Have you seen that video floating around social media with the Mom running around like a chicken with it's head cut off trying to clean every nook and cranny before company arrives? Ever been that Mom? I sure have. It used to feel like I had to make it look as if no one lived in my house before I could invite people over. Of course, the honest truth is that I have five children, two dogs who shed a lot, and my domestic skills are mediocre. I try to keep up with the house and I enjoy having a clean house so much, but my children are young, and I take time to do things I enjoy often, like journaling, reading, and yoga- all of which I like much more than cleaning. The result is a lived-in, comfy, sometimes laundry on the floor and dishes in the sink house. Last Saturday after a morning of yoga and jogging on the beach, a Dunkin Donuts run, drama about not wanting to go to cheer (we didn't) and rushing out the door for drum lessons all before 10am, I got a text from a friend who had moved to Washington D.C. the previous year. They were in town, headed to beach, and did we want to see them? Of course! I did a little squeal in the parking lot of Aldi out of excitement. Being part of the military community, our friends move a lot. Sometimes our paths get to cross again, but often, they don't. We are thankful and so appreciate when they do! As we loaded up the groceries, I did a mental scan of how each room in our house looked. Kids' room: disaster. Our room: semi decent. Guest room: not the worst. Kitchen: Aye yi yi. I didn't know any more ahead of time that they'd be coming so I hadn't had time to do a crazy cleaning. We were in the middle of meal planning, grocery shopping, and extracurricular activities day and there wasn't going to be much time. I stressed for a just minute, then thought, forget it. I love my friends. They love me. It doesn't matter. We came home, I loaded the dishwasher, made sure the toilets had been flushed, and vacuumed the excess dog hair on the floor and called it a day. I didn't have a great plan for dinner but luckily I'd been texting with my domestic goddess friend, Letoya earlier in the week. She'd made a yummy peanut sauce over noodles with veggies in an attempt to eat less meat. My husband won't go for that, but the sauce sounded good and I had everything on hand. They came over, didn't care about the lived in look and our kids played and husbands grilled and drank beer. It's always amazing to see how friends who move away mature and grow and gain confidence and this visit was no exception. We traded parenting stories, understanding the hard parts of moving to a totally unfamiliar place. It felt so amazing to have added people around our table again. There are quite a few of us to begin with, so we pulled up two camping chairs and took turns eating with the kids. It certainly wasn't anything you'd find in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine, but it was lovely. Though I make some fantastic homemade noodles, I wanted to spend more time catching up with my friends and less time cooking, so the fettucini came from a box. The alfredo from a jar. The peanut sauce needed more Sriracha and less peanut butter, and the meat was pretty tough. Nobody cared. The newly solids eating babies laughed and entertained us all with their enthusiasm for the very mediocre food I'd cooked. The company, not the food, made the meal. I thought of all the times I was too worried about how my house looked or whether the food would taste decent or not to invite anyone for dinner. I can't describe how much this impromptu visit warmed my soul. We're meant to be in community with people. To enjoy them and do life together. Messy house. Clean house. Crabby kids. Happy kids. When we're able to approach the world knowing we are worthy of love and connection, what our houses look like matters little. At our hearts, most of us are good mamas, good friends, good people. So show it! Invite your friends over. Even us introverts enjoy it immensely for a few hours, I promise. Seat people around your table. Serve them your imperfect food on your dishes that don't match and offer water from the faucet if that's what you've got. Hospitality is about heart. I've got a lot of that.
"I'm so tired. The neighbor guy was up at 2 am screaming at someone on the phone."
"I'm sorry, babe. Base housing sucks."
Sure does, I thought. I jumped on Zillow to see if there was anything in beautiful, ridiculously expensive Southern California that we could afford where we might not have to listen to the nuances of the neighbor's latest failed relationship. No dice.
"It's too bad we aren't in Oklahoma. We could afford an amazing place there."
Geobaching as it's called is fairly common in the military community. One person in a marriage has a short time left on their military contract and the rest of the family is ready for anything that seems even the smallest bit more stable. Dad hangs back on base living in geo bachelor barracks and everyone else heads to the final destination. Ready to get their "real lives" started. I know in the civilian world this might seem completely insane, but it works for thousands of military families. In a world where unaccompanied orders for a year or two to Japan is commonplace, it's not so far fetched. I'd spent the last five years away from my family, any semblance of ability to go after my divine purpose because of a lack of local support, and the idea of heading "home" sounded magical. I was working as a doula and loving my work but also failing to set boundaries about how much I was working, how much sleep I was getting, and how much we were willing for our family life to suffer. Because doula work wasn't my life's purpose, burn out was approaching rapidly. The idea that we could buy a beautiful house on two acres when our kids currently had a concrete pad for a back yard was captivating. I was making good money as a doula and the idea that I could help my husband purchase this home with money I had made on my own after many years as a stay at home mom was even more alluring. I grew up in a trailer park. My mom was a loan officer who helped others reach their dreams of home ownership but it was always just a little too far away for us. I had the opportunity to be a homeowner at 26 years old. We dreamed of chickens and a cow. Going to church every Sunday. Seeing my grandparents often. We weren't in complete denial and knew we'd miss each other. A lot. But it seemed short term doable for a long term benefit. In the middle of the home purchase process a deployment came into the picture for right around our move date and it seemed like a sign that we were doing the right thing. True to life though, that deployment was pushed back half a year and we found out we were expecting our fifth baby. Now not only were we going to be living separately, but I was going to be pregnant, and Will was going to miss the birth while on this new deployment timeline. We tried to make the best of it. Traveling for Thanksgiving and Christmas to see each other, lots of FaceTime and phone calls. The kids were in an amazing school and I was working at WIC, doing something I enjoyed and felt made a difference. I got to see my grandparents more often, though my dreams of being helpful to them were massively diminished by my own responsibilities to my family. We were all miserable. I missed my husband, my kids missed their Dad, and by December, any notion that this had been a good idea or was working was gone. I was too scared to do anything differently and I went through most days in a trance. Getting done what needed to be done. Certainly no joy. After a tearful midnight conversation my laid back, never asks for anything husband asked if I would figure out a way to get back there. We knew the deployment was coming, of course. That we'd move back and deal with a heck of a lot of stress in doing so and that he'd be leaving a few months later. But I knew we needed to feel like a family unit again. That I needed to create a space where he left from for him to come home to. I was shaking as I called a management company to see about renting our house out. I had no idea how to rent out a house. Having a rental was never on our to do list, and to be honest, I still hate it. Even worse, I felt a deep shame. I felt like everyone in the world knew that this was a bad idea from the get go and that we had been idiots to think it may work and that everyone I knew was going to be whispering behind my back about what a dumb choice it was. But my families needs were more important. We'd already planned a Christmas trip out to California and we returned right around the new year. I got on the plane lethargic and hot with a fever. Two days later I was diagnosed with flu. With the help of some amazing friends I managed to get our house packed up and moved into storage so that our new tenants could move in. I was sick, both from the flu and first trimester sickness, and sad. It was one of the hardest times of my life. Worse than all of it though was still the shame I felt from having made a mistake. From uprooting my children and switching their schools and letting them spend time with family back "home" and then taking it away again. I'd never do anything purposely to hurt my children. I make the best decisions I can with the resources I have at the time, but I'm not a perfect parent. That's a hard reality to face, but it's true for all of us. My kids are resilient as hell and I firmly believe that good people are made through adversity. Still, I felt like the world's biggest jerk. I never second guessed whether this corrective action was the right one, though. I knew it was. We returned to California and by the grace of the universe/God got into base housing again. The irony is not lost on me. When I hear the neighbor fighting with his mother in law or our dogs are going crazy across the fence because of their dogs, I give a little smile. I'm thankful. We are together.
So if you tried something that didn't work, I have news for you. Me too. I made a mistake. A wrong choice. I have some more news for you. The world did not end. We lived with the consequences. I dealt with a thousands of dollars plumbing issue at that rent house three days after giving birth without my husband. The consequences of the wrong choices don't go away. But we weren't eaten by wolves. The world did not end like my brain tried to tell me it would while we were in the middle of it all. People may whisper, or they may shout. It doesn't matter. Usually, the people shouting the loudest have made their fair share of wrong choices, too. Maybe you are reading this while trying to decide about a big change. Maybe you've already made that big change and realized it wasn't the right change to make. Maybe you are terrified about what outsiders are saying about your change. Shame can only exist when we aren't open with what we are feeling shameful about, so find someone you trust and let it out. In a world that seems to expect perfection, I'm here to tell you that it doesn't exist. And when we live in such fear of making the wrong choice that we paralyze our lives with indecision and shame, we lose out on some amazing experiences.
Mistakes are part of life. I'm thankful to be able to make them.
|Photo by Laura Lynn Photography|
"Why do you love having babies so much?" I was asked this question the other day and while it isn't the first time it has ever come up, it was the first time I had an actual answer to give. I've spent a lot of this year digging deep; dealing with and treating my anxiety for the first time and delving into the worlds of personal development, vulnerability, shame, yoga, and many other topics. In doing this I was finally able to stop attempting to deny my true passion for midwifery and stop going in circles trying to find another field that was more "family friendly" (ha!). I was finally able to say, "You're supposed to be a midwife and you need to stop being so scared, apply to school, and see what happens." During this journey of figuring out who I was and why I'm here I discovered some really great research and books written by Brene' Brown. She studies shame and vulnerability and I can't describe how much her work has helped me. Shame was a regular part of my life growing up. My own self talk was incredibly critical and not at all helpful in my attainment of a meaningful life. One of the things she talks about often is how allowing ourselves to feel joy can be difficult. That surprised me quite a bit and I found myself subconsciously eye rolling. We all want to feel joy, right? It's the plight of the human experience to constantly find a way to feel joy through the crap that life throws at us. Yes. And, no. She explains incredibly well about why joy and vulnerability-which by the way, society grooms us to avoid at all costs-are inextricably linked. The moment we feel joy because of a connection, we realize that it can be taken from us. For some of us this creates a way of walking through the world in defense mode. "I'm not going to feel so excited about this because when it's over, it's really going to hurt." I lived my life this way. Except when I had babies. Their births and those precious, fleeting postpartum moments were the few times I let that guard down and felt pure joy. This was easier for me to do after the births when I could physically feel my baby emerge from my body, and studies show that the way we birth, but more importantly the way we feel about our power over the birth process impacts our feelings about our babies and our postpartum times. To feel joy so soon after the intensity of labor and birth is such a paradox. Any mother can tell you though about the deep joy that comes in those few minutes right after birth. Sniffing your babies head. Watching their eyes rise to find you. Feeling the warmth of their wriggling bodies against your skin. Despite the blood, and the uterus cramping as it works to shrink back down, and the pure exhaustion that is having a human being leave your body-no matter the exit path-it's the most joyful feeling I've ever felt. It's also why we're so vulnerable postpartum and why it's so incredibly important that we are surrounded by kind, supportive people. It is the paradox of parenthood. I love my children so much I can't stand it and also it could all be taken from me in an eye's blink. So yes, pregnancy and birthing children is hard work. Nothing compared to raising them, however. I love having babies so much because it is so joyful for me.
Eleven years ago yesterday, my uncle took his own life. Dates hit me hard because number patterns interest and excite me. After a stressful previous night I woke up with self care on my mind. I've come to the distinct realization that when my mental state is poor, life for my family is worse. People ask me often how I handle five kids. I used to shrug it off. Not anymore. I try really damn hard to be a good mama, and part of my ability to be a good mama means doing the things that keep my soul alive. In an effort to buffer from my stressful night I woke early, showered and shaved, and had some time with my husband. I buckled everyone half dressed and barefoot into the van, we dropped J off, and we headed to the beach. We watched the surfers, found some seashells, and then made our way to the playground. Seated at a picnic table and half reading Brene Brown I watched my eldest daughter swing higher and higher, listening to her raucous giggles. "She's so joyful." I thought to myself. "She really knows how to be in the present moment. She's fearless. I wish I could be more like her."
As for the rest of the day, I'd planned to drink just enough chai tea, watch Lilo and Stitch, and ask Will for a foot massage . That all changed when "Hey Mom, watch this!" turned into a broken elbow and a hospital stay. This darn day, I thought. The stupid 26th. Another bad thing on this day. I know suicide is taboo. We don't like to talk about it. We don't note in the obituary that people decided to die. It's not easy to talk about. For many there is a lot of anger surrounding it. I've heard everything from "How could they?" to "That's so selfish to hurt others instead of working on being happier." Suicide isn't malicious, though. Suicide is driven by fear. Fear that life will never improve. Fear that temporary problems will be permanent. Fear that we are burdens on our friends and families. Fear that we can't handle the hardship coming around the corner. I'm no stranger to fear myself. I deal with anxiety and have from my earliest memories. It isn't difficult or an imaginative stretch for me to understand how people can fear so deeply. Life can be really hard. Especially when we spend the majority of our time wondering what difficult thing will happen next. Up until the last six months I spent more time worrying about events that never came to fruition than I did processing the way I felt about experiences that actually happened. Dealing with our natural human emotions can feel far from natural. In the course of daily life with five kids we experience a multitude of feelings every single day. Many are so, so pleasant. We truly have the best time together. Growing up is terse though. Two, four, five, seven. Big ages. Big brain changes. We're busy moving from one part of the routine to the other and sometimes emotional displays feel like a drag. "I don't have time for this dramatic upset about popsicles" runs through my head multiple times a week. The thing is, it's never actually about popsicles. Kids don't know how to say, "I'm feeling frightened about school today." or "I'm having a hard day and I need extra connection." Most adults I know would have a hard time saying it, too. And perhaps that's because we're so used to stuffing down our emotions. We don't want to feel the bad ones so we don't express and deal with them and then we become unable to feel the great ones, too. We don't get to have it both ways.
We have joked in the past that Cianna is our drama queen. She feels everything very deeply and she shows it. Joy, pain, adoration, the whole nine yards. You never have to worry where you stand with this girl, she'll let you know. Sometimes that results in a lot of messy emotions. At home. At school. In the middle of Aldi. And yes, as patient as I attempt to be there are times I'd really like to fit her emotions in a neat little box and keep them put away until it's more convenient. But I know that she, like me, like us all, needs an outlet for that emotion.. Shortly after her fall she said, "I know I got hurt. But I'm probably going to do that again." Its not that she was fearless. She felt fear. She walked through it and jumped anyway. Show me the kid who can share the big emotions and I'll show you the person who has life figured out better than the rest of us.
No matter our thoughts about what happens when this life ends- and it will end for all of us, some way, some how- this is the life we have on this Earth. How sad it would be to live forever in fear. Sad for us. Sad for our friends and our family. Sad for the world. I’m here to listen to how people are feeling and tell them how I’m feeling. Life is messy. Let’s be there for each other. Maybe we can convince everyone one by one that the joy is worth the tough stuff and no one has to go through what our family did eleven years ago.
Not quite a month ago my Grandma called and said she thought I should head home. I could tell she hated saying it. Not just because the news was sad but also because it meant a cross country trip with five kids. I acted like I wasn't sure if I could while beginning to throw snacks and diapers and clothes on the kitchen table. I threw a load of dirty diapers in the washer and when they were dry we hit the road. I told her we were on the way when we reached New Mexico because she worries.
About two years ago I sat eating lunch at one of my favorite restaurants with one of my favorite people following the funeral of a well loved older woman from our church. She said, "You're about to go through the hardest thing in your life." I knew she was talking about losing my grandparents but I couldn't even go there. I couldn't get into the head space to even fathom it. My grandparents raised me from fifteen until I sort of kind of got out of their hair and married at 22. The teenage years are interesting. They are even more interesting when you move in with 70 year old people. They loved watching me excel in school and I loved doing it. They came to every school play, every awards assembly, on more church trips than I can count. They paid for prom dresses and for braces. They watched me fall in love, get a broken heart, and stood by me when I got pregnant the year after high school in a relationship that should have stayed in high school. I brought my first baby home to their house and my sweet Papa was so worried about me getting anemic after birth that he made me steak every single day for a month. He taught me to drive and to balance a checkbook and how to talk on the phone. He was mostly retired by the time I moved in so we had more time together than the usual parent/child relationship. I was a typical teen. My head so self absorbed I didn't think nearly often enough to ask about his life. When he knew he was dying he began talking deeply about life; about mistakes he had made as a young person and I was sort of shocked. It sounds silly. We all make mistakes. My Papa was the kind of person people listened to. He didn't talk just to hear himself talk. He was wise and full of the common sense that seems to have skipped my generation. The idea of him making mistakes was laughable. He was the rock of our family.
We drove and barely made it out of California the first night. My mind raced with thoughts and I'd packed funeral clothes. But I never really believed he'd actually die. He was too strong. Too steady. It wasn't time. Except that it was.
When I got to his hospital room he immediately held his arms out and said, "Give me Jane." Isla Jane is our newest baby. 8 weeks old at the time. He evidently wasn't fond of the name Isla and had decided to just call her Jane. He held her. Said how perfect she was. Then he asked me to take her because he couldn't think of anything worse than dropping her. He asked about the plumbing disaster at our rent house and when I told him it was all fixed up he winked at me and gave me his hand sign for "good deal." Within a few hours his pain was unmanageable without Morphine and we gave him his wish of being placed in the care of Hospice. We weren't going to have him poked and prodded anymore but allow him to leave this life as comfortably as possible. In my mind this was an "easy" decision because he so firmly wanted it. Looking back it was "easy" because I still didn't believe he'd actually die. As I type this I still can't wrap my mind around the fact that he isn't up eating ice cream in the middle of the night or putting on a pot of coffee for Grandma when he knows she's on her way home.
The thing about life is that there are only two things we all get to experience. Birth and death. They are so commonplace no one is surprised or in awe when our friends welcome a new baby or lose a loved one. The newspaper and our social media feeds show us that it happens every minute of every day. But God, when it happens to us, it's earth shattering. Life will never be the same. We will never be the same.
In his last days I watched my Grandma love on this man she has loved for 63 and a half years. The man she grew up with. Had babies with. Lost a son with. Caring for dying loved ones is not new to my Grandma. Her calm and strength got the rest of us through those difficult last days. She held his hands and his arms. Sat at his feet. Spoke calmly to him. We watched her heart break as one more time she was able to give him exactly what he wanted. Permission to let go. The reassurance that no matter how much we relied on him it was okay if he was tired. We would continue on and be okay. What a gift to give someone.
I wasn't there when my Papa died. Helene had been having a rough morning and after three days of mostly being at the hospital I wasn't comfortable leaving the kids again. The previous night I left around 11. I ran my fingers through his hair, kissed his forehead, and told him that I was going home to take care of my babies. I don't regret it. That's exactly where he would have wanted me to be.
And now we do go on. As strange and wrong as it feels, we go on. We're thankful for the years and the memories and the wisdom and the love. We're so grateful that he was surrounded by his family and friends in his last days. That his mind stayed sharp up until the very end. That we had the opportunity to tell him exactly how much he meant to us. We know not everyone gets that.
And today I hope he's some place beyond where we can see building something.
I always swear that I won't cry at send off. It's not helpful for me or the kids, I tell myself. We will play and laugh and hug. There will be no tears from me.
There were tears. When he pulled J in close to tell him to snuggle the baby he won't meet for months, there they were. When they called for five more minutes and suddenly it's real and you wonder how in the world to fit in half a year's worth of togetherness in five minutes, there were tears. Maybe the worst part is seeing the other families. Knowing this heart breaking feeling is far from your own, but is collective. There are newborns in the crowd. Some say they are "lucky." Dad got to see them being born. Spend a few days, maybe weeks with these new lives before they take off around the world. We all know that it isn't lucky though. That their Dads will come back and they'll have no earthly idea who they are. That they will learn about each other and bond then, not now. There are several very pregnant women in the crowd, including myself. Some of us have done this before. It doesn't really make it better. We know for sure what we're getting into. We know what it feels like 5 years later when your daughter recounts the story of her birth and reminds everyone that her Daddy wasn't there.
Have you heard of a postpartum doula? The idea is pretty much genius. In most other cultures around the world, new moms are doted on for several weeks following birth. In some cultures mom will leave her bed only to shower and use the restroom. How different it is from the United States. Fathers are given a very short paternity leave (if any) to bond with baby and protect and love on their spouse following birth. We see women up and back to their normal routine in record time. I'm not interested in being one of those women. Birth is a monumental thing for a body to process. It happens every single day of course, but not every single day for each of us. I will have very few of these special times in my life and I want to spend it breathing in my new baby. Learning about her. Welcoming her to our family and integrating her siblings into her care. Mopping is not on the list of things. Actually, mopping isn't even allowed by my midwives, they are that awesome. Bending over five thousand times a day to pick up Legos and train tracks and dolls after I've recently expelled a child from my uterus isn't either. So what's a girl to do? Three older kids who are accustomed to being fed and a house that does usually see a light cleaning on a regular basis. A postpartum doula of course! I'm not interested in having a baby nanny. And a postpartum doula is not a nanny. What I do want is someone to help with the things that keep me from nursing and napping and changing diapers and reading books with my olders. Light housework, meal prep, small errands. Holding baby while I shower. She does all that. Some are even trained in lactation and most have lots of knowledge about babies in general. Someone to ask, "Is this normal?" to.
You might be thinking that you already have someone who can and will come do all these things. Your mom, a close friend, your mother in law maybe. If you do, that is amazing. Soak it up. Enjoy it. Ask anyone who stops by to throw in a load of laundry or boil a pot of water for spaghetti. People love having something to do. This is the way that communities have worked for a long time; the "it takes a village" mentality and I love seeing when a mama has people around her to do this. For many of us though, this is no longer reality. My ties to the military community alone have shown me just how many of us are thousands of miles away from family. How many of us who haven't plugged into a tribe yet to have this kind of support.
My family and I are strict budgeters. There is quite a difference between needs and wants in our household. Postpartum doulas are not free. They aren't even cheap. This is not a need for us. I could resume my usual chaos after my husband's ten days of paternity leave are up. I've certainly done it before. The result was not pretty. I was exhausted. My body didn't heal quickly. My mental health absolutely suffered. Or, I can scrimp and save and put some money that I might've used towards a cute diaper bag or outfits that aren't hand me downs, and hire someone who can help me to make the most of this short newborn time with our new daughter. I won't remember the diaper bag fifteen years from now. I certainly won't remember most of the outfits she will have had on. But I will remember whether I was a stressed, frazzled mama trying to do too much with too little help, or a calm, peaceful mama who had what I needed, too.