Things of Good Report

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In the last few months, though not nearly as often as I thought I would, I have been writing about some of the difficult things I faced after first becoming a mother. Those days of muddled thoughts, body-aching tiredness and never quite reaching the expectations set for me. I have never been as lonely as I was then, and now that I’m on the other side, I will always say that I think it is vitally important to talk about those things and to acknowledge the feelings and struggles that are unexpected, far from pretty and not what we think a proper, godly mama should have.

I do not usually like disclaimers. To me, they blur a message, sound apologetic and lower a writer’s credibility. However, a couple of things have been churning through my head since I started writing on this subject.

You’ve likely seen me roll my eyes over cheesy romances or rant about the flawless, picture-perfect lives found in some conservative literature. I will be the first to shudder at a photoshopped selfie paired with the perfect inspirational quote and wince if I see a smile plastered over tired, hurting eyes. There is something in all of us that yearns for authenticity, and as women who already struggle so much with comparison and identity, we have found relief in recent years as it has become more and more okay to talk about “real life.” In fact, it’s become the new trend: we are now more cool and more worthy of being looked-up to if we fill our instagram accounts with photos of our messy houses and dirty toddlers and talk about the hard things we went through last week. We are now gloriously authentic.

This is my fear: I think sometimes we are now far too comfortable with being real and vulnerable and we can veer to the other side into cynicism and negativity instead of focusing on what fills our lives with beauty.

I have seen this in myself and it’s a weight that I am constantly mulling over and trying to balance. How do I strive for authenticity and the breaking down of walls through vulnerability while maintaining a spirit of delight and joy? How do we gently reign in our “real lives” to have no fear in being honest about our messy hearts but no longer compelled to advertise them? Why have we over-reacted into feeling shame over sharing a moment of peace and calm without the disclaimer of the chaos behind the scenes?

(As a personal case, I thoroughly love housework and have felt guilt before over having a tidy, organised house nearly all of the time. I know it’s silly, but I have on occasion deliberately left a messy corner of toys or a sink full of dirty dishes for visitors to see, because what if they think I’m less of a good mother or hiding something if my house looks too good to be true?)

I say all this, because I have been convicted into a new focus regarding these things I have written and want to keep writing about. I long for authenticity, and if you are another young mama who has struggled with postpartum depression or finding fulfilment in motherhood, then I hope that my talking about it will give you some companionship and that you will know I am beside you and deeply care. But I do not want to react with frustration that nobody acknowledges these things by veering deeply into the opposite direction and defining motherhood (or any other area of life) with cynicism and darkness. Just because these things are real doesn’t mean that they must now be expected and normal, and if you are one of those new mothers whose real life actually is just as beautiful as one of those photo-perfect squares and you have found the transition into motherhood to be a seamless one, I want you to know that you belong too. If I have made you feel ashamed or less-than-normal for feeling nothing but joy over your role as a mother, I have discredited you, and I am sorry.

I want more than anything to live a legitimate life and I will never apologise for writing about it. But if darkness and hardship become the bulk of what is real in my life, then my heart is not fully grafted into the Father of Light, and I am not being defined by the loveliness found in Him. Pursuing life in Christ does not mean we will hide behind walls of perfection or pretend that life is flawless, but it will instead change our focus onto how we find victory over these things of darkness, and not on feeling comfortable or normal by dwelling in them. We will find no fear in the vulnerability of acknowledging struggles, but as daughters of One spectacularly perfect, we should also find no fear in the telling of beauty, without shame and with no apology.

 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.

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Dear New Mom: eternity in your heart

This post is a continuation of a series I’ve started on young motherhood, and the intricate things that are difficult for us to acknowledge or understand, because they’re not expected from us. Read Part One here: The Mama Diaries I: When You Can’t Quite Reach

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I remember that night well. I was driving an hour home in the dark with the girls. Both had been wailing, protesting the restraint of their seat buckles and the sleepy unsettledness of a tiring, busy day. After a few minutes, there was gradual quietness as their cries slowly decreased in volume, and they nodded off to sleep. I remember my sigh of relief and the way my grip on the steering wheel loosened, followed by the long minutes of eerie silence and the blur of street lights and predictable exits and the subconscious counting of lane markings as I switched into a methodical driving mode and became lost inside my mind.

I can’t really explain the sudden rush of tears that knocked me forward, my shoulders heaving as frustration, sorrow and emptiness became water streaking down my face. I felt a haunting shallowness as I replayed my day in my head: the meals, the nappies, the feeding, the whining, the nap struggles, the playing, the cleaning up and those same things repeating themselves in a monotone, meaningless cycle at least five times all day long. I felt that tiny satisfaction of a quiet car and two sleeping babies, then beat my fist on the steering wheel because I hated that my life was reduced to feeling fulfilment from such an insignificant thing. I whispered out loud the question that runs through my head every single day, “God, is this really all that there is to my life?”

I’ve talked to enough other mamas to know that this is a recurring battle. We know that mothering our children well is an invaluable operation but we still feel that slight hesitation, and dare I say, embarrassment, when that stranger asks us what we do for a job. We hear the stories of our husbands saving lives, of our friends teaching, volunteering, evangelising and writing, of our sisters managing a shop or working night shifts at the hospital. We hear these stories and we shrivel up when someone asks us what we did all day. We know that we’ve kept these children fed, clothed, watered and mostly in their right minds, and boy, do we know all the work that goes into making sure that happens, but how to do you tell these things to someone without getting a yawn in return? I nearly wept that one beautiful day when I met my midwife for the first time during Ela’s pregnancy. We were casually chatting while she took my blood pressure, and she started asking me a few questions to get to know me better, one of which was, “So what do you do for work?” I automatically go into defence mode whenever that question is asked, and I replied that I’d never had a job away from home since having children and was just a stay-at-home mum. Immediately, she looked at me sternly and snapped her fingers in my face. “Darling, don’t you ever say that you are just a stay-at home mum. You do more than anyone will ever know! It’s full time, you never get a break, and it’s the most important job on earth.” I will forever remember that moment in that day: that incredible feeling of being acknowledged and cared for, the words of care that she poured over me.

Why do I feel restless? Why do I enjoy my children, but always have this subconscious feeling that I must only be in an interim, that this is only a phase in the circle of life, that I’m supposed to be doing something more meaningful than the current mundane? I make lists of what I’ll get done while my toddler’s happily playing. I work hard to get my baby to nap in her cot so that my arms are free for cooking, housework or writing. I rush through lunch because I can’t wait for my oldest daughter’s nap-time, and I pass that late afternoon hour with a cooking show because can’t I just do one thing in the day for my own enjoyment? I chase after more and look for better, always fidgety, unable to rest in the ordinary.

Keep eternity in my heart. I pray this often amid my wails of regret and repentance, making a mantra to weave through my heart, asking God to embed it there. It doesn’t take long to move past the initial excitement of new life into the rhythm of pregnancy and birth and to forget the wonder of conception and the act of collaborating with God to make this tiny human. As the months roll on, our children become our normal life and we lose ourselves in the ever-habitual cycle of them and their needs. We watch her grow, we introduce her as our daughter, and we forget to look beyond her flesh and blood to her never-dying soul. This child will live forever! When we forget that our children are eternal, they become an interruption, an inconvenience, a pause in the life we would’ve otherwise lived. They become a task, a job to be completed well, an achievement we strive for, hoping they will turn out in a way that makes us look good. I am foolish when I think that I can do some greater thing than invest all my love, talents, time and energy into two sacred souls who are everlasting things in this interim of earth. I am not “missing out on life” by staying at home with my children when I am investing beyond life itself.

Please do not hear me saying that being the typical “stay at home mum” is the only way to do motherhood. It’s not. In our conservative christian culture, I believe we’ve gone way too far in squelching our individualism and making parenting all about our children and not ourselves. We have our pre-made expectations of who a “good mom” is and we call her selfish when she wants a morning off to go shopping and drink coffee, and are aghast at her priorities when, God forbid, she runs a business from home, attends college classes, or works several shifts a week. People, stop! This is an entire post for another time, but God made us individuals with our own hobbies, talents, and desires and levels of coping long before He made us mothers. I do not deny that we are called to be keepers at home and I will always hold to this being the design that we are meant to fit into. However, those things that make up our very personhood must be nurtured and kept alive if we have any hopes of giving to our children without draining ourselves in the process. At the same time, we’ve also gone too far in accommodating and applauding the mom who is active in realms outside of her home, and tend to forget to cheer on the brave woman who has decided to make her children her only employment. Please don’t leave her in the dust or think she is somehow doing something less, boring or insignificant. You will never know the sacrifices she’s made, the hot tears she’s cried, and the indescribable range of unexpected things she faces every single day behind the portrait you’ve presumptuously painted of her and her life.

Dear mama at home, you are a shepherdess, protector, teacher, example, friend, carer, and provider. You have no clocked hours; yours is a never-ending shift of giving and nurturing, and few people are brave enough to go down the path you have chosen. You have nobly taken on the job of immeasurable worth for which you are never materially paid. You are enough. What you do is enough. You are seen.

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Dear New Mom: when you can’t quite reach.

There are a lot of blog posts out there that begin just like I’ve titled this one. “Dear new mom, there are things you need to know…” About sleepless nights, crazy hormones, raging appetites, how it’s okay to cry even when nothing’s wrong and how it’s okay to not know what you’re doing. The letters are quite possibly overdone, but I still tip my hat to those who aren’t afraid to drop yet another article with that title into cyberspace. There’s something about those words that catch our eye, and we young moms immediately gravitate towards them; craving to find experiences that match ours, to give substance to the things we struggle with, and to know that someone somewhere gets it and is giving us permission to own the huge things that we’re feeling.

Confession: I’ve struggled to enjoy the postpartum days + months. After the birth of our first daughter especially, I found myself swaddled in darkness for several months, scrambling to find a little bit of something familiar and safe. There is an unwritten standard about the feelings a new mother should or shouldn’t have, and there’s an unmerited, unspoken guilt when her new baby doesn’t always make her croon or when she is hanging out on the borders of postpartum blues, or God-forbid, the unlawful depression .

Here is where it gets confusing because we start throwing in all the disclaimers and buts. We think newborns are the sweetest, softest, best-smellingest things, and can hardly get enough of the rise and fall of her chest or the scent of her pure breath. Discouragement and emptiness are hard things for us as fresh mothers to acknowledge and understand, because they come hand-in-hand with an alive, fairly-bursting happiness that we’ve never felt before, and it doesn’t make sense why so many ranging, raging feelings coexist.

This is not a post that defines depression, lists five steps to restoring joy, or begs for a sympathetic pat on the back. I feel like I’m not defined by these shadows anymore, and I love feeling the sun on my back again, but I know my heart’s health is maintained through this telling: the acknowledging of need and failure, and how I sometimes strain on tiptoes to reach, and still can’t. This is a post about grace and one of the things its whispered to me.

Whether you know it or not, you’ve set an invisible bar for yourself: a certain level of performance, achievement, and knowledge that you have to obtain in order to prove that you’re a good mother.  Anyone who knows me well, knows that I’m from a big, (mostly) happy family, and that I’m the eldest. Of ten children. I didn’t always love that fact, but now I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, and am so rich to have the gift of a close, fun, quirky family who loves fiercely. I’m a huge fan of children, and if someone were to ask me what a dream snapshot of my future looks like, I would probably paint in words the picture that immediately comes into focus when I think of my family: all of us around the table, plates scraped clean, leftover food growing cold, the siblings laughing and talking all over top of each other, mama listening with the occasional chuckle, daddy reclined in his chair at the head of the table, arms crossed over his head.  I’ve always loved babies, and there was nothing but sheer delight when we discovered we were going to have one of our own. Throughout the pregnancy, I heard dozens of comments like, “Oh, you’ll have it easy since you’ve been around kids all your life,” and “You’ve always been good with babies,” and “You already know how to do everything!” While I certainly didn’t feel underprepared, it took me several months into motherhood to realise that I had been silently setting a level of achievement for myself based on my experience and what everyone else was expecting from me. I felt like I was somehow messing up if I didn’t know how to do something or if I felt lost in my role, and was wearing myself out by trying to live up to my own expectations.

Leave your reputation and the standard you’ve set for yourself in God’s hands. Once I realised that my baby was a unique entity, that no previous experience or exposure could fully prepare me for this baby, I was able to look at motherhood itself with a much broader vision and began to own it instead of feeling insecure about my capability. While feeling at home with drippy poo or complicated onesie snaps certainly helps, there is nothing that can prepare you for the way that your child will or will not sleep or the things that will help your baby’s stomachache. And while you can think upon and replay in your mind the way your parents or a respected friend would respond in a discipline case, your child was created to drain you of all your own pat answers and make you holy: holiness is no cookie-cutter situation.

This is the first of a few posts, I think, this delving into the new-mama drama; sifting through it and trying to find answers and normality for the things we moms find uncomfortable to talk about. For me, this was the first tiny stepping-stone out of the darkness, the recognition of a standard already set for me and my subconscious striving to attain to it. I’d love to hear from you: can you relate to this or other aspects of postpartum discouragement that you’d love to see talked about more?

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