Hard Lessons (Heed the Signs)

hitting-head-against-a-wall
from Creative Commons

My life recently has been hard. But not because of hard circumstances. It’s been hard because I’ve made it hard.

 For the past six months, I was trying to do too much (story of my life), and my family suffered, and I suffered. I was always stressed. Couldn’t sit still with my kids. Always angry at Buc, always nagging, always criticizing. I got angry even if Buc joked with me or tried to be funny with his answers—and his sense of humor was one of the things that  attracted me to him in the first place!

“I don’t have time for jokes,” I’d snap, literally racing around the house trying to get it livable in time to win maybe fifteen minutes of reading time at the end of the day.

“I can’t take this anymore,” Buc told me one morning. “It’s got to stop. You’re driving yourself crazy. And you’re not nice. It’s not fun to be married to you. You finish the projects on your plate and don’t take on anymore, not until you can deal with what you’ve got.”

I was overloaded. Overtaxed. Strung out. And I wouldn’t admit it, until that sobering talk with my husband. That stressful morning, I finally admitted that the pace at which I’d been living was insupportable. And I admitted that it was time to accept a new reality. I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, but I knew it would involve letting go of a lifestyle that just wasn’t working.

Roots of Imbalance

If you’ll recall, we hired a part-time nanny last August so I could get some help with the kids and resume some writing/ministry projects. We hired her for fifteen hours a week, with the intent that I’d be gone for most of that time writing or doing other ministry related things; but when her other part-time family let her go (the child went to preschool), she needed more hours. So we gave her more hours. Some weeks it was around twenty-five, more often it was closer to twenty.

At first, I thought this was great. I felt incompetent at home, and my kids stressed me out; I felt like I wasn’t a very good mother anyway. So when I was asked to speak at a women’s retreat and co-write a book and pray with three women at my church and form those women into a prayer group last fall—things at which I felt much more competent—I thought life was falling into place swimmingly. We had money to pay the nanny; she wanted more hours; and I wanted to go do what I knew I was already good at. So, I started leaving the house. A lot.

During that period of six months, when I often left home, one-third of a book got written. Four talks, complete with powerpoints, were prepared and delivered in Florida at a women’s retreat.  And I got invited to do some similar things that are coming up this spring (a magazine cover story, a TV appearance, another women’s retreat). These were and are all great things. But, I discovered, they came at a high cost to my family.

Although I believe God has given me a writing/speaking ministry, I started to sense I wasn’t getting the balance with my home life right. And the more stressed I got, the more I sensed I was using the good work/ministry as an excuse to run away from my first work—my family.

Signs Something Was Wrong

The first sign that something was wrong was that Buc and I couldn’t stop arguing about housework. I’d hired the nanny to watch the kids, not do housework, and when I started leaving the house more, more domestic things went undone—piling up for me at the end of every day, leaving me perpetually exhausted and resentful. I thought Buc should be happy to help me pick up the slack in the name of the good work I was doing. He thought otherwise; he’d hired the nanny to make his life easier, too, and that shouldn’t include more housework for him.

Another sign was Sam’s attachment problems. Shortly after I started leaving the house to go to “work,” Sam gave up touching me. He wouldn’t let me touch or kiss him for a couple months. But in other ways he became clingier. Where I’d previously been able to put him down to bed, no problems, now he screamed and cried when I left, as if scared I was abandoning him. I started staying in his bedroom until he fell asleep every night just to avoid these heart-wrenching scenes.

Beyond that, the nanny setup wasn’t training Sam to be self-contained—wasn’t training him to amuse himself while I got house things done during Seth’s naps. No, having the nanny to play with all day made him clingier to me. But it’s not realistic for a mom to play with her kids all day.

When the no-touching phase ended (after I made a concerted effort to sit and have more quiet times with Sam), he swung the other way and clung even tighter. He’d learned to expect that I was always leaving the house—so he started keeping tight reigns on me when I was home. And I’d let him, because I felt guilty for being away. He also started waking and coming into our bed in the middle of the night, possibly because he didn’t get enough mom time in the day. And then I resented him because I couldn’t get a moment to breath on my own.

As for Seth? He didn’t suffer as much as Sam, because he napped away much of my absent time. But because I felt guilty for being gone, I indulged him more than I should have. As he neared one year of age, I kept getting up with him in the night when he’d mutter, whimper, make little noises, even though he really didn’t need me to. Buc said I’d let him work it out himself when I couldn’t take it anymore, and finally a couple weeks ago, after our nanny quit (read on), I turned off the monitor (our room is next to his, so any loud crying I can still hear). I didn’t hear him at all that night. Or the next. Better sleep is mine.

But, for too long I was needlessly wearing myself out.

The worst part of the past few months was the stress on my marriage. It felt like there was no tenderness anymore, only rough edges. And that’s because I had not allowed time for tender moments. In order to keep up with my brimming agenda, I had to keep moving at all times—had to keep busy, had to keep on task. And those are not good conditions for growing love and affection. It was another hard lesson, of many. Thankfully, now that I’m heeding the warning signs, things are looking up.

Learning my Lessons

Our nanny quit recently,* and though I greatly admire and respect her, it was actually a relief. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe hiring help was the right thing to do. Back in August, I was a new mom of two without family nearby who felt overwhelmed and needed help. And I would still give the advice to “Get Help” to other new moms. But make sure it’s the right kind of help, and in the right amount.

Over the past six months, I discovered that what is most valuable to my family right now is not twenty hours of babysitting a week, but several hours of housecleaning a month (so I can be with my kids more) and one or two babysitting sessions each week to get my other things done.

I didn’t know, when I hired my nanny, what kind of help I most needed, so I didn’t set up expectations and schedules in the way that would most benefit my family. After our recent hard lessons, though, I am able to make much wiser decisions when it comes to hiring help for my family. And I have a happy update about this.

If you’ll also recall, we hired a cleaning lady last summer to clean twice a month. Well, after the nanny quit, I knew I would probably need some kind of babysitting to replace a little of what I’d lost (still no grandparents here in Missouri). My biggest problem was I didn’t want to introduce a new person into my kids’ lives after Sam’s separation issues. I mentioned to my cleaning lady that the nanny had quit, and what do you know? In addition to cleaning houses, she also nannies, and she offered to spot me one or two sessions per week of babysitting, fitting it around the cleaning schedule. Best part? My kids love her. And bonus: she’s one of my readers; she understands my non-housework “work,” and she wants to help me continue it (in the appropriate balance, of course). I am so thankful for God providing Janice right from under my nose! Thanks, Janice, for stepping in!

Parting Lessons (Heed the Signs)

I wish I would learn earlier the lessons God is trying to teach me. I wish I would heed the signs that life is spinning out of control before I come unglued. Unfortunately, I don’t often “get it” until I break down, or wear out, or get to the end of my rope. That’s when I finally seek God and really listen to my husband’s assessment of my current crazy; that’s when I’m open to change.

Now that I’ve gotten really honest and admitted these hard lessons (i.e., my mistakes), I hope I have encouraged you to learn your lessons sooner than I did. To heed the signs. And what are the signs? If you find yourself knocking your head against a wall every day and night, if you easily explode at your family and have no reserves of peace (and no time to build up those reserves), if you are running on empty and the pace of life seems insupportable and just too hard…then it is. I encourage you to admit the broken pattern and do something about it.

When You Know Something Needs to Change But Don’t Know What

If you realize that something needs to change but don’t know what it is, spend some time in prayer asking God what your first steps should be. (Prayer is always a great first step.) If you are having a prayer block, which can happen when we are too busy and strung out to sit still and listen to God, start by asking some godly friends or family members for their take on what needs to change; perhaps they can spot the problem you can’t, and get you back on the right track, as Buc did for me.

May God help us all to heed the signs when life not going as it should (and when we have power to do something about it). The quicker we are to obey God, the faster we will be to learn his lessons, and they won’t have to be so hard. May he help us to listen to his good and perfect plan and be obedient to live it out.

(Psalm 119 is a beautiful chapter about getting our priorities straight; I encourage you to read it in full. For now, below are a few of my favorite verses.)

“Happy are those who obey his decrees and search for him with all their hearts….Oh, that my actions would consistently reflect your principles! Then I will not be disgraced when I compare my life with your commands. When I learn you righteous laws, I will thank you by living as I should. I will obey your principles. Please don’t give up on me….If you will help me, I will run to follow your commands.” (Psalm 119:2, 5-8, 32, NLT)

“Before I was afflicted I went astray. But now have I kept they word.” (Psalm 119:67, NKJ)

“The suffering you sent was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your principles….I will never forget your commandments, for you have used them to restore my joy and health.” (Psalm 119:71, 93)

*We traveled too much, our nanny said, and she needed more regular income. When a full-time family came along, she took a position that fit her needs better. I am glad for the time she gave us and for what I learned from her. I am also glad that now we’ve both found situations to better fit our needs.

Getting Refreshed, and Maneuvering Life’s Changes

I stole a few moments away to write this morning before Sam woke up. This is my corner of quiet space while we stay as guests in our Texas home.
I stole a few moments away to write this morning before Sam woke up. This is my corner of quiet space while we stay as guests in our Texas home.

My dad has a simple rule for determining whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert: extroverts draw energy from other people, introverts are drained by the same. There’s no doubt that Dad’s an extrovert. Or that I’m not.

During my past two weeks in Texas, I’ve enjoyed wonderful times with friends. I’ve had meals out with some of them, taken Sam to play with others, and prayed with yet a few more through difficult issues. I feel I have been available to these precious people to an extent I was not able before we moved away. I was even able to bless some of them with the work of my hands and my words of advice or prayers. And I’ve loved every minute of this time.

But last night at 10 p.m., when I realized I had not taken time in seven days to sit down and write, and when I could only gaze defeatedly at The Love Dare book, which has had a bookmark in day 20 for quite some time, I found myself moaning, “I’m not ready for another morning yet.” I knew it was time for this introvert to go “home” and get refreshed herself.

Life is an interesting journey. How did St. Louis become my “home” in just a few months? It’s not “home” in the sense that I have extended family or many friends there (about one friend so far). But it is becoming home in the sense that I have set up my own household, established some patterns, and can expect some routine in my week, more or less. While I love the excitement of our back-and-forth travels from Missouri to Texas, and the extra family time on travel days with “daddy,” I find comfort in routine. And quiet time. And my own space.

I am beginning to doubt this arrangement we have of visiting TX and staying in our old house with my in-laws every couple of months…for the long term (if you missed the details, see this post). Especially if we have another baby. Buc asked me last night, “If we end up getting pregnant, would you rather be based in Texas or in Missouri for the delivery and newborn period?” Good question. There’s no doubt where I would rather be for that early period. Near family and friends. But what about all the days after? As I’ve learned, motherhood gets easier as the first year goes on, but not much easier.

After our last visit, we talked of getting a house in Missouri at the end of this year, but what if there’s a new baby? And no family around to help? And travels back and forth with an infant and toddler?

There would be depression, I’m pretty sure. And maybe insanity.

If we get pregnant, I think we have to look at getting our own space in Texas again, somehow. Maybe it would mean seeing daddy less, as he travels back and forth on business without us in tow. That thought makes me sad, but the thought of toting two kids between two states every couple months, and having to reestablish family patterns, sleep patterns, meal patterns, ALL patterns, every couple of months makes me CRAZY.

For now, I am handling the mild damage control that travel requires when it comes to changes in Sam’s sleep, and changes to Buc’s and my routines. And I have been so blessed to get to see my friends without strings attached (strings such as having to hold offices at my church during this season of early motherhood). But I am relieved to know that this season is temporary–it has to be. At some point, things will change again, and we won’t be traveling so much. I don’t know when, or how, but if there’s anything predictable about life, it is that (as my dad also said), “Life is predictably unpredictable!”

Thanks for the wisdom, Dad.

Post-Traumatic Stresses of Growing up in a “Messy” Home

photo 2It’s hard to move on with life when your home is in shambles. I say this because of the never ending construction going on in my house right now—but I also mean it in the emotional sense.

Did you grow up in a home with lots of fighting? Uncertainty about the future? Fear that Mom and Dad might split? Then you might know what I’m talking about. It’s hard to move on, it’s hard to grow up, when your home life is in shambles.

Today I had trouble focusing on my to-dos, primarily because my house is a wreck and has been for almost two months. When I finally got Sam down for a nap, I had to pray extra hard and reread my index cards of Bible promises just so I could move on with the day. My brain felt so cluttered I knew I could not be productive unless God cleared things up. The verse that most calmed me: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isa. 26:3). As I concentrated on God, my scattered thoughts, well, scattered. And then, Sam woke up…an hour and a half before he was supposed to (grr). Glad God calmed me beforehand!

I wish I had learned to rely on God earlier in life. When I was a teenager, my home was in shambles, in the emotional sense, and I suffered in many ways, for many years to come.

I didn’t rely on God. I relied on keeping busy to numb my pain. I relied on building up myself and my skills, determined to acquire things that no one could ever take from me. In the early years, those things included a straight-A record, a good reputation, and lots of experiences to pad my college applications. In my adult life, they translated into two college degrees, a full plate at church, and a teaching career: AKA, resume builders.

photo 3

These things aren’t bad in and of themselves. But they’re bad when you do them to avoid confronting your pain. Life gets lopsided really quickly when you do those pain-stuffing behaviors to the detriment of everything else.

I’ve come a long way from the life I’m describing. I finally gave up the career chase to have a kid, for one. And I’m making a concentrated effort to relax in my thirties (wait, did I just contradict myself?). But I still feel myself lagging behind in plenty of areas.

Because I married when I was twenty, I’ve been able to shunt many adult responsibilities onto my husband’s plate: paying bills; navigating home, life, and car insurance; and setting up internet service, to name a few. I don’t know the cost of our monthly bills, and I wouldn’t know who to call if our electricity went out. Perhaps, most shamefully, I still don’t understand how to read and/or fill out a W2 (or is a W4?) when I start a new job. I am always embarrassed at needing help to fill it out. (But amazingly, I don’t take the time to correct this lack of knowledge).

For that matter, many, many things around me go unnoticed, things I should know just by virtue of living on planet earth or living in Texas.

Exhibit A: When I was twenty, I voted in my first presidential election without knowing the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

Exhibit B: When my parents visited from Minnesota and we walked around my neighborhood and they asked, “What kind of tree is that?” “What kind of plant is that?” “What kind of bird is that?” I had to repeatedly answer, “I don’t know,” “I don’t know,” “I don’t know.” I did not know, and I did not care.

Exhibit C: Sam was born with a large birthmark on his shoulder (I mean LARGE), which turned out to be an “infantile hemangioma,” or a benign tumor, according to his skin care specialist—and when my friend asked me about the long-term effects and other basic questions, I had to answer, “I don’t really know, but the doctor said not to worry, so I’m choosing not to.” Shouldn’t a mom be curious about these things? Shouldn’t she bother to know? Nonetheless, I still haven’t done any research.

Why don’t I bother to know more about my surroundings, or my son’s skin condition?

Probably the biggest reason is I feel my brain only has so much room, and to overload it is to risk meltdown. (That must be a lie, a bad root, I gained in adolescence—I’ll have to pray about that one some more.) Similarly, I have trouble adding new things to my routine: for instance, everyone tells me I need a Pinterest account—”It would make life so much easier”—but the thought of having to regularly check one more website confounds me (keeping up with my blog is hard enough!).

photo 1I simply don’t have room in my brain to accommodate one more thing. Which is why I used to be oblivious to the news. My husband would ask me what I thought about some really big news item, and I’d respond with a blank stare. Happily, caring for Sam has helped me to turn on the news almost daily (I get bored with bottles and diapers all day), so my news knowledge has increased about 100%.

My point is that I’m still decompressing from growing up in an emotionally messy home. For many years it took all my energy to put one foot in front of the other and take care of myself (I didn’t realize that God already had my back)—how could I care about the world around me? It’s only by God’s grace that I’m here today, somehow swimming in the current of adult life.

God has been gentle with my transition back into the world, giving me a loving husband and plenty of guardian angels to guide and protect my uninformed, oblivious steps. It’s hard to move on, it’s hard to grow up, when your home life is in shambles. But by his grace, people can do it. And because of his goodness, I am.

 

Playing the Stranger

I found this old dress, a relic from high school senior pics, a few days before traveling to Minnesota for my cousin's wedding. Though more than ten years old, it seemed appropriate to wear. The posture of this photo is one I took at the wedding: background.
I found this old dress, a relic from high school senior pics, a few days before traveling to Minnesota for my cousin’s wedding. Though more than ten years old, it seemed appropriate to wear. The posture of this photo is one I feel I took at the wedding: a faceless photographer–capable of participating only as outside observer.

I should have brought Kleenex. I always cry at weddings; I knew this. But I was not prepared for the emotions unleashed at my cousin’s wedding Saturday.

Not only the customary tears for a budding union, but I cried regretful tears for all that I had missed over the years. You see, I moved 1,000 miles away from all of this, and all of them, eight years ago.

Faces from my past swarming around me, coming at me in waves, breaking through some icy barrier I’d built. There were old classmates, old classmates’ parents, and even a former teacher. I wanted to cry just for seeing them. I did.

In the past, what had I imagined of such a reunion? In my teen years I was very conscious of at first having to hide things. Later on, when it would have been okay to share, I still mostly hid, out of habit. To the point that I disappeared from people’s lives.

Standing with two former friends at the wedding and hearing them banter like they were not just past, but present, friends, hit me in the gut.

“Yeah, next time on the fishing trip you’ll have to come with–and bring your brother, too.”

“Billy* couldn’t come to the wedding—we’ll have to see him next weekend.”

“So, there’s no alcohol at this wedding? You must have a flask stashed in your tux, huh?”

Soon I wasn’t even standing there. And I realized I had done it. I had erased myself from memory.

I excused myself for the bathroom. But then, selfishly, wondered if maybe, just maybe, they were talking about me.

Sad to say, I’m just beginning to realize how self-centered I’ve been all these years. Always thinking about my feelings—protecting myself.

The fewer people I’m close to, the fewer who can hurt me—was my unwritten, unspoken motto.

What have I done?

As I see faces from my past swimming at me, I now feel it was all a lie.

The face of an old teacher’s aide—from my first grade classroom, nonetheless—exclaiming, “Is this Lindsey?! She’s turned into such a beautiful young woman!” A mother of a classmate, gasping, exclaiming my name, and enfolding me in a hug.

My sixth grade teacher’s face lighting up as she asks, “Are you writing?” Yes. “Oh good; I always thought you should!” An ex-boyfriend’s mom even engaging in friendly talk as she never did while I dated her son.

My cousin’s, the groom’s, exclamation: “Lindsey, what an awesome surprise!” My old friends, C and T, who married each other, taking time to talk with me over an hour as if they had nothing better to do. “It’s so good to see you!” they say (and mean it, I think). It has been about eight years.

Another old friend looking in my eyes and, to my small talk, saying, “Being away from home must be the hardest part.” Understanding for the words I could not speak.

What have I done?

Desperately I snap pictures of my young cousins and their spouses and children, laughing and talking at neighboring reception tables. They too are familiar, comfortable, with one another. And like my classmates, they have passed through many of the same coming-of-age events as I, only together.

There’s something comforting about a shared heritage.

But I have refused to be comforted.

This visit has once again touched me where it hurts…still, thankfully, it has been different. Like the Minnesota snow I left behind last night, something in me is thawing.

As much as is possible from 1,000 miles away, in the future I’ll try to be less of a stranger.