"The Weight": Repost for Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month by Cara Stolen

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To say I was blindsided by Royce’s cleft lip and heart defect would be an understatement. I didn’t see it coming, not for one single second, and the trauma of his birth forever changed the course of my motherhood journey. July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month, and to help raise awareness I’m re-posting one of the most vulnerable essays I’ve ever written about my experience.

These days, I hardly notice Royce’s scar, and his birth defects only come up twice a year: at his yearly well child appointment and the dentist. But his mild cleft lip was once all I thought about and all I (heartbreakingly) saw. And it forever clouded the way I think about and experience pregnancy.

The CDC reports that, in the United States alone, about 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate and 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate, ranking craniofacial anomalies among the most commonly occurring birth defects. While there is a link between folic acid intake during pregnancy and cleft lip and palate, there’s still a lot to learn about the occurrence of these types of defects.

Looking for ways to help fund research and treatment? ACPA (American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association) is my personal favorite. An easy way to donate is to visit smile.Amazon.com where you can donate a portion of each purchase to the non-profit organization of your choice. Select “Cleft Palate Foundation” to have Amazon donate directly to the ACPA on your behalf.

Another great way to help? Donate to your local children’s hospital. Often, private donors help bridge the gap between what private insurance covers and the balance owed by families. These private financial assistance programs can be lifesavers for families like mine.

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The Weight


June, 2015

The house is unbearably hot, but the sound of the window-unit air conditioners rattles my already frazzled nerves, so I’ve turned them off again. I stand in the tiny downstairs bathroom, looking at my foreign postpartum body in the mirror and watching as tears stream down my face. There is silence on the other end of the phone in my hand, my mom waiting patiently for me to get the words out, to take some of this weight from me and shoulder it as her own. I desperately try to control the tears, control my emotions, control the grief that I can’t even accept as grief yet.

‘He’s not the perfect baby I pictured. It’s just...I’m sorry, I’m just really emotional. I think it’s my hormones.’ I stammer between sobs. I turn from the miserable stranger in the mirror, and walk away disgusted with myself.

I feel a heaviness in my body. Much heavier than the tiny 7 pound newborn sleeping upstairs. Heavier than anything I have ever tried to carry before. Too much weight for one person to carry alone, but I am stubborn, and unwilling to admit that I need help.

***

May, 2016

‘How old?’ the middle aged checker asks as she scans my cart full of groceries. I am preoccupied with keeping my very active 11 month old from grabbing the candy, or gum, or yanking my card out of the chip reader again, so by the time I realize she has spoken to me she is staring pointedly, as if I have snubbed her.

‘Oh! I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you!’ I’m flustered, and my face feels hot, the weight of her gaze making me feel as though I should be better at this. ‘He’s 11 months!’

She turns to face him, and he leans as far away from her as possible in the seat of the cart. ‘It’s ok, buddy, you can say hi if you want,’ I say as I grab his hand and bounce it up and down in my own.

‘It’s ok,’ she says to me, her expression not exactly matching her words. ‘Would you like a balloon?’ she asks him, in what seems to be an attempt to make us all feel better about this awkward interaction. She turns back to me and raises her eyebrows, asking permission.

I nod, and smile. ‘He loves balloons, that would be great.’

She turns behind her, and untangles a ribbon from the web attached to her station, then hands the balloon weight carefully to him. ‘Here you go buddy, this will make that ouchie split lip of yours feel better.’

I can’t hide my confusion and irritation, and I feel my face contort into a look of pained annoyance. Knowing that she is referring to his Cleft lip, I stammer out a thank you and wheel the cart to my car.

After unloading the groceries and safely securing my son and his balloon, my hands shake as I call my husband in the parking lot. But he doesn’t answer, and I am left burning with anger, and irritation, and, if I’m honest, shame. Why can’t I get over this? Why do I even care what some stupid middle aged woman says about my son’s appearance? I drive home with tears streaming down my cheeks, overcome with the weight of it all.

***

February, 2016

‘Can I ask you something about his lip?’ a friend asks nervously. I am standing in a freezing cold arena, waiting to watch my husband rope. My son sits perched on my hip, completely enthralled by the bawling cattle, the horses, and the ropes flying through the air.

‘Sure.’ I say. But I already know what he will ask. His wife is pregnant, and I can see the worry and fear written all over his face.

‘Did you know about it before he was born?’

The question that so many people want to know, but are afraid to ask.

‘No. We had no idea. They missed it in all the ultrasounds. We didn’t find out until he was born.’ My answer disappoints him, and his nerves fill the space between us. I glance away, desperate to find my husband in the crowd, but it’s too late. His fear has added to the burdensome weight I carry, and I am left shifting my son from hip to hip, trying to balance my load.

***

August, 2015

Her name escapes me, but I remember her face. They have driven all night, ten hours from Eastern Montana with their son, at the urging of the rural hospital where he was born. She tells me about the rare genetic disorder that was discovered in utero, and apologizes for nervously checking her cell phone.

‘We have two older kids at home. I had to leave them with my mom…’ Her voice trails off, distracted by a message on her screen.

Glancing again at her son, I am taken aback by the tubes, and by the severity of his birth defects. Desperate to look away, I look around the waiting room we are sitting in, and see wheelchairs, and specialty medical equipment, and sick children everywhere I look. Each one of them accompanied by an exhausted, burdened caregiver.

I smile at the woman as she looks up at me again. So badly do I want to say something, anything, to ease her suffering. To ease my own suffering. But as I look at our two sons, side-by-side, I know that I am the lucky one. In the competition of ‘who has it worse,’ she wins. Every time.

When they call our name from the orange doors of the Craniofacial Clinic, I am surprised by how hard it is for me to get to my feet. I struggle under the weight of it all: the infant car seat, but even heavier, my grief, my shame, and my guilt.

***

February, 2017

The room is too dark, the couch is too soft. I am distracted by the mess of paperwork on the desk in the corner, feeling an overwhelming urge to tidy it up. I don’t want to be here. I have known this day is coming for weeks, and I’m still not ready.

‘Let’s see...where did we leave off?’ My therapist’s voice is calm, and I’m surprised by the anger I feel toward her. I want to shake her shoulders and scream in her face: ‘YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHERE WE LEFT OFF!’ Instead, I twist my sweaty hands in my lap, waiting for her to read through her chart notes.

Half an hour later, I have shredded three tissues, and sit surrounded by paper shreds, like a naughty cat, or nervous toddler. It has taken all of my strength to tell her what details I do remember of my son’s birth story, and I am emotionally spent and exhausted. ‘It’s ok to let yourself grieve. It’s ok to use the word traumatic.’

There it is. The permission I’ve been waiting for. The invitation to set down my baggage, and leave it in this dark, messy room. But I can’t. I look into her kind eyes, pick up my heavy bags, and struggle out the door, thinking of the mamas in that waiting room. The moms that have it worse. The moms that deserve their grief.

***

June 30, 2016 06:00

‘Will Mom or Dad be accompanying him back?’ the nurse-that-looks-too-young-to-be-a-nurse asks. The four of us are crammed into a tiny pre-op room, seated awkwardly around an iron-railed hospital crib that I refuse to stick my 12 month old son in. My husband and I exchange pained glances. We have discussed this already. It will be me. While I asked to be the one, part of me hoped that he would fight me on the issue.

When it’s our turn, I gather my sweet boy in my arms. He struggles against me, wanting to walk on his own and explore this new, strange place. I desperately try to stay in the moment with him, to see every detail of his face: his crooked grin and chubby cheeks, his white blonde hair and gap between his teeth; to remember how he looked as God gave him to me. But the hallway to the operating room is too dark, and I am distracted when the room itself looks everything and nothing like I expected it to. I need a minute. I want to scream at everyone to be quiet, to stop moving. I’ve been anticipating this day for 393 days, and now that it’s here I’m not ready.

***

June 30, 2016 14:00

I follow a different nurse down the same hallway, this time headed for post-op recovery. My heart beats in my ears, making it impossible to understand what he is saying to me. As we enter the recovery room my eyes frantically scan the cribs for my son. My heart jumps when I spot him: sitting on a nurse’s lap, in a tiny mickey mouse hospital gown, clutching his grey blankie with the hole in it.

Then, we are rocking together, as we have so many times before. Just the two of us, in this strange room, in this strange chair, surrounded by strange and unfamiliar noise. I stroke his hair, and gaze into his beautiful blue eyes, so filled with love and adoration. I examine his stitches, surprised by how few there are, and he smiles his big toothy grin at me. My breath catches in my throat. What was crooked is now straight. What was ‘broken’ is now fixed. And, to my surprise, I miss it.

We rock and rock, until they ask to move us. A still spot in a moving picture. Just me and my boy, and the heavy bags at my feet.

A Prayer for the Angry, Selfish Mom by Cara Stolen

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Heavenly Father, God of all things, Creator of sunshine, and motherhood, and ‘nola bars, thank you for the motherhood moments worth savoring.

The slobbery, yogurty kiss from a toddler who’s screamed for the better part of a morning. The unprompted I love you’s. The walk down the driveway when nobody cried or whined, and the late afternoon sun illuminated the wildflowers perfectly, and the preschooler exclaimed, “Oh, mama, LOOK,” mesmerized by the world You made.

You know, because You created that tired, overwhelmed mom, that she prefers silence to chatter and that her son’s incessant talking sends her over the edge by 7 a.m. on a semi-regular basis. You know that she longs to spend her days alone, lost in thought, instead of wiping bottoms and preparing food that may or may not get eaten. And You know that she thinks of her children as an interruption to her life entirely too often.

You know, because you see her struggle, how hard motherhood is for her—how much she agonizes over her parenting, how she berates herself for losing her temper again, and how difficult it is for her to be present in the moment and truly enjoy her kids. How counterintuitive it is for her to put the needs of her son and daughter before her own. You know how, when she gets really quiet and really honest, she wonders why she had those kids at all, and feels unfit to her core to mother them.

You know, because you hear her prayers, how often she asks forgiveness for her raised voice, her harsh words, her uncontrolled temper. How she withdraws to protect her kids and her husband from the anger festering inside her.

And you know, because You love her, how much those perfectly orchestrated little moments really mean to her. How they sustain and soothe her, breathing life into her weary soul and reminding her why she wanted to become a mother in the first place.  

That afternoon last month when her son asked if his sister could ride his balance bike? When they each held a side of the handlebars, and she perched her 18-month-old’s body on the seat as they walked slowly forward? You know the day I mean. On that afternoon, the warm sun caressed her still-pale-from-winter arms as a laugh bubbled up in her chest for the first time in weeks, its sound intertwining with her childrens’ giggles to create the most beautiful melody she’d ever heard. Her eyes met her son’s, and as she grinned she thought: Remember this. Remember this moment of pure joy, of being fully present, of loving my life so much I think my heart might explode.

It didn’t last (it never does), but that moment, brief as it was, sustained her through the tantrum-filled witching hour. It provided the fuel needed to get through the long book with real pages her son chose at bedtime instead of rushing through an eight-page board book they’d read a thousand times. Even weeks later, recalling how she felt in those brief seconds helps her suppress the resentment she feels toward her awake-too-early daughter’s screams this morning.

So thank you, Lord. Thank you for creating sunshine and wildflowers and laughter. Thank you for entrusting her those tiny humans whose needs are so great. But thank you, most of all, for the gift of moments worth remembering.

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "Remember This."

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Hand-Me-Downs by Cara Stolen

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Last winter, my tires crackled on old snow as I pulled into a parking spot at the Manastash trailhead beside my friend Mel’s white SUV. I’d dropped Royce off at work with Levi, and Maggie squealed with delight as I put the car in park. I turned off the engine just as Cori and Stacy parked on my right, and as I hopped out of my car, I saw Denee’s sedan on the other side of Mel.

I unbuckled Maggie and zipped her into the pink snowsuit that belonged to my friend Kelsey’s daughter Lizzy, then slipped on her hand-me-down purple, pink, and white striped gloves from Stacy’s daughter Claire. Then I velcroed her light blue Columbia hat, smiling when I heard Kaycee’s truck pull in to complete our group.

There are six of us moms who hike together. Our kids range in age from toddlers to pre-teens (mine are the youngest), and we are similarly varied in age, career, and background. But we are all mothers, and all love the mountains, which was enough common ground to create a sisterhood of sorts.

“Ohhhh, that hat used to be McKinley’s!” Mel exclaimed, looking at Maggie. “And Morgy wore it too.” She said, her voice filled with the kind of nostalgic emotion that we master as mothers.

“Really?” I asked. “It came in a bag of clothes from Stacy, so I thought it was Claire’s!”

Our group gathered behind my car, slipping spikes over our boots as we debated how many layers were appropriate for the weather. Someone held Maggie and slipped her into the pack on my back. Then, we were off, starting our watches as we began the steep ascent.

The conversation returned to the hat Maggie wore. Though it looked brand new, it was more than ten years old. And, to my delight, it had been worn by four of our daughters, not just three.

We spread out along the trail, our paces as varied as our personalities. At the top of the first steep section of the trail I stopped to catch my breath. Stacy and Kaycee waited with me, and as we set off again I mentioned how glad I was to get outside, and how relieved I was to get a break from Royce and his incessant chatter.

“I can’t wait ‘til he starts school.” I said. “He’s just … bored with me at home.”

“I remember feeling that way,” Stacy called from behind me. “But it really will be here before you know it. And he’ll start preschool this fall at least.”

***

There’s an old meat cooler attached to the far side of our shop. It looks a little like a mini shipping container—you know, the short squatty ones you sometimes see on the back of semis that are about half the length of a regular 53’ cargo container. My husband, who lived in our house when he was little, swears the cooling unit used to work, but it hasn’t since we bought the house from my father-in-law, so I claimed the cooler as my personal storage unit as soon as we moved in.  

I put one of those industrial storage racks from Costco along one wall and filled its shelves with carefully labeled mouse-proof plastic totes. There’s “Royce NB-3M,” “Royce 2T w/some 24M,” and “Maggie 6-12M,” all filled with precisely folded clothes my kids have grown out of. But there’s also “Royce 5T,” “Royce 6T,” two totes of “Maggie 4T,”—all filled with t-shirts, dresses, and jeans for them to grow into.

They’ve come from friends, family, and friends of friends. They’ve come in cardboard boxes, plastic totes, over-full garbage bags, and tied up grocery sacks. They’ve been handed to me by families across the pasture and delivered from as far away as North Carolina. And I’m grateful for every single boot, sweatshirt, and Onesie that’s there.

The clothes in those totes are more than just clothes. They’re a promise of life outside the trenches of early babies and toddlers. They’re a connection to other mothers and to the collective experience of motherhood.

***

We met up again at the summit, cheering each other on as we staggered up the last section of trail. In keeping with tradition, we snapped a photo, laughing as we arranged ourselves in an attempt to all be visible in the picture. Then, we began our descent.

I love everything about the climb up the ridge—my ragged breathing, my burning thighs, the killer view of Mt. Stuart—but with this group, I love the way down more. High on endorphins, we filled the air with our stories and laughter, and unlike the way up, we stayed in a tight pack.

Before I became a mom, I knew from Internet memes that I would need other moms in my life: a tribe or village or whatever you want to call it. I imagined a commune-style sisterhood of moms with babies close in age, who spent every day bouncing each other’s babies at each other’s houses in a perpetual state of togetherness. But when I actually became a mom I realized I didn’t really have any friends having babies at the same time, so for a long time I considered myself “tribe-less” and felt excluded, like I was missing out on one of the great joys of motherhood.

But the thing about an actual tribe, or village, is it doesn’t have to look anything like what I just described.

The beauty of a tribe lies in the variation and the similarity of its members, and the deep well of collective knowledge that exists within a diverse group of people.

As we approached the yellow gate at the bottom, Cori mentioned she had hand-me-downs for me. Stacy chimed in, saying she did too, and Denee remembered she brought a hat for Maggie that belonged to her daughters. I grinned, and as my boots crunched on the snow I thought about how lucky I am to have these women in my life.

They offer perspective and advice that my sisters in the trenches beside me just can’t. They offer to watch my kids while I go to the chiropractor, assure me that my son will, eventually, wipe his own butt and go off to school, and load boxes of hand-me-downs into the trunk of my car before sending me on my way with an encouraging hug and a smile.

But also? Their hand-me-down t-shirts, boots, and words are an invitation. A saved seat at the table of motherhood. And because of their hand-me-downs, because of their collective wealth of knowledge and love, I am a better, more competent mother.

I don’t think we were ever intended to mother in isolation. I think we were always meant to raise our babies in community, and that in some regards those silly Internet memes are right. We need the elderly women in the grocery store with years of perspective to remind us how fast these little tiny years go. We need the friends with attics full of hand-me-downs to guide us out of the trenches. We need our fellow soldiers, knee deep in tantrums and diapers and parenting books alongside us, to make us feel less alone in our struggle. And we need the moms behind us; the new moms, the not-yet moms, the longing-to-be moms, to teach us compassion, give us perspective, and, one day, empty our attics (or meat coolers) of hand-me-downs.

As they say: find your tribe, love them hard. We’re better mothers together.

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "We're Better Mothers Together"

On Rest by Cara Stolen

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From the window in my home office, I have a perfect view of the pasture closest to our house, where we feed our cows in the early spring. Every day, after I put the kids down for their afternoon nap, I stand at it for awhile. I’ve watched the snow melt and the sagebrush bud; observed the cows’ bellies widen and their udders expand as we draw closer to their due dates—signs of spring and new life.

Today, I lean against the warm glass and gently massage my lower back. I look for new calves and signs of labor in each expectant cow. In theory, that’s why I stand here every day: to make sure there isn’t a cow stalled in labor needing help to give birth. But more than that, I like watching the calm, quiet actions of our mama cows.

Our oldest cow, 1095, gave birth to her eighth calf last week. From this vantage point, I noticed her pacing circles around the pasture and knew it was time. An hour later, she licked her white-faced calf clean and then stood to feed him his first meal. I couldn’t help but grin, delighted by the miracle of life yet again.

I stretch to the side, then turn to face my desk. A stack of bills, an open day planner, two coffee cups, and a full email inbox await me. But as I start to sit, the washer chimes. I tiptoe down the hall and throw the clean clothes on our (still unmade) bed. On my way back to the laundry room, I catch sight of the kitchen, where dishes are piled in the sink and lunch remnants cover the island. I dash into the kitchen to clean up, telling myself it will only take a minute. With the dishwasher loaded and counters wiped, I head back toward the office, forgetting entirely about the clean clothes in the washer.

Glancing out the window on my way to my desk, I see 1095 and her calf making their way up the hill to the water trough. She nudges him gently with her nose, then steadies him when he stumbles on his still-new legs.

Observing other moms and babies makes me feel included. Part of. Because motherhood was created by God, and I’m filling a role he designed.

Ignoring the mountain of paperwork, I watch 1095 and her calf rejoin the rest of the herd. As her calf lays down, she touches noses with another, still expectant cow and swishes her tail at another cow’s calf, sending him back to his mom. Then she lowers to her knees and lays down beside her calf.

I pull myself away from the window and sit at my desk. Yawning, I take a sip of this morning’s (yesterday’s?) cold coffee, and read through my email. I respond to a few, delete others, and turn to tackle the paperwork on my left. I sort through it, tossing receipts and making notes in my planner of due dates and deadlines, but find nothing urgent. I should go fold that laundry, and make the bed. Maybe I’ll even have time to clean the bathrooms before the kids wake up.

Spinning around in my chair, I look out the window one last time. The whole herd is laying down now, all the new and expectant moms basking in the long-awaited warmth of spring after a longer-than-normal winter.

1095 tenderly licks her calf’s ear. I remember those early newborn days with both of my kids, but I’m struck by how little my mothering resembled hers. While she is completely present with her baby, I behaved much the way I do now and filled every moment with laundry and cleaning and work.

Trailing my fingers along the desk’s edge on my way out, I catch sight of the corner of my Bible, peeking out from under a power bill. It’s been a while since I’ve opened it—putting it off for a night I’m not so tired or during naptime after my chores are done. But that never happens, and every day my kids wake up from their naps to a clean house, clean clothes, and a tired, worn-out mom.

Why is it so hard for me to rest and let myself relax? If God created both 1095 and me for motherhood, why does her mothering look so easy and relaxed while mine looks so frenzied and exhausting? Did it take her eight babies to reach this point? Or does she just instinctively know something I struggle to accept: that God created us to work and rest?

The laundry can wait, I decide. I grab my Bible and tiptoe to the living room. Pulling a fleece throw from beneath the entertainment center, I sink into the corner of the couch and open its cover.

Thirty minutes later, I hear my son’s door open. His feet pitter-patter down the hall toward me, waking his sister, but I can’t help but smile. He rounds the couch with a “Hi, Mom!” and clambers into my lap. To my surprise, I’m not mad that he woke up my daughter. And for the first time in I-can’t-remember-how-long I’m ready, and delighted, for them to be awake; rejuvenated and refreshed by God’s word.