Resting without Apology

Ever since my TEDxTalk in September 2017, I entered a season where public speaking was a regular thing, a thread I had to figure out how to interweave into the rest of my life without letting it overtake the entire pattern. I was invited to present keynotes at various nursing conferences and also teach workshops in smaller contexts, and there was always what felt like some big thing(s) on the schedule that I had to prepare for (and feel anxious about). It was exciting and in many ways hugely affirming of strengths and giftings, but the general public doesn’t realize how much effort and intense squeezing of time it involves to prepare well for public presentations, while still trying to maintain other primary life roles and obligations.

It can be intoxicating to hear people tell you that you are gifted, that you have so much to offer, that you’ve made such a difference in the world. Jackie Hill Perry, a well-known author, speaker, artist, and mother, addressed this in her interview with the Risen Motherhood podcast when she said it’s a challenge to put that affirmation from the world in its right place while wrestling with daily faithfulness in motherhood, where your work can feel mundane, repetitive and very much taken for granted. We’re all looking for a sense of significance, and what an internal battle it was to go back and forth from public to private life and try to guard my own sense of groundedness, security and contentment regardless of where my work landed me each day.

There’s a lot of energy that goes into producing what is hopefully worthwhile material for the general public, and energy that goes into the growing and struggling with the process. My last speaking engagement was in May and there is nothing else on the calendar for now, outside of what I choose to pursue by way of blogging for AJN on my timeline, working on my own writing at my leisure, and starting the online Narrative Medicine Certification program with Columbia University this Fall, which can be at my pace. It’s a season of rest (though life with family certainly remains full), and there’s been a considerable amount of detoxing that has come with the transition into rest from the public work for the time being.

What I am realizing is that very few of us know how to rest well, or at least how to rest without some sort of apology or justification attached. The burden of guilt stifles the very freedom, joy and restoration that true rest is supposed to bring about. What is that about? Can we be more kind to ourselves and each other in this hyperproductive world we find ourselves spinning in?

I’m looking to be faithful to what God has put before me, to still serve others well, to still pursue God-given dreams. But I’m also looking to learn how to rest without apology or shame. I haven’t quite found my way in that yet, but I’m convinced that the freedom and joy that come with true rest – both on a spiritual level in Christ and on a practical level in the world – are not altogether elusive.

When an Over-responsible Caregiver Learns a Life Lesson from a 5 Year Old

I have in recent weeks come up against my limits at times of what I can give to others and accomplish in the course of a day, and it hasn’t always been a graceful acceptance of those limits. I have instead resented them, and then learned the harder way to heed them and their inherent God-given wisdom rather than slam myself up against them to see if they will budge (they won’t, not much anyhow).

It can be a double-edged sword, this tremendous pride and meaning we caregivers find in being so good at seeing the needs of others and going to them with openness to help meet those needs. This characteristic is both its own reward and its own potential enemy – precisely because we are so good at it and there is always more need. When I find myself holding too tightly to my caregiver persona to be my personal motivator and satisfier, there always inevitably comes a point where I am hit with my finitude, and either become embittered or humbled by it. Which response I choose will set me on a trajectory one way or another.

Choosing to become embittered may initially make me seem stronger and tougher, but in the long haul my heart only grows empty and hard. Digging my heels into the role when I have in fact hit my limits has only led to resenting others, and ultimately judging myself rather than listening to myself when I feel my own needs emerge. I become more a shell of a caregiver than true substance.

Choosing humility frees my identity from the need to always be (perceived as) the strong one for others. It allows me to value myself in all my strengths and limitations, and gently voice rather than demand what it is I need. It allows me to rest, allows me to receive help, and most importantly allows me to love and receive love based on who we all are, not what we all do or need to do.

My 5 year old daughter showed me in one simple exchange how much I had lost sight of what’s most important in my perspective as a caregiver, and invited me back into the beauty of it.

“Mommy, what is a privilege?”

“Well, it’s something that you are so lucky to be able to do, something not everyone gets to do. It’s different from a responsibility, which is something you have to do.”

“So… a privilege is like how you get to be a Mommy to me and Kayla?”

She stopped me in my tracks and showed me the change of heart that I needed. She wasn’t looking at an incomplete checklist of all my responsibilities. She was looking at our relationship.

“Yes honey. It is a privilege to be a Mommy to you and Kayla. It is a privilege.”

 

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.

Goal-setting and measuring sticks

The past 30 minutes are fairly typical of my current life.

While boxed mac ‘n cheese boils on the stovetop, I stand at my computer trying to take in some of today’s Bible reading while my 2.5 year-old plays and intermittently chats with me. Meditation on the suffering of Job is interspersed with mindlessly echoing of “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and pretending to take bites of slime-based “pizza” that my daughter “cooked” for me. Somewhere in the back of my mind also looms the pressure of my half-baked nursing presentations that are coming up fast. I’m not sure what my plan is for dinner and toys are scattered throughout the house. Notifications keep popping up from social media outlets – some matter, most don’t. I’m perpetually two steps behind on current trends, news and nursing-related issues. I need to touch base with different friends. I ache for focus and clarity, and just keep going.

It’s the New Year and it’s a time when we set lofty goals. We want to push ourselves to excel beyond last year’s limits and failures. But today as I feel the all-too-familiar pressure to be “better” (read: perfect) in all the areas of my life, I have to wonder how much this goal-setting has really profited me when it becomes the measuring stick for how well I feel I am doing. I find myself looking for a humbler freedom to be at greater peace with my human limitations. I have a suspicion there has been more grace than I have realized, from God, from friends and family to live within my limits and imperfections. The ones in my life who truly know me and want my best are not measuring me; they’re just loving me. As more demands than ever seem to lie before me, it’s the year to live more freely and joyfully in this grace for myself.

On Thinking Small, Dreaming Big, and Being Loved

It is a strange thing to be profoundly loved, to know you have been created for a high purpose to God’s glory, and to also be acutely aware that your life is fleeting, a drop in the bucket at best, even if lived out to 80, 90, 100 really good years.

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” Ecclesiastes 1:9-11

These are long, hidden days where the monotony can cloud over me in a mind-numbing fog of back and forth between food prep in the kitchen (because why are we eating everything and nothing ALL DAY LONG) and oft-feigned excitement about playing hours of make-believe in the living room. I’ve got a heart full of dreams that may or may not come to pass. I appreciate the encouragement to pursue them, and pursue them I will, but I’m not convinced they are guaranteed if I just believe and work hard enough at it all. I’ve got vision and desire to be involved in changing the world, but some days I can barely manage my impatience with my kids. I am brought down from the clouds over and over, to right here, right now, change starts here.

I’m fully known and seen and significant, and yet I am small and fleeting like the grass, here one day and gone the next. If my work in a pediatric ICU has taught me anything, it has taught me this: Nothing about my life is a given, and the world goes on without me. I may live 95 years and leave a legacy as a thought-provoking author with phenomenal children who will be lights in their generation. I may live just one more month and all my thoughts of book writing, all my dreams for my children, all my vision to be a part of world-changing work could die with me in a freak accident. It’s not to be morbid, it’s to say that I matter and I don’t all in the same breath, and there’s something strangely liberating about both sides of that coin. I am restless against all my constraints – the incessant duties of motherhood, the indiscriminate nature of potential disease and tragedy, the maddening inertia of writer’s block. But one day my kids will leave the nest, and one day someone else could write the book, probably better. It wouldn’t mean I was loved less or tasked with any lesser purpose. It would just be my kids’ time to go, and someone else’s time to realize an important dream.

At the end of the day, what I realize is this.

Nothing is owed to me, but grace has been given for today.

So I’ll play make-believe and stack blocks, and I’ll make the effort over and over to not send a message that the passions of my little ones are any less significant than my own. And I’ll write, and dream, and if there is a God-ordained time for some fruition of these seeds in my heart, then it will be from Him and for Him.

Circumstance

I love circumstances when they work in my favor. As a mother of two very young children, my days at home can easily be described as good days if my circumstances go well. The toddler didn’t test her limits to an excessive degree. The baby napped well, synchronized her naptime with the toddler’s, and they let me get housework done. I love good circumstances because I am embarrassingly prone to self-pity on a bad day. If the baby woke before I was ready for her, while the toddler was being particularly needy during our morning routine, and everyone decided to give Mommy blowout diapers to clean up, while dishes piled in the sink and Mommy hasn’t been able to sip her now-lukewarm coffee and the house is a mess and curse Daddy for going to work today and leaving Mommy here to deal with this madness in anonymous solitude, I move so quickly in self-perception from Blessed Mother of Two Healthy Girls to The Poor Woman Stuck at Home in a Nightmare. When the bad days are bad, I struggle deeply with the adjustment from one to two children. It depends so much on the circumstances.

The root of the word circumstance is circum (“around”) and stare (“to stand”). I am humbled by my lack of footing in something other than circumstance. I can be genuinely moved by the photos of little Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the Turkish beach, reminded for a brief period that I have more than I know in my life circumstances to be thankful for. But five minutes into arguing with my toddler about why she cannot have Cheerios for dinner and why her milk cannot be in a cup without a lid so that she can watch it swish swish swish out of the cup onto the wood floor, I have already forgotten how to be thankful for my healthy children, the extra milk in the garage fridge, and this wood floor in this house that we own. Circumstance is so relative, and so fleeting. But I confess I depend on it for my joy and a gracious attitude towards others. So much. Too much.

Every morning when I pray with the toddler before breakfast, my prayer is somewhat the same, but I mean it just as much every single time. “Thank You Lord for new mercies this morning. Help us to live in Your grace.” I am fighting every day to live in grace that covers my immediate circumstances but also moves beyond them. To know that God is very present in my middle-class chaos, but also, always, prompting me to remember that my life and my family are part of a bigger picture in a world with refugee crises and much greater needs than our own. To know that God is very present in this five-minute argument with my toddler, but also, always, prompting me to remember that my best life guidance for her is to show her a gracious Savior who loves her and her Mommy in our worst and lowest moments.

Lord, move me beyond trying to stand in my circumstances, and help me more and more to stand firm in Your grace.

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.

dear friend,

You are in the darkest place your soul has ever known, and my heart hurts for you because I’ve been there too. It is beyond lonely. The voice of shame and accusation feels stronger than the voice of truth and love, because you feel more acutely aware than anyone around you, even your dearest loved ones, of how deep your sin and darkness have run, how far they have taken you from the person you thought you were, the person others thought you were. You wonder if your life was a lie, and it feels near impossible to even imagine yourself regaining any resemblance of that life again. You don’t know where to turn. You don’t feel you can fall any further and yet you feel you can never move forward again.

I want to say some magic words, pray some magic prayers, give a hug somehow strong enough to bring your heart back to freedom. I hurt because I cannot, but I hope because there is One who can. Oh my beloved Christ, He never gave up on me, though I ran, though I cursed, though I protested, though I shook my fist and said it was impossible for me to come back to life, I’d gone too far. I thought I understood grace until I didn’t understand grace. I had made such intentional choices against the One who gave up His life for me. Who forgives that? I deserved my emptiness. But He was stronger than the grave of my heart. He ran to me and wept over me and sang tenderly over my sick and broken spirit and loved me back to life. He will do the same for you. Maybe you have never fully understood the grace you preached, but maybe now, now you will, more than before, more than ever. Your life can still count for good, because of Him, because of the Gospel.

Friend, you may not believe me, but I still respect you as much as I ever did. Not because you are the hero you felt you had to be, but because you are my dear friend, because you are a child of God, that’s all, that’s enough. Please don’t walk away from the ones who love you. We won’t leave you, we won’t shame you in our words or our thoughts, we won’t. Please just let us love you.

Wearing Pajamas to Work Leads to the Most Schizophrenic Compliments

With my typical work attire being just slightly a notch above pajamas, and my standard work hairdo being the ever so ageless ponytail, I wouldn’t exactly say I dress up for work and dress down on my days off. I could swing through my nursing unit on an off-day for a meeting or a class, dressed in jeans and a decent blouse with my hair let down, and one of the most common comments I get is:

“You look really nice today! I didn’t recognize you at first.”

Haven’t we all either had someone say this to us, or said it to someone else? Somewhere in there is a compliment, but there’s something else there too. Something that consists of… well, not a compliment.

It’s curious, and rather revealing, the things we say without actually verbalizing them. Other unintentionally mixed compliments that leave me awkwardly scrambling to find a non-awkward response include:

“You’re really good at (some ability). I wish I could be as good as you.”

“Oh, so you’re a (fill in job title or some other specific role)? I could never do that.”

“You’re so funny” (in reaction to something you said that was not an actual joke).

There is a Bible verse that says, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” It’s true. We aren’t so good at not saying what we don’t mean to say. (How’s that for a brain-bending sentence?) We inadvertently end up saying it anyhow, somehow. It makes sense then that the responder to a schizophrenic compliment has a hard time knowing which aspect of the schizophrenia to respond to. It’s easier to just say “thank you” to the compliment portion, but somehow the other implied commentary lingers in the air and begs for our attention.

Somehow, I think there has got to be a better way to have these conversations. Either keeping the compliment in pure compliment form (which we still have struggles giving and receiving), or else shamelessly but ever so graciously delving into more honest discussions about what we’re actually thinking. Maybe what we have a hard time with is keeping that conversation going from a place in both parties that is full of grace and free of shame.

Why is that? Why do grace and shame exert such strong influence over the dynamics of these kinds of conversations?

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For reference and credit, Adam McHugh’s recent blog post, “Why I Sometimes Lie About my Profession” inspired me to write this.