—is near impossible with a newborn, and even when you get said task done you’re too exhausted to really appreciate it
  • I often wonder how anyone even takes care of a baby and works at the same time and it gives me major anxiety
  • I wonder if I’ll ever lose the baby weight and this new little pooch around my waist and if I’ll ever be able to do crow pose or attempt a handstand again and it gives me major anxiety
  • I wonder if my child will grow up safely and think of all the possible ways he could die and desperately wish I could stop worrying because that’s what my mom used to do (Mom, I get it now!) and that also gives me major anxiety.

Delightful:

  • Parenting baby is fun! I GET to sing and read books every day (two of my favorite hobbies)
  • Baby coos, baby expressions, baby snuggles = the best
  • Baby is the most adorable creature in the world and I could look at him all day
  • Also, other people(!) want(!) to visit baby and see pictures of baby on the Internet
  • My adorable dog gets along with my adorable baby, thank God
  • My son is a good sleeper… for now
  • I’m falling in love with my husband over and over again as I watch him parent our son.

But *the most* delightful surprise about motherhood, for sure, is how much love is in my heart, in my home, right now. Being a mother is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and it’s also the most rewarding. I’m incredibly grateful for the privilege.

Fellow parents/caretakers out there: What surprised you most about parenthood when you first brought baby home? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

What I hope to teach my son

In my third trimester of pregnancy, I’ve struggled to sleep through the night. I know this is par for the course, but the experience has been absolutely maddening and exhausting. The silver lining in all of this? 3 a.m. is a really great time to write and tackle random projects and catch up on reading. Still, third trimester insomnia is just the WORST. Interestingly enough, this past Tuesday night was the deepest I’d slept since the night of Nov. 8, when the results of the presidential election became clear. And ever since Nov. 8, I’ve been feeling a deep, gut-wrenching sense of despair about our country’s future, especially as an expectant parent.

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credit: Will Nunnally

Maybe you’ve felt it too, or maybe you reacted in the opposite way. Maybe for the first time in a long time, you finally felt hopeful for the U.S. You are ready to chart a new course with a new president at the helm. Regardless of where we all fall on the political spectrum I’d like to think that what unites us, as our outgoing president put it, is our shared sense of decency.

I’d forgotten about this, too distracted by sharp political divides, distrust of the media and bizarre tweets from the president-elect (can we all agree that this is not good?). I’d lost sight of the audacious idea that makes our democracy work: that “for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.” We may not agree on policy or process, but perhaps we can agree on shared values, like education, healthcare, family and work? My heart longs for this to be true.

Tuesday night came and President Barack Obama’s remarks inspired me and restored my belief that ordinary U.S. citizens like you and me can be a force for good in this country, in this world, after weeks of feeling otherwise. He convinced me of that, and for the first time in a long time, my anxious, pregnant mind–and body–felt release. So I slept.

For a while I’ve been asking myself: How can I be a force for good, when on the precipice of this new, all-consuming stage of life?

Then the (obvious?) answer then came to me. I can be a parent. Parenting is a political act. What my husband and I teach our son will matter.

We’d discussed this over Thai food last weekend, compiling a list of values we hoped we’d teach him. As the conversation progressed, our list grew to a size that was daunting, much like the responsibility of raising a child.

“Had we forgotten anything? Were we up to the challenge? Would these ideas even stick?” I worried. Surely there would always be something more to add or amend, but this conversation was a good starting point for us. What follows are a couple highlights from our talk.

When I think about the future, what I hope to teach my son is this: that now, more than ever, truth-telling matters. Honesty is the first value my husband mentioned during our dinnertime discussion, and it’s an important one to focus on as we navigate an era when the truth seems illusive, reason and science are questioned and politicians deny the unflattering things we’ve seen them say and do in order to save face.

Telling the truth isn’t always easy; often it requires great courage. But lying doesn’t just wrong others, it also eats away at our souls. Embracing honesty sets us free from the invisible walls we build up around ourselves and allows us to authentically connect with others. 

Another value we spoke about was equality. It’s a value outlined in the constitution and the creation story, something that seems so simple in theory yet in practice is radical and countercultural. It is the thrust behind feminism, #blacklivesmatter, LGBTQ rights–human rights–and so on.

I hope to teach my son that every person deserves to be treated equally and with dignity, no matter her/his skin color, religion, gender, class, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation or any other category s/he might fall into. 

In his farewell speech, Obama spoke pointedly and poignantly about race, and all the other differences that divide us. He quoted Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I know my son will be born with certain privileges, and I will work fiercely to teach him to empathize with others different than he and to be concerned with human rights.

There’s so much more I want to teach my son. I hope to teach him the value of listening, sharing, hard work and play.

I’ll teach him that this world is full of wonder, beauty, hope and joy–also sadness, ugliness, corruption and hate.

I hope to instill in my son a zest for curiosity and creativity and movement and stillness.

I hope to teach him the importance of relationships and friendships and family and community. 

I hope to teach him how to identify his emotions–happiness, sadness, envy, anger–and feel them without judgment.

I hope to teach him about kindness and selflessness and unconditional love, the breathtaking, powerful kind of love we don’t earn or deserve, we just receive.

I hope to teach him about my deep faith, the cornerstone of my values. 

And more.

When I started writing this post, I was feeling hopeful. And as the week progressed, I felt sad again, and then all the emotions: afraid/nervous/excited/unhinged. I am, once again, restless with anticipation for the birth of my son.

I’m currently praying hard to tap back into that hope I felt Tuesday night. If I can teach my future son a fraction of all I desire to share with him, perhaps I–he–we can be a force for good in this world.