Today, our Miriam Elaine turns four weeks.
It was hardly more than that—four weeks and a day, really—that we were at Dan’s parents’ for Christmas, me still a week from my due date, his aunt telling me that my face had that flushed look of a woman about to give birth, my sister-in-law cautioning me against getting too eager. (Her daughter was almost two weeks overdue, and from what I hear, those after-due-date days are torture.)
Dan and I came home on a Sunday evening and went to bed, just the two of us, the way it has been for four and a half years, and woke up just hours later to contractions. They were low and crampy, not high and hard like the Braxton Hicks I’d been having for months. We monitored them for a couple hours, then called Kim, our blessed midwife, who recommended a bath (always a bath) to see how the contractions responded. They didn’t ease up, but they didn’t increase, either, so I texted her and climbed back into bed, sleeping off and on till morning.
I didn’t know what to make of the contractions, which were still hugging my pelvis periodically when I woke, so I emailed my supervisor and a colleague, saying that I didn’t know if this was real labor or not, but that I’d be staying home today. Then I called Kim again. Dan was lying next to me on the bed and overheard her telling me about the ice storm headed our way, about how she didn’t want us to make the hour-long trek to the birth center if the roads were as bad as the weather people were saying, how she’d stop by after her morning appointments to check my progress and drop off supplies for a home birth just in case.
Secretly I’d hoped for a home birth all these months, but we were too nervous to go for it. When I got off the phone with Kim, I looked over at Dan to see what he thought.
“Did you hear that?” I asked. He nodded, laughing at the irony. Then he drove to the grocery store to stock up on food in case this storm and the baby came and we were home-bound and without power for the next few days. I took a shower. When he got back, we played cribbage, our old standby, pausing between hands for me to lean over and rock my way through a contraction. I was still unconvinced that this was real labor. I was just pregnant and uncomfortable, as a woman who is 39 weeks pregnant usually is. These contractions would stop. I’d stay pregnant for two more weeks at least. They’d probably have to induce me at 42.
Just after lunch, Kim arrived. She brought in bins full of stuff—an inflatable pool, an oxygen tank, other things I never saw or knew she used. We all talked about the weather. I had to stop and lean against the coffee table while another contraction hit. We went up to the bedroom and she checked me. Four centimeters. I was shocked at how easily I’d gotten there.
Somewhere in these minutes, it got decided that we were not leaving the house. I have no recollection of the process of coming to that decision. It had something to do with the crazy-icy roads and the distance to the birth center and the contractions that were coming closer together and growing more intense and demanding that Dan press harder on my lower back. This baby was gonna be born at home.
For a home birth, Kim would usually come to the house at 36 weeks, to see the space and to make sure it had all the supplies for a birth. In our case, she had to assemble everything on the spot, which meant that she ran to the Walgreens on the corner.
When she got back, she and Dan pushed aside our kitchen table, inflated the pool in the middle of the floor, and started filling it. When the faucet ran cold, they heated pots of water on the stove and dumped them in one at a time. By mid-afternoon, I decided to try laboring in the pool. We turned off the lights, lit a few candles. The water was glorious—warm and soothing to the contractions gripping my hips and lower back. I took to moaning through each one: when I’d feel one coming on, I’d pause my sentence or cut off Kim’s or Dan’s or Stephanie’s, the birth assistant who had arrived, turn over, lean my head against the pool’s fat edge, sway my aching hips, and hum low and deep.
Dan and I were grateful we weren’t responsible for judging when to leave for the birth center. Our birthing class told us that a sure sign would be my attitude: if I was still smiling and laughing, we should keep laboring at home. But right up until I started to push, I was either chuckling at Dan’s jokes or attempting lamely to crack my own between contractions—and that would’ve been far too late to be driving!
It was in these early-evening hours that I learned the intensity of labor. The contractions worked on my body: I was worn out, as if I had spent the day carting wheelbarrows full of boulders. Between contractions, I drifted off, too tired to keep up with the conversation. A voice in my head told me I couldn’t keep this up. I was getting discouraged.
The hours get messy here. My memory is blurry and sharp at the same time: I recall particular moments in strong detail but have no idea about the order. I just know that the contractions were nearly unbearable now, to the point that I threw up as they hit. (The prospect of throwing up terrified me; the last time I threw up I was ten.)
“Throwing up is worth ten contractions,” Stephanie said. That’s the only thing that let me yield to it.
Kim checked me again and invited me to try pushing. I was terrible at it. People had said I’d feel the urge to push, but it was more like I forced myself to. The water wasn’t working for me anymore—I couldn’t control the pushing—so Kim and Stephanie set up a birthing stool. Someone helped me out of the water, and I straddled the stool. I leaned back on Dan between contractions, trying to summon my strength.
Pushing hurt. People told me pushing would be a relief. It was anything but. I tried to use the rest of my body to force the baby farther down, farther out. Babies—at least this one—don’t move quickly or easily. Everything was pinched and pressed and pained. It’s not poetic to say so, but what they tell you is sure accurate: pushing is like having a huge poop. Huge.
Next thing I knew, I was shuffling up to the bedroom, a step at a time, using Dan as a crutch. He helped me onto the bed, where I lay on my side and used my leg as leverage to push. I was miserable. Surely pushing would make me rip open and explode. And there were other reasons I didn’t want to push. I wasn’t ready. If I didn’t push, I could preserve our life as it was, the two of us, content and familiar. I had the power to do that, right?
Stephanie suggested that I refrain from pushing for a few contractions and let my body do its work. It was designed to push the baby out whether or not I cooperated, so I might as well relax and give it some space. Trying not to push killed me. It was a thousand times more painful to try to rest than to work with my body. I was crying by now—in pain, but also in apology to Dan. I knew he was ready to be a parent, and here I was, prolonging labor and putting off the birth.
In those moments, something shifted in my spirit. I had to work with the contractions. It might’ve been a sudden coming to terms with parenthood; it might’ve been the incentive to have her birthday be December 28 (a nicer number than 29, I thought). Even though Stephanie hadn’t given me the go-ahead, I determined to push. With the next contraction, I strained with all my might. If I thought before that I was going to explode, now for sure I would.
I moved back to the birthing stool. Kim called Dan over and told him to look: the head! I reached my hand down and poked the tiniest tip of our baby’s head. It was squishy and rough with hair. Oh, girl. You are on your way.
Her head half out of me, I waddled back to the bed, got on my hands and knees. With each contraction, I gripped the mattress and pressed my body backwards, forcing that girl farther out. I was in agony. Having a baby’s head half out of you burns. And that burning lasted for nearly half an hour while she s-l-o-w-l-y made her way out. All I can say is that those minutes were the most excruciating minutes of my life. I cried out in pain. I think I swore. I got back on my side to ease the pressure (when the pressure is that great, easing it is a joke). And then Kim slipped in a finger to make a little extra room—which then took first prize for the most excruciating moment—and suddenly everyone was saying, “The head! The whole head! Now her shoulders!” I thought the shoulders were supposed to be painless, but they were not. I cried some more and pushed, and then—
onto my chest came a squirming, slippery fish of a baby, her body still bundled and wrinkly. Hard to hold onto. Hair matted. Eyes squinting and blinking.
I was bewildered. This—this!—is what I couldn’t fathom twelve hours earlier when we were playing cribbage on the carpet. This person is who I was resisting when I should’ve been pushing. This daughter, Miriam Elaine.
I lay exhausted on the bed, bleeding, sweating, shaking, leaning on Dan. I did not experience the euphoria I had anticipated, but I did feel relief. Kim and Stephanie cleaned everything up—me, Miriam, the bed, the rest of the house—and left us, the three of us.
We slept together that night, our daughter resting on our chests.
Now she is four weeks old. She is plump and expressive, though her expressions correspond to precisely nothing yet. She smells soft and sweet; even her sour milk-breath has a sweetness to it. Sleeping is her favorite pastime, though nursing comes in close second, and her periods of wakefulness are growing longer and more purposeful. She sees us now, rather than looking through us or past us, and she’ll turn her head to hear us read or sing. When she sleeps, we listen to her quiet wheeze, watch her tiny lips and eyelashes, nuzzle her downy cheeks, stroke her small hands.
We named her Miriam after the Miriam of the Old Testament, who kept an eye on her little brother Moses as he drifted down the river in his basket, the Miriam who would later sing to the Lord after he delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. It is our prayer that our Miriam will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living and, like her biblical counterpart, will bear witness to his faithfulness. The name Miriam also means both rebellion and bitterness. We desperately hope she will not rebel against us (please not the teenage years just yet!), but we do pray that she’ll be wise enough to see what things she ought to rebel against—like the edicts of Pharaoh and captivity to evil. May she not be conformed to the pattern of this world.
And we gave her the name Elaine, which means light. It’s my middle name, as well as the middle name of my mother and both my grandmothers. We’re oh-so-aware of life’s seasons, sometimes bright, sometimes bitter, and we hope Miriam knows both and gives thanks to God in all seasons.
She is a gift to us, a gift we wanted but a gift far better than we could’ve imagined. We are grateful to God.
A special thanks to our talented friend and photographer, Ryan Humm, for taking some photos of our new family. The one of Miri and me and the one of her tiniest lips are his.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace.
Every evening, I lie in the tub and swirl Epsom salts through the water.
If I do not do this ritual, at 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning, my belly will seize up and wake me, getting progressively harder and then finally releasing, repeating over and over for hours. I will grow agitated and unable to fall back asleep.
So every evening, I lie in the tub and swirl Epsom salts through the water. My belly is a mountain above the water, a mountain that rolls and swells as if tectonic plates are shifting beneath it. The ground surges and shudders. No parts are distinct. It’s all a heaving, trembling mass.
Amiina plays and I close my eyes. I imagine our baby in her watery home while I lie in mine. She is nameless, faceless to me yet, as I am to her. She doesn’t know me as her mother; I’m just her environment.
I pray that she will love me, not as her home but as her home. I pray that she will not break my heart as daughters are wont to do to their mothers. And I pray that when she does, I will be as tender and gracious to her as my mother has been to me. I pray that in the midst of these restless days, this girl and I will come to terms with each other and ready ourselves to meet. May we grow into love.
I’ve written before on the elusive nature of joy. I could write more, or I could just say this: that’s what Advent is for.
Advent is for longing for the things that are not here yet. Advent is for praying for them, for trusting that God has not forgotten, for asking him to come soon with joy in tow. It’s so easy for me to wallow in the not-joy, but Advent isn’t for wallowing—it’s for waiting.
In a rare moment of sitting down at the piano, I came across this lovely song of Marty Haugen’s—My Soul in Stillness Waits. Of all the Advent songs I’ve sung this season, this one seems to capture best the active waiting—the asking—of Advent. (And that second verse! Man, it nails it.)
My Soul in Stillness Waits
For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,
truly my hope is in you.
O Lord of Light, our only hope of glory,
Your radiance shines in all who look to you,
Come, light the hearts of all in dark and shadow.
O Spring of Joy, rain down upon our spirits,
Our thirsty hearts are yearning for your Word,
Come, make us whole, be comfort to our hearts.
O Root of Life, implant your seed within us,
And in your advent draw us all to you,
Our hope reborn in dying and in rising.
O Key of Knowledge, guide us in our pilgrimage,
We ever seek, yet unfulfilled remain,
Open to us the pathway of your peace.
This is the irrational season
Where love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
I am disheartened by the room that we are failing to leave for the child.
It’s Advent for goodness sake and I’ve heard nothing but vitriol and swagger from politicians and celebrities and—most heartbreakingly and frustratingly—religious leaders. Their blustering rhetoric has taken up all the space in the inn, forcing Christ out into the stable.
I suppose he’s used to it. Isn’t that, in some ways, the story of his life? From beginning to end, no one made room for him. The innkeepers took no pity on his mother, a woman obviously in labor. The other guests didn’t want to give up their rooms or disrupt their sleep. Everyone was too comfortable, too scared, too scornful to make room for Jesus.
Now imagine if Mary had felt the same way. If Mary had been filled with reason—or fear or hatred or bravado or any number of the other things that fill us these days—there’d have been no room for the child.
Bless you, Mary, for being filled with love. Bless you for your hospitality of the most intimate kind. Woman, you opened your body to a child. You submitted to nine months of the discomfort that comes from sharing your abdomen with another being. And then you gave your life over to being his mother. Thank you for your irrational love, which allowed Love himself to enter the world.
Before falling asleep last night, I read through my journal from earlier this year—from the months we were trying to conceive and the early months of pregnancy. Like Mary, we were not filled with reason. We had no idea what we were asking for (nor, frankly, do we now). We didn’t take into account the financial cost of raising a child, nor did we consider what an imposition she’d be on our relatively smooth life.
Instead, we were filled with bright-blooming, wild love.
My prayer is that the irrational season will overwhelm our nation. That we will let love do what it does: bloom brightly. That we will take the risk of making room.
These days should be rich with meaning! I am pregnant right along with Mary, due only eight days after Christ himself was born. I should feel this Advent all the more forcefully—and really feel it: feel the waiting in my body as it grows fuller, nearly to the point of bursting.
But I do not. The layers of meaning sit there, unmined; the resonance with Mary, unfelt. Was it the warm November? Have I been thrown off by the new environment and schedule that I’m still unaccustomed to? Where is my Christmas spirit? And where is my baby spirit?
When I confessed to Dan my lack of anticipation, he assured me that perhaps the not-feeling has something spiritual to teach me. Maybe we’re not always waiting with eager anticipation. We don’t always have a clear idea of what to hope for.
So much of my emotion about our coming daughter is simply blank, unclaimed. I’m neither excited nor fearful—I simply have no feeling about it. I don’t know what to feel because it’s utterly new to me. What are the proper emotions for an expectant mother? Not knowing, I go about my business, feeling nothing.
Is this how Mary felt, too? Did she feel swollen as the moon, ready for the dawn from on high to break upon her body and the world, or did she just have a worse-than-usual backache that was too mundane to attribute to the growing body of the Savior of the world? Was she keenly aware of the meaning of her pregnancy, or just as ignorant as I am? Was she full of hope as her belly grew big and her sleep became restless, as she waited out a Braxton Hicks contraction (and later on, a real one), as she watched the drum of her stomach slither and shift—or were those just the odd symptoms of a completely natural process?
I want to have hope: both for our baby and for the coming of the Christ-child.
It helped a bit that we got to meet our brand-new niece, who gave us a little glimpse of the sweetness that’s in store.
It helped that we spent Thanksgiving with my grandmothers, who recounted their own stories of labor and birth, who hadn’t seen my belly yet and delighted in it in ways I’ve taken for granted.
I may not be waiting with great hope, but I’m certainly waiting. Our little babe will be here yet. And Christ will come.
If you’re in the market for some lovely, thoughtful words on Advent and Christmas, click over to Pillar of Cloud and linger a while. Matt has offered some gorgeous reflections on the season.
I know it happens at your house: you spend all day on household projects, and suddenly it’s past dinnertime and you haven’t started cooking. We’re trying to be better, especially now that my failing to eat makes the baby hangry, too. But sometimes you just need something that you can assemble while you’re finishing up the other tasks, something that satiates your deep craving for nourishment, something that uses up all the pumpkin puree leftover from the pie.
with thanks to Rachael Ray (can’t believe I’m saying that!)
I tried to streamline the recipe and work with what we had. Do the same and adapt this to your kitchen! For instance, Rachael suggests peeling and cubing the pumpkin, which might make for a nice texture, but I honestly can’t imagine anything worse than peeling and cubing winter squash. Since I learned the trick from Molly, I only ever cook them whole. Also, I bet you could make this vegetarian with white beans, though you’d want to ramp up the flavor. Maybe browned butter infused with lemon and nutmeg, riffing off Heidi’s?
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage (or five sweet Italian sausages, casings removed)
3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 large bay leaf
3 cups pumpkin puree (from 1 smallish pumpkin or 1 28-oz can pumpkin)
4+ cups chicken broth (or water)
1 cup heavy cream
1 bunch kale, stemmed and chopped
3/4 cup brown rice
salt and pepper
freshly grated nutmeg (ground is fine, but freshly grated is divine)
grated parmesan, for serving
Ahead of time
Cook a pumpkin through: bake it on a pan in a 350°F oven for an hour or so, maybe even two. When a knife pierces it easily, it’s ready. Let it cool, slice it in half, discard the seeds, and scoop out the flesh. If you have extra, make a pumpkin pie. If you don’t have a pumpkin, a can of pumpkin puree works fine. But it’s so much less satisfying.
Dice the onion, mince the garlic, and de-stem and chop the kale into reasonable pieces. (I can’t stand long, soggy strands of kale falling off my spoon while I’m trying to eat.)
Heat the olive oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat.
While it’s heating, rinse the rice and put it in a medium pot with two or three cups of water or chicken broth. (If you have chicken bullion around, add a teaspoon per cup of water. Stir thoroughly to dissolve the bullion.) Bring the pot to a boil, then turn the burner to low. It doesn’t need to cook through; you’re just giving it a head start since brown rice takes a while.
Once the oil in the big pot is shimmering, add the sausage and break it into bits with a wooden spoon. Cook the sausage through, until it just begins to brown. Stir in the onions and garlic and cook until translucent and fragrant, maybe five minutes.
Then pour in the cream, the rice and its broth (at whatever stage it’s cooked to), the pumpkin, and the kale. Add more water or chicken broth to cover everything. Then add the bay leaf, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, and grate a bit of nutmeg on top. Taste it and add more seasonings accordingly.
Simmer everything for 20 minutes or so, while you’re cleaning up the dishes.
Ladle the soup into shallow bowls. Serve with grated parmesan if you remember. (We didn’t.) I also imagine a drizzle of browned butter would be amazing.
About a week and a half ago, I spent the day talking about leadership with my colleagues. We sat in a circle, nibbling on chocolate mints and letting the unseasonably warm wind blow off the water and into the house.
At one point, several of us weighed in on this question: Have you ever been thrust into leadership without sufficient preparation and perhaps to the detriment of those you were leading?
My mind immediately flew back to my seminary internships, when I was responsible for leading Bible studies or for preaching or for calling on home-bound people. For so much of that time, I was not certain that I was called to be a pastor or to lead. Like many of my seminary peers, I had enrolled in seminary with the intent of figuring out my calling while I finished my degree. This was especially true for those of us who went straight from college to seminary. We had heard that people used graduate school as a place to stall, a place to put off deciding how they would spend their lives—but surely we weren’t among them.
So we went to seminary.
And we led Bible studies without being confident that we should be leading them. And we preached—not with the congregation in mind, but with our own calling in mind. I for one spent a whole lot more time introspecting and fretting and crying about myself and my uncertain vocation than I did about the lives of the people I was charged to care for.
Instead of absorbing the history of Israel or the Hebrew language, I turned my homework into another chance to ruminate on whether I had leadership chops. I rarely completed an assignment without turning it back toward myself, no matter where it started—Greek grammar, organizational leadership, the book of Esther, an ecumenical council. My fifth-grade teachers would have been ashamed: my papers never bothered to avoid first-person pronouns.
Apparently, this is increasingly common. More and more students are using seminary as a space for discernment, rather than a space for preparation. Once upon a time, people felt a call to ministry and attended seminary in order to be adequately equipped to serve as ministers. But now, in an era when jobs are hard to come by and adolescence is extended well into the twenties, people need more time to figure out their vocations.
And, from what I heard from my colleagues that day we talked about leadership, the seminary is having to figure out its own vocation. If students are using seminary not to learn the skills to be pastors but to discern whether or not they should be pastors at all, the curriculum needs to look a lot different than it has. Maybe we need to separate out the discerning and the equipping, because it’s pretty hard to acquire the skills for leadership when you cry over your homework every night, deep in an identity crisis.
I’m not sure what all this means, and I’m certainly not going to sort out the role seminaries play all by myself. But it has been on my mind. There’s no going back on the cultural shifts—the majority of new college graduates may never again be sure of their vocational path immediately out of school—so we’ll have to figure something else out.
Should we advise college students to take some time to work and to do their discerning before seminary, while they are earning, rather than spending, money? Should seminaries revamp their curricula? Should we stretch the length of seminary programs so that students have a chance to grow as leaders once they’re actually fairly confident they should be leading? I’m not sure.
But I just don’t feel good about sending seminarians into churches to try to care for a congregation while their gazes are pointed straight in.
Another afternoon of watercolor with my sister, in preparation for the babe. I was not on my watercolor game. Those bears aren’t the worst of it. I said to Hope, “I painted like this so our girl knows that nobody’s perfect, not even her mom.”
How many times must I remind myself?
Again and again I forget. I fall into the pit of self-pity, thinking no one loves us, no one has time for us. I despise Shauna Niequist and her home team: I can’t think of a single soul I’d dare to bother in the middle of the night when I’m up, anxious and in tears. When I try to remember the last time a friend helped herself to a glass of water at our house, I suddenly feel all formal and discouraged that I can’t come up with anything.
We live on a wide, busy street next to a Walgreen’s; this isn’t any sort of neighborhood, really. Cups of sugar are not waiting to be lent. When I mentally run through our friends, I get stuck on this dang block, thinking, no one, no one, no one. They’re all so far away: Holland, Detroit, Chicago, East Coast, West Coast, way down south. Even the nearest ones drop out of my mind; I can’t overcome the ten minutes it takes to drive to their houses.
But THEN. (There’s always one of those. Why can’t I seem to remember?)
Twelve women show up at my sister’s house to circle up around me and celebrate the lively little babe who’s only two months away from entering this world. Some of the women drive for hours. Some linger for hours. I am overcome.
So. much. love.
As we talk, I realize that we’re all as lonely as the rest. We’re all suffering in our scattered cities, for a whole host of reasons. Heartache abounds. Exhaustion is rampant. And it’s only exacerbated by isolation.
Some of it, I see now, is self imposed. Why would I burden anyone with my own trials? They don’t care, I tell myself. They can’t do anything about it. They don’t want to.
But they do! They tell me so! They offer kindnesses I can’t believe, that practically knock the wind out of me. These women are generous.
And as I hear their hearts, I care. I want to do something about it, even if that just means listening and crying along with them. I kick myself for not asking sooner, for knowing and not checking in. I am embarrassed by my self-pity and self-absorption. How did I completely forget my home team? How did I neglect these friends, aching in their own ways, while I whined about how hurt and alone I was?
Oh, dear friends, forgive me. How deeply I love you. How precious you are to me. All of you, far-flung as you are, whether I saw you yesterday or not.
Please let’s draw near to each other, like chairs to a fireplace in winter. Let’s ask each other how we are doing, even when the question feels awkward. Let’s make a point to call or at least email. Text even. Let’s not lose touch. Let’s hold each other. Let’s go to each other’s houses when we’re about to snap and support the weight so nothing breaks. Let’s keep reminding each other that we’re not isolated, that this beautiful body—the body of Christ—is holding us up.
I love you.