Laying it all down

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I may have been overconfident. In that first blurred bliss it seemed almost easy: two adults focused singly on caring for one impossibly tiny, helpless human.

In the first week, she was mellow and quiet; we were mellow and blissful and gently tired. Days after the birth, we were eager to resume life, meet with friends, and prove that we could do everything with a baby, just the way we had done before.

I had my first brush with reality when we stopped at a taco restaurant to pick up lunch on the way back from the hospital, our little one along for the ride in a car seat. I made it to the front door before my soreness and exhaustion forced me to take a seat. As friendly patrons peered at my newborn and asked me how old she was, my eyes welled and I couldn’t answer. The noise, the strangers, the newness of our little family and the trauma of birth–it was all too much. We collected our order of tacos and retreated.

As we enter our third week of parenthood, I’m learning why new mothers are slow to rejoin the current of ordinary life. It’s not because any one day is so challenging: it’s because the reality of nighttime feedings at midnight, three and six creates a slow-building exhaustion that requires the whole body to recalibrate. It’s because the reality of being available to your child twenty-four hours a day means re-imagining even the simplest tasks, from taking a shower to sending an email.

After nearly ten years of adulthood in which I made my own choices, set my own schedule and was responsible for only myself, I’ve entered a tight little chain of dependency. My child needs me to fulfill her every basic survival need. And I find I’m becoming fiercely dependent on my husband for the strength and support to meet those needs without crumbling.

Parenting is certainly blissful. Even in the early days of exhaustion, we’ve had so many moments of delight with our daughter. We sometimes laugh until we cry at her little raspy sounds and unconcious gestures. And we love each other more fiercely than ever.

But it’s also terrifying.

Sometimes I look down at my precious little daughter and my first thought is one of desperation: there’s no way out. I’ll never go back to the life I had before.

During pregnancy, for all its pain and discomfort, I still had my agency. I determined my own schedule and activities and took guilt-free satisfaction from my work. Those days are in many ways done for now.

If marriage was an entry-level course in self-sacrifice, parenting is certainly a master class.

So what to do with these frightening emotions? For now, I  am trying to allow myself the grace to feel them and not suppress or deny them out of guilt. I can feel trapped, afraid and even regretful after a fashion and realize it doesn’t lessen my love for my sweet, innocent baby.

I must also have grace for myself. Adapting to this new way of life is going to take longer than I suspected, and that is all right. I’m not alone in this. And I’m so grateful for this new life and family of ours, despite the pain and sacrifice and adjustment.

As the late Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Tough mamas

Photo by Shawn Read
Photo by Shawn Read

When my now-husband and I were just platonic friends, I had an early clue that he was different in a special, wonderful way. He had a quiet, gentle respect for women that wordlessly set him apart –particularly in the coarse, testosterone-filled military town that we lived in when we met. He didn’t laugh at jokes about women belonging in the kitchen or fixing their men sandwiches, the way many of my Marine friends casually did. He never made me feel cheap or inferior, even in jest.

As I grew to know him, I discovered that his attitude toward all women was an extension of his respect and admiration for his own mother. Mama S was first a military spouse and then an Oregon ranch homemaker. She made her own cheese and jerky and kept a cow so she could sell its milk as a private enterprise. She was–and is– the spiritual center and heart of a house full of boys and could rarely be found idle, even for a moment.

“She’s tough,” my husband told me one day. By the quiet awe in his voice, I realized that was the highest compliment he could pay.

Though she was small and slight, Mama S was physically tough, as well as tough of heart and mind. B likes to tell the story of the time she was kicked hard in the face by a cow while milking. After retreating inside for a few minutes to shake off the shock, she went back out and finished the job.

It’s hard to feel adequate when your man has a mother like that. I’m a city girl who prefers a coffee shop to a canoe trip. I’ve never canned or preserved, and I doubt I ever will. My body is soft, not lean or wiry. And in these nine months of pregnancy, I’ve felt consumed by my growing size. It’s hard to envision myself running a half-marathon or hiking Mount Rag again, though I hope to do both.

When B and I were dating, I often felt the need to impress him with my stamina and adventurous spirit. I hiked every hill and scrambled over every rock with him, even if the effort left me puffing. He never gave me reason to believe that I had to compete in this way, but I wanted him to know that I, too, could be tough in every sense of the word. And with gentle looks and encouraging words, he showed he appreciated every effort.

But now, with the arrival of our son or daughter just days away, I feel that the stakes are about to be raised, permanently. The next decades of my life will be lived under the attentive gaze of this little stranger. His or her perspectives on right living will be influenced by what I do. If our child is a boy, he may shape his treatment of all future women in his life in light of his respect for me.  If a girl, she may decide how she wishes to live and act based in part on what she sees me do.

By my own strength, I cannot succeed here. I can only pray that God will strengthen and mold me into the woman of valor–eshet chayil–that I aspire to be, despite my own weaknesses and fearfulness.

Selfishly, I hope that one day my child will turn to a friend and say, “My mother? She’s tough.”

Full of life

I am full of LIFE.

It has swollen my belly out as big as a barrel.  It kicks and squirms on its own schedule, making my stomach above it turn flips with the movement. It’s little toes wedged awkwardly into my rib cage. It’s tiny, unmistakable hiccups that surprise me with their rhythm.

Sometimes I lean back and watch my belly undulate unbidden as the child inside pushes against the walls of my womb. Occasionally I’ll rest my hand against my side, only to have it nudged away. I wonder if, like me, my little son or daughter prizes personal space and dislikes being crowded.

I play James Taylor lullabies, iPhone speaker against my bump, and try to guess what songs the baby might be dancing to.

I’m at 31 weeks, it’s true. The baby books say that if my little one were born today, he or she would have an excellent chance of survival.  My little one now looks like a full-term infant, just a bit skinnier and more delicate.

But I started to feel the kicks when I was half as far along in the pregnancy. They kept me up at night — insistent flutters and jabs by my pelvis or against my side. I was full of life then too.

I saw the kicks even earlier, well before I could feel them. To my amazement, my baby’s tiny legs and arms moved without ceasing on the ultrasound screen just before 12 weeks, forcing the doctor to work hard to get the still images that showed length and development.

“It starts that soon?” I asked in disbelief.

The doctor smiled and nodded.

Life was there, in full force, even before my belly began to swell.

Before the kicks was the heartbeat. It began at six weeks’ gestation. That’s just four weeks after sperm meets egg, because of the unusual way that pregnancy calendars work. If I hadn’t been carefully watching for signs, I might not have even known I was pregnant by the time my baby’s heartbeat throbbed to life.

I saw and heard the heartbeat for myself three weeks later, when my pregnancy was officially confirmed. It was a tiny, racing thing, more of a gallop than a pulse. So fragile, and yet so insistent.

The cadence of that particular heartbeat had never existed before, and never will be exactly replicated again in the world. Individual life at its most elemental.

There is so much I don’t know about the way that life sprang to being in my womb. There is so much none of us will ever know.

But I know, and have from the earliest days, that the being inside me is undeniably alive, and self-evidently human. My little one has never let me doubt it for a moment.

10 things I love about being pregnant (really)

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When I found out I was pregnant, after the initial shock and disbelief, my first move was to lunge for my thrift store copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, circa 1993 edition.

I immediately developed an affectionate name for it: The Big Book of Bad News. If I had cracked the cover before the nine-month countdown began, it may have frightened me away from motherhood altogether. The first few chapters introduced me to my future of swollen feet and ankles, stretch marks, back pain, nausea caused by prenatal vitamins, peeing when you sneeze, tender gums, puking, exhaustion and other horrors I’d prefer not to name here.

It’s a lot to take in right away: the nine (really 10) months of misery that await, and the very real prospect that, when it’s all said and done, your body will just never look and feel the same way again.

Even now, at better than halfway through this pregnancy, it’s scary to think how much worse things might get, or what complications still might manifest themselves. I’ve been blessed with a great pregnancy so far, thanks to God and my mom’s exceptional childbearing genetics, but the Big Book still sometimes keeps me up at night.

That said, I don’t think people spend enough time talking about the beauty and joy of pregnancy. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve loved the anticipation as my baby develops and even the mystery of seeing my body transform to accommodate the incredible otherness of new life.

So here, in honor of Mother’s Day (just a day late) are ten things that I truly love about pregnancy and will always be grateful to have experienced. Without further ado:

1. Learning how baby is developing this week

Every Wednesday I celebrate the passing of another gestational week down by reading up on how baby will grow and develop in the coming week. Wednesday is now the highlight of my week as I look forward to finding out if baby is the size of a mango or spaghetti squash. (Incidentally, it turns out all prenatal size comparison must be done in terms of fruits or vegetables). And it’s nothing short of miraculous to learn that your tiny new growing baby can already suck his or her thumb, or grip things in a tiny fist, or respond to music or the sound of your voice. Parental pride starts early, and it’s intoxicating.

2. Telling people

After that first strange 12 weeks, when a lot of people wait to share pregnancy news (and during which, incidentally, some of the worst symptoms of pregnancy manifest themselves) it is such a relief and delight to tell friends about your new hopes and dreams and the baby growing inside. Just thinking about the delight that came from telling family members and close friends has me grinning again. So many people are thrilled to celebrate with you, especially if this news makes them an aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, or honorary relative-in-waiting.

3. Not having to tell people

Everyone develops their unmistakeable baby bump at their own pace, and my feelings about when I hoped mine would pop were decidedly mixed. The Big Book has very clear ideas about how much weight one should gain during each trimester of pregnancy and I thought a late-blooming bump might be my best shot of keeping things by the book. But it was a huge relief when my belly got big and round enough to announce itself. A guy outside the Dupont Circle Metro asked me about baby names the other day, and even though that was a bit forward, I was secretly pleased. There’s no hiding it; baby is on the way.

4. Joining the club

Nothing prepared me for the miraculous generosity I would experience when veteran parents learned that I was joining their club. Baby furniture, accessories and clothes are often sturdy and well-made, and parents have a sentimental connection with them. They love to give or lend their lightly used and well-loved items to a new parent who can make good use of them. I haven’t bought a single baby item yet, but I now have a gorgeous crib, bookshelf and dresser set; two pricey strollers; an infant car seat; a box of clothes with items for each gender; a brand-name baby carrier wrap; and an assortment of age-appropriate toys. All without asking for anything. Not only do these gifts and loaners ease my anxiety about affording life with a new baby, they reassure me that I am not alone. There’s a lovely community of parents surrounding me that can offer wisdom, advice, support, and — yes — hand-me-downs.

5. Sonograms

I had my first confirmation-of-pregnancy sonogram when I was just past eight weeks along. It was early enough that I was still wondering if my body was playing trick on me. And then, there it was: that tiny throbbing heartbeat, small and strong at the same time. It was all real. I was going to be a mom.

I’ve never gotten any of those high-speed ones that show the contours of the baby’s face with 3-D imaging, but I’ve watched the baby move his or her arms and legs and counted ten tiny fingers and toes, which is miraculous enough. Getting those pictures to take home, whether they are grainy or high-definition, is comforting confirmation of the invisible miracle happening inside you. And — take it from someone who has stumbled dazedly around a hospital parking lot looking for my car after an appointment — it’s literally intoxicating.

6. Kicks and flutters

Over the last few weeks, the baby’s movements have become more persistent and unmistakeable. I’ve likened it to having a tiny manatee swimming around in a little aquarium inside my belly,  bouncing off the walls every so often. I never know when I’m going to feel the little kicks, but I’m always comforted when I do. It’s a reminder that something truly strange and miraculous is happening inside me, and a promise that someday soon I’ll be able to kiss those little kicking fists and feet.

7. Doing it all

I’m deeply fortunate that my pregnancy has not much interfered with my day job (apart, perhaps, from making me more irrational and irritable with my coworkers — sorry.) But there’s a feeling of empowerment that comes when I’ve completed a productive workday or time in the field doing interviews, all while acting as a nurturing home for an ever-growing and developing little one. When I sit in a press briefing or cover a hearing while my baby kicks inside of me, I feel like a total badass. Excuse my French.

8. Moments alone

Husband and I have not found out the baby’s gender, and it’s hard to know what to say to a little someone you have never met anyhow. But every so often, baby and I sit by ourselves and talk. I tell the baby that I pray he or she will grow up courageous and strong, kind and compassionate, fearless and gentle. I tell baby I can’t wait until we meet. I always cry; I can’t help it. I’m not given to this kind of emotion and affection, and I love how this little person is drawing it out of me. Anticipation of our first meeting getting closer by the day is enough to put all The Big Book’s scary childbirth stories out of mind.

9. The perfect excuse 

I try not to dwell too much on this one, but it’s nice to have a trusty fallback excuse when I come home from work and just feel too exhausted to make a real dinner or do that waiting chore. It’s a little internal absolution for wearing giant sweatpants out of the house or taking a nap at 6p.m. or asking my husband to get me a glass of water because I just can’t move. It’s possible I won’t want to give up my excuses after the baby is born, and that’s a bit concerning. But for now, everyone seems okay with giving me that extra little bit of grace, and I’ll take what I can get.

10. Mother’s Day

The outpouring of Mother’s Day love I received  yesterday was  really unexpected. I don’t feel like a mom just yet, and I have some dues to pay in the shape of 18 more weeks of pregnancy and then labor and delivery. But I was deeply touched by the family members and friends who included me in the day in honor of the course I’m on and what’s ahead. It’s sobering to think of all the sacrificial love my mother has shown me and how the other mothers I know do so much for their children at great cost to themselves.

I don’t really feel ready to join that precious community and I’m full of doubts about my own ability to do the job. But I’m comforted to have the moms in my life embracing me on this journey. Every day makes me more aware of heir sacrifices and more grateful for their grace and love.

Waiting as sacrament

With pregnancy, much is made of the nausea and fatigue that accompany the early months.

Less discussed is the strain of waiting: the tension of anxiety, hope and boredom and the knowledge that the days will pass as slowly as they please. And there is nothing to do but bide the time.

As I round out this delicate first trimester, full of transitions and change, I’ve had a few days of sickness and many more of exhaustion. But the awareness of waiting pervades all of it. Sometimes, even after these short few weeks, I feel that the waiting is the hardest to live with.

As I yearn for time to pass more quickly and learn to count milestones in months, weeks and days, I’ve become more aware of the way that waiting precedes the miraculous so often in Scripture.

Faith is proved in the waiting. And the wait is often longer, much longer, than seems right or reasonable. I think of Sarah, who waited until she was grey and her husband was 100 to see her promise of a son become a reality.

And Jacob, who labored a weary 14 years to marry the woman he loved.

I think of the widow Anna, faithfully spending her days at the temple for decades until the  Messiah she awaited entered. That day found her frail, 84 years old, and faithful.

Compared to these, I know nothing about waiting.

Even still, I come to the end of these first months knowing more than I did. I’ve gained an appreciation for the frequent dullness of waiting and the tension of anticipation. And I think with a smile about how, for Sarah and Jacob and Anna and so many others, those long years must have been all but forgotten when the object of promise arrived.

And I’ve come to think of waiting as a sacrament. These coming months are a marathon of trusting and abiding in which faith is perfected and hope rests in the unseen. The wait is, I think, God’s gentle way of reminding us that we do not and cannot accomplish apart from him. We simply rest in his promises and learn patience in the wait until his miracle is revealed.

My miracle is still another seven months away. But I do pray that I’ll emerge at the end of this wait more holy and more freely trusting.

A seed grows

My baby is the size of a sesame seed.

Thinking those words fills me with the kind of fear and awe I usually associate with angelic visitations. I feel so fragile, so incapable, so responsible for this tiny, frail burden of life. I’m so vulnerable, so inadequately armored to protect it.

These first weeks are the most delicate, and it seems that every other waking thought is one of concern and fear for the tiny being inside me.

It’s strange. I’m not used to caring this deeply and intensely for anything, much less a tiny being barely visible to the naked eye. I’m a little frightened of the love I have for it.

When I remember, as I do many times a day, that the first weeks are the most uncertain, my eyes well up with anxiety. Despite reassurances from those I love and trust, I worry that I will be an inhospitable home. I think I’d do anything to make the stay a little safer and more nurturing.

It’s no accident I came across this passage the other day in my reading:

 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you,even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

All I can do is love and trust. Easier said…but that is what my seed-baby needs from me. God give me the strength I need for the weeks ahead.

Brutally honest love

Lately it seems that my husband and I have become a bit more comfortable with fighting with each other. I don’t know that I’d say disagreements have become more frequent, but we’re slowly moving past the feeling that we’d just as soon not mention the thing that’s bothering us if it means keeping the peace.

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I’m confrontational by nature, but he’s not, and as unpleasant as grimly honest conversations and tense evenings are, it feels like a bit of a breakthrough when we wrestle things out.

For me, these moments of painful honesty are also a sign that B has helped me reach a new level of security and trust — one at which I can let my worst angles show and say things he doesn’t want to hear and still expect him to love me when the dust settles. To me, that’s a little bit of a miracle.

When we first married, I feared those moments when B was overtired or frustrated or perhaps had drunk a little too much. I worried that in those fragile moments he would admit that there were things about me that he hated, and they’d be the same things that I hated, and the honesty would crush me. I was so afraid that he would let slip that in his secret heart he was falling out of love with me, losing his attraction to me, or regretting our marriage.

At the moments when I most disliked myself, I felt that he must feel the same.

Eventually, I gathered the courage to tell him how happy I was that he had kindness and love for me even when he was at his most honest. He laughed that sweet laugh I love and pulled me close.

“Look as deep as you want,” he said. “You’ll find nothing but love for you.”

I’ve never been good at understanding love, but that was transformative.

That’s not to say I won’t need to relearn the lesson though.

Recently I’ve felt at my most prickly and obstinate. I’ve been difficult and unpleasant and insecure, and I guarantee that’s not just my opinion.

After another tense standoff with B and another reconciliation, I confessed to him what I’d been feeling and how unlikable I felt.

“Hope,” he said, “Just come to me with a smile and I’ll fall in love with you all over again.”

That’s why I’m not afraid of our fights anymore. As has been said by one much wiser,  “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”

That kind of freedom is exhilarating. I can’t wait to see what it will teach me in the new year.

Freelancing and fear

The editors of the wonderful new magazine In Earnest were kind enough to feature an essay I wrote about just how hard I find it to ditch the formula and write what I think and feel. Am I the only one?

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As I write these words, I am terrified.

The white, unfilled page taunts me. It weighs me on a scale and finds me wanting.

It is nothing special that I, like so many, have trouble setting my thoughts down on paper. It is a little strange, though, that I write for a living and still struggle in this way.

My words have paid my rent since I joined the workforce. And I dearly love that fact. I can’t describe the rush I experienced when I saw my name in newsprint for the first time as a 19-year-old cub reporter with over-flowery prose and much to learn. That was a rough summer, full of printed corrections, hot tears in the cab of my white pick-up truck and late nights on deadline. But, by the end of the summer, I knew I had to follow that first heady feeling wherever it took me.

Read the rest at In Earnest Mag.

One year on

The end of the first year came and passed while we were living and enjoying life.

I looked up and realized it was time to finish hanging curtains around the house and painting accent walls and finding a financial adviser to simplify our student loans.

And time to finesse our plan to meet and pray in the mornings or evenings. And to invite friends and would-be friends for dinner. And to talk about how we want to raise our children, when we have them.

That’s how it happens, isn’t it? Life passes a month at a time. Slowly in the first year, then rapidly and increasingly imperceptibly as you forget to mark it.

You buy groceries 52 times a year and do laundry 100 times. Dirty dishes flow through your hands at regular intervals and become clean. Homemade dinner gets to the table 350 times a year or more, and we go out on those times we don’t eat in. Life becomes rote, maybe pleasantly so. The rhythm and the habits minimize the effort needed.

Maybe we don’t see each other’s faces anymore.

These things won’t happen in the second year, but when I look around and notice the cardboard boxes that have sat untouched in the foyer for weeks, I understand how it could happen. I remember how important it is to live with intentionality in every hour of the day, even when it’s easier to comply with the rhythm and the rote.

I see how time passes and we can’t stop it but we can grab hold and refuse to let it pass us by.

And so, as the first year drew to its close, I bought a calendar. The sturdy write-on, wipe-off kind that will hang in the kitchen and fill with dates and times and places and goals.

I’ll mark time as it moves along and we will learn and change and grow. Because this life, these times are too sweet to lose them in forgetfulness.

Being okay with the boundary lines

“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.”

This verse ripples back to me like the bridge to a beautiful song every time I enter a new phase of my life.

It’s from a Psalm of King David, whose writings reflect abject anguish or complete contentment depending on the day, the state of his spirit, and what horde of armed men happened to be chasing him.

Though the verse reflects peace and contentment, it’s more than the motto on a “Life is Good” T-shirt; it’s a declaration of trust in the limits by which he is constrained.

Boundary lines are not a popular concept in modern culture. In the crescendo of the insanely popular song “Let It Go” from the Disney movie Frozen, main character Elsa hails the end of boundaries as the beginning of self-realization:

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!

But when you fight against the boundary lines, you miss seeing the beauty of your lot.

Lonely me wanted a bevy of friends; single me wanted a boyfriend; dating me wanted to be married already. Now newly-married me wants babies.

None of my longings have been wrong, and I’m glad God has seen fit to give me my heart’s desire at every step along the way. But as I yearn for the next phase of life to begin, it’s good to remember the glory in the boundary lines.

Idyllic brunches with my husband, date nights. Freedom to travel and explore. A job that engages my talents and fulfills me. Love and rest and dreaming.

Like every phase of my life so far, these too are the pleasant places. And I won’t stop dreaming of the future, but for now I will embrace the boundary lines.