Thursday, May 23, 2019

What nobody told me about becoming a mother

Mother's Day, 2019.
My first Mother's Day was ... weird. Not in a bad way. Sure, the weather was crap and I experienced the topsy-turvy gift of my mother making me breakfast, but the first was no big deal and the second was quite sweet. Rather, it was strange in that off-kilter, reality-tilts-left-of-expectations way, as I took the opportunity to step back, draw a breath, and acknowledge that -- holy crap -- I am a mother.

Case in point: Our daycare sent home an arts & craft present (my first of one thousand to come), and when the baby "presented" it to me, I had an out-of-body moment. I am a person. A person who is a woman. A woman who is a wife. A wife who is a mother. A mother who is a person. A person who is working very hard to remember that she is a person and to nurture the person she is. And this person is also now holding a finger-painted flower on a decoupage stand with her baby's grinning mug pasted beneath the words "Happy Mother's Day!", and these words apply to her.

It was and is surreal.

When will it truly sink in that this is now my life? Maybe it has and I don't realize it because I'm waiting for a lightning bolt different from the one that's already struck. Maybe I've always felt like a mom, long before biologically becoming one, so the actual transition has been more logistical than mystical. Or -- more likely -- this whole plate shift/sea change/reordering of my existence is a leviathan parked in front of me, and I'm working too hard to wrap my arms all the way around it when I'd be better served to rest my arms, lean my cheek against its leathery skin, and instead listen for its beating heart.

I was prepared for sleep deprivation and breastfeeding learning curves. I was not prepared for the fact that my heart would break every time I regard my child. I did not think I would always see our lives and deaths bound up in him. I did not realize how pure he would be, how essential -- the raw ingredients of a human, the distillation of a soul.

My heart breaks wide open every time I make him laugh with rolling R's and plosive pops, when we lock eyes during feeding, when I glimpse his two sprouting teeth, undeniable reminders of his growth. And my heart breaks when I consider all the discovery ahead of him, all the pain, all the transformation. It's not so much that I want to shield him from pain (probably because I know it's impossible); it's more that I want to help clear his path, hack away the thorniest undergrowth, and guarantee him a successful, rewarding adventure.

But that's not how life works -- it's not life, period -- and thus my heart breaks for who and what I hath wrought, because he is so beautiful and so unaware of all that awaits him. No wonder I weep nearly every day. We parents wade constantly in coursing rivers of love; we overflow with it; we stand in the current saturated and sopping, and the humans we steward absorb it like spiritual Shamwows, full and fulfilled.

This relentless current, the bends in the river, the rapids we've yet to chart -- it all breaks my heart. Nobody told me it always will.


Prayer #335: Chrysalis

My heart breaks when I nurse him. I cuddle his growing body against my skin and listen to his breathy sucking, and my mind wanders down any path that presents itself, always ending at the acknowledgment that such moments will be but a breath themselves in the scheme of our shared lives, and I mourn the passage as I live it.

My heart breaks when I drop him off at daycare. He eagerly leans from my arms to stare at the rambunctious toddlers who race to greet him, and I realize that at this tender age he already has a life distinct from mine, whole days that pass with experiences and interactions and formations I will never fully grasp.

My heart breaks when I am called "Mom." Because how is it possible that I'm a mom, the kisser of boo-boos, the reader of books, the filler of forms, the hug and the scold and the logistician rolled into one? How can I be what my own mother was and is, when all I feel like is a floundering, off-balance, incredulous version of myself?

God, how will I hold this constant heartbreak for the rest of my life on earth? You tell me I won't. Instead, I must let it hold me  -- a cozy shell for my transformation, protection for my bone-deep love, growing clearer every day as I prepare to emerge anew.

Amen.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

What happened when I gave up social media for Lent

Sign off, pause, take a break. Lynn Friedman/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This Lent, I gave up my mobile social media apps for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram -- aka, the Holy Trinity of my time-wasting, soul-shriveling phone usage. And though I still signed onto Facebook and Twitter occasionally via my web browser to keep tabs on work projects (plus, let's be honest, it's hard to quit cold turkey), I held myself to only checking immediate notifications, then closing out.

In deleting the apps and limiting my screen time, I was committing to fasting from distraction with four concrete goals in mind:
  1. to refocus my attention on meaningful interactions and investments of time
  2. to break my addiction to mindless scrolling
  3. to read real, professionally reported news
  4. to learn what I would miss if I wasn't in the mix



The first couple weeks, I was horrified to discover how deep my muscle memory had become. Any time I paused -- be it on the metro platform or at intersections or before bed -- I'd reach for my phone and watch my thumb move of its own accord along familiar routes, only to find its usual destinations removed.

What's more, similar to the year I gave up chocolate (#neveragain), I honored the letter but not the spirit of my sacrifice. Just as I had upped my sugar cookie consumption in response to the absence of chocolately goodness, now I was seeking different feeds to scroll -- for example, A Practical Wedding, which is silly because I'm now married for almost three years. But the content was frothy, fun, and escapist, and it tickled the digital pleasure center of my 21st-century brain.

However, I also discovered what I didn't miss. Strangers' anger, for example. Ignorant commenters. Blurry photos from mere acquaintances. Blatantly biased headlines and memes. Losing 30 minutes of my life before bed every night. Detracting from the precious little time I already have with my child during weekdays. Reciting vacuous online comments out loud to my husband. Putting free and personal information into the ether that allows corporations to profit off me. The subtle but pervasive narrative of comparison and competition that undergirds the whole grasping system.

And I gained a lot, too. A reminder to be intentional, for instance. A step toward breaking the stranglehold my phone has on me. Renewed appreciation for texts, calls, emails, and visits with actual, in-real-life friends. Recommittment to news -- i.e. reading articles in full from legitimate news sources. Catching up on friends' blogs. Sailing through several books. I felt calmer and less wired before bed. And above all, I encountered the humbling but ultimately freeing reality that the world doesn't grind to a halt without my status updates or emoji-laden captions -- and in fact, without the burden of generating them, I am producing more valuable, fulfilling, creative work.

Forty-plus days after I deleted the Holy Trinity, my addiction is far from broken. I have not re-installed Facebook and Twitter (nor will I), but I did add back Instagram, with the goal of monitoring and limiting my usage, for already I feel again the alluring tug of the pretty/fast/fun scroll.

At least now, however, I feel more clear-eyed about my relationship to my device, these apps, and the overall commodity of attention. Each time I take out my phone, I am more likely to think, "What's the best use of my time right now?" And more often than not, this brief pause, this short reflection, is enough to redirect me toward something more restorative like a phone call, a book chapter, or -- heaven help us -- peaceful stillness.


Prayer #334: Attention Span

A bridge is only as useful as the feet that traverse it. Lead me from the bank of mindless ignorance to the far shore of rich contemplation, in ways that both simplify my soul and enrich it. And when I pause to peer into the tranquil water below, may the smooth surface reflect a person present to the moment she's experiencing, at peace with her journey.

Amen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

How giving birth made me a feminist

"I need feminism because I love." Laura Forest/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Fourteen hours in, and my contractions finally turned from intermediate pain to near-constant pressure. Every sinew in my body screamed "Push!" while my breathing grew more jagged. It wasn't as easy now to huff my way through the intervals, not as easy to concentrate on the paradigm-shifting end game of meeting my child. Sweaty, sore, worn out from watching the too-large hospital wall clock plod along in 20-minute increments, I turned to my mother and said through gritted teeth, "If this experience doesn't turn someone into a feminist, I don't know what will."

After I spent four years at an all-girls' Catholic high school, I would have sworn up and down the Bible that I was a feminist. After I absorbed, aghast, the blatant misogyny laid bare in the 2016 election, I would have sworn up and down my ballot that I was a feminist. After I watched the #MeToo movement unfold with uneven and often dispiriting results, I would have sworn up and down the newspaper that I was a feminist.

Then I gave birth, one of the rawest, most intense experiences a woman can have. It was then that I finally understood on a visceral and corporeal level the power of having chosen this course for myself, and it was then that I questioned if I had ever understood feminism in the first place.

Feminism, as a reminder, is broadly defined as a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. I stand by an even broader definition: that feminism -- and indeed, a commitment to equality everywhere, on all bases -- is about empowering individuals to make the life choices that are right for them.

For me, giving birth sat at the intersection of my personal privilege, individual choice, and access to systems such as decent healthcare, paid parental leave, job security, and flexible work policies. My privileges -- being a white, educated, upper-middle-class employed person -- statistically pointed me toward a safer healthcare experience and greater financial security. As for individual choice, I do not want or need everyone to choose what I chose. What I want, and what I believe society needs to aim for, is the third item I listed -- to develop and promote systems that allow anyone and everyone to make the healthiest, wisest choices for their given situation, without impediment, prejudice, or judgement.

In providing such systems, we acknowledge each person as a human being with inherent worth, and we grant them the dignity of autonomy. This to me is the fundamental promise of feminism -- the desire to stand with and for all people, to see them as fellow cells within the Body of Christ, and to lavish love on them accordingly.

I saw this promise personally fulfilled in my safe and joyful birth experience, and I experience it again every time I adapt a workday to spend time with my little one. I want everybody to feel this empowered, rich with such abundant and varied options that they are always able to pursue the courses of action that lie closest to their hearts. In this way we will help people realize God's vision for them and for our world as a whole.


Prayer #333: Midwife to the World

Mother God,

Make me just. Make me angry. Make me humble. Make me bold. Make me prophetic. Make me warm. Make me clear-eyed. Make me creative. Make me loving. Make me steadfast ... all so I may midwife Your idyllic vision and help deliver the world You long to see.

Amen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The light under the door

fotorita/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I was growing up and facing a new transition, my mother always said to me, "Just remember: In one month, you'll know where the bathroom is."

I carried that idea forward through college, my first (and second and third) job, grad school, marriage ... the "bathroom" becoming a stand-in for all the unknowns, all the nameless fears, all the "what ifs" that scurried around my brain before I embarked on a new stage. And time consistently proved my mother correct; within a few weeks, I could reliably identify the bathroom's location alongside many other useful lessons and insights.

Now I'm staring down the next logical transition after pregnancy and motherhood: ending maternity leave and returning to work. I already know where the bathroom is at my office. Yet I fear I will need to relearn everything else as I forge my new identity as manager, employee, peer, and parent.

At this point you're probably saying, "Julia, go back and reread your own opening paragraphs." The transition I warily eye will pass. I will be made anew. Until then, however, all I'm seeing is the light under the door -- the sole sign that something else awaits.

What is on this side I know? Un-vacuumed rugs. Scuffed walls. Discarded toys. Crumbs and paperwork spread across the kitchen table. My baby's sleepy head resting on his father's shoulder. That little face pulling back from nursing to regard me. My dwindling personal space. My sacred free time. The life I have created and know so well. Who I used to be.

What is on the side I don't know? The only thing I'm sure of is the light itself. An occasional shadow breaks it, but I don't know yet to what or whom those shadows belong. How big is the new room? What does it hold? Where do its other doorways lead? As a fellow new parent put it, each stage presents different strengths and challenges, and I'm certain the room will hold those. Along with new priorities. New vocabulary. Discoveries about myself and others. A life I will re-create and come to know. Who I will become.

Ultimately, the only answer I need today, right now, in this moment, is to know the light is on. It flickers in mystery. I will learn soon enough what it illuminates.


Prayer #332: Right to Passage

All ye who enter here, take note: The choice to cross this threshold is yours. Your feet on the creaking timber, your fingers on the sticky doorknob, your cheek on the peeling paint -- the movements alone will beget revelation. Thus, proceed with optimism. Simply opening the door is challenge and gift enough.


Amen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Let the darlings die

jev55/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Commitments
Habits
Activities
Tasks 
Time
Relationships
Opinions
Convictions
Biases
Beliefs
Grudges
Goals
Expectations

No need to outright kill these darlings, but if their number does come up, don't stay the execution. Let them wither and fade into a cloudy past that grows murkier each minute, obscuring why you held the darlings so dear to begin with.

At their wake, honor the value they once held while confessing their ill fit for the present. Where the darlings hold lessons, heed them. Where they brought pain, release it. If needed, mourn their loss. Above all, embrace the fallow field that follows.

But do not think you owe the darlings more. Pat the headstone, leave the flowers, be on your way. A fresh horizon beckons.


Prayer #331: Death Grip

Our panic is understandable. No one likes to forego familiarity, even when the familiar is out to get us. Yet seasons flow, priorities shift, and the landscapes we considered immutable reveal their subtle differences in photos taken then and now, illustrating how both beheld and beholder are bound to change.

God of slippery sands, nudge us toward getting a new grip, one that relaxes our entrenchment and instead fortifies our present lives. Help our most darling selves die natural deaths so that we, renewed, might dance on their graves.

Amen.

Monday, December 31, 2018

A prayer for the year that wasn't

hernanpc/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

For the year that wasn't, let us pray: God of hope, restore our vision.

That humans recognize the dignity inherent in themselves and others ... God of hope, restore our vision.

That we cherish our floating blue marble and safeguard its resources ... God of hope, restore our vision.

That we commit to speaking kindly and living vulnerably ... God of hope, restore our vision.

That all lives -- especially those marginalized and colonized -- are recognized as sacred and treated with love, even if understanding is elusive ... God of hope, restore our vision.

That all bodies -- our singular vessels, our sole mode of transport, our soul skins -- receive water when they're thirsty, food when they're hungry, warmth when they're cold, security when they're threatened, and comfort when they're frightened ... God of hope, restore our vision.

That we listen to women, heed them, respect them, elevate them, and believe them ... God of hope, restore our vision.

That we abandon the hot take in favor of the slow simmer and reclaim critical thinking ... God of hope, restore our vision.

That we permit art to beckon and enrich us, to spark creative solutions ... God of hope, restore our vision.

That we remember all actions (including our own) have consequences ... God of hope, restore our vision.

I pray this prayer this year, any year, every year I live, for the act of life itself both tatters the promise and begs for its mending. Together may we stitch a new pattern and discover our seamlessness.


Prayer #330: A Prayer for the Year That Can Be

God who reaches beyond my words:

Help my hands offer more this year than they did the year before, this time to the point of true sacrifice.

Help me revel in gratitude for personal joys and have the generosity to celebrate the same for others.

Above all, help me dig a deeper well for hope and hit the rich vein I know courses beneath our troubled surface, so that we are doused by its optimism and roused to fresh action.

Amen.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The lesson of the kayak

The author in her titular kayak. Maryland, September 2018.

The picture shows me sitting in a solo kayak in the middle of a choppy bay, paddle straddled across my knees, strained smile on my lips. Behind me, a gray-green shoreline of trees and hidden cottages; above me, gathering clouds with "God rays" breaking through. With my upper torso obscured by my life vest (safety first!), you wouldn't know at first glance that I was eight months pregnant. And you definitely wouldn't know that I had just finished throwing a bona fide tantrum.

My husband and I were taking one last little weekend getaway before baby arrived, and we'd found a cozy, well-outfitted rental in one of the quieter outposts of the Chesapeake Bay. The forecast foretold gloomy rain and chill for the duration of our long weekend save for the afternoon we arrived, so as soon as we parked the car, we headed to the dock to check out the recreational equipment and take advantage of the partial sun and dry skies.

Fishing poles, crab cage, canoe, kayaks ... only single kayaks, though, no doubles. "Think you can handle one on your own?" my husband asked. "Sure!" I replied with a level of confidence I hoped would become genuine once we hit the water. We usually take a tandem kayak for a reason, in that Nature Boy knows how to paddle and turn and steer, and I know how to sit. But it couldn't be that hard, right? I owed it to him and his many hours of past aquatic chauffeuring at least to attempt it.

Loading in progressed without incident, as did our initial maneuvers beyond the dock. I was moving generally in my intended direction, and 15 minutes in, I hadn't capsized. (Both important wins.) When we turned into the wind, however, my lack of kayaking ability rendered me impotent. The choppy waves were slapping my boat back and forth. The brackish water was stinging my freshly shaved legs. My right arm was getting sore, my left arm was staying tense, and what the hell did it even matter because I couldn't direct the vessel where I wanted anyway.

The more water dripped on me, the more my arms pumped, the more the wind quickened, the more I felt like I was moving backwards, the more agitated I became. How foolish I must look, I thought, to be out here so pregnant and bulky, windmilling my arms against Mother Nature. How vain not to admit my limits before throwing myself into the middle of a bay. Where was my natural instinct? Where were the immediate answers? Why the hell couldn't I do what seemed so straightforward when watching others do it?

A familiar lump in my throat began to rise -- the lump of shame and frustration, a lump that fattens itself on my belief of inadequacy and drinks the tears I shed to dislodge it. The lump is rarely positive, so I trailed behind my husband's kayak in the hopes of experiencing my moment of weakness alone. No such luck. My dear partner, on noticing the widening gulf between us, helpfully paused and waited for me to catch up, and when I did finally slink alongside him, he could tell at once that I was a most unhappy camper.

Pulling up his paddle and holding my kayak's carry handle, he gently asked, "Honey, what's wrong? Talk to me."

Ah, those magic words, the ones that never fail to release the flood, especially when I'm trying to contain it. Which I couldn't.

"I can't even steer a kayak," I wailed into the void of the bay, empty except for us. "How on earth am I going to raise a human?"

As the gray clouds thickened over our heads and the sun sank lower, I poured out every one of my hidden and inarticulated fears to my patient spouse:

Our entire lives are about to change forever.
What if parenthood isn't what I thought it would be?
What if I'm not the mother I thought I would be?
How are we going to keep our marriage strong?
Will we ever feel free again?
Will I still get to be myself?

And so on, punctuated by angry slaps of my paddle against the water and ugly tears further soaking my cold, stinging legs (if they made it past the bulging life vest). A dam built over a long eight months of anticipatory mystery had broken. I was laid bare on the rough waters, no longer able to outrun my anxious thoughts. Tired and pregnant, nervous and excited, impatient and annoyed ... I was all these states, plus wet. No wonder I lost it.

My husband, god bless him, did not attempt to answer me. He simply listened. Nodded. Said, "Me too." "We'll figure it out together." "I love you." "Here, let me take a picture of you."

The last one caught me off guard. "You want to take a picture of me now?"

"Yes. We need to justify you carrying your iPhone out on open water."

That's when he snapped the picture you see at the start of this post. I haven't shared it or this story until now because it took two months to let most remnants of that emotional dam drift away downstream. Though, if I'm being honest, a few hearty logs remain, fortified by the very real doubts and fears and joys presented by having -- at long last -- a very new human in my house.

So when I look again at this shot, I recognize what will be invisible to those who weren't there, such as the dried tear streaks on my face and the burgeoning blisters on my thumbs. But I also see what was invisible to me at the time -- chiefly, the sun rays defying the clouds and searching for reflection on the water below. They illuminate how this photo captures more than a moment in time; it captures a transition to a new state of being.

Parenthood -- like maturity, like love, like spirituality, like any examined life -- will be an unbroken string of unanswered questions. I can rail against them (which I'm sure will still happen at times), or I can strive to be present to them and work toward wisdom. In the meantime I will snuggle my son, share a date night with my husband, and imagine the future day when I put my child in a kayak, point him toward the horizon, and say, "You've got this."


Prayer #329: Paddle

Why exactly should I learn to paddle? You have gifted me currents that bear the load, easily whisking me on their fast-flowing backs toward a determined end. If I simply raise my oar from the water and lay it across my lap, the river will carry me to the mouth of the great ocean, and my life as I'd conceived it to be will widen, deepen, amplify everything I hold most dear.

God of such obliging movement, build in me the trust to let go, and guard my tiny craft on its great adventure into the unknown.

Amen.