Making peace with Mother’s Day

Earlier this week, my husband made the decision that we were not going to church today. I was totally on board with this, and very happy that I did not have to make the decision and the argument to go along with it. It’s not that we hate church; it’s just that the church in general worships mothers and traditional gender norms. The liturgy in our church has been more inclusive in recent years, but in general it’s just better for our mental health if we opt out.

So we did, and I had a fantastic day. The thing is, though, that correlation does not equal causation. Therefore while I had a chill morning of coffee and reading and thinking about planting flowers, the calm did not necessarily come from staying home from church. It’s all much more complicated than that.

It’s been five years since we decided to live life without pursuing parenthood, and seven years since we actively started trying to have children. Mother’s Day throughout those years has been tough. We are very thankful we have both of our mothers, but I’ve lost both grandmothers and my great-grandmother within the past 5 years. That grief plus the very intangible grief of infertility led me down a path of self-discovery that’s been often strewn with falling rocks, boulders, and paradoxically some of the most beautiful views.

I’ve been slowly finding my place in the world as a mid-30’s married woman with no children. You’d think that it’d be pretty easy to fit right in considering half the world’s population is women or people with a uterus, and my station in life really is not as marginalized as many I am acquainted with. However, in our arguably dominant microcosm of America, the pressure is on to be so many things all at the same time. Space is not held for those who want to tread their own path in life – we have to make the space ourselves, and usually that comes at a cost.

The cost for me, well, I’m not too sure what it’s been. Maybe friends. Maybe closeness with some family members. Maybe other opportunities. But now I’m at a point where I tell my story and make my own space. We had a “community circle” type of professional development recently at work where we had to answer the question, “What is a failure that you cherish?” Many people mentioned failures in school, in previous jobs, those sorts of things.

Whether or not people felt comfortable hearing it, I mentioned that infertility was a failure that I cherish for reasons that were shrouded in a fog of grief even a couple years ago. To this day I still can’t quite discern the reaction I felt from my fellow teachers – surprise, apathy, pity – but truly, I don’t care. I stated my peace while sharing just enough. A couple people told me “thank you” for sharing. I can’t say that I could have done it as gracefully a few years back. Maybe even as recently as six months ago. Self awareness and development is hard work, yo.

That’s how I feel every time I meet a new friend or new colleagues after being assigned a new work location. I’m always so glad people are meeting me at this very moment and not a minute sooner. I have more to offer that’s going to benefit other people. I don’t overshare. I really don’t give too many shits about what people think, but not in a self-destructive kind of way.

And that brings us back to Mother’s Day. Mostly today I felt like I was adjacent to the party, willingly hanging out on my own instead of feeling pushed out or shunned. That has a lot more to do with my own attitude and feelings toward this day than it does how people treat me. I think it was luck that intervened when I didn’t hear an ill-placed Mother’s Day wish, not people being mindful of whom they were extending Mother’s Day wishes. It was refreshing to not feel bitter or judge-y or torn-up. It was a feeling of, “I see you guys are having a good time celebrating your ability/choice to have children, but I’m not part of it and it’s okay. In fact, I’ve chosen to not go all in for this party.”

After doing hard work, I can be comfortable on this day. I can go out in public and not be walking on eggshells wondering how someone’s well-intentioned wishes may affect me by throwing off my whole day. If I do feel any ill effects, I lose minutes instead of afternoons or evenings. Most importantly, I’ve now mastered the training needed to hold space for others who feel othered.

Helping our inner child find the way

When you are a child, the eighteen years you spend as a child feels like eternity. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, I can’t wait until I’m out on my own. Until I can do whatever I want. When you’re an adult, the years you spent as a child grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and all those worries and desires seem insignificant compared to the worries and desires of adulthood. However, something I’ve observed and learned in my own experience is that the years we spend as children drive the trajectory for our adulthood, maybe forever.

Recently I cried myself to sleep. I don’t say this for pity or sympathy or to be dramatic. It’s just a fact. I cry a lot – when I’m sad, when I’m happy. Basically anytime I’m moved emotionally, I cry. Sometimes the most appropriate and safe time for me to show that much emotion is in the dark, amidst the white noise of the fan, wrapped in blankets and comfort. While I’d cried myself to sleep many times in my time on Earth, this most recent time felt new. Instead of spiraling down, down, down to the pit of hopelessness, I began telling myself a narrative, a story if you will. I began parenting myself.

We all internalize the narratives and stories that our parents tell us, either verbally or nonverbally. They weave narratives with their actions, words, stories about their pasts, how they react to our transgressions and moments of impatience. We go out into the world with these stories that seem to be complete. As time goes on and we experience life for ourselves, we begin to find the incongruencies and missing parts of those stories. This can happen whether we grew up in the most loving, supportive household, or if we fled from an abusive home when we were young, if only mentally. It’s not a matter of the type of home that bore us as children; it’s the activation of our unique DNA, which can experience and receive a story from our own lives.

I looked at The Other…fragile, exhausted, disillusioned. Controlling and enslaving what should really be free…trying to judge her future loves by the rues of her past sufferings.”

By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, Paulo Coehlo

I found myself soothing myself in my own head. I soothed the four-year-old Elizabeth who couldn’t quite grasp abstract concepts and reasons for “why,” and I soothed the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth who, with her smart mouth, drummed up a retort to pretty much any comment or directive. By soothing all the versions of myself, my almost-35-year-old self could then take a deep breath formed around a resolution and drift off into a restful sleep.

I’ve been in touch with the young Elizabeth more in the past couple of years than I ever have been. Maybe it’s the distance that makes young Elizabeth clearer; maybe it’s the reflection and retrospection I employ to look at my life in the past. As I soothe those other long-gone versions of myself, I feel a healing taking place. A rebirth, a mending.

Just as I need to reassure my inner child, I also need to steel my present self. Recently during a yoga practice, I was astonished by a meditation given at the beginning of a practice. Esther Ekhart, the yoga teacher, brought attention to her legs and arms and body and made the point that when we remember how strong our bodies are, we can remember that we are adults and we are able to take care of ourselves. When we aren’t in the present, we’re stuck in the past and in the future. For us, our inner child sometimes lives in the past and reminds us of past hurts and follies.

Paulo Coehlo, renowned and beloved author, says in By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, “Remember that human wisdom is madness in the eyes of God. But if we listen to the child who lives in our soul, our eyes will grow bright. If we do not lose contact with that child, we will not lose contact with life.”

Therefore, we cannot ignore the inner child and we cannot let them play us like a violin, either. There has to be a balance. Just as a parent shows their children a balance of love and discipline, we must do the same for ourselves. It’s a way we can become whole.

Making amends

For a long time I was at odds with my own past. My own experiences. It’s a weird place be to because there’s animosity and sadness and regret, but the only person it’s directed to is the person in the mirror. Or out into the void. It’s very confusing.

I went to a small private university only 15 minutes away from where I grew up. It was the only college I applied to, and with my grades, GPA, and “well-rounded” experiences, I knew I would get in, and I did. I was majored in Spanish and secondary education, and I remember with my mom meeting the head of the foreign language department in his dingy office that smelled like old books and cigarette smoke. I was a little unsure of my decision, but my conscience reminded me that this was the only school I applied to, the only one I believed and told I could go to, so I just went with it.

Westlake Hall, Bradley University | where I learned how to be a teacher

And I went with it for four years, four really difficult years. I worked a couple jobs outside of my 15 to 16 hour semesters and carefully plotted my classes so that I could graduate in four years. I even took a literature and an earth science class at the community college and a Spanish grammar class at another university close by so I could transfer the credits.

I lived in my room at my parents’ house, but also out of my car and in the university library. I found solace in coffee and green tea in travel cups and those ridiculously expensive smoothies they served at the student center. I racked up a credit card with purchases of bottled Starbucks frappuccinos.

And then I graduated with about $50,000 in student debt, a mixture of different kinds of loans all with low interest rates (thank goodness). I couldn’t study abroad due to jobs and bills, so I took some loan money and flew to Spain to visit a friend. I went on a missions trip to Bolivia. I tried to have as many immersion experiences in the Latin world so I would be ready to teach Spanish.

For a long time, the student debt hung over me, hung over us. We got married right when I graduated, so then all my private school debt became our private school debt, and I felt horrible about it. Every day. It was a dark cloud hanging over our new life together.

Eventually we paid all of it off (February 2017, nine years after my graduation). That helped me feel better about what I thought was a ridiculously expensive degree and a mediocre experience. Representatives from the university calling me on a Sunday evening asking me for more money couldn’t get off the phone without hearing an earful about how I worked two jobs and now was a teacher who could not afford to give even more money to the institution.

“Mrs. Mercies Per Mile, we’d like to hear about your experience at Bradley. What were some of your favorite extra curricular experiences as a student?” the bright-eyed work-study student would ask.

“My extra curricular experiences involved working two jobs and visiting my long-distance boyfriend. I had no time for anything else, not even friends, because I wanted to escape that expensive place as fast as possible, ” is what I wanted to say. Eventually I stopped answering the calls.

Recently, indirectly, I’ve come to terms with the difficult experience of undergrad. I realize how fortunate I was to even go to college, to have at least one parent who was college educated, and other family members who were, too. To have a working vehicle, and to be employed. To study something that actually has never failed me as far as acquiring skilled work. To study something that gave me a springboard for graduate studies and a slight shift in my career. To have a really solid liberal arts education that got me thinking outside my own world, that actually did a great job of teaching me how to be a teacher (besides the one measly foreign language methods class).

I’ve been back to visit the university only a couple of times in the past 12 years. Once to try to change my name on my diploma (didn’t realize that I couldn’t, and now I don’t want to) and once with my sister just to walk around. I guess you could say I’m not your typical alumnus, going to homecoming, sporting all the gear, reminiscing on the parties and social gatherings (I never did go to a college party…).

This transition in my feelings towards that era of my life is actually a transition in my feelings towards the person I was during that time. I was the extremely busy and overworked person I harp about now. I was nervous and anxious when it came to just about everything. I was very intimidated to speak Spanish or act like I knew anything about the culture. I was unsure of myself in so many ways, and I think I was actually embarrassed of the person I was.

pensive, unsure, full of doubt but trying to make it look like I have it all together
ca. 2006

But it’s okay. I’ve grown a lot in the past 15+ years. I’ve had some incredible experiences in life, in further education, in other cultures that have given me something new to latch onto.

First, I heard that high school was the best time of my life, and then when I got to college I heard that no, that was the best time of my life. Both were not the best time of my life, and it’s very depressing to think that for some people, they peak in high school or college. What about the (hopefully) 60+ years beyond that?

I think making such a black-and-white declaration of what is supposed to be the best time of someone’s life is myopic at best and damning at worst. We don’t know what everyone goes through in those stages. Some people, like me, have hope that other parts of their life will be the best.

For example, the life I’m living now is pretty damn amazing. I have an education, a long-term partner, a beautiful and safe home, a career that’s been built up over many years and experiences. But more than that, I’ve made a series of good decisions (and been a recipient of some blessings and luck) to get me here. Somehow I was able to see beyond the debt and the hardship and the infertility and even the Illinois River Valley to something new, perhaps wild and untamed, but always worth it.

I want to always pine for the life I’m living right now, not get snagged on the hard things in the past, or the attitudes I had, or the person I was. It’s all important and worthy of mention and meditation. All experiences in life converge into one tiny pin prick in the expanse of time – this moment right now.

A lighted match

Anytime I think I don’t need to go so frequently to the therapist, I’m proven wrong. Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes I internally measure my need for therapy by how long it takes me to start crying in a session. I get a cup of tea from the Keurig that’s provided in the practice I go to, get settled on the couch (yes just like the movies except I’m drinking tea so ya gurl is sitting, not laying down) and let out a big breath.

My therapist sometimes has knitting in her lap when I come in, or meditation beads, or just a pen and her leather bound journal. This time she had beads, and I envied the fact that she had, for all intents and purposes, a fidget. I want one.

Anyway, something had been bubbling up for a few days before that because when she asked me, “How are you? What’s been going on?” I felt a huge release. And that’s because she actually means, “How are you? How is your life? What do you want to explore today?”

And I broke down in tears, not quite to the ugly cry stage, but it was a cry from my soul that I didn’t realize was there until it happened. But I was glad she had the good Kleenex.

“I want my life to have meaning,” I said through tears and exaggerated gestures.

And that’s what we explored… for an hour.

She told me that when people have experienced mortality in some way — through suicide or loss of a family member, or through a different kind of loss like infertility — they begin to think about these things. And I’m two for two on that list.

What I pictured in that moment was that I had been in a dark room, completely dark, so that I couldn’t see even my hand in front of me. I wasn’t even fumbling around; I was just standing in the dark room.

Then, someone lit a match. It doesn’t matter who. But the weak glow from a singular match started to illuminate the dark room, and now I could see things.

And those things I can’t un-see. 

Even if I stand in the same room, pitch black where I can’t see anything in front of me, not even my hand, I will know what’s there.

And that for me is like seeing mortality.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can never go back to not knowing.

I can’t go back to living a life that’s not headed somewhere important. I may not know where that is, but what I’m learning is that the journey is the important part.

We’re all going to arrive at the end of earthly life. The destination is not a mystery. But what we’ll be wondering about is the journey that started with a single match.

Breaking News: “Top Nine” Doesn’t Capture Most Important Moments

I use Instagram fairly regularly, probably with more regularity now that I have opted out of Facebook. I know, I know, Instagram is owned by Facebook blah blah blah.

Everyone’s been posting their “Top Nine” recently – the most liked photos in their feeds. Once again, social media panders and quite frankly takes advantage of our desire to be liked and seen and celebrated.

I share my Top Nine, because why not? But I have to add that my top moments most were not shared on Instagram for the world to see.

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I can make quite a few assumptions about 2018 from these pictures. I traveled a lot, spent some time in the hospital, exercised a bunch, and am apparently still in love with my spouse. These are all true, but there’s so much more that happened in 2018 not pictured here, like that kid who was absent on picture day.

I will spare the weary reader nine things that happened in 2018. But I will share that one of the best memories is sitting with my sister on my parents’ porch late at night pondering the recent death of our grandmother and watching an amazing Midwestern thunderstorm. I will share that the reconciliation of a friendship was culminated in lovely time spent with her and her family. I will share that the financial and childless freedom to travel to new places has really helped me settle into my unforeseen reality. I will share that my husband and I are indeed more in love than ever. I will share that modern medicine is amazing and I am forever grateful to the surgeon who listened to me and finally was able to diagnose me with endometriosis.

All those moments and more made up a painful, wondrous, family-filled year. They say that one’s formative years usually happen before age 25, but I argue that all years can be formative, some more than others. I’m thankful I have the maturity and wherewithal to really appreciate the important work that time and openness can do for our souls.

Here’s to a blessed, wonderful, hard 2018. And let’s welcome 2019 with open arms.

 

The Gift of Enough

Sometimes I do the torturous math and think that if we had had a child soon after we started trying, he/she would be a preschooler. And sometimes I think that maybe we’d have had another one by now, too. I guess I aspired to be a mom with kids close in age, and voluntarily participate in the (observed) crazy that goes along with that, especially on Christmas morning.

More children, more gifts, bigger house, more shoes, more socks, more laundry, more…

But my life years not just later but apart from those possibilities is, from a bird’s eye view, empty.

Our Christmas table has four place settings, two more than it usually does. Actually, four more than it usually does since Aaron and I generally sit at the counter on stools to eat almost every meal.

After our Christmas Eve meal and time with friends yesterday, our sink was full of coffee mugs and wine glasses… with more than there usually are. After opening gifts from each other and then with friends, our tree stands alone in its simple glory: white lights, red ribbon, and matching ornaments, not to be outshone by a plethora of gifts below.

It can be anxiety- or depression-inducing to think of all the ways that our life is not enough, but I’m here to tell you (and most importantly myself) after years of infertility and a whole (blessed) year of therapy (thank God), this is all enough.

My one now-dirty coffee mug lovingly embracing my second cup of coffee is enough. Our house, quiet though it is on Christmas morning, is enough. My artificial pre-lit tree enthroned by a beautiful sunrise is enough. Our small Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gatherings are enough. Our simple yet rich meal today will be enough. My husband and I are enough. I (and my empty womb) are enough.

Last night at the candlelight service, our pastor preached on how Jesus met people where they were. That Jesus’ birth in a manger was announced to the shepherds because they would know to find a manger in a stable. That the wisemen were given a star because with their knowledge and wisdom of the cosmos they would be able to find Jesus.

And on this quiet Christmas morning with just my sleeping husband and dog upstairs, Jesus has met me where I’m at, and that’s enough.

A Little Bit (of) Sad

Today during a lesson with a newcomer student, she and I were chatting in Spanish and she said that I seemed a little sad to her. I told her, I was a little tired actually. And in her sweet Honduran Spanish, looking down at the letters she was tracing with her adorable dark pigtail braids, she told me that in her heart and mind she knows I’m a little sad.

She’s right.

In addition to being a little sad, I’m also so touched by the perception of a seven year old child who for all intents and purposes acts like a drunk adult, hiding under the table, jumping out from behind the door, skipping in the hallway. But still she (and I’m convinced all children everywhere) has an innate and intrinsic knowing about humans. They see straight to the truth.

How presumptuous we adults are, thinking that kids aren’t listening, or that they’re too young to understand. But their amusing and sometimes downright frustrating behavior belies the knowing in their hearts.

I have no idea the trauma or struggles this student of mine has gone through to now be here, on the East Coast of the United States, immersed in a language and culture she hasn’t fully grasped yet. But she knows what sad or hurt people look like. And she calls it out.

I think I’ll always carry this little bit of sad with me. I think everyone has a little bit of sad they carry with them as well. Some are just better at hiding it than others, stuffing it deep into lined pockets. Concealing it in between the couch cushions.

But unlike adults having to dig to find the little bit of sad, children can see exactly where it is and hold it gingerly for us to look at and ponder.

How interesting and providential that the absence of children broke me and now their presence has been aiding in my healing.

Testify, Celebrate, Lifted

Testify is a buzz word in the sect of Christianity I’ve come from. Testify, testament, testimony.. all words from the same root. As such, like many words from the same subculture, give me a slightly cringe-y feeling. Not to offend or dismiss the decade I spent in evangelistic charismatic churches. I wouldn’t even say I was burned. Not in the least. I just needed something different – a different avenue through which to practice my faith.

I still testify, just not in the ‘traditional’ or ‘pentecostal’ sense of the word. I testify when I go out in nature, when I breathe in aromas of a delicious meal or hearty wine. I testify when I create community among friends. I testify when I witness the miracle of sunrises and sunsets. I think there are different ways to testify, and all can be pleasing to God and welcoming to people.

We come to the word celebrate again. I see that this is a possible theme for Lent. With celebration usually comes the word “Alleluia” which is traditionally not sung or spoken all of Lent until Easter. Lent is a time of penance, reconciliation, somber reflection, inwardness. At least for me. Come Easter morning we will celebrate and testify to the resurrection of Jesus.

He will be lifted (see what I did there?) – banners will be raised. We’ll remember the now-dry palm fronds that graced his path in Jerusalem. Can you imagine – the King of kings and the Lord of lords riding into a holy city, the holy city, on a donkey? But he does. And a week later he’s lifted onto the cross to die a humiliating death – how could a professed king ever be killed, let alone in such a horrible and dehumanizing manner? But he is. Every year the story amazes me. Every year the power of Lent overcomes me and my soul heals and reconciles itself to God a little more.

Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.

In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.

There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.

He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1‭-‬14 NASB

Remember

The best way to crawl out of a pit of depression and doubt is to remember what God has done for you. Even if you’re not 100% sure he’s in the day-to-day goings on, there have to be clear marks that he’s done something good in your life. Not that he’s cause something to cause you good, but that he’s actually personally done the good thing.

You can’t always think on the things he might do in your life, because those things have yet to be and let’s be honest.. Most of the time hindsight shows us that they’re not the things we thought they’d be anyway.

Don’t strain to think of something.. Whatever comes first to your mind is the thing he’s done or the promise he’s kept. It’s salient for a reason.. It’s obvious exactly for when you need to remember in order to keep going.