On Guarantees and Hard Babies by Cara Stolen

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When Maggie was a few months old, our pediatrician insisted that I leave her with him at the clinic and go to the pharmacy by myself. She had just screamed through yet another 15 minute appointment (we were becoming regulars by this point) I’d made in a desperate attempt to show her doctor what we were dealing with at home, hoping he’d validate the nagging feeling I had that something was wrong.

I’d already had a hard baby who didn’t sleep, screamed from 5-8 pm every night, and had Milk-Soy Protein Intolerance. But this was different. Unless she was completely upright, strapped to my chest in the wrap, Maggie was screaming. She arched her head and neck away from my breast with impressive strength, even when I knew she was hungry. And laying on her back to sleep wasn’t even an option. Instead, she slept chest-to-chest with me, as I lay mostly upright in bed, for 30-40 minutes at a time. I tried gas drops, and gripe water, and “colic calm,” but nothing helped. Nothing worked.  

After a few months of trying anything and everything we could think of, my sanity was holding on by a thread. Exhausted didn’t even begin to describe the sleep deprivation I was dealing with.

At that appointment, our doctor weighed her, performed a rectal exam, suggested a referral to Seattle Children’s, and said he’d like to try giving her a low dose of reflux meds. I’d stood, bouncing with her as she screamed, swiping at tears on my cheeks as he wrote out the prescription. Then, with a firm, insisting voice he’d said, “Leave her here with me while you go get the Omeprazole. You need a break.”

As I walked past the receptionists on my way out, I heard one of them ask the other, “What are they doing to that poor baby?” Fresh tears welled in my eyes as I walked out the glass door toward my car.

I drove across town and entered the pharmacy feeling like something was missing. With shaking hands, I handed the pharmacist the prescription and told her I’d wait. Then, I sat on a cold plastic chair and stared at the wall, thinking about how, yet again, I’d been ripped off by motherhood.

When I was pregnant with Maggie, I repeatedly heard some version of, “You’ll get an easy baby this time” from well-meaning friends. And I’d believed them, convincing myself that I’d done my time with a hard baby and was due for a good sleeping, good eating, happy-and-content infant.

At first, it seemed like I’d gotten exactly that. For twelve days, Maggie was the perfect baby. She slept for 4-5 hours at a time and nursed easily and efficiently. But then everything fell apart, and I felt cheated.

Omeprazole in hand, I drove back to the clinic. I parked, turned off the engine, and then just sat in silence feeling the combined agony of exhaustion, worry, and grief—summoning the strength to retrieve my hard baby.

Two years later, I wish I could go back and have coffee with my pregnant self. There are so many things I would tell her: naps aren’t for sissies, stop feeling guilty for spending a day snuggling on the couch with Royce watching Fixer Upper, and it won’t always be as hot as it was that summer. But mostly, I wish I could look in her eyes and gently remind her that there are no guarantees in life. That having a hard first baby doesn’t guarantee you an easy second. That you don’t “earn” something easy for enduring something hard.

Proverbs 27:1 says, “Don’t boast about tomorrow, for you don’t know what a day might bring.” But it’s so easy to do just that. To forget that our actions don’t ultimately control tomorrow’s outcome and think we deserve an effortless tomorrow based on today’s strenuous labor. To brag about our endurance and the reprieve it’s earned us.

But that’s not how this world works. This world is filled with disappointment and heartache and unfair outcomes.

Even now, with time and perspective, it’s hard for me to shake the disappointment of my second hard baby. But I’m disappointed because I put all of my hope in me and my ability to control the outcome of my tomorrow. And because of my disappointment, because of my misplaced hope, the thought of a third baby twists my stomach in knots. Because now I know exactly how little control I have.

Some mothers are given two (or more) hard babies, while others get easy baby after easy baby. Others will yearn for any baby at all, but fight infertility and heartache instead. Others will long for a girl and be given all boys. And still others will be given an “easy” baby that feels impossibly hard to them.

But all of it—from the way our babies sleep to their presence here at all—is out of our hands. There are no guarantees. Not with infant temperaments. Not with life. And all we can control is our hope and who we place it in.

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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 on "Rewriting the Script."

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Family photo by my talented friend Hailey Haberman.

Show Me The Way by Cara Stolen

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I helped Levi pull a backwards calf the other day. We were driving through our front gate when he leaned across me and pointed to one of our cows. “That’s not good,” he said.

To be honest, I couldn’t tell that anything was wrong. I squinted at her, but all I could see was that she had a foot out, so I assumed he meant she was just taking too long to have her calf. But he hopped out of the passenger side of my car before I’d even come to a stop, saying “backwards” as he slammed the door and ran to his pickup.

He roared down the driveway as I unloaded the kids, headed to get a horse from work. And twenty minutes later, I stood, pulling chains in hand, watching him rope the calving cow in the pasture behind our house. He swung his loop twice and caught her on the first try.

Together, we worked to get her tied off to a fence post in the half-finished pen behind our house where the head-catch will (eventually) be. He looped his slack around a post and alternated pulling from his horse, General Lee, with asking me to get her in closer. Eventually, we got her head a few feet from the post, and once Levi tied off to a second post he hopped off General and asked me to come get on.

I didn’t have time to think about the fact that I hadn’t ridden since before I got pregnant with Royce. I didn’t have time to think about it not being my saddle, or the stirrups being too long, or the irrigating boots I wore instead of riding boots. I just swung a leg over and took the reins and rope coils he handed me, following his instructions to “back him up and keep that rope tight.”

So there I sat, holding coils of blue rope in my right hand so tightly that my hand cramped, watching him strip down to his t-shirt before reaching an arm into the cow’s uterus to hook up the chains. He crouched for leverage, and said “it’s alive, barely” through gritted teeth as he pulled.

There’s so much here that I should probably explain if you’re unfamiliar with ranching, or cows, or calving. I’m far from qualified to give a lecture on calving cows, but Levi certainly isn’t going to, so I’ll just tell you the important things and get back to my point. For one, unlike humans, cows have a veryshort window of time in which to give birth after their water breaks (Google tells me 2-4 hours, but we allow 2, max), before their calf dies; for two, calves should be born front feet-head-body, not back feet-butt-body-head; and for three, most people use a stanchion to pull calves, which is basically a head and body “trap” that immobilizes the cow, and don’t use a horse and fence posts. So, to summarize: exactly nothing about this situation was ideal.

He tossed the pulling handle in the dirt and swore, then ran to me and unhooked his “backup rope” from his saddle. I knew better than to ask, so I just sat in silence as he ran back to the cow and tied one end of his rope around the chain hanging from the calves feet (still inside the cow…did I lose you yet?). He tied the other end to a fence post behind him, and stood on the rope. Then he tightened the fence post end and stood on the rope again.

The calf hit the ground in a splash of afterbirth and blood, and I winced. Levi grabbed a stick off the ground and cleared the calf’s nostrils, then bent to blow in its mouth. “Come on, come on,” he muttered, as he rubbed the calf’s belly furiously. Finally, the calf inhaled, and shook its ears just slightly, and I exhaled the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

With a pull like that, you want to leave the mom and baby alone as soon as possible, so you don’t interfere with their bonding. So when Levi said “Ok, get out of here,” I knew what he meant, and as soon as he cut the rope off the cow I kicked General to a trot.

I headed toward the back gate, and as I rode I thought about what we’d just accomplished. What Levi had accomplished. And I thought about how I sometimes take for granted how awesome it is to watch him do something he was absolutely called to do: take care of animals.

When it comes to the cows (or horses, or dogs for that matter), he knows just exactly what to do—reacting to chaotic situations with confidence, knowledge, and skill that is more than just the culmination of years of practice. Skill that is God-given.

In today’s world it’s easy to confuse obtaining success and wealth with living into God’s calling for your life: the former is much more visible to the outside world, while the latter often looks like pulling a calf, and keeping it alive, in a less than ideal situation. But isn’t following God’s path for your life more important than gaining notoriety and fame among your peers? It should be, but if I’m honest I don’t always live that way.

I ask God again and again to “show me the way.” To reveal my calling. To give me the wisdom and talent and skill to lean into that calling.

But I look for signs of my calling in all the wrong places. I look for validation from my peers, when I should be listening for God’s affirmation. I count Instagram followers and “likes” instead of patiently following God’s whispered instructions. And I often find myself jealous of other women who have “found their calling,” forgetting that their outward appearance and social media presence don’t necessarily have anything to do with their calling at all.

I reached the gate, and smiled down at my husband. He grinned back and said “nice ride,” as he held General so I could get off. Then, he loaded him in the trailer, kissed me goodbye, and headed back to work in a cloud of dust before I had a chance to tell him how amazing he is.

As I walked back to the house, I thought about how much I have to learn from Levi. About cows and horses, but also about what it looks like to live into God’s calling for my life. And I thought about how lucky I am to have that kind of example in the man I love most.

So, God, I’ll wait. I’ll listen and learn and follow your cues. Because I know that when it’s my time you will, indeed, show me the way.

Butterflies by Cara Stolen

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I grasped the cold fence panel with both hands, and leaned my forehead against the top rail as I watched. His movement was slow, calm, and steady. Holding the lead rope loosely in his left hand, he ran his right hand down the horse’s back. The gelding’s eyes flared behind a long black forelock, but he stood still, and the horse relaxed.

The wind blew my braided hair, and I squinted against the morning sun, mesmerized by the quiet confidence of the man before me. My heart beat hard in my chest, and my stomach tingled with butterflies. I’d never met anyone like him before, and I’d definitely never felt a feeling that strong before.

Though we’d talked on the phone every day for months, we’d only been on a few dates. I went to school two hours from where he lived, and the mountain pass between us made our time together infrequent.

But as I watched him saddle a three-year-old colt for the first time on that windy Spring day, I knew with utmost certainty that I could spend the rest of my life with him.

I was twenty.

***

I peeked through the double-paned glass of the house’s back door, my dress rustling behind me as I leaned forward. The white chrysanthemum in my hair tickled my right ear and momentarily distracted me from my nerves. But when I looked up again, I saw our photographer beckoning to me from outside.

“Ready?” she asked kindly as I opened the door.

The lump in my throat made it hard to speak, but I nodded to her to indicate I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Across the yard, his black wool vest and crisp white shirt stood out against the vibrant green grass. His back was to me, and as I waited for our photographer to take her place I thought my heart might beat out of my chest.

When she nodded, I gathered the white gauzy fabric of my wedding dress in both hands and walked slowly toward him in my mom’s well worn cowgirl boots. And as I approached him, I felt a familiar flutter in my stomach.

He turned to face me when I tapped him on the shoulder, and as our eyes met I burst into tears.

“I’m hot.” He whispered softly, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. I laughed, and dabbed my eyes with a tissue as he laughed too.

I’d warned him that wearing wool in August was a bad idea, but (ever practical) he’d insisted on buying a vest he’d wear again and again. So there he stood, with sweat beads on his forehead, looking handsome in a black vest made for December.

I was twenty-three, and I thought I could never love him more than I did on that hot August day.

***

The light at the head of the bed was on, illuminating the monitors and IV stand that I was no longer attached to. My hours-old son wailed in my arms, still swaddled tightly in the flannel hospital blanket. I heard the recliner squeak from across the room, and the gentle shuffle of his sock-clad feet on the linoleum floor. Then, he placed his hand on my arm, wordlessly offering to take our new baby.

Our eyes met as I handed him our son, both of us exhausted.

From the inclined headboard I watched the two of them settle into the green vinyl chair on the dark side of the room. He softly shushed our son to sleep before tipping his hat over his eyes and nodding off himself.

Though exhaustion coursed in my veins, I lay awake for a while, mesmerized by the two of them together. Amazed by this new exhibition of the quiet confidence I fell in love with. And as the butterflies took flight in my stomach, I marveled at how much more I loved him now at twenty-six than I did on our wedding day.

***

“Da!” Her feet pitter patter across the tile floor, as our daughter races toward the door. “Da! Da! Da!”

A diesel engine hums up the driveway, and our son throws himself against the window to see who it is. “Dad’s home! Dad’s home! Mommmmmmyyyy! DAD’S HOME!”

I smile and stir the stew on the stovetop. The kitchen is warm, filled with the aroma of browned beef and stewed tomatoes. I hum softly along with the Van Morrison song playing on my phone as I chop the last carrot for the salad. Glancing out the window, I’m surprised to find it’s still light outside—he hasn’t been home before dark in weeks.

His truck shuts off, the dog kennel door clangs, and finally, his boots clomp across the porch.

“Dad!” our son shouts as the front door squeaks open. “I wanna show you some-ting!”

I hear him whispering to our girl in the entry as I add the frozen peas to the bubbling pot in front of me. He enters the kitchen carrying her confidently in the crook of his arm, and heads for the dining room to see our boy.

“Daddy, want to play Play-Doh with me?” our son asks.

“Hey.” I call to him. “How are you?”

His answer is lost in our son’s excited chatter. I turn down the stove, put the lid on the heavy green soup pot, and wipe my hands as I watch the three of them.

His hands are cracked and calloused, his sweatshirt dirty and faded. There’s mud on his pant leg and gray in his beard. His eyes are tired, but he puts our daughter on one knee, our son on the other, and scoops up a ball of Play-Doh without hesitation.

I can’t help but grin as I watch them, and feel the familiar flutter of butterflies as I do.

He’s wearing the same black wool vest he wore on that hot August day six years ago. It’s faded from black to gray and it’s missing a couple of buttons. If you look closely at the seam you can see blue thread where I mended it last winter. But that vest is a little like us.

We’ve been torn apart by our egos and months-long unemployment, by our son’s undiagnosed cleft lip, and the feeding tube required to keep our daughter alive. We lost a button when the medical bills piled up, and another when we bought our fixer-upper.  

But we mended those places; our seams sewn back together with time and apologies and dedication to one another. They don’t look the same as they used to, and things don’t always feel the way they used to, either. Our love is no longer new and crisp, it’s worn and tested. But tonight, with soup on the stove and two babies on his lap, I feel the butterflies again.

// This essay was originally written for Coffee+Crumbs #loveafterbabies essay contest. You can find a portion of it published on their instagram.

Want to read more about #loveafterbabies? You'll love these essays by my dear friends Molly Flinkman & Stacy Bronec.

Wedding photography by Hailey Haberman.

2018 by Cara Stolen

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I’ve never been much for New Years Eve. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I even stayed up until midnight to celebrate. But I LOVE New Years Day. I like to get up early and watch the sunrise, I love to set goals, and I am convinced that a new day planner has the ability to change your life.

On January 1, 2018, I woke up in our new house for the second time. Half the house still had subfloor exposed, and our kitchen was missing countertops and a sink (among other things). The night before, I celebrated the new year from my rocking chair. As fireworks sounded in the distance, I attempted to nurse Maggie before giving up entirely. That night I put all 90 mL of breast milk through her feeding tube at 12 am, 3 am, and 6 am, as she refused to nurse entirely. So as I made coffee that morning in our laundry room, I felt defeated, and disappointed, and mind-numbingly exhausted.

That day I didn’t set any goals. I didn’t reflect on the past year. I definitely didn’t look at our budget. I just tried to survive another day.

But later, at the end of January, I decided that February 1 would be my own personal New Years Day. And after some journaling, and lots of prayer, I felt God pulling me away from the elaborate goals and plans that I usually make for myself. Instead, I felt Him put a simple theme on my heart for the year: self discovery. After years of trying to better myself for others, I felt called to dig deeper into who He made me to be. So, in 2018 I set out to discover who I really was. These are a few of the things I found along the way:

  • After years of declaring myself “uncreative,” I discovered that I am, in fact, the opposite. This year I took several writing workshops, a photography class, started this (mostly neglected) blog, and had an essay published on Coffee+Crumbs.

  • I am a One on the Enneagram. I spent most of the year trying to discern my number, and thought for months that I was a Three. But after reading a few books and listening to too many podcasts to count, I finally figured out that I am in fact a Perfectionist. This has, without a doubt, been the most life changing revelation of all this year.

  • I love coffee, but caffeine is not my friend. I’ve been (mostly) caffeine-free for about 6 months and have never felt better. My skin is clearer, my sleep is more restful, my energy levels are more consistent, and my anxiety is reduced. Bonus? I can drink coffee all day long when its decaf!

  • I am a better mother when I take anti-anxiety medication. This year I spent about half the year on meds, and half the year off, and I can say with utmost clarity that I am a better version of myself while taking them.

  • I put a lot (too much) of my self-worth in my productivity and image. I focus an embarrassing amount of energy thinking about possessions, and appearances, and analyzing the appearance and productivity of others.

  • While I can create a killer spreadsheet budget, I am not all the great with money. I live in the present moment, and delaying gratification is difficult for me.

  • I am much more of an introvert than I previously thought, and I require a surprising amount of alone time to recharge.

  • It’s easier for me to be vulnerable with people I don’t know very well than those that know me best of all.

  • My mind is filled with non-stop chatter, that is (mostly) negative and self-focused. I am ruthlessly hard on myself, and it’s exhausting.

  • At my worst, I can be critical and judgmental of others. And after a year of self-reflection I have to say that this is, hands-down, my very worst quality.

So, there you have it: 365 days of reflection boiled down to 10 bullet points. And while 2018 turned out to be a pretty great year, I’m ready for the fresh start of 2019.

Happy New Year, friends.