Reflections

Dear Maggie: This is T-W-O by Cara Stolen

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My Dearest Magpie,

Today you are T-W-O. It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since that early morning drive to the hospital when I clutched my belly and begged your daddy to go easy over the bumps in the road. That summer they replaced the stop sign at the west interchange with a roundabout, and as we rounded the newly paved corner raindrops pattered the dust on the windshield, reflecting the orange traffic cones like a kaleidoscope in the dark. 

The week before, I begged my doctor to schedule an induction, explaining that “this felt just like my first pregnancy, when my body didn’t know what to do on it’s own, and needed a little nudge to get going.” He looked at the bags under my eyes and watched your brother try (again) to escape out the exam room door and asked me to be at the hospital at 6 a.m. sharp on the 30th—my due date. 

But. At 2 a.m. on the 30th, I woke up to consistent contractions and the distinct feeling that your personality would be a force to be reckoned with. I was right. 

At two, I can say without a doubt that your debut into this world was an accurate depiction of your stubborn, sassy self. You tell me “no” more than your brother ever did, and when I finally convince you to do something, you’d better believe you’re doing it your way. 

Just yesterday, we walked down the driveway to get the mail. But when it was time to walk home you decided you didn’t want to. Instead, you wanted to twirl in the middle of Schnebly Rd. as the raindrops fell on your upturned face. I walked away, came back, and walked away again. I was determined to win, but you started to scream, and I worried about a car coming by, so I ended up with you piggy-back, giggling in my ear.

Speaking of your scream, Mags, I have to admit I almost started this letter with “at two, you scream a lot,” but it seemed inappropriate for a birthday letter. However, we’re five paragraphs in now (a whole essay by some standards), and I’ve already waxed poetic about the day you were born, so I’ll talk about your screaming now. 

Maggie girl, you scream a lot. Actually, that’s the understatement of the century. You scream constantly. Loudly. Abrasively. It’s like nails on a chalkboard, only louder, longer, and more aggressive. You scream when you’re mad, you scream when you’re sad. You scream when you’re hurt, you scream when your brother’s a jurt (just kidding, I just wanted to rhyme again). Maybe it’s just that we’ve listened to your scream for so many hours of your life, but I have to tell you Mags, your Daddy and I? We’re getting pretty tired of listening to it. And I know I personally am praying awfully hard that your three-year-old letter leaves no mention of the “s” word. 

Still, despite the screaming, you are a delight sweet girl—just exactly what our family needed. You love to giggle and play outside, snuggle and wave hello. You cry (scream) when you can’t pet every horse we pass, and you’ll happily sit with anyone … as long as they’re in a saddle. You like to dance and sing, and were the life of the party at a wedding a few weeks ago. 

You wait until you’re sure you can pronounce something perfectly before you say it, and have quite the vocabulary for two. And you pick a fight with your brother every chance you get, just to drive me crazy I think. 

But you’re also getting easier. You’re making eyes at the potty, can manage a day without a nap if you have to, and can even handle a night or two sleeping in the same room with the rest of us. You can walk to the mailbox and back (when you’re in the mood), and sleep a consistent 12 hours every. single. night. 

So Maggie girl, cheers to two. Cheers to belly laughs and a face full of cupcake. Cheers to your arms around my neck and the way you holler “hol-non-tight!” when Daddy puts you on General Lee all by yourself. Cheers to your wave, and your gap-toothed smile, and your love of socks and shoes. Mostly … cheers to you. 

Love, 

Mama



"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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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.