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.

What I’ve Learned in Six Weeks

IMG_0873My six-week postpartum period is over. According to my doctor, I’m ready to return to all physical activities, and if I had a “real” job, it would be time to get back to work. So what’s so magical about the six week mark?

As I took stock of my postpartum period, I realized I’ve actually learned a lot in this time. Maybe life isn’t completely predictable yet, but it is starting to feel more manageable. I think this is due both to Sam starting to fall into some patterns, as well as growing confidence that I can keep him alive and safe.

IMG_0429The other confidence booster is that, very slowly, a few activities from life pre-Sam are starting to return—shopping trips, sleeping in my own bed, cooking real meals, a bit of exercise, and returning to church and the church choir. Soon I hope to add writing on a regular basis and fitting into my pre-pregnancy wardrobe.

Here is a brief list of the wisdom I’ve gained in six weeks’ time: 

There’s not one right way to do parenthood, but some people and some books will try to tell you there is. Distrust anyone or any book that tells you your child should definitely be doing such and such by such and such time. This is a setup for failure and feelings of guilt.

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Sam with his Aunt Deb!

You can learn a lot by handing your child to someone else and just watching. For instance:

Place a pillow behind the baby’s back when laying him down to sleep.

The football hold works well to calm a fussy baby.

Bicycling the legs pushes out gas. (I mean in the baby.)

Full immersion (minus his head) in a bathtub won’t hurt the baby.

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Sam with my friend Nicole, and her daughter, who loves babies.

He just might sit and/or sleep in that swing if you let someone other than mom try.

That crusty stuff in his eyes goes away by itself within about three weeks.

If your child is always fussy, it doesn’t always mean you have a fussy child, but it could mean that you don’t have enough milk for him.

IMG_0290Sleep deprivation looks deceptively similar to postpartum depression. Only try to judge the difference after a good nap.

If you’re thinking of hosting a prayer meeting at your house and leading out within the first six weeks, don’t (unless a babysitter hosts your baby elsewhere. You’ll get interrupted about a million times).

IMG_0481Even the burliest of guys will discuss the merits of Desitin versus Butt Paste if they have a baby at home. (Learned last week when my toilet overflowed, requiring a steady stream of plumbers, contractors, and insurance guys to flood my house.)

If you’re desperate for sleep, go ahead and lay that baby down next to you. For added sleep, give him a breast if you have one. (Whether or not you have copious milk matters little for coaxing him to sleep.)

IMG_0941There are way too many formulas to choose from!

Six weeks, or even four or five, might be when he starts to stabilize. This seems to be a good time to start laying him down by himself at night.

For baby boys, beware: The incidence of spraying seems to go up with the changing of poopy diapers, as opposed to changing non-poopy ones.

IMG_0920If you can afford to hire a housecleaner, do it.

If your family members or friends offer to watch your little bundle, spread the joy.

Before five or six weeks, just give yourself a break. People don’t expect you to get as much done as you do.

Beat the frustration of breastfeeding taking up your “entire day” by using the time to read those books you’ve been putting off reading. (My favorite so far has been the acclaimed memoir Angela’s Ashes.)

The postpartum pooch, while it might make you cry, is a great place to set your baby.

IMG_0356Have a sense of humor about the house that keeps getting dirtier, the laundry that keeps piling up, that article that’s not getting written but you promised months ago (sorry Ashley), those thank-yous that haven’t made it to the mailbox, the bed you haven’t slept in for weeks, the sex you haven’t had for months, the spouse you hardly know anymore, those devotions you just can’t concentrate on, those telltale cries that come every time you’re about to eat, those hobbies you used to have, and those clothes that still don’t fit. Whatever needs to get done in a day will get done.

Try to enjoy your baby, as frazzled as you are. If you look at pictures of him from just two weeks ago, you’ll notice the moments are already fleeting.

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And last but not least, thank God for your baby, because if there is one thing every book and parent agrees on, it is that It will all be worth it in the end.

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Role Confusion and the Modern Woman

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My friend looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face.

“What do you mean, ‘work’ on your marriage?”

We were sitting over two rabbit plates at a home-style restaurant, and I was telling her about my current aspirations. They are the same ones I initially listed on my “about” page: write my memoir and become a better wife.

My friend was confused at the pledge to work on the marriage because, in her eyes, she didn’t see a point.

“I mean, I told *Bill what you said about working on your marriage, and we wondered what that meant. We’re both happy with the way things are, and putting ‘work’ into the marriage just seems like too much, well, work.”

It was my turn to be surprised. Who wouldn’t want to work on their marriage? Isn’t that a societal value?

Not necessarily. But I thought it was one of mine. Why, then, do I find myself annoyed at having to cook and clean? Perturbed when 6 a.m. comes and it’s time to make breakfast? Indignant that he should expect me to help with the garden? Angry when he says I’m too caught up in my writing, not attentive enough to him?

Why do I resent all these duties so much?

At first I was going to blame it on the role confusion that modern women have faced ever since the woman’s movement. And perhaps it does have something to do with what the feminist journalist Anne Taylor Fleming called “the two out of three rule”—where “a woman can have only two out of three big pieces of life: love, work, children” (from her book Motherhood Deferred, p. 84). (For my perfectionist personality, though, some days it seems I’m running more at a one in three rule.)

Probably due to feminist conditioning, I’ve said before that it’s just not enough for a woman to stay at home and be a housewife. She needs a career, too, doesn’t she?

But even though I’m not immune to it, this line of thought bugs me. Along with Anne Taylor Fleming, I agree with Doctor Laura (in her book Parenthood by Proxy) that much of the modern family breakdown is due to women working—who’s standing ready at the door to smooth the rough edges of everyone’s day? And let me just say that I think either man or woman could do it—the thing is, simply, someone needs to. And I think this is noble work. For other women.

So why not for myself?

 The Real Problem Isn’t Feminism

When I step back to observe my excuses to hubby about why I hate housework, here’s what I hear myself saying, over and over again.

  • I’m afraid to put time into our home, because what if something happens to us? What if you die on me? (He says I’m always trying to “kill him off”—I say I’m just being a realist.)
  • If you died, I’d be left with a big house I’d want to sell, a garden I wouldn’t want to tend—all stuff that would have amounted to nothing.
  • If you die, I need to have skills to fall back on. I need to be able to get a job to support myself. That’s why I needed to get a BA and an MA, and boy I’m glad I got some teaching experience, too.
  • I’m afraid I’ll put all this time into our home, and then it will crumble. And then I’ll have nothing to show for it.
  • The only investment I feel safe making is an investment in myself—because people die and leave and let you down, but you always have yourself. I need to have a plan if things go south.
  • I’m just afraid, okay?

Wow. Those are some deep roots. It came to me as a huge revelation the day I wrote down “trust issues” in my prayer journal. The days I connected all my over-planning and uptightness and performance to trust issues. Fear issues. Self-protection issues.

I know what it feels like to be helpless. Alone. Out of options. And I don’t want to go there again.

That’s why, after so many gains, I still find myself hoarding my time, my energy, my resources (which could otherwise be spent housecleaning), for self-improvement. Apparently I anticipate being left to fend for myself again someday.

I find it sad that after walking with the Lord for several years, I still don’t trust Him enough to give of myself fully to others. I wish I were more open and loving and warm. But honestly, most of the time, that feels too vulnerable of a position to be in.

I wonder if my girlfriend has some of these same roots, too. Is fear the reason why she resists “working” on her marriage? Fear that it will divert precious energy from building a fortress of self-sufficiency to sustain her when (she must unconsciously think) one day, she will be left out in the cold?

Stepping back for the bigger picture, I wonder, is this the reason that women in our society collectively have renounced housewifery, and largely motherhood, as their sole profession and duty in life?

Have we all been so hurt that we feel this need to gird ourselves about with skills and experience and knowledge for the impersonal workplace, where we don’t have to lay our hearts on the line, only our time—and though the workplace may not fulfill our deepest longings for companionship and family, they at least recompense our time with money—the means by which to sustain our physical necessities and our plastic smiles?

Readers, do you think I’m on to something, or is it just me I’m describing? Or, if you’re not excited to analyze this trend, what do you see yourself (or the women in your life) working toward: family, or career? Please leave me a comment and let me know!