When you can’t use a gift because you’re giving another

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I have an unusual entry in my Top 10 list of favorite Christmas movies. Growing up, during the insufferably lengthy holiday break, my mom tried to snatch a moment of sanity by popping in a VHS of the luminous masterpiece that is the BBC’s version of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” My siblings and I merrily binged on the B- grade videos, captivated by the monstrously sized animal costumes and enthralled with the child actors’ British accents and whiny line reads.

One of the memorable scenes in the first movie, “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” is when Father Christmas makes a surprise appearance and delivers gifts to the children – to Peter, a shield and sword; to Susan, a bow and horn; to Lucy, a dagger and bottle of healing cordial. The St. Nicholas doppelganger explains that the presents “… are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.”

While Peter and Susan use their tools/weapons shortly afterwards, Lucy doesn’t implement her potion until much later in the storyline, right after the battle, when she dispenses the remedy to save her other brother, Edmund. The youngest character – and inarguably, most loyal believer in the Lion/Redeemer Aslan – has to wait through most of the plot to use her incredible gift of healing.

There’s a gift I had to wait many Christmases to impart. I knew it was an ability I possessed – a longing God placed in my heart – I just lacked the opportunity to carry it out because I could not conceive or carry a child.

God did what He does, in providing mercies beyond what we ask or deserve, and blessed me with two loud, energetic boys that allow me to fulfill the gift of motherhood and engage my skills of nurturing, teaching, and cleaning all manner of messes.

Now, the tension between which gifts I want to give and which gifts I can give is different. Being a mom is gratifying and challenging and joy-bringing and humbling, and it also takes a lot of time. Sometimes I wish I could do more, cultivate other talents – specifically, writing. But my parenting style and annoyance threshold are such that I can’t ignore the chaos long enough to concentrate at the computer. So I can’t do more; I can’t give more.

And honestly, it can be frustrating. Buried talents bear no fruit.

Others might understand these feelings of gift neglect. I know individuals who are talented speakers, teachers, and medical professionals who cannot readily implement these skills because they’re caring for their families, and tending to sick loved ones, and guiding important ministries – doing hard and good things to serve others at the cost of letting certain gifts lie dormant.

This holding back can make you discouraged, upset that your current commitments are stifling your other abilities … making you ashamed for feeling discontent about your present acts of service … making you become disillusioned with the idea of who you thought God created you to be … making your work now seem labored, overwrought from all the overanalyzing you’ve done about this whole gift thing. Or maybe that’s just me.

Maybe God is simply stashing away our gifts to mature us, or to teach us some truth during our wait, or to preserve them until the exact moment someone needs saving, as in the case of Lucy and her cordial.

Regardless of the reasons for His timing, we know from God’s Word that gifts should be used for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7) and for building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). Sure, we can find joy in our jam, but the main purpose for any special abilities God grants us isn’t our personal gratification. They’re for the edification of others and the exaltation of His name (1 Peter 4:10-11).

There’s encouragement to be gained when we recognize the ultimate goals for our gifts and focus on the truth about God’s character and our worth in Him.

Be patient. God is honing that beautiful bent of yours – the one He gave you through the overflow of His abundant goodness – and He will not fail His purposes for it, and for you.

Live now. Each day is full of new mercies and opportunities to draw on the Lord’s strength and diffuse His blessings to others through whatever services your hands find to supply.

Walk by faith. The Spirit gives gifts as He wills according to His manifold grace. We can live assured that His love poured out to us for others will not be wasted.

We can bear our gifts well regardless of whether or not we can yield them immediately. All we must do is trust God to let us use them when and how He wants and take the present step of obedience glorifying Him as the Giver of life everlasting.

Swan song for the little season

As the leaves are shifting colors and the millenials are rushing to grab their long-awaited pumpkin spice lattes, I’m passing into a new season that’s eliciting emotions as variegated as the shades of fall.

I’m now a school mom. My kids are going to school. One in kindergarten, one in preschool, which means that for six hours out of the week, there are no children in my home.

That’s cause for celebration, you might think, and you’d be right. Not just for me, gaining valuable “time for myself,” but for my sons, who are growing in knowledge and facing constructive challenges and discovering more of this big, beautiful world God created. I’m excited for them, excited to see how they will flourish in these new adventures, and excited for me to be able to go grocery shopping and not have it be an adventure.

But honestly, I’m also sad. My season of motherhood is changing. Six hours without children means I’m mothering less. That’s not to say that a mom who works full-time outside the home or a SAHM with all school-aged children is any less of a mom – their children are continuously present in their minds and hearts and daily activities. They’re just in a different season or situation.

As my oldest stepped foot inside his kindergarten classroom, I crossed a threshold of another kind, entering the school phase, starting to leave the early childhood phase.

I’ll miss this phase – the getting down on the floor building train tracks, shaping Play-Doh cuisine, reading and snuggling on the couch, soothing hurts with kisses and tickle fights phase. It is a time when – to my ever-living vexation, as well as my gratification – my kids were almost always with me, and needed me for so many different things. It is a role I longed for, for so long, and finally got to experience, and enjoyed immensely.

That’s why, when I waved goodbye to my son and stepped foot outside his kindergarten classroom, I let the tears loose and marveled at how five years passed by in a blink of milestones, building upon one another, leading to greater possibilities.

It is the beginning of something new; the closing of a chapter of something precious.

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I took my youngest to toddler story time at the library the other day. Yea, I know. Potential big mistake. Spending time with younger mothers, or at least, mothers with younger kids, might be a painful reminder of what once was – their tiny scampering tots and snappy strapped baby carriers and swelling belly bumps a blatant, flashing signal: THIS IS NOT YOUR WORLD ANYMORE.

I smile at them. I watch their little ones waddle around, fall down, cry.

I remember those days, caring for two 2 and unders. They were hard. I was exhausted all the time, frazzled half the time, probably legitimately semi-crazy.

I’m glad I’m not currently in that season. I loved my babies when they were babies, but I don’t need them to be babies anymore. I don’t need to turn back time. Getting past spit-up and tantrums and potty training is a blessed thing.

Why, then, do I feel this twinge of sadness knowing all that is behind me? I see these other sweet mamas, scooping up their children and cradling them at the hip, and my heart bursts with thankfulness for my own children – that, and a sort of wistfulness for the times I used to scoop them up and cradle them.

This amalgam of emotions is hard to explain. The best comparison I can come up with is perhaps a woeful commentary on what we all now hold dear: our own entertainment. Imagine Netflix (because network TV is mostly terrible) just announced it is still airing your favorite show, but with four fewer episodes. You’d be bummed, right? This means you’ll have less pre-prison flashbacks, alleyway fight scenes, and stranger things to savor. Your enjoyment has been diminished.

There’s another way to think about it. I have several female friends who are amazing craftswomen. They create exquisite works of art with ink, with thread, with wood, with both inert and organic materials. They pour their love and lifeblood into their designs – you can tell – and in doing so, bring pleasure and beauty to those around them.

Being a hands-on mom of young children is like that for me. It’s where I thrive. I have hobbies and other creative pursuits – writing being one of them – but this mothering gig is my favorite. Of course I’m not perfect. That’s not the point. It’s simply something I enjoy. One of the best things in the world for me is making my kids laugh, and laughing with them.

God gave me this gift of motherhood, and I have relished it.

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I have a list of approximately 142 topics I want to blog about, and this isn’t one of them.

I don’t know why I’m writing this jumble of words. Usually, I have some type of higher purpose for writing and sharing personal reflections beyond mere emotional appeasement.

Certainly, it’s not to make other mothers who disliked the early childhood phase feel bad about themselves. We all have ages and stages that aren’t our cup of tea. Middle schoolers scare the crap out of me.

Perhaps it’s to encourage young mamas to “cherish every moment.” *Gag* No, that’s not it.

Or it’s to warn others about idolizing their children and seeking satisfaction in ways that only their Savior can fulfill. Oh wait. Been there; done that; felt the regrets; blogged about it.

Lacking a solid concept, I go to the all-wise Internet for guidance. I find a reassuring article by Jen Wilkin talking about the back to school blues and Christian mommy guilt – that is, the tension a mother feels as she questions if she loves Jesus as much as she loves her kids. She explains that although we might view love as limited and quantifiable – like a “cosmic batch of heart-shaped cookies” – our love for our kids can express our love for Christ; we take the cookies He gave us and give them to our kids, which, ultimately, gives the cookies back to Him.

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That’s a lotta cookies and a lotta love. I like the sound of that. Maybe that’s my point.

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Besides that part of me that wants to turn this into a moralizing mommy lecture, there’s the part that wants to slap myself upside the head and shout “Pull yourself together, woman! This is not a Bachelorette breakup-level crisis! It’s not like your boys are going off to college yet.” (As a word of advice, do not read Jen Hatmaker’s Facebook post describing when she dropped off her oldest son at college. Just don’t. It’ll destroy you. Same goes with the Nicole Nordeman slow-the-heck-down-time song.)

Really, this is not a crisis; it is a process. We are transition-ing, adjust-ing.

My boys are adjusting to the lengthened time apart from one another, and figuring out how to manage their divergent strategies for coping with that separation (wrestling vs. talking). I’m adjusting to having a modicum of peace and quiet. My husband is adjusting to me having a modicum of peace and quiet during which I plan new cleaning and organization projects for us to work on.

As the four of us continue adjusting and learning and growing individually and together through this new school phase, I look forward to seeing how God continues writing our family story. I anticipate discovering what my kids will learn in school, who they will love and marry, how they will bring light and goodness to the world around them.

Through all of that learning and loving and light-bringing, I will thank Him for giving me this family and for making me a mom. And as I thank Him, I will fondly, gradually bid farewell to those early childhood days and a season of life I will treasure forever.

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Kindergarten

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This boy is going to kindergarten.

This boy is a little nervous, more than a little excited, and so very eager to learn and engage in the world around him.

This boy has an inquisitive mind, a servant heart, and a mischievous twinkle in his eye that both disturbs and delights those entrusted with his care.

This boy has challenged my authority, besieged my sanity, and turned many a hair on my head a lovely shade of gray.

This boy was the answer to numerous prayers, a testament to God’s prevailing faithfulness, and a living expression of the meaning of “worth the wait.”

This boy will grow up, look back and read this sappy post, and likely be mortified by my mushiness – and I will nonetheless write it, because I love him.

This boy – the one who leaves messes in his wake, who embraces new adventures and leaps into opportunities, whose hugs come in the form of a tackle – the one who made me a mama – is going to thrive in school, in vocation, in life in general, all while bringing light and laughter and hopeful enthusiasm to those around him.

This boy is going to kindergarten, and I am going to miss him.

#HonorAllMoms

Hands

Mom. A word that evokes…

So many labels:

Biological. Adoptive. Foster. Expectant. Bereaved. “Real.” Birth. Legal. Spiritual. Single. Working. Stay-at-home. Soccer. Helicopter. Teen. Grand. Great-grand. God. In-law. In-love.

So many descriptions:

Sleep-deprived. Stressed. Worn out. Exasperated. Caring. Strong. Selfless. Gracious.

So many emotions:

Grief. Bitterness. Worry. Disappointment. Joy. Pride. Gratitude. Love.

So many seasons:

New. Veteran. Challenging. Fulfilling. Full house. Empty nest. Waiting; waiting; waiting: For the positive test. For “the call.” For the paperwork to go through. For them to come home. For them to leave home. For you to go Home and see them once again.

Whichever your type, whatever you’re called, however you’re feeling, wherever your place…

You are important. You are worthy. You are loved.

Your Heavenly Father is carrying you, His precious child, as you carry yours in your arms, in your heart, in your clinging to Him.

#HonorAllMoms

My Pinterest party is better than yours

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I had a sobering revelation the other day. While texting a friend about planning speakers and activities for our moms’ group, I discovered a major shortcoming in my life, and perhaps fatal flaw in my involvement helping lead this group:

I have no marketable skills to offer other moms.

Fellow mamas have come and shared their expertise in cooking, couponing, photography, fitness, and DIY home décor. Massively talented women have given us tutorials on floral design, taught us about learning styles, and straight up preached to us about Scriptural truths for nurturing relationships.

And what do I bring to this well-endowed table?

My current list of qualifications includes proficiency in cleaning toilets, experience baking “healthy” and “tasty” treats, and aptitude for completing complex tasks such as driving. Before becoming a full-time stay-at-home mom, I worked as an editor for a company that publishes magazines covering everyone’s favorite subject matter: electrical engineering. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism.

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Given the general population’s concern with grammar and spelling, I’m confident I could enthrall an audience with a presentation on verb tense consistency, dangling modifiers, and improper apostrophe placement. Or, I could talk about my infrequently updated blog. I’d call it, How to Write a Melancholy Post on a Serious, Intensely Personal Issue. That’d be a winner, for sure.

There’s another gift I could share with the group, though I hesitate to mention it due to the level of difficulty involved. Out of the generosity of my heart, I’m going to reveal the secrets behind my flair for throwing an epic kids’ birthday party. Don’t fret if you can’t follow this complicated process:

Step 1: Log into Pinterest, search a party theme, and pin your favorite ideas.

Step 2: Execute those copied ideas.

I just know you can’t even.

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Obviously, I’m joking here. Merely using a little sarcasm, self-deprecating humor, and silly modern colloquialisms to illustrate a point.

We are continually comparing ourselves to others as a frame of reference to evaluate our talents, abilities, and even self-worth. We all do it, all the time. Us moms are particularly susceptible to this temptation, though it applies to any person who falls under the category of Someone Who Is Alive.

Psychologists describe this process through social comparison theory, which suggests that people have an innate drive to analyze themselves in relation to others. Engaging in these comparisons helps us establish benchmarks by which we can make accurate assessments of ourselves.

You don’t need a PhD in Psychology to realize the danger here. Looking at it in the context of motherhood, you can readily find another mom who’s having a bad day and congratulate yourself for having your crap together better than she does. Conversely, you can see another mama who appears to be crushing this parenting gig and walk away thinking you’re a total loser. Problem is, neither of these conclusions necessarily provides an accurate representation of you or your counterparts.

Thus blooms the potential for a person’s descent into insidious introspection, relationship-damaging resentment, and joy-sucking discontentment.

A while ago I was reading about this topic in a Christian self-help book (gotta admit, not my fave genre). To deter unhealthy comparisons, the author proposed several useful strategies and one pretty ridiculous one. These included asking God to show you areas of vulnerability (great), responding with humility and gratitude (awesome), and ignoring everyone around you (huh?).

While I agree that you shouldn’t let comparisons run wild and wreck your life, it seems too simplistic to prescribe a “just say no” treatment to an instinctive cognitive process. It would require shutting down part of your brain, a feat equivalent to getting my energetic 5-year-old to sit at the dinner table for more than five minutes without squirming, fidgeting, or flopping around. Good luck with that.

I think there’s a more effective strategy available for managing the ill effects of upward social comparisons (i.e., you’re better than me).

Let’s face reality and accept that we can’t win at everything. When someone is truly better than us in some way, instead of allowing our deficiency to tear us down, let’s acknowledge their strength and build them up through respectful admiration and earnest imitation.

This radical view on comparisons dawned on me the summer we moved from Missouri to Oregon. As we waited to close on our house, my husband lived at a hotel so he could start work while our sons and I stayed with my brother- and sister-in-law and their two sons. Caring for four boys ages 2 and younger under the same roof was absolute crazy town. Just try to imagine the amount of poop we cleaned and the number of tears we all shed.

My sister-in-law, Kim, and I were a great team, tossing each other diapers when we were in a bind, initiating story time when meltdowns reached critical mass, and high-fiving each other on our way to house-wide naptime. We had ample opportunity to witness each other’s ups and downs and see how the other person handled the stress of raising littles.

The main takeaway from my period of observation? The fact that Kim had a million times infinity more patience than I did. She had a knack for handling conflicts with remarkable composure and on many occasions calmed her kids and mine by maintaining a level head. Then there was me – flipping out whenever my toddler darted off on his own and muttering obscenities every time my infant refused to eat his pureed peas. Compared to my long-suffering sister-in-law, I was a People of Walmart-level Mom Fail.

During a rare moment of logical lucidity, I considered some options for how I could respond:

Option 1: Be pissed at myself for being a terrible mother.

Option 2: Be pissed at my sister-in-law for making me look like a terrible mother.

Option 3: Be impressed by her strength, give her credit for being an awesome mother, and aspire to be like her in this regard.

Recognizing Option #3 was a game-changer for me. I discovered I could skip right over the rabbit hole of self-incrimination leading to the Land of Resentment and jump onboard the Affirmation Bandwagon, cheering others on as they use their talents and emulating their example to become a better person.

Later that summer, when encountering moments of child-induced duress, I tried to pause and ask myself, What Would Kim Do? Would she diffuse the situation by making silly faces or starting a tickle fight? Or would she get down to toddler eye level and ask simple questions to determine the best course of action from the child’s point of view? The bag of tricks didn’t work every time, but it helped me remain calm and act in a more loving manner.

I agree that it is important to “stay in your lane” and keep your eyes focused on the race God set before you (Hebrews 12:1). However, I believe there is value in observing others, not in the spirit of competition, but to appreciate the gifts God has given the whole body of Christ and to spur one another on in the areas where God made you shine (1 Corinthians 12, Hebrews 10:24).

So maybe I use a search engine like a boss and throw a better kids’ birthday party than you do. But I’m certain you have many other fine qualities that I’d love to commend and copy as freely as I do other pins.

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The post-pregnancy post / Alternate title: How becoming a mom didn’t make me happy and why I’m (now) OK with that

Well, here it is, 15 months after giving birth to my second son, my first biological child, and I’m finally getting back into this blogging thing. Who knew raising two kids 2 and under (now 3 and 1) would hinder insightful, reflective journaling about one’s innermost thoughts and feelings?

As it turns out, it’s difficult to be aware of your own thoughts and feelings – let alone write them down – when surrounded by the soft, lilting sounds of children crying, fussing, and screaming to get your attention. So, I’ll use my new favorite go-to excuse and blame my kids for not being able to blog for a while.

But truth be told, there’s a more significant reason why I haven’t updated the blog in a long time: I wasn’t ready. Last year was a big one for our family – Linus was born, we moved from Missouri to Oregon, and I went crazy (husband edit: crazier). I look back at my last post and shake my head in sympathy for poor, naïve Jennifer, who was so thankful for God’s blessing of enabling her to get pregnant and so unsuspecting of the storm that would hit pretty much immediately post-pregnancy. Almost the whole first year of Linus’s life was all shades of awful for me emotionally and spiritually, which is unfortunate given that many good things transpired during that time. Yet that’s the ugly reality that inhibited my desire to share my personal experiences with the blogosphere or most anyone outside my family.

A lesson in restraint
As the Lord began pulling me out of that dark, self-absorbed swamp, He urged me to participate in a Beth Moore study (I heart Beth!) called Sacred Secrets. Out of the many theologically meaty messages I gleaned from the study, two of her little slogans stood out to me:

  • We must be authentic with all, transparent with most, and intimate with some.
  • Before you can shout on the rooftop, you need to get in the closet with Jesus.

The first catchphrase probably doesn’t require much explanation; you can likely see the value of limiting how much private information you divulge and carefully determining with whom you share that information – in other words, don’t spill your guts to your social network. The second has to do with waiting to tell others about what God is doing in your life until you’ve actually spent some quality time alone with Him, being still and listening to what He has to teach you.

I’ll touch on the second point later; for now, I’ll address what the first has to do with blogging. You see, before I started doing this study, I thought I’d write my next blog post on my postpartum experiences: how I was overwhelmed with panic attacks before I left the hospital; how I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t nurse; how I went all OCD about my newborn’s schedule (yes, I tried to put my not-yet-even 1-month-old on a schedule); how my longtime, forever unwelcome companion anxiety teamed up with debilitating self-doubt about being a mother of two young children and dragged me way, way down into what felt like an inescapable pit of crazy hormones and uncontrollable emotions. But then I realized that in the wide world of those who for whatever reason start reading my blog, very few individuals, if any, would benefit from hearing all about my tales of woe during that period of my life.

Others who have endured postpartum issues much more challenging than mine have written on the subject and probably helped a host of women – for example, my incredible sister shared in her blog the story of how God carried her and my nephew through a difficult pregnancy, bed rest, and subsequent post-delivery struggles. While I don’t mind discussing my postpartum experiences with someone one on one, in the interest of being cautiously transparent and not overly intimate in a blogging context, I’m going to limit that disclosure to the preceding semicolon-riddled borderline run-on sentence and instead focus on the much more important lesson I believe God has been teaching me since I started blogging about my infertility issues five years ago.

Before I launch into the point of this post (yes, I’m dawdling about as much as my 3-year-old does brushing his teeth at bedtime), let me issue a word of warning to those who are currently struggling with infertility: the rest of this post is going to piss you off. You’re hurting, frustrated, desperate for some solution that will result in a child for you to hold and call your own. The last thing you want is for someone who adopted and then got pregnant to get all preachy and talk about how there’s more to life than having a baby.

Some of what I’ll share about my emotions throughout last year might make you think I’m ungrateful for the two blessed boys God has given me, and unfortunately, that has been the case at times. I believe what I have to say is important for women facing infertility, but it is a tough pill to swallow (a heckuva lot tougher than my postpartum antidepressant), and I know I would’ve been less than receptive had I read this, say, right after our IVF debacle.

So if you’re at the point where the next pregnancy announcement on Facebook is going to push you over the edge, you might want to hold off reading the rest of this post until you feel ready to handle some harsh words from someone on the other side of Unplanned Non-Parenthood (cross-ref to previous post for other fun terms). If you’re up for reading more, I pray that this will in some way encourage you to persevere as God gradually reveals His purposes for your trials.

A staggering question
Now, getting to the heart of this already rambling post, let me take you back to last fall, after we moved to Oregon. We had survived the rough couple months of packing, traveling, crashing at various family members’ houses, and finally settling into our new home. Kids were sleeping fine, Colin’s job was well underway, and life in general was stabilizing after half a year of changes and challenges. Although the more severe postpartum issues had thankfully subsided by then, I was still as temperamental as a toddler and as sullen as an Emo preteen, all to the detriment of everyone else in the household, even our poor dog. One day, my wonderful husband, who is so good at encouraging me when I’m hurting and calling me out when I’m being ridiculous, asked me point-blank, “Jennifer, are you happy? Because you don’t seem happy.”

That question floored me. My immediate reaction was whatever the female equivalent is to a kick in the balls. It shocked me because in all the craziness after giving birth, learning to care for two kids, and preparing for the move, I hadn’t stopped to think about being happy or unhappy; I was just trying to survive.

As the shock of Colin’s question wore off, I got sucked into a whirlwind of introspection that ripped open some of the nastier parts of my thought life and revealed a terrible truth: I wasn’t happy. After years of heartache and disappointment, I had gotten what I wanted – two beautiful children, the experience of adoption as well as pregnancy, even the ability to be a full-time stay-at-home mom – and I wasn’t happy. What I thought would be fulfilling and enjoyable instead felt frustrating, exhausting, and tedious. I had wanted so badly to be a mother and devote my time to caring for my children, and now that that had happened, all I wanted was time for myself to take care of my own needs.

I thought being a mom would give my life purpose, satisfy my desire to help others; I thought being a mom would give me joy. While I knew I absolutely loved my kids and was thankful for their lives, I found the day-to-day task of being their mom far from rewarding, and the moments of happiness I derived from my maternal duties seemed so few and far between that I questioned if I should’ve kept working outside the home to dedicate my time to more gratifying endeavors.

Then came the guilt. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be grateful for the many blessings God had given me and take pleasure in serving the children I once thought I’d never have? Why did I feel like I was losing more of my identity since becoming a full-time stay-at-home mom – the main role I’d wanted to play my whole life, the role I thought would define my identity? And what was wrong with my kids? Sure, they’re stunningly adorable, but they’re also fussy, disobedient, obnoxious, and impossible to control. Why couldn’t they be as happy as everyone else’s kids look like on Facebook, and thus make me happy?

A rewarding revelation
If you’re into numbers and counting like my eldest son is right now, you’ll notice that the terms “I,” “me,” and “my” were used 14 times in the preceding paragraph. Through this self-evaluation regarding my happiness or lack thereof, God convicted me about being entirely too focused on myself and conforming my overall outlook on life according to how my expectations were being met or unmet. In short, I was being selfish and discontent, and I really needed Jesus to help me rearrange my desires and relinquish my need for control.

Beyond the much-needed conviction about my self-preoccupation, the Lord had another vitally important insight for me to grasp, which is where my wannabe BFF Beth Moore comes in again. In the study, Beth drawls on and on about the opportunity and desperate need to meet with Jesus in “the secret” as described in Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

That the Creator of the universe invites me to communicate with Him in a private, intimate way is an incredible truth to try to process in and of itself. Then there’s the fascinating part about a reward. The word “reward” is thrown around a lot in Christian conversations, and it’s an interesting term for me because of how people use it in connection with my infertility “journey” (another term I dislike). Getting pregnant was not a reward for adopting; my biological son was not a reward for my adopted son. From my perspective, neither Calvin nor Linus is a reward; both my sons are gifts given in the same manner as salvation: not as a result of my faithfulness, but by God’s grace alone.

Since I tend to be wary of reward-related discussions, I wasn’t sure where Beth was going with her emphasis on the Father’s reward in Matthew 6:6. But her words struck me so precisely, as to the most important lesson I was missing in the past six years of lows and highs and then lows again, that I feel compelled to repeat this quote from her study guide every day as a reminder of the true source of happiness and contentment:

“The best reward of all isn’t the stuff God has for me. The greatest reward is Him. Oh that I would fully dwell in Psalm 37:4: ‘Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.’ When I delight myself in the Lord, He rewards me with the delight of my soul: Himself.”

Amazing, isn’t it? God gives some pretty incredible gifts, but none as incredible as the gift of knowing Him. And even better – the reward gained from wanting to know Him more is enjoying Him more. This blew my whole quest for inexplicably unfulfilled longings out of the water and cleared my vision to see more of His reasons for the circumstances He had me undergo the past several years.

You see, I thought God wanted me to go through failed fertility treatments and procedures so that He could give me Calvin, and He did.

I thought God wanted me to get pregnant so that He could give us another son and give Calvin a brother, and He did.

I thought God wanted me to endure infertility and experience both the processes of adoption and pregnancy so that He could use me to encourage other women in similar situations through a ministry I would’ve never imagined I could participate in and be blessed by, and He did.

Beyond all these things, I now think God wanted me to walk through infertility, adoption, pregnancy, and postpartum depression so that He could show me that He is my life’s purpose; He defines my identity; He gives me unending joy.

A freeing truth
Finding fulfillment in Christ alone isn’t a new concept for me. Growing up as a church-raised, Christian-school-educated girl, the idea of contentment was hammered into my head continuously, and the value of knowing Jesus was rightfully lauded in various catechisms, devotions, sermons, and praise songs. Colin and I even had “In Christ Alone” played at our wedding. But knowing something to be true and actually experiencing it are two different things; for example, you can know that the Grand Canyon is a breathtaking marvel of nature, but not fully realize its magnitude until you see it in person. That’s how I feel about this Scriptural truth. I couldn’t know that Jesus alone could satisfy my deepest desires until my other desires were filled and I still came up short.

I don’t think this realization negates the pain and disappointment I suffered through infertility, or conversely, diminishes the happiness and pleasure I received from going through adoption and pregnancy. Those were real emotions and real experiences, and God carried me through them all. However, recognizing that He is my ultimate source of joy – my “reward” – helps widen the lens of hindsight to show more of His plans during those ups and downs of my life. This also grants me a fresh sense of freedom – freedom from the pressure I put on myself to enjoy every moment as a mom, and freedom from the pressure I put on my kids to fill my life’s longings – something they weren’t created to do.

This neat, far-from-concise lesson is all well and good now that I have two children and am not currently struggling with any major challenges. As I said before, I wouldn’t have read this post and received the message very graciously back when I was in the thick of hope-dashing fertility treatments. But I needed to hear this truth then and continue to need it today, and I pray that those who are waiting to become parents will have confidence that God will give them much more than what they’re aching for right now. Remember that whole “dating God” phase in recent Christian history, when some well-meaning but kinda silly girls declared, “Jesus is the only man I’ll ever need”? Think of it this way: Jesus is the only baby you’ll ever need. Or, to keep it simple and less awkward-sounding, Jesus is Whom you need.

As for my closet conversation with Jesus, that’s still ongoing. Ask me in a few weeks; I’m sure I won’t have this contentment thing figured out by then. But that doesn’t worry me. All relationships take time to build; all relationships go through ups and downs, and require investment to develop any sort of intimacy. And while I don’t always feel like I can find fulfillment in Christ, I know that He alone satisfies, and I need Him to help me see that and want that.

In his book “The Weight of Glory,” my all-time favorite author C.S. Lewis compares this aspect of the Christian faith to a student who at first submits to Greek grammar lessons only to escape punishment and get good grades, then gradually begins to enjoy his studies:

“The Christian, in relation to heaven, is in much the same position as this schoolboy. Those who have attained everlasting life in the vision of God doubtless know very well that it is no mere bribe, but the very consummation of their earthly discipleship; but we who have not yet attained it cannot know this in the same way, and cannot even begin to know it at all except by continuing to obey and finding the first reward of our obedience in our increasing power to desire the ultimate reward.”

Some may have assumed I found a happy ending to my infertility story once my two sons were born; I know I did. But since the ultimate happy ending won’t come until I’m reborn to a new life with my Savior in heaven, I’ll find joy in the meantime knowing and serving Him here, thankful for and happy with the life He’s given me.

Laughing at God

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If you’re still in shock over our big announcement, you can get in line right behind me and Colin. Although I’m now in the second trimester and starting to see physical evidence of a baby on board, plus my indulgence in burger and pizza cravings, it is hard for me to believe that this is happening after four years of infertility, including a failed IVF attempt. Saying the words “I’m pregnant” seems like an out-of-body experience; hearing people ask how I’m feeling weirds me out; sitting in the OB waiting room makes me feel like Dorothy in Oz, wondering “How the heck did I get here, in this land of munchkins-in-progress?” Even at our first sonogram, I was stunned to hear a heartbeat and look at the fuzzy dot in the picture, all the while thinking, “Is that little person really inside me?” It has been a surreal and amazing experience, much like when we got the call that Calvin was going to be our son, and Colin and I are thankful beyond words for this unexpected blessing.

To answer the burning question on everyone’s minds, we did not do anything besides the usual birds-and-bees method of getting pregnant. This happened naturally, which in our case means miraculously. Four years of trying to conceive never resulted in a positive pregnancy test, even with several rounds of fertility treatments, including an IVF cycle that did not produce any embryos. We had just started looking into big-time fertility clinics, and went so far as to consult with a top specialist and do some testing, but found out that I was pregnant before trying any treatments. In the follow-up with the specialist to discuss the test results, which didn’t shed much further light on our infertility, his response to my pregnancy news was, “Well, I guess you finally got your good egg.”

Like the fertility doc, many people like to come up with explanations for how/why couples get pregnant after failing to conceive for many years. This is a natural reaction, and it is understandable how anyone can get caught up in the happiness of the moment to propose what seem to be good reasons for such extraordinary occurrences. Interestingly, the opposite is also true – that people like to formulate reasons why a couple can’t get pregnant, just like we all try to do when something bad happens in life, and somehow think that we know the purpose for why God causes/allows it to happen.

In our situation, I don’t know why God enabled us to get pregnant, but I give Him all the glory for answering this long-standing prayer. And while I don’t want to suppress anyone’s excitement or claim logical or spiritual superiority over anyone else, I feel compelled to clarify a few issues that challenge the most frequently stated explanations for why some couples get pregnant after struggling with infertility. The point isn’t to make anyone feel guilty for thinking and/or saying these things, but to enlighten others about the perspective of someone who is living this experience, and who admittedly doesn’t always have the patience to respond to recurring comments in as calm a manner as can be conveyed through a blog post.

We got pregnant because of our great faith
The Bible certainly talks about God rewarding faith – “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6) – but it also clearly states that humans have no clue what God is thinking besides what’s laid out in Scripture – “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?” (Romans 11:34). So although we witness blessings that could very well be given because of someone’s trust in the Lord, we really don’t know if that’s all or part of the reason why God decided to grant it.

Aside from this theological reasoning, I must confess that my faith in God to provide this particular blessing of pregnancy had over time shrunk to a size way more miniscule than a mustard seed. Colin and I had given up thinking that it would happen naturally, and had barely allowed a sliver of hope believing that it could happen if we tried IVF again at a top-rated clinic. We told our friends over dinner one night that there was no way we were going to get pregnant “on our own” – how could we, after four years of complete failure? While I believed that God could do the impossible, I figured He didn’t want to, and there wasn’t much of a point keeping that hope thriving. I didn’t stop praying that it would happen, but I gave up expecting God to answer my prayer with a “yes.”

Others, in the meantime, kept on praying and believing. Just a few months before we found out I was pregnant, my sister-in-law e-mailed saying that she had woken up the previous night and felt a strong and specific burden to pray for us to conceive. It was a good thing she e-mailed rather than called because my initial response was anything but gracious. Instead of being thankful for her commitment to pray for us, I essentially pulled a Sarah à la Genesis 18:12 and laughed at what I thought was a ridiculous waste of time. In my mind, there were millions of other more worthwhile requests to bring before the Lord, and I silently mocked her exercise in futility. Call it being jaded or simply realistic, I was done with believing I could get pregnant without medical intervention, and questioned if even that was possible. So if anyone’s faithfulness is to be credited for this pregnancy, it is those countless friends and family members who continued praying for us year after year, and whose prayers have now resulted in two blessed children.

We got pregnant because we just relaxed
Several people gave us this advice when we were trying to get pregnant – just relax, get a massage, go on a vacation – and now that we are, some people think it was a key to conception. While I’m not opposed to relaxation, and understand why people think a little R&R could help with the babymaking process, I don’t believe this reasoning is legit because it ultimately implies that infertility is either caused by stress or simply “all in your mind,” neither of which are accurate assumptions.

Infertility is a diagnosable disease. Something is going wrong with the sperm, the egg, or both. Even in so-called unexplained cases, fertility doctors assert that there are one or more physiological problems preventing conception from occurring. Stress can complicate or be a result of infertility, but it is not a cause. You would not tell someone with a chronic illness that if they “just relax” they will be cured. I believe the same principle applies to infertility.

That said, stress management techniques can help someone cope with the physical and emotional difficulties of infertility, just as they can help those suffering from chronic pain and disease. It’s not like I’d turn down a massage, even if I knew it wouldn’t cure a darn thing. For the purpose of full disclosure, I will say that I started acupuncture treatments several months before getting pregnant in an attempt to address bad cramps and bowel issues. In no way did I expect it to help with infertility; I just tried it knowing that it was a scientifically proven method for reducing stress and tension and for increasing circulation – all good things that can help with a variety of ailments. And now that I’m pregnant, I can’t say with any certainty that acupuncture was the magic bullet; there’s just no way to prove that it “fixed” the problem, especially not knowing exactly what the problem was to begin with. I guess acupuncture for me will be one of those things that some people assume is lame although they haven’t actually experienced it themselves, kinda like Twilight. My response to this would be: Don’t knock it ’till you try it (or read it).

And one final note about the “just relax” statement: Stress is a part of everyday life. Sure, some seasons of life are way more stressful than others, but does anyone really go a week or even a day without facing pressure or tension? My point here is that just because a couple stops trying fertility treatments and/or adopts a child (which I’ll get to next) does not mean that their stress over infertility or anything else in life suddenly disappears, thus making their bodies more conducive to pregnancy. On the contrary, adding a child to your family can increase one’s stress level, at least temporarily, and some would argue for the next 18 or so years until the kid leaves home. Stress is unavoidable, so assuming that those couples who end up conceiving after infertility were able to because they relaxed presumes that they’re living in fairytale world where worries don’t exist.

We got pregnant because we adopted
This explanation is about as popular as a “Call Me Maybe” parody, and considering the number of times I’ve been told this, is about as repetitive as the lyrics. It does seem that we all know or have heard of a couple who got pregnant after adopting, and now we are one of those couples. Although I can’t refute this claim since I’m living proof of it, I have to reiterate what I said in the previous section about infertility being a disease.

Adoption provides a way to add a child to your family, but it obviously cannot cure the physiological causes of infertility. The evidence to suggest that couples who adopt often get pregnant thereafter is anecdotal and not scientific. My 5-minute Google search on “pregnancy after adoption medical study” didn’t turn up much besides a blurb from The Encyclopedia of Adoption citing a study done by Michael Bohman showing that 8% of adoptive parents ultimately have a biological child. (I apologize to my academic friends for not being able to find the primary source on this.) The text proposed that these instances could be attributed to the 20% of infertile couples diagnosed with “unexplained infertility” and stated that those who suggest adoption is a psychological cure to infertility are sadly misled. The rest of the top results included some variation of the title “myths about infertility,” including this neat little list from RESOLVE. In lieu of these statistics, or lack thereof, I think it is important to remember in the midst of rejoicing with those who get pregnant after adopting that the majority of infertile couples who adopt do not conceive, and may not want to be told that this kind of thing happens all the time – which is clearly not true.

My biggest issue with the pregnancy-after-adoption theory/fable is not the intention of anyone who makes these statements, but I think should be clarified nonetheless to demonstrate the purpose of adoption. Adoption is a means to an end of adding a child to your family; it is not a means to an end of getting pregnant. Both adopting a child and having a biological child are beautiful, Scripturally significant ways of building a family, and one way is not better than the other. Colin and I originally planned to have biological and then adopted children, but God wanted us to adopt a child and then have a biological child. It wasn’t our Plan A, but it was His Plan A, and it turned out far better than I could have dreamed.

As I said before, I don’t know why God enabled us to get pregnant, but I do know why He didn’t allow it to happen before this: so that Calvin could be our son. All the pain, disappointment, and frustration of infertility was more than worth it to hold my sweet boy in my arms and be his forever Mommy. And now there’s another reason why God didn’t want us to get pregnant for the past four years. A friend of mine who also struggled with infertility once told me that it wasn’t until her daughter was born that she understood God wanted that specific sperm to unite with that specific egg and create the embryo that became her daughter. For us, He shut down our babymaking machinery until the right moment when He would create the unique blueprint for this little guy or gal. I cannot say enough how thankful I am that the Lord gave me Calvin and this baby in His timing, even though for years I seriously doubted that His timing was good.

So be careful if you laugh at God. He may forgive your irreverent disbelief and shock your socks off with unimaginable blessings.