Writing

"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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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.  


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.