The Thing I Thought I Couldn’t Do

I’ve been thinking a lot about bravery lately. Bravery, and all the forms it takes. You see, “brave” isn’t the same thing for everyone. Just like our fears and anxieties are all different, finding courage to face them means something different for every person.

For some people, being brave means facing tangible fears — like snakes or spiders or the dark. For others, being brave means waking up each morning and facing the day — when all your depression wants you to do is stay in bed and hide from the world.

For others … well, for me … it’s about facing things that still bring me a deep sense of grief and anxiety. Like being out in public on Mother’s Day and seeing all the happy moms and their happy kids going to church, eating brunch or playing in the sun. And, this week, it was about visiting family at the hospital where Penelope Joy was born, where she lived and where she died.

It took me nearly a week to offer a visit. Not because I didn’t want to. As soon as I heard they would be at the hospital, all I wanted to do was to rush there and hug them and be there for them. But I couldn’t do it. There are still days when I avoid the road the hospital’s on because I can feel the weight of the air caving in on my chest as we left the hospital for the last time with only a plastic bag of Penelope Joy’s things.

I knew the day was coming that I’d need to face the trauma, to look it in the face and say “hello again.” And, finally, after talking about it with Mr. B for over a week, and with my therapist, I was able to take the first step and reach out for a visit. The whole time, telling myself I had the freedom to turn around at any point if I had to.

As I pulled into the parking deck, slowly circling down … down … down, the last time I’d been in that parking garage nearly three years ago flashed in front of my face. I parked, got out of the car and looked down, realizing my whole body was shaking with the anxiety of what was coming.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

The elevator ride up out of the parking level was full of heavy, deep calming breaths and some tears. I stepped off the elevator and sat in the chairs before making my way over the bridge to the hospital. Everything came back to me: the long, sleepless nights; the desperate prayers over Penelope Joy’s bed; the early (early) morning calls from the hospital to “get here as soon as you can”; and, finally, the last story, the last good-bye.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

When I had collected my thoughts, and myself, I made my way to the hospital to get my visitor’s badge and head up to the NICU to see my family and meet the precious Baby E for the first time.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

“Have you ever been here before?” as the man at the NICU check-in counter.

“My baby lived here for a while a few years ago,” I wanted to say. “Then she lived upstairs for a few weeks. Then she died.” But I couldn’t bring myself to tell the whole story. Not that day.

“I haven’t visited her yet,” is what I actually said. He directed me to the hand-washing station. And in I went.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

The smell of the soap almost sent me right back through the door. The memories it brought with it too much to face. But I went on.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Then … I walked in their room. And my cousin was holding his gorgeous baby girl. The love in that room took away all those dark, scary memories I was holding onto and replaced them, at least temporarily, with every single happy, beautiful, good memory that we had there with Penelope Joy. From the first time we held her to the day they took all her tubes out because she was in such a good place, from the doctors and nurses who became our family to the prayers and love we received from all over the world. And, finally, my heart was filled with all of the people who came to meet our little miracle baby and filled our room with such light and hope.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

It wasn’t a long visit, but it was an important visit. Because I was reminded of the difference a little love can make in the middle of a scary situation. And I was reminded that bravery and courage come in all forms.

Sometimes it’s a mom and dad waking up and going to the hospital morning after morning, not knowing what kind of day is in store for their little baby — but they do it with tentative smiles and extravagant love because that’s what their daughter needs from them, and that’s what’s going to get them through.

And, sometimes it’s a grieving mom doing the one thing she didn’t know she could do — because that’s what family is for.

I won’t say there were no sad tears as I drove home after the visit. Because there were a lot of them. But, they were healthy tears and, in a way, much-needed tears. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to drive past the hospital without thinking of Penelope Joy. But, I hope one day the happy memories of her life we shared there will come flooding over me more often than the sad ones.

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Living Life on Purpose

I’ve been thinking a lot about Purpose lately. I follow a lot of amazingly creative and inspirational women on various social media channels. (OK, Instagram. Mostly Instagram.) And many of them have one thing in common: they quit their day jobs to pursue their Ultimate Purpose. They threw caution to the wind, took a leap of faith and … they’re just doing it. And so many of them are killing it.

It’s not just on Instagram, though, it’s everywhere. It seems like everywhere I turn, there’s a new podcast or blog or book inspiring people to live their Purpose. To stop what they’re doing if it isn’t their True Calling, their Purpose, in order to do something that fills their soul and their whole being.

It can be contagious. Some days I listen to some of these podcasts and feel so inspired and driven to do something more — something bigger with my life.

Other days, though, it makes me feel so … inadequate. Like I’m some kind of failure because I’m not actively seeking, discovering and living my Purpose. This “push toward Purpose” makes me feel like I’m not doing enough with my life. Like I am not enough.

But, when I think about it, when I really, really think about it, I know that the life I’m living is fulfilling my Purpose. Because I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now.

I don’t think Purpose is one thing; I think it is all things.

It’s not fair to expect one area of my life to provide everything my soul  needs to feel fulfilled, to live with Purpose. From my job to my family to my volunteer work — expecting one area of my life to fill my entire mind, body and soul with Purpose puts an awful lot of pressure on it.

Instead, I’m learning to think of my Purpose as my life, as a whole. It is in how I live every day. It is in what I put out into the world. It is in my work ethic, my dedication and the way I interact with others at work; it is in my passion, my open arms and my unending love at home; it is in my commitment, my time and my generosity when volunteering.

It is in finding the pieces of all areas of my life that make my soul come alive — at work, at home and everywhere I go. Because that is what the world needs: people passionately living their lives in ways that make them come alive — and sharing that spark with others. That is Purpose.

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On Assignment

Timehop tells me it’s been eight years this year since I graduated from my master’s program. That means it’s been eight years since I’ve had homework.

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And, yet, here I sit: on assignment.

I’m writing this because my therapist told me to. Well, he didn’t specifically say what to write. And he didn’t tell me to write a blog post. He simply said, “write.”

“I don’t care what you write. Just take an hour, by yourself, and write. It might be hard, and you might not write anything. But you need to get back into it.” 

So, at 11 a.m. today, Mr. B — my ever-supportive (sometimes annoyingly so) husband — kicked me out of the house and told me not to come back until I had an uninterrupted hour of time. And, apparently, he wasn’t willing to include drive-time in that hour, either.

My first session with J was on Monday. I’ve done therapy before — twice, actually — for a couple of different seasons in my life. But it was never anything that I thought was particularly life-changing. And it never lasted. After just one session with J, I think I know the reason: I hadn’t met the right therapist yet.

After just an hour with J, he’s pretty well figured me out — well, at least figured out how my mind operates and how I need to do things. At the end of the get-to-know-you, why-did-you-call-me session, he asked me what I would need to have accomplished at the end of our time together (whether it’s two months or six months or a year …) to know it’s been a success. Together we set three very measurable, very realistic goals.

And from those goals came my weekly “homework” assignments. This week’s? Make time for myself to write.

It’s not that I don’t want to write. I actually really, really do. And I miss snuggling up with my computer, the romantic glow of the screen keeping me company while I drink green tea and type whatever words happen to be at the top of my mind that morning … or noon … or night. It’s just that I’ve been struggling to make it a priority.

You guys are probably pretty sick of all of my blog posts about trying to make time for myself, about filling my cup before I can fill the cups of others. But it’s all I’ve got right now. This is the season I’m in. And as I sit here writing, listening to the buzz of the coffee shop around me, I’m beginning to think I know why it’s so hard for me — or at least part of the reason.

I don’t want to miss a thing with Dottie Lou. Not a single thing. No mom does; no dad does. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the world for working parents — whether they have to work or they choose to work, or both. For me, I think there’s even more to it than that.

I’m still carrying with me the grief of all of the experiences we missed with Penelope Joy, and the fear of missing out on one of Dottie’s milestones keeps me as close to her as possible whenever it’s in my control. There are days I still cry when I drop her off at daycare — even though I know she’s loved and welcomed as one of their own children. There are nights I cry to Mr. B because I miss Dottie so much during the day.

While Dottie goes in and out of stages of separation anxiety — when all she wants is me — I’m experiencing separation anxiety of my own. It’s hard enough to leave her during the day while I work, but to take extra time alone in the evenings and on the weekend is really difficult. And the thought of leaving her overnight causes me pretty bad anxiety — even if I want to go on the trip. Because every time I think about the possibility of missing something with Dottie, the wounds of Penelope Joy’s loss feel so fresh.

As J and I settle in to our relationship, I’m certain we’ll be working on these — and so many other — issues associated with Penelope Joy’s and my dad’s deaths. The grief? It will always be there. Because that’s how grief works — it’s a constant (sometimes gentle, sometimes not) reminder that we have loved; that we have lost. But I need to find ways to deal with Grief’s friends, Anxiety and Fear.

Writing helps.

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When Nothing Goes As Planned

As our Sunday winds down, with Mr. B and me hanging out on the back porch reading and writing to the glow of citronella candles, I can’t help but feel like we just experienced a life-affirming weekend.

It didn’t start out that way. Far from it, actually. Wednesday afternoon, Dottie Lou came down with a fever — which progressively got worse, topping out about about 103.4 Wednesday evening. After a sleepless night for Dottie and Mama, Thursday morning, we took her to the doctor, though by then her fever was gone and she was acting like her normal self. The doctor couldn’t see anything really wrong with her and sent us on our way.

By Thursday afternoon/evening, the fever was back. Bringing with it screams and cries and moans. My poor baby was in horrible pain — but from what, we couldn’t tell. After dealing with just over an hour of ceaseless screams, we called the nurse line at the pediatrician’s office. They couldn’t offer much because Dorothy didn’t have any other symptoms, and the fever was controlled with Motrin.

Poor Dottie slept a total of about five minutes that night. Mama, too, as Dottie thrashed and kicked and screamed. But Friday morning, she woke up — again — fever-free and happy as her normal self. At this point, I was super confused. Until I buckled her in to her car seat. That’s when I saw a few red spots on her hands and a couple on her feet. A quick trip to the doctor’s walk-in clinic hours confirmed it: hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

No daycare. And no work for Mama. We pretty much quarantined ourselves in the house all day Friday — with me washing my hands often enough that they got pretty raw. My attitude found itself a little on the raw side, too, as I cursed hand-foot-and-mouth for taking away the wondrous weekend I had in my mind. Running errands, hanging out at the park, shopping for a few wants I had, tackling a springtime to-do list. This weekend, like a lot of others, was pretty much planned out before it even started.

But hand-foot-and-mouth wiped the slate clean, as we found ourselves pretty much stuck to our little corner of the earth — trying to keep Dottie from exposing any other kids to this nasty sickness.

And, you know what? This has been one of my most favorite weekends in recent memory.

Friday after work Mr. B and I took Dottie to a local hiking trail, where we knew we could avoid running into anyone or touching any surfaces someone else might later touch. We put Dottie on the ground and let her roam free. She made it about 50 feet before she sat down and started digging in the dirt with her hands, followed by some running through the crunchy leaves. And, she was so very happy.

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It wasn’t a long trip because Dottie tired quickly. But, it was a good bit of fresh air that she and I both needed.

And, Saturday, with nothing to do, we finally put up Dottie’s swing set and filled her sandbox. We spent much of the day alternating between the warmth and sunshine of our backyard and the cool protection of our home. We went at Dottie’s pace and just enjoyed ourselves — no agendas, no to-do lists, no plans. I couldn’t stop feeling like I was on a different planet, looking at my life from the outside. I felt my life’s purpose being refreshed before my eyes. Dottie was happy. I was happy. Life was — life is — good.

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Today was much the same. Though we had intended to go to church, I felt it was best to keep Dottie away from other kiddos still. So, we hung out, had a picnic lunch and just spent time enjoying each other’s company. Dottie learned lots of new things, like how to get on the back porch without any help, how to peek under the fence at the neighbor’s dog and how to drive Mama crazy by repeating the same phrase over and over (and over and over), knowing that Mama couldn’t figure out what she was actually saying.

We topped off the weekend by sharing with Dottie one of our favorite things about spring- and summertime in Michigan: the return of the ice cream shops.

Being without a plan and without a to-do list tends to throw my world into chaos. I like things in front of me so I can see them, anticipate them and then anticipate what I can do if something goes wrong.

Life has been really great about trying to teach me that I really don’t have any control over anything — in big ways and small ways. Thankfully, hand-foot-and-mouth — though not fun and definitely painful for Dottie Lou — is a pretty small thing in the grand scheme of life.

So, I find myself, sitting here on the back porch, watching the candles dance in the breeze, feeling really thankful for the blessing in disguise this weekend. This “quarantine” forced me to focus — really focus— on what’s really important. And I’m going into this new week feeling refreshed and renewed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have this week’s planner calling my name — those to-do lists won’t write themselves!

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True Confessions: ‘Me’ Time Edition

True confession: I still struggle — a lot — to make time for myself. It’s funny in the not-so-funny-way that ridiculous things are because I’m the first person to tell a friend to take time for herself. I’ve been known to say “you’re a better wife/mother/employee/etc. when you make yourself a priority.” And, even, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Why, then, is it so very hard for me to take my own advice?

It’s not because I have an unsupportive husband. Rather, it’s quite the opposite. Mr. B consistently encourages me — sometimes even “forces” me — to take time for myself. And it’s not because I have a lack of things I’d like to do: I miss running; I love reading at a coffee shop while drinking a mug of green tea; I enjoy taking long walks and listening to nature; I regularly wish I had more time for writing; and I have some really great friends I don’t spend enough time with.

A big part of it is that I so love being with my family. I’d choose a night chasing Dottie around the playground, followed by hanging out with Mr. B on the couch over a night out any day of the week. They’re my happy place; they make my soul come alive.

Part of it is guilt. I’m away from Dottie — and Mr. B — every day all day long while I work. By the time I get home after picking Dottie up from daycare it’s 6, if not shortly after. Then, we eat dinner. That leaves us with about an hour to play, wind down and get ready to put Dottie down for bed. We’re pretty well limited to the weekends to squeeze in as much family time as we can. Every second we have together is precious.

I wrote earlier this year about finding my “fringe hours” in order to better fill my cup with things that fulfill me. As you can see, I’m still struggling with it. Yes, my family fulfills me — but there are other things that are equally important to making me … well … me. 

I’m s…l…o…w…l…y getting there, with Mr. B’s gentle (but sometimes not-so-gentle) urging. The other night I went to a concert I’ve pretty much been waiting 20 years to see: Ani DiFranco.* When Ani walked on stage, I actually got chills. As the night went on, I felt myself come alive. That part of me has been in hibernation a long time, and I was so happy to welcome her back.

That night was a reminder that I am a person outside of my family, outside of my job. It was a reminder that every part of me works together to make myself whole — that includes the part that’s a mom and a wife. It also includes the part of me that sometimes likes to sit at a bookstore with my laptop, a cup of tea and no interruptions. It even includes the part that likes to dance the night away.

Does that mean the guilt magically disappeared? Or that I’d suddenly rather go out than rock my screaming toddler until she falls asleep before spending the evening on the couch with Mr. B?

No. It doesn’t. I am a work in progress — we all are. But, I’ve already felt the changes that one night out made. I can only imagine how I’d feel if I could squeeze out a little time here and there to fill my proverbial cup.

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*I should note that I never would have gone to the concert if Mr. B hadn’t bought the ticket for me and followed it up by literally pushing me out the door Sunday night.

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Some Thoughts on Breastfeeding

Feeding Dottie

Breastfeeding Dottie: newborn, 6 months, 1 year

I’ve had this photo sitting in a folder on my desktop for a number of days, but I’ve been hesitant to post it. Breastfeeding is a very natural — but very personal — thing. It also can be a sensitive topic: some women choose not to breastfeed; some women cannot breastfeed; some women breastfeed for 1 month or 6 months or 12 months or 36 months. That it every woman’s personal decision and right — and I respect that.

What I’m about to say in no way refers to anyone’s story other than my own. It casts no judgments and makes no assumptions. What I’m about to say is only about me and my experience. It is my breastfeeding story.

And it starts with Penelope Joy.

When I had Penelope Joy and we found out she had even more birth defects and complications than we could have imagined, I was heart broken — for a number of reasons. When we said “hello” and welcomed Penelope Joy into the world, we said “good-bye” to a lot of our ideas about what it meant to have our first child, what it meant to be parents.

One of the things I was most looking forward to was breastfeeding my baby girl. And then … I couldn’t. Due to her condition and to her nonexistent immune system, we were told she would need to receive special formula. Then, we found out she could receive breast milk — as long as my blood tests remained CMV negative every week. It wasn’t the “breastfeeding” I had in mind, but at least I’d be able to provide for her. This is what my first breastfeeding experience looked like:

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At least, that’s what it looked like until she got too sick and couldn’t have my milk anymore. And, let me tell ya, having to pump milk for a baby who couldn’t have it — and then who was dead — was difficult and, honestly, pretty emotionally scarring. I spent a lot of hours crying while I was hooked up to a pump so I could avoid engorgement. Even writing about it right now brings tears to my eyes.

So, to say that it was important for me to breastfeed Dottie would be an understatement. When she was born, she snuggled right up to me and was nursing within the first several minutes.

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But our breastfeeding relationship hasn’t always been as easy as it was on day one. Once it was time for me to think about heading back to work, I started pumping. I didn’t respond super well to the pump, though, and I didn’t start pumping soon enough. When I went back to work, I barely had any stock in the freezer.

Pretty much from that first week back, I was barely keeping up with Dottie’s demand — what I pumped at work on Monday, she ate on Tuesday. Any stock I built up over the weekends she’d eat throughout the following week and I’d be back at square one before Friday rolled around. In addition, I was driving to daycare on my lunch hour to breastfeed.

It was exhausting — I felt like a poorly performing milk machine. There were days I called Mr. B on the way home from work crying because I had no milk for Dottie for the next day. And we could pretty much throw out any ideas of a date night out without Dottie because I had no milk to leave with a babysitter.

I felt like I was doing it wrong because people don’t talk about how hard it can be. We’re constantly told how natural and beautiful and amazing it is to breastfeed. But women seldom talk about how it feels when it’s not going well, when you feel like your body isn’t doing the one thing it’s supposed to be doing. There were a lot of days that I felt like a failure. I cried a lot — morning, noon and night … especially night … and morning.

Once we introduced Dottie to solid foods, things started to get a little more relaxed. But, she still was having bottles throughout the day and I had a hard time keeping up with her needs. I’ve just recently stopped pumping milk for her. (I kept saying “this is my last week pumping” and then continued for another week.) It’s been bittersweet.

Pumping while working full-time is a lot of work, but I’ve felt proud to provide Dottie with her main source of nutrition — even when it’s been hard. In fact, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my whole life. Dottie’s still nursing in the mornings before work, in the evenings, before bed, on the weekends and sometimes through the night. And I’ll continue to breastfeed her as long as she wants — knowing her, she’ll be very clear in telling me she’s ready to stop.

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Drink the Good Wine

The other day I came home after a trying day and wanted a glass of wine. In fact, I had been very much looking forward to it. Mr. B offered to pour me a glass — but not before I told him not to open “the good wine” because I was saving it for Company.

Instead, he opened a bottle of some wine we’d bought on vacation that neither one of us could remember (the wine, that is — we both remembered the vacation). He poured us both a glass. And, the wine was not good. At all. Down the drain it went.

So, he opened a second bottle that we’d purchased some time back — a wine I knew wasn’t great, but the only other red we had was our “good” stuff. And, well, still saving that good stuff for Company. (Who is this Company person who is so important, anyway? I do not know.)

The second glass of wine followed that first glass right down the drain. And the rest of the bottle followed — I didn’t even want it around to cook with. (Because, let’s be honest, when I say I cook with wine, I really mean I enjoy a glass while I’m cooking.)

The whole situation got me thinking, though. Why do I always save the good wine for Company? (A. we never have Company and B. it’s my wine — I should be able to drink a glass if I want.)

And then I thought some more: I always make sure our house is clean for Company. And I have good snacks for Company. And I light candles for Company.

Seriously?! Who is this “Company” and why does she get everything nice? I was starting to get super annoyed with myself.

Last night, though, I decided something: I’m not waiting for Company any more. I’m going to drink the good wine. And eat the good snacks. And light myself a dang candle every now and again. And I’m going to do a better job of think about picking up the house for me and my family.

Because, let’s face it,  life is short. And I’m worth it. I’m going to drink the good wine.

Mr and Mrs B wine

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