Sunday, November 23, 2014

What if St. Joseph Felt Like a Failure On Christmas Day?

Here is my problem with the Christmas story. I grew up hearing the story over and over again as a kid in church, long before I'd had any experience giving birth myself. Therefore, I've gotten immune to the shocking facts of this event. Now that I've given birth to a preemie, however, my thoughts this Advent are filled with the real, human aspects of the Incarnation.

My son was born exactly seven days before a planned early c-section at 36 weeks gestation. I knew my pregnancy was high-risk.  I still had terrifying scramble to get out the door quickly that Saturday morning. We ended up lost trying to get to an unfamiliar, closer hospital.  A 911 operator and the paramedics had to help us.

After coming home from the hospital with a healthy baby and a healthy body, I felt foolish. I told myself I hadn't planned enough for this emergency birth. We should have had more numbers of neighbors stored in our cellphone. I shouldn't have lost our main cellphone during the shock of starting labor early. We should have had MapQuest print-outs of three back-up hospitals on route to our main delivery site.

The hard part about calming my emotions post-birth has been accepting that I did have a plan for the birth of my son. My doctors had a plan. Things just didn't go according to plan. There were a couple of moments of extreme panic while my husband and some paramedics got me to a new doctor who made a new plan---your kid is coming out here within the hour, Mama!

The new plan worked. The baby was fine. I was fine. It was actually easier to recover from childbirth at a smaller, quieter hospital close to home. I could feel God's thumb prints all over my son's birthday, including an unfamiliar feeling of tranquility before my emergency surgery.

At 35 weeks, I'd asked my regular OB for a prescription for Valium at my regular OB check-up appointment. My doctor of five pregnancies rocked back on his heels and said "You don't know how bad this could be for the baby."

I told him "You don't understand how much my fears have escalated since being on bed rest. I've lost every healthy way of coping with my anxiety about this surgery. I can't exercise. I can't take walks in nature. I can't go out for dinner with my friends. I can't go to my church to pray. It's not good for the baby to have medication in the womb, of course. But what happens if I'm too scared to get into the car and drive to the hospital the day of the baby's scheduled c-section?"

My OB gave me a prescription for 3 Valium tablets. My husband told me that he was glad that I asked for the anti-anxiety medication. I looked at the type-written prescription and felt like a failure. "I'm a wuss," I said out loud. "I've done this surgery 5 times before. It's always worked out perfectly. Why am I so afraid now?"

Ironically, just asking for a prescription for Valium calmed me down. I didn't even need to fulfill it. That night I went home and started googling "just how bad is Valium for an unborn baby?" I stumbled upon a website with information from all these Mormon women who suffered from anxiety after multiple c-sections. The Mormons were interested in avoiding all drugs while "not letting something external like the amount of scar tissue dictate the size of their future families!" I felt at home on this website. It was the first time I heard someone else say "the more times you do a c-section the scarier it is." The secular websites I found talking about anxiety and c-sections said "Get the good anti-anxiety drugs--fast!"

Once I had an anti-anxiety medication prescription in my hands, I felt like I had a back-up plan. After that step, I felt more safe to explore non-medicinal options to decrease my anxiety. In the morning, my OB called me at home. "I really don't want you taking that medication before surgery," he told me.

I surprised my doctor by agreeing with him. I told him "The anesthesiologist on call is going to have enough worries with me without stressing that I took a drug not administered by him. I'm also personally stressed out about how my baby is going to do on his APAR score without adding Valium to the mix. I'm going to try my best to not ask for anti-anxiety meds until the baby is delivered. After his birth, I'm giving myself permission to ask for the strong stuff. That's my goal. I think I can do it. I'm only going to fulfill your prescription the morning before surgery if I truly can't get into my car because of bad pre-surgery panic attacks."

Eight days later, instead of imagining a bad situation, I was living it. Once I was in the hospital, I surprised myself by thinking "I don't need the Valium!" I didn't need it. I could cope with the situation in front of myself without fear.

Last night, my husband and I had a big talk about St. Joseph and his feelings on the first Christmas Day. My husband told me "St. Joseph got to protect and provide for his wife and his newborn son. Yet he didn't get to protect and provide for them in the way he wanted too!" 

I don't know what St. Joseph and Mary, the Mother of God had planned for the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet they were holy people. They were parents. They had some kind of plan for the birth of Jesus that didn't involve getting caught by surprise on a road in an unfamiliar town. Maybe St. Joseph had reserved affordable rooms on the far side of Bethleham. Maybe, Mary thought she had weeks longer before giving birth and could make it back safely to Nazareth. St. Joseph was a carpenter. Most likely back in Nazareth, there was a beautiful wooden crib St. Joseph built in preparation for Jesus' birth.

As normal human parents, St. Joseph and Mary, the Mother of God, probably made a solid preparations before the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet God's plan for Jesus' birth was different. Labor started at an unexpected time. Being without sin, I hope that Mary the Mother of God received extra special graces of Faith, Love and Hope during that moment. We know that her Virgin Birth was something unique. Sometimes its hard to feel close to Our Lady. Yet on Christmas Eve, she started to give birth while smelling like mud and dust and donkey fur.

St. Joseph was one of us. He's just a normal human being. He had to scramble to find his pregnant wife and an unborn child shelter and privacy at their moment of greatest vulnerability. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but it's kind of comforting for me to imagine St. Joseph feeling like a bit of a failure as a Father on Christmas Day. Finding a cave filled with sheep, probably didn't rate as a four star success worthy of Our Lord and Our Lady.

I'm not sure why it was so critical for Jesus Christ to be born in a stable on Christmas Day. Maybe it was symbolic. Maybe it was crucial for Mother and Baby to have privacy during the birth. We know there was a large target on Mary's back during her birth from Scripture. God's ways are not our ways.

Christmas celebrates the miracle of the Incarnation! God came to earth to be a human being! God didn't even pick to be born to St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother at their "best" moment. He could have come after they were married, and stable, and had a cute new house in Nazarath all set up. If Mary's pregnancy had to come before her marriage to St. Joseph, at least God could have timed the birth so it didn't happen on the road in Bethlehem while all the inns were filled.

Childbirth is messy and inconvenient and often a surprise. It's shocking to consider that God's son shared in all that imperfect humanness. This Advent is going to be extra messy and uncertain for me. I encouraged to think that even without the comforting routine of sugar cookie baking, Christmas card mailing and gift buying--my uncertain, make-shift housing arrangements --with a new baby--actually put me in closer touch with the authentic Holy Family experience.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Loneliness Is Good If It Leads To Solitude

A few days ago, my blogger friend Leila wrote an "I'm Sorry" letter to all of us Moms of Large Families who live outside the glorious enclave that is the Phoenix Diocese. I've suffered from "support envy" in the past. As an adult convert to the Catholic faith, I'm extra dependent upon the emotional support of my church family. My family and graduate school friends started with the "You are totally crazy!" comments as soon as I got pregnant with child number two. (Number 2, people!)

For a few years, I hung out with a calm, supportive group of young Catholic families in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia (a southern suburb of Washington, DC). We moved to the area with a 2 1/2 year old and a 1 year old. I felt so much love and support in my new unfamiliar role as a young Mother.

Then we lost our car. (Oh, the joys of poverty). I made a few multi-hour trips on the subway to attend my regular Mothers Rosary Group in Arlington, Va. Pretty soon those trips became impractical. I found myself alone in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. The Catholic faith was the same, but the community felt totally different. My former rosary group was filled with military families and families involved in politics. These families "hit the ground running" --looking for social connections and new friends. It was easy to fit in as a newcomer both to the area and to the Catholic faith.

My new community was filled with the trauma of poverty. There were mostly new immigrant families and a few rural families who were coping with the radical changes of insane property values, horrid traffic, and stressed community systems. Large families attended Sunday Masses at multiple Maryland parishes that were only few miles apart. Steadily attending Mass at a single church to create a stable community was an unusual act in this City Community. I almost missed a First Communion once for my daughter's friend because a Large Family that I saw at my church for Daily Mass for over three years, chose a different church for their second grader's First Communion and yet a third church for their youngest child's Baptism a few months later.

During our five years in the Diocese of Washington DC we meet wonderful fellow parents but it never developed into a large cohesive into a supportive community like in Arlington. Instead, it was more like I developed individual friendships with different families. That sense of being alone only intensified after we moved to the Diocese of West Virginia, a state with less than a 5% Catholic population.

The loneliness was good for me. Left alone, I had the space to develop an intimate and more individual relationship with Christ the King.  As new Catholics, Jon and I had to invent our own holiday traditions. We had greater freedom to experiment with prayer, homeschooling, and Catholic education. With no one around us to copy, we had to copy the Holy Family directly.

After 8 years of loneliness, my Catholic family is quirky and strong. We pray the rosary. We attend Adoration. We teach the basics of First Communion. We do these things, not because these rituals are convenient or popular, but because these are the hidden strengths that keep our family well-nourished, spiritual strong, and emotionally stable.

We are open to the secular world, because most of the people we interact with on a daily basis are non-Catholics. We are able to see the good in other faiths and other perspectives. At the same time, we have a daily reminder that our Catholic faith is an undeserved gift. Being a weird minority in a non-Catholic world gives the gift of constant humility.

Because we were raised outside of a Catholic bubble, my husband and I are pretty calm about our children's spiritual future. We made a lot of sinful mistakes in our past. God still claimed us as his kin, cleansed us, and set us right. Every human being's spiritual journey is as unique as a thumb print.

Loneliness can lead to Solitude--Solitude is a priceless gift in our Faith. No matter how strong a Faith Community is for someone, the biggest struggles --Death, Cancer, the Uncertainty of Premature Labor--all leaves us grappling alone before God. Loneliness gives us practice. Practice, in the spiritual life, is never wasted time.

Loneliness also gives me contrast. I'm a better friend, a better Mom, a better wife, a better Carmelite community member, because I've been lonely. True spiritual connection is prized when its rare.

Loneliness also got me more in touch with myself. As an extrovert, my inner life was something vastly unknown until my late thirties. I was raised to be too much of a social chameleon--I cared too much about what other people thought, said, or did. I translated that co-dependent thinking easily into my religious life. "Oh what do you think Jesus wants us to do in X,Y, and Z situation." Being left alone for years with just the text of the Scriptures, some writings of the saints, and an occasional treatise from the Pope was the best thing that ever happened to me. Living without an emotional support network, was similar to St. Jerome hanging out in a cave in the desert. Great inner growth happens in solitude.

It looks like we will soon be moving to a new vibrant Catholic faith community. Frankly, I still feel little shocked. At Swim Team Practice, there is a Mom of 7 who is eager to hold my fragile, premature baby. It feels odd and a little self-indulgent to ask a stranger to hold my child so that I can give my arms a rest, or go to the bathroom alone.

I'm grateful for help. Community life is a gift. In the end, however, our vocations are our own. Everyone has tough nights when they feel alone and tired and discouraged. Even Jesus, had his moments in the Garden. We Catholic Moms who go solo in the world, more often than not, have a special grace. We get more practice relying on Him, instead of relying on one another.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why I Homeschool

I've got a second grader in my house who dreams of being a French pastry chef. No one in my extended family really enjoyed cooking before she appeared in my house. I have pictures of her turning up her nose at her one year old birthday cake. At the time, I thought she didn't like chocolate. Now I know her palate rejects grocery store bought cake--only the serious homemade cake will do. Now she is gleefully making up original recipes like chocolate and lime cake.

For history this year, we have studied famous chefs from around the world. Did you know the head White House Chef is a woman for the first time ever? Did you know that there is a special club for all the chefs of the Chief heads of State?  Or that Abraham Lincoln told a famous campaign story involving gingerbread men?

I love the challenge of making academic studies relevant to my kids. My kids ask such interesting questions. In the age of the internet, it only takes a few clicks find detailed answers for them. Curiosity comes from the Latin word "to care." It's a grace to be this involved in the day to day support of my daughter's development.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Praying Deeply While Having Young Children

One of the difficulties of being a Lay Carmelite, is that our prayer routine is pretty strict. We're supposed to pray 1/2 an hour every day, plus pray the Daily Office twice a day and attend a Carmelite meeting once a month. It's awesome to have that intense external structure sometimes. As a new mother, however, that same structure can feel impossible. Pregnancy, birth, and night time nursing sessions all play havoc with my daily prayer schedule.

As a contemplative, I need time to pray. I need that time just as surely as I need extra glasses of water while I breastfeed or extra time for naps while I care for a newborn. I telling myself it's okay to pass off the baby to my husband and say "I need time to pray."

I have to hold my prayer sessions lightly right now. It's easy to get interrupted by the newborn and the two year old. It helps to think of Jesus as a friend. A real life friend in my kitchen isn't going to be upset that I take a moment to get my early-rising daughter breakfast. We can still resume our conversation after I finish my task.

At the same time, if I get interrupted often from my children in the morning, I need to make it okay to ask for my husband's help to get more time to pray alone in the evening.

Prayer is as essential as water. "I thirst for you as a deer seeks running water" it says in the Psalms.

A woman at Swim Practice was freaked out to discover that I was a Carmelite "on top of everything else." I told her jokingly, "No, no. It's the opposite way. I'm able to do everything else because I'm a Carmelite."

I don't know how to keep on top of my required prayer scheduled right now--in the middle of having a newborn, planning moving, writing a book, and teaching homeschooling. I only know that I've stumbled on something good with a Carmelite prayer life and I'll try my best not to lose it during the tumble of daily life.

Carrying On a Routine In the Middle of Transitions

This is a week of transition for us. We had a home inspection for the buyer at our house yesterday. This morning we have the home inspection at the new house we'd like to buy. It's so weird to be in the middle of this buying and selling process. Either the buyer loves the house and we're out in a matter of days, or it's back to square one.

I'm dealing with the stress of the uncertainty by bulking up on the homemaking routine. We started skipping evening Swim practice so that we can eat a normal, hot dinner at 6 PM. I started cooking dessert again for the first time in months. Even in the middle of all the extra home improvement projects, I make sure the fridge is stocked with food and there is a little bit of clean laundry in the dresser drawers.

Yesterday, I had six kids and a dog in our the minivan for a long country drive. (Going to the park was out of the question when it was 20 degrees during the buyer's home inspection). We listened to Disney's "Tangled" twice on the car's DVD. There is a song where Rapunzel complains that her daily household chores of sweeping, cooking and laundry only keep her busy until 7:15 AM.

I had some issues with those song lyrics. First, I don't know what kind of household she's dealing with but my domestic chore list is never done by 7:15 AM. Second, these domestic chores are not "nothing." I grew up in the post-Betty Friedan world where routine domestic chores are seen as beneath the dignity of college educated women. It was a real shock to become a stay-at-home Mom and find out how much those routine tasks matter.

I swapped Betty Friedan and Arlie Hochschild for Mother Teresa and St. Martin of Porres. Both Mother Teresa and St. Martin of Porres, loved to scrub toilets for Jesus. They actually sought out that humble work right after receiving great honors from famous patrons. I thought about their example yesterday while I unclogged a toilet under an intense time pressure yesterday. I'd done a lot of abstract legwork before our move--comparing mortgage rates, etc. Probably nothing was as important, however, as making sure we had 3 fully working toilets before our home inspection. Jesus really uses every tiny act for the glory of his kingdom. There is no "small act" when its preformed with love.

As someone who loved the intellectual stimulation of college, I prefer when Jesus calls upon my writing, public speaking or thinking skills. That doesn't mean that I don't realize how important it is to have also developed an ability to bake. Yesterday, after a rough day, I pulled out the new mini-muffin tins my 7 year old had requested during our last Walmart run. (I'd accidentally packed all our cupcake tins when we first put the house on the market six months ago). Even thought I was super tired, I made chocolate icing from scratch for her because an non-iced cupcake is a pathetic thing.

When the cupcakes were cool, the 2 year old and 4 year old joined the 7 year old for an impromptu icing party. This was the first time my smallest daughters were old enough to be a real help in the kitchen. I look at their lovely faces and felt a feeling of peace. I don't know where we will be for Advent. We could be here. We could be at my Mom's house. Or we could be in a rough kitchen in a new house that needs a lot of repairs. No matter where we are, this trio will be having fun icing sugar cookies together before Christmas.

It's the people that matter, not the setting. I'm grateful that I've got enough humility to keep life running relatively smoothly while we potentially change the backdrop of our life.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Grand Concourse Trailer

A New Play about Prayer and Service

I haven't heard anyone talking about this new Off-Broadway play, but it looks fantastic. Playwrites Horizons is a non-profit theater in New York City which is committed to producing work from new American playwrites. Writer Heidi Schreck wrote a new play called "Grand Concourse" which is about a 40 year old nun running a Soup Kitchen who starts to pray in front of a microwave while she struggles with fatigue with her vocation.

The play deals with questions of service, prayer, and compassion fatigue. I was excited to see the playwrite cite several examples of some of my favorite Catholic writers in her work. Here is her description of her writing process. "I am not a Catholic. I am a Presbyterian-raised agnostic, but discovering Dorthy Day was a watershed moment for me and lead me to study (and revere) a number of other great Catholic women, among them Flannery O'Connor, Hildegard von Beingen, Sister Mary Corita Kent and Juilana of Norwich."

Whoa! When is the last time Hildegard von Beingen and Juliana of Norwich got admiration points from an American playwrite?

I might not agree with all the political opinions raised by the progressive nun who is the main star in this play, but I find the main theme itself fascinating.

New York City is only 4 hours from me. I might have to find a way to get there to see the play before it closes in December. If anyone has seen this play in person and has a review, could you send me an email.

St. Theresa of Avila, pray for us! We need to more good Art with these deep themes!