Rachel Heath

Intentional Living: learning to be fully present

Archive for the tag “parenting”

Sometimes

A few months ago, a friend asked me if I liked being a mom. I hesitated for a moment – just a split second – before offering the answer I knew was correct, the expected answer.

Yes! Yeah, I love it. It’s wonderful. Being a mom is great. A challenge, but really wonderful. Of course. It’s great.

I heard myself repeating the same words over and over, frantically racking my brain for something specific. The truth is, in that moment, I really didn’t. I’m supposed to adore motherhood, but that day, I didn’t. I left the restaurant troubled by my response, and over the last few months that little piece of conversation has come back to haunt me at every one of my lowest parenting moments.

You’re a terrible mother. You couldn’t come up with a single reason you enjoy being a mom! Why did you even have children? 
It’s certainly no secret that motherhood has been a difficult adjustment for me. Sleep deprivation, kind to no one, I think does an especially hard job on me, and neither of our tinies were (are) good sleepers. Isabella would wake infrequently but it would take us close to an hour to get her back down, and she didn’t sleep through the night till she was 1. Barrett had awful colic for 5 months, and at 13 months old, he is still waking up 6-10 times a night.

The night before Mother’s Day (of course) was a very rough one for Bear. After he woke 5 times between 10pm and 1am, Stephen finally gave in and got him up. I was too worked up to sleep, so I got up too. We sat on the living room floor in our robes, Barrett playing quietly between us, and had an awful conversation about our big doubts, disillusionment with God, and disappointment over unanswered prayers (the middle of the night is obviously the best time to talk about these light topics).

“If I had known what this would really be like, I never would have had kids,” I muttered, refusing to let the hot tears surface.

The desperation and rage when it’s 2:30 am and I can’t get baby to calm down and fall asleep; the trembling fear of finding out just where my line is and how close I can come to it in the dark hours of the night.

The inability to walk out of a room, or even move from one spot on the floor, without my child wailing because I am leaving.

The chronic sleeplessness, the chronic feeling that sleeplessness is making me a shitty parent.

The look of fear on my child’s face when I suddenly snap and lose my temper; the satisfaction of losing my temper; the immediate rush of guilt afterwards; the many broken items in my wake.

The loss of identity, loss of autonomy, slow death of untended relationships, sacrifice of career.

The constant demand for attention, the always being-needed.

The frightening realization of just how easily I can be worn down by whining, complaining, and backtalking.

The surprise of just how much a 3-year-old’s careless and ignorant words can hurt.

The tiredness in my very bones.

Being confronted by the ugliest parts of my heart; my need for control, my anger, my deficit of Every. Single. Fruit of the Spirit.

Yes, this is part of my parenting reality… but it’s not the whole truth. I got the chance (bless my husband) to go sit by myself at a coffee shop on Mother’s Day, and I took the time to write in the journals we keep for both kids.

God began to show me that I am indeed a different woman than I was before I gave birth… and that’s exactly how He intends it. He helped me see all the things I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t have kids.

The incredible gift of growing and birthing new life.

The indescribable feeling of being the one and only source of nourishment a newborn baby needs.

20 unbelievably tiny toes; 20 chubby fingers; the pattern the blood vessels make on the inside of Isabella’s ears; the faint birthmark on Barrett’s side.

Nursing smiles.

The glorious feeling of a baby breathing deeply, sleeping soundly, wrapped on my chest as I sing and worship.

The sweet feeling of a small head resting heavily between my shoulder blades, riding on my back as I hike.

Seeing eyes light up or arms flap happily, hearing gleeful shouts of “Mommy!” when I walk into a room.

First steps, first words, first everythings.

Hearing my daughter cheerfully, and of her own volition, recite to me the little incantation of love I have always said to her, “I love you higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, and bigger than the skies!”

The surprise of just how many beautiful, clever, hilarious, stunningly insightful things a 3-year-old says during the course of a single day.

Cooking dinner to a backdrop of the loud, joyful chaos of giggling, shrieking, chasing, and playing; a home full of wild happiness.

Being confronted by the ugliest parts of my heart; my need for control, my anger, my deficit of Every. Single. Fruit of the Spirit. Dealing with it, and allowing it to change me. Where I was inflexible, closed off, and stubborn, I am softening, opening, yielding.

Isabella and BarrettHad I not had children, I would never have had to deal with the tough stuff… but I never would have known the beauty I was missing, nor the power to become better, become transformed. The truth is that parenting is hard. REALLY hard, and messy. It is also dazzling and magnificent and FUN. Like any journey worth taking, parenting is made up of many small moments. Some of them suck. Some of them are amazing. Strung together, they are the stuff life is made of.

I suppose if I had the chance to answer my friend over again, I would say:

Sometimes. Usually I like it… sometimes I love it, and sometimes I don’t.

And that’s ok.

On My Most Urgent Prayer

Parenting is my crucible. How immensely rewarding and reworking and relentless it is. How huge is the responsibility of tending two tiny humans, day in and day out, again and again, without stopping, like the waves upon the shore.

I stand in The Here and Now, keenly aware of how my words and actions will ripple through days, months, years, decades, as these small people grow into big ones, complex and independent, with relationships and big plans and influence of their own.

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And I tremble at the massive weight of this. I live in fear that my lack of constancy should teach them more than my rare glimmering moments of self-control. After all, children remember what we said less that how we said it, how we lived it.

Oh, I tremble.

So when the baby is screaming, the toddler whining, the pressure building, when I feel trapped by the tedium of it all, this is my prayer:

Thank you, thank you, thank you for trusting my slipshod self with this beloved girl and beautiful boy, and help me, help me, help me do this right.

Though I feel laden, they are no burden; caring for these little hearts is a privilege.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Help me, help me, help me.

On Living in the Trenches

Our baby boy arrived on April 15th, nearly 5 weeks ago. It feels like yesterday, it feels like eternity ago, it feels like he’s been here the whole time. Our family feels complete, and my heart is full. Isabella taught me how to love unconditionally, and now I love without struggle.

Everything is so different this time. Where the first 6 weeks with Isabella were a fog of numbness and depression, I’ve felt (mostly) happy, present, and balanced this time around. I’m head over heels in love with this little boy.

So it’s hard to explain why I’m still ticking off the days till the baby stage is over.

When I go out with the kids, Isabella walking by my side and little Barrett snuggled on my chest in a sling or a wrap, people notice. And I grit my teeth every time they do.

I avoid eye contact with the little old lady at the grocery store who slowly wanders my way. I keep my eyes straight ahead on walks, ignoring the woman who looks towards me with congratulations on the tip of her tongue. I pretend I don’t hear the  bank teller’s hushed-but-loud-enough-I’m-obviously-intended-to-hear-them comments, “What a cute baby!” and “Aww, so tiny!”

Usually the well-meaning interluders are older women who miss having little ones, or younger women whose children are just old enough that they’ve forgotten the hard parts about having a baby. Or, maybe they just genuinely loved the baby stage. It’s been well-established on this blog that I am not one of those women.

When people look at me knowingly with a smile on their face, I think most of them are imagining that my day-to-day experience (though challenging, certainly) is an idyllic baby paradise that looks just like a Johnson & Johnson commercial, where my infant and I stare deeply into one another’s eyes and smile and bond, and soft light pours in through a window, and I have showered within the last 7 days.

But this is what it’s really like:

I’m living in the trenches. It’s warfare, and I’m just keeping my head down and trying to make it through the day. And yeah, it’s been a while since I bathed. At least I’m alive.

Don’t get me wrong- I couldn’t possibly love this little dude more. I’m crazy about Barrett and Isabella. Before I had kids, I didn’t know you could love someone – someone so little and helpless who can reciprocate nothing – so damn much.

Parenting babies is my refining fire, a blaze I cannot put out. It makes me better, stronger, yes. But the process brings my every heinous imperfection to the surface. It’s valuable but it’s also painful, ugly, and really, really hard.

We fought for a noble purpose in World War II, but the reality on the ground was muddy and bloody and perilous.

 

I genuinely appreciate congratulatory comments from people who actually know me, even if they don’t understand what it’s like for me. But what I appreciate even more is when fellow soldiers say “hang in there,” or “me too, mama.” I love when veteran parents tell me “you’re doing great,” and “keep fighting, it’s worth it, I promise.”

I don’t need pressure to enjoy every single second because it “goes so fast,” or stories about how much worse it will be when they’re teenagers. I need validation, commiseration, and the assurance that it eventually gets better.

I can’t be the only one. Caring for a newborn, working a terrible job, getting through the semester, going through counseling… Who else is in the trenches with me?

We’ll get out eventually. We will.

On Teaching Toddlers to Own Their Bodies

Adults behave curiously around small children. It’s something I’ve noticed since having my own child, and it’s a mixed bag. I appreciate when people kneel down to speak to Isabella on her level; I understand when people change their tone of voice; I don’t mind when people ignore me and address their conversation to her.

What I can’t understand is why adults would treat a child in a way that they wouldn’t dream of treating a fellow adult. People get inches from her face, freely touch her, and fail to interpret basic body language. Many people don’t seem to think twice about expressing physical affection with a child who is a complete stranger, as if children were public property.

I suspect this happens to most children but I feel like this happens a lot with Isabella. I’m definitely biased, but her remarkable cuteness invites attention from people nearly everywhere we go.

A few weeks ago, we were at a social event with friends and acquaintances, most of whom recognize Izzy but don’t really have a relationship with her. At one point while I was holding her, a man at the party came up and said hello to her. She did the usual tuck-my-head-into-mommy’s-neck-and-glower-warily-at-stranger move. He tickled her ribs and gently teased her about being shy, and she cuddled hard into me. (If you have kids you know the move- when they tuck their legs up tight and try to make themselves disappear into you.) When he tried a couple more times, she finally said, “No! Stop!” several times, quietly but forcefully. He playfully poked her a few more times before I wrapped my free arm around her and turned away, mumbling something about how she was overstimulated.

That night I couldn’t stop thinking about this incident. I feel a little bad writing about it because the guy is a friend that we know and trust, and I know that he had the purest of intentions- to interact and play with my daughter. But I felt bothered that he – like nearly every adult we encounter – had no sense of boundaries and completely failed to read Isabella’s basic body language and even her clear words.

What bothered me more was that I failed to enforce Isabella’s comfort zone when she wasn’t able to do it herself. In that moment, I chose to help him save face instead of protect my daughter. It doesn’t matter that an adult isn’t doing anything wrong, it matters that Isabella feels uncomfortable or unsafe. And because I was afraid of offending this person, I didn’t do my job.

You might think, what’s the big deal? It’s just a little innocent tickling. She’s fine.

We’re going to get deep here, but just for a second. Not many people know this about me, but I was sexually abused for many years as a kid. I’ve gone through intensive therapy and inner healing and today I’m really and truly whole. But because of my experience, I’m extremely protective of my child.

We’ve all heard the stats- 1 of every 4 girls will be molested by the age of 18. I was. My daughter will not be.

Because we can’t be with our children all the time, it’s important to be intentional about teaching them to protect themselves. Children’s brains are hard-wired during the early years, and every experience shapes their behavoir and how they relate to the world.

I think the first and most basic thing you can do with young kids is teach them that they have ownership over their own bodies. How do you do that?

1. Respect their boundaries during physical play

Most of us can easily tell the difference between a playful “stop, haha!” and a serious “stop!” while tickling or roughhousing. When they seriously ask you to stop, stop. She needs to know that she has the power to accept or reject physical affection from anyone. A playful poke might not seem like a big deal to us, but it can be a huge violation of trust to a child.

2. Respect their boundaries when giving affection

I’ll admit that it’s not always easy for Stephen and I. We’re both very affectionate people and we love to love on our little girl. But when she pushes me away when I try to kiss her cheek, or says, “No, down,” when Stephen scoops her up for a hug, we listen. As a trusted adult, your child looks to you to help establish and enforce her boundaries. Remember, just because that cute little kid is too little to physically prevent you from tickling them, kissing them, or picking them up, that doesn’t mean it’s ok for you to do it.

3. Hold them to the same expectations

Isabella stopped nursing a few months ago, and she still absentmindedly pulls at my shirt or feels my chest. When she does it, I gently but firmly tell her, “I don’t like it when you pull my shirt down.” When she climbs on my lap and jams her elbow into my pregnant belly, I stifle a yelp and remind her “That hurt me. I’d love to have you on my lap, but only if you can sit still.”

4. Employ non-physical consequences

There are times when I have to forcibly remove Isabella from a location, but whenever possible, I give her the option to remove herself, and she usually does. Stephen and I, for a variety of reasons, don’t use spanking or any other kind of corporal punishment. One reason is that I think this sends the child a message that their body doesn’t belong to them; it tells them that a violation of physical boundaries by an authority figure is an appropriate consequence for misbehavior. This is especially powerful considering that the vast majority of child molesters are adults who are in a position of trust and authority in a child’s life.

5. Use anatomically correct terminology

If you exhibit a comfort level with the correct words for the human body, children will naturally develop a comfort level with their own body. More importantly, child molesters are not going to talk to your daughter about her vagina. If she starts calling it a cupcake, you’ve got some investigating to do.

6. Teach about appropriate and necessary touch

Obviously, there are times when genuine necessity trumps a child’s objections, like diaper changes and doctor visits. Certain people in certain situations will have to touch your child even if it makes him uncomfortable. Now is a great time to start discussing these necessities and laying out the appropriate circumstances for them to occur. For instance, it’s ok for a doctor to touch you at the doctor’s office when mommy or daddy is with you. It’s not ok for an adult to take you to a room alone and “play doctor.”

 

I couldn’t get the incident at that party out of my head, because I feel like I failed. In the grand scheme of things, that one moment isn’t going to have a huge long-term impact, but realizing that every experience shapes a young child’s understanding of her world, it made me want to get a little more serious about teaching Isabella that her body belongs to her. Period. Even if it offends an adult.

Even if you don’t have your own kids, you can still help to instill this sense of body ownership. When interacting with a little one, follow the same unwritten social rules you would with an adult: give them some space; watch their body language and facial expressions; don’t dismiss their words, (no matter how cute they sound); show them respect and respond to their cues.

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