Smiles in the darkness #WorldSuicidePreventionDay

Trigger warning: This blog post explores a previous experience of suicidal feelings. If this triggers in you anything that causes you anxiety or poses a danger, please seek help now. The following may be helpful:

The Samaritans: 116 123
NHS advice on feeling suicidal
Mind


Feeling suicidal but don’t want to die.

Two years ago, that was the Google search that may have saved my life.

This isn’t a comfortable post to write. It’s taken me a long time to commit words to the screen. But I decided months ago that I must share this, because it might save another life too.

It started in early 2017. I was pregnant with my third child, and I caught a cold. The cold got worse, and I became quite unwell with a chest infection. I ploughed on with life and, being heavily pregnant as well as unwell, became absolutely exhausted.

I recovered just in time for Emily’s birth, and the following weeks were riddled with minor health issues for her as well as me. I was trying to care for a newborn who needed several hospital trips – two of which were emergency appointments – as well as a toddler and pre-schooler at home. I was missing my pre-baby life, as I suspect most mums do in those first few weeks of overflowing milk and poo, screaming and soreness. Despite being on maternity leave, I was still doing an significant amount of work – the parts of ministry I was committed to and enjoyed – but under some pressure to prove to myself that I could still juggle these multiple vocations of motherhood and ministry. I was grieving the loss of a close friendship, and dreading the Autumn days when I would commit my first baby to the state education system as he started school.

Loss on loss, with little time or energy to give these things the headspace they needed.

I started to feel low, and the cloud didn’t lift. I was no stranger to post-natal depression, but this time I was fighting it. I had no more patience for illness. No more time for myself. I thought that if I ignored it, it would go away. I felt ashamed of the darkness that surrounded me: as someone who gives a great deal of time to the wellbeing of others, how could I admit that I was struggling so much?

So I didn’t say anything. I struggled on with good days and bad days. I hid it well, from everyone except Jim.

And then the intrusive thoughts started. At first I could brush them off. Then I found I couldn’t. Then I felt really, really frightened.

I always thought that feeling suicidal meant that a person would have no fear of death, and no regrets about taking their life. That wasn’t how I felt. I felt mixed up, confused, longing for life but convinced life would be better without me. It was the thought of my kids, and them alone, that was enough, some days. I didn’t want to die, but I did want to end it all. I felt stuck between the two parts of myself.

I thought that if I was really suicidal, if I was really that ill, then even the thought of the kids wouldn’t be enough to stop me. I thought that if I was really struggling with life, then thoughts of ending it all would overrule any desire to keep living. But then I was terrified that the less rational part of my mind might win over in a few fateful moments. I made plans, I felt myself going numb, I was terrified.

And one night, after an awful day, I sat on my bed and did that Google search. Just to prove to myself that I wasn’t really that unwell.

Feeling suicidal but don’t want to die.

Because that is how I felt.

And I discovered, from Mind or the Samaritans or the NHS – I forget which – that people who are at risk of suicide often don’t want to die. They have reasons to stay alive, but things just get too painful, too overwhelming, too difficult to go on. And I knew that’s where I was headed.

It was a red flag that sobered my depression in a moment. That night I got help. It took time to recover, but I did.

These photos were all taken when I was unwell, before I asked for help. This is what someone who is having suicidal thoughts looks like.

We are all different. Many of us will struggle with our mental health, and these struggles will be unique and different for each of us. But I am writing this for three reasons.

Firstly: The power of story. I think most people know me as someone cheerful, upbeat, calm and happy. There were few outward signs of how unwell I was. I have an amazingly wonderful life, with gorgeous family and wonderful friends and a fulfilling job. If I can be as unwell as I was, then anyone can. Depression doesn’t discriminate. If you’re struggling – get help. Tell someone. Take it seriously. If I can talk about it like this, then you can too.

Secondly: For me, feeling suicidal didn’t feel as I expected it to feel. For a time, things got dangerous, and all because I didn’t recognise the warning signs in myself quickly enough. I didn’t phone the helplines because I didn’t think I was that ill. Until I started to enact a plan to end it all, by which point all rational thought was out the window, at least momentarily. The moment ending your own life even enters your mind is the moment to get help, with no shame attached.

Thirdly: No amount of “My door is always open: I’m here for you” Facebook posts would have helped. I know people genuinely mean them and I think it’s right to share them. But what stopped me speaking out was the stigma that is still attached to poor mental health. Things are shifting, but it still doesn’t feel safe to say that you are having thoughts about taking your own life – I’m guessing that would be something of a conversation stopper! And the only way to change this is to take a deep breath and change it. The more of us who talk about our experiences of depression and mental illness, the more we will bring about a culture change. As well as sharing how willing we are to listen to the issues of another, we need a culture of increased honesty and openness about our own struggles, our own depressive moments, our own dark thoughts.

I’m not writing this for sympathy, or to shock. There were a million reasons for me to bury this experience and never speak of it again. But it is because of those reasons – because of the roles I have and the positions I hold – that I have to speak about this. It might shock you to know that I felt like this, for a time. I hope one day that our honesty about our mental health – in good times and bad – will not shock, but be received in the same way that talk of physical health is received. Until then, this is my small contribution towards changing attitudes and normalising what is a common experience for so many of us.

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“There’s a volcano in my tummy”

There’s a volcano in my tummy. Apparently that’s a good phrase to help children describe the overwhelming, frightening feeling of uncontrollable, unquenchable anger. I like it. I use it with my kids. There is a book of the same name.

It seems that many of us adults too, have a volcano in our tummies. These volcanoes seem to erupt particularly in two areas: social media, and driving.

Take yesterday, for instance. I was walking down Park Road. Within 5 minutes I had witnessed two incidents of road rage. One directed by a middle-aged man at an elderly lady, who had slowed her manoeuvre to allow a pedestrian to cross. Another by a minibus driver, directed at a car who had slowed to turn into a side road (earning themselves an explosive “PRICK!” – I couldn’t really fathom why).

These sights are not untypical in an average 20 minute walk around here.

Or on social media. An incident of young people causing mischief was posted, again yesterday, on a local Facebook group. Within minutes, there were angry calls for punishment and retribution that went beyond reasonable – with some advocating a violent response.

These incidents are not unusual. Many of us will witness things like this several times a day.

Why is it that words and behaviour that are completely socially unacceptable suddenly become normalised when we sit behind a keyboard or a steering wheel? I mean, I don’t see many people careering around Tesco with a shopping trolley shouting “PRICK!” at little old ladies… (there is a wonderful Michael McIntyre sketch along these lines).

Lots of adult volcanos erupting.

There is a deeper, uncomfortable truth here.

Because there’s a volcano in my tummy too.

A burning anger that sometimes smoulders and other times rages white hot, but always there, buried, and ready to erupt and spew when another driver cuts me up on the road. Or, more honestly, when a driver blocks my safe passage on the pavement as a pedestrian. Hell hath no fury like a mum walking the school run amidst dangerous driving and parking…

I try and rein it in, and sometimes I even manage.

Why are so many of us so angry?

We shrug it off when it happens. Point a finger at the “prick” and console ourselves that we are the better driver, the more upright citizen. That we have a right to be angry – that the target of our anger has somehow deserved this violent outpouring of bile.

The truth is, my anger is not so righteous. Because if I chip away at it, I find not integrity and blamelessness, but a sense of entitlement (“it’s my right of way”, of possessiveness (“it’s my pavement”), and of selfishness (“my life would be safer if they were locked up”).

And then if I chip away another layer, I find, under the entitlement and possessiveness and selfishness, a well of pain that I have hidden away. Rejections. Disappointments. Fears. Disillusionment. All neatly stored, unprocessed and undealt with, and crusted over with a defensive, smouldering anger.

Anger becomes my defence mechanism. My way of shielding the painful parts of myself from the world around. Mostly I can hold it in and keep a lid on it. But sometimes it erupts – for many of us – from the driving seat or the computer screen.

If only we could say that this was a problem for online interaction and road safety. But if half of us are walking around, living day to day with these intense volcanoes, we are hardly an emotionally healthy and robust community of people.

“There’s a volcano in my tummy“, I encourage my kids to say. How many adults were never taught to handle their anger well? Anger is never comfortable to observe. As angry kids we shout and scream and slam and hit and screech and cry. And we’re told to pack it in! and be quiet! and STOP!.

So we bury it. Layer on layer. Hardened crust on hardened crust. We never learn to deal with it. Anger remains dangerous, taboo, frightening. It must be kept hidden and never shown.

But these crusted volcanoes have a nasty habit of showing themselves. The moment we feel ‘safe’ – stuck in our metal boxes-on-wheels or hiding behind a screen name, out spews the magma.

I wonder, what did people do 100 years ago – before cars and computers – to vent their anger?

Anger isn’t bad. It’s not unhealthy. Used well, it can be a creative force for justice and good. And yet unless we learn to harness it, process it, and then release it, it will always harness us. Anger management seems to be quite an enterprise. But perhaps we could just start by owning it, by talking about it.

No shame. No judgement. No guilt.

Just safe space to be honestly angry, or angrily honest, in an attempt to try and tame this most frightening of emotions.

There’s a volcano in my tummy, and there’s a volcano in your tummy. And that’s ok.

“As a mother tenderly gathers”: A toddler at the table

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church for Lent 2, Sunday 17th March 2019.


Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Jesus, Luke 13:34

Nothing has challenged my confidence as a priest more than when I had children. Before I had my first child, I was used to being able to give much of myself, and my time, to ministry. I am not saying that this was a healthy thing to do! But with few other responsibilities, I was able to DO so much more.

Once I returned to work, following my first period of maternity leave, my confidence became much more shaky. No longer could I give everything to parish ministry, because I had to give a significant amount of myself to being a parent. Perhaps it wouldn’t be possible to do both? I remember taking a very young Ben to visit another church, on one Sunday during my maternity leave. To my great embarrassment, the vicar of that church introduced us to everyone at the start of the service, with the words: “And we welcome Jenny and Ben who are visiting us today – you’ll know who they are because that’s who all the noise is coming from”. An innocent, throwaway (and I’m sure well-meaning) comment that left me feeling self-conscious for the rest of my time there. How could I be a priest and a parent if I couldn’t even keep my child inconspicuous when I wasn’t leading worship?!

Of course, my confidence grew over time, thanks in no small part to the encouragement, support, kind words and practical help from so many of you here. And you’ll know that in recent weeks I have often juggled leading worship here – preaching and presiding – with a very clingy but lively toddler in my arms, or at my side.

A few years ago, this would have been one of my worst nightmares: trying to function as a priest while also being needed as a mum. And that nagging voice of doubt would have hissed in my ear: “You can’t do both..!”.

That voice still nags, at times, but it was silenced for a while by a profound moment that happened here, some months ago now. We were halfway through a Communion service, and I was about to begin the Eucharistic Prayer. Throughout the service, despite having excellent and dedicated company in the children’s corner, Emily was starting to become unsettled, and needing her mum. Here I was, at the high point of our worship, about to perform the sacramental act which lies at the heart of priestly ministry: blessing the bread and the wine. And, purely practically, an act that would require both hands free!

And little Emily came running over, arms outstretched, crying to be held. A few years ago, that moment might have paralysed me. A clash of two vocations in a split second: who was I? A priest at the alter, or a parent with a child in her arms?

Knowing that the alternative was a very loud wail (Emily’s, not mine!) I picked her up, buried her inside my chasuble, and carried on into the Eucharistic Prayer. I turned the page of the service booklet, and as I prayed aloud the words I saw, I had a deep moment of grateful realisation. These were those words:

How wonderful the work of your hands, O Lord.
As a mother tenderly gathers her children,
you embraced a people as your own.
When they turned away and rebelled
your love remained steadfast.

Common Worship, Eucharistic Prayer G

This moment, which could have disrupted our worship or distracted us from God, instead became an enactment of the liturgy: as I gathered up a tired, clingy toddler, so God has gathered up people through history, and held them in tender embrace. The very thing that might have knocked my own priestly confidence a few years ago, became an embodiment of priestly ministry and divine action.

I’m sorry to share such a lengthy personal anecdote, but I hope it begins to open up the idea that God might not be who we assume God to be. That’s what happened for me, in that moment some months ago. And it’s what Luke does for us in this passage this morning. Here, God is the tender yet protective mother hen, gathering her brood under her wings. As Jesus watches over his city, and sees the pain, and the confusion, and the violence, he mourns for its hurting people as a mother mourns for her own hurting children.

It is this image of the Mother God that our communion liturgy picks up in the Eucharistic Prayer I mentioned above. It’s an image we find, too, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
   my Lord has forgotten me.’ 
Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
   or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
   yet I will not forget you. 
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.

Isaiah 49:14-16

I do want to be a bit careful here. No image of God is perfect. No image of God is complete. Anything that likens God to a father or a mother will be loaded with baggage for all of us. Some of us, particularly if we have had difficult life experiences and painful close relationships, may find these images unbearably painful.

If that’s the case, I hope the image of the mother hen might help us find a little distance from our own experiences of flawed, and perhaps painful, human parenting. Hens are feisty creatures aren’t they? When faced by predators they will gather their chicks underneath their wings, and peck furiously at whoever threatens them.

What an image for the God who likewise gathers us, her people, under the safety and security of her wings. The same God who wept over her people in the city of Jerusalem as she saw their pain.

The pain is no less for us. Each day brings new accounts of terror, violence, turmoil and disaster. And as Christ looked on Jerusalem, so God looks upon us. God weeps for her people, and longs to gather us to her.

One of the most frustrating moments of parenting is trying to comfort the weary toddler, intent on full-on meltdown because the world around has just become too much for them to absorb and still function. They arch their backs and kick away any attempt at embrace. So it was for the people of Christ’s Jerusalem.

…and you were not willing!

So it is for us.

As we journey through Lent, perhaps we can hear again this call to gather, together, under the shelter of God’s wings. I invite you, in the weeks to come, as the world looks typically hope-less, and we wonder where God is – to hold in your mind this image of God, the mother hen, gathering her chicks close and sheltering them as the predators prowl around us. May we be willing to seek refuge with God, and to find our place together, in the shelter of God’s wings.

Drop a ball. Smash a plate. It’s okay to be just “good enough”.

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When I drew this sketch I had no intention of showing it to anyone. Ever.

That was the beginning of this year. I was recently back to work after maternity leave, and for 6 months I had sat on the sidelines of my ministry and tended to our third child. It had been tough. I thought that being a mum third time around would be something I could do with my eyes closed. It wasn’t and I couldn’t.

I had planned to continue an element of my priestly ministry while on maternity leave. And to an extent, I did. I know some people question the wisdom of that decision. It’s one I took seriously and for me it was the right thing to do. But balancing these commitments with a failure to thrive baby, expecting “easy” and getting “tough”, led to something of an identity crisis.

Was I a bad mum for even trying to keep a part of my ministry going through these precious months?

Was I a bad priest for having a third baby? (yep – those irrational postnatal hormones were rife!)

Here were two vocations – two ways of living – coming together and working out how to coexist. As a priest who is a parent, and a parent who is a priest, this is a  source of both agony and joy for me.

How can I give my all to being a good parent, as biology drives me to do?

How can I give my all to being a good priest, as I have been formed and trained to do since first sensing a call to this half a lifetime ago?

How can I do both these things that are not mere ‘jobs’, but calls to ‘be’, when they sometimes seem to be at odds, each demanding every small piece of me and taking everything I have?

Last time I seriously wrestled with this stuff, this sketch was my attempt to work through the pain of this. The chalice and paten at an abandoned table. The empty sanctuary. The messy house. The screaming baby. The kind, compassionate children. The hollow, torn apart mum-priest ready to leave the house but getting nowhere. The darkness and shadow and out-of-reach window. A sense of being trapped in one place, while the other place waits, empty.

In other moments the picture could probably function the other way around: the demands of ministry crowding out bewildered children who wait patiently for their mum to come home and play.

I’m in a better place at the moment. I know that being a parent and a priest are not incompatible roles, and that each nurtures, informs and gives energy to the other. I know that because, on the good days, that’s how it works. That’s why I’m still in ministry, and still loving it, with three kids under 5.

The reason I’m sharing this, is because recently I have heard others say that they, too, struggle with this constant juggling. Once or twice, I’ve shown them this picture. And so I’m showing you, in case it helps you.

What balls are you juggling?
What plates are you spinning?

List them.

Go on – even just mentally.

In how many directions are you being pulled?
How many roles are you holding in tension?
How close do you feel to it all coming crashing down?

And I want to say this.

It’s okay. It’s okay to feel like this.

It can be a dark place to be in.
I know – I go there often, and I’m a priest.
(Priests go to dark places more than most people realise)

But if you feel like this, don’t ignore it.
Draw it, sing it, write it, exercise it out – but don’t keep juggling.

Drop a ball.
Smash a plate.

And when you do, be kind to yourself.

For me, this means remembering that I am not perfect. The illusion that I am gives my ego a boost, but eventually it is only myself that I disappoint.

I’m not perfect. And that’s why I’m happy to show this picture and share this particular journey.

Good enough.
That is all I have to be.
That is all YOU have to be.

And sometimes not even that.

And that’s okay.

 

When God doesn’t get cross even though we mess up

One of my children has been quite bad tempered recently. I thought he was just tired. But yesterday evening, as we sat having dinner, he hinted at why. “I don’t like Mrs Jones…”

I let the comment go, but later, we sat quietly and I probed a bit further.

“Why don’t you like Mrs Jones then?”

“I don’t want to tell you”.

I took a punt:

“Did you get told off today?”

“No”. He replied. “Last week”.

And I realised that this child had been holding in all this anguish from being told off – holding it in for a whole week. He was in turmoil. He didn’t want to tell me, because he thought I would give him a second telling off for this major transgression he had committed. It was so bad that Mrs Jones had removed him from the playground, and sent him back to his classroom. It was so bad that mummy must never find out, and he must hold in all this guilt and shame and frustration.

So before I asked what he had done to be sent inside and told off, I took another punt:

I’m not going to be cross with you. Mrs Jones has already been cross. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, I don’t care, but if you want to tell me, you can”.

I was bracing myself to hear a story of infant violence or wanton destruction, and wondering how I would respond without being cross. The lip wobbled, and tears came into the eyes.

“I rode my bike outside the track”.

“Huh?”

“I was on the fast bike, and I wanted to overtake James who was on the slow bike, so I went around him off the track. And Mrs Jones told me to put the bike away and get inside because I had been naughty”.

So I laughed, and relief crossed his face (and mine, if I’m honest).

“Is that it?!” I said.

“Yes” he replied. Slightly bemused. Why wasn’t mummy going mad? He had thought, for a whole week, that he was going to get told off again if I found out. He didn’t realise that Mrs Jones was probably just having a bad day, or that she might not have meant to sound so cross or react so strongly.

We all have Mrs Jones moments – I have loads – but that’s not why I’m writing this.

After this conversation, I became my son’s advocate and accomplice. We had a few moments of ‘therapy’ to help him process some of his “I don’t like Mrs Jones” thoughts. I won’t tell you what we did, but it involved felt tips and a photograph – and a bin (and of course Mrs Jones is not her real name and we do like all of his school staff very much!!)

I was left wondering what this incident might show me about God. Are there times where we do stuff wrong, and suffer the consequences, and hold it all in, and become laden with shame and guilt and worthlessness – and God actually becomes our advocate? Does God become the one who says “I’m not going to be angry. You’ve already suffered. I’m not going to add to your guilt and shame. In fact, I’m going to help you deal with this guilt and be even happier than you were before all this went wrong”?

Today’s Morning Prayer reading (one of!) is from the prophet Ezekiel, writing to a people in exile: to a people who have really made a mess of things and who find themselves cast out away from their home. Ezekiel speaks the words of God:

“Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them, far away among the nations, and through I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone”.

I think, last night, I became a sanctuary for a little boy who had committed a minor transgression, turned it into a major thing in his mind, and then sat with the guilt. Someone who had been cast out – or in – to the classroom. And I suspect God does that for us. We tie ourselves in knots of guilt and shame, we get shut out of the life we really want to have, and then God says:

“You are far away, you are scattered, you are lost. You’ve got yourself into a mess. But still I will be your sanctuary in exile. And I will bring you home.”

 

 

In a mirror dimly: When Mother’s Day seems dark

It’s Mother’s Day, and social media timelines are full of people having a good time. Cooked breakfasts, home made cards, flowers, lunch out and glasses of prosecco. Of course, if you believe Facebook, then everyone else’s family is more sorted than yours. Other people’s kids took the initiative to do something special. Other people’s partners went that extra step further. Other families are happier, more chilled, wealthier, more innovative, and kinder to one another. Other families have more than your own family will ever have. If you believe Facebook.

But, away from the plastic smiles and the posed selfies, beyond the idealistic Facebook posts and the status updates capturing moments of perfection, there will be a million different stories. Stories of pain, grief, and disappointment. Of guilt, loss, and failure. Of hurt, regret, and anger. The pretty pink of the Mother’s Day displays cannot colour the bleakness we go through as we are faced with the stark reality of failed and lost relationships.

Mother’s Day seems bigger and more elaborate each year. For weeks beforehand, shops are stocked with the “perfect” present for mum (as if she wants more than your attention and time and a share in your story!) But this growth in celebration doesn’t reflect the reality that painful relationships, and the pain of good relationships now past, are as real as ever.

What hope is there, beyond the plastic and pink, for those of us who find today difficult? What can help us face up to and confront the day, without just bowing our heads and trudging through?

“Parenting is a mirror that forces you to look at yourself”, writes mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. The child-parent relationship brings out our best and our worst. The naked vulnerability of giving birth and being born remains, for mum and child, in our psyche and our emotions for years after the event. We see our parents and our children at their lowest points, often unmasked and uninhibited, and in their feeble weakness we realise that we, too, are irrational, unreasonable, and scarred.

Two millennia earlier, St Paul had similar ideas. “We see in a mirror, dimly”, he wrote. Paul was writing about love, of all things. Our relationships are, at their best, just poor quality mirrors, dim and dark: offering a shadowy likeness of the pure and radiant love that we find in God who mothers us as Her cherished children.

If my love for my children is a dim reflection of God’s love, then I know that divine love to be wild and untamed, unceasingly lavish and intensely passionate; fiercely protective, always forgiving and endlessly patient.

Some of us have enjoyed the best of parent-child relationships. Most of us will have had a mixed experience, as joy and love blend bewilderingly with hurt and disappointment. Some of us will have had a deeply hurtful experience, or even none at all. Some of us will have known only loss, or emptiness.

In the frailty and failure of our broken relationships, there are always glimmers of hope. A reaching out; a card; a gift; a kind word. A smile from the stranger in the street. A fleeting moment of eye contact. A Facebook ‘like’. A urgent, intense rush of compassion for the person who is hurting. In these snatches of kindness, we see, for a second, a love that is greater than all our failures.

Through a glass darkly: that’s how we see now. But it won’t always be so. Today is a day to hold onto the glimmers, to look at the poor reflections, and to know that this is not “it”. There is more to come: more hope, more love, more fulfilment. It will not always hurt.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

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Change and Decay: A meditation for the seasonally affected

Autumn took me by surprise this year.

Overnight, warm sun seemed to turn to cold rain. I don’t think this was just my lack of attentiveness. The seasons overlap and creep upon us and tease us as they ebb and flow before disappearing without warning. This Autumn was a poignant one for me as my oldest child started school. It hit me harder than I expected. The reality of the passing of time and of ageing; the grief at losing concentrated time with one of my soulmates; the submission to an institution and a system that I knew so little about; the change of rhythm to our days, weeks, and terms; the extra time and space it gave me to reflect back on a year of (so far) extraordinary gift and challenge – and the inner work this involved.

Autumn is a moment in which we are caught up in, taken aback by, and plunged into change, perhaps without feeling ready for it. Death and decay creep in: plants die and leaves fall.

It’s hard to think of Spring at this time of year. But I am always surprised at how quickly the decay turns again to life. What strength must lie in the earth, that it can so quickly bring to birth once more green signs of life. Winter is never death, and always gestation.

What follows is a meditation for all who have found themselves hitting October with bewilderment: where has this year gone?

It is for all who fear change, decay and death.

It is, perhaps, the song of the sunflowers. 

What makes you strong doesn’t come from outside. What makes you strong is what you carry within. In plants, strength and vitality lie dormant in winter, ready to burst through with new shoots in Spring. Autumn is a time to bed down, to reabsorb life and take it back to the innermost places, to quieten and to listen and to wait. This jars, amidst the otherwise busy-ness of this time of year.

This Autumn, may we find time to keep slow pace with the trees, and like them, store up vitality.


Our moment of parting
Was unnoticed.
How was I to know that sunset smile
Would be the last you would show me
Before the cold months of your absence?

Your whispered goodbye
Barely heard
Above the cruel, harsh winds
So quick to hurry in change
And decay.

autumn2.jpg

I still look
Still search
Still reach
For your August warmth
But you glare at me
Me, surrounded by the sodden brown carpet
That once was glorious canopy,
And you are
Taunting
Cold
And give nothing.

And so it is time for
Disengagement
Detachment
Decay
I turn in on myself
Returning withered to my roots.

And here is all I need.

Dying and gestating within me
The remnant of the goodness we had
And the promise of a Spring yet to be:
Painful memories and hopeful promises
Stored up for the life that will grow
As I wait; patiently, slowly, still.

The Parenting Retreat (or: how to be a good parent without wanting to hide in the loo)

I’ve hesitated about writing this post. I know I’m a good parent. I know our family life is fairly happy and secure. The danger of sharing good things about family life on social media is that we might give the false impression that all is perfect. My family life isn’t perfect. I’m not a perfect parent. Good, but not perfect. We have rows and slam doors and storm out and use bad words. “I’m sending you to the rubbish yard!” says my four year old to me when I upset him. I won’t share what I sometimes say to my husband when he, in turn, upsets me. It’s not pretty.

We’re not perfect. But this summer we got something right. This is our story.


It started in a meeting I had with my spiritual director in July. We talked about the birth of my youngest, a few weeks previously.  We talked about the exhaustion I had gone through in the months before her birth, and the ways in which our family resilience had been tested after. We talked about the past, and the future. My hopes for us, and for me. My ministry, my career, my parenting, my ambition. What was good and life-giving, and what was draining and stretching.  It was a good all-round emotional, spiritual and mental check up. And then, as we finished, she suggested the following:

That I seemed restless.
That I should try and notice that, and not respond to it.
That my maternity leave meant I had a great gift to offer my kids: my time and attention.
That perhaps I needed to put away my phone and my restlessness for the summer, and give myself entirely to my children.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with my kids. But I had usually managed to dilute it to a point where I could be half-present to them, with my mind half on something else: reading, or writing, or (if I’m honest) Facebook. What was being asked of me here was different. A commitment to be wholly present: not for a morning or even a week, but for two months. Two whole months of concentrated time with three under 5s who usually tested my mental and physical resilience on an hourly basis. I left that session of spiritual direction feeling like I’d been set up to fail.

But I made a start. The next morning I launched myself cheerfully into wooden train sets and playdough and snacks and outdoor games. By 11am I was on the verge of breakdown. There were tears – and not from the kids. Why was it so hard? It was something about their chaos and mess and noise. Or was it?

Parenting is a mirror says Jon Kabat-Zinn, that forces you to look at yourself. He argues that children provide the perfect opportunity for a prolonged and intense experience of mindful retreat that lasts about 18 years. If you’ve been on retreat, you know it’s tough. As the ‘stuff’ of life is stripped away, as you go deeper into silence and simplicity, you are forced to look inwards. To see yourself with all your props, your safety blankets and your masks taken away. And then you have to begin the tough inner work.

And that moment, as I sat on the sofa and trusted the DVD player to babysit the kids for half an hour, I realised that these two months would be a similar sort of retreat. In the simplicity of offering my kids my attention and my presence, I would have to deal with the complexity of my self that I had too easily run away from. Here was my crash course in mindful, meditative parenting. It wasn’t the kids and their chaos that was pushing me over the edge; it was that in the simplicity of time with them, I had to confront my own shadow side: my weakness, my anger, my failures, my intolerance and impatience. My imperfection. Here I was, forced to stare at myself reflected in the little shiny faces and dirty hands that were so eager for me. In the kids, I had found my mirror.

In the following days, I persevered in this parenting retreat. All the usual retreat experiences seemed to happen: I got angry, I got sad, I felt overwhelmed, bored, frustrated. And then I found peace. Peace in wooden train sets and nature walks. Peace in just being – living – alongside these joyfully simple little people.

And this is what I learned:

Just be present
The kids didn’t want great entertainment or expensive fun. They just wanted me. We played with paper and cardboard and leaves and stones and sand. Often, I just watched, asked questions, smiled. The simpler the better, and they surprised me with the breadth of their imagination and resourcefulness. We had days of fun with a cardboard box and a load of paint.

Don’t fight the inner work
Offering the kids my attentiveness and presence meant fewer distractions and more mindfulness. Breaking the habit of picking up my phone whenever they turned away from me, and instead staying focused on them, meant I had to confront some of my own inner bleakness. This is hard work, takes some getting used to, and gets worse before it gets better. But it left me feeling like I’d done some tough and rewarding inner work.

Make a list
The highlight of our days became the first task each day: making a list. I asked the kids what they wanted to do that day, we wrote it down, and we did it. It gave them space to think about what they really wanted to do (rather than spur-of-the-moment, tired decisions) and it meant I could steel myself for the messy stuff. It taught them about compromise, and about making space for each other. It also meant I could be honest with them about any jobs I had to do that would take me away from them, and often those jobs became a game in themselves.

Forget perfection
We still argued. There were still tantrums – sometimes the kids kicked off too. There was a lot of mess. A lot of things went unfinished. But letting go of perfection gave us a chance to talk about mess and anger and sadness. It gave us a chance to say sorry. It gave us permission to express ourselves, however badly, and avoid the daily build up of bad feeling that would otherwise lead to an ‘end of my tether’ moment.

Rest together
We did a lot, and I stopped using TV as a crutch or a childminder. But we also spent a lot of time under a blanket, watching Netflix together. It gave me space to breath, and it stopped the kids living at 100mph for the whole day. In fact, most days they chose a film to put on the ‘list’ of things to do that day. We rested together, and we built that time into the day.

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Now the summer is over. My oldest has started school. My middle one spends time at playgroup. And my youngest sleeps a lot. The house is eerily quiet, but echoing through it are the memories of a summer in which I found, surrendered and forgot myself, and became one human in a gang of four who, for a fleeting time, had no agenda but fun and laughter.

So for those who find parenting impossible, who sit and cry on the sofa while the kids watch DVDs, who collapse among the mess and are too exhausted to laugh anymore. To those who hide in the loo, and regret their shouting, and feel haunted by the guilt of parenting failures. To those who are bored, frustrated, and annoyed by their kids. That’s me too. But it can be different. It was for us.

Surrender

I have a photo of my first child, taken when he was around two weeks old. He rests in my tired arms, just inside the front door of our home, bundled up in hat and coat and ready to face the world on his first great outing. Our trip was nothing momentous: just a stagger down the road and back. But we were “getting out”.

I remember that moment vividly. I was struggling. I had a baby who wouldn’t sleep, who wasn’t gaining weight, who cried a lot. I know now that in that moment I was being tipped by monumental pressure and extreme exhaustion into the postnatal depression that would take a year to lift.

And as we bundled ourselves up to face the November outdoors, I was terrified. Here was my first moment of surrendering my boy to the world. It was nothing. A 10 minute stroll in which he wouldn’t leave my sight. But in my sleep-deprived, anxious state, it felt like everything.

In this moment, I knew that parenthood would be a series of surrenders. This baby who (no cliche – it’s true) I loved so much that it hurt, would have to grow and learn and step out. Roots and wings, they say. One day he will leave my arms, he will leave my hand, my side, my home. And when these moments come, letting him go is the most loving thing I can do for him. Even when everything within me cries out at this little soul becoming more and more his own person. Not mine.

This week brings another moment of surrender, as the baby becomes a boy and has his first few days at school. I am standing with him, once more at the front door. Letting him go, and trusting it will be ok. But this time, I know it’s not about me. Not only do I have to surrender him, he has to know that I am ok about it. That this is a “good thing”. So no tears mummy, not on the playground. My surrender gets steely, because he needs to know that he can flap his wings and that it’s safe to fly.

We grow up, we let go, and sometimes, we come back. Because it’s all ok. It’s safe to fly. Life is a series of letting go and grasping on. Leaving and returning. Surrendering and trusting.

As I forced that smile for the camera, I wondered: One day, will he look back at that picture, and know just how much I loved him? Will he know the pain of bringing him to birth and letting him go? Will he want to come back to my arms?

We surrender.
We let go.
We trust.

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“I will weep”: Leaders as pain-bearers

Apparently babies cry a lot. You’d think I would know this by now, having had three. But there is a biological switch that flicks off between one baby and the next: the same switch that helps women forget the pain of labour. You forget just how much a newborn baby cries. Babies cry for all sorts of reasons.

But mostly, they cry for no reason at all.

This is the toughest crying to deal with. Nothing can make it better. And in these moments the reality of parenting a newborn; the exhaustion and the pain and the frustration; seem so far removed from the fantasy world of happy families. Every scream says to new parents “You can’t help me! You’re not good enough!” Every intake of infant breath brings new hope that the sobbing might subside, and then a fresh bawl that splits the ears and crushes the spirit just a little more.

Emily is 10 weeks old. She’s a crier. She starts at about 6pm, and will keep it up all evening. She cries so hard that she won’t take her bottle. The only thing that soothes her is movement. And so we switch from bouncy chair, to swaying, to walking around, and then back to bouncy chair. Each transition triggered after a few moments of calm, as her face crumples again and her little body becomes racked once more with sobs.

And we ride the storm.

The other night it got a bit much. Nothing I could do for her was right. Everything I tried brought a fresh round of tears. Holding her hot, sobbing body – staying on the move to try and calm her – was just exhausting. I had to put her down and walk away. Gut wrenching.

A little later, as I held her again, I came across this article. It says:

However, there’s another major purpose crying serves. Babies also cry to heal and recover from stressful experiences. When babies come into the world they have often had a difficult journey. Even the gentlest of births leaves a baby with feelings to process as they get used to being in a new and stimulating world.

Crying, often every evening (for what appears to be no reason), is natural for babies, and providing we have triple-checked that all their needs are met, we don’t need to do anything to stop them. We can simply listen, pay warm attention, and allow them to release their feelings.

When a baby is supported to cry in a parent’s loving arms, they will release feelings of stress, then naturally sleep well.

And it got me thinking:

When babies are at their hardest to love – that’s when they need love most of all.
When babies seem to struggle and resist any form of affection – that’s when they need the security of being held.
When babies are inconsolable – that’s when they need the consolation they refuse so determinedly.

Are any of us any different?

We might learn to express some of our basic needs – hunger, or clothing, or security. But do we really? Which of our unreasonable or irrational behaviours are actually a cry for help? What do we still have to learn about expressing our need for affection, or security, or love, or healing? What trauma have we experienced, that we are yet to process?

These seem like really important questions for those of us who are in leadership and ministry roles. A few weeks ago I facilitated a session for colleagues in Chester Diocese on Resilience. As part of that morning, I said this:

A focus on our self is about developing a healthy foundation from which to listen and respond to others. If we can deal with and transform our own pain, we are better able to meet others in theirs, even when their expression of that pain is a threat to us, or is hurtful.

Managing ourselves gives us a better perspective when it comes to dealing with others. It allows us to stand back from the hurtful comment, the unfair criticism, the attempt at conflict, and to ask “What is behind these words? What is going on for this person, at this time, that is causing them to lash out in such a way?”

And I quoted Richard Rohr:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.

And Notker Wolf:

We must be aware that we are never dealing with angels of light. People are more or less strong or weak, and we are all subject to envy, dislike, wilfulness and even deceit. This awareness preserves us from disappointment. It makes us compassionate and also alert to the uniqueness of people and situations. We must meet the challenge of taking human shortcomings into account without also passing judgement on them.

I wonder whether an effective model for leadership might be that of the pain-bearer?

The pain-bearer is the one who hears the cries of the world around them.
The one who holds those cries, as a parent holds their sobbing newborn, until they subside.
The one who is simply present: calm, reassuring and comforting.
The one who doesn’t turn their back and walk away from the pain, but who sits through it and suffers alongside.
The one who knows that they themselves are hard to love.
The one who listens, who pays warm attention, who is unafraid of feelings.

Pain-bearers are self-aware, secure, and committed to confronting and working through their own pain. They recognise their own inability to express their basic needs, and are ready to work through that inability. Pain-bearers are able to face the pain of another – their anger, frustration and fears – and sit with that pain. They hear past the cries of “You can’t help me!”, “You’re not good enough!” and they stay anyway.

I am lucky to know one or two pain-bearers. They are shy people, but they are leaders nevertheless. Theirs is a leadership that is wholly and completely for the other, so that those whose pain they bear may flourish and shine.

There’s a lot of pain around at the moment. Perhaps we need just a few more pain-bearers to help us navigate these times?

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