Motherhood Mantras: Keep It Simple

Motherhood Mantras is re-opened and back with a post from a pastoral counselor who provided emergency pastoral care for the Aurora shooting victims’ and their families.

People ask: How do you do it all?!  Be a wife, a working mom, and volunteer (I am a member of the National Response Team for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, specially trained in pastoral traumatology, with experience in shootings) is not easy.  Routines help a lot.

Most days, I begin checking the news online, between 5:30-6 am, just before I start work.  I try from the west coast to keep in touch with east coast and Midwest folks, so my day begins early.

The very first time that I was called for deployment, I missed the chance.  I was at the park with the kids – all three less than 7 years old at the time – and saw I had a missed call.  I listened to the message, tried calling my husband Erik, and left a message with him. He called back, and we fumbled around our schedules and making the decision.  More than a half-hour passed when I finally called back to say yes.  We had taken too much time.  Someone else had already said yes and was making arrangements to go. (With over 80 Responders on the team, there’s simply not enough time to let everyone take twenty-thirty minutes to decide). Disasters don’t wait. Yes or no. Period.  No hard feelings. Just simple – yes or no.

Fail.  We felt it.  And it sent us spiraling into conversations about whether we were really ready to have me be part of the team (this was over two years ago).  What resulted from those “come to Jesus” talks was a great game plan, though, one that has worked for us through multiple deployment decisions since then – including Tucson, AZ, Tuscaloosa, AL, east Los Angeles, CA, and, most recently, Aurora, CO.

Erik and I were not surprised when the call came around 10:30am on July 20, 2012.  I saw a missed call, with no message left.  We knew it was “the call.”  Within a handful of minutes, we decided yes based now on practiced rapid reflection of our schedules and our current sense of kid-care. (No offense if you happen to be with us when we do that and, in the zone, we totally ignore you.)  I returned the call, said yes, and began reviewing essential information.  I took the next flight out of town, an hour and a half later.  It goes that fast.

Knowing I could get called away at a moment’s notice means keeping home routines as simple as possible.  Uniform clothes and travel accessories sit in the closet, ready for the suitcase. In the day-to-day, kids help with chores (even at 3 years-old), taking dirty clothes to the washroom, setting/bussing tables, putting clean clothes away, putting toys away, and so on.  Nothing is expected rigidly, but participation frequently is encouraged.

Erik, from the start, has been a father to his kids.  He always is a parent.  Also, long ago we created a practice of not updating each other on business from school or work (really).  If you expect for us both to know XYZ (teachers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, family…) then tell us both.  This practice means, for us, being willing to let information sometimes fall through the cracks. This practice has been important to us in challenging cultural practices that require parents to spend enormous amounts of time delivering information back and forth in order to both stay involved.  (That’s a soapbox for another time.)  The point is: Erik, and our village of family and friends, helps make things work when I’m away.  I never leave with fear of homework not getting done, kids not having rides, play dates not occurring, people not eating – and I do not coordinate that before I go.  It goes on already.  Erik is a parent when I’m home and when I’m gone – he’s dad.

So, able to go and arrive on time, a teammate and I caught the end of the vigil.  Candles still lit; groups still singing and praying.  Police cars and crime scene tape all around.  The row of media vans lighting the sky.

Our kids, especially the older two, have some sense of what I do, which helps too.  They know I sometimes go “to be with people who are having trouble,” just like we had trouble and people came to us.  The verse, “in this world you will have trouble,” (John 16:33) is real to them.  They’ve seen pictures of tornado damage, and have a sense of what that devastation might feel like.  They lived through a shooting on our church campus.  They are practicing “taking heart” and becoming familiar with the fact that prayer is a come-as-you-are practice for any time, any situation.

During the first full day in Aurora, my teammates and I (four of us all together) connected with Presbytery folks (which is our first point of contact for any deployment). In this case, it meant being in touch with the moderator (acting Exec) and local pastors.  Then, we connected with disaster relief agency partners, including Homeland Security, FEMA, Red Cross, denominational affiliates, and mental health officials.  Local pastors shared their concerns – three in particular stood out – (1) for the families and neighbors of victims and survivors, (2) for the populations of refugee congregants from war-torn countries, and (3) for congregants and community members who lived through the Columbine shootings a decade before.

Sunday, we each attended different services.  I worshipped with St Paul’s Presbyterian Church.  A particularly moving part of the service, which was worshipfully engaging, came when interim Pastor Stan Jewell preached about the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus, he said, asked the disciples, who were fatigued and facing a potential crisis, what do you have?  Jewell opened his arms, walked out into the congregation, and asked, “What do you have to offer?”  Silence, at first.  And then, slowly, a hand went up, softly asking, “Compassion?” Jewell nodded and kept his hands open.  “Tears,” another said.  “A listening ear.”  And then, a woman from the back stood up, “I can patron those businesses, in the mall, and make sure they don’t lose costumers.”  Lots of nodding around the room.  “Hugs!” Someone called out.  “Time and care.”  Jewell walked back to the pulpit.  “Yes, we can bring all of those things, along with ourselves and our honesty, our honest grieving.”

We attended the city vigil event that night, along with thousands of other people.  We spent the evening listening to survivors, first-responders, second-wave responders, neighbors, friends, and loved ones.  The community-wide tears and heartache were salved some by acts of coming together and wrapping arms around one another.

Monday was spent in support of the Directors of Spiritual Care at the local hospitals, both Presbyterian pastors. We reviewed events of Friday, the unfolding weekend, and their perspectives of impact on their staff and colleagues.  We arranged to provide support the following day for more of their colleagues.

Also, on Tuesday, we led a time of support and education for the Presbytery where 26 pastors and Christian educators participated in the time. We listened, and we taught about trajectories of disaster and healing, care for children and youth, and self care for leaders.  We made plans for follow-up support and ongoing care of pastors and congregations.  Having embodied the connectional church body, some hope in the midst of chaos, we began our journeys home.

On my way home, one reaction that stood out to me was the sentiment: “I didn’t realize what was happening, I thought it was part of the movie.”  “It’s so surreal, like a movie.”  “This kind of thing only happens in the news, it’s not supposed to happen to real people.” (Yes, these words actually were said.)

As a mom, therapist, and a person who tries to practice presence, the seeming lack of trust in perception, though understandable, also was disheartening.  I hope for my kids to be able to trust their perceptions.  If possible, ideally, I don’t want them to grope to register if something is real or not.

My hope, too, and belief is that church (both the local gathering place for worship, and the extended connectional body) is a good place for figuring out and practicing what is real, for learning about how to trust our abilities to perceive, and for practicing presence.  Also, in doing that, I believe we discover the Lord’s joy – strength in times of trouble.  That is my motivation for doing what I do – as a Christian, a wife, a mother, and a pastoral traumatologist.  That motivation – being really present, in Christ-like ways – brings me greatest joy and enables me to withstand (stand-with) greatest sorrow.  That is my hope in the midst of chaos.

Kate Wiebe, MDiv/PhD, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG, www.ictg.org) and a volunteer member of the National Response Team for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  She lives with her husband, Erik, an Associate Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, in Santa Barbara, CA, along with their three children, Jakob, Dara, and Kaden.

Motherhood Mantras: The Harder Thing is the Easier Thing

This post is an encore to the series – “Motherhood Mantras.” To read more about the series, and the full list of writers, click here.

It was the witching hour, and my husband was working late. I’d managed to cobble together some semblance of a balanced meal for the three amigos and me. But there was no getting around it—we had to go to the grocery store after supper.

It had been an exhausting day of ministry. As I navigated traffic with the kids in the back, I was lost in my own thoughts about e-mails left unanswered and people who would need to be visited the next day. I was heavy with the burden of pastoral care, not to mention sermon preparation, which percolates underneath everything else, all week long. I love my kids, but I was counting the minutes until they were tucked quietly into bed.

A plaintive request came from the back seat: “Mommy, can we pretend we’re in a spaceship?”

The internal answer was instant and vehement: Ugh, NO! I was just too tired. I wanted to get to the store, buy what we needed, and get home—no muss, no fuss. I had expended all my creative energy during the day. Surely there was nothing left for spaceship play.

But something in me shifted. What if I went along with them in the game? What if I decided not to do the bare minimum? What would happen if I summoned up some energy I wasn’t even sure I had, in order to play along?

“Sure!” I heard myself say, and began barking out nonsensical orders. “First Officer Caroline: monitor our coordinates. Lieutenant Margaret: check the thrusters to see that they’re operational. Sergeant James: give us a report of weather conditions outside.”

A short growl came from the backseat. Oh yeah, James is in his I’m-a-dog phase. “Did I say Sergeant James? I meant Scruffy the dog. Scruffy, you lie down until we get to the moon, then you can help explore.”

The whole errand went this way. The Fairfax County Parkway became a giant asteroid belt. The grocery store became a space station where we needed to stock up on supplies. Our garage became a lunar docking station.

Miraculously, bedtime afterward went smoothly, even joyfully. I thought they’d be wound up from our game, but they were content, excited that they’d been able to do something out of the ordinary. What’s more, I was in a better mood too.

Later that night, I remembered a phrase I’d read as a young adult: “It’s easier to do what’s hard than what’s easy.” The author’s point (if I remember correctly) is that people often choose the path of least resistance in their lives, but that path can make life harder in the long run. (Doing the bare minimum to graduate, for example—it’s easier short-term but it can impact career success for a long time.) By contrast, if you put in just a little more effort, it can make a huge difference in the end. What’s initially hard becomes easier over time.

That phrase has evolved into a parenting mantra:

The harder thing is the easier thing.

It’s hard to summon the energy to play Minivan Spaceship, but it’s easier in the long run than dealing with cranky, bored kids, resentful at yet another errand, dragging their feet instead of skipping down the aisles, looking for provisions.

It’s hard to keep the house in a basic semblance of order, but it’s easier in the long run when you know exactly where the permission slip is on the morning of the field trip.

It’s hard for me to set aside time for Sabbath each week—a practice our family has been committed to for many years—but it makes life easier because it makes life more pleasant.

The harder thing is the easier thing.

It’s hard to have the tough conversation, or to respond to that angry e-mail with a phone call instead of another e-mail, or to tell the truth the first time rather than fudge it… but it is so much more freeing to be on the other side of it.

Sometimes we’re tempted to do the minimum to get by—in life, in relationships. And let’s face it: as mothers, we’re constantly playing triage. A bit more humor, a bit more kindness, a bit more intentionality, require a lot more energy up front. But these things pay dividends in the long run, through stronger relationships and a sense of well-being.

The harder thing is the easier thing.

Like every good mantra, you have to know when embrace its inverse. Sometimes the harder thing is the harder thing. It’s possible to force things, to strive for a perfection that’s not only impossible, but exhausting and dispiriting. I’m a big believer in the good-enough parent. Sometimes simply getting everyone to the store and back in one piece is good enough. Surviving is a victory.

But other times, the harder thing really is the easier thing. And the more joyful thing.

20120607-102749.jpgMaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer and pastor in the greater Washington DC area, where she serves Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation. She is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, coming this fall and available for preorder at Chalice Press and Amazon. She is married to Robert Dana and her three astronauts are 9, 6 and 4.

Motherhood Mantras: It’s Just a Small Moment

This post is part of a series called “Motherhood Mantras.” To read more about the series, and the full list of writers, click here.

I push my glasses up with the back of one hand as I breathe my hair out of my eyes. I’m sighing my way through this night. Swaying in place, I find my new, although quickly becoming familiar, rhythm.

The light of the moon slivers through sheer curtains. Outside’s darkness is mirrored within our home.

Kayli is curled onto my shoulder, my hands curving around her small frame. Sweet sleep is within fingertip’s reach. Her cheek presses deeper against me, her lips purse, and loosen around her pacifier.

I tense through my shoulders and arms and hands and heart.

She, of course, feels this and instantly wakes, arches her back, cranes her neck, widens her mouth. The pacifier falls to the floor, its tiny tumble a lone echo before her cries fill the space around me, making it small, tight, suffocating.

A single tear slides down my cheek, meeting Kayli’s own version of the same.

It’s just a small moment.

Two year old Chloe slides into my lap, she fits perfectly there. Her small legs dangle against mine as she leans into me. I soak in her skin’s warmth, her cotton skirt’s pinks, and her cocoa locks’ strawberry scent.

I wrap my arms around her toddler tummy. It’s delicious.

And for this one minute, we sit, puzzle pieced to each other.

It’s just a small moment.

Kayli and Chloe lay on their bellies, their bare feet crossed at the ankles. Brody is splayed on a blanket in front of them.

Chloe slides her fingers in and out of the blue knits while Brody’s tiny fists and toes sway in the space between them. The girls’ voices weave their own patterns around him, Twinkle Twinkle laced with giggles and the occasional, “My turn!” He watches them with the kind of awe reserved for younger siblings.

Laundry and dinner and the layer of dust revealed in the evening’s last rays tug at me. But I settle deeper into the green chair, pull the yellow fringed blanket over my toes, and breathe them in.

Because this too, is just a small moment.

Keeping that smallness at the front of my MindHeart is my motherhood mantra. 

Every mothering moment – from the dark to the glowing – is so very small and so very fleeting. Sleepless nights and crying newborns are woven deeply with belly laughs and tiny fingers laced tightly with my own.

I can pick up the golden moments, place them in my HeartHand, and enjoy them.

And as for those dim ones that we all have – they, too are small and fleeting and passing. Strand by strand, we weave our motherhood story, one small moment at a time.

Galit Breen is a Minnesotan author, blogger, and mother. On any given day you can find her juggling three children, one husband, one puppy, and her laptop. Galit blogs at These Little Waves and tweets at GalitBreen.

Motherhood Mantras: Have Grace with Yourself

This post is part of a series called “Motherhood Mantras.” To read more about the series, and the full list of writers, click here.

***Micha Boyett wrote this for the Mother Letters Project. I read it on her blog, and thought it would be perfect for this series, too. Grateful for her voice, and allowing me to re-post today!

Dearest Mamas,

When I was pregnant with my first child, my friend Emily (one year ahead of me in the baby-making) gave me a piece of advice: Have grace with yourself, she said.

She was talking about those first moments when I’d hold his tiny squirming flesh to my breast: When I expected fireworks of passionate mother-love and instead felt afraid, overwhelmed and happy, exhausted and adrenaline-rushed. She said, “Don’t expect the love you feel in that moment to be enough. You love your kid as you learn them.”

Have grace with yourself.

I carried her words over into those first weeks and months of exhaustion. The long nights, the moments of fury at this little thing whom I loved desperately but who was wreaking havoc on my brain and my body. I learned to have grace on myself when my friends were reading their 4-month-olds books for 30 minutes a day and helping them progress in their development and I still felt like it was all I could do to get my baby to sleep and eat and stare at me every day, much less be faithful to my calling and career.

Grace: Such a word for such an act. It’s love, yes. But it’s love that offers free kindness, freedom, acceptance. Jesus gives me that kind of reality. It’s not an act that allows me free reign to ruin myself. It’s an act that draws me in with loving kindness, that sets me up to use my gifts and my heart and offer to the world what’s good that’s already been placed into my hands.

Have grace with yourself, my friend said to me. She knew what I would feel some days: The temptation during your baby’s first year to long for her success, to judge yourself in light of her advancement, to value her in light of what the world values: appearance, physical impressiveness, signs of intellect. How often did I compare my kid with another? How often was I the one bragging of some sign of my child’s superiority?

Have grace with yourself.

When it’s your kid who is screaming on the airplane. When every person around you seems to think they know the answer. When you determine to trust your instinct despite his rage, despite your tears and the bite marks and the passengers who are tweeting about the horrible child and his incapable mother they were stuck with on the flight.

Have grace with yourself.

When every one at the park is obsessed with getting their almost-two-year-olds into language-immersion classes, when your friend’s three-year-old already knows how to read, when your strong-willed child is achingly sweet at home but yelling at the Sunday School teacher at church. When you’re afraid no one but you understands him.

Have grace with yourself.

There may be a day when someone you love questions your parenting choices. There may be a day when you stare at your tear-soaked face in the mirror and ask, “When my kids grow up, how will they remember my failures?”

But motherhood is not a series of situations that have a wrong and right answer. It is a relationship. How many times have I described Jesus that way to one of the high school or college students I’ve ministered to? Jesus is not religion. He is relationship. Engaging with him requires our hearts and our minds and souls and our strength because it involves living, not simply rule-adherring.

Have grace with yourself, Mama. This thing is complicated. You will hold that newborn and you won’t know how to love him but you will and you will wonder is this enough? and it may never be but he needs you any way.

See that’s the secret: You are his only mother. The only mother he will ever know. He loves you desperately. He needs you to love him back, to gather him when he crumples, to jump in the pool when he sinks, to snatch him up when the other kids are picking on him, to trust yourself to know when to protect and when to let him find his way.

So gather her and love her. Laugh and cuddle and read and make choices. And trust that in spite of your imperfections, God is making all things new: even you, even your child.

There is refreshment in that grace: the chance to begin every day, the chance to learn and change, to stick by convictions and let some of them float away on yesterday’s balloon. You don’t have to be the same mother you were last year. You are being refined.

Once, another friend said: Stop being so ferocious with yourself.

I’ll say the same to you, friend. God has given you to your child and your child to you. And every gift you own combined with the strength of God’s Spirit is enough to do this beautifully.

You may not be the mom who speaks two languages in the home. You may not perfectly balance work and mothering. You may not feel secure in the complexities of discipline and correction. You may receive every kind of judgment over the way you sleep-train your baby.

When it’s all too much, promise me this: Walk your stressed little (okay, let’s be honest, probably not-so-little) hinny to the bathroom, look in the mirror. Breathe deep. Look in the mirror again. Imagine Christ’s hand on your head, let his peace wiggle in to those brain wrinkles. And say: “I am loved. I am loved. I am loved.”

Because sometimes, Christ’s love is the only thing that gives us strength to love completely the little ones who have been given to our care.

Micha Boyett lives in Austin, Texas with one preschooler, one baby/toddler, and one very tall Philadelphian. She is a youth minister-turned stay at home mom who is still trying to figure out vocation and season and calling. She blogs at Patheos about Motherhood, Monasticism and the Sacred in the everyday.

Motherhood Mantras: It Goes By Fast

This post is part of a series called “Motherhood Mantras.” To read more about the series, and the full list of writers, click here.

I held my tiny daughter in my arms while trying to haul my luggage off the airplane. The task was nearly impossible with only one set of arms, and just when I figured out how I would negotiate the car seat, blanket, and toys, a businessman behind me began sighing with loud impatience. I rolled my eyes thinking, These people can’t wait five seconds for me to get my gear together? Five seconds? There’s no civility left in the world. When I reached for my daughter’s doll and stuffed it in my backback, I heard him mutter, “Gaawd.”

I began to formulate my retort, sharpening my tongue for a lashing, something to let him know that neither he nor his precious time was nearly as important as he thought they were. I turned around and tried to look him straight in the eye, but I saw that he was already looking away in indignant shame. Then I saw another parent, giving him an incensed evil glare. She didn’t even have to open her mouth. She had one of those powerful looks that only a mom could perfect. I smiled.

When we finally got off the plane, the other mother reached out and said in a soft southern drawl, “It goes by quickly. It doesn’t seem like it. I know. But my son’s eighteen now. It’s hard sometimes, but try to squeeze every moment of joy out of it that you can.” Her sweetness to me was as intense as her fury to the businessman.

It was true. Time bends in strange ways during those first years of motherhood, but there were plenty of strangers who let me know: “It goes by so quickly. I know it’s hard but try to enjoy it.” Or, “You probably hear this all the time, but all happens in an instant. Savor it, if you can.” A good friend told me, “The days are long and the years are short.”

And so my mantra became,

It goes by fast, savor it as much as you are able.

I said it, when my daughter woke up in the middle of the night, hungry for milk. Even though I felt exhausted with work and housework, I learned to breathe in that smell from the top of her head and appreciate the quiet of the small morning hours.

I learned to negotiate dinnertime. When my daughter felt fussy in the flurry of meal prep, my husband and I learned to grab a snack and take her for a walk in a park instead. The madness of five o’clock in the afternoon became one of my favorite times, when we learned to eat a bit later.

I also loved pastoring a small congregation, who took delight in having her around the office. I learned to bounce the Snugglie on my chest as I read my texts for the upcoming Sunday.

It wasn’t all perfect, of course. But even with the frustrations, I tried to savor every moment. And I still do.

It goes by fast. Savor it as much as you are able.

Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation and Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. She blogs at Tribal Church and co-hosts God Complex Radio with Derrick Weston.