About Me, Catholics Do What?, Contraception, Living Humanae Vitae, Marriage, motherhood, NFP

But what do the neighbors think? {Living humanae vitae part 8}

July 17, 2018

Lately I’ve been experimenting with a little mental exercise I like to call “what if there’s a nanny cam?” Now, being the queen of my domicile and the only avid Amazon clicker in the house, I can be reasonably confident this is only a mental exercise. However, it has borne some fruit when I play it out in my imagination to the logical conclusion and pretend there are tapes that we’re going to be playing back later tonight, after business hours, assessing my performance.

Did she keep her cool? Did she raise her voice? Did everyone feel seen and heard and cherished? Did someone learn a new curse word today?

Another less fanciful game we play, my inner monologue and I, is “what do the neighbors think?” — less fanciful because we are hemmed in on three sides by other suburban homes with human dwellers, most of whom are quietly retired and whose tranquility has been routinely shattered since August last when our noisy infantry rolled into the subdivision.

This morning I tossed the crushed wrapper of a pack of Marlboro Reds into the recycling bin. Yesterday it was lying in the middle of the street as the late afternoon rain poured down. Today it was lying 10 feet into my front yard, helpfully tossed there by a passing pedestrian who figured we were the hot mess it belonged to.

Fair enough, passing pedestrian. Fair enough.

I play this game at a higher level in the grocery store and the post office and oh my gosh do I play it on those rare and furtive visits to Whole Foods to retrieve 12-pack cases of LaCroix, marked down 60% thanks to their unholy alliance with Amazon. Keeping my eyes fixed on my offspring, we sweep quietly through the exterior of the store to toss magically-priced organic raspberries ($.99 cents a pint!) and sparkling water into the tiny cart already crammed with human cargo; I know that this of all places is where I can still reliably count on the questions and commentary.

Eyes down, children accounted for, clothes neat and applied correctly to body parts. That’s the best I can hope for.

I feel the weight of the entire reputation of my subversive cultural group on my tired, baby-wrenched shoulders during these errands. All the digital ink spilled on electronic page can’t undo a single poor impression made by an actual family in actual public, or so I tell myself.

Do I care less about appearances than I did when we first started our family? Yes, and no.

I have less time to worry about what random strangers think, but more time to worry about the impressions we’re making on our real neighbors, the barista at my local Starbucks, the teller at our bank. When we’re a recurrent fixture in their lives and they see it all, day after day, the solitary impressions adding up to a lifetime of reputation, what must they think?

Does she love them? Does she like being a mom? Gosh, she must have wanted a ton of kids. Are they all getting enough attention? Gosh, those two siblings seem spaced really close together. I wouldn’t want a life like that. Seems chaotic. I wonder if she’ll ever lose that baby weight. She’s really letting herself go…

And on and on it goes, the internal commentary viciously dissecting and passing judgement on my performance as a wife and mother and human being and all without anyone having to utter a single word!

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to embracing and living what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage and children and motherhood. I spend too much time in my head critiquing and not enough time on my knees begging for the strength to actually carry on.

I worry about what my thin dual income/two-kids neighbors think of our hot mess and my large thighs, trying to present an attractive enough image to justify this way of life, even presenting it as a viable option that really anyone could do! (insert strained and vaguely insincere smile.)

I let myself believe the lie that this could possibly compete with what the world has to offer.

That living this way, apart from Christ, could have any real merit compared to financial stability and a healthy weight and an annual tropical vacation.

None of this makes sense apart from the Cross. But I never want to show the cross in public –  gore is so off-putting.

Why not lead with what’s attractive? A subtle interior voice whispers. You don’t want to make this look too difficult. It wouldn’t be right to show someone you’re struggling. Best they only see the highlight reel. Smile! Or else you could be the reason somebody decides to never have kids one day….

It is so obvious that the voice whispering so urgently in my ear for much of the day isn’t God’s.

But I almost always fail to identify it as satan’s until he has done his dirty work, the sneaky bastard.

I let myself carry on, believing it is my own perfectionism whispering criticism in my ear all day long, not recognizing that the enemy of my soul has an axe to grind and a perfect opportunity to hit me where it hurts.

I long to do the good, and so he holds up an apparent good – impossible standards and all – and dangles it over my head, promising that if only I try hard enough, I can achieve perfection.

It’s pride mingled with a dangerous self reliance, all cloaked in a sticky sweet coating of good intentions and the desire for control.

My entire struggle with NFP can be summed up thusly: she wanted to be in control.

I don’t struggle with the theology of it. I appreciate the science behind it. I acknowledge the inherent dignity in it. And still, I wrestle.

If there is one thing I continue to ram up against, almost a decade into marriage as a practicing Catholic, it is the contradictory belief that I can both move peacefully and unobtrusively through this world and also fully embrace and strive to follow the teachings of Christ.

Silly me, I thought I’d get to choose my cross.

Being open to life is beautiful. But it’s not like, Instagram beautiful. There isn’t a filter strong enough for reality.

Catholic Spirituality, Catholics Do What?, Evangelization, feast days

Calling on heaven – the feast of St. Zelie Martin

July 12, 2018

Because our littlest rooster woke at the ripe hour of 5:20 this morning (that’s what you get for uttering the phrase “sleeping through the night” on the internet) I’ve already been to the gym, showered, done dishes and laundry, and dropped more than half my kids at various locations across the city. Also LOLing at my former self who swore we’d never be an “activity” family. But I held out for as long as I could. 7 years ain’t bad.

The productive pace of a morning like that means that it was nigh 10 am before I realized that today was the feast of St. Zelie – and her husband, St. Louis – Martin, my youngest’s namesake.

I have loved the name Zelie since I first read “Story of a Family” a few years into this motherhood gig. (Highly recommend to any Little Flower fans out there. It’s the biographical account of the whole Martin family, including St. Therese, Servant of God Leonie, and of course the happy couple themselves, Louis and Zelie.)

This is a complete aside, but having St. Zelie canonized as such gives me a thrill that someday we could have a St. Joey or a St. Evie or maybe (longshot) a St. Jenny. Not Jennifer or Joseph (no offense to our given names); it just tickles me that she is forever remembered by her nickname and preferred identifier rather than the full Marie-Azelie, which was her formal name.

If you read the birth story I wrote for our little Z, you already know the tale I’m going to tell, but perhaps there are a few details I left out in my initial account.

We were still somewhat undecided on names. If baby was a boy, I’m fairly certain he would have been called … you know what? I honestly can’t remember what we decided on. I don’t think we ever did. Augustine, Anthony, Blaise, and Benedict were all in the running. We never agreed on one. I guess all that estrogen was blocking the creative process for potential male monikers. For a girl, we’d settled on Elizabeth Zelie, a nod to my sister and my dearest friend, both named Elizabeth.

When Zelie was born she was a little on the gray side. Not full-on blue, but not healthy and pink like our other kids had been. Her delivery went super quick at the end; we’re talking 5 pushes total. Turns out faster isn’t always better for baby though. She didn’t have the full benefit of the “squeeze” while she travelled gradually through the birth canal, so she had a lot of fluid in her nose and mouth that hadn’t cleared.

She wasn’t breathing well when she was born, and she didn’t make a single peep. At first the nurses placed her on my chest and began rubbing her vigorously, urging her to speak up. After about 30 seconds the vigorous rubbing and encouragement turned a little more urgent, and they whisked her to the bassinet across the room and began administering oxygen. They had already been suctioning her using the manual bulb aspirator, but someone called for the neonatal respiratory team to come in and administer deep suctioning.

As they worked on my girl and called out her oxygen saturation levels, I began to worry, but I didn’t freak out. (big for me)

I called to her from the bed where I was still being worked on: “Elizabeth, mommy loves you! Elizabeth, we’re right here. You can breathe. Use your lungs. You can do it, baby.” I remembered having read how beneficial it is for sick babies to hear their mother’s voice, so I continued my cheerleading while she continued to perform suboptimally in the respiration department.

I was becoming concerned that they were going to take her to the NICU, and that something was wrong either with her heart or her lungs. She was still very dusky in color and we had yet to hear a peep from her. The room was full of nurses and doctors now, and I couldn’t see her through the crowd around her bed.

I looked up at Dave and saw my own concern mirrored in his expression.

“She’s going to be fine, right?” I searched his face, looking for any sign that he was trying to protect me from reality.

He looked concerned but calm. “She is going to be fine.”

I felt that same strange confidence, even with a crowd of medical professionals around her bed and her frustrating silence. I had been praying Hail Mary’s aloud and I began also silently invoking the intercession of St. Zelie Martin. My inner dialogue with her went something like this:

“You’ve been in this place. You lost 4 babies. Please pray for my baby’s life to be spared. Please intercede for us. I’m not strong like you. I can’t lose a baby. I had so much anxiety throughout this pregnancy. I want to be proven wrong. Please God, let her breathe! St. Zelie, pray for her. Pray for us.”

I called to Dave from across the room where he’d moved to be nearer to her crib. “Babe, I think we got her name wrong.” He walked over and put his hand on my shoulder, “I think so, too.” We both smiled and said “Zelie. Her name is Zelie.”

And so it was.

You know how the story ends, since Zelie is very much alive and with us. She finally started crying at about the 20 minute mark. Not an eternity, but it sure felt like it in the moment.

Little by little her oxygen saturation came up in that first 60 minutes, until at last she was breathing normally and to the liking of the respiratory team. They ended up leaving our room without ever having to intubate her, which felt miraculous after such a bumpy beginning. She did stay in the hospital an extra day to be monitored for any desaturations, but she performed admirably and was with me the entire time. The best anyone could figure was she just had to work a little harder to clear the amniotic fluid from her airways, and once she did, she was out of the woods.

I know there’s more to the story than that, though. I felt certain of St. Zelie’s presence in that delivery room, and I continue to feel a deep kinship with her in my motherhood.

It was similar to the experiences I’ve had of John Paul II’s presence – I could feel her intercession as much as if I’d asked a friend standing next to me to pray. The veil separating the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant was a little thinner in that moment.

The Communion of Saints isn’t some bizarre pious tradition the Church fosters in order to justify the cost of statues and stained glass windows. Zelie Martin is alive in Christ; more alive than your or I, in fact. And she stands in the Presence of God and addresses Him directly with the needs of her brothers and sisters still on earth.

Talk about having connections.

Can I pray directly to God and ask Him for what I need? Of course I can. And I must. And I do.

And because God is generous and merciful and is not unfamiliar with the human condition, I can do this, and more. I can ask my friends who have already arrived to throw a lifeline back, to text me the directions and reassure me I’m going in the right direction. “I know you’ve already arrived. Will you pray I make it, too? Will you bring this particular situation before Our Lord? I believe He can hear me, God, help my unbelief…”

The saints are like a phone line between heaven and earth. We don’t have to use it, of course, but the coverage is excellent, and, just like with Google, the Big Guy is always listening in.

St. Zelie Martin, pray for us.

large family, motherhood, Parenting, toddlers

Leaving baby land

July 11, 2018

I just had a 5 minute conversation with my seven year old where I used words like “extroversion, introversion, resources, and primary vocation. He blinked his understanding to me and I really felt like we were having a moment, a real meeting of the minds.

I asked him if he understood what we’d just covered, and he nodded. Then I asked if he had any questions.

“Yeah. Uh, Mommy” he began, hesitantly. “Can I go put some pants on now?”

I’m in a weird in between place right now with family life. Everyone is still heavily dependent upon Dave and I for almost all their basic needs, but there are also glimpses of a shifting landscape. Just now, the child I was conversing with wandered off to find pants and, finding none, ran a load of damp laundry through the dryer of his own volition.

Folks, that’s what we call a paradigm shift. Also in this category: baby sleeping through the night, school aged kids who are able to empty the dishwasher, a preschooler who no longer needs intensive bathtime supervision, and sufficient energy (or desperation) to rise early from sleep and steal an hour for prayer and exercise before the kids are up.

I’m having these moments I can only describe as existential lurch”- where I have the distinct feeling I should be doing something and I’m not really sure what that something is. I look around and yes, the floor needs to be mopped and I really should finish those school forms and that project isn’t going to write itself, and also, why is it so hard to remember to fill up the gas tank before the empty light goes on? It’s weird to come out of survival mode and to look around and wonder “do I still know how to be a functional adult?” after so many concurrent years of night wakings and mopping up barf.

We are by no means out of the baby years, as the current stakeholder baby in thaet positionfamily is only 6 months on the job, but it’s a totally different landscape to have an almost 8-year-old and a 6 -year-old along for the ride. The 2-year-old is mentally unbalanced, and I say that with the utmost charity, truly, but last month I opened the bathroom door and started screaming, finding him perched (naked) on the countertop, drinking water directly from an older brother’s dirty soccer cleat as water from the still-running facet flowed over the basin, spilling onto the floor.

But, you’re probably thinking, this kid is feral and unsupervised and it serves you right, you neglectful social media peruser.

Nay, I say to you, I was standing just outside the doorway at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables for a healthy dinner, audibly supervising what I had reason to believe was a valiant toileting effort in progress.

You should see some of the stuff he does when he’s actually unsupervised.

But even with crazy Luke, even with little teeny baby Zay, life is still a little… easier? Less physically grueling? than it was a baby or two ago, thanks to the maturity of my older kids.

At the same time, I now lie awake at night pondering the day’s events and agonizing over my mistakes and shortcomings. I feel very much out of my depth to parent a kid with a conscience, and, just like breastfeeding was agonizingly difficult the first time around, so is trying to explain the existence of evil, or what is really happening at Mass and why it’s necessary for us to go every week, and how come the neighbor kid can’t actually move in with us, and where money comes from, and why cemeteries exist, and why you can’t use Siri without mommy and daddy’s supervision, and, and, and…

I’m going to be honest, I’m terrified to leave babyland.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m exhausted. I’m more than ready to drop the 40 lbs I can’t seem to shake after this 5th pregnancy. And boy oh boy, am I ready to sleep (consistently) through the night again, but, control freak that I am, parenting older kids scares the hell out of me.

What if I mess up and they (insert trauma here)? Spoiler alert: I will. I have. I am. And they might, and they could, and they are.

I know this on an intellectual level and I always have, but it’s easy to look down at a trusting little baby or even a mischievous little 4-year-old and think “You’re never going anywhere. I’ll always be able to hold you in my lap and keep you safe.”

I think this may be what all those older moms in the checkout line are getting at when they wistfully or ironically assure me that it all goes by so fast.

It does, and it doesn’t.

I’m crawling along to mile marker 5 of the marathon of parenting and I’m recognizing I have years ahead of me, some of them grueling, but I’m also looking back and seeing the ground we’ve already covered and sort of pining for it, retrospectively. This current season, too, will surely be one I long for in the years to come. Zelie could be our last baby, for all I know.

The frontier we’re crossing into is uncharted territory for us. These are years my kids will remember. These are experiences and lessons that will shape their personalities and mold their characters.

I am not up for the task.

I am inadequate.

And no amount of reading or research or application of guaranteed magical techniques can ensure a good outcome.

Then again, neither did any of the one million baby books I consumed like manna from heaven. If only oh crap 3 day potty training had delivered as promised. If only having the happiest baby on our block had more to do with my mothering prowess and less to do with dumb luck and genetics.

I want an instruction manual. I want the promise of perfection and a guarantee of success. I don’t want to parent kids to adulthood in this scary, crazy world full of suffering and violence and chaos. I want heaven now. I want the resurrection without the cross. I want victory without death. I want God to speak directly to me and to be able to hear Him, crystal clear, and to be able to follow His suggestions effortlessly and without hesitation.

I don’t know that I’m up for this next level of motherhood. And I have five kids who won’t stop eating and outgrowing their shoes and so level up I must, somehow.

This is the part where I tie it all together with an uplifting or inspirational realization. Except, I don’t have anything to offer. That is what it feels like at the end of another long, hot day of summer parenting. They all wore sunscreen and they ate a couple vegetables, but in the grand scheme of things, I tend to feel like I’m failing them a little bit every day, one day at a time.

I guess that’s the lesson? I guess parenting, like life, is the sort of gig that humbles you as you go along, and instead of progressing in acumen and technique you become ever more convinced of your inadequacy and suspect that it might one day become apparent to everyone around you that you are, in fact, making it up as you go along.

Younger moms, you are in the most grueling and physically intense thick of it right now. I always tell people who express wonder at being able to handle more than two that however many kids you have, you are maxed out. Full stop. There is nothing harder than having as many kids as you have right now. And when you’re knee deep in the baby trenches and literally can’t remember taking a shower by yourself, you think this is your life now, forever. And that it will never get any easier.

It will not be easier. But it will be different. That’s the scary part, for me. Stepping out into the unknown and wondering if the gps is offline, and can I really do this part? The baby part you just have to do. They are crying and fussing and depending utterly and you have no choice.

It feels like this part of parenting has more agency, more heft to it, besides the glaring and obvious burden of, you know, keeping a helpless human being alive and fed.

My kids can forage for granola bars and fill their own water bottles now, but they cannot shape their own hearts. And I look around and realize, with a start, that they’re all looking to me. And it feels crazy! Isn’t there a grown up somewhere who is running this show?

Permanently 17 on the inside, I’m telling you! But I fake a smile and put some more hot dogs in the microwave and pray that grace will cover my multitude of sins.

Living Humanae Vitae

The Weight of Motherhood {Living Humane Vitae part 7}

July 9, 2018

For one of the last entries in the Living Humanae Vitae series, I wanted to share something from a contributor that has more of a reflective feel to it. We’ve heard from more than half a dozen brave women over the past several months, some of whom felt comfortable sharing their stories only under the condition of anonymity, and others who were happy to be “outed” about their culturally subversive sexual practices. Some of the stories were filled with suffering and struggle, and some were marked by a peace born of surrender and experience. What they all share in common is a fidelity to the Catholic Church and all Her teachings on human love and marriage, and the humility to share a part of their journeys with you all.

I hope that for my non Catholic readers, these pieces have been informative and have answered some questions you might not have known that you had!

For my Catholic readers, I hope they have been challenging, encouraging, and convicting. If you’ve struggled and fallen short in this area (raises hand) or you think yours is a hopeless case and that the only answer is to walk away from Jesus’ Church, think again.

Get to confession. Bring your spouse with you, if they’re Catholic. Have your marriage blessed if you were married outside of the Church. Look into having your vasectomy reversed, or, if your sterilization was permanent, consider asking a trusted spiritual advisor for some direction. I have heard from sterilized couples who practice periodic abstinence in their relationship as a penance, even years later.

My point is, it is never too late and no case is “too far gone” for God. And there is a reason your story unfolded the way it did – nothing is outside His plan.

There is nothing that He cannot redeem, and nothing that He does not long to redeem for us.

Never forget that the rules and regulations that God asks us to live by – the morals and matters of faith which govern our lives – are not the prison fence surrounding incarcerated inmates, but the protective walls of a playground, encircling beloved children whose Father wants the very best for them.

God loves you, and He made you the way He did for a reason. He wants you to be happy, too, believe it or not. We have such a warped and puritanical view of God in this country (and I speak here as an American) that we too often relate to Him more like a forbidding judge or a vengeful superpower than a doting Father who literally died for love of us.

God did not make “rules” regarding our sexuality in order to thwart our freedom or limit our pleasure; God designed us and knows exactly what we need to fulfill us on the deepest level.

We might desire comfort, but we were not made for comfort, to paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI, we were made for greatness.

I hope you were able to see a glimpse of that in some of the stories you’ve read here. And I’m happy to report that I’m working on a larger project along these lines that I look forward to being able to share with you in the not too distant (fingers crossed) future.

There is a fact of my life that I have come to know well in the last twelve years.

It is a fact that I love and that some days I hate.

It is a fact that delights me with its great glory and one that scares me; one that fills me with one of the greatest gifts in the universe and yet strips me bare, laying me open, vulnerable to the elements of the unknown.

As a married woman, blessed with fertility and striving to live the fullness of Catholic faith and teaching, this fact is my biological ability to conceive and bear children.

This is my great blessing and my deepest hardship, a reality wherein lies my power and my inadequacy.  

The great calling of women to motherhood, this mandate to all of us of “openness to life,” is the Story, the mystery of my life, month in and month out, for as long as I shall hold within my body the ability to grow a child.  This mystery is one which I do not understand. I do not understand the power, I do not understand the responsibility, I do not understand the cross.  

But I understand that I am living a Story, a Calling, that is beyond me and my small needs or wishes.   It is ultimately the Story of the building of the Kingdom of God.

A story about growth and love beyond what I thought I could imagine.

A story about loving so much and dreading so much.

A story about awesome, unbelievable responsibility and awful, frightful inability.

A story about late-night tears, breathless prayers and trying, trying, trying to trust.

A story is about vulnerability to a different outcome, one that seems too hard, or too messy or too embarrassing.

The story is about the promise and also the threat of eternity always before my eyes.

The story is about the greatest moments of a human life being given to me . . . me!

I know there is glory in this gift of fertility.  But there is also trial in the eternal weight of all of that glory.

Whether I am pregnant, whether I am in a postpartum phase, whether I am asking and trying for a new child to join our family, whether I am actively working, praying and participating with God on a plan for my family that involves postponement of pregnancy through the use of NFP, this is my life.  I am, at all times, not in control (even if I think that I am). I am not in control of my body. As a woman, I have the capacity, more than most men ever can, of quite literally giving over my very body in carrying out the plan of God.

Of God.

Not of me.

The plan of my life, as is shown to me every day of the month, is in the hands of Someone Else.

And every fertile month this story is played out.  Every month goes by in terms of another child or not, another soul or not, the next step in the plan of God.  The month of a fertile, married, Catholic mother literally is defined by the needs a child — the one being carried within, nursed without, the one tried for.  There can be the need to avoid one, and the needs of the ones that surround her.

This very fact of my life is one that I find, many days, exhausting and testing.  Exhausted in my prayers, my thoughts, and my hopes. Testing my trust, my patience, and my stamina. So many days, I think, how can I do this? Why must I be entrusted with such weighty decisions, ones with eternal ramifications? Why are there so many months of fertility?

But sometimes I catch my breath in a moment — when I feel a baby move for the first time inside of me, when my children overwhelm me with their preciousness, when I think of what I will miss so much in later years — and then I am so grateful for this gift of fertility. I am grateful in a weak, incomplete human way that I could never express in words.

What did I ever do to deserve the honor of living out this blessed story?

Thank you, my Lord, for letting me be a woman.

Family Life, Parenting, siblings

Mommy time, daddy time, and “dating” your kids

July 5, 2018

One morning when our oldest, Joey, was around 4 years old, I was walking out the door for a meeting or a couple hours’ work at a coffee shop, leaving him and his then two younger siblings with a mother’s helper. I heard a bang as the screen swung open behind me and heard a loud sniffling. I turned back to see my normally stoic firstborn crying in the doorway: “Mommy, I just want to beeeee with you.”

He loved his babysitter, and it was only a couple hours a week that I was away from them at all, but he was sensitive to the fact that I was not giving him much quality time at that point.

And I couldn’t, to be honest. I was newly pregnant with baby number four, still working full time-ish, and we had just begun hustling in earnest to save for a down payment for our first house. If we did spend much one on one time with each kid during that season, it was probably a quick bedtime story, a diaper change, or a snuggle before lights out. And that was fine, because it was appropriate for the season we were in!

That being said, even with – perhaps especially with – a larger than average family, it is important to me that each of our kids feel individually known and loved by us. To that end, we’ve started to block out intentional, specific chunks of time each week to spend a few minutes one on one with our older kids, and we’re already starting to see returns on the investment in alone time. Our kids call it “mommy time” and “daddy time,” and I call it taking them on dates, at least in my head.

This morning, for example, I took Joey with me to run an errand and on the way back we stopped at Starbucks to go inside rather than hitting the drive through (big thrill for him) and I got him a $3 breakfast sandwich. He felt like the king of the world retrieving his very own order from the bar, and for about $6 we made a sweet little memory together.

I joke with Dave that we’ve been parenting on defense only for about the past five years, but now that our oldest is approaching eight, we’re starting to feel like we have a little bit – like maybe a couple inches – of breathing room, and so we’ve been trying to do things a little more proactively. (N.B: our youngest is only 6 months, but she’s bottle fed and that has made a world of difference for me in terms of returning to stability postpartum. Usually by 6 months out I’m still feeling pretty touched and tapped out, but with Zelie being a fabulous sleeper and anybody with two thumbs being able to serve her a meal, the return to “the new normal” has been a little more swift).

Growing up in a family of nine, it sometimes felt like there was always another person around. Because, um, there was always another person around.

But! My parents were really great about usually grabbing a kid or two to run an errand, make a grocery trip, or (and this was the holy grail) hit up McDonald’s early on a Saturday morning for hashbrowns with Dad. I remember sneaking downstairs at 7 am and seeing him slipping out the door and running to catch up. I think the unofficial rule was if you were up, you could come. Sometimes it would be just you and dad, and that was always a huge (cheap) thrill.

Several of my kids have, unfortunately, inherited the early riser gene and have begun to beg to accompany me on a morning walk before Dave leaves for the office. Some days I know that I desperately need the alone time to prepare for the day ahead, but other days I’m able to green light them for a little mommy time. It is always so bittersweet to see how happy it makes them, because I know they’re longing for more time with me and also that sometime in the not-so-distant future they’re going to stop asking. So I try to say yes.

My hope is that with every stop at Target and run through the car wash, we’re laying down another layer in the foundation of our relationship. I don’t want to be my kids’ best friend; but I do want to be the biggest influence in their lives. I want them to come to me with big things someday, having become accustomed to running to me with small things.

And so I’ll feign – or is it cultivate? – interest in Pokemon cards and Lego Star Wars and imaginary cat tea parties with the hope that many little yeses during the adoring little years will add up to greater harmony in the adolescent years. I figure if I’m letting them hang out with me now when I’m the coolest person in the universe to them, perhaps they’ll return the favor when the tables are turned in the next five years or so.

Some other easy (and cheap!) date ideas:

  • Grocery story buddy: helps grab each item off the shelf, holds open produce bags, selects bananas, pays cashier, etc. Hard and fast rule with this one is you get to ask for one “special” item, like a box of granola bars or a Gatorade or a piece of weird fruit, and that’s it. Habitual begging will get you sidelined from grocery-buddy duty.
  • Starbucks date. We have one walking distance from our house, and the bigger kids love to walk the ½ mile there and back with me.
  • Hardware shop run with daddy. He’s so fun that he even lets them build the craft if they’re there at the right time on a Saturday morning.
  • Adoration. I like to stop by our parish’s perpetual adoration chapel for even a five minute visit, depending on how many kids I have with me. If I only have one and it’s an older (read: quieter) child, we’ll stay a little longer, maybe as long as 15 minutes. The more often I do this, the better the kids respond to it.
  • Ice cream run. Self-explanatory. My kids had their first Dairy Queen dipped cones last week when we hit a record high of 105 degrees, and they were on cloud nine.
  • PetSmart. My kids loooove to look at animals I will never buy them, and it’s cheaper than the zoo. Sometimes we might pick up a small cat treat for the single pet we do own.
  • A neighborhood walk where we distribute “kindness rocks”. We found one on a stroll one day and the kids were instantly enamored. It’s just a smooth, flat rock that is either painted or colored with crayons with a kind word or message. My kids like to draw emojis or write Scripture verses on their rocks and then leave them at the base of mailboxes throughout the neighborhood, which is very 2018 of them.
  • Letting one kid stay up late for a special date night with mommy. I usually do this if Dave has a late night at work or an event that keeps him out. I’ll pull a kid after bedtime (never before. #lessonlearned) and we’ll creep downstairs for hot chocolate or a nail-painting session while everyone else is (allegedly) sleeping.

Some other suggestions I’ve come across and haven’t tried yet include running/swimming/playing tennis with an older kid (I think this will become especially valuable with my boys as they age and are no longer interested in dating their mother at a coffee shop); writing a “conversation journal” back and forth – some friends with daughters have started to do this and are seeing great fruit in their relationships with their tween and preteen daughters; going to Daily Mass alone with just one kid; grabbing someone at lunchtime for a fast food run for a surprise break from the school day, or even a whole weekend or night away with one kid for a special family tradition once they turn a certain age.

What are some things you do with your kids to foster one on one time? Did your parents do this with you? Do you have logistical suggestions for how to make it work with a bigger family? I’d love to hear.

Budget hack: a kid’s hot chocolate split into 2 cups comes out to about .$75/kid, and is plenty of sugar.

 

Uncategorized

The confounding joy of being Catholic

June 28, 2018

I’ve been spending some time reading through the “Instrumentum Laboris”, the working document for the Vatican’s upcoming Synod on Youth to be held in Rome in October. (A synod is a gathering of Catholic bishops from around the globe who come together with the Holy Father to discuss and debate on a chosen topic. It has become customary to release a working document prior to the gathering that outlines some of what they’ll be working on and talking about.) This particular document isn’t a terribly uplifting read, but it is helpful and eye opening, especially for anyone who is in ministry, to form a clear understanding of the present moment.

First and foremost, the Church has an image problem. A massive PR problem, honestly. And it deals largely with Her members. This line, among the many, stood out to me with utter clarity: Young people are attracted to the joy which should be a hallmark of our faith.(pt. 7, paragraph 2)

Are you a joyful Christian? When people find out that you’re Catholic, are they shocked because you seem so fun and so…normal?

Do they widen their eyes in surprise because they didn’t realize that someone could profess a sincere and orthodox faith and also drink wine/smoke cigars/run marathons/attend concerts/work with the homeless/throw great parties/produce incredible art?

I remember when I started my first semester at Steubenville as a very jaded party girl transferring in from a state university, I was shocked when I discovered not only was there a vibrant (perhaps occasionally too vibrant) off campus party scene, but that the parties were more fun than the wildest ragers I’d attended in Boulder.

A lot more fun, now that I think of it. People were drinking beer and playing guitar and flirting and even (gasp) smoking the occasional cigarette and they were genuinely enjoying their lives and the company of their friends.

Typically, at least in our circle, nobody got drunk enough to throw up or lose control of their faculties (of course there’s always an exception, Franciscan is not some shining city on a hill where nobody sins), and more often than not, a party might end with praise and worship music around a bonfire, a robust discussion of Thomistic philosophy at 1am, or somebody ducking out before midnight because they had a Holy Hour they’d committed to.

It was really weird.

Imagine my surprise when I realized life could not only still be “fun,”but that life was, in fact, better with Christ.

When I realized that I could live without throwing an artificial barrier up between my “religion” and my “real life” and that, in fact, it was actually pretty hypocritical to do so, it was immensely freeing.

I have never stopped relishing in that freedom.

Finding a community of joyful and like minded Catholics has proven absolutely essential to growing in and nurturing that freedom.

I first found “my people” during my time at Franciscan. And I’ve found my people over and over again since then. Some of us served as FOCUS missionaries, some of us went to grad school and studied theology, some of us work for the Church in some capacity, some of us graduated from a completely secular university and found Jesus after college, some of us were strong enough to keep hold of His hand all throughout…but the unifying factor in our friendship is the pursuit of holiness through living in fidelity to the Catholic Church. We are artists, businessmen, nurses, engineers, stay at home moms, home educators, public school teachers, and work from home moms. There is no one size fits all to our makeup, beyond Christ.

The joy that unites us is, I hope, authentic and approachable and always, always welcoming to outsiders.

There is not much point in grimly gritting your teeth and trudging through the Christian life resentful of the perceived shackles of the Church’s view of morality and human nature. Either reject it outright, or embrace it to the full and believe that God knew what He was doing when He laid down the (natural) law, and pick yourself up and get to Confession when you do fall short again (and again).

I think often of the GK Chesterton quote that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been f0und difficult, and left untried.”

I think there are plenty of young people who think they know what Catholicism is all about, or at least have a pretty good idea of it, either from their own upbringing, a lackluster experience in a lukewarm Catholic school, or a grumpy, aging relative who doesn’t like the way they dress.

They hear “Catholic” and their brains automatically jump to the “shalt nots” rather than to the joyful “fiats.” So instead of Mother Teresa’s joyful smile and fruitful mission springing to mind, they go directly to all the things that popular culture tells them the Church finds Herself on “the wrong side of history” from.

How powerful if you could turn that tide for someone.

How incredible if you and your family, if you have one, could single handedly help rewrite someone’s script of what it looks like to be Catholic.

There was another line from the document that stuck with me, and I’ll paraphrase, but it’s that the Church is not merely an institution or a building, but is people.

When non-Catholics and even non-practicing Catholics think of “the Church” they aren’t usually thinking of “the Vatican” or even “the Pope”…they’re thinking of Mrs. so-and-so who taught 4th grade religion, or of that one bad priest they ran across in their youth, or maybe even of an estranged family member.

As individual members of the body of Christ, we have profound power (and a grave responsibility) to transmit the joy of the Gospel to the people in our lives. And not just those with whom we share a pew on Sundays. With our atheist baristas, our gay neighbors, our Protestant mail carriers and our Jewish pediatricians. With our ex-Catholic orthodontist and our nothing-specific business contact.

There should be no sphere of life that is “safe” from your Catholicism.

That illusion of faith belonging to a specific and finite aspect of your life has done more harm than good in our rapidly-secularizing culture.

The more that Christians retreat in reticent and so-called politeness, shying away from bringing their relationship with Christ into every aspect of their daily lives, the darker and less humane our world becomes. It is up to us to bring that transcendent joy into our offices, our driveways, and yes, our happy hour meet ups.

Let your joy be cause for someone else’s head scratching. Lead with joy. See what follows.

Pope Francis’ seminary yearbook/mugshot. Everyone’s got that one pic …

Bioethics, Catholics Do What?, Contraception, guest post, Living Humanae Vitae, Marriage, NFP, Parenting, pregnancy, Sex

Med school pregnancies and IUDs {living humanae vitae part 6}

June 25, 2018

This installment of the Living Humanae Vitae series is near and dear to my own desperate-to-be-in-control heart, and it represents a beautiful surrender to an awareness of God’s faithfulness and the sometimes nonsensical economy of grace. I can relate to the “this makes no sense-ness” of a seemingly unwise or imprudent action in the eyes of the world, only to have it end up being one of the preeminent blessings in your life.

K is a medical student, a future doctor, a mother, and a faithful Catholic. This is her story:

I am third-year medical school student and many of my classmates think I’m a bit nutty for being open to life in this season of life.

My husband works full-time and I’m a full-time student. I had our second child between my first and second year. Our third child is coming early next year.

Medical school is full of many driven and intelligent people. It’s only by the Lord’s grace (and my husband’s gentle reminders) that my drive to achieve and compete is tempered by keeping priorities in line.

For me, this means having open hands and an open heart and trust in the Lord’s faithfulness when I choose not to contracept. As human beings, we are both body and soul. As such, I know that the decision to insert an IUD has spiritual ramifications. Decision to obliterate a man’s vas deferens or to sever a woman’s normal and healthy fallopian tubes echo deeply into our souls.

We shut ourselves off from the Lord when we say “I am the master of my own fertility.”

Many of my classmates cling to their IUDs as if those little devices held the key to salvation itself.

The Lord gave me the tremendous gift of good catechesis, and as such I choose to live according to the wisdom of the Church and trust in the Lord’s providence in regard to my fertility. And even then, the effectiveness statistics between artificial birth control and NFP aren’t much different.

Now, one can absolutely live in death-gripping fear while using NFP. I was there during the postpartum period after our first baby was born and we were heading off to Virginia for medical school in a few months. I knew that if I got pregnant by accident and then was due in the middle of school year, that was it, and I just wasn’t going to be able to finish. I’ve never been so tempted by contraception. It was knowledge and trust in Magisterium of the church and my husband’s strength that held me back.

But I’ve learned time and again that the Lord is faithful. I know He doesn’t want me to live in fear or distrust. But I have to choose not to live there, which took effort at first. I became pregnant with our second baby in September of my first year, just when we were hoping to. We were trying and praying for a perfectly-timed baby.  The only summer you get off during medical school is the first one. The break was only 6 weeks. We had one single cycle to make that narrow window. We tried for it.

In any given cycle, if everything is perfect- the egg is good, the sperm is good, the mucus is good and the passageway is clear, there’s only a 20-25 percent chance that you’ll conceive. With a precise due date in mind there’s always the two-week window on either side of the goal that is variable just due to cycle variation.

Emma was conceived during that cycle, and was due the day of my last final. She was born a few days after that – with enough time for me to catch up on some errands and house cleaning before she arrived. My OB-GYN didn’t think I would make it. All of my other babies were born before their due dates. But Emma patiently waited for the semester’s end to make her debut into the world. That’s really the story of her personality: she was one of the most serene and patient people in our house when she was an infant. She even slept through the night starting at two months.

I know some people’s stories with NFP are different, that babies come unexpectedly and are untimed, even despite diligent effort. Our story is not that story. Baby number three was timed for February so that my husband could have a birthday month buddy, so that baby didn’t arrive during study time for step two, so I wouldn’t have to haul a newborn around for audition rotations 4th year, and so that I wouldn’t be so pregnant over Christmas that we couldn’t travel to Minnesota.

The Lord blessed me with beautifully obvious fertility signs, as if my body just screams at me each month “I’M FERTILE!”

I believe it’s because the Lord always gives us what we need. He called me to medical school, He’s getting me through it, and He knows we needed precise timing for children. Time and again I come back to the passage from Romans 8:28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, according to his purpose.”

I try to live every day as if “this is exactly what the Lord has given to me, and I have everything I need.” There have been many nights before exams where children were awake or sick and I had to stay up with them. Those ended up being some of my highest exam scores. There were weekends before Monday morning tests that everyone else seemed to be madly studying and I felt like the Lord wanted to me take a day off to be with my family. It didn’t make sense at the time, but my studying was enough and I did well.

When I’m faithful to the Lord, rather than making a little god out good grades and studying, I do better in school. He has been so faithful and merciful, and I thank Him and praise him daily for beautiful little souls He has given me the privilege of bringing into the world.

Catholics Do What?, Contraception, guest post, large family, Living Humanae Vitae, Marriage, motherhood, NFP, pregnancy, Sex, Suffering

Alleged miracles, hyper fertility, and the Cross {Living Humanae Vitae Part 5}

June 18, 2018

You may already be familiar with Bonnie Engstrom’s story from her blog, “A Knotted Life.” If you are, then you know that her son, James Fulton, was stillborn. His allegedly miraculous return to life – through the intercession of Venerable Fulton Sheen, is the official alleged miracle for the beatification of that good bishop. Bonnie is a wonderful storyteller, a talented writer, and a mother of extraordinary courage. I’m privileged to have her here today to share her story as part of the ongoing Living Humanae Vitae series.

My husband and I entered our marriage knowing the Church’s teachings on sex, marriage, and family life. We were totally on board and completely gung-ho to use NFP to have all sorts of great sex while we spaced our four to five children every two to three years. This is what we were promised, people, and this is what we were going to get!

Our first baby was eagerly anticipated, but was sadly lost early in pregnancy. Our firstborn was an NFP success story; she was born a year after my miscarriage. Ecological breastfeeding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and so our second baby came along twenty-one months later.

Twelve months and two weeks later our third baby was born, because it turns out you can get pregnant before your period returns. There were a variety of complications at his birth so he stayed in the NICU for seven weeks and spent the next year of his life with multiple therapy and doctor appointments each week. If you were to guess that having a two year old, a one year old, and a baby with medical needs is incredibly difficult, you would be correct. We abstained for nine months that first year of his life, knowing that we needed a break and having lost all faith in my ability to chart when my body was under so much stress.

But at the end of that first year my husband came home from work and said to me, “I want more children. Today I was looking at the pictures on our desk. Our wedding picture, you and Ell, Ell and Ben, and then the one of the three kids where Ell and Ben are holding JF.” He moved his hand horizontally, pausing it with each picture he described. “And I just knew I wanted another baby.”

Less than a year later we had another girl. Her labor and delivery were hard on me – emotionally I was reliving my son’s traumatic birth and physically I was birthing an eleven and a half pound baby with no medication. It took her a minute to breathe after her birth and my husband and I were at our wits’ end. With two traumatic births, four wonderful kids in our home, and one baby entrusted to Jesus we felt like we had done our bit. No more kids, we were done.

Yet it turns out that, all rookie mistakes aside, my husband and I are on the hyper end of the fertility spectrum and another surprise pregnancy came. Our son was born when his older siblings were 1, 2, 3, and 5.  

But now we were really, truly done, done, done!

But we weren’t done with Natural Family Planning. Heavens no! NFP isn’t something to be used during the times when it would be okay to get pregnant even if I don’t really want to. NFP is what we’re supposed to use when we cannot get pregnant or do not want to, and sometimes, that means lots and lots of abstinence. This time we went a year without having sex. I won’t sugar coat it: it was hard and at times very hard. Were we tempted to use contraception? Probably. (I don’t remember!) But what does it profit a couple to gain all the sex they could want in their happy marriage but lose their souls?

I might have been afraid to have another kid but I was more afraid of eternal damnation. I know that will sound harsh and maybe even dumb to many of you, and so be it. I know what the Catholic Church teaches, why the Church teaches it, and I agree with Holy Mother Church – which is why I am still a Catholic. I appreciate and respect the consistency of the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage and I believe that if I am going to expect single people, unmarried couples, gay couples, the divorced, priests, and religious to follow Church teaching in their state of life then I should hold myself to the same standard. With those convictions firm, we found the postpartum time to be about faithfulness, trust, and obedience as an act of love.

After twelve months of abstinence we successfully used NFP for another eight months before I had another unplanned pregnancy.

By now I was scared and I was angry. I loved and enjoyed my kids but I was mad at every woman who could space her children with just breastfeeding or could afford things like new minivans, babysitters, and pizza delivery.

I resented women who talked about their contraception and sterilizations and I was embarrassed by how relieved they were when it was me pregnant and not them. And I lived in the daily fear that even if I did not miscarry our seventh child as I did our first, there was a good chance, based on two previous traumatic deliveries, that this baby would not survive birth.

Additionally, I was worried. My husband did not want any more kids, as the stress of providing for five small children and a wife on a public school teacher’s salary had been building. We had finally come to a good spot – a place where we had some wiggle room in our budget and I was on a medication that made a world of difference in my PPD – and we didn’t want to leave it.

I felt like NFP was a joke, and that I had let my husband down.

To make things even worse, I learned of an online forum that discussed how horrible it was that I, personally, was pregnant again. While it may be possible that some of the women were well-intentioned, it was a horrible sucker punch to read through a series of strangers talk about what a wreck my life was, and how it was too bad that there was a new little life growing in my womb.

Regardless of how anyone felt, my seventh baby was born and we love him to the moon and back. I’m so grateful to God for adding him to our family. Babies are gifts – only and always – even the ones we hadn’t planned for.

And of course now, after those rough nine months and a c-section, we were finally  D O N E.

Except ten months later I had another unplanned pregnancy. It was another instance of my nursing and hyper fertility combining with my “best” efforts at charting, but this time as soon as I saw the positive pregnancy test I didn’t cry or worry. I beamed. I thanked God, I touched my tiny womb, and told my tiny baby how much I loved her. I was nervous to tell my husband – so nervous I laughed while telling him – but he smiled too. And we laughed for joy together. We laughed through progesterone shots in the first trimester and we laughed in the operating room when the doctor held up a beautiful, healthy baby girl. She is one this June and every day with her has been a gift and a joy, and we are so grateful.

Our family is bigger than most and smaller than some.

Using natural family planning has not always been easy, but I am grateful for this tool which first and foremost requires a trust in God and His goodness. We had seven kids in nine years and it has been hard at times, but Jesus has asked me to take up my cross and follow Him, promising me that the burden would be light.

I have good kids, a husband who loves his family, and a home filled with laughter and love. God is faithful and generous. Thanks be to God.

About Me, Catholics Do What?, Family Life, large family, Marriage, mental health, motherhood

5 months with the Fab 5

June 14, 2018

How about some OG mommy blogging on this Friday Eve? I thought I’d update all my wonderful readers who have not yet abandoned ‘ye olde blog’ for the flashier and more fragmented pastures of Instagram with a good old fashioned “life lately” post, and tell you a little bit about what having 5 kids has been like so far.

In a nutshell: tiring. I am just so tired. I’ve had all these blood tests done looking for vitamin deficiencies and asked all the questions about thyroid function and cut out all the food groups and…I’m still just tired. Bone deep and almost always, so I think it’ll just be a matter of time before things kind of normalize and my brain gets the memo that if it wants 8 hours of zzzs, it needs to shut down by 10 pm every night.

So earnest is my search for that mythical fountain of stable energy levels that I even (drops voice to a whisper) stopped drinking coffee again… I found myself slipping into a naughty little afternoon espresso habit that was surely not helping my circadian rhythms, so off the drip I went. In the past 6 weeks I’ve had 2 coffees. I know! Who am I? I don’t know! But it is slightly easier to wake up in the mornings now, and much easier to stay asleep (rooster babies permitting) once I get there. But gosh do I miss that artificial pick me up that helped me cruise through the 4 o’clock hour.

How are the kids, you’re wondering? Screaming in the backyard, currently. I have no idea why our neighbors don’t want to socialize more. In one particularly special encounter some friends who were staying with us last week were spraying the hapless preschoolers on the other side of the fence with the hose and also changing the words of a Vacation Bible School song to something borderline vulgar, which was very meaningful for neighborhood relations. I think everyone is really glad to have us on the block.

End of the school year visit to Whole Foods for kale chips and turmeric smoothies.

It has taken me 40 minutes to write the past 4 paragraphs. That basically sums it up. My margins are gone, erased by needs and noise and summer vacation and a not-quite-3-year-old who has decided to drop his nap but also acts feral from 3-5 pm every afternoon and is frequently found naked.

Every ounce of selfishness is being exposed and stripped away, violently and reluctantly. It is extremely painful and extremely worth it, and I can absolutely understand why people do not, in a culture that does not uphold the dignity of family life or the nobility of parenting, choose to have larger families. If I were not Catholic, I doubt that we would have more than 3 kids.*

Without a theology of suffering, the life I am presently living, however punctuated with moments of transcendent joy, makes little to no sense. I took 5 kids to the pediatrician this morning for a strep test for number 3 and felt every ounce the spectacle that we were, a baby tucked under my arm because her infant seat was too saturated in vomit to make the trek inside and a 2 year old with sandals on the wrong feet and lots of little faces that all look like mine, and everyone stared. Nobody was unkind, and everybody stared, and this is just life now, and I’m so busy most of the time I never even notice the attention. Nobody dares approach my RBF in the checkout line and crack wise about “what causes that.” They take one look at the sheer multitude of us and they know that I know, and they know better than to ask if I know.

So that’s a definite upside.

I’m not painting a very rosy picture, but the truth is that I feel like I’m drowning a lot of the time. And I’m disappointed with the many ways I fail my family hour after hour as the long days of summer (was it only 2 weeks ago I was moaning about carpool? manic LOLOLOL) crawl by, bringing another load of laundry, a bathroom accident from a totally unpredictable source, and a frantic tearful canvassing of the neighborhood for the missing cat, who always turns up but who always gives the anxiety-prone 6-year-old full blown panic attacks when she wanders outside the bounds of our property lines.

I know this isn’t forever. That it’s a really, really hard season…but only a season. I don’t feel the weight of PPD like I have after previous pregnancies, but I wouldn’t say I’m operating at 100%, either. I’m snappish and frustrated and the baby weight is very, very reluctant to leave its comfortable perch around my midsection. Zelie is an angel baby and I have no regrets about adding her to the mix, and still, life is harder than before she got here.

I sometimes catch myself chanting under my breath “you can do hard things” and also “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” while I’m wiping up another puddle or getting up with someone else in the night for the third or fourth time and especially when it’s 4:15 and the entire universe feels like it might be tilting out of alignment and time is actually physically slowing down.

(I’m really making the case for being open to life, right?)

Here’s the thing. We all have hard stuff. Something is really hard in your life right now, whether it’s your job or your marriage or your grad program or a sick spouse or a terrible family rift or, or, or…there is no such thing as a comfortable life. A comfortable life is an illusion, and it is often a lonely one.

On my darkest afternoons (y so terrible, witching hour?) I occasionally have the wherewithal to project my imagination into the future and I envision these 5 needy puppies as teenagers who are joking and tossing a football and going to dances and games and parties together, getting into trouble but also keeping each other out of trouble, walking hand and hand through life long after I’ll be out of the picture. This foresight sustains me, and I can lean on it reliably because I have witnessed it come to fruition with my own siblings.

And it’s not only the future I’m working towards, but also the almost indecipherable improvements in the here and now. I can only hope that these rough edges of my personality and areas of sin and selfishness really are being scourged away, making room for new growth and a strength and resilience that I can’t imagine now, at age 35. I’m not the mom I was at 30, much as I might wish I still looked like her. I’m stronger than her, however, and softer too.

I was talking with a priest friend about how difficult this season of motherhood has been, wondering if I were essentially still 17  on the inside, maybe? Because I struggle so much with anger and selfishness when “my will” is transgressed by one of the kids, and I often still feel like my shallow teenage self. He laughed and said “Jenny, if 17-year-old you were dropped into your current life circumstances, she would run. And you’re not running.” (He didn’t know teenage me, but he’s right.)

Some of the less esoteric stuff: Joey is 7 and will be 8 in September. He is extraordinarily helpful and sensitive and responsible and also goofy and loud and forgetful and always, always screen-seeking. We joke that his middle name is actually “where the party at?” and I do shudder when I think about what that means for college, but we are not in college yet, mom brain, so find your chill. He can make breakfast, carry a baby on his hip, feed said baby a bottle, and process a load of laundry. You’re welcome, future daughter in law. The age of reason is amazing because it’s real. Over the past few months his goodness and his conscience have really come out in full force, and I literally see the lightbulb going on behind his eyes when he realizes he has done something wrong. It’s amazing. He’s obsessed with all sports, our new trampoline (free on Craigslist, with an enclosure, don’t tell my chiropractor) and the neighbor kid, Andrew. Also screens, of which we do none but a few shows on the laptop or PBS kids on the tv in the afternoons after 4, much to his dismay.

John Paul is 6, wishes he were 7 like Joey, can’t understand that he and Joey are not actually twins, and is about as sensitive and melancholic as they come. He has big feelings, good and bad, and is very sensitive to the needs and moods of others. He adores our cat and will pine for her if she doesn’t come indoors in a timely manner at night. He’s amazing at climbing trees and he has zero fears of high places despite being so anxious about other stuff, which is interesting. He loves holding Zelie and is the only one who actually asks to do so on a regular basis. He is great at sports and runs with an older crowd, namely, Joey and the 9-year-old neighbor kid. They bounce between our two yards playing basketball and Bey Blades, which has nothing to do with Beyonce as far as I can tell, but which is apparently all the rage.

Evie is 4.5 and is crazy like a fox. She’s incredibly smart and funny and throws tantrums the likes of which I have never seen before. I don’t know yet if it’s a girl thing or if it’s an Evie thing, since she is our oldest and first girl, so…I watch in fascinated horror as the meltdowns unfold. She has zero regard for other people’s opinions of her, is a little bit terrifying at library story time and/or playdates, and will either play college rugby or perhaps run a small corporation before she’s 22. She scares me and impresses me and infuriates me at turns, and I love her fiercely. I also think now, with 3 years of hindsight and personality observation, that all of her refusal to hit milestones was 100% pure stubbornness. She had no underlying medical issues; she’s just like an angry housecat, is all. And if she didn’t want to crawl/walk/stand at 17 months, nobody (and I do mean nobody, entire PT/OT team) was going to make her.

 

Luke is almost 3 and has an immense joie de vivre and also, appetite. He’s our little human garbage disposal who eschews clothing and shoes and prefers scavenging food and running wild and free through life. He has the vocabulary of a 3rd grader, wears size 4/5T clothing, and can sing along to my entire Tom Petty greatest hits album, so he’s pretty amazing. Except when he’s not. Yesterday I caught him crouched on the bathroom sink drinking from JOEY’S DIRTY SOCCER CLEAT AND I HAD ZERO CHILL ABOUT IT. Zero. Parenting has crushed my obsessive tendencies towards cleanliness but you haven’t really lived until you’ve seen someone’s tongue in someone else’s athletic shoe. His alibi? “I couldn’t find a cup, mommy.”

OK THEN.

Zelie will be 6 months old at the end of June (how??) and is delightful and placid and has an amazing crow-like squawk during the rare moments of non-placidity. She sleeps pretty great both day and night and just rolls with the punches as they come. Someone asked me her nap schedule recently and I had to laugh because what is a nap schedule? And can I get one for myself somewhere? She is the most chill and pleasant baby and never really cries unless she is in the car between 3-4 pm (#carpooltrauma) or very dirty. She loves water and had her first dip in the pool last weekend and was smitten.

She is sleeping through the night-ish in her own room and alternates passing out in the swing with being laid down flat on her back, still swaddled but with arms free, and falling asleep completely on her own. She just pivots and adjusts. Life is grand with her, and none of the problems (ahem, except for that pregnancy weight) that I’m currently puzzling over have anything to do with her. It’s more of a threshold of chaos that we’ve crossed over and can’t seem to find our way back. Yet. I know I’ll read this a year from now and laugh because things will have settled so much and there’ll be new and bigger fish to fry with my super effective worry, but for now it’s the lbs and the lack of sleep and a general ambient noise level of 140 decibels that are really giving me a run for it.

On a closing personal note, my parents just arrived in Arizona to say goodbye to my last living grandparent, my Grandma Jean, who is in her final hours. She’s my dad’s mom and is the only grandparent I had much of a relationship with, including letters and emails back and forth over the years. She was also kind/crazy enough to let my sister and I stay on her sailboat for a 3-week stint when she and my grandad were cruising down in Mexico and we were sneaky, angsty teenagers. Señor Frog’s, anyone? If you would remember her in your prayers today and pray for the Lord’s mercy upon her, and that my parents make it to her bedside in time to say goodbye, I’d be so grateful.

Whew, how was that for a good old fashioned, high word count random bit of mommy blogging? Guess I’ve still got it.

*Not all big families are Catholic, and not Catholics have big families. If the HV series I’ve been running has demonstrated anything, I hope it’s the reality that not all couples who are open to life are blessed to actually have their children with them this side of heaven. We are humbled by what God has entrusted us with, and also, completely overwhelmed.
current events, mental health, PPD, Suffering

You know someone struggling with mental health (and you probably ate dinner with them last night)

June 8, 2018

Have you ever been so depressed or overwhelmed with anxiety that you had the thought “I wish I could just stop existing?” The classic suicide questionnaire used in doctor’s offices to assess mental health includes some version of the concept of “the means and a plan,” but for many people it isn’t the thought of self harm that brings relief, but simply the thought of stopping the pain.

For many people this pain is unfathomable and deeply unfamiliar.

And for many others, it is not.

According to the CDC, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for adults in the US. For teenagers, it is the second.

One in five Americans will suffer from a mental health issue in a given year. Data collected from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicate that of those 20% of the population suffering, 4% will experience severe and life-interrupting symptoms.

All those numbers are interesting – or maybe they aren’t, I’ve never been much of a numbers gal myself – but what they can obscure is the reality that if you live in a 5-person household with a couple parents and a few kids, you are statistically likely to be sharing a kitchen with someone struggling with depression, anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, schizophrenia, or some other ailment affecting the brain and the areas under its control (read: everything. When your brain isn’t working right, nothing is working right.)

I hate mental illness. I hate anxiety and I hate depression and I super hate postpartum depression. These diseases rob you of your ability to relate to your family. Of your ability to perform at work. Of your capacity for joy and wonder and compassion. And in the case of PPD, of precious moments of joy and wonder at the very beginning of one of the most important relationships of your life. The cost is staggering.

(For many people the cost is compounded by the difficulty in obtaining good treatment. Mental healthcare is expensive. For many people, prohibitively so. It is difficult to find a good provider. It is difficult to get scheduled with a good provider, with many counseling and psychiatric practices maintaining waitlists that stretch out over weeks or even months. But that is beyond the scope of this post.)

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by compassionate, intelligent, and deeply empathic friends and family who have walked alongside me during some of my darkest days of struggle with depression. It is because of this deep well of support that I feel a grave responsibility to my fellow sufferers to speak loudly, boldly, and publically on the matter.

If you or someone you love is battling mental illness right now, I want you to hear this: you are not crazy, things are not hopeless, and you are not alone.

There have been two high profile suicides in the US this week. In the devastation left in their wake, let us pause for a moment to pray for the repose of the souls of the departed and for the comfort of their families, and also take stock of who there might be in our own immediate circle of friends and loved ones in need of our attention and compassion and action. Not everyone who commits suicide has a mental illness, but many people who commit suicide do.

When I read the news about Kate Spade earlier this week I immediately thought of a friend who has been struggling. They share nothing in common other than their gender and their motherhood, but she sprang to mind as I scanned the sad headlines. Mental illness often requires more than compassion and communication and even prayer. But it very often receives not even these minimum attentions. (I do not seek here to minimize the profound power of prayer and God’s ability to heal. But He frequently heals through medicine – few people would treat cancer with prayer and encouragement alone, but frequently those suffering from depression or anxiety are assured that these alone are sufficient.)

We all know someone who is struggling with mental illness. But we might not know that they are struggling with mental illness.

I try to make it a point to ask my new mom friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers at Target how they are doing emotionally when I see them with a new baby in hand. Very often they’re doing great! And a few of them are not. And more than a couple have burst into tears and started pouring out their story to a stranger holding a box of Up and Up diapers, so relieved are they to have been asked the question.

It can feel scary to invite someone to share their burdens with you. But there is nothing scarier than walking through life just floating on the surface, never really knowing what other people are dealing with.

The devil loves mental illness as I’m sure he loves all things that cause people pain. But he seems to have a particular affinity for a disease process that is steeped in secrecy and shame and private suffering.

Shame and secrecy are Satan’s calling cards.

But bringing things out into the light and speaking truth over them? That’s when healing happens. Keeping them bottled up and private and buried beneath vows of “I will never” and “nobody can find out” are much more in line with the plans of the prince of this world.

Jesus wants our pain out front and center so He can work with it. So He can lessen the burden on our shoulders, shifting some of the weight to His own. So He can lead us to the right doctors, the right medicines, the right kinds of therapy and lifestyle changes so that healing can happen.

And healing – the total, miraculous, this-obstacle-has-been-removed kind of healing?

That doesn’t always happen. It just isn’t in the cards for everybody. God has a plan larger and longer than our mortal minds can fathom, and so yes, 14 year-olds die of cancer and babies are stillborn and husbands leave behind grieving families. But God does not will for us to suffer alone, separated from Him and from our brothers and sisters by shame and secrecy and lies. That kind of suffering, my friends,is actually a great working definition of Hell.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, or otherwise feeling despondent, do not be afraid to speak up. To speak life. To speak compassion and kindness and healing and hope over the circumstances and to persist with courage until you find someone who will hear you.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from over the years I’ve been writing publically about mental health who felt unheard or uncertain or ashamed after mustering up the courage to broach the subject with someone only to hear crickets or platitudes in response.

Keep trying.

Keep speaking up and reaching out and believing that you are worthy of feeling whole and healthy.

Don’t let an uneducated comment or an inattentive doctor prevent you from seeking the help that you need. And if someone has the courage to share their secret pain with you? Don’t leave them hanging. As awkward or ill-equipped as you might feel, push through the social norms that leave so many of us us cripplingly lonely in this society of ours and help that friend or neighbor or brother who just bared their soul to you find the number of a good therapist. A doctor you’ve heard good things about from someone. Your pastor who is generally a wealth of resources on mental illness from spending hours and hours in the confessional and who has every major counseling practice within a 40-mile radius on speed dial.

You are not alone. Your beloved friend, estranged cousin, barely-familier coworker or your darling daughter are not alone. Be somebody’s Simon. Put your shoulder under that cross and help them get where they need to go when they’re just about ready to quit.

The world needs what you have to offer. But you must offer it!

St. Dymphna, St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Kolkata, pray for us.