Just for new moms

Confession: Nowadays, my biggest mothering challenge seems to be saying “What?” so many times.

“Hey Mom.”

“What?”

“Guess what?”

“What?”

“Do you know what happened today?”

“What?”

“Um… I forget what I was saying.”

WHAT??!?!

Okay, there might be a few bigger challenges, like sibling rivalries, preadolescent attitudes, and foster bye-byes. But my point is that it’s gotten smoother.

It’s easy to forget my earliest days of mothering, when being responsible for the health and happiness of a small person 24/7 was oh, so daunting. Probably every woman makes the transition to motherhood differently. For some, those first baby days are sweet and simple, everything they’d hoped for and more. For others, they bring a serious reality check.

The work never ends.

He won’t stop crying.

Will I ever have time to take care of myself again?

She’s such a good baby, but I just feel overwhelmed all the time.

If this is you, take heart. You’re not alone.

newborn feet

After my first child was born, and I was dealing with post-partum depression I didn’t recognize, I couldn’t hear of someone else’s pregnancy news without thinking “Oh honey, I’m sorry. You have no idea what you are getting into.” I worried all the time, listening for his crying, stressed out that I’d do something wrong. I felt like I had become a different person—my body and moods unfamiliar, my old routines shattered.

I remember the first time I left my son for half an hour with Grandma. Though I was desperate for a break, I felt a chain tied between my baby and I, tugging unbearably every moment I was gone, and I thought I’d never be free again.

Though my first child was by far my easiest baby in temperament, I fought months of exhaustion and discouragement. It wasn’t so much the work as the responsibility. This small person would be utterly dependent on me for an awfully long time. There was no mom to call on but me. At any hour of the day or night, he might need me and I would be on duty. Some women thrive on that sweet dependence and connection, but for me, the first time around spelled claustrophobia and fear.

I felt small and inexperienced. I thought all moms were selfless, and tireless, and above all knew what to do. I was just me, trying to wing it. Living in a new community without extended family, just beginning to form friendships, I felt so isolated and unprotected. Who would guide me? Who would take care of me?

If this is you, take heart. You’re not alone, and it gets better, I promise.

newborn crying

Though I now mother four children, and regularly conquer task lists that would once have looked superhuman to me, I’d personally take this stage any day over that first one. It was hard!—and new moms are brave!—and I never had to go through it again. My others babies didn’t come close to packing the overwhelming responsibility of the first. I’d deal with a couple weeks of emotional drama post-partum, and then things would level off. I can do this. I remember how. It’s going to be okay.

{If by any chance you are pregnant with your first baby, this is not the time for you to start freaking out. You will surely be one of the moms who finds those newborn days simply sweet! And there’s this…}

The thing about mothering is, you have to learn as you go.

You can read the best books, be loved by the best husband, line up the most support, and in the end, it’s still you who has to show up and make this thing happen. But you have Jesus. He won’t leave you. You’ve never done this before, and that’s okay. You won’t do it perfectly, and that’s okay. Babies are more resilient than you think, and although there’s a lot you can learn, there isn’t one right way to do it.

You are in a role that nothing but the role quite prepares you for. And you’ll get better at it.

You don’t have to love every minute. You don’t have to feel that all your dreams came true and your baby is a squishable shnookums you can’t stop holding. You just have to show up. Ask for help. Talk to your husband/ your doctor/ a few friends about what you’re feeling. And show up.

“When do you start liking it?” a young mother asked me lately. She wasn’t talking about mothering so much as housework, endless dishes and laundry in a lonely house when she’s a woman who loves people and getting out.

“You don’t have to like it,” I said firmly. (The “loving every minute” jazz puts way too much pressure on the rest of us.) “You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.”

Whoa, I thought. What kind of advice is coming out of my mouth?!?

“And pretty soon, you’ll be good at it.

kissing a newborn

Pretty soon, you’ll find that the bewildering blur of diapers and nursing pads and sleep schedules has settled into quite a workable system, and you’ll be whirring in the hub of it, doing what you’re good at.

There is a lot of joy there.

*****

All photos in this post were taken by my friend Shaunda Stoltzfus when my daughter Kelly was two weeks old. You’d never know it, but five of our older kids were tearing around and climbing all. over. us. during this photoshoot.

The tale of Ralph

Confession: My daughter got a pet mouse for Christmas. She’d been begging for one for months.

I said “Honey, are you sure you don’t want a dolly?”

No, she was sure. A live mouse that she could keep and hold in her hand.

Deep breath from Mommy. Already then.

We bought his cage and food and things ahead of time, which she unwrapped on Christmas morning to the tune of a delighted shriek and a huge grin. A day or two later we took her to the pet store and she picked out Ralph, a rather darling black mouse with a white star on his forehead. (Kelly insisted it was a heart, not a star.)

ralph

She held him often in the next few weeks. He was a sweet mouse, if there is such a thing—nice and slow. If he got away, he was easy to catch. We filled his food dishes once a week when we cleaned out his cage. He stayed clean, and didn’t bite, and got used to Kelly and his new home. He never ran the exercise wheel, just moseyed up and down his little purple ramps.

“Ralph is living a long time, Mommy,” Kelly would say happily.

Then came March, my wild month of tasks, and one week in particular when I kept thinking I needed to clean the mouse cage but it wasn’t too bad and I was so busy… I’d do it tomorrow… or the next day… Ralph seemed to be doing alright until the night I found him unmoving on his cage floor, with his food dishes empty. There may have been moments in my mothering career when I felt like a greater heel, but I don’t remember any.

“Ryan,” I said. “I starved Ralph to death. What do I do?!?”

I tried desperately to think of any way to avoid telling Kelly. May I insert a disclaimer here? I am not the kind of mother who shields her kids from the realities of life most of the time. But oh, the realities of life in the country! If it’s not a goat getting chewed up by a passing predator, it’s a darling chipmunk caught by the cats and found too late to be rescued. Entrails on our doormat. Cats always tangling with traps and vehicles. Six precious puppies all heartlessly sold to new owners despite her tears. The purpose of Ralph was to be Kelly’s very own—not to be given, mutilated, or sold, so help me God.

I decided what I would do.

The next day I made an emergency run to the pet store and found they had a single black mouse in a cage full of white ones. He was missing the star, and I thought briefly of doctoring him with Wite-Out, but otherwise—he looked just like Ralph. “I’ll take him,” I said. I hustled home, slipped him into the cage (clean cage) (freshly filled with food cage), and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But I had not reckoned on one thing: mouse personality. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.

First of all, he wasn’t a he. He was a she, and she was a wildcat. She had more energy than ten Ralphs, nosing about her cage, climbing up the wire walls, scurrying about. That first night as we sat eating supper, she started running her exercise wheel. Kelly went over to watch. He learned!! The rest of us all got a case of the dry grins and tried not to show it. Having learned how, Ms. Ralph kept that wheel running, boys—day and night. I think she had a nervous disorder. Little vixen.

And then her odor!

The following day, from that new mouse in her pristine second-day cage there arose to my nostrils such a stench—(Am I getting carried away? Yes, I am.) In short, she reeked. I couldn’t enter the house without smelling her in the next room.

I hadn’t realized Ralph was such a prince among mice. Now I felt even worse.

I sat down with my daughter and said “Honey, I need to talk to you.” I didn’t exactly say how Ralph died, but I said all the rest, including “Sweetie, I just can’t live with this mouse. Can we get rid of her and let you pick out a new animal at the pet store? A hamster? A gerbil? A new mouse?” She laughed a lot and cried a little and looked at me with those beautiful wide eyes… and agreed.

gerbil-1206

The result is an adorable baby gerbil, no bigger than a mouse, named Sugar. He’s a boy—I’m not taking any more chances with girl rodents. He is very sweet. He has no discernible odor. He will spill his food all over the cage digging for the best bits, but it may have something to do with the fact that I’m feeding him every day.

Sigh.

All’s well that ends well. But I am sure I’m going to get to heaven and God is going to say “Well, dear, you visited the fatherless and widows in their affliction and kept yourself unspotted from the world—but WHAT ABOUT THAT MOUSE??”

Caring for a child with special needs

Confession: I don’t usually write about my extra children until they leave us, but little Angel Boy is an ongoing part of our lives for now. I feel deep respect for both him and his family, and will not share photos or case-sensitive information concerning him. The things I write in this post have been approved by a voice I value.

What a joy it’s been to care for a “special needs” child!

Until I had one, I didn’t understand why mothers bridled at the word “handicapped.” Not many years before that it was “retarded,” which now sounds like an unthinkably cruel insult but at the time simply meant “delayed.” Well, now I bridle at all the wrong words too. I get it. Though I think “special needs” is kind of funny, actually—I can’t help wondering What child does not have special needs?

(I have a few special needs of my own.)

Well, he has been a joy.

I’ll never forget the first time I looked deeply into his eyes and knew I was connecting to the real person inside. I was sitting in church singing “Be Still My Soul” with him astride my lap, facing me. Suddenly his cloudy blue eyes had wandered up to mine, were gazing straight into mine, and I was singing a promise: “Be still, my soul! When change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.” He got it, I know; and all of a sudden I did too.

Our journey with our first three kids prepared us to love this one. I’d already had to face a few key truths and make them my own.

  1. Motherhood is not easy street.
  2. People will not always understand.
  3. My children don’t have to make me look good.
  4. Being the creators of a PUBLIC SCENE is not, in fact, the end of the world as we know it. We’ll live.

But there are more, with little Angel Boy, and I have to learn fresh. I just didn’t know.

  1. His simple needs are so refreshing: no complexities, no drama. Just bottles, diapers, and cuddles—lots of them.
  2. My eyes have opened to an entire wild underworld of special needs. Seen through the lens of my son’s interests, the world seems full of absurd omissions: Are there really no in-store diaper sizes between 6 and Depends? And WHY can’t they make these shopping cart child-seats bigger? What do other mothers do?
  3. He has grown compassion and adaptability in our other three children. How good it has been for them to live with a child who breaks the norm! “But Mommy, I don’t want people to stare at him!” “Nobody will stare, sweetie. And even if they do, why should you care?” “Because I love him…”
  4. I can swallow my pride and gratefully accept public assistance for expensive formula I can’t afford.
  5. I have to recharge. The burnout caught me off-guard: that six days out of seven, he’s a piece of cake, and suddenly on the seventh I can’t take it anymore—the drool, the vocalizations, the intensity. I need to get some space, take a break, come in clean—and unexpectedly, it is okay again.
  6. We have met so much kindness from others. Cautious questions to us, gentle responses to him, easy affection, affirmation where we least expect it. Two nights ago I heard a five-year-old friend say to my daughter, “Is that your baby?” [He’s almost as big as they are.] “Him? Yep. He’s like a baby in a big boy body.” “Aw. He’s sooo cute. He has those chubby little cheeks…”
  7. Being a team player is awesome. I won’t kid you: this is one thing parents “in the system” have going for them that conventional parents often don’t, or have to fight for—a team approach. We work hand in hand with the birth parents, the counselor, the school staff, the caseworker, the designated nurse, the resource agency, and the legal guardian, among others. It’s incredibly frustrating if a simple decision has to be made and I realize I’m not authorized to act, but it’s a lifesaver on the big issues like What is best for him now? What’s a reasonable goal to work toward? How concerned should I be about this behavior? A lot of people are working together on this. We’re not alone.
  8. The “limitations” of a child with special needs can be his most endearing features. He accepts others completely, trustingly. He’s darling and loveable and innocent. He will never walk away from God or hurt another person or choose to do wrong.

In short, it’s been a most blessed path—full of the human and the divine, the joyful and the crushing and the redeemed. And we haven’t walked to the end yet.

*****

I’m sorry I won’t be able to answer any questions about him and his time with us. Please understand—

But what about you? Do you love a child with “special needs”? I’d sure welcome your advice.

Two experiments

Confession: I’ve been meaning to organize the closets and corners of my house for weeks and weeks now. I kept scheduling it in my planner and it kept getting bumped. This couldn’t possibly be my fault… surely someone else is to blame?

With the holidays approaching and a schedule that is unrelenting, I decided to give my house an organizing once-over today and call it good.

Here were my guidelines:

  • Set a timer and spend 15 minutes per room
  • Ask “What drives me nuts here?” and work only on that
  • Keep three containers handy for
    • Trash
    • Donations
    • Items to mend or put away elsewhere
  • Keep a clipboard handy for notes: what clothing is needed, what tasks to return to later

It worked pretty well.

Except the fifteen minutes.

By then I was just getting started…! Sigh. But some rooms took only five, and so it evened out okay. I managed a serious overhaul in some trouble spots: my pantry, my hallway, and my daughter’s bedroom. I have two or three rooms to finish up tomorrow, and I feel quite happy about this.

*****

In other news…

We have some major sibling rivalry going on in our house. Son #2 is full of ire toward his little sister. She cannot do anything right; she is small and stupid; she doesn’t even know the words to that song!

I could try to put a light spin on this and make you think I’m laughing, but I actually feel very worried and discouraged about it. We have instructed and disciplined and praised and interceded to no avail.

We are trying one thing, remembering it was a helpful analogy for him a year ago, with a school friend he was scornful and jealous of—the same one who is now his best friend! We told him a relationship is like a tree, and must be tended… that harsh words and bad attitudes are like pouring salt on the tree and snipping its leaves… that kind actions, gentle words, and a giving heart are like the rain, the sun and the fertilizer that make the tree grow. We made him a poster to illustrate this. When he is unkind to her, he must hang a withered leaf on the tree. When he is kind, he may hang a green leaf or pluck off a withered one.

regan's tree

He grumbled the whole time we cut out leaves together, but as soon as the poster hung on the fridge he was smiling and ran off to invite his sister to a peaceable game of Life.

We shall see… It seems such a small thread, but I don’t know what else to do.

How did you train your children to love each other?

Ten tips for busy moms

Confession: I forgot what it was like to be a really busy mommy. I had four kids this week instead of three—the fourth a precious boy we got to parent for a week and a half. I’m probably not allowed to say more than that, and I can’t post any pictures of him here even though he was such a darling and I would love to show him off to you…

These days, with my kids aged 9, almost 7, and 4, mothering moves in comfortable cycles, through the summer birthday parties into the back to school sales, holiday celebrations, winter doldrums, and spring delights. And around again.

I don’t have to deal with body fluids very much anymore. Everyone is potty trained and reasonably tidy. They eat with their mouths closed and help clean up the kitchen. They’re still a whole lot of work, and joy, but mothering is one of the things I play in. I almost forgot what motherhood immersion felt like.

When you can’t wash a sinkfull of dishes without leaving two or three times (five times? six times?) to care for a child.

When you have one ear open, always, and both eyes as often as you can spare them.

When the laundry hampers fill faster than you can empty them.

When small chatty voices sound to you like fingernails on chalkboard because you’re so crazy tired and don’t think you could answer another question to save your life.

When the endless afternoon stretches out before you, and it’s raining, and you honestly think you might drown in work and boredom.

I LOVED this week. It was an answer to prayer, a sign that God has not forgotten us. But I had to learn a few things in order to stay sane and here they are, just for you, if you are in the crazy stage as well…

To some of you, four children would be a piece of cake and I thank you for your grace to me as I hold forth on busy motherhood. To you and all the rest, I say–

1. Drink coffee.

My favorite pastor’s wife swears by this. Except she doesn’t actually swear, because she is the pastor’s wife and I keep her on a very tight tether. I don’t even let her eat open-toed cupcakes. She reluctantly affirmed instead: Coffee alone is the secret to her success with five children. That and regular church attendance. I drink decaf and it still works wonders: something warm in the hand and strong in the stomach.

2. Use paper plates.

I hate to joke about it, but all I know is that when I use glass plates three times a day, the environment in our home goes downhill fast. Saving mother’s sanity, one tree at a time.

3. Say yes a lot.

This prevents many battles, and even more negotiating.

“Can I do A?”

“No.”

“Well can I do B then?”

“No.”

“When can I do A? Soon? Next year? In fifteen minutes?”

“Ummm….”

“Can I do A if I use the little brushes and clean up after myself?”

Much is simplified if you just say YES, the first time, unless it’s a moral issue or dangerous to the wellbeing of siblings, pets, and houseplants. Hey, they found something they want to do! Just say yes; and then deal with the fallout.

4. Do laundry often.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t deal with a Mt. Fuji of soiled socks and sweaty jeans. One day at a time, sweet Jesus…

5. Get out of your mind.

A quiet life of the mind, like time with your spouse, is divided roughly in half with the addition of each subsequent kid. I promise it’s true. So stop trying to think it all through, give up for a while on the memories and the quiet meditations and the inscrutable depths, and just get those hotdogs in the skillet. You won’t be allowed the luxury of silence; come out of your meditations and into what’s now. Laugh. Sing. Talk to your kids.

6. Ask for help.

You weren’t made to do it alone. After three or four or five, you can’t do it alone. Let your mom buy groceries for you. Let your husband ride herd while you take a ten-minute bathroom break. Swap services with another busy mom. Whatever it takes. There are a whole lot of people cheering you on, even though in the wee hours of the night you may wonder where they got to.

7. Make a tight schedule and follow it loosely.*

*This is not my phrase. I cannot remember the name of the lady who said it… one of the Funk sisters.

A schedule is your friend. If you know that snack is at 10:00 and lunch is at 12:00, it makes it so much easier to know when everyone’s blood sugar is at a low ebb and whether or not starvation is as imminent as they claim. Knowing that you’ll sweep that floor on Friday makes it okay to wink at the dirt on Wednesday and Thursday.

But then—take a chill pill. A schedule is just something to shoot for. If you marry yourself to it, you’ll go crazy.

8. Know when your next break is.

It may sound silly and selfish, but knowing you can run errands ALONE for one hour on Saturday, or sip a quiet cup of coffee after they’re tucked in bed tonight, makes all the difference. You can hang in there till then, right?

9. Stop listening to how everyone else does it.

The day you really bomb as a mother (drill sergeant/crackdown/getyourbuttsinhereNOW and lookatmewhenI’mtalkintoyou) will be the day that every blog and facebook post you read will be a mommy-mommy one about how sweet kids are and how fast they’ll grow up and how you should let everything else go and just love them. You’ll have only one thought: I blew it all.

You didn’t blow it all, honey. You’re a very human mother who had a terrible day.

You will make it through. You can learn from anyone, but the ones you need to listen to are Jesus and the people He placed close to you. Enough with facebook already.

10. Give grace to others. It opens your heart to receive it too.

Keep your eyes open for the mothers with babies climbing all over them. Every one of them could say these words to you: “Please notice me. Please give me grace. Please see beyond my wrinkled outfit, my fussy child, my frazzled face. I know my house is a mess; it’s only clean on Fridays. I know what my hair looks like; it’s only nice on Sundays. My waist disappeared in 2002 and I still can’t find it. I’m lost in here. Be nice to me.”

Let me tell you something about Jesus: following Him doesn’t make life easy. But He is always there. Wipe the tears and snot on His shoulder and let Him rock you a while. He’s soooo good with crying children.

*****

I’m sorry this got long. It’s a good thing I wrote it before our fourth kiddo left because afterwards I didn’t feel like laughing anymore. I miss him too much.

What have you learned in mothering? I’d love to hear your tips, your pieces of the story.