31: memento mori & memento videre

Turning thirty-one offers a little relief in settling into true adulthood. Part of this means that if my idea of a good time is talking about latin catchphrases on my blog while my children “nap” (today this means “alternately fuss in their respective beds for an hour or so”), I can do that. I’m an adult now.

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these grew in my yard. happy birthday to me! 

So, memento mori and memento vivere are the words that come to me when I think about this past year.  “Remember your death” and “Remember to live.” Especially during Lent and Holy Week, I see how inseparable these are, kind of like twin mottos that uphold each other. Most of the lessons and highlights for this year fit neatly into this intersection.

Memento Mori & Household Stuff.
Around my birthday last year, my mom and her siblings moved my grandfather into a nursing home and sold their big iconic family house in the woods. I morbidly joked to Aaron that meant he wasn’t allowed to die in the near future because my early widowhood backup plan (raising the kids in that house) was now off the table. But a big part of that process, which I followed from afar, was clearing out the basement and closets, sorting trunks full of unlabeled pictures, and nearly continual donation trips to the neighborhood Goodwill. I’m pretty sure my mom still has loads of this stuff in her own basement now because it’s hard to sort through things when you’re so emotional. My grandparents were not hoarders by any stretch, just upper middle class Americans who had lived in the same house for 45 years. (Which is to say, the ideal best case scenario for my end of days, too.) I’d read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo before we moved here and implemented what I could from her discarding plan (especially the “joy spark” question) as we packed and unpacked, but I’ve been challenged to continually tackle the clutter battle as a way of life. Because really, memento mori: I’m going to die someday, and I’d rather have my kids talk about their memories of me or the words I left them than know they will be sighing about cleaning out my basement, which I am quite sure was just sighed over and cleaned out by the children of this home’s previous elderly owners before I bought it, too. With this in mind I passed out all the kid toys that made annoying sounds, recycled 80% of the professional photo prints from my wedding (no one is ever going to look at them!), and donated a whole extra van load worth of household stuff… And you know? There’s a lot more living in our home when there’s less picking up, so it’s worth decluttering in the spirit of memento vivere, too.

Memento Mori & Projects
I am always, always up for planning a new project. The number of possibilities (household! Diy! education! reading! church! writing! handcrafts! start five podcasts!)  rolling around in my head is absurd, and I’m humbled every time I open my binder of family recipes, because I see a note in my Grandma’s handwriting. “This is the first edition of the long awaited Niemi cookbook – more to follow.”

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Surprise! There were no later additions to this collection. And it’s not just because she got sick. It’s because life is what happens within limits and you can’t do absolutely everything. This is true for all the ideas in my head, too, and memento mori here means making peace with unstarted and unfinished projects (which are legion), because I’m going to leave a bunch of things undone when I die anyway. Abandoning ideas more quickly, even ones that already made it to a mid-project stage, doesn’t mean that perseverance and completion are unimportant. It just means I can have a clearer head to discern and finish the ones that do matter.

Memento Vivere & the St. Louis Climate
Maybe you have heard of “hygge,” the Scandanavian lifestyle ethos that is trending everywhere these days? It’s all about the quality of being cozy and hospitable, and as a knitter, a candle-lighter, a true woman of the north, I want to embrace this. I feel silly complaining about warm weather after experiencing two of the most brutal winters on record during the short time we lived in Minnesota. But man, it’s unbearably hot and steamy for four or five months out of the year here, and I’m not paying to join the neighborhood pool until the kids learn to swim. We’re going to be trapped inside for much of the summer as long as we live here. So I’m doing my best to memento vivere and ignore the siren call of the Hygge life during winter, embracing every sunny day we can get out for a zoo trip and bundling the kids for playground time now. Winter here is for living, not hibernating. This means we can fully embrace the vibrant splash pad scene here when it warms up. Maybe order some fun inside activity gear. Buy Tazo Passion Tea in bulk to DIY my favorite coffeeshop summer treat. And save excessive movie watching for August, as backwards as it seems.

Memento Vivere & Motherhood 
If my life is a memoir, the chapter I’m living right now is titled “Everyone Is Crying.” There are a lot of good days with the kids, especially now that nearly all outings are possible with both kids on my own, but it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into the belief that life is what will happen next – When they can procure their own breakfast so I can hide in the basement and write every morning until Aaron leaves for work; when we finally get the house projects done so I can get a piano again; kindergarten, glory.

But if I wasn’t waiting to start my life until the kids were born, I’m not waiting to start it now. I really don’t have enough time to do the things I want (and even need, really) to do for my own peace of mind, but remembering to live means figuring out how to fight for even a glimpse of peace in the middle of all this hustle. So maybe spending mornings at a gym with a nursery isn’t an option, but I can still grab the stroller for a walk or turn up fun music to have a “dance party” with the kids. (In doing this I have learned toddler interpretations of the lyrics to basically all my desired workout songs are definitely “explicit.”) Maybe I can’t sit down and write like I’d want, but I can play hard with the kids in the morning and let them watch a few shows after their nap so I can spend an afternoon lost in a book even when there are not enough solo hours to craft paragraphs myself. A little extra screentime isn’t as damaging as growing up with a crazy mom, you know.

This year memento vivere means that anything worth doing is worth doing even a little bit. Because if I have to wait until I can spend an hour at the gym or drink hot coffee alone or sit still long enough to create something beautiful in my journal or on a set of knitting needles to really live, I’m not going to be able to live contentedly with what God has given me. And that’s no life at all.

 

 

 

Sharing Elsewhere: Risen Motherhood

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I’m really excited to be sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned through my miscarriages on the Risen Motherhood podcast this week! Hosts Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler discuss the way the gospel transforms a mom’s everyday life on this quick weekly show. Since neither of them have suffered miscarriage themselves, they asked if I would be willing to share a little bit from my journey as part of a back-to-back interview episode about miscarriage and the gospel. Most of what I shared won’t be completely new to friends or readers here, but I think you’ll enjoy hearing the complementary stories of God’s grace during the episode. This is a fabulous resource for women seeking hope and healing after losing a baby, and I’m grateful for the chance to be part of this beautiful ministry!

[ If you’re not already a faithful Risen Motherhood listener, you can always listen in on their website (www.RisenMotherhood.com). I also suggest connecting with them on Facebook and subscribing with your favorite podcast streaming site (maybe iTunes?) or app so you don’t miss an episode! ]

Strengthen Me According To Your Word

STRENGTHEN ME ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD: Scriptures to Read After Miscarriage. 

“My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.” – Psalm 119:28

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I’ve been very humbled to walk in grief next to many friends after they have miscarried a baby, and I think the most common question they bring up has been, “Did you have any particular scriptures I should read? What does the Bible say to me about this?” (And others want to know how to help someone else, what they can say after their friend loses a baby, too.) While I’ve already written about the journey I took discovering [how the topic of miscarriage fits into the “big picture” of scripture] after my losses, the Bible does provide some additional encouragement here as well. Scripture is words of life for those in the midst of death. We don’t have to fumble for random and theologically troubling explanations outside of this!

On Grief & Broken Hearts

Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he saves those who are crushed in spirit.” 
Psalm 31: 9 “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted with grief.” 

It is okay to be honest in prayer about the difficulty of grief; God never asks us to get our emotions under control or pretend like everything is fine before coming to him.

Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

It’s a gift that this doesn’t say:“Blessed are those who have bad things happen to them, for they shall be stronger than everyone else.” Everyone has difficulty in life, but not everyone actually mourns or allows themselves to grieve. God’s comfort comes to us while we’re working through difficulty, not by avoiding it or pretending something wasn’t a big deal.

On Hurtful Words & Difficult Relationships 

Psalm 31: 20 “You store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues.” 

The Lord offers refuge and healing in himself when other people’s words cut deeply.  When facing difficult conversation and remembering painful comments from others, rest in the shelter that God offers in himself. We can always keep running to him instead of reopening the wounds made by others’ thoughtless words.

Isaiah 53:3-4 “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hid their faces, he was despised… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” 

[One of the most common responses to news of a miscarriage is “At least you weren’t further along, like my friend’s stillbirth,” or “At least you hadn’t been trying long,” or “At least you know you can get pregnant.” The message this sends: ‘Grief is a competition and lots of other people have it worse than you. You don’t deserve to grieve.’ That is a lie.] There is a time to empathize with others and get some perspective, of course. I wouldn’t approach someone whose children were killed by terrorists and say “You know, I had miscarriages so I know just what this is like.” No way! But when you are stricken with a personal tragedy, that grief is real and it matters.  Being dismissed by people who should have known better doesn’t make this less true: For a Christian, the only real “competition” for grief is Jesus. While bearing the weight of all sin and sorrow, he also felt the pain of messed up relationships. He was abandoned and misunderstood. He was hurt by people he trusted. His suffering was the worst because he took all our grief and sorrow to the cross, and in the resurrection he is victorious over all of it, too. Sin and suffering (which sometimes correlate, and sometimes do not) are not ultimate for us because of this.

On Weariness & Strength 

Psalm 31:7 “I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul.”
Psalm 119:50 “My comfort in my affliction is this: your promise preserves my life.” 

For a Christian, the remedy for sorrow and weariness is found in the Lord. Not in a future earthly good (for example, having another baby after a miscarriage) or “moving past” the difficulty in question. When other people aren’t walking alongside you in ways you need, and those relationships feel very disappointing? You can rejoice in the steadfast love of God, who has known the distress of your soul. When you are afflicted and sorrowful? You can trust that God’s promise of salvation preserves your life.

On Sin & Shame 

Psalm 103:10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

A miscarriage is not punishment for sin, and a living baby is not a reward for righteousness. No one “deserves” a miscarriage for any reason, just like no one “deserves” a child. 

The Baby’s Life & Purpose 

Psalm 139:13-14 “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 

When you really consider all that’s involved with conception and fetal development, it’s a wonder the human race has sustained this long. A 1st-trimester baby, even one with profound genetic deformities, is a pure miracle. Whether we have a “reason” for a miscarriage like that (which is supposed to be about 50% of losses) or not, we can praise God for his marvelous creation in the baby’s life. I’m still surprised by how many people told me, “There was probably something wrong with the baby,” as if that was supposed to lessen my grief or explain God’s purpose. My specific medical history indicates this was probably not the case anyway, but no matter what: God’s image was placed in the baby just as much as it was with any of us. Even the shortest of lives is a praiseworthy and mysterious marvel. 

Psalm 138:8 “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
Psalm 139:16 “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

I’ll admit, I’ve thought these verses were kind of unfair – why would God create a baby with a life only in the womb, even life measured by days more than weeks? What is the point of that? Why even create the baby in the first place?  Yet we can be comforted that God is not limited by time or human frailty; we are all like helpless children before God. That God can use my 30-year-old life and reasonably well-trained mind to fulfill his purpose is not less astounding than that he could do the same in the MUCH shorter life of a baby who died in the womb.

On God’s Love

Psalm 103:13-14 “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”  

God’s love and desire for his children is even more powerful than the difficulty of a miscarriage or other loss. He isn’t surprised by weakness or failure, and he doesn’t expect us to summon supernatural strength apart from himself.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

NOT: “For God so loved the miscarrying woman that he gave her a new baby of her own, that whoever believes in him will no longer miscarry, but have a pro-creative life.” We know God loves us because he gave us his son; we do not measure or prove God’s love for us by anything else.

Romans 8:38-39 “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

That “…nor anything else in all creation” includes your baby. Their life or death does not separate us from God’s love.

On Hope & The Resurrection 

1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 27 “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all died, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. …The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The true message of hope and encouragement in grief is in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and return. (And if this feels weird, it is. Y’all, Christianity definitely requires a little weirdness. There’s no Jesus Lite version to opt out of this stuff.)  Grief is one of the many places where the rubber of Christianity hits the road of real life. In many ways this is where you actually need the weirdness of Christianity most!

The poet John Donne, who grieved many profound losses (father, siblings, children, wife) reflected on these verses and wrote the sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud,” with an ending that says this better than anyone else: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!” The pain and loss of a miscarriage find their final remedy in the Resurrection, which destroys destruction and kills death.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ” But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 

This scripture is a particular treasure after a miscarriage because it doesn’t tell us not to grieve, it says we grieve differently than other people.
It doesn’t tell us that hope replaces grief, it shows that hope transforms our grief.
It doesn’t tell us we’ll be happy when we can “get over” the difficulty we face, it points to Jesus overcoming the difficulty in our place.
And it doesn’t tell us we will stop grieving at some arbitrary point in life, or even when we see our loved ones in heaven. It offers a better promise: that we will always be with the Lord.

Present Joy & Past Sorrow

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Though I’ve shared before that [having kids isn’t “the key to healing” from the grief of a miscarriage], the present joys of raising my children do offer some perspective on those past sorrows. While it doesn’t erase previous hardship, mothering my living children has helped me understand even more about the miscarriages I had before they were born.

  • Motherhood (of any sort) is emotionally intense. My love for my children is overwhelmingly fierce and surprising. Every so often I’m overcome by the burst of affection for the kids I have, which is saying a lot for me because I generally just have lots of feelings all the time anyway. Compared to the way I felt after the miscarriages, it’s a little like Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion in my heart: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  My grief and sadness about the miscarriages was equally intense, surprising, and often unpredictable  – and it makes more sense to me now. It would be extremely concerning if I didn’t experience such joy with the kids now, and these “highs” helps me reconcile the emotional lows from the miscarriages.
  • The unknown potential of what “could have been” from the other babies is still a little haunting sometimes. Due to gracious doctors who knew how comforting this would be, I have very early ultrasound pictures from both of my kids. I occasionally marvel that the little 6-week-old pulsing sweetpea (the baby is basically all beating heart at that point) we saw in December 2013 is now exploring and babbling and making herself known throughout my home every day. I witnessed a miracle then, just as I do now: all the potential in the world, wrapped up as a bundle of flesh and blood and water. I also have ultrasound pictures of little babies before this, whose potential will remain unknown. The possible beauty and joy of the other babies’ lives before that was just as significant. What sorts of delights and needs would those babies have brought? Who would they have grown up to be? We’ll never know here what would have been. It doesn’t steal the happiness we have now, but I’ll probably always wonder about this.
  • … Equally haunting is the frailty of the ones who made it. What if I hadn’t take that exact cocktail of medicines to keep hormones doing their jobs at the beginning? Would my daughter be here if that paranoid doctor hadn’t ordered the extra “unnecessary” ultrasound that diagnosed a treatable-but-concerning problem? Would I have survived my son’s birth if he had been born in the car instead of right after we got to the hospital? The number of things that have to work just right to bring a child from conception to birth is staggering, and I marvel at how it all worked for these kids. I know a child is not something to take for granted.
  • Miscarriage really is a mini-birth in so many ways. I’m the opposite of a birth-junkie. Other people get really excited and enjoy talking or writing about private body parts with all the sensations and whatnot that brought their child into the world, and it’s legitimately meaningful for them. I am not like that. I thought maybe I was grossed out by this because the topic of having a living baby was so tender for me; I usually felt like people around me got way too personally invested in the details of their birth plans, or were overly spiritualizing and competitive about their natural deliveries. I would have cut off my right leg to have had a c-section and a formula-fed baby myself. Then I actually had a baby and … I still don’t think it’s that exciting to talk about the nitty-gritty details of birth most of the time! But, on this topic, I did find that all but 5 minutes of my son’s (unmedicated and nonsurgical) labor and delivery was actually the same or easier than one of my miscarriages, which validated my shock at how painful and difficult the physical experiences were. My post-partum hormonal fluctuations and heightened awareness/anxiety after birth and miscarriage were nearly identical, as well. 
  • Sometimes it is still better not to know. It’s amazing how many people have said, “It’s too bad you didn’t know you’d have these two kids back when you were having all those struggles!” In some ways, this is true. It was painful to wonder if I would ever get to have a baby and experience all this joy, and maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard if I had just known that it was really coming. But [sometimes not-knowing is a gift,] and the all-knowing God met me in my unknowns in ways that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. We hope and pray for more good to come, with these kids and maybe with more in the future. Yet plenty of bad things (including, but absolutely not limited to, more miscarriages) could be ahead for our life. We can rest in the truth that God is in control and works everything for his purposes, but it really is a measure of mercy that we don’t know what’s coming before that. 
  • Every baby is part of me forever. There’s no way to make me “stop” being a mom to any of my kids. My home now is bursting with laughter and diapers and coffee; the particular love and delight of each child changes me in new ways every day. Their blue eyes and belly laughs are etched into me; no matter what happens to any of us, we’re bound to each other for life. But there is still a bit of frustrated maternal instinct from before. I’m not “just” the mom of these two, because my miscarriages gave me a little baggage and a lot of perspective that spill into life now, too.
  • Being a child of God is more important than being a mom. The mother-identity that comes from my children is overwhelmingly huge. Going too far in one direction, this identity quickly becomes an idol for many women. On the other side, we rightly assess a woman who does not connect with her baby as suffering post-partum depression or anxiety. The identity balance can be tricky, but it’s necessary. Wrestling with motherhood (am I a mom? am I not? why is this so hard?) was a big part of recovering from the miscarriages, too. Situations or relationships where my lost babies were not acknowledged or where mentioning anything was awkward became an overly-personal rejection to me… but I also worked hard to make my life about other things, too: teaching piano, reading, writing, DIY projects, and other things like that. I’m not sure anyone ever strikes the identity balance perfectly. I certainly didn’t (and still don’t!), but God graciously provides all that we really need, by creating us in his own image and saving us by his own son. 

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[You can check out more posts & my recommended resources about miscarriage here!]

What We Have Left Undone: God’s Grace in Exhaustion

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Hebrews 4:14-16
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(It took me four months to write this post, during which time I fell asleep at my computer five different times.) 
My new baby is six months old. He and I are still getting a lot of quality time together after the sun goes down, and without fail there is always something happening with the dog or my toddler on his better nights. (One time he slept seven hours, but Aaron was out of town so I had to respond when the dog threw up on the carpet and my daughter woke up screaming about her incoming teeth twice. This is just how it goes sometimes.) This is a tough thing to talk about. We learned quickly last year, even with our “good” sleeper, that mentioning a bad night in the wrong company could lead to an awkward well-intentioned lecture about parenting philosophy, because if you had read the enlightening book they loved your baby would be sleeping already. People just want to be helpful, and there really is supposed to be a lot you can do to help your baby figure out sleeping, but receiving sleep evangelism is not helpful when all you want is a fist bump …and maybe an extra cup of coffee.  However, I have also read all the books with all the different theories and have concluded two things: First – they were written about other babies, not this one. Second – there are gifts latent even in long seasons of flat-out exhaustion.

The Bible offers me some mixed messages about sleep. God causes people to sleep, like in Genesis 15 when Abraham fell asleep and was under deep and terrible darkness. Wisdom literature indicates sometimes people who sleep are lazy, and sometimes they are receiving a gift. In the gospels falling asleep is almost always a picture of a person’s spiritual state, like when the disciples fall asleep in the garden instead of praying for Jesus, and the apostles urge readers to stay awake (spiritually) instead of falling asleep. Sleep covers a lot of ground in scripture, and I have tried to pull these different things together into some cohesive theological point I could hang on to here. Maybe it’s there, but I’m too tired to figure it out right now.

It seems like my life would be easier if I did not need to sleep. Really, as much as I want to blame this all on sin, scripture mentions rest occurring prior to the fall. God called darkness “evening” and the coming of light “morning” from the very start. He worked for six days and rested on the seventh. He even caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep to remove a rib and create Eve. (Supposedly prostitution is the oldest profession, but I see scripture clearly pointing to anesthesiology for that honor.) These things all happened before sin entered the picture, and I’m struggling to figure out how something that was designed in perfection -my physical need for sleep- can seem like such a crutch.

After every long day of loving my very small children in my dated house-that-still-doesn’t-feel-like-a-home, with unanswered emails, ignored blog, unread books, disorganized basement, and unexercised body, I set up my coffee maker to brew at 6:00 am and groan quietly while walking down the half-painted hallway to collapse in my bed: think of how much I could accomplish in the next few hours if I didn’t need to sleep!  The insomnia I experienced after my miscarriages was similarly exhausting and paralyzing, but this has been longer and more intense, and it’s teaching me that I have a really bad attitude about my own need for sleep. In a stage of life that seems full of limitations, I am annoyed (no, I am offended) that my day wraps up with another reminder of things-I-can’t-do. I believe, secretly, that I will find peace to comfort me through the significant daily demands of my so-small children if I can type out the thoughts in my head, or paint the walls of my living room, or maybe even just get the house clean.

I have always had a lot more ideas than time, but even though the current imbalance feels suffocatingly huge, I’m hardly the first stay-at-home mom to articulate that my life is full of big responsibilities with very little immediate “accomplishment.” As I face the end of each exhausted day with the alarming sense that THERE IS STILL A LOT THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN, I keep thinking about the opening worship litany from the Book of Common Prayer:

“Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we earnestly repent…

This same grace is what I need when there is too much to-do-list left at the end of my evening. Though the things I’m not doing are not generally in the category of sin by omission, they can be offered to the Lord with the same humility of this prayer. My inability to accomplish what I want, whether because I set something aside in order to sleep or because I cannot focus well enough when I have time, reveals more and more of my need for God. His grace faithfully offers solace to the burden of unfinished projects I have surrendered for the sake of caring for my family.
When exhaustion prevents me from accomplishing tasks of any size, from installing curtain rods to remembering where I left my keys, my comfort is that Jesus fully sympathizes with my weakness and graciously provides his mercy over all of the many, many needs I deal with – for the kids, and for me.
…For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.”
(I would also like to mention that our out-of-context theme verse for this year is 1 Thessalonians 5:6: “So let us not sleep as others do, but let us stay awake.” )

Reclaiming Martyrdom

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” -Hebrews 12:1-3

My mother used to joke that sometimes homeschooling me was a breeze; she could just “accidentally” leave a dictionary or encyclopedia out for me to get lost in, and I would spend dinner recounting what I had been reading all day. Now that I’m an adult and “know myself” a little better, via compulsively journaling through life experiences and taking too many online personality quizzes (ENFP all the way), it makes perfect sense that I would get a little bit obsessed with a lot of random things and enjoy figuring out how these were all connected.

Resulting from my early encyclopedic studies, I can become a bit of a stickler about language and word definitions. I like finding just the right term to express something, and I have a strange fascination with watching how the use of words impacts discussion. Sometimes I hear a sermon and wonder why the pastor chose one word over another, or excitedly tell Aaron that I think our last fight happened because we were using the same words different ways. (He is not always so enthused to hear my explanations.) It also means I bristle on the inside when a word is used ambiguously (like the word “blessing”) or wrongly (like “dignity”). The one that’s been bugging me lately is the cultural use of the word “martyr” pejoratively: “Mommy-Martyr,” describing a woman who complains and exalts her sacrifices as a parent.

This phrase irks me because it belies a serious misunderstanding. If we roll our eyes at someone acting like a mommy-martyr, we’re wishing she would stop complaining, maybe get herself pulled together. A mommy-martyr is usually working harder than necessary to draw attention to herself, but she might also just have a bad attitude about the legitimate hard work of raising children. Remedying this requires more than just a better perspective on parenting; we need to better understand martyring and we need to better understand Christ.

To be a martyr is to die, to have your life taken for the sake of your faith, and most of us will probably never have to do that in a full, physical sense. But our lives are full of opportunities to emulate Christ’s sacrifice in some way when we offer our selves and bodies to God in physical acts of worship. This is not just about parenting. Maybe it means turning down reproductive technology that might give you a desperately-longed-for baby because you aren’t willing to risk the destruction of embryos inherent in those processes, or choosing joy in the midst of difficult relationships that may remain frustrating for the rest of your life, or taking on the requisite challenges of any other situation where immediate desires have to be sacrificed for the sake of Christ and not necessarily for the sake of future earthly gratification. The fact remains, though, that children (especially when they are so small like mine) are needy little neighbors and a parent is called to love and sacrifice for them every minute of the day in some seasons, without firm promises about what their future holds.  So I actually think christian motherhood is very much a form of daily martyrdom.

Primarily, of course, it is becoming a christian that solidifies the call to lay down your life, but the landmark sanctifying experiences most people point to (like marriage, ministry, loss, chastity, parenting, etc.,) are usually where the rubber of christianity hits the road of real life. Yet if you do not lay yourself fully down in marriage, or singleness, or other difficulties, the results may not be so immediately obvious. There was plenty of sanctification and living sacrifice happening before I had children, but in extremely personal ways without many immediate witnesses. If I chose self-denial or self-indulgence at those times, few would necessarily know about it, and I might not see the repercussions for good or bad. If I choose selfishness now, the consequences are really drastic: my kids aren’t going to have lunch. The choice to care for these little children well is an act of thanksgiving to the God who made them and gave them to me. Doing so all day, every day, even when it is hard, is a physical act of worship. Looking at it this way, decrying “mommy martyrs” irritates me because this rightly identifies complaining as a problem but loses respect for the bravery and beauty of true sacrifice in the process. 

Maybe the solution to the problem of whining that gets called “mommy martyr”-ing is to replace the focus on self with a heart that tunes in to the devotion of actual martyrs, even today around the world. Where the “mommy-martyr” complains and looks at herself, measuring her identity by her children and what they have taken from her, a true martyr faces the very real demands of laying her life down by looking to Christ and finding her identity through all she has received in him. My heart, and the heart of any Christian mom, can be renewed by the same thing. 

Raising living children is not a vocation of victimhood or self-glorification, but in many ways it is one of living martyrdom, as all God’s callings are in some sense. And maybe through this we can reclaim the sacred honor of true martyr, so that calling someone a mommy-martyr could be a colloquial praise of her love and selflessness, as she raises a family with her eyes fixed firmly on the all-giving Jesus instead of her all-needing children or herself.

[Even Unto Death by Audrey Assad, written in tribute for the 21 Christians martyred in Libya in December 2014 and January 2015]

family devotions with a toddler

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. – Deuteronomy 6:6-7

Like most Christian parents, we would say teaching our kids about the Bible is utmost in our parenting goals. And the scripture itself is pretty straightforward: this is a non-negotiable part of raising a family. Practically, though? We have felt a little paralyzed when thinking about how to go about it at this stage, with a baby and a toddler who can’t sit still long enough for the evangelical neocalvinist gold-standard Jesus Storybook Bible lesson. My craftsy brain loves thinking about flashcards, crafts, activities, pictures, and all other sorts of things the lower-case-g-gods of Pinterest had to offer me as tools for toddler family worship times, but… anything with manipulatives or print-outs is totally not happening right now. Our life is not settled. The walls are half-painted. I keep my baking dishes in the basement because between three houses and two apartments, this is the smallest kitchen I have ever had. I don’t even have our printer set up and I have no idea where I would keep extra papers/toys/Jesusy-things. And the thought of having more items to pick up at the end of the day might make me cry. So for now, those devotional “extras” are out.

Beyond my online blog hunting, I have also been reading up on The Most Elite Parenting & Family Devotional Books in an effort to figure out  The One Right Way to Teach Children About Jesus Without Screwing Them Up.

books

Just a start here… I have more books on this topic on a different shelf.

 

With all the upheaval of our life and the pressure of figuring out how to handle this task, imagine our relief when we figured out what to do! We just started reading a great book with Annie before bed. It’s called (wait for it) … The Holy Bible, which is perfect for distracted wandering toddlers and toddlers-at-heart like me.

Yep. After exhaustedly searching through loads of blogs and books, I threw my hands up, put my daughter on my lap, and did what I should have done in the first place: I opened up my Bible and started reading it to her. Although there is a part of me that panics about this, I did not download lesson plans or create a comprehensive a reading strategy or make verse cards or read three books about how to teach the Bible to children. There can be a great place for this stuff and they may enter the picture later, but programmatic extras would be a burden instead of a blessing right now.

I’m still battling some inner anxiety about how much more we could be doing, but I realized if I am waiting to read the Bible with my kids out of fear that I’m not doing it right, I have really, really missed the point. . While it might be beneficial to organize things more than this, I am realizing quickly that there is a line between being intentional and overthinking things. When I don’t respect that difference in my parenting, my kids are going to pay, and this is the one place I would be most heartbroken to mess up.

So what does this look like practically? I hope this season of transition will come to an end soon and the following statement will never be true again, but we just moved so we do not have a home church and neither one of us participates in a bible study program, so without something else to track with we are reading the gospel of Matthew. Why the gospel of Matthew? Because I seriously just flipped through the pages Bible-roulette-style and realized the gospels were broken up into lots of manageable paragraphs that can be read quickly. No overthinking.

PART ONE: At first, we start off with a quick prayer. (“Help us listen to your true word, the Bible, so we can learn about Jesus.”) Then, one of us reads a few verses while the other corrals and redirects Annie to sit quietly. We usually reinforce a few basic points that may or may not be going completely over her head.

I began making a 5-minute-prep lesson plan on a sticky note. That lasted two nights. We now wing it. But in case you are curious, here’s what my plan said for Matthew 1:18-25. I would share a picture, but the post-it no longer exists. I believe someone ripped it in half and possibly ate it. (I know what you are thinking, but no, it wasn’t Aaron.)

“Jesus:  He will save his people from their sins.” “Immanuel: God is with us.”
Sin separates us from God. When Jesus saves us, we are not separated from God and He is with us!
Songs: Jesus, Name above all names & O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

That’s it. This is a few verses with a 16-month-old, not a seminary class.

bible time

Not seen: bedtime bottle thrown to floor, Thomas eating or shrieking like a pterodactyl, Annie yelling “Ba! Ba! Ba!” every time she sees Max, etc.

PART TWO:  We sing some songs we already know. The double-edged sword of toddlers’ development is that they are wired to love and learn from doing the same things over and over. (On a related but less important note, I have some very serious side-eye looks to send Eric Carle about “Brown Bear, Brown Bear.”) This means that a toddler or preschooler needs to sing the same songs 2-3 times in a row, and repeat them night after night, too. I’m a musician so this comes naturally to me. Aaron’s not, so I encourage him to use volume to make up for what might be lacking in the vocals department. Family worship is a lot like spreading Christmas cheer, so the best way to do it is singing loud for all to hear. This is just private time at home, not a Hummel Family Singers professional debut.

Then we say a prayer and go to bed. The. End.

Being a little disorganized here works out because a toddler’s need for repetition translates to the scripture reading, too. Sometimes we’re really tired and realize we’ve been camped out in the same parts of the same chapter for too many nights, but that’s okay. Learning to sit still and establishing the habit of opening God’s word together communicates just as much about how much we need this as do the specific truths we’re picking out each night.

Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life.” – Deuteronomy 32:46-47

If these were just idle words, I could wait around and procrastinate in this. But these are my life, so I can’t wait to keep reading and learning alongside my kids. Ditching the idol of perfection on our own has been very freeing here!

12 Reasons My Toddler Might Be Santa

Is there a name for the coming-of-age trauma where kids stop believing in Santa? What would you call that? De-Sant-ification? My childhood excluded Santa from Christmas for religious reasons so I skipped that, but now the tables are turned and I have the opposite scenario: Kids start thinking Santa might be fake; I’m thinking Santa might be real. Kids start to think their parents might be Santa; Now that I’m a parent, I’m starting to think my kid might be Santa.

Here are a few reasons we think Annie may actually be the Jolly Old Man:

  1. Santa has reindeer; Annie loves the deer in our yard.
    Annie Deer
  2. “He knows if you’ve been bad or good”; she knows if I have been bad or good, which she demonstrates by copying me at all times. Mommy eats hummus? Annie eats hummus. Mommy eats a cookie? Annie eats a cookie. Mommy talks on the phone? Annie talks on the phone. And so on. This is her way of making sure I know that she knows exactly what’s going on. (It’s terrifying.) 
  3. Santa loves milk and cookies; She loves milk and cookies.
  4. As Bishop of Myrna in the olden days, Saint Nicholas reportedly slapped/punched Arius in the face over a theological dispute at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD; She frequently hits her little brother. I originally thought it was because she wanted to see what would happen, or she was mad at him for taking up my time, or she wanted me to pay attention to her. 
    Adam Bond transparent santa saint nicholas arius
     “Say ‘homoosious’! Say ‘homoosious’!” 
    Instead, I now wonder if it she is hitting him because, as a non-verbal infant, he has not yet professed his allegiance to the doctrine of Christ the Son being of one substance with God the Father. (“We use our words during theological debates in this house.”)
  5. Santa brings toys to children while they are sleeping; She frequently gives toys to her little brother, usually throwing them on his face while he is sleeping. 
  6. “He knows when you are sleeping, He knows when you’re awake”; She knows if Thomas is sleeping or awake, and uses this knowledge to ensure her daily naps contrast with his.
  7. Santa has a round belly; She has a little round belly.
  8. Santa’s belly shakes when he laughs, just like a bowl full of jelly; She would probably eat a bowl full of jelly if I gave it to her.
  9. Santa hears requests and fulfills only some, reflecting their parents’ budgetary guidelines, which is something children do not fully comprehend; Sometimes she willingly gives me what I ask her for (that piece of mail), and sometimes she doesn’t (that iPhone), for reasons I do not fully comprehend.
  10. Santa puts toys in stockings (or shoes, if you want to get really traditional about things); She is particularly curious about socks and shoes right now.
  11. Santa puts toys and goodies in a bag that he carries over his shoulder; she likes to put objects in my purse and carry it around. 
  12. The dead giveaway… Little Saint Nick here is obviously making herself comfortable coming in and out of the fireplace. 

    ("I'll just finish folding this laundry," I thought, "She's certainly reading to herself.")

    (“I’ll just finish folding this laundry,” I thought, “She’s certainly reading to herself.”)

 

the long good-bye

Though the past year was one of the most demanding of my life, I read a few very short books while I was pregnant with Thomas, mostly on the occasions I would leave Annie with a friend so I could attend some of my OB appointments solo. One of these slender tomes was The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris, which I have had on the radar for several years. I was glad to finally read it in a stage of life full of cloth diapers, when I was figuring out church with children in tow, and grappling with how staying home with children was transforming my daily life… which is to say, at a point when I was already thinking about laundry, liturgy, and “women’s work” quite a bit. It’s not a perfect book, but I appreciated some of the insights and affirmations that the “daily grind” of a homemaker need not develop into oppression, but instead cultivates opportunities for worship and a deeper understanding of God.

As I scan through the pages again now, with soup simmering in the crockpot, toys and board books strewn about the floor, a dog snoozing at my feet, and one baby sleeping in crib in the next room while a smaller baby sleeps on my chest, the portions about sharing in God’s grace while “doing-the-next-thing” seems a little more meaningful. When I originally read this under posters about gestational growth and development, during some of the only times I really gave much conscious thought to the new little baby, this is what resonated:

“At the deepest level, a pregnant woman must find the courage to give birth to a creature who will one day die, as she herself must die. And there are no promises, other than the love of God, to tell us that this human round is anything but futile.

…Now the new mother, that leaky vessel
Begins to nurse her child
Beginning the long good-bye.”

-Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

Maybe because this year I’ve also known more women who watched their children rest in caskets than before, or because my social media feed is full of discussions about abortion providers, or because I have sobbed while reading about drowned refugee children, I know that passing into the “magical” second trimester of pregnancy did not guarantee ultimate protection for either of these children. Now this imagery of saying goodbye to my children seems a little more real – and therefore more morbid – at this point than it did at other times.

However, it’s not just the potential loss of their earthly lives that stands here in my mind. It’s also the fact that they are each in full possession of their own personality, with plenty of surprises about who they are. (And they can’t even talk yet, so we will be seeing exponentially more of that in the coming years.) We have dreams, prayers, and hopes for these children, which is such a central part of parental love. It comes out when I feel like my heart is bursting out of my body because Annie loves pressing piano keys and wearing a stethoscope, or praise her for being so kind to Thomas, “because he is your brother and your best friend!” or proudly dress them in Hillsdale gear. There is nothing wrong with hoping my kids have meaningful careers, a close relationship with each other, or  follow in our footsteps for college, but it would become twisted if I clung to any desires I have for them more than embracing the children themselves as we discover what their unique gifts are. It is very possible that what I want for them in any aspect of life is different than what will happen, and I don’t want to set myself up to be disappointed in the ways God lovingly works in their lives.

Receiving these children as an undeserved gift means saying good-bye to some of my desires. Right now it’s usually sleep, drinking hot coffee, and being able to wear the same clothes all day without being slimed on by either one of them. But as they grow it will also mean subordinating my dreams and rejoicing that they were created to fulfill God’s plans, not mine. Even under the best circumstances where I would share a long life of loving and mothering these children, receiving them as the gifts they are means living the hard goodness of this long good-bye. This is the best way to truly celebrate the work God has done in bringing them to me.

“As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord.
I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.
So now I give him to the Lord, for his whole life…”
– 1 Samuel 1:26-28

 

full hands

“When you pick this up, the pharmacist might look at you like you are crazy.” – My doctor, while writing me a prescription when I was first pregnant with Thomas.
“If it keeps me pregnant again, I’ll have two babies in thirteen months… which means I should probably get used to that.”

I expected to get lots of negative comments about having two children close together. After years of fending off mostly well-meaning comments about how I should have kids, and battling the urge to break down when innocently asked “Do you have children?”, this is a welcome change, though annoying in a different way. Even in the hardest and most exhausting moments of this fall, I have had very little patience for someone who would complain about having children.

When I enter a grocery store with Thomas in a carrier, Annie on my hip, and am hanging on to my purse and produce bags, someone usually tells me I have my hands full. They are right. My hands are actually full. I mean, if you waved a thousand dollars in front of me, I would not be able to take it from you. So I usually respond, “Yes, full of TREASURE!” or “Better full than empty!” and kiss whichever child is nearest to my mouth. This usually garners a smile. And I think I’ve had just as many positive compliments as any other kind, which has been a happy surprise.

Is it challenging to have two children, especially when they are both as little as mine are now? Yes. There are reasons this is biologically rare and few people purposefully space their children so closely. They both need so much from me. I can see where having a two- or three- year-old sibling would make the transition easier. At the same time, there are some unique blessings in this, too.

  • Annie is still young enough to have been napping twice a day throughout my pregnancy and Thomas’ newborn stage. I think they would have been much more challenging for me if she wasn’t sleeping so much during the day.
  • By entering her “big sister” role so quickly, Annie will never remember a time without Thomas. I’m glad they will grow up so close in age. Even if they aren’t best friends (my hope and prayer), they will still learn a lot about sharing and respecting others from their earliest days.
  • Far and away, the hardest week of parenting was last month when Annie had Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. This means over a week of pure misery: fever, open oozing sores all over her mouth, face, and hands, a throat so sore she couldn’t eat or drink enough, crying from hunger which made her throat hurt even more… It. Was. Awful. I would prefer experiencing natural childbirth every day for a week over reliving anything like that. It was a little more intense to have a newborn in my care as well, but it would have been the worst week ever even if she was an only child.
  • I’m keenly aware of how quickly babies grow up right now. Thomas is a much more challenging baby than Annie was… I mean, we are nursing every 2-2.5 hours around the clock here, people. (Yes, I’m confident he is getting full, and we have been much more intentional about our sleep signals and routines this time around, but no dice. Whatever. It’s tough, but it confirms my hypothesis that “sleep training” for little babies isn’t all it is talked up to be.) I’m pretty sure watching her toddle around while he needs to eat or be held (again) makes it easier to savor the sweetness in those inconveniences. In a year he will be so big and running around with her… Before the eyes of a parent, that is not very long at all.
  • Raising even one child is going to bring a parent to their knees on a regular basis. The fact that there are now bigger challenges with two little children who need so much points me directly to the Holy Spirit for strength and wisdom in parenting.
  • If we homeschool, I’ll be able to teach them both at the same level in many subjects for quite a while!
  • And… I get to skip the awkward stage of having a one-year-old where people start asking if I was thinking about having another baby anytime soon.
two kids, two grocery stores - one giant bundle of blessiing

two kids, two gallons of milk, two stores… the days of getting the groceries to the house in one trip are past.