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.  


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.

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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.