Finding God in the Wild Crash between Motherhood and PICU Nursing

I needed to walk the dog, and the kids were reluctant to join me. I had to sternly remind them that if they wanted this dog, then they needed to fully participate in taking care of him. I was annoyed.

The demands of and feelings about motherhood this past year have crashed wildly with the demands of and feelings about pediatric ICU nursing. I have at times despaired of the intensity of home life in a pandemic only to wildly swing the other direction and hold these mundane, annoying moments of motherhood in precious light when I crouch as a nurse next to a mother crumpled to the ground over losing her child, longing for just one more mundane moment with her beloved.

Doing what I do and seeing what I see at work gives me a certain perspective of what it means to say God is always good, and God is always with us. It holds space for really, really big messes in life, and big messes in my own heart. He’s not just good to me in my smiling, happy, healthy moments with my children. He’s good because He gives hope for the long perspective, one that recognizes we all suffer certain ways and we are all mortal, and yet He has not forsaken us. He has joined us in those messy realities. In one moment Jesus said Father take this cup from me, in the next He said Your will be done.

I am not always as thankful as I should be for the mundane moments with my kids but still He gives them to me. I’m trying to be more intentional about capturing these #proofofmom moments in photograph and story, so when I find myself one day looking back and yearning for them, I can remember all the expressions of His grace and then look ahead with hope for the Day there is no more suffering, sorrow, death or pain.

New Blog Post for AJN: How I Would Prepare My Daughter to Become a Nurse

My kids have been asking me surprisingly specific questions about my work as a nurse lately. I really enjoyed writing this blog post for American Journal of Nursing because God knows the two occupations that have consumed my days and thoughts this past year have been nursing and motherhood.

And at the end of the day, I realize this was a reflection for myself as well – what I have learned and continue to need to learn as both a nurse and simply as a human and as a Christian looking to live faithfully and well in a complicated world.

You can read the entire post here.

A Letter from a Parent to Teachers in the time of COVID-19

The school year started with all the assumptions we make about how life is going to go.

She’ll go to school, she’ll make more friends, the teachers will work their magic, I will have some breathing room for myself, repeat for nine months. At the end of the year, my child will have learned whatever she’s supposed to learn for her grade level and I’ll say thank you to the teachers with a gift card, and see you in the Fall!

Come March 2020 and the notice of shutdown of school campuses due to COVID-19.

I realized in an instant that I didn’t know how to work a teacher’s magic. In fact, I was humbled to learn it’s not just magic. It’s a freaking ton of hard work, tenacity, commitment to the kids, commitment to (and patience with!) the families, incredible flexibility with each child’s unique temperament, iron stomach for politics, creativity, and an understanding of their own worth as powerful shapers of future generations even when the majority of people take a teacher’s job so much for granted.

With all the other parents, I mainly fumbled and sighed and cried my way through the first few weeks of “homeschooling.” But our amazing principal and teachers showed up to our kids and our families with a revamped plan that must’ve kept them up all hours of the night to create (and re-create). Led in that spirit, my first grader didn’t seem to bat an eyelash at all the changes. She never melted down, never complained, only remarked now and then that she missed seeing and hugging her friends and teachers. But her teachers stayed positive, engaged, affectionate, appropriately strict, and very much at the helm.

As painfully long as some of the days were with managing kids at home all day every day with distance learning, I got to see through the Zoom classes how a teacher brings a group of children together in a spirit of hope and community with an unshakable focus on continuing growth and education. I got to know my daughter’s classmates and their parents. I got to know my own child better – how she thinks, how she works through struggles, what sparks her to speak up, what inhibits her, what excites her, what makes her sad. I got to know those things about myself better as a parent as well.

By the last week of school, I finally felt surprisingly settled into the new rhythm, as exhausting as all the demands were. And then it was time to wrap up the school year. There was a winding down of online coursework, but there could be none of the on-campus celebratory end-of-year activities. There was a drive-by the school to wave to teachers and staff, where I went to shout “Thank you!!”out the window and found myself trying not to wail with sobs instead. There was a brief pickup of classroom materials and a side hug with her teacher after asking permission, adjusting her mask and dousing her in hand sanitizer. Emotions were at times muted, at times surprisingly acute, mostly confusing.

Then came the final class Zoom meetings. In a talent show on the second-to-last day, another little girl in class said she had a song to sing about saying good-bye but how everyone remains in each other’s hearts. It was off-key and acapella, but at the end of her song, a little boy then burst into sobs. I looked over at my daughter and she was quietly fighting back her tears. It was her first sign of sad emotion since the quarantine started. I wrapped my arms around her, she turned off her video, and waited to compose herself before getting back into the Zoom meeting. She said they were just happy tears.

Today. The final day of school. The online class talent show finished up, and it was time for all the children and their teacher to say good-bye. They all clasped their hands together and pumped their fists back and forth from their chest to the computer screen, “sending love” as their teacher called it. My daughter stayed on until the last minute, as one by one each little square for each classmate’s face disappeared from the virtual classroom. She was already blinking back tears but as the meeting ended, she buried herself in my arms, and we were both crying together.

This year, our kids lost so much. But in this mysterious, imperfect, painful, beautiful, terrible, magical way, we have also gained so much. And teachers and school staff, I now know that you are the most hard-working and the most magical people I know. We did it, and we did it together, but you led the way with your grit and your heart. Our family is sending you all our love.

A Mother’s Day poem and prayer, for mothers of children under 5

These Are the Days

They tell me these are the days

I will miss when you are a teenager, a young adult, a grown woman perhaps with a family of your own.

These days that blur mindlessly, sometimes too heartlessly, into one long Groundhog’s Day

Waking, shepherding, feeding, cleaning, driving, fussing, feeding, hugging, cleaning, feeding, shepherding again

Negotiating all the same arguments, navigating all the same demands, cleaning all the same messes.

Have we grown at all since yesterday? Last month? Last year?

I don’t see it until I look up from the drudges and see you. When did the baby

Face, voice, squishy cuddles, innocence

Disappear into yesterday’s hazy memory?

…..

These are the days

I still light up your eyes so effortlessly.

These are the days

I can still fix most of your problems with a long hug, a kiss, a Hello Kitty band-aid,

And reassurance that Mommy is here.

These are the days

You still want to tell me everything you do, and love, and discover and want.

These are the days

We are still so simple in who we are to each other, you and I.

…..

These are the days.

Don’t let me wish them by too soon.

 

“So teach us to number our days,

That we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Psalm 90:12

Lessons in Motherhood: Dying to Self, Finding Love

In my single and then newlywed years, I’m not sure who I imagined myself to be as a parent. I know I was scared and delayed starting a family because of what I thought to be legitimate excuses reasons, but ultimately it came down to fear of everything – how much I would have to give up, how my life and relationships and body would change, whether or not I would be a failure at it all. I didn’t have a clear vision of what kind of mother I would be. Five and a half years and 2 kids into motherhood, I’m still finding my way, learning them, learning me, learning God.

The thing that’s so hard to explain to people who have yet to experience parenthood without sounding like an ungrateful jerk, particularly when children are in their little years (in my case, ages 3 and 5), is the daily dying to self that is involved. I am an introvert who cherishes quiet and alone time; I now have very little of either. I was efficient and now I’m not (hello 36 steps, 2 meltdowns, and minimum 4 arguments to get into the car). I was neat and organized and now I’m not. I slept well and now I don’t. I felt safe(r) and now I feel vulnerable. I thrived on conversations about deep and heart-level things; now my adult conversations are limited and interrupted, and most of my everyday conversations are make-believe and weirdly perpetually argumentative and usually illogical. Even with the awareness that life would primarily become focused on raising my children after that first moment we beheld the positive pregnancy test, I still remain someone with my own passions, goals, and interests that are very much alive. I think it’s this aspect of the daily dying of self that hits me the hardest; not that I’m completely unable to pursue my dreams but I’m certainly much more constrained. Up until I became a parent, what I typically heard was loud, enthusiastic, pervasive urging to go hard after my dreams. “Don’t let anything get in your way!” I’d never been taught what it looks like to gracefully and humbly constrain my dreams for certain seasons, particularly in a way that retains deep hope and joy.

So much of this is about this death-defying fight to preserve the old me, who I was (and who I idolized, quite frankly) before becoming a parent. See, I didn’t just enjoy being an efficient, organized, deep-thinking, dream-pursuing introvert.  Fundamentally, I also thought I was really patient, decently generous, good at caring about others and meeting them where they are at. I loved that version of me in my mind. Parenthood not only challenged and/or undid the former things, which were hugely precious to me; it revealed significant deficiencies in the latter that rattled my happiness with myself, my character, to the core. Who knew that I could speak so sharply to a child who, with no ill intent, accidentally soiled her bedsheets at an inconvenient time for me? Who knew I could be so ungrateful for our food, our home, our material goods, an education, that I could become embittered about the daily process of trying to get my kids fed, dressed, and off to school each morning? Who knew that I could possess such lack of empathy as I demanded that my 3 year-old negotiate life with me at my maturity level (and p.s., turns out I am sometimes the less mature between us). Apparently, God knew, and now I know, and it’s a bit appalling. Looking into the mirror my children hold up to me is like looking into the mirror without makeup, without outward adornment, without a chance to fix my face and smile for the camera. I much prefer the face with makeup, a prepared smile highlighted just right by a groomed outfit. How do I learn to love and accept the unadorned, and then embrace the revealing and refining of it?

A common response is, “Every parent struggles, and it’s ok! You’re ok and you’re not alone!” While it helps to know that other mothers struggle in similar ways as I do, at the end of the day this is no relief for the guilt I still feel for hurting my sweet children’s feelings, nor is it any source of empowerment for me to change. No, actually, it’s not ok that I yell at my kids just because I’m grouchy and don’t want to be inconvenienced any more for the day. It’s not ok for me to trudge through their little years with a chip on my shoulder, always slightly looking past them and looking ahead to the days when I hopefully get more of my independence back. It’s not ok that I miss so much of who they are because I’m still too stuck on me. Yes, these are all common struggles among parents, but that doesn’t make it ok.

I’m realizing that loving my kids starts not first and foremost with loving God (because I fall short there as well), but knowing from my rattled core what it is to be loved by Him. Not a surface, sweet, “Oh I love you, you’re fine, it’s gonna be ok!” kind of love. But a gritty oh man He sees my crap and calls it for what it is, but He remains deeply passionate about the well-being of my soul and is committed to being with me, in my worst, for my best. He loves the unadorned face staring back at me in the mirror. And then He does what I really need Him to do: He turns my gaze off myself before I can heap any more self-condemnation, before I can offer any more self-pity, before I can work to muster any more unconvinced self-cheer. He turns my gaze to Him, the One who covers my shame with grace and forgiveness, the One who fills my daily mundane moments in motherhood with significance, the One who empowers me to serve and grow because He Himself laid down His rights and glory and life to serve and sacrifice for us. He gives me Himself as my Good and Loving Heavenly Father who wants my best in motherhood, and so He uses motherhood itself to reveal in me my worst. In that place, He is unflinching in His love for me. From that place, I can but love Him, love my unadorned self, and love these children He has so graciously entrusted to me.

The Elusive Work-Life Balance: On Self-Compassion

I’ve started a separate blog for my nursing-related topics, as my writing on nursing is beginning to take on a momentum of its own. Many of the original posts are lifted from this site, but I’m adding new content every 1-2 weeks.

My latest post is on the elusiveness of the work-life balance as a mother and nurse, and the role of self-compassion when that balance feels near impossible to find:

http://heartofnursing.blog/2017/05/30/work-life-balance-self-compassion/

Papi, Read the Story

The curious and perhaps inevitable effect of a major health crisis on any family is its power to elicit affection, emotion, and perhaps long-resisted efforts at connection from those most directly involved. Reserved personalities crack open, reach out. Estranged relationships build bridges, sometimes temporarily for survival, sometimes repentantly for healing. Close relationships sometimes buckle, sometimes grow closer, sometimes both and. Nurses are the necessary constant presence in the hospital room, going about our business as discreetly as possible but inevitably witnessing the profound revealing of relationships in the heart’s most vulnerable moments.

When there is a tremendous amount of brokenness and bitterness in the family dynamics, the heaviness of the health crisis itself becomes compounded. Nurses, particularly pediatric ICU nurses, typically bear witness to – and carry the weight of – the heavier emotions and the intense expressions thereof. Grief, anxiety, despair, anger, guilt, frustration, death. Death can be an emotion when there is nothing left for a ransacked heart to feel.

And so, truly simple, unencumbered love is rare to see in the PICU, in all of life, really. But one day, I witnessed such a love, and it changed me. It gave me hope. It made me want to be a different person, better, freer.

There was a girl and her father. They were just barely entering the recovery phase of the biggest health crisis of her young life. The doctor brought good news, the best news, in the morning. They were still recovering, but so relieved.

You could tell, though, they had a certain love, a certain commitment, a certain freedom in their commitment to love that carried them forward, long before this doctor’s good news carried them forward. You could just tell, the moment you met them.

The doctor’s good news made it an uneventful day, waiting for a room to open up on the regular floors since she no longer needed ICU care. I quietly slipped in to troubleshoot her leaky IV. Her father was reading The Lion King to her, but I only knew this because I saw the title of the book when I had entered. Really, by all objective measures, it was a terrible reading of the story. There was stammering, hesitation, repetition, a very strong accent, and the occasional skipping of words altogether. It took so much energy to decipher his storytelling, I wondered how the girl found this helpful when she had every movie and cartoon at her fingertips on the hospital TV. I was fairly certain her English reading skills far exceeded his. But she lay contentedly in her bed, hugging her teddy, gazing at her father.

I was still fiddling with the IV when the dad looked up mid-sentence at me, smiling. In his broken English he told me, “I don’t know how to read. I’m just learning, and I was supposed to start school soon but she got sick so I might have to wait a little longer.” I smiled and told him, “I’m learning Spanish, and you’re learning English. It all takes a lot of time.” I told him to feel free to keep reading, that I was still working on the IV but didn’t want to interrupt him. I returned my attention to my task at hand and was intermittently whispering to the girl, “Ok you’re going to feel me pulling tape off. Ok now you’re going to feel some cool salt water in the IV but tell me if it hurts.” The father had not yet resumed his reading, I assume to let me finish what I was doing.

“Papi. Papi, keep reading the story.”

The hesitant stuttering and stammering resumed, unashamed. I still couldn’t understand any of it and I can’t imagine the girl understood much either, but it didn’t matter. There was no shame, no complication in it, only love. What mattered to her was not that he read her the story, but that he simply read to her. He was content to read, and she was content to listen.

My heart was made freer that day.

for comfort

To my sweet girls,

Almost every day, I look at each of you and can still hardly believe that I am a mother. I know my birthday is coming and the number isn’t getting any smaller. People may look at the number and think I should have had you both ten years ago. But I feel as though I should be wiser at this age, or as wise as someone at least ten years beyond me, before I can feel like a legitimate mom. When I watch the world news and see what I see at my workplace, the responsibility to nurture and guide you through this crazy world feels so daunting. Some days, I wish I could keep you in this innocent baby and toddler stage forever. Somehow it feels safer for us all that way.

There is something about the way you each look at me. Your inherent recognition that I and your Daddy are more than just your primary caregivers. We are connected in a way that goes unspeakably deeper than all the shared days and nights under the same roof. You lived inside of me, your heart and lungs and brain and fingers and toes grew inside of me until I could see that you were in fact a whole and living person, all at once unique from me but absolutely connected to me in every sense of the word. We are family, the four of us. We will learn from each other how to have healthy relationships, God-willing. We will learn respect and hurt and forgiveness and sharing and boundaries and togetherness and individuality. We will learn love and the depths of joy and pain that come together with love. We will learn about Jesus and struggle through the hard questions about God and life together. I’m on this journey with you, sweet girls. I still can hardly believe that I am on this journey with you as your mama.

I took care of a patient the other day that made me think so much of both of you. Through the partially closed blinds, I watched her mama sway, slowly back and forth, holding her baby so tenderly with all the love and ache that could not be contained by a hospital room for a precious sick baby. The doctor’s orders said it was ok to put the baby at mama’s breast for comfort. For comfort. They meant for the baby but it was for mama too. I knew she couldn’t put her baby down. She needed to hold her. She needed to comfort her. I couldn’t stay in the room. I didn’t know how to help prepare a mama for the hardest days ahead without falling apart myself. I thought of both of you girls and wanted to hold you both to my breast so tightly that night. For comfort.

I want you to know, I am your mama, but I am not your Savior. I won’t be here on this earth forever with you. There will be days, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently, when I cannot hold you to my breast for comfort. I want you to know Jesus, sweet girls. Our Heavenly Father gave up His Son, gave up His only Son, to take our suffering and our death, so that all the hurt you will experience from within and from with-out in the course of your life, will one day be wiped away in the perfection and ultimate healing of Heaven. I want you to know the One who will always love you perfectly when I fail you. I want you to know the One who will teach us to love and forgive each other when we have hurt each other. I want you to know the One whose tender and strong hands put your heart and lungs and fingers and toes together in my womb with a skill that no accidental science could ever dictate. This is Love who put you together. I want you to know Him, sweet girls. He knows you and loves you so much. He is your forever Comfort. I want to take you to my breast and bring you to Him. This is what I want more than anything to do for you as your mama. For comfort. Because He is good. He is so, so good.

This Little, Big Heart

One of my most interesting, rewarding, entertaining, and at times frustrating jobs as a mom to an 18-month old is learning how to accurately interpret the words and phrases she is slowly learning to say. To date, I have learned that “beh-ji” is a request for berries, “book” is a request for milk, and “Buddy” is a request for her little stuffed animal whom I’ve consistently referred to as “Lambie.” I cannot for the life of me figure out if she has renamed him “Buddy” or if she truly hears the pronunciation of “Lambie” as “Buddy.” But I digress. A favorite a-ha moment was hearing her say what sounded like “apple” as she put both hands to her face, and realizing she was actually trying to prompt a game of “Peek-a-Boo!” I am convinced she is the cutest child on the face of the planet, and I am certain I am not biased.

An additional challenge is trying to figure out when she is simply practicing the new words she is learning, or when she is actually making a real request. Often, when she awakens from a nap, random words come out of her mouth in her still half-delirious sleepy state, which can be quite amusing. Regardless, she is clearly learning the dynamics of communication and takes delight in my ability to identify what she is trying to say and give a hopefully-appropriate response.

Yesterday, after finishing dinner and giving up her fourth, yes fourth poop of the day, she was whisked off to an early bath by daddy while I cleaned up the dishes. I couldn’t believe the jackpot of poopy diapers we had scored through the day and was certain she had nothing left to clear in her little belly by that point, which was a good thing because that whole diaper area was starting to get a little red and tender from so much wiping. Fresh and clean from her bath, diaper area covered in ointment, she was happily baby-drunk-walking around the living room when one little word came out of her mouth. “Poop.” I looked over in disbelief. “Did you poop?” She was quietly playing. I bent down and sniffed from the front, and my hyper-sensitive pregnancy nose failed to capture any hint of the brown stuff. Oh, I thought, she must just be practicing her words again.

About 10 minutes later, she burst into tears, arched her back and became essentially inconsolable for about half an hour. I still smelled nothing, and apparently lost all common sense to simply check the diaper area regardless. First I thought, she must be breaking out in her 18-month molars… she’s been so drooly lately. Then I figured, she didn’t nap as long today…she’s probably just getting tired. But as the crying continued to escalate, the paranoid PICU nurse in me actually jumped to the thought, It might be cancer! I’ve heard a number of patient stories where a normally calm child became inconsolable and cancer was eventually discovered in the ED… what if it’s cancer?! Thinking that some fresh air and change of scenery would do the trick, I took her outside to show her the moon and stars. It worked, temporarily. We went back inside and she became inconsolable again until I held her in the rocking chair and sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” She was again calm for about 20 minutes before breaking out in another round of a full sweat and streaming tears.

Finally, finally, I put her on the changing table to check her diaper. Sure enough. Just enough poop in the back area of her diaper to irritate her already-sensitive skin.

I looked into her wet, tired, frustrated, confused eyes and said, “I’m so sorry, sweet girl. You tried to tell me and I didn’t believe you. That must’ve been so frustrating, and you have an ouchie on your bottom. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to you.” She got quiet and looked aside, as if processing my acknowledgement of my failure and my apology. The frustration slowly eased from her face, and peace took its place.

And then, she put her hand to her mouth, and blew me a kiss. Over and over again. And as if that gesture of love and forgiveness was not enough, she took my wrist with her little hand and put my hand to my mouth, as if to prompt me to blow a kiss, as if to acknowledge the love she knew I was trying to show, in my oh-so-imperfect way.

Such grace from this little, big heart. Such a gift, this little one. Such a gift of grace.

The Gift of Humdrum

It was her one-year well-child doctor’s appointment, and her pediatrician and main nurse were already running late at 8:45AM. They were as wonderfully warm and sincere as ever, but I could sense the suppressed sense of urgency. Movements were quietly swift, chit chat was held at bay, statements and questions were kept brief. “No fever. Her growth curves look beautiful. Questions? It’s so great to see you again. We’ll see you in a few months.” For all our anticipation leading up to her first year doctor’s appointment, it was rather anticlimactic and brief. Vaccines were given, tears were shed, and then baby girl went back to playing with her car seat straps as though she hadn’t been poked with seven needles and screamed bloody murder for 5 minutes at the top of her lungs. She didn’t need any toys. Just back to those amazing car seat straps and she was a happy camper.

Beautiful growth curves. They testified of the daily humdrum of the last 365 days. Up at 10PM, 1AM, 4AM to put the baby to breast with no one else to bear witness of this humdrum but the crickets, the stars, and a husband who often stirred to help relieve a tired mama.

Beautiful growth curves testified of week after week of trying to think of new foods to steam, mash, freeze, defrost, chop, heat, pack, repeat, repeat, repeat. After trying to figure out when I could make time to cook food for the big people and clean up our dishes too. After trying to figure out when this took priority over cleaning self and cleaning house while baby napped.

Beautiful growth curves testified of reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” for the 726th time, and noticing that she interacts with this book differently than she did 3 or 4 months ago. It was exciting when she learned how to turn the pages. Now she likes to poke her finger into the little holes that the caterpillar ate! She didn’t do that before! Oh and now her face lights up with the most excited smile every time we reach the last page – He became a beauuuuutiful butterfly!!!! Story and pictures have begun to take on meaning for her, and I see it happening right before my eyes.

Beautiful growth curves testified of all those long afternoons when I sat next to her while she played with something I never thought anyone would find so fascinating, as I watched the clock and thought of all the other things I might be doing with my time. She’s really into playing with that empty water bottle. Maybe I can step away and read my book. With one movement away from her, I prompt her to look up and cry out in protest. But MOM… this is our time! I sit myself down next to her and marvel out loud to the best of my ability at the amazing sounds a crunchy empty water bottle can make when held tightly in two little hands. Again.

I watch the relentlessly depressing daily news and think of how we never hear news reports of all the successful flights that make it from takeoff to landing without incident. We never hear news reports praising the parents who don’t leave their child to overheat in the back seat of a car. We never hear about the humdrum. I hear stories of wars raging in the Ukraine, Syria, Israel, and I think of how fortunate I am to live the current humdrum of my daughter sitting in front of me for another meal, looking out at the same trees and sunlight that she always points at from her high chair, day in, day out, far removed from any imminent threat of violence. We have no guarantees and our relative state of peace is something to give great thanks for, sweet baby.

These are quiet days. As she grows to understand the world, not just by news report but by her own personal experiences, and is no longer consoled so easily by empty water bottles and straps on a car seat, and when her growth is bumpy and rocky and not so smooth, I will look back on these past 365+ days and think, oh this gift of humdrum, what a gift it is.