My Unabashed Love for a Good Story

I may be 30 years old, but I sometimes feel like I am 30-going-on-13 because I love reading the occasional Young Adult (YA) novel. I am privileged to be guest-posting at Christiana Peterson’s blog today about why I devoured The Hunger Games series during early motherhood. 

“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “…is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.”
“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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The Hunger Games

Call me lowbrow if you must, but I loved reading The Hunger Games series.

It was the winter of 2012 and I was learning how to be a mother. My newborn daughter was fussy, nursed constantly and rejected both pacifiers and bottles, forcing me to spend many hours trapped on the couch underneath her weight. I reserved books from the library in droves, looking up titles that I found on top ten lists from esteemed literary critics over the past few years. I read and read, and when I couldn’t read anymore, I watched Downton Abbey on my laptop until thirst drove me off the couch and into the kitchen.

Click here to read more.

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When You’re Having One of Those Days

Note: I’ll be back with more of the God is a Laboring Mother series soon, but I thought I write a quick post today about battling the blues. After all, it’s day five of rainy weather here in Minnesota and SNOW FLURRIES are predicted for this weekend. Take a deep breath, make some tea, and share your bad-day-survival tips in the comments.

Rainy Day

They happen a couple times each month, those dogged depress-o days where I can’t get outside my head. Often it’s tied to not getting enough sleep, of not meeting my own high standards, of comparing myself to other people who “have it together” in ways I can never seem to match. Sometimes I’m having an especially difficult parenting day – child won’t nap, child gets up at 5 AM, child is pushing ALL MY BUTTONS.

Do you have those days, too?

Maybe it’s the weather change, maybe it’s the impending due-date of baby #2, but I’ve been having more than my fair-share of these days lately. And, when I’m home with a 2 ½ year old, I can’t simply soak in the tub and light candles and binge watch some mindless TV show on Netflix. For my daughter’s sake, I know I need to pull it together.

So, how do you snap out of it? I’ve been working on my action plan for downward spirals and I thought I’d share some things that are working for me. Also, I want to hear your suggestions… God knows I need them.

  1. Go outside. Is it raining? 20 below zero? Blustery winds? Even if it’s just a walk to the car, getting out in the elements helps. The fresh air, the wild-waving trees, the sight of other people walking around reminds me there is a big ol’ world out there beyond my molehill-turned-mountain problems. If you can go for a walk or a run, even better.
  1. Take a shower. I realize this is hard when you have multiple kids or a newborn, but if you can find a way to shower DO IT. Feel the water streaming on your face, give thanks for indoor plumbing, do a few deep sighs.
  1. Call a friend. It’s hard to admit when I’m struggling, but I have a few go-to people who I know will listen and not judge me when I’m moping and ridiculous. Some of my best friends are the world’s greatest encouragers. So call a friend, and bonus points if you can schedule a time to meet-up with them in person.
  1. Turn off the melancholic music. Turn on the top 40 station. I have a long-standing love affair with sad music. Give me some Patty Griffin and I’m lying on the couch feeling deliciously forlorn. But add a toddler who is jumping on your head and, no, this is not working. It’s time to turn off the Bon Iver and find something more upbeat. Nostalgic music from your teenage years (for me it’s 90s grunge music or ska, remember ska?) also works, or Motown.
  1. Wash the dishes. I know, I know. You can’t get off the couch, why am I telling you to do chores? All I know is that, if I can just turn on the happy music (see #4) and tackle one thing (dishes, put away laundry, make the bed), I feel better. If you are lucky enough to have a toddler in your house, washing dishes is a great activity to do together.
  1. When you start wasting time online, have a plan. I really struggle with the internet time-suck, especially after my daughter is in bed for the night. The worst part about it is that it often compounds my negative feelings. I have some writer friends who use Freedom to help them block time-wasting websites (hello Facebook) for a set amount of time so they can focus on being productive. One thing I’m going to try is making a list called “THINGS I’D RATHER BE DOING” and tape it to my laptop. Things like: writing, reading a book, going to bed early. What things have you tried? I’d love your advice.

I should also mention here that depression is a real thing so if you are having more down days than not, it’s time to get help. Even if you’re not ready for counseling, try telling one trusted friend how it’s really going. Just make one step at a time. Life is too short to be ruled by this disease.

What am I missing? What do you do when you’re having a hard day?

***

Image via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here.

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Birth Plans

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
— Wendell Berry, from the poem The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front

Pregnant Profile

When I took childbirth classes the first time I was pregnant, the instructor – an impossibly peppy woman named Missy – encouraged us to write a birth plan. A birth plan is a set of hopes, preferences, and goals for birth that are typically shared with the labor and delivery staff. Missy assured us that writing a birth plan would help us prepare for all the big and small decisions we might encounter during our hospital stay.

It has been three years since I wrote that birth plan. I finally reread it for the first time last week, smiling and cringing to myself all the way through. No to pain medication and immodest hospital gowns. Yes to dimmed lights, water-birth, and my own nightgown. Oh, and if possible, we want my husband to catch the baby.

These were all good aspirations, all good goals for birth. And they seemed reasonable enough. After all, I read only positive birth stories, about how labors progressed quickly, how laboring mothers overcame their fears with support of their doulas and midwives, how women’s bodies are built for labor. The books I read encouraged me to shut down negative conversations about birth before they had the power to instill fear or doubt.

Intellectually, I knew that things could go wrong. I had friends who experienced dangerous complications and emergency C-sections despite their plans for a natural birth. Still, I chose to write a birth plan for myself that assumed the best, that only skimmed the possibility that I might need medical interventions.

But there is a problem with only hearing positive birth stories. There is a danger in writing exquisite birth plans that do not take into account potential complications that may arise. The laboring mother is left completely unprepared if things veer off course.

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I wonder if reading your birth plan after the fact is a little how the disciples felt when they realized that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus, this rabbi scorned by the religious elite? Jesus, born in a barn? This was the long awaited Savior of Israel?

I wonder if they looked back on their Hebrew Bible, on the predictions and prophesies about the coming Messiah with a hint of embarrassment, or distance, or wonder at how far off they had been.

You see, the Messiah was supposed to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, the Messiah was supposed to restore honor and dignity to the Jewish people. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to be crucified like a common criminal. He wasn’t supposed to be whipped or have a crown of thorns crushed upon his head. No, the kingdom was supposed to come with trumpets and fanfare. The kingdom was supposed to come through military triumph.

But instead here is Jesus, this strange teacher with his strange teachings about “turning the other cheek” and “losing your life so you can find it.” Jesus, the Messiah who didn’t expel the Romans or restore the temple. Jesus, the Messiah who suffered and died.

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When I imagine God as a laboring mother, I wonder if she had expectations for how her birth should go. I wonder if she felt thrown off by how labor was actually progressing (or not progressing), I wonder if she felt weak while enduring incredible pain at waiting for the Kingdom to finally come.

Do I trust a God in labor, who feels painful contractions, who wonders if she can make it through? I’d rather imagine a God who is strong, steadfast, a pillar, a rock. But God as a woman in labor feels wild, it feels scary, it feels out of control.

Maybe that’s part of why I’ve never heard a sermon about God as a laboring mother. It’s not an image that makes us feel confident. It makes us wonder if God knows what God is doing in this supposed big plan for the world.

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“Alright class,” Missy said, clapping her hands in excitement. “I want you to take the index cards in your folder and write “healthy baby” on one card and “healthy mom” on the other card. Now, take the remaining stack of six and write one hope for your birth on each card.”

Women in flowing maternity shirts and yoga pants turned to face their uncomfortable-looking husbands, taking out pens, placing the cards awkwardly on their knees or backs of the thick childbirth prep folders to begin writing. I sipped my ever-present bottle of water while we wrote out our hopes like the good students we were: no pain medication, quick labor, vaginal birth, no interventions, and so on.

“Now, I want you to look at your cards and pick two cards to throw out,” Missy said. “Sometimes labor doesn’t go the way you want it to, so imagine you have no choice in the matter.”

My husband and I looked at each other. We debated the cards we had, deciding we could give up the short hospital stay and labor under eight hours.

When the murmuring from the room died down, Missy spoke again. “Now, I want you to pick two more.”

We looked through our stack of cards again, weighing inducement and episiotomies against each other. Missy spoke again. “Now pick two more cards to throw out.” At the end of the exercise, we had two cards left in our hands: “healthy baby” and “healthy mom.”

“Birth can be different than what you imagine or expect,” Missy said. “And I don’t think you will have to throw out your entire stack of cards. But, if at the end of the day you have a healthy baby and a healthy mom, then that’s all that really matters.”

Later, in the car, my husband and I had a heated conversation about some of the choices we elevated differently. Somehow Missy’s words about the most important thing, the healthy mom and healthy baby, were lost on me.

//

God is a laboring mother, the book of Isaiah tells us. God has many hopes for the world God created; God wants the Kingdom to come, to wipe every tear from every eye.

When I look at the terrible beautiful world around me, it helps me to imagine that God feels pain at how this labor is going, it helps to know that God expects more for humanity than war, disease, and poverty. When I rub up against the inequality in the public schools where I tutor, when I hear a story about burned villages, when I read about another shooting in my city, I know this isn’t what God wants for this world.

It’s not what I expect, it’s not what I hope. But I have to remind myself that, despite this confusing labor, God will birth a healthy baby in the end. Though it comes in ways I don’t understand, God is bringing new life into the world.

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This is the second post in a series about the image of God as a laboring mother found in Isaiah 42:14. To read the first post in the series, click here.

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God is a Laboring Mother

Birth

Moments after my first child was born.

I am seven months pregnant and it only recently occurred to me that I will have to push this baby out.

The details of my first labor are murky in my mind, like sludge at the bottom of an undisturbed pond. I haven’t stirred around in the muck since my daughter’s birth, but I know some of what it contains: fear of pain, lack of confidence in my body’s ability to progress through the stages of labor, an overall feeling of dread.

My first labor was nothing like I had expected. I had pumped myself up with natural birth literature: I was ready to enter labor like a woman warrior; a strong mama who knew her body was built for this. But at the end of my 54-hour labor, I felt broken down by the whole process. Wildly out of control. Weak.

When I finally held my newborn daughter in my arms, I felt like a failure for not meeting my own expectations. Those thoughts eventually flitted down to the bottoms as I rejoiced in a healthy, squishy baby girl. Praise God, we made it through.

But now I am facing down another birth and it’s time to dip back into the pond. There is a lot of mud I have to deal with, a lot of rocks. Because whether I like it or not, this baby has got to come out.

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When people ask me why I am a Christian, one of the first answers I give is, “Because of the incarnation.” For those of you who are unfamiliar, the incarnation is the belief that God became a human in the form of Jesus and, thus, knows the ins and outs of being a person. It means God understands what it’s like to walk this earth, to feel hunger, to experience physical pain, to have mixed emotions. It makes God relatable to me in a way that the omniscient, omnipresent God somewhere in the sky can never be.

Jesus was a baby, a toddler and a teenager, a budding rabbi. He loved his friends, he partied with them and he wept with them. I pray to God knowing that he lived in skin just like mine, he yawned and had muscle cramps and drooled in his sleep.

But there is one point where the incarnation fails me: Jesus was a man. Sure, he was a marginalized man – from Nazareth, born to peasants, takes up wandering, is homeless – but still, Jesus will never fully understand my experiences as a woman. Most Biblical scholars would agree that God is neither male nor female, that God transcends gender. And there are depictions of God as female in the Bible: God is a mother hen gathering her chicks, God is a nursing mother, God is a nurturer.

Yet, when a friend recently shared a Bible verse with me, the one where God is compared to a laboring mother, I struggled. (“But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” Isaiah 42:14)

Imagine though I tried, I fought this idea. God? Moaning and clenching and relaxing? Breathing as pain soars, as muscles seize, as fears rise? God, birthing a live, screaming baby?

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As I stare down my third trimester of pregnancy, I know I need to get back into the pond and sift through the mud and rocks in the muck: the feelings of failure from my first birth, the fear, the dread.

Over the next few weeks, I will share reflections on God as a laboring mother in hopes of preparing for my second birth. I invite you to imagine with me, to embrace this image of God sweating in labor, to let yourself feel a little uncomfortable.

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On Spiritual Abuse

Hey everyone. I wrote a guest-post about my experience with spiritual abuse over at my friend Amy Peterson’s blog for her series on finding a second simplicity in faith. It’s a personal story, one that I continue to wrestle with.

 

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There was a time when I didn’t know if God was good. 

It was the summer I fell in with a group of fire-breathing Pentecostals and the summer I questioned the salvation of nearly every Christian I had ever met. It was the summer I interviewed migrants in a Kenyan refugee camp as an intern with the United Nations and the summer I nearly lost my mind from secondary trauma.

It was the summer when everything unraveled. My ideas of good and bad, true and untrue blurred into a swirling mess, a cyclone that ripped through the faith that had been growing steadily since childhood.

Some days I peer at the landscape of my faith and see the devastation that lingers even now, nine years later. It looks like the path a windstorm can wrack through an old-growth forest. It looks like a trail of downed trees. Sure, I can see regrowth among the broken limbs on the forest floor; I can see new saplings poking upward in sunlight. But I can’t help staring at all those snapped trunks and exposed roots, wondering at all that I lost in that storm.

Read the rest here.

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The Book That Changed My Life

I wrote an essay about The Irresistible Revolution over at D.L. Mayfield’s blog.

irresistiblerevolution

The Irresistible Revolution: The Book That Changed my Life

What was it about that book?

It was the gee whiz let’s do something. It was the stories of hope. It was the promise of a glittery but gritty revolution where the kingdom breaks through cracked concrete, mustard plant by mustard plant.

It was the acknowledgment that not all is well with the world, stop pretending. Instead, let’s move into the neighborhood and tithe our money relationally; let’s reject the investment in sprawling suburban church campuses when so many are scrounging for grocery money. Be a new kind of believer, a prophetic witness who takes Jesus at his word.

Shane Claiborne came to speak in chapel at my evangelical college in 2004, two years before The Irresistible Revolution was published. It was the week before finals and I skipped his talk to write a paper; I had never heard of him. But I saw the impact he had on my friends, how they came back from chapel pumped up by his words about authentic faith, by his dreadlocks and patched jeans. Some of my crowd looked a lot like Shane that way, and I have a faint recollection of a drum circle that he performed with students on campus.

Shane, it was decided, was very cool. The New Monasticism movement that he headlined buzzed with words like “intentional community” and “downward mobility,” setting my idealist heart ringing. It dovetailed with the “you can change the world” message I had long heard growing up. And I believed in my heart of hearts that I, too, would never settle for a stale and materialistic Christianity.

But, if you’re like me, the sounding gong of radicalism eventually faded into disillusionment.

Read the rest here.

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Fragility

I wrote this piece in late March. Now that I’m into my second trimester of pregnancy, I feel ready to share it with you here. Announcing a pregnancy is a joyful thing but I know it can also provoke mixed feelings. If you are facing infertility or infant loss, I mourn with you and wait expectantly with you.

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Soaring high

A few mornings ago I held a positive pregnancy test in my hands, the faint blue lines making a “+” sign on the plastic wand. There was no excitement, no rush of joy or sadness or anything in particular. I showed my husband, he nodded. I threw the test in the trash, moving into the bedroom to pack my gym bag. My two-year old daughter demanded help putting on her socks, I bent over to pull them on.

When I got to the YMCA and began running on the treadmill, my feet slapping the nylon, I watched the incessant CNN coverage of the missing plane. It was carrying 269 people and disappeared a week ago, swallowed up by the sky. It might have landed, one headline reads. The plane flew for four hours after the last communication, another reporter says. Families are pictured holding vigil, resting their heads in their hands, hugging and crying. They are in the worst kind of darkness, the one of not knowing.

I don’t think much about the tiny zygote burrowing into my uterine lining, only four weeks along. I don’t let myself wonder if it’s a boy or girl.

Later that evening, when I use the Due Date Calculator online, BabyCenter says the baby is the size of a poppy seed. I don’t click on the link to see what the baby looks like at four weeks. I wonder briefly about having a baby near Thanksgiving, about how this child would be three years younger than my firstborn.

//

We lost the last baby at six weeks. I was holding my toddler on my hip, striding across the library floor, my arms loaded with book bags and coats. There was a popping sensation, then a whoosh of fluid that soaked my underwear. A thought fluttered in my mind: “Am I having a miscarriage? I have to remember this moment in case I write about it.” I batted the thought away with the detached curiosity of someone who has never experienced real loss. Of all the things, it seemed so implausible.

I walked to the children’s section of the library and locked myself in the bathroom with my toddler. I sat down on the tiny child-size toilet while my daughter started pulling down paper towels from the automated dispenser, the mechanical “weee” sound jamming over and over. My jeans were wet; it looked like I had peed myself. But there was no blood, so I chalked it up to a weird womanly moment.

The next morning I started spotting. It was Sunday so we went to church and I tried not to worry. My husband had to stop by work, so I came home with my daughter. My upper thighs began to ache and my lower back pulsed with slow-moving pain. I called the midwife line and spoke to a nurse. “The midwife on call is delivering a baby right now,” she said. “But I paged her and she will call you back soon.”

The cramping continued and I searched online for clues. My daughter was cranky, ready for her nap, but I couldn’t pull it together to go through the nap routine. She sensed that something was wrong and she touched my wet cheeks gently.

“Mama crying?” she said. “Ooooh, mama. Sorry mama.” She patted my face, her tiny fingers moving up and down.

The midwife called back, fresh from ushering a new life into the world. I described my symptoms, my throat constricting as I tried to push the words out. She told me that spotting is very normal in pregnancy, but the cramping was not a good sign.

“This doesn’t sound too good for you, honey,” she said.

I laid my head back on the couch as I listened to her speak, my eyes squeezed shut.

“Are you still there?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, my voice thick. She told me to get an appointment at the clinic for the next day.

After I hung up, I started sobbing. I started thinking about all the late nights I had spent recently watching Netflix, about how I was still drinking several cups of coffee a day, about how I had missed a few days of prenatal vitamins. “This is my fault,” I thought. I had taken it for granted, what my body could do, conjuring up new life like magic.

The first pregnancy had been so easy, so straightforward. I come from fertile women, hourglass figures and broad hips. My sister always said that our bodies were the kind that can squat and deliver a child in the fields after working outside all day. We conceived the first time we tried. Having babies was something that I was confident I could do.

I never knew a baby could slip away from me, disappearing into the clouds.

//

Another week has gone by and my mind hovers on grocery lists and schedules and legions of library books to return. But I also start drinking decaf and swallowing the large oval prenatal pills, their smell nutty and healthy. Except on nights when I’m writing, I go to sleep before midnight.

We made it to five weeks, I think nonchalantly. Nobody besides my husband knows that there is magic happening in my womb. Nobody will know if the magic stops.

With the last pregnancy, we told our immediate families right away. So many joy-filled, Guess whats! What a thing to share, the news of a second life in your very body. And what happier news to receive than another grandchild that will toddle around during holiday meals?

Once the blood tests confirmed the miscarriage, I had to make sad phone calls, send the emails and texts. Yes, it’s a miscarriage. And the loss kept happening as I bled for days, a life leeching into giant maxi pads. We got a few cards in the mail, my sister sent flowers. Days kept coming and going, the bleeding finally stopped. Most of the time it felt like nothing happened.

But at the most random moments – in the post office, driving the car, stirring pasta – I would remember that the baby was gone. (Not dead, I didn’t think of it that way, he or she never was, never had become.) The baby was gone and the loss would stir up panic and the realization that ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS IN LIFE CAN HAPPEN TO ME. Lives can be magically conjured in my very body and lives can be ripped out before I even hear evidence of a heartbeat.

I’ve never been a worrier. I don’t dwell on worst-care scenarios or follow my kid around with a bottle of Purell. But miscarriage has cracked my glass half-full optimism; it has revealed how fragile it all can be. It’s a world where your loved one can board a plane and vanish in the sky and you don’t know whether they’re at the bottom of the ocean or waiting for rescue on a desert isle.

It’s also a world where magic can happen; I know, I have a zany pig-tailed toddler to prove it. For now, I let my body do its mysterious work while I busy through my day, trying not to jinx it. And as each week passes, I’ll sigh a little deeper in gratitude that we made it this far.

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