Shadow Puppets

I leave the door open because I know it is only a matter of seconds before I’ll hear the pitter patter of his tiny feet on the tile.

“Mama!” Henry calls out. He rounds the corner, spots me, and exclaims, “Oh! Poop!” he claps his hands, overjoyed to witness the magic of the toilet, which his brother has mastered but to him remains a mystery.

We’re in the tiny water closet off our laundry room and as he squeezes past my legs I wonder what he’s after. Did he spot a plunger? Is there a toy someone forgot to put away? His face sets in determination.

He slaps the wall, right against the shadow my trucker hat has cast, the same trucker hat he tried to pry off my third-day hair this morning as he giggled uncontrollably. The light bulb is out in the water closet–I make a mental note to change the bulb–and the sunlight that filters in through the laundry room windows make gray shapes dance behind us.

“No,” he whispers, his blue eyes widening, looking up into my face. “No. Biiiig rawr.”

Dinosaurs are his favorite, so I’m not sure if it is good or bad he sees a Tyrannosaurus Rex on the wall. But then he throws his arms around my legs and I know he is frightened.

When I pick him up, he wraps his arms around my neck and kneels on my lap, burying his face into my shoulder. His white blond curls brush my cheek.

“You are safe,” I whisper into his hair. “You are safe. Mama is right here. It’s just a shadow.”

I try to make him laugh with the silly shadow puppets that always drove out his brother’s fear, but Henry wants none of it.

“No rawr,” he says. “No.”

So I hold him even closer, smelling his sweet toddler scent, rocking him back and forth, back and forth, as I’ve done since he was new.

“It’s all right, I’m here. You don’t need to be afraid.”

I am pooping and I am rocking my son and there is nothing I can do but sit here in the stench and shadow and tell him I am here.

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Growing Hope

The afternoon before Jacob is born, I trudge up the stairs to my bedroom to lay myself down. September sun filters through the window, casting shadows from the orange leaves of the tree onto my bed.

As I crawl under the covers, I think, this is what hope feels like, and I exhale. I’ve been holding my breath for a long time.

I pull the comforter up to my chin, but not before hefting a body pillow between my legs. The comforter is soft and white and provides just the right amount of weight for a day like today, when I am all nerves and energy, waiting.

The shadows from the orange leaves dance across my body.

Something in me shifts—and it is good and it is holy—much like it did the night my therapist first said “it was rape” and my body filled with fire and rage and finally, acceptance.

I knew in my bones something was changing then. In my belly, new life was forming—new life given by God, and by my husband, who sat on the therapist’s couch next to me, and who only hours before had shown me his love in that way that only true love can.

A similar sensation burns in me now—not only am I growing a human but I am growing hope, too—an ember, but it is there and it is glowing. All that came before—all the confusion, the pain, the anger—will be redeemed in a new story. This body of mine that was once so ravaged is now bursting with the joy of new life.

My Creator, my Father, who designed me to carry this boy, has designed me to carry these stories as well. This is good, and I am not alone.

My belly is taut, but my heart is soft. I know in an instant, because hope does not disappoint: my son will be here soon.

We’re Good

IMG_6588It’s animal print day, but too warm to wear the entire Paw Patrol Marshall pajama ensemble, so we go with the pj pants only. Which means everyone keeps complimenting him on his cow pants—which is confusing to him because he’s not a cow! But also Marshall isn’t his favorite pup—Chase is. And blue is his favorite color. And by the way, Mommy, now it’s hot so let’s take off both pants and shoes.

(I worry, for a moment, he will run off in his dinosaur underpants, because dinosaur underpants.)

With new shorts but no shoes (“I put them in the bin, Mommy!”) he throws his arms around me and exclaims “I’m shy!” like it’s the most obvious thing in the world and as though there were any truth to it at all.

In this moment I look down and notice my shirt is on inside out. It’s a shirt I pulled from the back of the closet and it is a maternity shirt in extra large. It doesn’t really fit me now but it’s comfy and this was supposed to be quick. Instead he wails, “Don’t leave me, Mommy!” and tugs on my pants so hard they almost fall down, almost revealing my underpants, which have polka dots on them instead of dinosaurs.

My face is awash in red hot shame—shame that my pants almost fell down, that my tent of a shirt is on inside-out, that my child is throwing a fit.

But still, I smile and I leave and lo and behold, once I am out the gate, he is fine.

Later, when I pick him up, his teacher grins, seeming to burst with joy at the sight of me. He’s had a great week—every day this week has been great, which must be some kind of record. She puts her hand on my arm and tells me she is so proud—oh so proud—of all the progress he’s made. “Even the other teachers see it!” she announces, and she’s right, that’s no small thing.

“The light at the end of the tunnel,” I breathe, and she laughs and says “It’s true!” She tells me he is a good boy, and he is learning.

***

I take him for smoothies. We both choose mango. When I was pregnant with him I craved mango every day, and when I’d eat it he’d kick and dance and I’d feel like we were sharing some kind of secret.

This is another kind of secret: that we are both growing and changing, that even though I am the adult I am learning maybe just as much as he is each day.

I’m learning how wrong I’ve been about so many things, how often I get things wrong, not because I am wrong, but because I’m human. I’m learning about shame, and how it’s a liar, and how listening to it is a waste of time.

We drink our smoothies and he asks me if I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I tell him, maybe! But I’m already a grown up. But maybe.

“Do you think I’d make a good teacher?” I ask him.

“Yes! You’d be good,” he says, and he smiles a secret smile. “Because you are my good Mommy.”

He’s good. I’m good. We’re good. I’ll be holding onto these words for a lifetime.

On Ice and Fire and Goose Poop

geese-57739_960_720We are chasing wild geese in the early morning light. The sun slants through the trees and it is so bright I must squint to see.

My feet, bare and cold, are also covered in goose poop. These are the sacrifices one makes as the mother to a boy who is almost three.

Jacob runs ahead of me and then stops short, peering back at my face.

“Let’s go slowly and quietly,” I suggest. And he runs back to grab my hand.

Tiptoeing through the pungent wet grass, we clutch each other’s fingers. We creep so quietly, so slowly, the geese allow us closer than I would have imagined. My son is quieter than I would have imagined.

Not wanting to push our luck, I say, “Wait. Let’s stay here a minute and watch them.”

Jacob grins at me. He whispers, “I want to chase them, Mommy.”

As I nod, he lets go of my hand and runs straight into the feathery fray.

***

Jacob is fire and wind, a wildfire raging. In the wee hours of his first mornings I saw worlds behind those deep brown eyes, and I prayed the screaming and flailing and resistance to my love would settle into a peaceful, restful spirit.

Now he is belly laughter and barrel rolls and an encyclopedia on his favorite birds. He is tears over songs in minor chords and fears of Disney movies–even after the evil is vanquished. He so desperately wants to consume the world, yet the world is often just too much for him.

Someday, God willing, he will move mountains. But now? Now he is a little boy who desperately wants both freedom and control.

***

Our trusted nanny must leave us and we are trying someone new.

When I return from my errands, Jacob flings open the gate and runs through the carport, his wild sun-kissed hair glowing in the light of the setting sun. “Mommy!” he cries, all hair and limbs and Lightning McQueen underpants. I squat down to his level to give him a hug and I notice he is shaking. He won’t make eye contact with me. His words are coming out too fast, and he is moving too fast, too.

The sitter, who is feeding Henry, my sweet, roll-with-the-punches 18 month old, tells me Jacob acted jealous because she held “the baby” all day. She tells me Jacob wouldn’t listen (but she doesn’t call him Jacob, she calls him “what’s his name”).

She looks at me wide-eyed and tells me he is wild. She tells me when Jacob kicked his brother, she held a piece of ice to his foot and told him to pay attention to the way it burned.

***

What burns me is the realization I will always stand between what I know of my son and the way others perceive him. I am consumed by the desire to protect him, to explain him, to prove to the world that while he is wild, he is also beautiful.

But it goes without saying: an uncontrolled fire is dangerous.

I will have to shed my sensitive skin many times over to become strong, let the scales fall from my eyes to more clearly see. May God grow me into the mother he needs to help him flourish in a world that will not always love him.

Wildfires are a necessary part of the ecosystem, conduits to great transformation. As dead trees and decaying matter turn to ash, their nutrients return to the soil and provide a fertile place for new life to take root.

May God show me how to teach him how to control the burn.

***

It wasn’t until we took our holiday to the goose fields that Jacob ever wanted to share a bed. Now, every night he begs to be held, begs for me to stay with him in the dark, to curl my body around him and whisper that everything will be all right.

But can I promise him everything will be all right when I’m not sure I believe it myself?

Can I teach him how to lean into his good, wild beauty when for so long I’ve poured water on my own glowing embers?

The night after the ice, it is as though he is trying to crawl back under my skin, back to the place where he was first known and loved.

I whisper into his hair: “You are precious to me, Jacob. God made you so special, just the way you are. And I really, really like who you are.”

Quick as geese taking flight, he turns and presses his cheek against mine.

Exciting News – The Unofficial Guide to Surviving Life with Boys

One night last spring, I received a Facebook message from Tiffany, a writer and editor (#lifewithboys) I had occasionally bumped into in several blogger Facebook groups. Thanks to my brief stint as editor of the Good Mother Project, I’ve been fortunate enough to lurk perpetually in many writers’ circles, dreaming of one day adding my voice to the conversation.

And suddenly Tiffany was talking to me.

She offered an invitation to participate in an anthology about raising boys – and of course I said yes on the spot.

I wrote a story about Jacob, and about deployment, and about our big feelings. It’s called “An Orange Butterfly Day,” and when I told Jacob the name of the story I had written, I could see on his face he knew it was about him, and it was about love.

The book officially launches October 21, and will be available on Amazon.

My words will share space with stories from some of the wittiest, insightful, wonderful mama writers I’ve had the privilege of internet stalking.

While you wait for October, please take the time to check them out!

Nourished

late nights bw

At the end of Jacob’s first week, I hobbled into my midwife’s office, bleeding and crying and snotting all over the place. She asked me how we were doing. “I’m bruised,” I said. “I’m bleeding. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Tell me I don’t have to do this, I begged her with my eyes.

She prescribed me heavy duty nipple cream and sent me off with a hug. “Nursing is a great way to take care of your baby,” she said. “But it is not the only way. What Jacob needs most is to be nourished, and to be loved. Nursing is not the only way to accomplish those goals. You’ve got to take care of yourself, too.”

***

At first, both my boys latched like naturals. For the first hour or so after birth, I congratulated myself on knowing what to do. Such a natural mother.

I was a fool.

Mere hours later with Jacob, my first, I began to experience intense pain when he would latch. One of the nurses encouraged me to self express with my fingers, to use a spoon to make sure he was getting the precious liquid gold, even if he couldn’t latch properly. So I did.

The next morning he was fussy, inconsolable. Another nurse asked me how long it had been since the last feeding. Four, maybe five hours earlier I had expressed some colostrum. Could it really be time to do this again? I was already bruised and discouraged. I registered the shock in her eyes: four to five hours? This baby needs to eat. Apparently I wasn’t a natural after all. A lactation consultant asked me to show her how I was feeding him and to my disbelief she praised me on our technique. Gold star, baby! I began to breathe easily again.

The relief was short-lived.

Once we were home, I dreaded feedings. He wouldn’t latch properly. He’d scream until he was red and then, once latched, would cause me to bleed. Even when we were lucky enough to latch well, I wasn’t producing enough to satisfy his hunger. I began to feel the prickle of fear and resentment every time he cried. And then I felt guilty—wasn’t I supposed to be enjoying this? Weren’t we supposed to be bonding?

At his first pediatric check-up, our doctor came through the door while he latched—well, for the first time in hours—and drank and drank and drank. I was ecstatic – Look! We’re doing this! Even so, we learned he had lost 10% of his birth weight, and they told me I needed to supplement with formula.

I felt like a failure. The words of the instructor of the hospital’s breastfeeding class rattled around in my head. She had told us she wouldn’t even talk about formula because she knew we wouldn’t “give in to the temptation.” She told us to be on the lookout for formula samples that would come in the mail. “Throw them away immediately,” she said. “You don’t want to give in at 3am when you feel like you’re about to lose your mind.” Pre-birth, I resolved to do whatever it took to breastfeed my son, no matter how I felt about it in the moment.

But at 3am, in the face of my screaming, (starving?) newborn, feeling like I was about to lose my mind, I “gave in” and followed the instructions of his doctor, feeding him the formula I had asked my husband to buy at the store that day.

I still felt like a failure—I wasn’t enough for him. But for the first time in his three days of life, he slept soundly and peacefully and longer than 45 minutes. Finally, he was satisfied.

***

I met with a lactation consultant a few days after seeing my midwife, and braced myself for a lecture. When she asked me how it was going, I burst into tears. “I’m not sure I can do this,” I said. I gasped for breath, struggling to find the words to speak the truth I hadn’t wanted to face: “I’m a sexual assault survivor . . . and I just . . . I can’t . . .”

There it was. Nursing my child was a triggering event. I resented my newborn and felt so ashamed.

She handed me a box of tissues and put her hand on my arm. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “I don’t say that lightly; it’s my job to convince you otherwise. But you have got to take care of yourself. The most important thing you can offer this boy is your love and your presence. Take care of yourself first so you can give him the love that he needs.”

***

I pumped for a month. Every two hours I’d go up to Jacob’s room, turn on Gilmore Girls, and pump pump pump away. My mom and husband helped hold him and feed him and gave me a break to shower and rest. But then my husband went back to work and my mom went back home. He wasn’t content to sit with me while I pumped. He screamed. And screamed. And suddenly I was faced with a terrible predicament: do I sit here and pump and let him scream? Or do I skip the pump, pick him up, and feed him more formula?

I set the pump down. I made a bottle and brought him to my chest. And I stared into his eyes and sang him songs and told him how precious he was to me.

It wasn’t long before I saw the effects of bottle-feeding: Jacob and I both were sleeping better. The tension in my shoulders released. Rocking him and feeding him became my favorite time. My prayers shifted from laments and requests for peace to songs of quiet praise.

My perinatal therapist diagnosed me with postpartum anxiety, and with her help I learned to re-tell the story of feeding Jacob as one of great hope and love: rather than give in to the fear of failure or let my heart grow bitter from resentment, I had chosen to change course so we could flourish in our new relationship as mother and son.

In those days I began to see how inextricably linked self-care is to the well-being of our children.

***

With Henry, it was different. I wasn’t sure how it would go—would I be triggered again? I told myself I would nurse him for the first three days, at least. I would make sure he received the colostrum. And then I would check in with myself. Three days passed and I continued to nurse. My milk came in and I continued to nurse.

And something strange happened. I began to enjoy this time with my son. We had figured it out. We did it together. I quietly rejoiced as he fed, feeling so much pride and love and connection.

Rather than triggering me, he was healing me.

But I still wasn’t producing enough milk. I could tell he wasn’t eating enough. So we began to supplement.

As much as I was (mostly) enjoying the time nursing Henry, I couldn’t figure out how to stick it out for the long term; we had a big move on the horizon and my stress level was at all-time high. Jacob, only 19 months, needed lots of love and attention in the wake of his baby brother’s arrival. I didn’t know how I would make the time to pump to increase my supply.

When, in his second week, Henry began to clusterfeed, my confidence dwindled even further. Feedings became more painful, he became more frustrated, and the old familiar feelings of dread and resentment began to creep their way into my heart each time I heard him cry.

On day ten I made cold cabbage compresses and stuck them in my bra.

***

Today, both kids have oatmeal in their hair and peanut butter on their faces. Jacob hates tomatoes while Henry eats marinara by the spoonful. Both boys are great eaters and generous with their affection.

They are nourished and they are loved.

There are still those moments, as I hold them close before bed, when I dream of how wonderful it could have been. I am wistful as I imagine a calmer, more integrated version of myself who could have handled the stress of the moments that come barrelling so quickly at mothers so soon after birth. It is easy to long for a more idealized version of the mother I wish I was and could have been.

But then I remember I am doing the best that I can. I nourish myself these days with food and sleep and long showers and slow runs by the ocean. I take care of myself well so that in the ever-present stress of motherhood I can attempt to present my children with the best version of the woman I am today.

And that, I am convinced, is enough.

This post originally appeared on the Good Mother Project

Splinter

jakeandmamabw

Jacob ran out the front screen door, exclaiming, “Christmas wreath!” in his two-year-old toddlerese. It was early December in Hawaii and the wreath I had picked up at the local Target was our lone Christmas decoration. With a deployed husband, two small children, and an upcoming holiday trip to my parents’ house on the mainland, I felt justified in skipping all the trimmings.

He couldn’t believe his luck – not only had I brought home a wreath, but also wrapping supplies. “CHRISTMAS BOWS!” he squealed, and immediately insisted we add one to the wreath. Why not. So I picked him up and steadied him as he added a huge, shiny red bow.

“Yay! I did it!” he grinned ear to ear and as soon as I set him back on his feet, he began to do his signature celebratory dance.

I was distracted for a few minutes, chatting with Monica, our nanny, as she updated me on the day’s events and prepared to go home. I didn’t see the moment when the splinter got lodged in the tender skin of Jacob’s foot.

At first, he didn’t want to let us see. He ran around the house, favoring the foot, insisting he was okay.

We were finally able to corral him, and when we saw the splinter’s size, we knew we needed to act quickly. Monica saw the horror on my face (how do I even do this?) and graciously offered to stay and help.

As I carried my screaming child to the well-lit bathroom, tweezers in hand, I couldn’t help but think of my thirteen-year-old self, spinning around barefoot on the hardwood floor of my parents’ kitchen, ending up with a splinter the size of a toothpick. I finished that day in the Emergency Room. The nurses rolled their eyes at me until they caught a look at how big it was and realized someone needed to cut it out.

Like mother like son. Please God, don’t let it be that bad. Not when Tim isn’t here. He’d know what to do.

Monica said she had experience removing splinters from thrashing toddlers, so we decided she’d take the tweezers and I’d hold him steady.

“NO THANK YOU, MAMA!” He sobbed the words I had taught him to say when he doesn’t want someone touching him, when he needs his space. “I hear you, baby. I know you are saying ‘No thank you,’ but Mama and Monica have to do this to make you feel better. I am so sorry.” He screamed, and it was heartbreaking, shattering, to hear my child crying from the depths of fear and distress, pleading with me to stop the pain I was allowing.

Tethered so firmly to the present moment, he was too young to understand sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. How could I convince him to trust me?

His tears brought tears to my eyes as I held him tightly, clutched to my chest, holding down his kicking legs and flailing arms.  Monica was the essence of calm. She spoke quietly, reassuring him, doing her best to efficiently remove the splinter.

When it was done, we smiled at Jacob. “You did it!” I squeezed him. “I am so proud of you.” He drew a big, shuddering breath and said, “Thank you, Mama.”

***

It’s no secret that in recent years I’ve been working through some anger with God. This all-knowing, all-loving, ever present Father has allowed so much heartache and pain in my life, the lives of my loved ones, the lives of people all over the world. I’m over it. It hurts so much and he allows it to get worse. So I kick and I scream and I buck and I cry. I’m like a toddler who can’t be consoled, who doesn’t want to listen to assurances that God knows what he’s doing and that ultimately there is a greater plan.

A few months ago, not long before Tim deployed, I was in church and the pastor asked us to imagine being in the presence of God – what would be like if we were standing face to face? I suddenly had this image of me pummeling God’s chest. Just hitting and hitting and yelling and screaming and crying. And he held me. As I hit him and kicked him and said “NO MORE!” He just held me. He didn’t chastise me. He didn’t tell me to buck up. He didn’t tell me I knew what I was signing up for when I became an Army wife. He didn’t tell me to stop being a baby. He didn’t let go of me and say “I don’t deserve this from you,” or “Have you forgotten all I’ve given you?”  He just held me with love and confidence and grace. He let me struggle, but never without assuring me with his strong arms and tender gaze.

***

How do we teach children to trust? It’s a tricky thing. Jacob and I have talked about it quite a bit since the splinter incident, and while I realize it’s going to be a while before he completely understands, I think the basic idea is starting to settle in.

I try to explain to him that I would never hurt him on purpose, that I am here to protect him, to keep him safe, to help him be healthy. That if I ever allow him pain, it is because I know it will be better on the other side. And that in the midst of the pain, he can always turn to me for comfort. Always.

Deep down I know that God is like that, too, because I’ve experienced him to be that way. In the middle of pain, and even in the middle of anger, I still know the God I am wrestling with is a God of love and patience and goodness. I have experienced his overwhelming peace at the strangest times, as nonsensical as it may seem.

He’s teaching me, in these anxious days, how to trust him again. He’s bringing me closer to the light, examining all the splinters I’ve lodged in my heart: the fear, pride, and self-pity he knows will fester if we don’t work together to dig them out. He reminds me, tenderly, that sometimes things have to be more painful before we can heal.

***

I don’t have a scar from the toothpick-sized splinter; in fact, I can’t even remember which foot endured the pain. But I do remember the path to healing was a long, embarrassing one. I showed up to middle school on crutches and had to explain why I couldn’t walk (I uh…got a huge splinter? When I was, uh…dancing around in my kitchen?). Later that week a lymph node swelled so badly I thought I was seriously ill. The doctor assured me it was just my body’s way of fighting an infection that must have begun before the splinter was removed. He gave me some antibiotics, and that was that.

It was done. But it took surgery and drugs and a week on crutches before the pain began to abate. The ER doctor’s scalpel was just the beginning.

When it comes to healing, there are no quick fixes, and that’s true of our hearts just as much as our earthly frames. It’s one thing for me to turn to God and acknowledge that I’m angry and hurt. It’s another thing entirely for me to hand over my heart and let him get to work. Just like Jacob, I’d much rather run away and self protect. And even when I do ask for help, God doesn’t magically make the splinters disappear; he removes them one by one with the precision and care of a surgeon. He takes his time, and he makes no promises that it won’t hurt.

It’s up to me then, whether I want to keep screaming and thrashing. He’s going to hold me regardless. I have to believe that as he holds me, my tears bring tears to his eyes, and with whatever progress we make, he is proud.

I am still learning how to say thank you.

What of the dancing? I’m happy to tell you I still dance around barefoot in the kitchen; to be honest I’d rather have the joy of dancing than live my life on the lookout for loose wood. As for Jacob, until we refinish the porch I try to make sure he wears shoes in the front of the house.

But I don’t catch him every time. I won’t, because he is full of life and curiosity and he’s just going to keep running and dancing. It is inevitable he will find pain along the way. But I will be there to hold him when he cries, just like my Abba holds me.