Loaves and Fishes and Mothers

This post has sat in my drafts folder for over a year.

A year ago, I had a newborn and a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and no childcare. A year ago, we were a year deep into the pandemic and I was way past the point of an empty tank. In this metaphor, if the car is me, I had long since broken down on the side of the road. I wasn’t even trying to get somewhere anymore.

Most mornings, not every morning, I turned on Daniel Tiger for my kids and opened up Zoom to join a handful of people from my church in morning prayer. I found a brief respite and comfort in praying for the needs of others, and asking for intercession for my own needs: some variation on the theme of more patience, more sleep, more courage, more love.

I found relief– and hope– in the closing prayer: Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

I wanted so much for God to do infinitely more in me.

On every front, in every direction I looked, I was failing. I wanted to be in the streets, protesting, or helping feed and house neighbors in my city, but I couldn’t even manage to create peace or assuage hunger in my own home. Not significant enough. Sleep-deprived and exhausted, I cried in front of my kids just about every day. Not strong enough. I’d manage to choke back my frustration and respond calmly to one or two sibling squabbles, only to lose it after the third or fourth, making little eyes well and chins quiver in spite of my most desperate efforts. Not patient enough.

Locking myself in the bathroom so I could take a few deep breaths, while the baby wailed from the next room, I’d succumb to self-berating thoughts: Not selfless enough. All day, I looked forward to Lyle’s return from work, only to hear harsh and accusing words come out of my mouth the minute he walked through the door. Not loving enough.

Where is God in all of this? I wondered. What does it mean to have God’s power working in me? When does that kick in?

Any time I could get a break for 20 minutes, I started listening to podcasts on the Way of Love from the Episcopal church website. I’d sit in the big recliner downstairs with my earbuds in and close my eyes. One day I heard Bishop Mariann Budde give a reflection on the General Thanksgiving, another of my favorite parts of the morning prayer liturgy. As part of her encouragement to develop a daily habit of reading a small amount of scripture every day, she gave an example of a time when her daily practice of reading the bible really showed her that this is how God wants to speak to us.

Thirty years ago, when she was an associate priest and a new parent–with all the sleep deprivation and constraints on her time and energy that that entails– she had the opportunity to serve on the board of a local food pantry. She wanted more than anything to be able to volunteer more of her time, to visit the food pantry and be part of its day-to-day operations, but in the end, all she was able to do during her one-year term was to show up at the monthly meetings. She drove to the last meeting with a speech of apology prepared, feeling badly for not having been able to do more, and was left speechless when the board chairwoman gave a speech of her own, praising Mariann effusively for all that she had brought to them during her time. Mariann reflected that the chairwoman’s words “didn’t change my internal assessment of my contribution, but I also didn’t get the sense she was lying.”

The next day during her regular time of prayer and reading, she opened her bible to the story of Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The disciples are anxious at the prospect of feeding a crowd of thousands, and they go to Jesus with their worry. They ask Jesus to feed the thousands, and instead Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” We couldn’t possibly, the disciples reply. We don’t have enough. Jesus asks them, “What do you have?” And with their meager offering of a few fish and a small amount of bread, Jesus calls down blessings on the food, turning it over to God and then asking them to distribute it. You know the rest of the story. How there was more than enough the feed the thousands, and baskets of food remaining.

In her armchair 30 years ago, Bishop Budde reflects, she realized she had experienced that miracle in her own life. By God’s grace, what the people on her board experienced from her– what felt like an meager offering– was more than enough. “What Jesus needed from me was to making my offering, however insufficient it seemed to me,” she says. “Every day, in fact, I am still faced with needs I cannot meet and tasks I cannot manage. I don’t understand how the miracle of abundance works, I’ve only experienced that it does.”

This reflection brought me so much peace and reassurance, during a time of complete overwhelm and disappointment in myself. I’d never before thought about the disciples’ participation in the miracle, how Jesus repeatedly invites his followers into the experience of God’s love and abundance. You give them something to eat. Offer what you have, and turn to me, trusting me with the rest.

That Bishop Budde’s experience of abundance happened right in the midst of motherhood made the message all the more immediate to me. In her beautiful essay “Multiply Me,” Samantha Stephenson writes of the freedom that comes from admitting our own insufficiency, as mothers. “Everyone is crying,” she writes. “It’s need after need, and when do I rest?”

Like Mariann and Samantha, I, too, feel overwhelmed by the needs all around me, and frustrated by my inability to meet them. The miracle and mystery of the loaves and fishes is all about God’s sufficiency, Christ’s mercy– and yet it’s about the disciples’ faith, too. It’s about the heart-change involved in turning over more of your life to God. If I want to experience God’s grace and abundance in my life, I need to keep turning to him, in prayer and in reading and in mothering, too.

Lord, multiply me, I pray,” Samantha writes. “I pray wondering when grace will kick in, until I realize it isn’t coming. It’s already here.”

It’s the not-enoughness that is the gift, she writes. It’s in our insufficiency that we are able to experience God’s grace, in the stretching of our bodies and hearts, in our turning and returning to God in word and prayer.

This essay has sat in my drafts folder for a year. It’s a year later, and I am sitting in a coffee shop in eastern Washington, the first plane flight and first trip I’ve made since March 2020. I’ve just spent a nourishing, cup-filling 48 hours in the company of three other mother-writers, people from different corners of the West whose writing I’ve admired from afar for some time. It’s a rare privilege for each of us to do this, to make the drive or book the flight or arrange childcare. None of us takes it for granted, and most of us won’t have an opportunity like this again for a while. We’ve met here to write, and we’re writing now, but we’ve also met here to talk, to swap stories and ideas and share the frustration that mother-writers know so well: not enough time for writing, not enough of a “platform” to meet the publishing world’s standards. How can it possibly be enough, the weekly two-hour window of babysitting time, the irregularly-shaped margins of the baby’s naptimes, the newsletter or the blog post? Are we doing it right? Should we be doing more?

None of us have come away with answers to those questions, but I think (I hope) we’re each returning home with encouragement to keep going. To keep offering what we’ve been given, what we have, as mothers and as writers, and trusting God to multiply it. To somehow turn our not-enough into more-than-enough. In a way, the conversations we’ve had are the more-than-enough, an experience of God’s provision through friendship and love.

In a few hours, I will get back on the plane and return to my family, to Lyle who’s been solo with all three kids while I’ve been gone. The next few weeks are so full, I’ve printed and reprinted a calendar grid several times to keep track of all the obligations I’ve promised to fulfill: Zoom meetings and errands, dance classes and swim lessons, doctor appointments and clinic shifts. Somewhere in there, I plan to study for the acupuncture school module next weekend, and maybe I’ll find a few scraps of time to read and to write.

I’ll offer what I have, and I’ll fall far short of my own and others’ expectations. I won’t be able to meet the needs all around me in the way I want to. But I’ll make time each day to read just a little bit from the bible, because I know that is where God will continue to speak to me, and give me an experience of his abundance.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

By Heart

Love is a fire truck, red as a heart, I whisper to my one-year-old in her pajamas. Her hands, perfect dimples and seashell nails, fumble with the pages, eager to turn them before I’m through with the story. She mimics the siren’s woo woo woo just like her brother did when he was smaller, shuts the last page emphatically like her sister used to do. We know this book by heart.

She knows what’s next, too, in the bedtime routine. We turn on ocean sounds from the owl lamp on her dresser, more static than waves after six years of service. We turn off the light, and my baby rests her head on my chest, pops her thumb in her mouth to listen while I sing and rock.

*

What do I know by heart?

Good Night Moon, its lilting rhythm intertwined with the guilt I felt when sleep-training our first-born. Where the Wild Things Are, the vine of its rhyme wrapped around memories of our precocious talker, who would complete the final phrases of each line: His mother called him Wild Thing, and Max said…? “I eee you up!”

Songs from library storytime. The Paw Patrol theme song. Old nursery rhymes: a penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle–three objects fast becoming outdated, unknown by my children, though they know Mommy’s going to school to become an acupuncturist, to use what my oldest calls my “soft needles” to help people with pain and sadness and sleeplessness.

Slowly, I’m memorizing the Shu Transport points, and the five systems of the Balance Method, flipping through flashcards kept in my jacket pocket, in line at Winco. Little by little, I work this ancient medicine into my heart. Halfway through acupuncture school, half of me is always studying. On the walk to school, tracing the edges of little hands to find Large Intestine 5 in the dip beneath the thumb bone, Heart 9 at the top of a tiny pinky finger.

*

There are some things we can only know by heart. There’s no other way to account for it.

It’s just before sunset and I’m at Fossil Beach with this guy I know. We are 20 and 21 years old and we’ve spent the fall hanging out in each other’s tiny kitchens between classes, cooking each other oatmeal, or sharing jam jars of wine and talking late about Robinson Jeffers and planets and our families. Then today, he asked me to spend the afternoon at the beach, and we packed a paper bag picnic and I climbed, heart pounding, into the passenger seat of his red truck. I was sure he could hear my heart then, and I’m sure he can hear it now, sitting side by side on this driftwood log, staring at a peach sky.

When he asks if he can kiss me, I know — I know. My heart is in my mouth and I’m so sure of the rightness of us, it scares me. Years later, I’ll still struggle to describe what I feel in this moment, how my heart seemed to know who this was. I’ll wonder if I’ve overlaid the moment with every moment since then– 18 years of loving him.

*

Maybe it’s both. A flash of recognition, the heart understanding something you can’t speak aloud. And also speaking words aloud, until they sink deep into your heart. You learn something by heart, by accident or on purpose, through repetition. Until it becomes dull and meaningless (a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush), or until it shines with the gleam of purposeful reuse.

Like the sturdiness of recited prayer: old words gripped tight as a banister, steadying feet for the climb. I started with the Lord’s Prayer as a child, copied it onto paper in Sunday school, then clung to it through childhood nights when I braved the dark alone, whispering the words over and over to myself.

Decades later, I am praying one decade of Hail Marys at a time, learning the Anglican rosary. Running my fingers over plastic beads, I find small spaces of peace between naptimes. I speak the words aloud and feel connected to the millions of people who have said them before me, are saying them now. It becomes both my prayer, and not mine. My words, and not mine. I am a mother with very human worries in my heart, and I am somehow connected to the Holy Mother in the space created by these prayers. The worries still and settle like the beads, sliding into place.

“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved,” Paul wrote to the first believers two thousand years ago (Romans 10:10).

Belief and knowing happen deep within us, where there are no words. But belief can be sparked by words, by testimony and prayers, poetry and letters. And when we believe– when we fall in love with God– we have to speak it. Like the circle of beads, belief and words are interconnected. A mystery.

Even Paul, encouraging those early believers from a distance, was sending them older words they would have recognized, from the Torah: “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so you may obey it.” (Deut 30:14)

I want the word of God near me like this. In fact, I’m realizing anew how much I need the word of God every day, all day long. Otherwise, I forget. I fall asleep, again and again, just like the disciples. I say I want to hear God’s voice and know God’s purpose for me, but really I have been refusing the simple (not easy) truth that God’s purpose for me is the same as for everyone who tries to follow Jesus: to point others to God, to be used by God.

To hear God’s voice, I need to bring not just prayer but the bible into the rhythm of my days, in whatever way I can manage it. Reading a Psalm and a chapter of a book from the New Testament before I clear the lunch dishes. Listening to a hymn in the car on my way to preschool pickup. Tucking a verse into my stack of flashcards. I want to have more of God’s word in my heart so I can better hear what God has to say to me each day. So I can have the word in my mouth and in my heart.

*

Rocking my baby in the dark, I’m doing what I do every time I put her down for a nap or for the night: focusing every part of my attention on her, taking all of it in, as if I’m studying for a test. I’m learning her by heart, because each day feels like a train that carries us further from babyhood, closer to the future.

Outside the door, I hear my husband ask our son for the nineteenth time if he’s sure he’s done with dinner. Doesn’t he want some of the yummy green beans? We both know all he’s had to eat is the bun around the hot dog, a swipe of ketchup. And still there’s patience in my husband’s voice. Kindness, and weariness too.

After this comes the long trudge across the desert toward the oasis of bedtime– all three kids asleep, and maybe some time for talking again, just the two of us. These days it’s mugs of tea and not wine, but there’s still talk about poetry and planets and our family.

But first there’s teeth-brushing, pajama-wrangling, small-naked-person-chasing down the hallway. No, I don’t know where your bear slippers are. Yes, I will fill up your water-bottle. It’s time for a story. It’s time for lights out. Okay, go to the bathroom then come right back. Yes, I will sing you a song. No, you just went to the bathroom. Good night. It’s time for bed. It’s time for bed.

Most nights, I am so desperate for them to be in bed, I try to speed things up. But some nights, I remember to weave prayer into their bedtime routine. I want them to have this habit. There’s one we’ve been trying out lately that they like, from a little book, Praying with My Fingers. Each finger represents a different group of people to pray for: friends and family, teachers, leaders, the sick, and yourself. I count with my fingers, and learn how to pray.

In a way, children already know how to pray, I think. They have their ears resting on God’s chest, listening to the heartbeat there, like my baby does. I think this is what Jesus means by having a childlike faith. Children know they are small and need help. They know they are loved, and that someone knows what they need, and cares about their hurts and their worries. I am teaching my kids, in my imperfect way, about God, hoping they’ll love Jesus. But they’re also teaching me, about trusting God and resting in his unconditional love.

I think of the routine my son and I stumbled into, through the creativity of desperation, at his first preschool drop-off last year. Let’s tie strings to our hearts! I whispered, getting down to look into tear-filled eyes over his mask. He whimpered, but watched as I pantomimed unspooling a long thread, whipping it in the air like a lasso. He giggled as I coiled it around my heart, then very carefully tied the other end around his. Remember if you miss me today, you can pull on your heart-string, and I’ll feel it. Sometimes now, he runs into his classroom without looking back. And sometimes he gets out his invisible string, and he lassos my heart.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Love Looks Like”.

On Finish Lines and 39

In the picture, I am 18, running in a crowd across a giant finish line, one sneaker striking the first “L” in Honolulu Marathon. I look both jubilant and exhausted, like I belong in a crowd of runners and like I might be a spectator, stealing onto the road for a photo op. I’m wearing cutoff yoga pants and a pair of yellow submarine socks, my race number pinned over my Team in Training jersey.

What you can’t see in the photo is that my skin is chafed in places I didn’t even know it was possible to chafe, having been running for over six hours through Hawaiian humidity and the gentle spray of garden hoses offered by cheering neighbors along the route. What you don’t see is the community of runners and walkers I’ve been training with for the past six months, some with multiple marathons and PRs under their belts and some, like me, who’ve never run a race before in their life.

Truthfully, though, I remember very little of this moment, this grand conclusion of a goal I’d been working toward for half a year. Instead, I remember a row of roadside spider webs strung with beads of dew, on the run when I first felt what they call a “runner’s high.” I remember watching the spire of the tiny white church dip and rise as I rounded the UCSC track far above town, putting in my five miles after class each day. I remember Amy picking me up at dawn on Saturdays for long runs all over the Bay area, both of us warming our cold hands on the dashboard heaters, and how we’d both be so sleepy on the drive down, so energized on the drive back.

The girl in the photo is just beginning to discover who she is, and how that differs from the girl she’s been. She wants to be a writer, and she thinks that means she can’t be a mother, something she can’t yet admit she also wants. I’m a little in awe of her, this 18-year-old-me. She is running with arms open toward the next chapter of her life, even though she has no clue what it holds.

Today is my 39th birthday, and I’m beginning it the way I begin most weekdays: with a two-mile run around the athletic track near our house, greeting the dawn that stays dim with rain-soaked clouds long after the sun is, technically, up. I’m working toward running a 5k in March with my three closest friends, all mothers and writers, like me.

It’s the first day of the last year of my thirties, and culture would have me look at my looming 40th birthday as a finish line of sorts: the end of young adulthood, the beginning of middle age. There are so many things we’re told we must do by 40. Where did 18-year-old me imagine I’d be?

I thought it would be cool to run another marathon at 36 (I didn’t). I wanted to have published a few books (I have, though they’re smaller projects than I’d pictured at 18). I’d never have guessed that I’d be halfway through a program to become a community acupuncturist, or that I’d have three children and sometimes wish for more. I hoped to fall in love (check) and live somewhere beautiful, with enough land for a garden and chickens, like the home I’d grown up in.

If this is the beginning of middle age, then I like being in the middle of things– half-finished projects I’m excited to pick up, a baby underfoot and learning to walk, a three-year-old who wants to read and a six-year-old with loose teeth and so many good questions. A partner who geeks out on the same things I do but still surprises me daily, a book to write, and so much more to learn about meridian theory, healing, and the body.

I’m grateful I’m still running, and in no hurry to get anywhere.


This post is part of a blog hop with other runner-mother-creatives. Click here to view the next post in this series on running, mothering, and making.

The Baby is Almost One

Iris at ten months

In two weeks and four days our baby– third baby, last baby– will be one. One: the lilypad from babyhood to something more. Not quite toddler, but getting too big to nurse, outgrowing booties, grabbing the spoon from my hand.

Not always, but plenty of times, I have held her in dark rooms rocking her to the shushing of white noise and willing my body to memorize hers. To know her weight at each age, knowing how my memory changed so quickly as my older children grew, my brain somehow erasing the previous stage to replace it with the child-shape in my arms. I have held her wanting to hold onto the moment, to her, or at least to know I was fully there, taking in as much as I could.

Not always, but a lot, I felt pure happiness just holding her, not wanting to lower her into her crib.

I haven’t planned her first birthday party, haven’t called it a party, even. It will be her, and me and her daddy and her siblings, and Nana and Poppy. A round little cake, a balloon, a candle, her crinkly-eyed smile. The crinkle of paper and her pudgy hands, clapping. It will be four days after Christmas, in that bridge of time between the biggest parties of the year, and I want it to be quiet. I don’t want anything to distract me from that one small flame. I’m so grateful for her, and for my motherhood, for her brother and her sister. The magical thinking of: if I can just love each moment enough it will make up for all the times I held my babies and wasn’t present, was angry or tired or hopeless, and didn’t love the moment enough. I didn’t know how fast it would go and that it would eventually be over, each babyhood year.

What does it mean that she is our last baby? Didn’t I think each baby was our last? I never bought a tiny cake pan to make their first birthday cakes. Each time I borrowed one, thinking, Oh, why buy something I’ll use so rarely, but also, I couldn’t possibly be this lucky again. Maybe that is the mark miscarriage leaves. Surely this was just a fluke. Or the strange insatiability: will I always want another baby, the way a child always wants another ice cream cone? Maybe it’s a type of hungry math– if I add and add and add, it will cancel out the heartbreak of those zeroes. Love doesn’t work that way, but hunger doesn’t understand that.

with Robin at 9 months

A mother of four, Maya Rudolph described herself in an interview as “addicted to babies,” and sometimes I feel that way. Not fixated, not obsessed, but habituated. To what? To the possibility? A mother of four. I’m exhausted with caring for three, and the road to Iris’s kindergarten year looks long, and still I find myself folding and storing away a few pairs of threadbare maternity leggings, a stack of my favorite onesies. Not in the keepsake boxes I’ve started for each child, but in an unmarked, mostly empty box in the basement. As if, like the unplanned first birthday, if I don’t think about it too directly I don’t have to face its meaning.

The keepsake boxes are labeled, layered. At the bottom there is the pink sweater Sky wore at four months, and on top are the pair of ballet shoes she just outgrew– too beloved to toss, too worn to save for her sister. There are the brown fuzzy booties that warmed Robin’s feet from January to May of his first year, turning him daily into bear cub, and there’s the orange astronaut jammies he loved so much, wore so often I can’t imagine them on Iris. And somehow there’s a box, too, for Iris: her going-home outfit that now looks improbably tiny, her first bathing suit that won’t fit next summer. I wonder how it could be over so soon. I wonder how to explain to myself that having another baby doesn’t bring the other babies back– not Iris as a newborn, not Sky at six months, not 9-month-old Robin, not the babies that faded away before they could be born.

How do I explain this to my heart? Not the organ, but very much the organ, too– its terrible, incredible pumping. The heart is the first thing I knew of each of my children, as a little feathery beating on a grainy screen. The heart is the part of me that has physically ached, each time I crossed the threshold of birth, with the weight of a love no one could have explained to me. And my heart is also something that isn’t flesh and doesn’t understand flesh’s finality. My heart wants to go back and forth through time, or suspend it, and linger in the nursery rocking each baby again.

This part of me isn’t rational. She’s very persuasive. I won’t give her the keys, but I also trust her to show me where to pay attention.

The baby is almost one and I haven’t planned a thing. Already she is pulling on my hands, pulling herself up to stand, laughing and wobbling into her next year.

with Sky

Joy in Four Parts

1

The baby is both things incarnate: the embodiment of joy, and unexpected. Even now, almost a year later, I still look at her in astonishment. Is she really ours? I take a beat before I recognize our reflection as a family of five. Who is that family with three children, outnumbered? Spilling noisily out of a grocery aisle, or strolling loose and easy to the park like, it’s no big deal, what’s one more? She is our big deal. She is our more, and her whole face shows it. She opens her mouth as she takes her first wobbly steps, holding my hands. Ha! Ha! she shouts, looking at me, eyes wide. Did you know this, mama? Did you know the world contained this miracle, this walking? I have doubts about my own purposes here, but I know our baby’s. She came here to be joy.

2

He is so small, so heavy with tears each day, and so much lighter– like a bird– than his constant motion makes him seem. Every day I wonder: Who are you? Who will you be? Our birthdays are five days apart, with 35 years between us, and when he was born I thought, Here is a child who will be like me. We will understand each other, like January people do. In some things, that’s true. Today, working on the solar system puzzle together, slowly, on the kitchen table. Making a nest of blankets on the couch for us to read books in. How he never wants to NOT be wearing pajamas. But then, the abandon with which he sends his trucks into the block towers, whooping at their destruction. The shock of his delight. The shock that it doesn’t take sameness, that I don’t need to share his tastes to share the blaze of his happiness.

3

My first light, my bright girl, she laughs loud. She’s so silly, so ever in the mood for a game it’s easy to miss how soft she is, how easily, deeply wounded. Her quick hug around my waist at the stove where I’m cooking, seeing me frustrated with her brother, stepping around the baby. The many all-caps drawings in pen she makes for us. LOVE SKY FOR MAMA DADA ILOVEYOU SO MUTH. I had bought all the books, last year, to teach her to read. I was going to follow all the steps and now it’s like she’s taken flight. I’m watching her learn it on her own, among her friends at school, trying out different spellings at the kitchen table, or picking up on letters in the wild when we’re out driving, her whole face lighting up in the rearview.

4

The grass in the meadow had curved low on the ground in a pattern like clouds, and the kids were running in it, in the breathless, expectant way of children. They don’t know what comes next or where they’re going, they just know they have to be there, be in it. We called them back from the edge where the grass darkened into bog, picked them up to take a picture with us, in the spot where we were married ten years before. I remembered looking at the stand of pines in the near distance, thinking to myself– Could there ever be joy as deep as this? With him, with us, together, could life ever really be that hard? Yes, I thought, holding our children close in the meadow. And yes.

Just Write

I haven’t written a post in over a month. I feel like I’ve been wringing every last bit of energy and time out of each day, and the truth is, most days there just hasn’t been much left of either. Each day dawns a little sooner, each night curves down a little later, and it seems like that should equal some spare change in the jar. Instead, we’re out planting ferns and groundcover in the backyard as dusk falls, finishing the second coat of paint in the basement bathroom, wiping the last counter and wondering how it could be 10 already.

Spring has opened all the little envelopes of the flowers. In this part of the world, the letters inside are nothing short of spectacular. One by one, we’re discovering the plants we’ve inherited from the hands who tended these gardens before us. Two daphne bushes in the corner of the drive, little clusters of pink and purple with a scent that stops you in your tracks. A pacific dogwood, taller and more reserved than its showier ornamental cousins: a few pale yellow blossoms here and there, like small clocks. The magnolia’s enormous blooms paper the grass like cartoon hearts, having blossomed before any leaves emerged. There’s a brash, magenta rhododendron out front, and a carpet of trilliums under the ferns out back. The tiny native irises we planted are already flowering, even though they’re only ankle-high.

Our own little Iris turned 4 months old. Already, I’m packing away the newborn clothes that stretch too tight on her busy, chubby legs. It’s going too fast, but I’m resting in the deep joy we’ve taken in her each day. Just about every day since she’s been born, Lyle or I have been teary-eyed with gratitude. I can’t believe we get to do this again, one of us will say. I’m so glad we have her.

Iris is intensely observant of her brother and sister, who have become experts at drawing out her elusive laugh. I love the way she looks at her world with expectation, ready to be delighted. My favorite parts of each day are the moments I get to sing to her before putting her down in her bassinet for her nap. She looks up at me so sweetly and calmly, sometimes babbling her own little song back to me, or just breaking into a quiet, open-mouthed smile. It’s hard to put her down, even though naptimes mean a chance for me to change out a load of laundry, make a snack for the big kids, tackle the pile of dishes or maybe, just maybe, get a little writing done.

There’s this thing I’ve been trying to write since February. It’s done, but it’s not done, and that bothers me. There’s more I want to say, something that’s not quite right, and I’m having trouble being patient. I’m nervous that the energy buzzing around these ideas will fade if I don’t move more quickly. Yet I know I can only do this work within the limitations of my body, the slower pace of our days, the demands of this season of mothering small children.

I’ve realized that for a long time, I’ve pushed myself to the max, and it’s tempting to keep doing that on days when I feel well. Coming to terms with the chronic migraine variant I live with has meant prioritizing real self-care: going to bed before 10, getting regular cardiovascular exercise, doing yoga and meditation, getting acupuncture once a week, and making time for prayer and rest and water during the day. Those things take time. So does being present with my kids. I can easily get caught up in clean-up all day long, and I’ve been trying to remember that it’s okay to leave the dishes and just play. Have some Barbie conversations with my oldest daughter. Push a toy car around the carpet with my son. Even watch a movie with them and snuggle on the couch, instead of using that time to frantically check something off the to-do list.

Iris had her 4-month vaccines this week and felt a little uncomfortable for a few days. She couldn’t rest for more than 30 minutes on her own. One day, she fell heavily asleep in my lap on the couch, and I just sat there watching her and looking out the window at the robins and sparrows. It seems like such a small, obvious thing, just slowing down. Just letting the weight of a sleeping child still my own limbs and mind. But it can be hard to slow down in spring, after a long pandemic winter, when it feels like everything and everyone is waking up.

Sometimes when I’m troubled by a writing project that isn’t moving at the pace I want it to, I can start to think I can’t do anything else until it’s done. No blog posts, no newsletter, no sewing project. No just-because poem. No meandering words in my journal. It can feel like any other use of my creative energy is wasteful, or procrastination in disguise.

But I think sometimes this effort at discipline is plain fear, dressed up as diligence. All it creates is rigidity, a stinginess that doesn’t help. It takes the joy out of creating, and blocks the flow of energy that, ironically, would help me get unstuck and finish the thing I’m obsessing over.

There are a some good reasons why writing is hard right now (I can think of three very small, cute ones who live with me). There are some good reasons for not writing, for spending some time in a backyard hammock, or holding a baby chick in the cup of my hand. (It’s true! We didn’t think home felt chaotic enough, so we brought home six baby chicks!) For putting down what’s hard and just writing, sewing a tiny dress, or messing around with the camera on my phone when the light is good, while stirring a pot of soup from an interesting recipe I haven’t tried, even if my kids don’t eat it.

Sometimes the only thing to do when I “can’t” write is to just write.

What about you? How do you get unstuck?

Perfectionism and Redemption: A Lenten Reflection

I’ve been working on this essay, making notes on a waterproof notepad in my coat pocket as I walk around the reclaimed quarry, now a wetlands park, near my house in the morning.

On one of my walks, my friend and priest joined me. I tried to explain what I was writing about, how I’ve been drawn to this metaphor of the reclaimed quarry. As a child I grew up near one such project, but always dismissed it. I used to say that when I grew up, I’d live somewhere wilder, more natural. And here I am, raising my three children near just such a place.

It’s perfection versus redemption, she said kindly, and I was floored.

That’s exactly it.

Lately I’ve been more and more struck by the ways in which perfectionism colors so much of what I do, see, think. From conversations I’ve had with other women, I’ve started to think that this is a symptom of living in the toxic sludge of our industrialized, patriarchal culture. I know I’m not alone.

I also know that perfectionism doesn’t define me. That voice that says I just need to be better cannot define me if I turn to God, and away from the destructive voice that tempts me to think I am only deserving of love if I am perfect.

Today, I went for my morning walk and took a minute to read the day’s devotion in Forward Day by Day. The scripture read: “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The devotion writer went on to reflect on the impossibility of those things. No one can do them. Jesus was the only perfect one, and he came to free us from ourselves, simplifying those commandments into these: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

“In our desire to meet these requirements,” the devotion author writes, “God is pleased, even when we fail.” Then he closes with a quote from Frederick Buechner: “The final secret, I think, is this: that the words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become in the end less a command than a promise.”

Those last words fell deep this morning as I looked out at the calm water. There was one fisherman on a far bank, the first person I’d seen that day. There were little sparrows zipping in and out of the willows. There was the sound of a leaf blower somewhere, and traffic. There was the tick of my watch, my inner knowing that I had ten minutes before I needed to be home, back into the ongoingness of pandemic parenting, so that Lyle could go to work.

These words calmed me. They unraveled, for just a moment of clarity, the tangled threads of my longings: to hear and know God’s voice, to know God’s will for me, to have a clearer sense of purpose in my writing and mothering, to better serve God in my community and in all my relationships. My longing to know I am serving God well, that I am going to God in prayer not just for myself, but not just for others, either. I came to see how even in my deepest longings, perfectionism keeps me from accepting Grace.

These words today assured me that not only do my efforts please God even when I fail, but that it is God’s promise, it is God’s will that I will love God. Even this God will do for me.

In the space that my longing makes, within its contours, this is where God enters. Maybe I will always feel scattered, tangled, maybe I will always have this sense that if only things were different, or maybe if I tried harder, then I will know God’s will and love God better. But here in that question, Grace appears again. Jesus appears and says, “Even this I will do for you. Even this I have already seen, loved, and covered.”

Things will never be perfect, including my perfectionism, and God says, I want you to live and love anyway. In doing this, you serve me.

Amen.

Written on February 26, 2021

Going to the Library, Then and Now

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

“I’m going to the library, who wants to come?” I call into the yard, jingling the car keys.

“I do! I do!” my big kids yell, racing to climb into their carseats. 

“I want to get my noodle book!” Sky says excitedly, thinking of the next Noodlehead graphic novel waiting for her on the holds shelf.

“I want anudder race car book,” Robin adds.

I smile at my children’s excitement, even though it makes me a little sad, too. Pre-pandemic, a trip to the library was much more than a quick ten-minute drive to the curbside pickup. We used to spend hours at our local branch a few times a week, chatting with friends at story time and adding books to our bag until it overflowed. Sky loved to choose a few I Can Read books and sit on a stool in the corner by the window, looking at the pictures while I chased Robin through the stacks and retrieved my holds. 

Now they don’t even get out of the car when I park in front of the library. I pull my mask on over my eyes, turning around in my seat to ask if I’ve got it on right. They laugh but tell me to hurry and get their books. At the library window, I try to say my name as clearly as I can through the fabric, and the librarian returns with our stack– the noodle book, the race car book, some books on ballet, an Eye Spy book, and Upstream and Coming Full Circle for me. I try to smile with my eyes as I thank the librarian and say goodbye.

My kids want to hold their books on the drive home, and when we get there they both hurry inside, sit on the couch, and start reading. Like so many other times in this past year of closures and absences, I find a small win to celebrate. 

Sky , age 4, in her happy spot at our local library.

They are still delighted by books. They still love the library enough to want to be in close proximity to it, even if they can’t go inside. We’ve lost the wonderful experience of wandering through the aisles and choosing whatever looks interesting that day, but we’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the books we carefully choose, place on hold, and then wait for. We check out fewer books, but we keep them longer and savor them more. It makes me happy to see that books seem to matter to my kids as much as they’ve mattered to me since I was their age.

I remember my mom taking my sister and me to the library before we could read. I remember the way it smelled– a mix of the big eucalyptus trees outside, the ocean air, and that unmistakable book smell all libraries have. There was the crinkling sound of the books in their library jackets, the light pouring through the huge windows in the fiction room where my mom browsed, and the freedom she gave us to wander wherever we wanted as she chose books for herself. I loved gathering my own stack of books for the week.

Reading has always been tied up with the thingness of books, and the place where books are, but during the long stretch of time when there was no hold service, I bought an e-reader so I could check out e-books from the library or buy them from our local booksellers. It’s made it possible for me to read more during these early months with a newborn. It’s small and light enough to hold while nursing Iris or wearing her in the sling as she naps. I can even read in the bathtub. It’s also making it easier for me to take notes as I read, because I can add digital highlights and then transfer them to a word document later. 

As a child and later as a teen and young adult, I read for hours. As a mother, I probably spend more time reading to my children, but I try to make sure they see me reading my own books, too. “Are you reading in your mind, Mama?” Sky asks me. She’s not quite reading on her own yet, and I’m excited for the day when she discovers the pleasure of reading to herself. 

Reading connects me to the world outside the borders of home and children, and the person I am in addition to “Mom.” It keeps me grounded and makes me more receptive to ideas for poems and essays. I read before I could write, and I think it’s part of what made me a writer. I know it’s made me who I am today, and I can’t wait to see what role reading plays in my children’s lives as they grow.

Baby Gear Favorites from a Third Time Mom

We welcomed our third baby, Iris, a few days before the new year. With an active 5-year-old and a busy 3-year-old in the house, the newborn stage isn’t exactly new to us, but it’s so easy to forget about the stage your child just exited as you focus on the new challenges at hand. There have been plenty of things I’d forgotten about pregnancy, birth, and the early post-partum/ teeny-baby weeks.

Photo by Al Soot on Unsplash

Somehow, Iris is already one month old. Time is flying, and the days are full, so I wanted to get some notes down before some of these realizations slip away into the blur of our baby’s first year. It can be an intensely stuff-laden time period, so while I’ve mostly linked to stores in this post, it helps your wallet and the environment to check your local consignment store or Buy Nothing group before purchasing something new.

This is my first post experimenting with Amazon affiliate links, a step I’ve been wary about up until now. That means that if you see something you like here and use one of my Amazon links to make a purchase, I will receive a small percentage. Maybe, like me, your Amazon purchasing has sky-rocketed during the pandemic. While I still try to buy locally as much as possible, particularly with books, I’m also trying to give myself a little grace on this front during a challenging season of motherhood.

UPDATE: June 7. Since publishing this post I have become more aware of just how damaging Amazon is for bodies and small business. I’ve canceled my affiliate account and replaced all Amazon links in this post with direct links to businesses. I felt a little wary about becoming an affiliate in the first place, but I had fallen into a routine of heavy reliance on Amazon during the pandemic, and since so many bloggers I admire use affiliate links, I wanted to try it. I’m now taking baby steps toward actively resisting Amazon. This is not to shame anyone for their consumer choices or blogging choices: for many of us, there’s simply no alternative, and that’s part of the problem. Similarly, the Internet has transformed the way writers are compensated for their labor, and I don’t begrudge ANYONE making a little extra money for their family by linking to things they love and recommend. This is the choice that makes the most sense for me.

Below you’ll find my favorites for parents and baby, plus a section at the end for fitting three car seats in a smallish car.

Enjoy!

Photo by Jordan Nix on Unsplash
  1. Invest in a few good pairs of leggings and overalls. For me, most maternity pants with panels just didn’t stay up. Remembering my irritation with all pants in my previous pregnancies, this time I bit the bullet and bought two pairs of Storq leggings. They were worth the extra money because I never had to yank them up, and they haven’t pilled or snagged. I liked them so much I also bought a pair of overalls and a nursing caftan (on sale!), and all four items are working well postpartum.
  2. Maternity jackets are worth it. I love this coat because it has zippers on the side, so it doubles as non-maternity wear. I wore it unzipped during the third trimester, and it’s large enough now to wrap around Iris in the Moby wrap, or zip up the sides for a cozier fit. With my son I wore a vest similar to this, but had given it away thinking he was our last baby. Either way, a roomy outer layer is helpful for fall and winter babes in colder climates!
  3. Look for maternity tops with buttons or flaps. During pregnancy, I bought a bunch of tunics and t-shirts that don’t work for nursing, and so have had to buy additional nursing tops and pajamas. Whoops. In hindsight, I wish I had paid attention to whether the maternity items I bought were nursing-friendly! I love these jammies. For me, it has been worthwhile to have 6-7 nursing-friendly pajama tops because nursing can be messy, and who has time for more laundry with a newborn in the house?
  4. Yes, you do need slip-on shoes. I was so tired during the third trimester, the thought of buckling or tying my own shoes made me weep. I got these cute Target leopard-print slip-ons on impulse when buying diapers, and I LOVE them. They’re helpful postpartum because I can get them on while baby-wearing without having to bend over.
  5. Opt for gentle postpartum support. Iris was born “military presentation,” (such a weirdly inappropriate name for the position of a baby being born) so I got a referral to a physical therapist. On her advice, I stopped wearing my lovely womb wrap (which is easy to tie too tight, and can also be a bit cumbersome) and instead got a pair of these Target leggings and this gentle belly band. I love both. It can be worthwhile to see a PT early on to get advice tailored to your specific post-birth anatomy. I wish I had done so after my previous births. Apparently the ever-popular Velcro Belly Bandit type supports can be too restrictive in the immediate postpartum for some people, especially if you don’t have much abdominal separation. You want support, but with enough flexibility to let your organs move back into place. (The pregnant body is amazing.)
  6. All the breastfeeding stuff. Some breastfeeding people just tend to be more prone to plugged ducts, and unfortunately I seem to be one of them: by this time postpartum with my son, I’d already developed mastitis. This time around, I am trying to be proactive about prevention. I take Wish Gardens’ Happy Ducts tincture several times a day when I feel a plugged duct developing. Iris is going on two nights sleeping in her Sleep Pea swaddle in the bassinet, but I bring her into our bed around 3 a.m. to co-sleep. I alternate sides of the bed so I don’t squish one breast more than the other. I tend toward oversupply and leak a lot in the first few months. Disposable nursing pads always ended up sticking to me and being a soggy mess, but these reusable shaping nursing pads keep me dry and hold their shape after multiple journeys through the washer and dryer. I’ll also put in a vote for having MANY sleep bras (I like Majamas) and multiple large water bottles and burp cloths. Leave full water bottles and clean burp cloths all over the house so you’re never far from hydration when you sit down to nurse.
  7. Be flexible and open-minded on sleep. Have multiple options in mind, and don’t be afraid to try again later. With our first baby, we tried swaddling and putting her down in her bassinet for a few nights early on. When she screamed and cried, we figured that was that, and never tried it again. We ended up co-sleeping for far longer than I wanted to, and felt like we had no choice but to sleep train when she hit the dreaded 4-month sleep regression. (I didn’t even know that was a thing. Rookie mom mistake.) The second time around, we got a little braver and tried different things earlier. We even returned to previous strategies before we found something that worked for our son. (A Magic Merlin suit.) This third time, we’ve started introducing her to independent sleep from the get-go. She’s sleeping in her bassinet in the Sleep Pea swaddle as I type this, and I am fairly giddy with hope. TL;DR: Every baby is different, there are lots of different ways to help babies sleep well and safely, and it’s okay to do a mix of things until you find a rhythm.
  8. Pajamas forever. Iris is our second winter babe, and this time I know there’s no reason to change her out of footie pajamas. Except maybe a super cute photo op. That said, I prefer footie jammies with snaps for 0-3 months, and zippers around 4-6 months: zippers are much easier, but they bunch up and hit baby in the chin in small sizes.
  9. Try and use several types of baby carrier. Being able to “wear” Iris means I have more options for getting her the sleep she needs when I need to chase after my little 3-year-old escape artist. I like using a soft wrap carrier like the classic Moby or Baby K’tan for the first six months, and a more structured carrier when baby is bigger and has better head control. We have an orange woven Chimparoo Trek that we used for our first two babies, and I love its simplicity. Also, different body types feel more comfortable with different carriers. My husband, who has a long torso, really loved the Lillebaby structured carrier with our son, but it was waaaay too long for me. Likewise, he couldn’t fit into the Baby K’tan carrier I loved. This time around, we both love using the Moby wrap. Having multiple carriers can get spendy, so check consignment for used gear. Carriers tend to be used so briefly that most used ones still have a ton of life in them.
  10. Cloth diapering doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Plenty of folks get intimidated by cloth diapers and never try it. There are good reasons for this: it can be expensive to invest in the quantity of diapers needed to cloth diaper full-time, and you need enough bulk in order to launder them effectively. It can be time-consuming. It takes time to find the style you like best. The good news is, you can cloth diaper part-time and still get the benefit of reducing your impact on the environment, and saving money in the long run. (And, babies with fluffy cloth diaper butts are so cute.) Depending on where you live, you can also outsource the laundry! We use Tidee Didee diaper service, which picks up our used pre-folds and drops off a clean stack once a week. We have 6-7 covers in different sizes (these and these are my faves), and we just wipe them out between changes and wash them with our towels once or twice a week. I do a hot wash with bleach and an extra rinse. We use cloth napkins at meals, and rags for cleanups, so we’re used to doing regular towel loads. This time we’re trying out cloth wipes as well, with water from an insulated pump thermos on the changing table. We also use disposable diapers and wipes. No big deal. It doesn’t have to be black and white.
Photo by Laura Ohlman on Unsplash

Bonus: A Word on Carseats and Fitting 3-Across

We have a 2015 Honda CR-V, and figuring out a safe 3-across has taken a lot of effort. During the pandemic, safety events and carseat clinics were canceled, and stores stopped allowing families to try floor models. I read blog posts from the Carseat Lady and Carseats for the Littles, and joined several Facebook groups to get advice. Many posts and commenters insisted that the 2015 CR-V has overlapping seatbelts, and therefore can’t safely accommodate a 3-across. Turns out, this isn’t true for all 2015 models, including ours– but it’s still tricky.

After many emails and phone calls, we found a carseat technician at a hospital safety center who was able to counsel us over email, then follow up with a socially-distanced fit check at the hospital. We settled on two Baby Trend Troopers and our Graco Tranzitions convertible carseat. We put Robin, our 3-year-old, forward-facing in one Trooper on the passenger side, and Iris, our newborn, rear-facing in the second Trooper in the middle seat. Sky, our 5.5-year-old rode in the Graco in harness mode behind the driver. This was technically safe and possible– but in practice it kind of sucked. It was really hard to get the Trooper to adjust down small enough for the baby, and with the seat in the middle, it meant a lot of awkward wrangling– usually in the pouring rain while all three children wailed.

Onward to our next attempt, which is a Chicco Fit2 infant seat for Iris on the passenger side, Robin in the Trooper behind the driver, and Sky in the middle in a RideSafer travel vest. (The vest is great because Sky feels like a parachuter in it, it can be used in cars and planes, and it eliminates the need for a booster. Great for carpooling or two-household families!) This is a little better because I can load Iris into her seat indoors and just click her in– but Sky feels a little cramped in the middle of two car seats.

After all that, three new carseats and one travel vest later, we are somewhat reluctantly looking into buying a used minivan. It’s not that we have anything against minivans, we were just hoping to avoid the expense, and thought we’d save some money by investing in the right car seats. Oh well!

UPDATE: We bought a used Sienna minivan and it is an absolute dream. Now using a Trooper and an Evenflo Big Kid high back booster in the back row, with the baby in the Fit2 in the drivers’ side middle row.