Hi Friends! Long time, no write.…but as it turns out, this week has afforded extra down time.
Just yesterday, the day before Thanksgiving, I was diagnosed with COVID. Thankfully, this has meant an opportunity to reconnect with you via this blog. So, happy Thanksgiving! And it is a day for Thanksgiving in my household, even though COVID screwed up our plans for celebration this week.
What we are celebrating today, this week, is a job offer that came last week…a job offer, finally, after three years of subsisting on (financial) bread crumbs, slogging through grad school, and playing the job market. I’ll announce the job at the end…so skip down if you want to know, or keep reading if you care to hear about my life in recent years:)
Of course, you know about some of it–we’ve all been living through this pandemic, and many of us have been facing new (or old) mental health issues. Two extra life-quakes faced by my household included the death of a parent and the addition of the surviving parent to our household. For myself, the pandemic and grad school have also led to a flare of post-traumatic stress symptoms, along with a disturbing political awakening.
The PTSD and political awakening I am still struggling to find words for, as I work to conclude my doctoral dissertation. However, what I can articulate about these last three years is that I’ve learned much more than I wanted to about chronicstress–and I hope to convince my readers that chronic stress is nothing to sniff at.
About six months ago, I took the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, which assigns numbers based on recent life events. In this inventory, a sum of 300 is a mega-stress score, and comes with the prediction of a “major health breakdown in the next two years.” I scored at 350. Maybe I should blame my COVID diagnosis on chronic stress?
I’ll write more publicly about these years at some point, perhaps after I finish my dissertation, but for today, I want to praise God that He has sustained me and my family through these years of chronic stress. I give Him glory that He is providing coping skills and tools I did not learn earlier in life, including various types of writing that I have been able to study and practice (mostly privately) while in grad school.
Although I feel beat up by the scholarly life–a very competitive, scholar-eat-scholar enterprise, if you want to know–I thank God that He led me to worthwhile topics that have provided me needed coping mechanisms for this period of my life. In fact, one task of my dissertation is to explain the mental health benefits of private writing for college students–a topic that I feel has not been sufficiently explored. I have a burden for college students who are struggling with mental health–and stats say at least one-third of them do. But as I’ve researched and written on this topic, I have remained aware that I am in this category, too.
What I love about God is that, while He allows us to go through these seasons of stress, He also delivers us. He knows such seasons are not sustainable; we are not meant to live like this long-term. Sometimes we have the choice to alleviate these insupportable stress levels; other times we are truly at God’s mercy: we have done what we can do, but there are circumstances that we really cannot change, and we must wait on our Maker to move.
Early last week I was praying to this effect: “God, I am at your mercy. I cannot change this situation: this multi-year job search that keeps ending in no’s, this mentally heavy doctoral work that must be gone through (to follow the path you’ve laid out), this house that my family has outgrown; this need for stability, including a living wage for my family. I truly need you to move, please.” And He did.
Right before Thanksgiving break, Southwestern Adventist University offered me my old job back–but this offer was better than last time’s temporary, one-year contract. I have accepted a full-time, tenure-track position that begins July 1, 2022.*
Finally, after three years, the search is over. Praise God! As I sit here resting physically because of COVID, I praise God that, in many ways, I can now also rest mentally.
The hard work is not over, of course. I still have a dissertation to finish. But my stress level is getting back to a sustainable amount. Soon we will have real insurance again, and we will have a new house that fits us all; for now, I have the security of knowing that I don’t have to job search while also dissertating (PRAISE GOD; I already played that game last year, job searching while studying for comprehensive exams…and I don’t recommend it). I know that other seasons of stress will come, but for now I am truly thankful during this Thanksgiving season. Glory be to God who helps us in our weaknesses, who gives strength and answers when we have none. Thank you, Heavenly Father.
If you’re at the end of your rope this holiday season, I hope you’ll take time to reconnect with (or get to know) The Man Upstairs. And if your brain is on overload, like mine has been for these past three years, try some therapeutic writing–perhaps writing out your stressors in a prayer journal. Also, for you over-stuffed intellectuals out there, remember that connecting with God doesn’t always have to mean reading yet one more thing; sometimes, it means expressing yourself, crying out, or even having a good cry while listening to some good Christian tunes.* As these recent years have taught me, God’s in the business of fixing our problems–as well the business of sustaining us when solutions take longer than we want them to.
*I distinctly remember one day last year, when I was working virtually in my makeshift she-shed, that I felt overwhelmed, cognitively overloaded, and stumped as to how to connect with God. I remembered a song I’d heard on the radio and looked it up; then I sat there and cried as I listened to these lyrics: “When you don’t know what to say, just say Jesus.” Normally this song would be a bit rock-y for my taste, but that day, it really spoke to me; for three minutes, it was pure worship. While I couldn’t formulate words, I just cried, and I let the song express what I could not. Afterwards, I felt better and I was able to get to the day’s work. In short, I highly recommend making an anti-stress playlist and using it as often as needed! Be well, friends!
Oh, dear friends and readers. Throughout this coronavirus saga, I have wanted to post an update blog often. I have tried a few times, but the whole quarantine/shelter-in-place situation has strained me, like it has so many others currently struggling with their mental health. I believe the Lord has been striving with me, as he is with the world right now, trying to get my attention—our attention.* What is he trying to tell you?
If I’d had it my way, I would have been running on all cylinders this summer, taking trips to see my Minnesota friends and family, taking more graduate classes, socking it to my dissertation, starting a women’s prayer group. But that’s not what God had in store for me. No, for me, He had a whole lot of sitting still planned—even being knocked on my bum, quite frankly—due to anxiety which, I soon decided, was really a manifestation of complex PTSD. But more on that in a moment.
First, a brief recap of what’s happened since COVID-19 upended our lives.
I started the spring semester continuing fulltime doctoral work, as well as part-time tutoring for UTA’s writing center. But after spring break, of course, my kids and I were sent home to work and study within our own four walls. This arrangement would have been a disaster if not for my mother-in-law and husband. My mom-in-law (who was already their teacher) took on tutoring the kids a few hours a day, and my hubby took the kids in the afternoons, while I worked and studied in our bedroom. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I didn’t have to figure out teaching my kids while doing my own work and school. God provided.
Unfortunately, once school let out and I looked up from my studies, an old pattern resurfaced. I started suffering another ginormous bout of anxiety, which has been happening during my school breaks ever since I returned to work. Thankfully, God had already provided my friend, Naomi, to pray with me.
(Quick aside: Naomi is a church friend from my time in Missouri who read my book Ending the Pain and subsequently requested prayer ministry. Since the beginnings of our friendship and my prayer ministry to her, in about 2016, our prayer times have evolved into reciprocal prayer support; now, I like to think of us as a two-woman support group, where we trade prayer sessions every other week. Last year, because I was so strapped for time, we would do these sessions during my commutes to and from UTA—not ideal, but we made it work, and God blessed with no car accidents:)
There Seems to Be a Root, Here
Through my biweekly prayer sessions with Naomi this summer, I was able to notice a striking pattern in my anxiety: it doesn’t happen at work or school; it only happens in connection with family or home settings. It also happened at church last year, especially during the brief stint when I taught in my sons’ Sabbath school class. The common denominator was being in a caregiving role with young kids, with the kids usually being mine (though, now that I think of it, I also struggled with anxiety years ago when I was a high school teacher).
Just days into my summer “break” (maybe I should say summer breakdown?) I found myself wound “tight, tight, tight,” as I wrote in my journal, and having so many weird reactions—startling easily at loud noises, angry outbursts, fantasies of running away—that I embarked on some internet research. I wondered: Was there a name for what I was suffering from, beyond just “Generalized Anxiety Disorder”? Because my anxiety seemed way too specific to be called “general.”
My research led me to a condition called complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD. After an hour of internet reading, it was clear to me that this was probably what I had. But I needed to understand it better. So, I went to my recently reopened public library to do more research.
Reading Pete Walker’s semi-autobiographical book on complex PTSD in late June was healing; I cried as I read passages that mirrored my experience of struggling so badly in what seemed like simple, normal circumstances. I reread my emotional eruptions and recurring fantasies of escaping not as evidence that I was a horrible wife and mother, but as examples of what Walker calls the four F’s: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (fawn refers to people-pleasing). I understood that my desperate feelings (and sometimes desperate actions) were tied to emotional flashbacks rooted in complex trauma; that is, prolonged trauma that occurs over a period of time, usually in childhood. I understood that my childhood development had been arrested years ago, and that was why parenting these days was so hard: because, while trying to parent my kids, I was still trying to parent myself.
For those readers who can’t relate, I know this might sound like psycho-babble mumbo-jumbo, but for me, Walker’s insights came as sparkling revelations. I sobbed with relief to know that there was a name for what I struggled with.
As Fred Rogers famously said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
New knowledge in hand, I was ready to get help and move forward. But I didn’t quite know how. As Walker and other psychology professionals note, C-PTSD is a relatively new concept in the field, and as yet does not hold its own entry in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), or the Bible of psychology; rather, it is a subcategory of PTSD, and one that many professionals in the field are not aware of.
So, I started by sharing my revelations with a couple close girlfriends who, I believe, also may suffer from C-PTSD. (At first I puzzled over why so many of my friends, and readers who have reached out to me, seemed to share this diagnosis. Then I realized that my prayer ministry and writing projects are designed to draw exactly this kind of crowd. No shame, ladies and gentlemen. We are all in this together, seeking healing for the crummy hands life dealt us.)
Old Prescription: Prozac
Taking seriously the magnitude of what I was struggling with, at the beginning of July I put myself on Prozac to help manage my immediate anxiety, until I could get help for my deeper issues. From what I’ve read, depression and anxiety are often secondary to trauma…so if I get help with the trauma, I’m hoping the anxiety will decrease.
(Second aside: I had a leftover, unused supply of Prozac from when we moved to Texas in 2018. In anticipation of our move and gap between jobs and health insurance, my then-doctor had prescribed me extra meds, which I didn’t end up needing once I started work. Go figure.)
Anyway, for the next five weeks, Prozac helped settle me down and sit with my family; it calmed my incessant urge to escape. On the mornings I could beat my kids awake, I sat in the pre-dawn quiet reading the book of Matthew, Message translation. This modern translation made the reading fresh and surprising, and I found myself meditating anew on the life of Jesus. His was a life of suffering and self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice, in fact, came up prominently in my prayer sessions with Naomi.
New Prescription: Self-Sacrifice
During my July 11 prayer session, after an uncomfortable hour praying through my anxieties without much relief, I asked Naomi to pray for blessings for me. But after she prayed, no discernible blessings came to my mind. Instead, the words It’s not about you came up. Huh? I asked Naomi to pray one more time for clarity, because I didn’t understand. At first I thought maybe God was telling me “This summer is about God and what he’s doing, even if I can’t see or sense what He’s doing.” I think that statement is true for the Christian life in general, but another round of prayer gave me more clarity on my particular situation: namely, God showed me that, while I didn’t feel like I was being blessed in this season, I could play a part in blessing others right now, primarily Buc. That was a pivotal moment and perspective-changer for me.
From that prayer session on, I took serving others as one of God’s prescriptions for me during this painful time at home. Of course, serving others is just part of living the Christian life, but sometimes we need a reminder. For the next month, with the help of Prozac and God’s prescription, I laid down my hyper-planning, hyper-anxious personality and worked at being here for a friend who needed childcare. I aimed for acts of service that would bless my hubby—namely, feeding our new chickens and weeding the garden (his idea of fun summer projects, not mine). I made a few meals for extended family during their painful moving process. I prayed with a couple readers who reached out to me. I hosted some stuff at my house. And I tried to give my best to my children, even if my best wasn’t all that impressive.
And the work I put into others came back around. Friends, my hubby gave me the best birthday gift ever at the end of July: he converted a previously unused, nasty backyard shed into an office for me! What sweet relief to again have a quiet space to call my own! Thank you, Honey.
Antidepressants Are Great…Until They’re Not
On August 6, I wrote in my journal that, while Prozac had allowed me to feel calmer and less reactive, I was also starting to feel drugged. So, after praying about it with Naomi, I decided to drop the Prozac. God helped me see that with my next semester of grad school coming up, I need my mind sharp. He also assured me that if I need meds again in the future, I can take them. And He told me I was not a bad Christian for taking them–even though some Christians are anti antidepressants. (Readers, please make those decisions with the input of your doctor, and your Creator.)
Back to School…Back to Therapy
As of last week, my kids have re-entered school, in person, thus relieving a major trigger for me. And, in light of my summer struggles, I have taken seriously that I have some un-processed trauma to contend with—some problems that Prozac, and perhaps even prayer ministry, can’t fix. As such, I have started some over-the-phone therapy with a new counselor who is trained in treating trauma.
But even though I have only had one counseling session so far, I am encouraged by the healing that has come from simply getting informed about complex trauma, and owning that I suffer from it. Take this reflection from my June 22nd journal entry, for instance, which I wrote after reading Pete Walker’s book:
“I feel really hopeful that I am turning a corner. It makes so much sense that what I’ve been experiencing is flashbacks to trauma, and re-traumatization once I became a mom, especially after baby #2. My anxiety was second to my trauma and my triggers.
“Walker says that recovery, and shrinking the inner and outer critic, depends on 1) angering at the appropriate targets and 2) grieving. In other words, cognitive and emotional work: ‘Cognitive work in both cases involves the demolition and rebuilding processes of thought-stopping and thought substitution, respectively. And, emotional work in both instances is grief work. It is removing the critic’s fuel supply—the unexpressed anger and the uncried tears of a lifetime of abandonment’ (Pete Walker, Complex PTSD, p. 207).
“I feel like I’ve done a lot of the cognitive work because of my conversion and then Straight 2 the Heart prayer ministry. But it appears I have more grieving and emotional work to do. On one hand, it’s hard to realize I’m still grieving. On the other hand, it’s freeing to realize there is a reason I am the way I am. [As one book on complex trauma puts it, It’s Not You, It’s What Happened to You.] Perhaps I’ve suffered from what Walker calls a ‘salvation fantasy.’ Christianity teaches that in Christ we can become a new creation; the old things have passed away, all things have become new. But maybe we can be born anew and still suffer flashbacks to trauma. It doesn’t mean we’re not born again, or that we’ve failed. It means we were hurt by our sinful world, and there are lasting consequences.”
Takeaways: If You Need Help…
Talk to Someone You Trust
Research Help for Your Mental Health Symptoms
As I wrap up this post (which I have been trying to write all summer), I feel grateful, and my mental health feels good. That’s why I am able to publish this right now. But I know tomorrow I might feel different, unable to write for the public; besides that, I also know I’m about to get very busy with work and school again.
So if I don’t post on here for another six or twelve months (grad school is a lot of work, y’all), I want to shout this out to my readers: Friend, if you’re in a desperate place, reach out. Seek help. Your kids will thank you later. If you don’t get help now, your kids will suffer, now and later! (I am living proof of this unfortunate reality.)
If you don’t know who to reach out to but are open to working with a Christian counselor, I highly recommend checking out the Abide network, where I have found my new counselor, who I am working with over the phone (she Zooms, too!) (FYI, I have some roots with Abide, because I formerly blogged for their website, and Paul Coneff, my Straight 2 the Heart prayer mentor and co-author, is one of their counselors.)
If you’re struggling but not down for traditional counseling, I encourage you to seek counsel in other ways. Spend time with your Wonderful Counselor, Jesus, through reading the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Spend time listening to Him in prayer, preferably with an open journal to write down what He tells you. Or, simply take a walk in nature and ask Him to meet you there. Or, spend time with a friend and ask Him to meet you through her. (Good and godly friends can also be wonderful counselors—wonderful with a little w:)
Bottom line? Our Wonderful Counselor will meet you wherever you are, if you simply ask. I believe He sometimes even meets people through mental health research, meds, and/or therapy, if need be. Bottom line? God has innumerable ways to speak to and/or reach you in your particular situation, like He did for me this summer. You just have to ask…and be willing to get quiet and listen for awhile. Happy new school year, Friends. Here’s to a new start.
* I belong to a church that believes Jesus is coming again soon. I’ve heard speculations that COVID is a warm-up to “end time events.” These are big buzzwords in my faith tradition. My husband has been studying things out pretty seriously (he was doing this even before the coronavirus). I’m not as into studying Bible prophecy—preferring as I do to study the more microscopic topics of human psychology and the heart. But I am paying more attention to world events and enthralled by the hope that our time on earth could be short. I am praying to be ready, and asking the Lord how He wants to use me. If you’re new to the Bible but interested in learning more, I recommend these Bible study guides, which answer some of humanity’s biggest questions about God, the devil, death, prophecy, and more.
Okay, after ten months of silence, it’s time for a blog post. Last you heard from me, I was starting a new job as an English professor at Southwestern Adventist University. Well, that position is ending, and a new chapter is starting. I’ve begun my PhD at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA); as of this coming fall, I’ll be working on a doctorate fulltime and teaching part-time for UTA.
Guys, one year ago as a stay-at-home mom, I had no idea I’d be back in grad school right now; no idea I would have fallen in love with teaching college composition, and have decided that this is what I was made to do. Life simply continues to be a whirlwind of changes. The 2018-19 teaching year was a blessing, on so many fronts. It was also a year of heartache, fear, and anxiety.
The Heartache of Losing a Loved One, the Blessing of Extra Time
My husband lost his job in March of 2018, as you may recall. We were then in Missouri, detached from any family (his family being in Texas, mine in Minnesota). After considering many options, without a job lined up, we decided to move back to Texas. We didn’t know then that Buc’s dad would pass away just seven months after our return. We didn’t know that I’d get a one-year position at Southwestern Adventist University and Buc and I would essentially switch roles for this year, but in hindsight, oh, what a blessing! We will ever cherish the extra time we got to spend with our Dad and “Poppa” Gendke. I am thankful that it was Buc at home, and not me, to be able to spend extra time with his father, and later, to bring extra comfort to his mother. Buc loved the job he lost, but he loved his father so much more. If this had been the only blessing of our job loss and move, it would have been worth it.
But there’s more.
The Blessing of Going Back to Work
If you read this blog, you may remember that I was a floundering mama in Missouri. Wow, was I a mess. Staying home with kids simply seemed to bring out the worst in me. I’d love to say I love being home all the time with my kids, but the truth is, no, I don’t. There’s a complex explanation here that involves my roots: my upbringing, my fears, and my sinful nature. Maybe I’ll unfold that in writing later. But the simple explanation is that providing childcare for littles does not call forth my strengths. On the contrary, it ramps up my anxiety like almost nothing else I’ve experienced. So, while I love my boys dearly and I’m so glad I have them…
I’m so relieved I got to go back to work this past year! And not just to any job. Guys, this past year, I think I literally worked my dream job. I’m so amazed at how great a fit this position was for me. Suddenly, after years of feeling like a colossal failure, daily feeling bad about myself and my performance with my littles, I felt comfortable and confident again.
The Blessing of Finding my Calling
In the college classroom, specifically in teaching my writing classes, I found a passion that is second only to writing. In my comp classes, I provided learning experiences for a young audience, but now young adults (not young children). And this seems to be my sweet spot as a teacher. (Maybe this will be my sweet spot as a parent, too.) I knew how to talk to young adults, how to connect with them—in short, how to help them. It was nice to finish a day of work and feel I had really helped people; I had really provided skills they needed.
You may or may not recall that I taught high school English for three years before having my children and writing my books. Well, this feeling of satisfaction did not accompany the high school job. Thus, I really didn’t expect to fall in love with teaching as I did this past year. What a blessing to have had this year to figure out my audience as a teacher.
At the end of the year, having to tell my beloved college students that I was not coming back was sad and felt a little confusing. I didn’t want to leave. I did reapply when my position was reopened. But I was not re-hired. No one was. The position, my position, has been cut at this time for budgetary reasons.
The Fear and Anxiety
The months leading up to this news were chaotic and stressful. Ever aware of the impending hiring decision, I was doing everything I could to keep my job. I updated my resume, wrote a heartfelt cover letter, re-interviewed with the English department, put my best foot forward in a departmental presentation—I even enrolled in a PhD program and one night class, not because I wanted to do a doctorate (I ended grad school last time with mixed feelings), but simply because I wanted to keep my job.
All year, I kept my head down, eyes off Facebook and this blog, and instead focused on teaching, and trying to keep my job. All my extra time went to my kids and husband. I’d say all other relationships—the ones outside my home—suffered. By January, because I felt so anxious, I decided to take part in a depression and anxiety recovery program at my church on Monday nights. Well, it was a good try at dealing with my situational anxiety, but unfortunately, the demands of the seminar—eight weeks, Monday nights for two hours, with hours of assigned reading each week and personal homework—created more anxiety. I simply didn’t have the space in my schedule for it.
The Blessing of Losing my Job, and Gaining Graduate School
By the time my boss informed me I would not be rehired, the last day of my spring break, the news actually came as a relief. Although teaching was going well, overall, I was being stretched in too many directions: fulltime job, PhD work, mother of small children, and a once-a-week anxiety seminar that I didn’t have time for. So, after spring break, I had Monday nights back, and closure about my job. I still had to get through the rest of the semester, though, which included teaching a full load, and my Thursday night class, for which I had to write a twenty-five page paper.
Actually, the sting of losing my job was greatly lessened by my concurrent involvement with the doctoral program. With that twenty-five page paper looming, and questions of, What will be my areas of research for the next three to five years? I had plenty of new material to occupy and distract my mind from the job loss. In addition, toward the end of the spring semester, I was awarded a doctoral assistantship, which will pay for my tuition, and also pay me to teach one or two writing classes at UTA.
I couldn’t have predicted it, but I actually feel happy to be back in graduate school. I’m so much more ready to focus on graduate studies and a career now than I was in 2012 when I finished my master’s degree. At that time, I decided to step away from grad school and a career and have kidsand write. That decision led to the beginning of this blog, in fact. Back then I was still trying to heal from childhood trauma. I needed to do some hardcore expressive writing, and focus on family.
The Blessing of Buc (My Hubby)
As I type that line, I imagine some readers asking, What about your family now? Don’t your kids need you at home?
Do my kids need me? Yes, they do. But do they need me to be the parent who is predominantly at home? Or is it possible that, in my particular family, Dad is the one better suited for this job? I’d like to write more about these particular dynamics in another post, but suffice it to say, this past year of Buc staying home with the kids (mostly Seth, since Sam entered preschool) has proven to be another huge blessing, as well. Buc did great! We are finding that, for our family, Dad is the better parent to stay home.
It still pains me that staying home with my kids seems to bring out the worst in me. On summer break currently, I am again suffering some anxiety. I keep remembering back to something I said to a friend on the brink of turning thirty, when I first became a mom: “I want my thirties to be more relaxed.” When I said that, I’m not sure I knew what I meant by “relaxed.” I think somewhere in my imagination, I wanted “relaxed” to equate to staying home with my babies and happily living life on the porch, a glass of lemonade (okay, coffee, lots of coffee) in hand. Well. It didn’t take long to discover that, for me, being at home was not relaxing.
As I write, I am about to turn thirty-five. I have a husband, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old. I have a house and a yard to take care of. I also have an appointment to teach and study for my doctorate fulltime in the fall. Before you judge me as crazy (for taking on so much at once), or a bad mom, please know that going back to work has saved me. It has saved my mental health. And maybe it was the first step in preventing psychological damage in my kids.
This summer, I’m going to try to be a happy, hands-on, blessing of a mom. For me, that takes a lot of prayer, planning, and energy (it stretches me much more than being in the classroom). So, I’m trying to leave margin, trying not to fill up my plate with much. That means blogging won’t be a high priority, although I hope to blog sporadically. My other goal is to reconnect with some family and friends, and actually try to rest a bit before the busy-ness starts up again fulltime in the fall. I hope to continue reflecting on this year of blessings that has just concluded, and prepare mentally for the busy year ahead.
Thanks for taking time to catch up with me. I hope and pray you have a blessed summer, and can find some time to reflect on the blessings in your life and/or rest, plan, and pray about whatever difficulties you may be facing.
I’m writing tonight about something I didn’t want to write about: my trouble adapting to motherhood, or my trouble adapting to a life that is family- rather than career-oriented. I’ve decided to post about it because, let’s face it, I can’t focus on anything else these days. What’s more, I’ve decided to type this post directly in WordPress (not on a word document that I will edit, and edit, and edit) because there is no way it will otherwise get posted.
Maybe I could post more often if I weren’t so worried about producing stellar writing…if I hadn’t been “tainted” by the successes of a career or a master’s degree or published writing. My blogging buddy, Kate, recently posted about how sometimes a bit of “fame,” such as being freshly pressed (which success I’ve also had), can hamper a writer’s voice. I wonder how much this has happened to me.
Ever since I became intent on publishing my memoir (which is maddeningly dormant right now), compounded with a growing blog following (especially after I was freshly pressed), my writing process has slowed down. I want my posts to be witty, clever, well thought out, and worth reading. When I began blogging, I told myself I didn’t just want to move my diary online. I tried not to spill my unfettered guts on the blog without first framing them in some (hopefully) amusing or enlightening way, or at least trying to make a larger application for my readers.
Blogging is tough these days because all I can seem to write about are those very mundane things comprising new motherhood: feeding troubles, sleeping woes, baby blues. And by the time I get a free moment to write, I don’t have energy to be clever about them. Do I feel these topics are too pedestrian to write about? Do I feel they are beneath me? Um, a little. Before this stage of my life, I prided myself on having more to talk about than just my family. Than just kids. I smirked (inwardly) at women who had nothing to boast of but children. Prided myself on my multiple degrees and teaching career.
But you know what? Not having kids, not having those “pedestrian” goings-on in my life, made it hard to talk to people. And graduate school made it even harder to swim in casual conversation with non graduate students. I found myself biting my tongue when I wanted to use big words–I didn’t want to sound too nerdy. I fear I’ve often failed.
Now, my tendency to over-intellectualize has crossed over into motherhood. Whenever I discuss baby Sam with my sisters-in-law, one of my three mothers, or my girlfriends, I find myself saying things like, “Well, I read that babies should start to smile in the second month,” or, “According to my parenting books…” or “In my reading I discovered that….” When I hear myself saying such things, I am appalled. Motherhood is not an academic subject to be learned through books. And yet, that’s how I’ve approached it.
Yes, I confess: despite successes in a career, in graduate school, in writing, I find myself hopelessly fumbling with motherhood. I wish someone would give me a manual to study with clearcut answers. But there is no such manual to be found. As I’ve been telling everyone who asks how it’s going, “This is the toughest job I’ve ever had.”
To those ladies I judged as simpletons for having nothing to boast of but children, I apologize. I was wrong to judge you. Of course, it’s not the physical “having” of children that makes you awesome; it’s the adept raising of them. So far, I’m not adept. As for my strengths, those seem pretty weak right now, too.
Just now, in fact, I’m fighting the urge to apologize for this incoherent and badly organized post…but it occurs to me: maybe an incoherent and badly organized post is another way, in addition to motherhood, that I can relate to my audience. Everyone goes through periods of uncomfortable growth and change–and this is one of mine.
Maybe I could post more often if I let go of some of my impossible standards. Maybe I would find that readers even appreciate my unfettered guts, er, I mean, thoughts (how’s that sentence for nerdy?). Maybe I WILL start to make regular posts again (albeit bad and incoherent ones), and let you share this uncomfortable journey with me. Maybe we can all learn something new in the process. At the very least, we can laugh together…once I figure out how not to take myself so seriously.
Today is my 29th birthday, and I can’t think of a better way to spend it than sitting here at my favorite breakfast place writing, reflecting, and thanking God for the blessings of the past year. Here’s a recap of how my personal and professional lives have converged (and diverged) over the past twelve months—showing me how God takes a very personal interest in the mundane details of my life.
I was fretting over what I saw as conflicting desires, including the desire to write, teach, and (though I didn’t much tell anyone), have a baby. God started to drop things into place when Paul Coneff of Straight 2 the Heart ministries asked me to help him write his first book, The Hidden Half of the Gospel. During July of last year, I was also starting to write my master’s thesis (eventually 100 pages), which was a perfect warm-up for the book-length project I was taking on. Now busy with writing, I tabled my internal baby discussion for the time being.
I was still working fervently on my two writing projects, but there came pausing points in both works, during which time I was left with nothing to do but finally start writing what was in my heart. Four notebooks and one month later, I had the rough draft of my memoir and the beginnings of this blog down on paper—both would wait for January for further development.
I looked around one day on campus and asked myself if this student life was what I wanted for five to eight more years. I didn’t see how that life would allow me to be the parent I knew I’d want to be—if we decided to have kids.
One day in October, while writing a paper for my last graduate class, I broke down at my computer and finally faced the truth: I was tired of this solitary student life; I wanted something more. I called my husband in tears and he came home early that day to take me on a walk-and-talk through the local state park. As I unknowingly acquired poison ivy, it was a relief to hear myself finally saying words I had been repressing for a long time: I want to have kids (this was a fun scene to write for my memoir).
In December I completed my master’s program and sent out two graduate applications—one MFA, and one PhD—just in case we didn’t conceive, and just in case God still wanted me in graduate school.
I did not get into either of the grad programs I applied to, which told me that was not God’s plan for me right now. I went off birth control in January, began this blog, and started officially calling myself a writer.
I spent the early months of the year feeling lonely and a bit depressed—now I was alone in our big house all day long, getting to write, yes, but without the promise of much people time during my days. I started really missing my family in Minnesota, whom I hadn’t seen since the previous June. I also realized I had been taking my husband for granted for most of our eight years of marriage—putting him on the back burner as I worked on emotional issues, self-improvement, and career development. I decided to be more family oriented.
Around the same time, God also brought many friends into my life to help alleviate my loneliness. This told me that God could meet my need for people contact with or without a baby.
In May, when I wasn’t expecting it, I found out I was five weeks pregnant. Yay! We had a fun time surprising our family with the announcement, as most hadn’t been reading this blog and didn’t know we were trying. I rededicated my efforts to finishing my memoir “before thirty,” and now I also vowed to try to finish before baby.
I have just returned from two weeks in Minnesota—probably my last trip to see my family before baby comes in January (I am four months along today). While in Minnesota I attended my ten-year class reunion and felt additional closure about God’s plans for my life. Though visiting Minnesota always makes me wistful, I clearly saw God’s wisdom in moving me away almost nine years ago. Visits back home used to be hard—brought painful memories—but more and more they bring happiness. Now, my husband and I are talking about getting a summer house in MN in a few years—which prospect fills my heart with joy.
My memoir is going well, and I have made contact with a favorite author of mine, Trish Ryan, who has agreed to consult on my book in late August to help me prepare it for publication (my hubby is giving me a “loan” because I told him it would be a good investment!). This fall I will be searching for an agent and/or publisher as I prepare for this baby’s arrival—and hopefully this winter I will have both a healthy baby and a manuscript headed for publication. The healthy baby is more important, of course—the book would just be a bonus. Regardless of how long it takes to get the memoir published, The Hidden Half of the Gospel will be published long before my next birthday—showing me that God heard my “before thirty” prayer six months ago.
It is 10:10 as I finish writing this, and my dentist’s office just texted, “Happy Birthday, I hope you have many reasons to smile today!” I am happy to say, “Yes, I do!” Today, I am smiling about my immediate future that will consist largely of family time, writing time, and more Minnesota time—and that doesn’t even compare to my eternal future!
Thank you, Lord, for taking such a personal interest in the mundane details of my life. Today I praise you for how you care about my heart’s desires and how you’ve led, not just for the past year, but for the past twenty-nine years.
Since deciding to be a “real” writer, I’ve kept a low profile. Not wanting people to know I’ve embarked on a low-paying (sometimes no-paying) job, I’ve hidden my true profession behind a façade of graduate student and teacher.
I haven’t been a teacher since May 2011, but until last December, I really was a graduate student, putting the finishing touches on my one-hundred-page master’s thesis. Mostly I was done by October, but I still let my classmates offer condolences for “how hard” the writing must be.
It wasn’t hard, really, because my advisor let me write the way I wanted to write: creatively and personally (with a little academic jargon sprinkled in). I guess this “practical” approach worked because the topic was practical: best practices for teaching writing.
When a few of my fellow students heard about my personal [slash] creative [slash] academic project, they seemed intrigued.
“I’d never have thought of that,” some said.
As they scrambled to turn up sources on the databases, scouring search engines and library shelves, giving themselves ulcers looking for an original angle, I just sat back and wrote. I started from the inside—I knew what I wanted to say, and I didn’t much care about citing the scholarly conversation that had come before me, or that would come after.
I know this sounds sort of pompous, and it wouldn’t work in some of the disciplines where original voice is not prized. But thankfully, English departments operate on this truth: If a voice is engaging enough it doesn’t really matter what it’s saying—people will read it for the good writing.
And that’s the truth in the real world, isn’t it?
People who don’t care a lick about golf will watch Tiger Woods because he excels in his sport. Same for most Olympians and Olympic sports. Who watches bobsledding or curling on a regular basis?
But millions watch the Olympics because it’s fun to watch pros do what they do best.
Funny, then, that I feel I’m still hiding in the wings, waiting for permission to “come out” to do what I do best.
Well, not so funny, I guess. I have no doubt that the hiding is due to the overwhelming personal content of my writing. (It’s not really about the money.)
In order for me to write about the things I write about (mental illness, family dysfunction, deepest fears) and be respected, I feel I have to be either a mental health professional or a pastor, or some other authority who can talk on these things at a close, yet safe, distance. That, or I have to make the writing itself attractive. Because the topics just aren’t.
Still, I am convinced that these topics are worth discussion. Worth a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, and many book series. I am convinced that all this painful self-reflection is what more people ought to be doing, but aren’t. But if it’s so worthwhile, why aren’t more people doing it?
Because: Like graduate students fumbling for research topics, we are afraid of ourselves, and we are afraid of what self-examination might reveal. So we look for other voices to latch onto. Let someone else be the guinea pig—or the “straw man,” to use an academic term. Then, if our life thesis fails, we can partially blame the voices on whom we’ve built our own.
Well, I’ll stand behind my own work. To the thesis examiner who said my work got uncomfortably personal at times, I would remind her that everyone else who read it said it was the most memorable thesis they’d ever seen. She was more comfortable in the theoretical realm, and that’s where she encouraged me to return. Toward the end of the defense, we had a more informal discussion about how we felt about publishing—how we felt about others reading our work—and this professor said she felt terrified thinking others would read her academic writing (not to mention any personal stuff).
Just like she couldn’t understand me being so personal in writing, I couldn’t understand her being so guarded (about dry academic prose). Perhaps she is worried that others will smell a rat—that of inauthenticity. And I guess if I were not being true to myself, I might worry about the same thing.
But after denying myself public expression for so long, I think having to live in hiding is far worse than living exposed. After spending time in a theoretically constipated English department, I think living vulnerable is better than living jealous of writers whose real-world topics you only dare poke with a critical stick.
Perhaps my guarded professor would even agree. At the end of the day, she passed my thesis unconditionally. Call my writing what she will, that day she called me a master.
“When are you having kids?” my high school students always used to ask. Why they were so interested in this detail of my life I never understood—much like I didn’t understand when family members or anyone else asked. The question used to come frequently when we were first married, and then, as year after year slid by with no child, but only new feats such as a bachelor’s degree, teaching job, and master’s degree, the question all but went away, and with it, my child consciousness.
But when I got to my first semester of grad school in 2010, I had an epiphany. Sitting in class at that time as both student and teacher, I was to finally understand why students and so many others wonder that question.
It happened one night in literary theory class, when my professor, trying to explain the infant stages of Freudian development admitted, “Well, the research says this [insert windy explanation of anal and oral stages]; but I don’t have kids, so I don’t really know firsthand.” That’s all. One comment. Then he continued his lecture on Freud. But I was stopped.
Before that night, he’d been Mr. Know-It-All.
Now, he was just a man out of touch with reality…who, perhaps, had never changed a diaper.
What did my professor have? He had his books and his scholarly journals and his research (and with those, late night library visits while bedecked in baseball caps [to blend with students, he’d told us]), but what, beyond that? He didn’t have a wife. Or kids. Or religion. (Lots of grad students and professors end up losing their religion, I was also to find out.) The closest relationships he had seemed to be with us, his students. And he was great with us, very gentle and caring, and genuinely concerned for our welfare.
But in general…in general, I had to ask myself that night: Is this really the life? And more importantly, is this the life I want for myself? Do I want to be like this professor someday, standing before a class of adults (or high school kids, for that matter), in my forties or above, with no life experience to share with them, besides what I had read in books?
This was a profound moment for me. I journaled at length about it the very next day. And I talked to my husband. Was I missing something here? Was I about to embark on the wrong path, this path to the PhD? What did it mean that I was having all of these questions?
Mind you, I was hardly ready to toss the birth control, quit teaching, and/or withdraw from my graduate classes. Just then I wouldn’t admit that I wanted kids. Because I wasn’t actually sure I wanted them.
But one thing I now understood: If I had kids, I would become a more interesting professor…and a more interesting person. I would become more credible. More human. And that alone was something worth considering.