Motherhood

Freshly Mopped Floors and Eve in the Garden by Cara Stolen

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I mopped my floors this morning. Royce went to work with Levi, so it was just Maggie and me, and I seized the opportunity to catch up on housework. I alternated vacuuming with mopping, hoping it would be easier to keep Maggie out of one room at a time rather than half the house at once. But every time I redirected her off of the freshly mopped floor, she looked at me and whined “why?” and found a way to make tiny footprints somewhere else behind my back.

It was irritating. I mopped, and re-mopped, and grew increasingly frustrated with her. “Maggie, no!” I yelled.

“Whyyyy?” she whined, backing away from me in fear, onto the section of floor I’d just re-mopped for the second time.

Her “why” followed me from room to room and got me thinking about my own behavior when faced with the temptation of something “off limits” or wrong. About how, like Maggie, my desire for something increases when I’m told no: whether I’m telling myself no, or hearing it from someone else.

I’ve been reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to the kids every morning for about a month now (in the bathroom, but that’s a story for another day). When we read the story of the fall, Royce asked, “Why would Eve do that, mom?”

I sat on the floor facing him, Maggie balanced on my outstretched legs, and thought about how I didn’t have a very good answer to his question. About how, when I read Genesis, I wonder the same thing. And, if I’m honest, I judge Eve a little bit.

Come on Girlfriend, are you kidding me? Why would you do that?

When we started reading the Bible together, I promised myself I would be as honest as I could with my answers to Royce’s questions. But this one stumped me a bit. So I looked in his eyes and answered with a question of my own: “Well … why do you choose to do things after I ask you not to sometimes?”

He blinked and shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s ok, bud. I do things I shouldn’t, too. Things I know are wrong. And I don’t know why I do them, either.”

And I do. All the freaking time.

Just the other day, before a playdate at my house, I reminded myself to be a good listener, not make judgy comments, and not to gossip. Three hours later, as the cars left my driveway, I replayed the conversations I’d had with the other moms that morning. And wouldn’t you know it, I’d done every single one of those things. I’d interrupted someone more than once and only half-listened as I planned out what I’d say next. I’d made judgy comments about another mom. I’d even initiated a gossip-filled conversation, forgetting my internal dialogue earlier that very same morning.

Come on Girlfriend, are you kidding me? Why would you do that?

Me and Eve, man. We’re not so different after all.

Why can’t I stop doing things I shouldn’t? Why can’t I stop doing things I know are wrong? While I have learned to stay off freshly mopped floors, in so many ways I’m still just like my 21-month-old daughter: whining “why?” when I’m told no and doing the wrong thing anyway.

Why in the world would God still love someone like me? Someone who messes up over, and over, and OVER again, seemingly incapable of learning my lesson?

My word for 2019 is “grace.” I have to admit when the word came to me toward the end of 2018, I didn’t really know what it meant. I thought it was a Christian word for forgiveness. I thought God was telling me (not subtly, mind you, the word started jumping out at me everywhere) to forgive a friend who had wounded me deeply earlier in the year.

But as I’ve read books and articles about grace, listened to podcasts about grace, and watched sermons about grace, I’ve realized that it’s about so much more than forgiveness. I’ve also realized that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to fully grasp the definition of grace and the enormity of what it means in my life.

Before the kids woke up this morning, before I mopped my floors, I watched a sermon on grace while I sipped my morning coffee. Knowing I’d dedicated 2019 to this subject, a sweet friend had sent me the link a few weeks ago, but I’d forgotten about it. But this morning, I sat down at my desk to write, and remembered.

In it, Pastor Todd King defines grace as “unconditional love, forgiveness, and mercy played out.” He reads from Matthew 18:21-35—The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant—in which a king forgives the (impossibly large) debt of one of his servants. The servant, in turn, refuses to forgive the debt owed to him by a fellow servant, angering the king with his refusal to extend the mercy he himself received. In the end, he is jailed and tortured for his debts. At the end of the parable, Pastor King poses this question: Who is the servant in the parable?  

“I am.” I whispered, leaning forward in my seat. I am the servant. We all are the servant. We are the ones who can never repay the debt Jesus paid for us. We are the ones forgiven an impossible debt. And yet, I take the forgiveness, grace, and love I’m given and withhold it from others, just like the stupid servant. I refuse to forgive a supposed friend for her hurtful, judging words—refuse to offer her grace and love—forgetting the grace I’ve received for the same. exact. sins.

I am the servant. I am undeserving, unworthy, of God’s love. Deserving instead to be “handed over to the jailers to be tortured until [I] can pay everything that [is] owed” (Matthew 18:34, CSB).

But (but!) He loves me anyway. He doesn’t watch me gossip and judge and shout “Come on, Girlfriend, are you kidding me? Why would you do that?” the way I do when I watch someone stumble.

He loves me even though I can’t repay the debt I owe. He loves me even though I do and say things that I shouldn’t. He even loves me when I whine “why?” and make metaphorical footprints across His freshly mopped floors. And He loved Eve, too. Even after the fall, even as He punished her, He never withheld his love. I mean, what? Why?

Maybe it’s easy for you to grasp God’s unconditional love, but I struggle to wrap my head around it. I’m a perfectionist, and a hard worker, and I like to-do lists and performance reviews and accomplishment. I feel in the depths of my soul that love is earned, and that I have to be perfect to be worthy of it. So when I hear that none of those things matter when it comes to my salvation, when I hear that there is nothing I can do to make God stop loving me, I get a little panicky. And a lot doubtful.

What do you mean my behavior doesn’t earn my salvation? Are you sure?

Because the part about being the servant that isn’t hard for me to grasp? My unworthiness. I spend every day of my life hyper-aware of the ways in which I fall short. Of the ways my mistakes look like Eve’s. Of my tendency to judge and criticise others to make myself feel better about my imperfections. But the part where my debt is forgiven? The part where I’m loved in spite of my quick judgments and shortcomings? That part puts a big lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

God doesn’t shout at me when I make footprints across his freshly mopped floors, and He doesn’t mop furiously behind me to achieve the perfection He envisioned for this world. Instead, He looks at my footprints, gently guides me onto dry floor, and forgives me before my feet are even dry from my misstep. He reminds me that the dry floor is where I belong, and loves my unworthy heart despite of my imperfections.

Pastor Todd King wisely asks: “If we didn’t earn our salvation, how are we going to un-earn it?”

And the amazing thing is: we can’t.

I am imperfect. I am unworthy. But I am loved, just like Eve. And that, I think, is grace.




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.

//

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."

//

Family photo by my talented friend Hailey Haberman.

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.

Dear Maggie by Cara Stolen

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My Dearest Darling Maggie Girl,

Today is your first birthday! I can’t believe it’s been a year since you were born. This year has been one of the hardest and best years of my life, filled with more joy and heartache than I ever imagined possible. Together we navigated your difficult start in this world, learning and growing as the months marched on. At one, you are sassy and sweet, silly and determined, and your quick, easy grin is a daily reminder that life doesn’t need to be taken so seriously all the time.

You love being right in the center of the action, and will crawl and climb your way there whenever possible, often sitting on top of me when I read bedtime stories to Royce. But you are also independent, and will wander off to play by yourself sometimes. You hate to sit still, and already use your voice to communicate--yelling with annoyance or shrieking in joy at your brother’s antics.

You love to eat, and will wave both hands in the air to ask for a snack when I cook dinner. Avocados and Strawberries are your favorite, and you’ll smack your lips when you want more. But if I give you something you don’t like? You’ll throw it on the floor. You still nurse morning and night, and I treasure those quiet moments at the beginning and end of each day.

You took your first steps last week, while laughing at your brother and eating a graham cracker, which seems to fit your personality just right. It was bittersweet for me, watching you take those first toddling steps of independence. You walked right toward me, and I caught the first glimpse of you at 5, and 13, and 25. I can’t wait to see where those feet of yours take you in this big ‘ol world.

You ADORE your brother. While I know that your relationship will likely ebb and flow as you both grow up, I can’t help but hope it stays this way. The two of you love to play together, and hearing your joined giggles is the light of my life. He (of course) has taught you to make all sorts of funny noises, and our car rides are often punctuated by the two of you spitting or making ah-ah-ah noises with your hands across your mouths.

You like to play peek-a-boo, and giggle like crazy when we tickle you. You already have quite the sense of humor, and think its so hilarious to speed-crawl away from me during diaper changes, your little naked butt disappearing down the hallway in a flash. You say “mama” and “dada,” “hi!” and “boom!”

Bath time is your favorite, especially when you get to take a bath with your brother. You splash and giggle, and don’t seem to mind when Royce dumps water over your head or tries to “help” me wash your back. At bedtime, you snuggle chest to chest with me, tucking your head right under my chin, and it melts my heart every time.

Sweet girl, you bring so much joy to our family. I hope you always know how much we love you, and how much we delight in you. As you learn and grow, test boundaries (and my patience), and eventually take flight into the world, I hope you will always remember these few things:

Be kind. Always. The world is a better place when you are kind.

Laugh hard, and often. Laugh at yourself, laugh with others, laugh so hard it hurts, just so long as you keep laughing.

Be fearless. Try new things, even if you’re afraid. Fight for what you believe in and stand up for yourself and others.

Never settle. You deserve the very best this world has to offer you.

Be strong. Both physically and emotionally. Take care of your body, and your spirit. Feed both with goodness, and exercise both with dedication.

Be smart. Don’t follow the crowd, and don’t listen when others tell you it’s better to play dumb. Listen to your heart, and use your head.

Lastly, remember that you are unique, and beautiful, and enough. The God that made this exquisite world thought it would be better with you in it, and don’t you ever forget it. Be confident, and love yourself just exactly as you are.

Watching you grow is a gift I will never take for granted. Happy Birthday Maggie Mae.

Love,

Mommy