Grace for the tired out parent

Our first child opened his eyes on this world for the first time at the beginning of October in Northern California. I was on my feet minutes after his delivery, and out walking with him in the sunshine two days after that. Although I had been ambivalent on learning of my pregnancy – we’d been married barely a year and a half; I’d just turned 23, and we hadn’t planned this – every cliché in the book applied: my son was astonishingly beautiful and I loved him fiercely. My grandmothers’ genes made it such that I was immediately back in my regular jeans, and we seemed to be off to a great start.

That is, until our son reached the ripe age of two weeks and decided that he wanted to bail on the whole ‘being a baby’ thing. I have since encountered other babies and children who matched his distinct set of characteristics. Rather than lulling him to sleep, the baby swing wound him up, as did going for car rides. Even rocking and nursing were more stimulating than soothing for him. He was too awake, too alert; too full of desires he was far from being able to communicate to us, or, better, to fulfill on his own. The very day he was able to grasp a butterfly rattle and shake it in front of his face – all by himself! – he fell asleep right there on the floor, contented and happy.

One of the most oft-repeated bits of unsolicited advice proffered to new mothers is “sleep when the baby sleeps,” which is all right when it’s your first baby and you’re not suffering from an anxiety disorder. I never could sleep when the baby slept, because it took such monumental effort to get him to sleep that every little squeak and murmur in our old house or outside it jolted me awake, worried that I’d have to start the whole going to sleep process again: the diaper change, the super-tight swaddling, the strategic pacifier insertion method, the pediatrician-approved wedged-in side sleeping position, and the little womb-sounds device we affectionately called “the swooshy.” After three months of this, I was a sniveling wreck of mature theological insights such as

 “They say children are a blessing from the Lord but I think they’re wrong!

People would ask me how many children we’d like to have in all and I’d just stare at them. Our son was two and a half when his brother entered the scene, and although little Graeme was a textbook ‘easy’ baby, in the weeks and months after his birth I began a slippery slide into postpartum depression. I couldn’t explain what was wrong; why I was so anxious, sad, and scared. And that, too, scared me. I don’t think I even had the energy for immature squabbles with God about whether or not children were really the blessings the Bible made them out to be. I just felt closed off from God, and almost everyone else, too.

"First Time in the Grass," by SurlyGirl. Photo courtesy SurlyGirl via Flickr Creative Commons.
“First Time in the Grass,” by SurlyGirl. Photo courtesy SurlyGirl via Flickr Creative Commons.

{Excerpted from my review of Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s memoir of having two kids — and then twins! — and a bit of a faith crisis in the process. Read it all at Englewood Review of Books — here.}

The Legal and Addictive Stimulant of Fear (or “perfect fear casts out love”)

When I heard the verdict returned on the George Zimmerman trial, I thought immediately of the subtle reference to the case made by Marilynne Robinson at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College last year.

The topic of her wide-ranging talk (some listeners went so far as to call it ‘rambling,’ but I didn’t consider it so) was fear. She said that fear is stimulating and addictive, and that American culture is increasingly addicted to it.

  • We fear that America is in ‘decline,’ as if economic and social hiccups were not and are not an ever-present feature of human societies.
  • We fear for the ‘next generation of young people,’ as if older generations were the only ones to have it right and were free of their share of knuckleheads.
  • We fear bodily harm, and feel so justified in that fear as to issue laws like Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ that actually encourage violent confrontation over against the avoidance of that confrontation.

Ms. Robinson suggested that Calvinists (she counts herself as one) “fear God and nothing else.” In her (delightful) interview with the Paris Review, she said that she probably experiences “less anxiety than is normal.”

I will confess a bit of awe at that, as I probably experience more anxiety than is normal and I fear God and almost everything else. At the age of ten or so, I refused to drink an imported bottle of Coca-Cola because I was afraid that (prepared outside of American laws) it might contain the cocaine that gave the original drink its ‘lift.’

“We’re stuck in psycho-emotional bomb shelters,” said Ms. Robinson, when, in fact, we Westerners are more free, safe, and stable than most people throughout the world and throughout history have ever hoped to be. “Why not enjoy it?” said Robinson with the hint of a chuckle.

Fear upon fear is what drives us to sequester ourselves in gated communities; to believe that we need guns for self-defense, laws to defend the ‘right’ of people to obtain and own those guns in foolishly irresponsible ways, and laws to defend us in the use of those guns even if they might not absolutely ‘need’ to for self-defense.

(I put ‘need’ in scare quotes to acknowledge that not all people–Christians committed to exclusively nonviolent resistance, for example–consider violence even in self-defense to be a need; there are, according to that worldview, worse things than losing one’s life.)

I confess to often walking around in my own personal psycho-emotional bomb shelter, a private panic room for one in which I perceive all manner of things as grave threats: every mole is melanoma; every headache is an aneurysm; every walk or hike is a potential fracture for one of my kids.

The truth is that while I can (and do) try my best to be safe and responsible (Sun safety! Healthy food! No shenanigans on the trail!) I am not the one who gives and withholds life, death, wealth, health, illness, wellness. And the truth is, living in a constant state of fear makes it hard to love–and to perceive accurately what is actually going on.

(My husband, who seldom fears anything, reacts to situations of potential peril at approximately ten times my speed and one-tenth my noise level. In other words, I stand still and scream while he swiftly and silently moves the child out of the way of the careening bicycle.)

It seems to me that fear actually gets in the way of loving your neighbor.

“There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.”

How have you experienced fear as an impediment to love? How have you overcome it?

What Anxiety Feels Like (For Me, and, Maybe, For You. With Cartoons.)

I often think that anxiety probably has some helpful prehistoric function, like sensing that a large, hungry carnivore is on the prowl and being the one to let the rest of the group know.

But in the absence of large, hungry carnivores (or other clearly perilous situations) anxiety sometimes feels as useful as the appendix, though it flares up even more often, and can’t be easily removed.

For me, anxiety can run in circles, like a sad, neurotic dog in a too-small pen, or a hamster on a little exercise wheel. And there are different paces–different circles, different wheels–that my anxiety puts me through. Because my dad is awesome, he illustrated it for me thus:

hamsterstressSometimes, as the illustration above shows, the hamster is such a wreck that it can’t even decide which wheel of anxiety to run on. It hops on one wheel and then remembers that there are a few other wheels that need to be run upon. And then the person in whom the hamster dwells (me, or, maybe, you) tired and distracted, and things like this happen:

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 8.55.24 AM

And things like this:

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 8.55.35 AMScreen shot 2013-07-01 at 8.55.51 AMAnd at the end of the day, after all that hamster-wheel-whirring, the person with anxiety sometimes feels like this:

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 8.56.03 AMPraying can help. Cooking can help. Knitting can help. So can walking, stretching, and talking to other people. All of these things, and others, can be very, very helpful in directing all that hamster-energy more fruitfully and less tiresomely.

But for me it has been helpful simply to notice the pattern of anxiety and liken it to an exercise-addicted hamster. Hamsters are so cute, for one thing, so I feel like I want to be kind to the poor little thing, and, therefore, to myself. By giving the anxiety a little Life of Pi type identity, I can better recognize what’s happening and choose to step off the wheel, whispering a kind little ‘farewell for nowto the hamster, who then nods gratefully and curls up to take a nap.

{you may also like ‘How Not to Help Someone Who Is Hurting.’}

How NOT To Help Someone Who Is Hurting (comic strips included!)

fix01

We all have times like this, don’t we? And they are never easy. I happen to have a strong tendency (whether owing to my genes, my God-given personality and inclination, or who knows what) toward anxiety, much, MUCH more of it than is helpful and much more than I care to admit. Because it can be really hard to admit that you are struggling with something like anxiety.

Unfortunately, sometimes when you gather your courage and go ahead and tell someone how you’re feeling, it ends up going something like this:Fix1

And then, some of this:

Fix2And then, this:

Fix3

Now, along with the late (and lamented) David Rakoff, I do really believe that:

“people are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation many times over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let’s all give each other a pass, shall we?”

But in his very last piece on a recent ‘This American Life’ episode, Rakoff, his voice raspy from the lung tumors that were consuming his insides, he mentioned being at a dinner party at which people were discussing what sorts of self-improving things they’d like to do…as if giving up sugar or exercising more or doing more reading would really, truly, change their lives for the better. When it came to David’s turn to contribute, there was nothing to say. It was clear by then that all the ‘fixes’ in the world weren’t going to do a thing for him. He was dead within a matter of weeks.

We are in a cultural moment that is obsessed with FIXING. With magic diet and lifestyle changes that promise, when implemented, to make us a whole new, better person.

I understand that. I think it’s actually a deeply theological longing. But it’s not so simple as we might imagine. We would like to eliminate suffering, which is possible some of the time and completely impossible much of the time. Death forces us to face that head on.

It’s amazing how little Jesus preached at people who were hurting, reserving his harshest and most preachy and advice-giving words for those who were pretty sure they had this whole God thing entirely figured out. And it’s equally amazing how he chose simply to be with–and EAT WITH–people who were struggling with all kinds of problems, and, yes, to use that unpopular word, sins.

I just can’t see Jesus doing what the people in the above strips are doing. Instead, I could imagine a scenario like this:

Fix4

You’ll also want to check out:

another comic strip post on what anxiety feels like

my friend Ellen’s post on being ‘unfixable’ in a world obsessed with fixing

my friend Laura’s post on being anxious (and Christian)