Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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On your new arrival

Hidden somewhere in one of the cluttered corners of our house is a ziploc bag filled with baby cards.  They are cute, almost uniformly pink (except for, of course, the rainbows), and express bouncy messages of congratulations for the birth of our now four-year-old daughter.

We received them in the early winter months of 2008, but it took me years to open them all.  The reason?  They made me cry.

They said things like, “Celebrating with you the arrival of your baby daughter” and “A little girl is such a joy”, but my experience at that time was not so straightforward.  Our bundle of joy screamed, my celebrating body ached, and the nights and the days ran together…on and on and on…  We loved her–oh yes, we adored her–but it was so very hard to stop crying.

It wasn’t until the summer that we realized how bad my postpartum depression was and found some help.  Internal and external life improved slowly, and by the time we had our second daughter (just 20 months later), I had some appreciation for the bouncy rainbow cards.  I even went back and opened some of the older ones.  Now I could see–albeit through a haze of sleep-deprivation and baby spit-up–that our girls were indeed blessings, bundles of joy, etc. (though perhaps not “little angels.”  Really, have the people who write these ever met any real children?).

I share all of this in order to share a question.  Now with two preschoolers, I am further and further removed from the intensity of diaper days.  At the same time, I am surrounded by birth announcements.  Thus my dilemma.

What do I write in the card?

I realize that this is a very minor issue in the grand scheme of people’s problems.  As I write this post I keep thinking about friends who have lost babies by miscarriage or stillbirth, and also about those who struggle to conceive.  There is a weightiness here, and I know instinctively to choose my words slowly, lovingly, and prayerfully.  Or to not speak at all.

But my question remains.

How do I give a similar amount of attention and thoughtfulness to those who hold their infants in their arms?  Because I remember one of the painful things people said after I endured a traumatic, multiple-day labor–“Well, as long as Mama and baby are healthy, everything is okay.”  Sometimes, that is simply not true.

And sometimes it is true.  I am aware of the temptation to project my experience onto other people’s situations.   Maybe a new mother is simply overjoyed.  Maybe a couple has been trying to conceive for a long time and experience their baby as a miracle.  Maybe some people like infants more than they like sleep.

And maybe sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes your baby seems like the most blessed thing that ever happened to you and sometimes seems like a little dictator determined to take over everything you ever knew.  Maybe sometimes you forget what it was like to sleep for more than two hours at a time, and maybe sometimes you watch them sleep and actually think, “oh, what a little angel.”

sigh.

Maybe it’s just a lot to write in a card.


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Little Ones

Let’s begin with a little background, shall we?

There’s this book called “Three Stories You Can Read to Your Cat.”  Clever title, very cute book, my oldest loves it and tries to “read” it to our cats.  This is amusing to everyone except, of course, the cats.

The third story in the book is entitled “A Good Day” and details the (mis)adventures of a cat who is left alone by his person-friend with the instructions, “Be good while I’m gone, kitty.”  Let’s just say that kitty has a much different idea of goodness than his person-friend.  Kitty tears up the curtains (“It is good to climb”), rips through the garbage (“It is good to find a chicken bone”) and ruins the rug (“It is good to clean my claws”), all the while congratulating himself on having such a good day.

My children also have good days.

One day last week when this particular book had been returned to the library and completely forgotten (by me), our children and our housemate-children were outside.  The boys were playing loudly, but the girls were quiet.  This fact should have set off alarms in my brain, but I was mostly and thoughtlessly pleased that they weren’t screaming.

By the time I checked on them, the neighbor’s poor kitten had already received her bath.  My youngest was holding her while my oldest was drenching her with cupfuls of water.  It was late in the day, and the poor, matted thing was shivering.

I did not react well.  Ignoring their startled expressions and explanations (“But Mama, she was dirty!”), I yelled something, grabbed the kitten and ran for a towel.  My husband looked up from the dishes and saw fire in my eyes–“You,” I sputtered, “The girls.  Did this.  You.  You deal with them.”

I was one angry cave-woman.

About an hour later the kitten was dry, consequences were experienced and the kids were all playing quietly upstairs.  It was getting toward bedtime, and I went up to give the 5 minute warning.  It took a minute for my brain to register what was all over their bedroom floor.

Mulch.  A bucketful of mulch with its accompanying dirt.  Mulch and dirt ground into the carpet, mixed in with the toys.  Mulch and dirt, and it was almost bedtime.  “Mama!” my oldest’s eye were glowing, “We have a surprise for you!”

Yep.  Surprise, Mama.

“These are presents for you!’  she waved a sticker-laden stick of mulch in front of me, “We colored them and decorated them!  The wood is beautiful now!”

I reacted much better this time.  No yelling, no grabbing, no sputtering, but inside I wanted to scream.  I called in the reserves–the rest of the grown-ups–and together we cleaned.  I was glad, very glad, to turn them over to daddy-bedtime.  Good. Night. Girls.

Sometime later after my husband had already gone to bed, I walked past the girls’ room and heard crying.  “Honey, what’s wrong?”  “Mama…” she could barely get the words out, “Daddy forgot…  to hold my hand…  to say my prayer… to sing Jesus loves me.”

“Can I do it?”  Yes, of course.  I held her hand and prayed something like, ‘Dear Jesus, thank you for this day.  Please forgive us for the ways we’ve been mean to each other (I was thinking of my own behavior here), and please help us to be better tomorrow.  Amen.”

I started to sing, but before I could get to the “little ones to him belong”, she interrupted me.  “Mama?”  “Yes?” “Do you remember that book about the cat, the one we read to Pepe?”  “Uh, yes.”  “Do you remember when the cat has a good day?  Can you finish the song?”

Yes, honey, I can finish the song.


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When I Grow Up

Do you ever feel like you’re lost in your own life?

It had been a long day, and it wasn’t over yet.  Buried in piles of laundry and dishes–piles endlessly mocking my small efforts by their ability to reproduce–I bowed my head.  There were other weights too.   My latest submission to a magazine had been ignored, I had decided not to interview for my “perfect job” because of the time commitment, and the preschool tuition bills were just over the horizon.  With my husband’s salary we could get by–barely–but here I was, an able-bodied person with lots of school debt and no career to show for it.

I groaned, sitting at the kitchen counter, watching my housemate balance a tower of plastic bowls.  “I just don’t know,” I complained, “what I’m going to be when I grow up.”  He smiled sympathetically.

Later I wondered at my own comment.  What in the world did that have to do with anything?  Weren’t all the grown-up responsibilities that surrounded me proof enough of my grown-up-ness?  What more was I looking for?

“Business cards,” I decided, “Business cards that I didn’t pay for, a whole bunch of them in a box with some organization’s logo on them.  And a paycheck, not too big, but enough at least to cover my school loan payments.  Business lunches, conferences, maybe a title…”

I had to stop myself before I started stealing the company pens in my mind.

Of course, at some point I checked my own shallowness.  Being a grown-up has to do with having your name on cardstock rectangles?  Could it really be all about money or titles or expense accounts?  I don’t believe this to be true, so why was I doubting myself?  It’s almost as bad as saying that in order to be a grown-up you have to buy a house, get married, and have kids (would anyone like to argue that Mother Theresa wasn’t a grown-up?).

After all, there is no way I would judge my friends in the same way.  Many, many of them have followed non-linear career paths, just trying to find their way.  Some of found extremely linear career paths but are without the house-spouse-kid credentials.  Some have lost jobs, some are divorced, some are single parents… the list of life’s complications goes on and on.  Would I consider them “not yet grown up?”  No way.

So what does it mean to be a grown-up?  I’m not even sure that this is a helpful question.  How about–Congrats Jen, you’re over 18.  Now what kind of grown-up will you be?  Cause as I consider many of my fellow grown-ups, I realize that their maturity has very little to do with their net worth or the picture on their Christmas postcard.

The most-grown-up grown ups I know are wise, humble, compassionate, and a pleasure to be around.  They actually listen when you talk to them, even if you are not yet a grown-up.  They have a sense of humor about themselves, and try to help when they can.  They have not become these things through a degree program (though some have degrees).  It is not their “career” to be wise and humble (though some have been shaped in the midst of their jobs).  Having kids didn’t push them over the line (though it really helps with having a sense of humor about oneself).

These people, the ones I would like to emulate, have simply grown up a bit more every day.  They are grown-ups in a very active sense, “the growing-up ones”, verbs instead of nouns.  They haven’t arrived, and would probably laugh at the thought.  If they have business cards, they just don’t take them too seriously.  And if they don’t, like me, they don’t take that too seriously either.

Besides, I’ve heard that laundry is very good for character-building.