2013

I said several times this year that I would have no problem saying goodbye to 2013. It was, by all accounts, a bit of a crap year.

I worried myself sick this year. My mom fell and broke her ankle in 3 places and had surgery twice. The boys had their usual bevy of orthotics appointments, therapy appointments, and the like. But 2013 was also the year of multiple health scares, weird lab tests, genetic tests, and a less-than-pleasant screening that possibly saved my life. (There’s nothing sexy about having a colonoscopy, but there it is. If it makes one other person likely to go in, fine, I’ll say it: I had one. The prep drink is horrifically awful. The drugs are very nice.)

Back in May, I went to what I thought was a very typical post-screening appointment, only to have a very wide-eyed nurse assure me over and over that I was one lucky woman. My screening — checking out some post-pregnancy stuff, just to be on the safe side — caught 3 symptomless polyps which had a very high likelihood of becoming cancerous by the time I was 40.

Screenings don’t typically begin til 50 (I’m 33).

I got lucky. And though I don’t think about it often because I’m morbid enough as it is, I can’t help but shake my head and be incredibly grateful that the strangeness and stress of that season yielded something very good. (Even if I do have to repeat the test in 3 years).

This clear lack of control over my life this year accomplished much more, however: it brought me to the end of myself. To quote Anne Lamott, I finally acknowledged that I had run out of bullets. I probably needed to seek out support years ago when A was first born and I was struggling under the weight of so much love and terror and worry and tiredness, but my pride and stubbornness kept me from it.

This year I was stripped of that option. There was simply too much going on to maintain my illusions of “just hang on a little longer.” I wanted to take care of myself — for my own sake, and because I knew that if I wasn’t strong, I couldn’t BE strong for my kids.

So. I went and talked with a really nice lady once a week who helped me straighten some stuff right out.

I let go of some heavy burdens. I figured out how to talk myself down. I reluctantly accepted my highly-sensitive nature a little more. I said some overdue I’m sorry’s. And I let go — mostly — of the compulsion to try to run around and manage how everyone else is feeling. I started to let people own their stuff, even if it meant they had to work through being unhappy with something I unknowingly did or said.

This leaves me with a lot more energy for the things that really matter. And on that side of things, this year was glorious.

I grew in my career. I’m closer to the work I really want to be doing than ever. We have great child care (finally).

I heard a beautiful, perfect, clear “mommy” for the first time. A learned his ABCs and numbers and how to spell and say his own name. He started saying, “Aye-uh-oo,” which, of course, means “I love you.” My F started walking and then running. He just started asking to cuddle at nighttime and keeps signing for “more” whenever I finish singing a song.

And oh, that man I married. I learned over and over this year what a funny, tender, patient, steady man he is. I trudged through plenty of days where I was so anxious I didn’t know quite what to do with myself. And he just stuck by. Listened. Said what I needed to hear (even if it was just a truly horrible, deeply inappropriate joke). He took things off my plate. Loved our boys. Let me sleep in on the weekends.

We’re not quite to the easier part yet. Not even close. But I think we’ll get there and I’m less scared of the not-yet than I used to be.

Tonight the kids ran around our living room mostly naked while Justin roared and scared them to shrieks of delight. The baby ran up and laid a big open-mouth kiss on me while his lanky brother tackled me sideways. The boys half-hugged/half-wrestled each other toward the stairs as they said goodnight.

In that moment, it was hard to feel like anyone has it better than us.

I hope you feel the some of the same tonight. Happy New Years.

1. Guarded

These moments come out of nowhere: “So, I was thinking of getting him a book of Bible nursery rhymes.”

I stammered just a half second too long. My reply came out high and a little choked. “Oh! Oh. Um. Okay. Yeah, that would be fine.”

My mama knows me too well. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. It’s not something I have to get for him. I know you guys are sensitive about that.”

And there I was, trying to explain something that always seems just outside the reach of clear expression. I said chances are, it would be fine. That as long as it was age appropriate, I wasn’t worried. Yes, I knew that a child’s Bible nursery rhyme book should be age appropriate, but I wasn’t completely confident without looking at it. One year seems a little young for Jesus on the cross. Well, maybe come to think of it, maybe J and I would look for something we felt comfortable with. Etc. Etc. Etc.

The phone call ended a little awkwardly. I cried the rest of my drive home, though I couldn’t have explained why.

Mom texted a little while later, her words gentle. She wanted to be sure I was okay.

I called her back and, for the first time that I know of, was able to explain why I’m sensitive about how and if my kids are introduced to faith.

Right off the bat, she said: “Guarded. Guarded. That’s the word I should’ve used.”

“It’s okay, Ma. I knew what you meant, so I took it the right way. Thanks though.”

Right in that moment, I thought: what a gift to us — this careful rephrasing, this automatic translation. It’s a tenderness we fought for together — years of clumsily pressing through painful misunderstandings to the healing just beyond. This hard-won ground is worth it.

I fumbled through an incomplete version of what follows.

I grew up a very scared, very guilty kid. I don’t mean to say I’m devoid of happy memories or that I was somehow unloved. Though we weren’t a particularly communicative family, we were a silly and loving one. But what I learned at church impacted my more-than-usually-sensitive spirit in a way I’m sure my parents were completely unaware of.

Though they’d grown up around religion, my mom and dad first embraced it for themselves just before I was born. Me? I was literally born on Thursday and in church on Sunday. At the age of 4 or 5 I walked up to the altar of our small Assemblies of God church and said the Sinner’s Prayer to ask Jesus into my heart.

I was the Sunday School poster child. Fairly precocious, I sang solos before I could even reach the microphone for myself. I came every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night without complaint — eagerly, in fact. I memorized the verses, read my Bible, said my prayers, was baptized.

But I was still a sinner. And I knew it. Every mis-step, every sin was catalogued — not by someone else, but by me. I’m sorry became reflexive.

I remember regularly lying awake at night in my bedroom, at all of ten or eleven, tearfully asking Jesus to forgive me for the sins I’d committed that day. As I stared at the ceiling, I ran through every mistake I could remember. Asked forgiveness for the ones I’d forgotten (and for forgetting them in the first place). It was all run-of-the-mill sinfulness, I’m sure — a bad attitude here, an unfinished chore there — but what did it say about my appreciation for Christ’s suffering on the cross that I kept messing up? With all my heart, I promised that I’d try harder to do better the next day.

I didn’t see Jesus as my personal buddy, and I didn’t see him as a wrathful man-god, either. He was kind-hearted and good and he was disappointed in me.

I had all of the guilt of Catholicism with none of the clear-cut absolution.

Being saved isn’t enough, either. At a Missionettes (Assemblies of God Girl Scouts) overnighter, a leader sat with me in the dark after the other girls had gone to bed. That night’s message had been about the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, one of the A/G’s core tenets (whereby people speak in a heavenly language they cannot understand). “Just keep singing something simple, like Jesus Loves Me, until other sounds come into your head. God will give you the words.”

We sat a long time. The former happened, I suppose.

Things got worse once I learned about the Rapture. My Sunday School class watched the original Left Behind movie when I was about 12. A small panic arose whenever my family wasn’t exactly where I thought they should be. My personal vigilance increased.

A voracious reader, I blew through This Present Darkness when I was about 13 (for the blissfully uninitiated, it centers particularly on demonic possession in leathery, sulfurous detail).

The dreams started then. I’d wake up, still in my dream, unable to move. An evil presence there in my room had rendered me completely paralyzed. If only I could say the name of Jesus, I’d be free — but my tongue was thick, my jaw locked tight. I’d be trapped in mute terror for what seemed like ages, until God had mercy on me and I’d somehow be able to say the Name. Those dreams continued occasionally until even after I was married.

People often worry about what will happen if young people don’t take the Cross seriously. It doesn’t occur to them what might happen if they do.

My therapist expressed relief a few months ago once we finally stumbled into the Church conversation. I hadn’t mentioned it because in my mind, it didn’t have anything to do with why I was there. She said that up til then, I was a bit of a question mark for her. Articulate. Creative. Good childhood. Loving partner. Lacks confidence. Anxiety-ridden. First one to ascribe bad motives to herself.

For her my experience of church was, in some ways, the missing link.

“Teach your children that they are broken. Deeply broken,” a pastor in Illinois recently tweeted.

“On behalf of therapists everywhere, thanks for the job security,” someone replied.

My mom’s voice grew stern. “I didn’t know all that happened. I wouldn’t have been okay with it, either.” Then she grew teary: “I had no idea. I wish you’d have asked me about it.”

“Mom, I didn’t know there was anything to ask. As a kid, you think everything is as it should be — you don’t question. I figured if there was something wrong, it was wrong with me.”

I don’t know how to tell her that maybe no one was doing anything considered inappropriate by religious standards. If growing a good little Christian was the goal, mission accomplished. But guilt and crucifixion and hell and sin are tall orders for adults. Kids have no filter. I had no filter.

We cried together. And it doesn’t fix everything. Or anything at all, maybe. But there was a warm, deep comfort in knowing my mother’s first instinct wasn’t to question me.

It was to protect me.

It’s what I’m trying to do now. For now, it’s enough for my boys to know they are deeply, deeply loved.

Veni, veni Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

What a strange Christmas this is.

On one front, a chaotic but satisfying joy surrounds me. Three other stockings join mine on the mantle, a miracle in itself (a second wonder: our toddlers have left them hanging in peace). Our grand fir is, after a few small mishaps, properly bare on its lower third. The lights didn’t get hung and the cards didn’t go out this year, but inside our doors, our home is a cozy backdrop to the memories we’re making. With two mischievous little boys underfoot, that feels like more than enough.

But in moments of quiet, there’s a sadness to the season this year, a hollowness.

I miss the holy awe I once felt every year as I sang carols in my church surrounded by family and friends on Christmas Eve. We shared the wine and the bread. The pipe organ played. At midnight, we held candles and passed the flame from person to person until the place was filled with small dancing lights.

I admit there was a little out-of-place giggling early on, usually in my pew. High octaves and fire and hot dripping wax didn’t bring out the best in us, it seems.

But once the whole room was glowing, all that was forgotten. The beauty of it, that one flame holding us all together as we sang, was overwhelming. Transcendent.

Very little holds us together today. Very little of that faith remains. If anything.

I miss that glow, that belongingness, but I won’t be back.

And yet, for all my frustrations with how Jesus’ name has been misused, how his gospel has been twisted — for all my irritation with Paul and patriarchy and power and arrogance and apathy and abuse — for all the preposterousness of religion — there’s something about the Jesus story that moves my heart even now to something very like . . . awe.

So come, then, God-With-Us.

Be here in my not-yet, in my faltering attempts to live, if not devoutly, honestly. Be here in the middle of my disillusionment and doubt.

Be present in the prayers I cannot find the faith to utter.

Masterpieces

I remember reading this article in The Atlantic called “How to Land your Kid in Therapy” when A was just a baby (read it, it’s a good one) and one particular line from Wendy Mogel stood out:

“Our children are not our masterpieces.”

I mm-hmmed and nodded my head and sent the link to Justin. YESTHIS! I embraced it, tucked it away in my heart as one of those guiding principles freakishly idealistic people like me are so fond of.

Fast forward a few years and another baby: mothering is hard.

It’s not the hardest job ever — people who say otherwise probably haven’t served in Afghanistan or performed a heart transplant or picked fruit all day in 100+ degree weather.

But what I mean to say is that motherhood is hard for me. It’s day-in, day-out, and while people who say it’s the hardest job are totally full of it, I admit their reports of not ever getting sick days are accurate.

Babies and small children are just such bottomless pits of need and want. The sheer amount of potty-taking, butt-wiping, diaper-changing, food-making, face-wiping, booger-extracting, juice-getting, lego-building, share-that-with-your-brother-ing, jacket-donning, walk-taking, owie-kissing, bath-giving, nail-trimming, hair-combing, teeth-brushing, bedtime-story-ing and back-to-bed-ing-ad-nauseum that goes into a mere 24 hours blows my mind a little.

Most days I really do enjoy it, but it takes a toll. I’m a fraction of my former self mentally, emotionally, physically. And sometimes I just NEED to know that I’m doing something right, that my kids are somehow benefiting from spending the majority of their day with this particular mama, instead of, say, the proverbial pack of wolves.

On a gut level I know my kids are not my masterpieces. OF COURSE I know that. But a few levels down from that healthy, well-adjusted place — a spot where it’s reeeeally hard to be honest — I know I want some definitive proof, something I can point to and think: “Huh. I guess I’m doing alright.”

And, sadly, below that, there’s this: the place where I need other people to think I’m doing a good job.

And that, friends, is where we come to Thanksgiving dinner with our extended family on Justin’s side.

Oh. My. God.

Let me just say: we all got off to a rather bumpy start. Things are better now, but I’m still a bundle of nerves in their presence, not wanting anything to disturb what still sometimes feels like a fragile peace.

Names have been changed to protect the indulgent, but A sat next to Bart Simpson at dinner. Every naughty thing A did was HI-larious. Egged on and encouraged, even. “No” isn’t really in Bart’s lexicon. “Let’s be little a-holes at dinner” was more like it.

I was at the far end of the table, asking A to eat his food, asking him to stop spitting and making messes, utilizing every “mom-look” in my repertoire.

It was a constant battle. None of it worked.

Toddlers are as smart as they are ruthless. And where there is weakness, they will always win. Bart Simpson was a weakness, our inability to enact home rules was a weakness, and my darling son exploited every bit of it. He’s no dummy.

We took a tantrum-y time out on the front porch in the middle of a totally beautiful, heart-felt what-I’m-thankful-for session — my favorite part of these gatherings and the most opportune moment to strengthen the bond with my in-laws.

Ugh. It wasn’t his last time-out, and he needed far more than he got.

In the midst of our next attempt at course correction, Bart Simpson told us to “oh, calm down.” And in that moment I’m not sure which felt worse: the worry that people would think I’m a bad mom, or that — far more likely — they’d think I’m a critical, over-bearing one who can’t just let boys be boys.

We still had a pretty good time, and I was glad to see everyone, but it took a few days before I was thinking from that happy, well-adjusted place again instead of feeling awful and worrying what people may have thought or not thought. (Large groups: welcome to my nightmare).

I’ve been turning it round and round in my head, and it seems that as a mom you just have to get real comfortable with making calls that not everyone is going to agree with.

Good. ‘Cause that’s easy.

(If any of you have figured it out, please let me know your secret).

I’ve gotten this far: not in every case, but in many, I know what’s best for my son and at almost 3 years old, consistency and good boundaries seem to serve him — and others — well. They keep him safe, they keep him nourished, they keep him kind. When he knows he can’t get away with murder, he’s a pretty happy, chilled-out kid, prone to only normal levels of shenanigans.

Anyone who spends lots of time in our home knows that. And the thing is, I know it too. So why the worry?

He’s not my masterpiece. He is his own and if I’m lucky he’ll let me help him learn how to hold the paintbrush.

But this past few days has me thinking: if I can start living and loving and mothering from a place of comfort and confidence, caring about our family’s wellbeing instead of what other people might think . . . well, that would be something. I feel like I could point to that and be pretty damn proud of myself.

Sometimes it feels like it might be my life’s great work.

Trying to learn to use words

It’s been a big week. Writing about A’s suspected apraxia seems to have helped a lot of things fall into place for me. It was such a relief to explain exactly what’s going on. Thanks to so many of you, by the way, for the words of encouragement and support.

Justin and I have talked a lot this past week. We’ve been doing research, reading about things we can try to help A (most everything is anecdotal, however — as apraxia is a somewhat rare disorder, there have been very few comprehensive studies about it to date). We’re trying nutritional supplements and fish oils. They are expensive, and there’s a huge part of me that says: “Special needs parents: a particularly vulnerable sucker population.” But we have to try, at least for a while. At the very least, his motor difficulties make new textures difficult and he’s a crazy picky eater. The better nutrition certainly can’t hurt him.

This morning I had a heart to heart with our speech therapist, asking our questions and basically telling her she could “give it to us straight.” She’s purposely been restrained in how much information she has given us at a time, which I appreciate. As she said this morning, “If I’d have told you 15 months ago what you know today, you’d still be curled up over there in the corner.”

She’s a smart lady. And she nodded gently with a sort of familiar understanding when the tears slipped down my cheeks in spite of myself as we spoke. I admitted I had long suspected most of what she was telling me.

It really does feel like Justin and I have taken this on in waves. We learn a bit more, take a few new steps, and the water comes up to meet us. We brace ourselves and step further, and another wave takes us deeper still. The water is cold, but we are growing accustomed.

Most importantly, we aren’t panicking.

At least, not too much. We’d be crazy or dead to not worry at all about our son. But it’s starting to feel like an appropriate level of worry, a sustainable kind of concern.

I’m kicking around the idea of doing a blog specifically about this experience, both to keep me a little more sane and to help point other parents in our area to resources (it’s been a privilege to be able to tell other concerned parents “Here’s where you start. Call this place. Go to this website.”).

As I was thinking through what the blog might be called, a line from a favorite TS Eliot poem came to mind. The poem is about writing, but more specifically it’s about words. And as I began to think about it from an apraxia frame of reference, it blew my mind a little. I sat straight up in bed as I re-read the lines.

I first came across Four Quartets in 2007 when I was returning to Western to earn my English degree. Justin and I had been married shortly before, and after so much time away from school, it’s no stretch to say that I was terrified of failing yet again. I was certain that everyone in the room had reason to be there except me.

Back then, I was definitely panicking. It was months before I had the confidence I needed to thrive. But in the meantime, these words were incredibly meaningful:

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again:
and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Today, it’s like reading a completely different poem. Clearly, Eliot’s not writing about apraxia here, but I can’t help but think of A groping and fumbling for the right mouth position. I think of him attempting the same word 4 times, differently every time. Milk: “Ittt. Mitt. Mmmihlllkkk.” And then, the very next attempt, we’re back to “mitt.” or even “bitt.”

Every time he opens his mouth it’s a battle.

But damn, if that kid doesn’t try and try and try and try. Ninety-nine percent of the time I prompt him for that missing sound, he keeps at it, over and over. Our ST says A’s determination to learn is a huge reason why his prognosis is better than kids with less steep delays — he’s just so willing to stick to it and do the work til he gets it.

I couldn’t be more proud of him. Half the time I can’t tell if this is my heart breaking or just bursting with pride. It’s often a mix. Even at 7 months he was a fighter, rolling circles around our living room in heavy thigh-high casts while his feet were being fixed. He was just so determined to get where he wanted to go. Not much has changed, really.

There is uncertainty ahead. The only thing I know for sure is that the next few months will take us even deeper. There are no quick fixes here and we have much to learn. But I’m hanging on to that “there is only the trying” thing. If there’s anything our family is good at, it’s the trying.

I’m doing what I know to do. Loving my boys as hard as I can. Saying “Look at my mouth, A,” about a thousand times a day.

The rest is not my business.