Candles, Icebergs, and Fear

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It’s still dark outside. I pull the curtains tightly together in the kitchen before settling into my perch on a stool. My computer is open on the counter, a blank white document with a blinking cursor beckoning me.

I have so much I want to say about life right now, and yet I don’t know where to start. I feel so uncertain, insecure. I type a few words before standing up to get a cup of coffee. Maybe this will help, I think as I pour the hot liquid into the pink flowered mug with a “J” on it. When I add the milk to my cup, I watch how the white liquid slowly blooms and mixes with the brown before overtaking it.

I’m tired. My back aches. I slept fitfully again last night, dreaming of infection rates and to-do lists and an economic crash. I don’t think I’ve slept well since life turned upside down two weeks ago. Schools, churches, and businesses are all closed. I’m working remotely with three little people underfoot. After a couple of days of sleeping in, I realized that I needed to get up before the kids. My alarm going off at 5:30 felt normal, and I needed normal.

The candle next to the baby monitor flickers. Henning moans and turns over but is still asleep. Thank goodness. I’m not ready yet. The wax on the candle is getting low from spending so many pre-dawn mornings with me. I vaguely wonder if I’ll be able to get another one. Are there shortages of candles? Are there so many people trying to be soothed and find zen that there are empty shelves where all the candles used to be?

I push several crayons away from my elbow and smile–our house has never been this “lived in.” I’m grateful that the days are starting to feel a tiny bit easier, just by nature of exposure and practice. There was a time I couldn’t fathom having my kids home with me for a week. Now, this is our reality. There are no other options. There is no end in sight. And we are surviving.

But I shift uncomfortably on my stool as I wonder how many times I’ll yell today. How many times my patience will snap like a twig. I’ve been so angry lately. Short fused. Easily indignant. I blaze over the most mundane offenses and raise my voice more times per day than I care to count.

Will my kids remember how angry I was during this time?

Or will they realize that I was just afraid?

I read once that anger is a secondary emotion. It usually masks something else, something more raw, hidden, and vulnerable. Anger is just a tip of the iceberg. On the surface, my anger these days is a blazing fire. When I am angry, I feel powerful and wild, like I control the flames. It is intoxicating and it is false. Underneath the fire is a tender underbelly of my deep fear and grief. Sometimes the fear feels like smoke in my lungs, filling me up until I can’t breathe. I grieve for the way our life has changed. I grieve for the families and lives torn apart. I grieve for what’s lost.

I exhale fury. I inhale my shame.

***

Earlier this week the big kids and I made birthday cards to mail to my mom. Our dining room table–or what used to be a dining room table–is Art Central these days: covered in kraft paper, crayons, and sheets of stickers. Anders and Ellis worked intently on their projects while Henning rifled through a basket of board books on the floor. I smiled at the momentary calm, but the expression didn’t reach my eyes.

Anders reached for a red marker. “Do you hope we can stay home forever, Ellis?” He added curly hair to the figure he was drawing.

“Yes,” she nodded seriously before sticking another dinosaur sticker on her card.

“I just love it here,” Anders murmured, more to himself than anyone else.

My head jerked up. I wanted to say, “You do!?” but instead, I closed my eyes and let the shiver of gratitude roll up my back. He will be ok. They will be ok. I lifted my afternoon cup of coffee to my lips. The liquid had lost its heat, but I opened my throat and chugged every fortifying dreg. 

We will be ok.

When The Table Isn’t Sacred

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“Anders, if you blow bubbles into your milk again, I’m taking away your cup,” I snap.

Ellis rubs chili into her hair. As I turn my back to grab a washcloth, she dumps the rest of her bowl on the floor. The dog almost knocks me over as he pushes past my legs to clean up the scene—at least someone is having fun. The baby cries in the bouncy seat, his chest covered in spit-up. My head throbs as I drop to my knees (how fitting) to deal with the mess under the highchair.

“Mom, I need a plate,” says Anders.

“Why?” I say from the floor as I mop up chili with a paper towel.

“Because my chili is getting everywhere.”

A quick look up reveals that he’s right. The tray of his highchair and front of his shirt are splattered with red chili like a beef-laden Jackson Pollock painting. I take a deep breath and hand him a plate from the drawer.

“No, I don’t want the green plate! I need the piiiiink one!”

Ignoring him, I squeeze my eyes closed and tip my head back to release the growing tension in my neck. Another glance at the clock tells me Kyle is late, again. Bedtime can’t come soon enough.

I wipe spit-up and melted cheese from my work pants. There wasn’t time to change when we got home.

As I refill milk cups, my elbow accidentally knocks the stack of dirty containers from today’s daycare lunches to the floor. Ellis hurls a handful of chili at the wall, and Anders stops wailing long enough to cackle hysterically.

I bang my fist on the counter. “Where is your father?!”

***

I used to love dinner time. Before babies, our table was a sacred space.

When Kyle and I first got married, we ate Hamburger Helper and Bertolli frozen skillet meals for six months straight. He was working long hours at the dairy and I was commuting three hours a day to my job at a college in the city. It was all we could do to dump a bag of frozen vegetables and chicken into a pan at the end of the day and call it dinner.

Eventually I moved away from the freezer section and learned the art of cooking. A glass of red wine by my side, I crushed garlic cloves into tomato sauce, minced red onions for pineapple salsa, and roasted sweet potatoes until they caramelized. I found my footing as a cook as we settled into the rhythm of a life together.

In the midst of a busy season, sitting at the table (or occasionally standing at the kitchen counter) was the one place we came together.

***

Today, dinner is a frazzled rush after long days at work and daycare, full of spilled milk, high volumes, and sheer chaos. The needs from our three small people are endless. I’m up and down—always on my feet—filling glasses, wiping spills, rinsing daycare dishes, breaking up fights, loading the dishwasher, and cutting fruit. I vacillate between hot flashes of temper and distracted attention.

Kyle is preoccupied too, eyes darting to his phone every time there’s a call or text from one of his farm employees. We all know that he could be called away at any moment. His body is here but his mind is not.

Our conversations follow a staccato beat, starting and stopping and losing their way. Instead of wine-warm lovers, we settle into our positions as co-cruise directors. “Did you find his library book?” “Can you cut her meat?” “Don’t forget you have a dentist appointment tomorrow.” Against the onslaught of constant kid interruptions, we give up on telling stories or finding true connection until later (or never).

Somehow the place that used to bring us together highlights how far we are apart.

///

Read more about falling apart and coming together in my essay this week on
Coffee + Crumbs.

On Repeat: A Photo Essay

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It was sitting on my pillow when I crawled into bed—a small green piece of paper folded in half. I picked it up, smiling, and admired the black block letters spelling “MOM.” The handwriting was still shaky, but there was no mistaking the words. He’s come so far, I thought. It wasn’t that long ago that Anders couldn’t even identify his letters, much less make place cards for a family dinner. I held the green paper and briefly considered the trashcan across the room but instead opened the book on my nightstand and slid it between the pages. The voice in my head—usually urging ruthless clutter elimination—gently murmured: don’t forget this.

Too often I allow myself to be numbed by the sheer monotony in our life. The tasks “on repeat” in our life can feel futile. But when I shake my head, clear my eyes, I start to see the vibrations of wonder everywhere.

There is wonder in adorably mispronounced words at breakfast, labeled water bottles on the counter, the smell of rosemary shampoo, a bubbling pot of macaroni, Legos on the floor, the fuzz on a baby’s head, childish laughter long after the lights go out at night, and my husband’s hand on my hip. I can’t save every scrap of paper my kids write on, but I can save moments, tucking the loose-leaf pieces close to my heart. Familiarity can be the enemy of inspiration (or appreciation, frankly), but often life’s most profound moments are found in the shabby and ordinary places.

You just have to look.

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This post was created as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “On Repeat.”

@pheonixfeatherscalligraphy for C+C, 2020

How Will I Remember?

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“Mommy! Take my picture!” Anders straightens his cape—blue with a red lightning bolt—as he leaps from the top of a stack of cushions to the ground in front of my chair. I look up seconds after he lands.

“Nice jump!” I say.

“Did you get it?” He scrambles to his feet and reaches for my phone.

“Get what?”

“A picture of my super huge jump.”

“Sorry bud,” I say, “I missed it.”

“But Moooooom, how will I ever remember?” His face, barely visible behind the red superhero mask, crumples.

I smile and ruffle his hair. “You will.”

This doesn’t satisfy him. I dutifully raise my phone for multiple subsequent jumps, and we finally manage to get one on film. The moment is preserved. But later that night, as I fold laundry by the light of the Christmas tree, his question sticks with me.

How will I remember?

It seems innately human: this desire to record the moments of our lives. I make yearly family photo yearbooks. I write down funny things my kids say in an Evernote document. I make notes on my Google calendar when milestones are reached—first words, first steps, first time they slept through the night. I track sickness and sentences and clothing sizes. I try to capture moments and memories in my words on social media. My phone currently holds 21,397 photos and 2,685 videos, and the numbers keep growing.

But my recordkeeping doesn’t stop there.

I’m also obsessed with the Timehop app on my phone. This magical little bit of technology shows me photos I took or posted on this day going back one, two, or even 15 years (thanks to being in the very first wave of Facebook users in 2004). Each picture represents a memory, a literal snapshot in time. The photos from college are cringe-worthy: questionable hairstyles, long-forgotten frenemies, and way too much white girl duck face. The photos and videos of my kids cut right through my heart.

The app helps me remember trips, milestones, and even the mundane aspects of our life. All of the puzzle pieces come together to tell the story of our family. The passage of time can be baffling. A child who’s speaking in full sentences today was just starting to babble last year. Last year’s amorphous newborn is this year’s opinionated toddler. A kid who once couldn’t put on his own shoes is now picking out his outfits. These seismic changes give me the distinct impression that time is slipping away.

Even on our most exhausting days, I pull out my phone when I crawl into bed and scroll through dozens of photos and videos. “You were just with them!” Kyle laughs.

“I know. But I miss them already,” I say.

I often can’t wait until my kids are in bed. Yet, faced with fond nostalgia, my heart aches at their absence.

***

When it comes to documenting our life, I feel like I’m trying to hold water in my hands. I clutch the wispy memories tightly, terrified they will fade, rip at the edges, or pour right through my fingers. I overcompensate and over-correct in the panicked hope that I won’t forget.

As I reflect on 2019, I feel the exquisite weight of this life. Last year we were barely out of the newborn fog. This year we have three kids who feed themselves, sleep consistently through the night, and are capable (though not always willing) of playing on their own. We’ve come so far. It’s only by stepping back that I truly appreciate this.

My Instagram grid from the past twelve months shows trips to the beach, family walks on the dairy, kids hugging in matching pajamas, and smiling faces. Life here, at least, looks rosy. But that’s not the whole story. These photos don’t show the bitter fights that were waged out of sheer exhaustion. They don’t show the countless nights I went to bed alone. They don’t show the unyielding stress Kyle felt every day he wasn’t able to plant or chop corn. They don’t show crippling anxiety or the times I yelled, lost my patience, or failed to show grace to my kids.

I don’t want to remember life through a quixotic haze, but I am grateful for how memories soften and intertwine as we gain more perspective. A life is the sum of many parts.

In 2020, I want to balance nostalgia and being present. I don’t want to stop taking pictures, making notes, or basking in memories. But I also don’t want to forget to be in the moments as I’m actually living them. I want to feel it all—the splashy colors, messy emotions, and fleeting moments—deep in the marrow of my bones.

***

At the end of the year (and my life, actually), I want there to be one predominant thought: “We were together. I forget the rest.” This quote from Walt Whitman has always been one of my favorites. It’s not about taking thousands of photos or remembering every single moment.

It’s about the people living and breathing alongside me. It’s about the way I want my family to feel when they look back on our life.

Even if the iCloud crashes and my Google Drive implodes, we were here. We laughed and loved and walked side-by-side.

We were together. I forget the rest.

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@phoenixfeatherscalligraphy for C+C, 2019

This post was created as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “2019.”

Dear Ellis: welcome to three

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Dear Ellis,

We met you three years ago today. You blew into our lives like a hurricane: breakneck and wild. I was only in labor for 2.5 hours and you were almost born on the gray rug on our bathroom floor. You were delivered 10 minutes after I told the ER receptionist, “I’m having a baby right now!” Later as the nurse checked me in, you already lay heavy on my chest, wet and warm.

From the beginning, my girl, you were untamed.

The first few months of your life were a blur of tears, witching hour meltdowns, and 40 minute (never more) naps. Unlike your brother, you did not eventually bend to my BabyWise will. You had your own agenda and kept your own schedule. When I dropped you off at daycare that first morning, I felt a guilty sense of relief as I told them, “Maybe you can get her to sleep.”

As the months went on, you leveled out (as most babies do) and transformed into a bubbly ball of delight. Complete strangers would comment, “She’s such a happy baby!” And you were—in your own time. That’s how you have to do most things.

Today, you’re three.

It’s hard for me to remember you’re only three. You already speak like a five-year-old, which isn’t surprising since you try to keep up with your brother in every other way. Last week you told me, “Mommy, I do not have the appetite for this dinner,” and I was so impressed by the phrase I wasn’t even annoyed that you refused to eat anything other than shredded cheese and fed your sweet potato to the dog.

You are a fighter. Your body is a map of bumps and bruises from foolish feats of bravery and stubborn acts of defiance. Your eyes flash with mischief when you’re about to disobey. When I try to shield you from bodily harm (also known as “Anders”), you push my hands away and dive back into the fray.

You are also loving and empathetic. When something bad happens to a character in one of our books, your brow will furrow with concern: “He’s sad, Mommy,” You thrive on physical touch—putting your feet on my knees at dinner, pressing against my side when we read. You are rendered fully immobile by a good back scratch. Sometimes you cup my face in your hands and press your nose against mine. Your unblinking blue eyes hold a magnetic pull, as if to say I am yours and you are mine.

You are noise. Our car rides to daycare are punctuated by gibberish songs sung at ear-splitting volume. At night I hear your voice through the monitor after the lights are turned off, singing and swapping stories with your stuffed animals. I say “Please don’t yell,” and “Use your inside voice!” on repeat, but deep down I hope you never let anyone silence you. Your voice matters. You matter. I will go to battle with anyone who says otherwise.

Can I tell you a secret? I felt a mixture of joy and fear when your brother pulled that pink piece of paper out of the envelope three years ago. Deep in my heart, I was terrified to have a girl. The responsibility to raise strong, self-assured little women can feel heavy. But as the news sunk it, I realized I had never wanted anything more.

If anyone can rise, it’s you.

I admire your bravery, your tenacity, and your strong will—even though these things drive me crazy sometimes. You will rule the world.

After 30+ days of you waking up saying, “Is it my bur-day!?” I am happy to finally say YES. Happy third, my sweet girl.

Everyday Magic

“Children have neither past nor future; they enjoy the present, which very few of us do.”
– Jean de la Bruyere

Today I am thankful for warm October sunshine, wondrous caterpillars (RIP Catty–you lived a full life), and small, magic moments with my four.

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This post was created as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Everyday Magic.”

Image via Kristine Farnum

He Alone Holds Us

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My stomach tightened into a knot as we stepped off the elevator.

The walls and furniture were bright and colorful. Moana played on a television at low volume. A friendly receptionist pointed us to a cartoony touchscreen to check in.

The cartoon fish didn’t fool me. This isn’t fun. I don’t want to be here. No one does.

The fluorescent lights flickered. The smells were antiseptic. The chairs were clean but worn down by countless worried parents before me.

I blinked back tears as we sat. Our three-month-old baby slept peacefully in his car seat, completely unaware of the abnormal measurement that had brought us here.

The physical feature—his big head—that was often the focus of our lighthearted jokes might actually be a problem. It was growing too quickly. An ultrasound was needed right away.

***

I’ve never been so aware of a simple fact: my children do not belong to me.

My love for them is vast. It’s visceral and gut-wrenching and wild. I want to believe that I can protect them. That I can keep them from harm.

But I can’t.

No amount of control or caution can keep them from disappointment, broken hearts, or irregular test results.

***

I often wonder how Mary did it.

When God said, “he will come to save the world,” did she know that meant unspeakable pain and suffering? The ultimate sacrifice? Death on a cross for her precious son?

Would she have felt differently about this whole parenting gig if she knew? This child was her flesh and blood. Borne of her body and tied to her heart.

But when the angel came, Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Oh, what faith.

***

We were eating dinner in the hospital food court when our doctor called my cell phone. The radiologist had reviewed the scans and she had the results. No excess fluid in the brain, no abnormal growths. We’ll have to keep an eye on it, but for now, everything is normal.

The tears burned again, this time on an overwhelming wave of gratitude. I clutched our baby to my chest and breathed out a shaky prayer: thank you thank you thank you.

***

Mary knew what I struggle to accept.

Despite coming from my body and carrying my heart, these children are not my own.

They belong to their Father. As I think about that night long ago—about a young mother, a stable, a baby—it’s even more clear.

Whatever the future holds, He alone holds us.