Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Savoring the Beauty of Motherhood

I know I have been absent here. This is due to a number of reasons. One of the big reasons being, I've been working on several other writing projects, and there just isn't time to fit everything in! So blog posts have been pushed aside a bit.

Today I am sharing one of the projects I've been working on for the past month- a talk I gave at our church's Cross Connections this Monday. This is a breakfast we put on for preschool moms. This ministry has always been such a huge blessing to me, and I am thrilled to be on the other side of things this year, helping out and contributing as I can. I am so grateful for the opportunity to share, and to the many people who braved the snowstorm to come out and enjoy the morning!

I am sharing this talk because it is something very near and dear to my heart- "Savoring the Beauty of Motherhood", and I know this topic is important to a lot of you as well. 

Fair warning- this is longer than my usual post length. It was given as a talk (long winded people unite!), but feel free to dig into it if you want, or pass if you just don't have the time. Just putting this out here for those who might appreciate the subject matter and the heart behind it. (And for my own memory storage purposes.)

Without further ado- here you go!

Savoring the Beauty of Motherhood

The day before my son’s fourth birthday, I woke up to a bit of a horror show. It took me a few minutes of sleuthing to piece together what actually happened because of the many pieces involved in this particular show of horror. And it might sound like I am making this story up. Trust me. I wish I was.

So here’s what went down. My son Carter Henry (yes, the middle name is necessary for this story) woke up quite early this fateful morning and tiptoed ninja-style into the kitchen. Using his monkey-like skills, he climbed to the highest pantry shelf and removed a handful of dishwasher soap tablets from the box tucked way out of sight and reachability. You know, the kind of tabs with the warning label “lick this and you will die a slow and painful death”…or something. He climbed all the way back down, deliberately removed all of the wrappers from the tablets, and then placed the open tabs in his little brother’s crib. After placing these tabs, he went back to the kitchen and proceeded to spray down the entire kitchen with nonstick cooking spray. The greasy finish was the perfect addition to the hot, sticky summer day. I can just imagine how his wheels spun on this one. As he is climbing to the super high up point where the tabs were hidden, he passes the shelf with the cooking spray and thought, “Huh. Wonder how this works?” and snagged it on the way down.

I woke up as I heard the baby talking to me, and I went first thing to the baby to get him up, and discovered the highly poisonous tabs surrounding him. I think God made him especially wise (because of who he is dealing with as a brother) as baby brother had not touched a single tab, but instead was staring accusingly at his big brother, as if beginning a long career in tattle-telling.

Confused and livid all at once, I asked Carter why on earth he would do this? Why would he give the baby poison? And his response was, “I wanted to kill him.” Great. Now I’m raising a murderer. I thought back to the day before when I did a HUGE demonstration by the dishwasher “DON’T EAT THESE. THEY ARE POISON. THEY WILL KILL YOU.” in an attempt to capture a teachable moment for my crew about what not to put in their little mouths. And I realized that this warning only served to make them extremely curious about all things poisonous and this strange new word- “kill”.

I think we can safely call this a teachable moment fail.

Around this point, I went into the kitchen to throw away the dishwasher tabs, and my feet slipped rather strangely on my normally dry wood floors. With a mind struggling to comprehend the horror of it all, as if moving in slow motion I saw the empty can of cooking spray and the thick layer of grease covering the entire room.

Carter stood in the corner, looking guilty. With a black, black heart and greasy hands.

Barely holding it together and feeling the need to NOT LOOK AT HIM not even A LITTLE BIT, I calmly- oh so calmly- told him to go get dressed. Now. The discipline and talk through would come later, after my heart calmed down from a point of anger to a calm but firm “this is not acceptable and you will NEVER DO THIS AGAIN.”  So I told him to go get dressed while I got my breathing back under control and figured out how most effectively to address this situation.

He was mad. He didn’t want to get dressed. So, naturally, he went into the bathroom and threw up. Everywhere. (He has the gift of throwing up on command.)

At this point the kitchen was covered in greasy cooking spray, the bathroom was covered in vomit, one son was trying to off the other, and it was 6:30am.

Did I mention that I was struggling with a pretty serious case of morning sickness myself? Because definitely- bring more players into this game!

The last thing on my mind at that moment was savoring the beauty of motherhood. The. Very. Last. Thing. In fact, running through my head was a bit of “how did this become my life and how do I get out of it?”

Now, just to set your mind at ease, you most likely will not have this same exact story happen to you. All of our kids are different- some are just naturally more challenging than others. Carter is my most challenging child. Parented identically to his brother, he still presents situations to us that his brother would never DREAM of doing. Depending where you are in your motherhood journey, you might have already realized that these types of moments will come. These stories will no doubt come in different shapes and sizes, depending on your child’s temperament and stage of life, but in every motherhood story there are moments that can only be described as a “low point” as we face our sinful charges and try to figure out how to parent through.

The next night, I slept rather fitfully, keeping my ears wide open for even the slightest stirring of naughty toddler. What would I find when I exited my bed at the selfish sleep-in hour of 6am?

But it was the oddest thing. All day long Carter was kind, polite, well-behaved, and overall an extraordinary, helpful child. It was as if a switch was flipped. And this new behavior continued as the following months progressed. He was growing up! He was no longer three! He was four now! He was going to school! He was learning! He was becoming someone I could rely on and really enjoyed being with instead of someone that I dreaded interactions with. (mostly because of the cleanup involved). He became such a joy and my big, big helper with the other children.

Motherhood involves some rather serious valleys. But- for every valley, it is surrounded on both sides of peaks- the highs- the mountain tops. And as you stand back and seek a more comprehensive view, it’s like driving down I-89 during the peak of fall foliage. The peaks and the valleys blend together to create one breathtaking view bursting with intense color and beauty.

Do you get this same view when you are standing in the valleys? No.

Would you get this same view if no valleys existed- only the highs? No. This is what they call flat ground. Do the endless miles of Indiana cornfields offer the same amount of enticing beauty as New England fall foliage?

It’s like going through grueling, painful labor to get to meet your sweet newborn for the first time. Like floundering through months and months with a baby who REFUSES to sleep and as you stumble to their crib for the thousandth time that night, your baby flashes you the most beautiful, captivating smile ever in the history of the WORLD. Like enduring a screaming, public two-year-old tantrum to get to the sniffled “I wuv you, Mommy” and the tight hug. Like watching your child be selfish and unkind- working and praying and working on this with them until the playdate that you see them kindly sharing. Like that first day of kindergarten drop off. You’re so proud! This is your baby all grown up! And then picking them up at the end of the day, kicking and screaming, carrying their writhing body out to the car because they simply didn’t want to come home. They want to stay at school FOREVER.

Peaks and valleys.

So how do we stand back and see the whole picture? How do we enjoy the beauty when it seems like we are constantly stuck in those valleys? How can we appreciate our reality when some days it seems like it’s so completely different from our motherhood hopes and dreams?

How do we savor the beauty when we are on our hands and knees cleaning up a bathroom full of vomit, knowing that we have to go degrease the kitchen next and oh by the way- it’s a LONG way until bedtime and they are off destroying the living room while we get this done?

1. Remind yourself that this phase doesn’t last forever
Fall foliage is a quickly fleeting thing. We get so used to it that it’s easy to take for granted. Until one day you are driving down the same road, and it’s all like- um, why are the trees naked? WHERE IS MY AUTUMNAL COLOR?

Soon the naked branches are covered with a luscious, thick layer of snow. Come spring? That melts too.

But then the naked branches burst into new color. Green, fresh life. Does this last forever?

Phases in motherhood are the same way. In those hot and sticky summer days. It’s almost impossible to convince our sweating forehead that in a few months it will want to be under a wool hat, desperately trying to stave off frostbite. When we have babies, it’s hard to imagine them as toddlers. And then school aged kids. And beyond.

But while we are wrapped up in the details of today, tomorrow sneaks up on us until it’s already the next phase and we aren’t really sure how it got here.

When Carter was three, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to survive it. This phase was lasting FOREVER. It was TOO HARD. He’s five now. Heads up- I survived. The morning sickness from the story? Gone. I have a beautiful 9 month old daughter now. The kindergartener that I had to drag kicking and screaming to the car after her first day? She’s a super grown up, confident first grader now. And the baby who REFUSED to ever sleep? He’s the kindergartener. He collapses in bed exhausted after a day full of learning.

These phases fly by. What’s the saying? “The years are short, the days are long?” yup. That.

I really enjoy my Timehop ap. Are you guys using Timehop? Basically it takes all of my pictures that I post on social media, and it keeps it organized per day. So if I pull up Timehop today, I see the pictures I posted last year on this day, two years ago on this day, three years ago on this day, four years ago, etc etc. It is a very helpful reminder as to how fast my kids- these seasons of motherhood are changing.  How quickly these little years are fleeing. I had to laugh as on a regular day my timehop might begin with a post from 8 years ago about how extremely TIRED I was while finishing grad school. (My definition of “tired” has really been stretched since those grad school days.) Then no doubt post a couple years later- something about my first pregnancy. And then the following years after that just start adding babies. All the up to a year ago today. It’s crazy how fast the time has gone.

2. Capture the Memories
Sometimes when I am having a particularly rough day, I will dress the kids in cute clothes and then pose them in one giant heap, and take a ton of pictures. Out of 1,275 pictures taken, there will be 1 that is halfway passable with four grins facing my way. At the end of the day after the last baby has been tucked in bed and the last cheek has been kissed and the last goodnight song has been sung, I will go back to those pictures and scroll slowly through. The wriggly tiny bodies that somehow represented all my greatest frustrations that day suddenly transform into the sweetest, most mellow, glorious little human beings that are just ridiculously cute in every possible way. I’ll then go to watch them sleeping, and they look so angelic. So peaceful!

Also sometimes on a rough day, I will take a picture of the ridiculousness of it all. Three Costco sized boxes of cheerios spilled on the floor? Take a picture! The house trashed beyond all reason? Click. Your child literally climbing the walls? Picture! Sometimes sending these pictures to my husband is the only way my stories are believable at the end of the day.

Oh, and if the house is covered in cheerios and the kids are bouncing off the walls with no end in sight? It’s a great opportunity to load all the kids up in the car for a little drive time while playing music and/or an audio story. Our current favorite is Adventures in Odessey. My 6, 5,and 3 year olds really get into the stories, the van becomes super quiet, and Dunkin’ Donuts has coffee drive through. Just sayin’.

All of our motherhood lenses are unique and beautiful in their own way. Mine tends to include a lot of mess as the curiosity level in my boys tends to demand that they take things apart to study them. To me this mess represents a house full of life and energy. That is a beautiful thing.

I have a theory think that taking pictures of our kids can help us step back and view certain situations more objectively. Rather than holding the hard times close and internalizing them in a subjective fashion, stepping behind the lens can help us step away and observe the big picture, as pictures somehow combine the peaks and valleys all together in one shot and gives us the opportunity to study it from afar.

So for example, subjective- “I can’t believe this happened to me. Why did my child poison the baby, grease down the kitchen, and throw up all over the bathroom? Why is my child so bad? He hates me! This is the worst morning ever!”  And viewing the same situation a bit more objectively: “This is intense curiousness and athletic prowess at work. How do I channel this for good? How do I help him learn to navigate his skills in a positive way? How can I take this energy and curiosity and mold him into a strong leader someday? A dependable, kind man?

Call me crazy, but taking pictures helps me view the situation a bit more objectively.

Now after capturing these moments, you may feel comfortable sharing them on social media, or you may not. This is an entirely personal decision and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. I myself tend to share a carefully selected variety of pictures. Mostly because I don’t have a lot of time to stay on top of baby books, and this allows me to create a store of memories with short captions (which then shows up on my Timehop which means that I will be reminded of that short memory exactly a year from now).

If you find yourself enjoying capturing these moments, and finding solidarity in others capturing and posting theirs, let me offer just a gentle reminder to not participate in the compare game of the motherhood lens. We are all going to choose different parts of motherhood to stand back and objectively study.

Someone else might be posting a series of peaks on a day when you feel stuck in a constant valley.

Also, I’m convinced that social media makes us all look like we are much more together than we actually are. Every time I log onto instagram and search for new pictures, every pregnant woman I see looks like a model with a pretend belly strapped on….every house looks like it should be in a Home and Gardens magazine….every meal looks like it should have its own Pinterest worship team…and every toddler is dressed to the nines, accessorized with an angelic smile and doesn’t look at all like they plan to paint their baby sibling in poop later on that day.

But to be fair, the pictures I share tend to be on the more positive side as well. The highlight reel of my day. For example:

A few months ago I ran to the grocery store during an extremely hectic morning in the midst of an extremely hectic week. I was barely holding it together when I ran into a friend. After our initial “hello”s, she surprised me by asking, “How, how do you do it all?” She asked, breathlessly waiting for a wisdomous answer. “Well” I looked at her a bit unbelieving. “It is 9 am and I am at the grocery store…in something that looks remarkably like pajamas. My hair hasn’t been brushed for days. My toddler is wearing two different shoes. And my baby’s sleeper has more than a few smears of avocado that are hardening into dark green crusties from a hurried breakfast before school drop off. It occurred to me that she sees my life only through what I share on facebook and Instagram. The night before I had posted some sort of adorable picture of my kids smiling, all dressed. With matching shoes. And spotlessly clean baby collars. Hectic mornings where I don’t have time to brush my hair don’t make it onto Instagram.

It’s not the whole picture, I promise.

Feel free to take pictures of your motherhood peaks and valleys and feel free to enjoy other’s pictures, but always remind yourself that there is more to the story. And if you feel yourself getting discouraged because of others’ shiny postings of their motherhood awesomeness? Maybe time for a social media break. Just a couple days away to focus back in on the beauty in front of you instead of feeling the need to compare yours to the cleaned up, posted version you see online. I do this regularly and it really helps to reset.

3. Keep your eye on Moms with older kids
I absolutely love following moms who have “been there, done that” and are on to a whole new phase of motherhood that I can’t even wrap my head around yet. For example- after a somewhat trying day of wrangling 4 small children one day, I logged onto Instagram to see a mom post about dropping her oldest child off at college for the first time.

Her motherhood lens captured this tall, lanky boy man- ready to face the world. His face was etched in optimism and wonderment. He was leaving home and entering the world as his own person. No parent would be there to tuck him in at night. No one would hold his hand as he walked toward his first class. No one would be there to comfort him if he woke up in the middle of the night with a bad dream. In his lean face framed with floppy brown hair, I immediately saw both of my sons. And my heart froze at the thought of leaving them alone on a college campus. To be responsible for their days entirely without my input. To learn and grow into a life entirely separate from mine. To not be available for me to just wrap my arms around them at a moment’s notice and breathe in their boyish scent- half dirt, half mischief.

I tend to sometimes think, “If we can just get to that next phase, it will be EASIER”, but watching these moms navigate new territory, I observe that these new phases come with new problems. A new level of motherhood complexity that makes a house full of squirming babies suddenly seem simple and lovely to navigate.  That provides a unique privilege to be able to scoop up my crying toddler after he stubs his toe. To appreciate the ability to place soft kisses on his forehead as he is frustrated with his homework assignment. To be there. To have him with me for all of the little and big moments alike. To have years in front of me with teaching potential. Of memory making. Of living life under the same roof. I have years ahead of me still to prepare them for the responsibility that college requires. To send my children out into the world, ready to start making big, scary decisions all on their own.

After seeing posts like this one, I do my dirty diaper duty and piles of laundry of today with a new kind of sweetness. A realization that this won’t be my life forever. And maybe, just maybe someday I will wish for these days back again- to safely have all of my babies under one roof with my biggest problem of the day being how to get them to just LISTEN and pick up their toys the FIRST time I ask.

Following moms with older kids provides a valuable perspective. Their motherhood lens is one that we can learn a lot from.

4. Rely on The Lord’s Strength
When we went in for the 20 week ultrasound for our very first baby, we stared at that fuzzy ultrasound screen, bright eyed new parents- full of hope, happiness, and ideas of how parenting should look. We were just supposed to find out gender, and boy were we excited. But it turns out we found out more than we bargained for that day.

The “It’s a girl!” was followed up by a somber, “Now I don’t want you to worry, but it looks like something isn’t quite right” which led to the ultrasound being switched to the high risk center which led to counseling with a genetic counselor which led to an amnio which led to the worst phone call of my life.

“I’m so sorry, but your baby tested positive for Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome)”

I was halfway through my first pregnancy, and already I was in my first motherhood valley. I wasn’t even close to being able to see the whole picture. The beauty that comes with this particular valley. The bursting colors, the unique viewpoint, the happiness of mothering a child with Down syndrome. At that time I could only see the dark, cold valley in front of me filled with dirty, gray rocks that at times seemed to be suffocating me. It was only later that I would realize what a gift this diagnosis would be to our family. A beautiful, delicate, unique blessing that today I wouldn’t trade for the world.

But in that first motherhood valley, I couldn’t see it at all.

One difficult pregnancy later, a horrendous labor, a long NICU stay, bringing my baby home attached to an oxygen tank and a g-tube, two heart surgeries later- I learned something very important about being a parent.

Hard times will come our way. Really, really hard times. Parenthood brings with it a new level of hopelessness and inability to control the life in front of us. We can’t control our children’s ultimate safety, health, or life. We can do our best, but so many things are out of our control as parents, it is rather ridiculous.

And we can’t do this on our own. When your beautiful new baby is in heart surgery and you are sitting in the waiting room just praying that you will be able to hold her warm, soft body again, you find that you need someone else to hold you up. Someone so much stronger than yourself or the hundreds of people sending encouragement your way. Someone who created this entire situation and put you into it with the title Mother. Someone who designed this all to happen this exact way and who willingly provides the strength necessary to get you through it.

Motherhood has driven me to my knees.

Motherhood has seen me cry out for the life of my child all the while praising in thankfulness for the opportunity to have at least met her in the first place.

Motherhood has taken what confidence I had in myself and forced me to acknowledge that I can’t do it. Not even a little bit.

I’ve heard it flippantly said that “Motherhood is not for the faint of heart.” And I get the sentiment behind this, but at the same time, I respectfully disagree. Motherhood absolutely IS for the faint of heart. Because we all are.

In fact, I would say that our hearts are even worse off than merely “faint”. I think our hearts could more aptly be described as “broken”. “Shattered beyond repair”. Our hearts are the Christmas tree ornaments that we thought we set up out of the toddlers’ reach but then somehow miraculously pudgy hands grab hold and the delicate glass falls falls falls to the ground and the singular ornament suddenly becomes shiny confetti. Didn’t happen at your house? Mine either, of course.

Jesus was born in that stable those many years ago, and grew perfectly into a man who died on the cross for our brokenness. The Christmas story was the beginning of our opportunity to heal. The manger scene is so much more than a pretty greeting card or a mantle display. The manger scene is part of God’s intricate plan to offer forgiveness and hope to mankind. The strength that we need as mothers to carry on in the hard times can be traced all the way back to that babe in a manger and the incredible plan that was laid in place for our salvation.

Motherhood makes me all too aware of my own sinfulness. Of my own need for a Savior. Of my own need for grace, strength, and wisdom. Motherhood pushes me toward the cross in a desperate cry for help. Of God sending his own son to take my sins on his shoulders. Of him living his sinless, perfect life in such a way that he became the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Of him dying and then rising from the dead just thee days later. Of his willingness to forgive me of my sins. Of his promise of life everlasting.

Our calling as mothers is so much more than keeping them fed, clothed, and alive. I would venture to say that our calling as mothers is to live this gospel message out to our children. Not just by the words we speak or the church services we take them to- but rather how we live in front of them. How we forgive them for their transgressions. How we love them. How we give grace, kindness, and love to others while they are watching. And how we acknowledge our own brokenness and need for a Savior and how this same need is mirrored in their own sinful lives.

I’ve been doing this motherhood thing for seven years now, and I am no expert. The one thing that I know is that I know nothing at all because as soon as I figure something out- they change.

But one thing that I can say with certainty. I can love my babies even when they are doing horrible things like spraying the kitchen down with cooking spray. My sin was far worse than that. My sin was enough to condemn me for all eternity, and yet he still loved, forgave me, and gave me new life.

I have forgiven Carter Henry for the day before his fourth birthday. (Although this doesn’t mean that I won’t still share it at his rehearsal dinner someday. That girl deserves to know what she’s getting into!) And I never stopped loving him.

The way I handle these situations with my children is far more important than making sure that they never do it again. Handling motherhood “low moments” is my opportunity to live the gospel out in front of my children.

Motherhood is such a beautiful thing. It is a rare gift. A unique privilege. Motherhood is something never to be taken for granted.

Certainly it comes with its challenges. With its frustrations. With its “How did I get here and how do I get out of this?” moments.

But I honestly think that motherhood was designed to draw us closer to the Lord. To remind us in a very real way how inadequate we are and how much we need Him. How forgiveness works as it allows us to be on both ends as the forgiver and the forgivee. How the unconditional love that we have for our children doesn’t even compare to the unconditional love that He has for us.

5. Enjoy the Bigger Picture
There are moments that I take pictures of my kids and there are moments that I refuse to reach for the camera. Moments that I soak in and merely be present for. Moments that I tuck away in my heart, unwilling to share them with whoever might look at pictures I take.

And so I enjoy my motherhood moments. The sticky ones, the soft warm ones, the hilarious ones, the messy ones, the ones bursting so full of love that I feel like my heart might explode.

I will never get today back again. My children will never be this exact age again. These moments are quickly fleeting, and I want to remember exactly the beauty in front of me and savor each and every last bit of it.

I regularly remind myself to look at those peaks and valleys all in one. The exquisite Vermont landscape in front of me. Sweeping gorgeousness in every season alike. And when those fall leaves are up, I enjoy the color. When deep blankets of snow coat the rolling hills? I enjoy the sparkling white. When bare branches grace spring? I enjoy being able to see more of the startling blue sky. When greenery floods the scene, I soak in the lushness of the green.

Whatever your motherhood lens may show today, look for the beauty there. Or just laugh at the ridiculousness of it as you seek to view trying times more objectively. And then put it in the big picture, next to those truly lovely peaks, and be grateful for the view.

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