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.”

 

 

Advertisements

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.

20170922_161416.jpg

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.

IMG_0026

In quietness and trust: Stop and see

This is the first in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Stop and see: Attentiveness

Attentiveness is an essential skill for the nurture of our inner lives.
It is in stopping – and seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, feeling – that we begin to sense God at work around us.
How much passes us by when we are caught up with worry and busyness and self-interest?

We might think that kids are always on the go.
We might say that they are the least attentive among humans.
But it’s not true.

Kids love to focus on the tiny detail of one particular thing, even if only for a moment.
Kids love attentiveness, because when we practice it with them, they have the whole of us for themselves: undistracted, focused, together.
Kids love to be with us more than anything, and a focus on something simple keeps us from wandering from them.

There are a million ways to practice attentiveness with children. These are things that work for us:

  • Nature walks:
    Counting how many insects we can see on one area of pavement
    Collecting different shades of green leaves
    Looking for butterflies and bees
    Learning about different flower names and colours – and then looking for similar ones and/or seeing what they smell like
    Looking for different types of trees (confession from this country girl: I had to buy a book to learn)
    Watching the squirrels scamper
    Splashing in puddles and watching the ripples
    Squelching through mud
    Collecting stones/sticks/pinecones of different shapes
    Looking for creatures in a pond
    Looking at seeds, at young plants, at old plants. Talking about how things grow and flourish and fade.
  • Lying in a dark room with a small torch, watching the shadows. Or with a small lamp that projects rainbows onto the ceiling. Or just in the dark. Listening to our breathing, whispering nothing of importance, singing.
  • Handing over my phone and letting the kids take photos. Noticing what they choose to photograph – where their attention is drawn – and asking about it (and ending up with 200 burst shots of our feet).
  • Listening to music, eyes closed, and sharing what pictures we can see in our minds.
  • Lighting a candle, sitting close, and watching the flame dance.
  • Stroking the dog together, talking about how we care for him and how we feel about him.
  • Building a wooden train track. Watching the trains weave around different formations.
  • Looking at pictures the kids have painted, talking about the colours and shapes and what they might be.

Attentiveness is prayer beyond words.
As we become attentive, we begin to notice that we are surrounded by God’s presence.
As we become attentive, we become more mindful of God’s hand on everything.
Attentiveness increases our gratitude and gives us glimpses of what God must be like, as we see the tiniest details of life are so intricate and endless.

Kids are highly skilled in attentiveness, if only we could notice it and learn from them.

20160607_154227

In quietness and trust: The spirituality of children

The spirituality of young children is phenomenal. They know simplicity, attentiveness, freedom and trust better than any adult. When I pray or meditate with my kids, it’s them leading me in practice. They teach me about about connectedness, self-awareness and God. They seem free of the baggage that I have gathered on my own journey – the stuff that stops me from really knowing and loving God and myself and others and the world.

I planned this series of posts thinking about how I am helping my kids to nurture their spiritual lives. But what I give here now, I offer as gifts that the kids have given me.

A couple of disclaimers:

First, my spirituality is Ignatian, Contemplative.
This is how I know God and understand life.
It’s deep.
It means that I value stillness and quiet (even though I’m not much good at either!)
I try and see a spiritual dimension to every person, place and experience.
I use my imagination in my spiritual life.
For me, words are not usually great currency in prayer.
This is not the only way to pray, but it’s mostly how I pray with my kids.

Secondly, let’s be realistic. My kids are one and three. No three year old is going to sit in still contemplation for more than a moment or so. No toddler is going to be completely immersed just because I ask her to be. Prayer and meditation with kids needs to be flexible and fluid. My kids are no saints. The following is what works for us on a good day, when we’re not tired, or hungry, or grumpy, or ill. There are four of us in this house – usually at least one of us is at least one of those things. Please don’t think we are the Von Trapp equivalent of the spiritual world. And yet I am constantly amazed by what does engage these little souls, and how deeply, when I let them take the lead and simply give them my attention.

With all of that in mind, here are some explorations of stuff we’ve tried:

In quietness and trust 1: Stop and see
In quietness and trust 2: Two simple questions
In quietness and trust 3: Storytelling
In quietness and trust 4: Sitting still (coming soon)

20150515_125324

 

 

Bridging the (generation) gap

Generalisations are as good as it gets!
Ann Morisy, in Borrowing from the Future (2011).

It’s been quite a day. The consequences and opportunities of today’s Brexit will not be clear for some time. Our politicians, civil servants and economists have a massive job ahead.

The rest of us need to start building some bridges. The best people, nay, the only people, up to this task are you and I. Where to start: Social class? Nationality? Politics?

How about age?

Lord Ashcroft Polls have shown that in the EU Referendum, the older the voter, the more likely they were to vote to leave the EU. Social media was quick in its condemnation: the youngest in society (many of whom were not allowed to vote) will pay the price (and arguably bear the brunt) of this decision, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Baby Boomers have been pitched against Millenials (and before you read further, revisit Ann Morisy’s quote at the top of this post!).

Here’s the thing: I’m a Millennial. At times I feel undervalued, disenfranchised, hard done by, and misunderstood. I am frustrated that the Establishment doesn’t seem to hear or value my opinions, probably because fewer of my contemporaries vote than those of older generations. I feel sad that my generation and younger are often caricatured as lazy, uncaring and disengaged. I believe that for someone in their teens, 20s or early 30s life is tougher now than it was a generation or two ago.

But I spend a lot of time with Baby Boomers. I see how hard life can be for someone living on a state pension. I hear how uninspired, confused, and frightened many Boomers are by the pace of change that my generation seem to thrive and capitalise on. I know how painfully aware Boomers are that they may be ‘out of touch’ with younger generations. And, critically, I am yet to meet someone of my parent’s or grandparent’s generation who doesn’t care about the future of their children or grandchildren.

The problem seems complex, and yet it’s actually very simple. The problem is this: The world is changing so fast around us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another. The pace of change we are trying so desperately to keep up with affects not only our technology. It has an impact on our relationships, our behaviour, and our language. And it has hit our inter-generational relationships especially hard.

Maybe we have lost the ability to say and hear (Boomers to Millenials, and Millenials to Boomers):

I care about you.
I feel let down by you.
I want the best for you.
I am worried about you.
I’m confused.
I feel that life is hard for me.
I’d like you to challenge yourself.
Life isn’t like that for me.
It seems like you had/have things so easy.
I’m frightened about the future.
I don’t understand.
Please tell me about…
I love you.

We have bridges to build. So let’s talk. Let’s talk free of blame and guilt and anger.

Boomers, hear us when we say that life is so very different for us than it was for you. Some things are much easier. Other things are tougher – or different. Let us tell our stories of hardship without feeling that we are blaming you. Listen to our cries for help – our need for your wisdom of experience and your encouraging words of comfort that remind us of what is really important (and we know it’s not property, pensions or prosperity!).*

Millenials, know that Boomers care deeply about our future. Open your eyes to see that they carry a burden of guilt, bewilderment and responsibility about the fact that so few of them were able to sustain such a good quality of life for more than a generation or two. Hear their words of wisdom about life’s real priorities. Listen to stories of what has made their lives so wonderful (and know that it is not wages or wealth).

Perhaps, just perhaps, as we talk, and as we hear, we may come to a better understanding of one another. We are parents and children. Grandparents and grandchildren. We want to see each other happy and we love one another dearly.

Listening, really listening, is rarely comfortable. It will challenge and move us, sadden and gladden us. Hearing one another’s stories will ask us to acknowledge our own weaknesses and fallibilities.

And yet what bricks do we have for our bridge, but our stories and our questions and our ears? The rebuilding must start now, and it must happen quickly. Without this bridge, we will lose something precious and irretrievable. We will lose each other.


* And a personal note. Thank you to those Boomers – Ann Morisy and my parents and many, many others – friends and relatives and colleagues – who have noticed and drawn attention to the plight of Millenials. Thank you to every person who has already listened, and heard, and understood, and asked. You have taught me so much.

20150831_140716_Richtone(HDR)

Unexpected blessings in the bagging area

A quick trip to the supermarket at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon. You rush around grabbing the few bits you need, your mind full of a half-recalled shopping list. Your eyes are blind to those around you until the moment they loiter a moment too long at the shelf you want to browse. You tut at the parent whose child is lying face down in the aisle, screaming and kicking. You stamp impatiently at the self-checkout while the gentleman ahead of you scans his items. Carefully, patiently, slowly. Then you whizz through, beep-whirr-ding, and you’re away. You slalom through children and trolleys and charity collection points, and then get stuck at the door behind an elderly lady who is leaning painfully on her trolley, shuffling on. Finally a gap opens, and out you go. Jump in the car, and you’re off.

These days my three year old insists on accompanying me whenever I pop into the supermarket. It’s a pain, to be honest. It slows me down. We can’t slalom and weave. We can’t push past obstacles and squeeze through gaps. We can’t scoot around someone and zoom ahead: his legs don’t work that quickly. I spend most of my time and energy trying to protect him from the trolleys and shoppers to whom he is invisible.

But it is also a great blessing. It gives me time to see things, to hear things, to take notice.

I submit to the discipline of standing behind someone in an aisle and waiting my turn to pick a tin from the shelf. As I wait, I treasure the feeling of my boy’s little hand in mine. And I notice the trolley of the person I am standing behind. It is full of ready meals for one, crowned by a bulging paper bag from the pharmacy.

As we queue at the self checkout, I can chat to my boy about any old nonsense. And I notice the man in front, emptying his wallet of coppers and silvers to pay for four cans of the cheapest own-brand lager. He’ll go home and drink that alone: sat in his coat with the curtains closed and the heating off.

Leaving the store, I watch my boy mimicking my steps, full of life. I resign myself to walking slowly behind the lady who leans on her trolley for dear life. And I notice her ankles. Swollen, and angry, and ulcerated.

wp-1457709313567.jpg

Shops may bring out the worst of us: our intolerance, our selfishness, our impatience.
I am ashamed at how little I notice of others, until I open my eyes.
I am appalled at my own pushing and shoving.
I am embarrassed by my snap judgements and my impatience.

If shops are the temples of our time, then we go there to worship a god who cares little about the slowest, the weakest, the poorest, the smelliest, the loneliest, the nosiest.

Our temper is short and our steps are quick.
Our eyes are closed and our hearts are cold.

As gathering places, shops offer little to those who are seeking community, kindness, and understanding. Our basic need of these things gives rise to the deepest cries of our hearts. We try and find solace in the things we buy as we push and shove through the shop, but the desperate truth is that nothing we spend money on can fill the gaping care-shaped hole in our spirit.

But shops also offer us some of our greatest opportunities to show kindness, tolerance and understanding. A friendly smile for the young mum or dad whose toddler has had enough. A helping hand for the frail gentleman struggling with his bag of tins. An extra bag in the foodbank collection. A few words of encouragement for the member of staff monitoring the malfunctioning self-checkout.

It is shops that bring us together with those who cause us discomfort or inconvenience. If we are the ones who can walk away from the smell, the poverty, the noise, the disturbance, then perhaps it is within our gift to do a much greater thing. What would it cost us to dip into our reserves of patience, grit our teeth, flex our (underused) tolerance muscles, and simply notice, and understand?

We can’t escape from everything that offends, annoys, irritates, or disturbs. Nor should we have any right to do so. This is about looking after one another. Seeing beyond our own comfort and reaching out to others with a shared humanity.

I am still learning and still trying. But I hope that my shopping habits will bring out the best in me, so that those around me in the aisles might flourish, even for a fleeting moment.

Are you enjoying your baby? #timetotalk

Are you enjoying your baby?

How often do new mums hear that questions asked?
How often do we smile, through a lump in the throat and blinking away tears, and whimper “yes”, when we really mean “no”?

This week in the Church calendar we celebrated Candlemas: the moment when Mary took Jesus to the temple, 40 days after his birth, for her purification. And tomorrow is Time to Talk day, when we are encouraged to talk about mental health issues and end the stigma that surrounds them.

New mums know something about mental health. Mary would have been no different.

Forty days post-birth is significant: forty days is just shy of six weeks, and six weeks is the magic number.

At six weeks a mum’s body should be healing well after the trauma of birth.
She will see a doctor to be checked over and told she’s doing well.
She will start to feel reassured that her baby is gaining weight.
The baby might be starting to sleep for longer than an hour or two.
Feeding should be getting easier.
The baby has probably started to smile.
The shock of birth is wearing off, and life might be returning to normal.
And by six weeks a new mum is probably feeling more confident and less hormonal.

But sometimes, some of this stuff doesn’t happen. First time round and it wasn’t like this for us.

Our baby didn’t sleep unless we were holding him.
His screaming meant we had to sleep in shifts, and 3 hours of broken sleep was a good night.
He wasn’t gaining weight like he should have been.
Feeding was definitely not going well.
I was carrying the terrifying burden of caring for such a vulnerable and tiny person.
We were crumbling under the pressure.

By ten weeks things had improved, but it took me longer to recover from the emotional strain and the exhaustion.

I wonder how it was for Mary as she arrived at the temple six weeks after giving birth?
Was her baby sleeping well?
Was he thriving and gaining weight?
Were Mary’s nipples cracked and sore, or had breastfeeding been easy?
Had she healed well after the birth?
Was she riddled with anxiety, or playing it cool?
Was she obsessed with protecting this fragile baby with a fierce love that burned in every ounce of her being?

Bellini’s painting of the Presentation at the Temple is deeply moving. Luke’s Gospel doesn’t tell us much about how this young girl felt as she took on the task of caring for this baby. How much did this vulnerable, sleep deprived girl sweat or hold back tears as she handed her baby over to Simeon? How much did her heart plummet as Simeon spoke of a piercing sword? Luke says she was amazed. How much did her amazement overwhelm her? Thrill her? Frighten her?

Bellini_maria1

Bellini tells us what Luke does not. Here is young courageous Mary, flanked by women, hesitating as she passes her tiny bundle to Simeon. What is that hesitation? Is Mary beginning to understand the fullness of her vocation and the pain that it will cause her? Is she, like any new mother, finding it hard to trust a stranger with the wellbeing of her child, even for a moment?

Bellini paints the vulnerability and courage of every new mother. Revisiting the Candlemas narrative seems to be a good place to think about motherhood and mental health. The dangerous cocktail of major life change, anxiety and sleeplessness is enough to damage the mental health of any previously well person. It’s not easy to admit to struggling after having a baby. It’s almost impossible to say that you’re not “enjoying your baby”, because all your energy is going into just coping.

I hope that Mary had time to enjoy her baby. It wasn’t going to get easier for her, and there is endless comfort to be found in Mary’s story for any struggling mum. For the rest of us, it usually does get better. Or, at least, we become experts at dealing with our children at the stage they are in. New stages will always bring new challenges… and new opportunities for growth.

Graham Kendrick’s Thorns in the Straw is not an easy listen, but for me, it captures Mary’s bravery and commitment to her calling. If you click on the link you can watch Graham perform the song.

Since the day the angel came
It seemed that everything had changed
The only certain thing
Was the child that moved within
On the road that would not end
Winding down to Bethlehem
So far away from home.

Just a blanket on the floor
Of a vacant cattle-stall
But there the child was born
She held him in her arms
And as she laid him down to sleep
She wondered – will it always be
So bitter and so sweet.

And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky. 

Then the words of ancient seers
Tumbled down the centuries:
A virgin shall conceive,
God with us, Prince of Peace
Man of Sorrows – strangest name
Oh Joseph there it comes again
So bitter yet so sweet.

And as she watched him through the years
Her joy was mingled with her tears
And she’d feel it all again
The glory, and the shame
And when the miracles began
She wondered, who is this man
And where will this all end?

‘Til against a darkening sky
The son she loved was lifted high
And with his dying breath
She heard him say ‘Father forgive’
And to the criminal beside
“Today-with me in Paradise”
So bitter yet so sweet.

Losing my religion?

At times I have faced serious, faith-denying doubts. Times of extended sleeplessness and frightened, agonised wrestling with big questions. One of these moments happened soon after I married; another soon after I had children. Both triggered by the uncertainty that comes after a major life change; the burden of new responsibility as my life became intimately entwined with another, and the crushing knowledge that all relationships end in grief. Both times I had to renegotiate my faith, learning to trust God with the lives of these people who are so precious to me.

So I read this blog by Mandy Jackson-Beverly with a good amount of nodding. Mandy’s path is her own, and yet many of us have walked a similar way before, and will do so again.

Many of us know what it is like to be thrown into an abyss of doubt, falling through spiritual nothingness and not knowing who or what will catch us.

Many of us know what it is like to have the scaffold of faith, so carefully built, collapse in an instant.

Many of us know what it is like to live with fear, day after day, that everything we have placed our trust in will turn out to be an elaborate lie and a waste of time.

img003

But are these experiences about losing our faith?

Mandy’s blog is fairly pessimistic, with a glimmer of hope. She talks in terms of growing up and moving on from religion. Something that was so integral to her early life, through an exploration of spirituality that eventually “vanished”, becomes folly in later life.

How many of us feel like we “grow out of” our religion and move on with life?

What if the fears and questions that accelerate our growing agnosticism are not about doubt and loss of faith, but about deepening our experience of and relationship with God?

Once I had kids, I discovered a dark place that lay beyond the realm of my faith and spirituality. A place where I didn’t need God in order to make sense of things. A place where I could find things other than God to explain and give purpose to life. And this was not liberating, but frightening. This was about no longer needing everything that, to this point, I had built my life around. I was dismantling my scaffolding.

It took someone else to turn my fear around. They helped me see that this wasn’t about moving beyond a need for God. It was about finding God at work in new places and new people. In everything that might have replaced God, I found him waiting. I no longer needed the scaffolding I had built. I had found something new.

Perhaps in time this new scaffolding will also need to be taken down, to make way again.

Life takes us to some frightening places. Watching someone we love die is such a place. Mandy is honest about the raw hopelessness of seeing her mum’s suffering and death. And yet, within the darkness of her pain is a faint glimmer of hope. In a brief moment, she “felt something”.

I think that this is how it is. We question, we fear, we worry. And then, in one fleeting, fragile moment, we feel something.

And then it is gone.

But it was definitely there.

What is that “something”? What I do know is that it is special, faith-affirming and life-changing. Those I walk alongside in difficult times often speak of its power. Most of us have a story of the “something” moments.

In all our fear and emptiness, amongst our questions and anxiety, perhaps we can allow our attention to rest on those glimmers of “something”.

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.
1 Corinthians 13:12

The milk of human kindness: A plea to the Women’s Institute

Another day. Another headline about a woman being asked not to breastfeed her baby. This time the lady in question was asked not to attend meetings of her local branch of the Women’s Institute until her child was weaned. Apparently “this is a common policy at WI meetings, as many WI members see the meetings as an escape from family life where they can concentrate on themselves and meeting other women”. The WI have since apologised and stated that this policy does not extend to breastfeeding mothers.

There is not much of a case to be made by anyone seeking to stop women breastfeeding freely pretty much wherever they like. The argument has been well rehearsed elsewhere and I won’t rehash it here. Opinion on this is strong, and the debate has been had.

But it seems to me that where clashes about breastfeeding occur, they are often not about breastfeeding at all.

However a new mother (or father) feeds her (or his) baby, the parent and child need time together to bond. Bonding is rarely instantaneous, but is a process that happens over weeks, months… perhaps years. Certainly the first few months of the child’s life are vitally formational in this respect. Bonding happens through physical contact and verbal and non-verbal communication, and the time this is most likely to happen is when the baby is being fed, by breast or bottle. Put simply, if a parent and their young child are to bond well in those first few months, they need to spend as much time together as possible.

A new mum is also at risk of becoming dangerously isolated very quickly. Looking after a baby is physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually demanding. And it can be incredibly lonely, particularly if a partner returns to work soon after the birth. No wonder that one charity estimates that as many as 3 in 10 new mums suffer from postnatal depression. It seems clear that parents of babies, and mums especially, need support, love, company, kindness and community.

So…
Babies and parents need one another’s company.
And…
Parents of young children need community and support.

If parents and their babies are to have the best chance of flourishing, they need to be welcomed together into social circles, organisations, meetings and events. If a parent is told they are unable to enter a specific place with their baby, this is potentially damaging for both parent and child. Either the parent and child have to part company for a time, where they could otherwise spend time bonding with one another. Or the parent remains with the baby, but becomes even more isolated.

This is not about how a child is fed. In the case outlined above, the Women’s Institute acknowledges the “right and freedom of every woman to breastfeed”. But what about if a woman who bottle fed her baby was placed in the same situation? Would her baby not be allowed to attend meetings, where the breastfed baby was? Both babies, at that stage, need the physical contact and communication with mum that both breast and bottle supply. The development of both babies is important, and the wellbeing of both mums is important.

20150220_173844

This is not about breastfeeding. It’s probably not even about new parents and babies, exclusively. This is about how we become community. It’s about how we live in such a way as to provide hospitality to one another. It’s about pushing beyond our own comfort zones, overcoming fear of the unknown or “escape” from the uncomfortable, to advance our mutual flourishing.

We exclude those who makes us feel uncomfortable at great cost. So dear Women’s Institute, this Christmas time please think again about your “child free zone” policy, because you may find your meetings are enriched, bolstered and blessed by young mums and their babes and toddlers. Just as you enrich, bolster and bless those families in return.