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Listening in the Rubble

I haven’t written in a long time. Mostly because I feel like if I’m going to put something out there, I have to have things figured out. I have nothing figured out. I’m in a season of unraveling.

Ten years into marriage and nearly nine years into parenting and I feel like I’m just coming out of the fog of the years of pregnancy, breastfeeding, infants, diapers, and interrupted sleep. Actually the interrupted sleep hasn’t gone away. Sleeping through the night is a lie. But since my youngest is now three and a half, I’m officially out of the baby stage. And it feels a little like I’m coming back to my house after an earthquake to survey the damage. I’m noticing the ways that I have been too lenient, too harsh, too selfish, too proud. I’m noticing the ways that I’ve allowed my feelings and my husband’s feelings to be too big in our home, resulting in an entire family that doesn’t really know how to self-regulate. I’m seeing how my fear has ruled my parenting, especially during the past three years. And now I’m recognizing that it’s up to me to start putting my house back together. Most days it feels overwhelming. It feels impossible. It feels like it’s too late and I will have to just live in the rubble.

I’m really trying not to assign moral equivalence to this unraveling. My first year of college (this is relevant, I promise) I failed. Literally. I got put on academic probation because my grades were so low. And I had so much shame. It was an expensive school and I hadn’t contributed to helping pay. My parents had believed in me and valued my education enough to send me there and I had thrown it away. For a long time — fifteen years — I assigned moral equivalence to this academic failure. I had loaded that experience with so much shame that I had even written a personal essay nearly equating my rocky freshman year with the infidelity of a close friend of the family. Suddenly this year I have been able to see myself as that seventeen-year-old girl, a thousand miles from home, fresh out of being homeschooled, trying to navigate classes and manipulative roommates and the sudden realization that boys liked her, and I can’t imagine shaming her. She was homesick and depressed and under water. I see now that my academic struggles were not moral failures. Though there are things I did wrong — the way I treated some people — my struggles were not sin.

My struggles to come up for air when I was under water at seventeen and eighteen were not sin, and being overwhelmed and not reading the parenting books and not knowing what to do as a mother is not sin. Yes, there are things — so many things that I can’t breathe when I think about them — that I’ve done as a mother that were sin, that were wrong and shameful and irreversible. But starting my mothering journey with postpartum depression, and having my babies so close together that my body and hormones never had time to catch up — that’s not sin. Not intuitively know how to best support a husband living with steadily worsening anxiety and depression was not sin. And having a trauma response to my husband letting go of his faith — or acknowledging it had never been real — that’s not sin. It’s human. And I’m allowed to be human. And so are you.

Still, there are consequences to this humanity — this living in a broken world and broken culture that values self-reliance over interdependence. And so I’m standing here in the rubble, waiting for the next weight-bearing beam to come crashing down. My fears are so big that I’m often paralyzed. My job as a parent is to tell my children who they are: loved and treasured by God, intrinsically valuable, brave, smart, capable of great love and kindness. It’s also my job to correct and direct them so their gifts don’t get twisted and distorted by selfishness and sin. This feels impossible. If I tell them too much, “you are good,” will this become a burden of perfectionism they feel they have to live up to at all times and will they crumble in disappointment in themselves when they’re not able to? But if I overcorrect will they just be stuck in an identity of rebellion and shame? How do people raise decent, healthy adults? These are the huge, abstract thoughts that crowd my mind while I’m trying to do the everyday tasks of homeschooling, conflict resolution, and enforcing respectful attitudes. And there’s the issue of faith. How can I make sure they have this anchor, this hope? How can I make sure they know they are infinitely loved and they are called to love? Which ones of them are going to enter their thirties and realize that none of it was ever real to them? No matter how hard I try, it’s a real possibility. There’s no way to ensure any of this. It’s out of my control, but still my responsibility. This feels like a raw deal.

So I stand in the rubble, trying to find the balance between surrender and responsibility. Between ultimate faith and everyday presence.

This is where I am. Unraveling. Stripped of so many things I’d once thought defined me: good, thoughtful, patient, wise, pretty. My children aren’t the ones that cause strangers to approach us in public and declare how wonderfully behaved they are. They’re the ones who spit on their dance teachers, fuss at each other nonstop through the grocery store, and throw screaming fits through Target. They also paint pictures for each other, show genuine compassion and are fun and funny. But I was sure I’d be better at this. I was sure I’d model patience under pressure and produce self-contained children. I was sure I would enjoy them more of the time. The simple fact is that in all my growing and struggling and unraveling, I haven’t shown them how to respond and regulate. I haven’t always been safe for them with all my big fears and traumas and disappointments pouring out all over the place.

Why put this out there for people to read instead of just writing it in a journal? Maybe it is selfish. Maybe I feel like, especially this year, I’ve been walking around in the world naked. And since everyone has already seen me, I’d like to give some explanation about where my clothes went. But I also hope that this might bring some encouragement to someone who might feel the same way. Maybe someone needs permission to see their traumas as real, even if they can think of ten people with “more legitimate” traumas than theirs. Maybe someone needs to let go of shame over something and stop assigning moral equivalence to human vulnerability.

I want to step into a season of listening — of conversation. Instead of always trying to figure things out or come up with something profound to say, I want to listen. I want to listen to my husband and children about their specific needs. I want to listen to the Holy Spirit instead of my fears. I want to listen to my community and how I’m called to love them. I want to listen to myself — my body and mind — and recognize how to meet my own humanity with respect and compassion. Remembering that to be dependent and limited is not weakness, but instead part of my created beauty.

So I’m not making pronouncements or attempting profound statements today. I’m just bearing my humanity and trying to listen.

contentment Motherhood

Holding Messy Hands

photo My birthday was this month, and I received many sweet messages on my Facebook timeline wishing me a happy birthday. A lot of  people, knowing I’m a mother of three young children, said they hoped I could get some rest on my birthday. I appreciate this sentiment, and am always coveting rest and am thankful for those who provide it for me. But there was one message that stuck out. A woman I’ve known since I was 6 years old, and who has been an encouragement to me in Bible studies, words of wisdom, and sympathetic notes during the years, wrote something that really made me think. She wrote, “Happy birthday, Megan! I hope your day is full of beautiful music from your hubby, sticky hugs and slobbery kisses from your little people. And all sorts of other really good things.” Now, maybe she just meant, “enjoy your family today,” or something to that effect, but as I thought more about what she said, I found it to be another point in a lesson I feel God has been teaching me for a while. The lesson is this: while rest and recharging are good, helpful, and often needed (He even built it in to our week with a Sabbath), escape should not be the goal in our lives.

I often catch myself being preoccupied with getting a “break” from my life. I count the hours until nap and bedtime. Being a mother of young children can be tedious. You say the same things over and over, do the same things over and over. I sometimes feel like I’m busy all the time, yet to look at my house, it appears that I never get anything done. It is easy to get lost in the chaos and see my children as little creatures intent on keeping me from doing what I need to do (right now, for example, I’m fighting my eight-month-old for control of the keyboard). But in reality, my children are what I need to do. They are not obstacles distracting me from important things; they are the important things. Because the focus of our days becomes the focus of our lives, and the focus of my life is not supposed to be getting a moment to myself; it is not supposed to be making it to naptime so I can have a snack and not share it with anyone, or so I can jump in the shower. And my focus is certainly not supposed to be getting a second to check Facebook for the twentieth time. The focus of my life is supposed to be Christ — obeying Him, and loving Him through loving my little ones. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and right now two of my little neighbors are sleeping in the rooms across the hall, and one is scooting around on my bedroom floor. I know the command to love others goes far beyond our own little families, but it certainly starts with the people I’ve been blessed to spend my days with.

I’m not trying to deny the difficulty of parenthood. Tantrums and disobedience and pee on the floor are hard. I want to get away and escape from these things. But I find that if I’m fully present in the life and tasks I’ve been given, I can find peace and even joy in the midst of the chaos. If I remember to put the two year old on the potty at regular intervals, she doesn’t have as many accidents; if I don’t bring my phone to the table at lunch, I’m more able to patiently engage with the kids, whether it’s reminding the three year old to keep taking bites, or answering his creative questions.

And I’m not trying to deny the importance of resting and taking breaks, either. I think often the reason I have a hard time being present and joyful in my everyday tasks is because I don’t allow myself built in times of rest. If I know that I’ll soon be able to have time to read or write or spend time with my husband alone, I will be more able to focus my attention on what is in front of me in the moment. God knows we need rest. He knows we need regular times of Sabbath. I think the reason we are often frustrated is because we are not intentional about observing the rest that He has built in to our lives. And I don’t think our Sabbath always has to be Sunday, because as any mother of very young children knows, Sunday can be the most exhausting day of the week.

But the point is that this time of my life is about caring for and training my children, not trying to get away from them. Because I cannot escape only the unpleasant parts of my life. If I’m constantly focused on getting away from the tedium and the dishes and the laundry and the whining, I’m not going to recognize the blessings either. I will only see Vivian’s sticky hands coming toward my clean pants, and will miss the sweet, voluntary affection of my daughter. I will only hear Marshall’s whiney voice pleading with me to hold him while I’m trying to make breakfast, and won’t savor these short years when I’m still able to pick him up and squeeze him for just a couple minutes. And though sometimes it feels frustrating to sit in the messy living room and read the same books over and over, while trying to keep the kids from pestering each other, I know that someday soon we won’t have hours for reading stories. There will be schoolwork to do and activities to get to. So I will try to savor and celebrate these long hours before naptime when all the kids have to do is read and play. In my twenty-eighth year, instead of being focused on celebrating myself and trying to get a break, I’ll try to celebrate the blessings of “sticky hugs and slobbery kisses.”