To the Hurting Mothers

To the mother who has been labeled brave and strong but never set out to be –

   You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother whose heart tells her one thing and photos tell her another –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who never got to celebrate –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who looks down through empty arms to the scars where life once lived –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who stands at the grave to pour out her heart –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who longs for a hug with arms that ache and are heavy –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who wonders if her children will ever know the depth of her love for them –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who worries that she will never make up for the mistakes of her past –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who never planned to parent without a partner –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother whose home is tense and silent –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who repeatedly believes she is not enough–

        You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is barely scaping by on time, energy, and resources –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is so exhausted her hair hurts –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who sings the songs just to remind her of the past –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who juggles the schedule to fit in the doctors and the therapies –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who lies awake desperate for a diagnosis –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who cries out for mercy and answers –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is holding the hand of another that is fading –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is wrestling with trauma and working towards healing –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who longs for reconciliation

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is trying to navigate the hard and unexpected –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who mothers those not bound by blood or document –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who wonders if she could have done more –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who never imagined it would be this hard –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

There is One who promises to never leave you,

who promises to forgive,

who sees you completely and chooses to love you,

who would walk through a million fires to rescue you,

who sees you as significant,

who longs to hear your heart,

who is ready to comfort you,

who cares about every pain, every tear, every longing.

To the mother who is still wondering –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

End of the School Year Encouragement

My oldest son began school 6 years ago. Yet somehow, every year around this time, my emotions get stuck somewhere between the disbelief of “how are we already in this last month of school”, the frantic “how are we going to make it through this last month of school”, and the sentimental “how are my babies almost another grade older?”

Here we are. We’re in the homestretch.

Can you feel it?

Keep breathing cause you’re almost to the end.

Welcome to the last month of school.

We are all a little tired.

We are all a little emotional.

We are all a little scattered.

We are all a little anxious that next school year’s to-do list is going to look a whole lot similar to the one we put together at the beginning of this year…because… well…life.

We are all trying to work some serious calendar magic to fit in all of the year-end field trips, spring concerts, living wax museums, class parties, and sporting events.

Remember the start of the year? You determined that you’d surprise your kiddo for more lunches, you’d volunteer in the library, chaperone every field trip, and write encouragement notes regularly to your school staff.

Well again…life.

So you fell short. Forgive yourself and move on. Holding disappointment against yourself only means it’s more likely you’ll look for things to hold against others.

Can we please make a pact? Can we agree to see each other with compassion especially as our raggedness reveals even more of our imperfections? Can we agree to be quick to offer grace and slow to offer judgment?

Instead of judging the parent whose child stumbles out of their car still nibbling on a cold pop tart with untied shoes and an unzipped backpack, can we first remember that it’s the last month and applaud their effort to get to school?

Instead of wondering how another parent could send their child to school in pants that are two inches too short and a shirt that’s inside out, can we remember the stuff that really matters?

Can we make eye contact with those parents and smile with a smile that kindly acknowledges how we’ve been there too?

Instead of being angry at your child’s teacher for making a mistake on the graded schoolwork that was sent home, can we agree to take a breath and think of all the correctly graded papers sent home before this one? Can we remember that for every paper that comes home in our child’s folder, there are 25 other folders with those same graded papers?

Can we heap grace on the teachers who have lost the pep in their step and need four cups of coffee instead of their normal two to get through the day? And can we remember how challenging the previous part of their race has been?

Instead of denying your child the opportunity to spend the evening playing outside with friends, can we just skip the AR reading for the night and let them have a little freedom? It is the last month of school.

My kids are whining more. They are tired. They’ve had tests, and projects, and experiments, and standards to meet. They consistently wake up before the sun. They desperately want a string of days to sleep in. AND honestly, so do I.

Can we remember that the teachers, administrators, parents, and students are all working really hard to cross the finish line? And can we remember that we are all on the same team as we move toward that finish line? Teachers, administrators, parents, students.

Track meets may be one of my favorite sports to watch. It feels like there is little attention on who you are “against”. Whether you are the one coaching, the one running, or the spectator, your focus is on your team. You spend your energy doing what you can to see that your team crosses the finish line. Teammates cheer for one another. They encourage. They remind each other that they are proud of them.

My niece runs like a gazelle. It’s beautiful irony that she was actually born in Kenya. It is a joy to watch her run. She is very specific about what motivates her when she is running. She wants people to shout things like “you are awesome”, “you are doing great”, and “I am so proud of you”. She gets extra motivation when we shout “I love you, Hannah.” When she is in the race and focused on getting across the finish line, she wants to know that we see her efforts and are proud of how hard she is working.

Aren’t most of us like that? Especially when we are frayed and weary and just trying to cross the finish line. I know I am.

It’s the final month.

You are in the homestretch.

You are doing great!

I see your effort and know that you are working hard to cross the line.

You’re almost there…

Now, go find your teammates. They need you as much as you need them.

When I Chose to Stop Giving God the Silent Treatment: A lesson I learned after losing my daughter

Several years ago, I had a fight with God. There were turned backs, words, tears, crossed arms and clenched fists. It was raw and not what I wanted to do. In the end, the fight changed me. Vulnerably, I am choosing to share a part of my story. I do not pretend to know the journey you are on, and while it likely looks different than mine, maybe you’ll connect on some level.

 Twelve years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Zoe Dawn Smith. She was my first. Through years of infertility, we had dreamed, hoped, and prayed for that day. She had brown wavy hair like mine and deep blue eyes like her daddy. Her skin was soft and 100% kissable. She had 10 fingers, 10 toes, thin lips, a cute button nose and squishy ears. She squeezed my fingers and we looked into each other’s eyes like you only do with those that completely know you. She’d regularly reach her tiny arms out in front of her in a manner that looked like she was trying to fly. When she’d do that, daddy and I would refer to her as “Super Zoe”.

 At 17 weeks gestation, David and I learned that Zoe had a genetic condition called Trisomy 13. If you are unaware of this condition, know that “severe physical abnormalities and mental abnormalities” and “incompatible with life” were some of the words the doctor used to help us understand the diagnosis.

 For the 18 weeks that remained in my pregnancy following this news, I spent most of my days holding my breath…unable to process the weight of her diagnosis. At times, fear would violently pull me out of my avoidant breath-holding state. We’d attend OB appointments every week. Sometimes we’d receive positive feedback of organs developing and water decreasing from her brain. These moments were what allowed me to come up for air just long enough to go back to holding my breath again.

 In all honesty, through the remainder of my pregnancy, I was a shell…only sustained by God’s grace, faithful prayers of friends, and hope that at some point, I would have the chance to touch my daughter.

On September 13, 2005, I DID get to touch Zoe. Seeing her and touching her were as precious as I had imagined. Her physical presence awakened me and for a time, I breathed again.

 Three days following Zoe’s entrance into this world, I prayed over, sang over, and held my baby girl as she took her final breaths. David and I wept over her, cradled her, kissed her, changed her diaper and clothing and eventually called for the doctor to roll her and her bassinette to wherever it is they take the babies that have forever left their mark on their parent’s hearts in this devastating way.

And then, I went back to holding my breath.

 Life went on.

Nightmares and sleeplessness.

Unanticipated tearful breakdowns in public places.

Blank stares in the middle of conversations with friends.

And attempts to pick up the remaining pieces in an effort to move forward.

We’d go to work. David a pastor. Me a counselor. Somehow trying to pastor and somehow trying to counsel. Because life goes on and the work of grief and the work that pays the bills often have to happen at the same time. Emptied of ourselves, I humbly hope that people still grew under our care.

 The years following Zoe’s death were filled with ups and downs. Grief changed me. For quite a while, I felt significant numbness. At times, numbness seemed like my method of conserving the remaining energy left due to the toll loss had taken on me. My husband, friends and family were left with remnants of me.

I’ve been a Jesus girl for a lot of my life. Praying, reading scripture, singing and looking to His life as the example. But let me tell you…there was a definite coldness between me and God for quite some time following my daughter’s death. However, because I’m also a bit of a rule follower, I kept pushing through the “good Jesus girl” motions as best as I could. I eventually learned that reluctantly doing the “right things” with my arms crossed was not connecting me to my creator.

 For as long as I can remember, I have always trusted in God’s sovereignty, believing that He has authority over all things. At some point, along the way, I applied this by thinking “Who am I to question God!?”  I mean, if God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present, “Who am I to question Him?!”

 In my grief, my response to that self-shaming question was this…

Just keep pretending that you are “okay” with how everything is going down.

Do the good things.

Smile when possible.

Trust in His sovereignty and move on. 

 But here was one of the major problems. I wasn’t actually trusting in His sovereignty. I was just pretending to trust because that’s what I thought a “good Jesus girl” was supposed to do.

 It wasn’t until years after Zoe’s death that I realized what I had been doing. I was sometimes crossing my arms in anger afraid to question Him. And I was sometimes hanging my head in discouragement because I started to believe I was no longer a “good-enough-Jesus-girl” to figure out a way to feel okay after the pain. Truth is, I was a broken-hearted daughter who had some unanswered questions for her Father. I needed to uncross my arms and open up about my coldness. I realized that unless I stopped being controlled by the “who am I to question God” belief, I was going to remain stuck between the disconnected anger and the self-shaming discouragement.

 There were lots of conversations that followed, but I want to tell you about the one that stopped me in my tracks. The one that finally caused me to uncross my arms and lean in close enough to listen.

 It was her birthday…a day that usually involves deeper aches and more tears. This would have been her 5th. I was sitting in the chair in my bedroom. As I write these words and remember that day, I can feel my lips tightening like they do when there is something you really want to say but you don’t think you should and the only way to keep from saying it is to literally clench your jaw and press your lips together so that the sound doesn’t accidently slip out. Yep, that’s what it was like on that day.

Sitting in my chair…

Clenching my jaw…

But then, I opened my mouth and said it…OUT LOUD.

 (Arms crossed.) “God, how could you let this happen?”

Silence.

(Louder.) “God, HOW could you let this happen?”

 And then I heard Him. As clear as you hear these words in your head as you read this article…I heard Him…full of compassion…full of love…free of frustration…free of judgment.

I know what is best.

(Arms crossed tighter.) “God, HOW can Zoe dying be ‘what’s best’?!” 

I know what is best.

(Fists in the air.) “God, HOW can Zoe dying possibly be what’s best for me?! Don’t you see how hard this has been?!”

I know what is best for her. 

I Know What Is Best For Her.

Ugh. That’s when I paused. That’s when my arms fell down to my sides. That’s when I started to weep. That’s when I imagined Zoe safe in the arms of Jesus. That’s when I imagined Him caring for her in all of the ways that are best for her. That’s when I felt Him calming this mama’s heart. That’s when I actually began trusting Him again. That’s when I believed that He does know what He is doing and He does know what is best for her. That’s when I realized that the pain I experience in this life does not equal a God who doesn’t care. That’s when I realized that believing I have no right to question God only kept me distant from knowing His comfort. And while my heart still aches at times, I do have a solid peace that has led me back to trusting Him. As I have released other loved ones into the arms of Jesus, I am reminded of those words that He whispered to my heart that day and I can rest in trusting that He does know what is best for them.

My standoff with God could have continued. I felt like I had every right in the world to be mad. You might feel that way too. I didn’t realize giving Him my anger and my questions would actually allow me to connect deeper with His love for me. But it did.

Behaving on the Sidelines: Finding Ways to Engage with Our Young Athletes

It’s that time of year again. The trees are turning and it is time for fall sports to begin. For my family, that means soccer. For you, it may mean football, volleyball, fall baseball, or a combination of activities.

Our family is ready. We’ve washed last season’s sweat stains from the shin guards, found the correct size soccer balls, and purchased snacks for the team. Several weeks ago, my family started the countdown, as we all get excited for the season to commence. Because crisp fall mornings on the fields watching kids work hard and do something they love is fun, most of the time.

As adults, we hold a significant role when it comes to children’s athletics. The few and bravest of us will volunteer to coach. To you, I say “thank you.” The repeated pleas for more coaches were hard to read but I honestly just didn’t want to do it. Someone had to, so thank you for answering the call.

For the rest of us…the leftover parents, the grandparents, the aunts, uncles, and occasional neighbors, teachers, pastors, and neighbors who sit along the sidelines watching the games…we, too, have a great responsibility.

As I have sat along the sidelines for many seasons now, I have learned a few things about myself, about the players, and about our tendencies as spectators. I have some thoughts for all of us…

Let us remember who the coach is. Honor them by letting them coach. Remember that they answered the call to step in and we did not. Thank them for their time. Recognize that no matter how organized and assertive they are, some practices may still resemble herding cats. Give them grace when they forget to rotate players in a fashion that allows each player to have the same amount of playing time. Notice that they are doing something risky but beneficial when they allow a player to try their hand in the goalie box for the first time because the child had bravely shared that they’d like the chance to give it a go. Remember that they are trying to stay focused on introducing your child to the sport while nurturing their interest and eventual love of the game. Encourage them by telling them what they are doing well. If there are legitimate concerns, go to them privately and express them in an adult manner with a foundation of respect. Much of the same can be said for how we honor the officials. Keep in mind that kids watch how we interact with and respond to authority. Our children see how we treat the officials…whether we question, argue, or consider their calls ridiculous.

Let us remember that the players are kids. They are not college athletes and they are certainly not professionals. I have been watching my kids play soccer for years now, and I still get confused when we talk about “off-sides”. I’m getting closer, but people, let me tell you that it has taken a while for my mind to make sense of it. And if my “developed brain” has struggled to catch on to this rule, can we agree that our kids are working really hard to soak in a lot of new concepts. They are consistently being introduced to new skills and rules each time they are on the field. Cognitively, a child’s brain functions in a highly concrete manner of reasoning until reaching adolescence where they grow in their ability to think logically about possible scenarios and abstract ideas. We, the adult spectators, can not only quite literally view more of the field than the players on it, but we are also thinking with adult reasoning brains, therefore again viewing the field and the possibilities from a different perspective.

Let us resist talking negatively about our own children or another person’s child. Just don’t do it. Don’t talk about how clumsy they are because their body hasn’t caught up with the size of their feet. Don’t talk about how they are too slow or lazy on the field. Don’t talk about how they should have made the goal after they obviously didn’t make it. Don’t talk about how they should have stopped the goal that obviously went between their legs. Don’t talk about how your team would have won if so and so had done their job. DO intentionally look for specific ways to encourage and affirm them. Look for ways that demonstrate that they are enjoying the game, focusing hard, making steps towards mastering a skill, or treating their team and coach with respect and kindness.

Let us find ways to interact well with our kids immediately following their game. When your child runs up to you after their game, pause your adult conversations and engage with your child. Be ready to do this because it is really important to them. They may have been waiting patiently through the entire game to see how you will respond to them. Don’t worry about having too many words at this time. Let them know with your eyes and your smile that you are proud they are your child no matter how they played. Hug them. Kids always want to know that their people are proud of them. Heck, adults like to know this too…but that’s a topic for another time.

Consider the conversation in the car ride home. Be balanced. Resist pointing out all of the ways that they could have worked harder or played better. Choose your words wisely because they’re really only going to take in a portion of them. Better yet, draw thoughts out of them by asking good questions. Ask them what they learned today as they played. Ask them what was most fun. Ask them how they noticed their team working together. Ask them if anything was hard for them today. But in this process, we must remember that they will clue us in when they are done talking and we must try to honor this. Bulldozing past their desire to move on to a different conversation is usually more about our need to “coach more and make them better” than actually wanting to engage in a meaningful way. My boys tend to give us fairly bold cues that they are ready for a shift in topic…generally it has something to do with what we are going to eat for lunch or what are plans are for the rest of the day.

Lastly, try not to take it all too seriously.Let your kids see you cheer, laugh, and enjoy the process. Think about letting them coach you at home by teaching you what they are learning. Quite literally…grab the ball and ask them to teach you a skill they are attempting to master. Let go of control. Resist correcting them as they coach you. (Hint: If there is arguing, it may be that you may need to resist correcting even more.) Demonstrate how to listen, respond, and engage in the process with eagerness and a willing mind. They’ll be grateful you did…and your relationship will be grateful too.

Increasing My Capacity to Love Through My Willingness to Be Uncomfortable

Just like you, I have watched the news clips and I have read the articles. I have felt the anger and I have even felt moments of fear. I have felt deep sadness as I have watched the events unfold. Human fighting human. Hate lashing out. Fear lashing out. Darkness being revealed.

I want to love deeper because Jesus requests this of me.

I’ve called on Jesus to transform my heart and have asked Him to reveal the ways I have bought into hate, bought into fear.

I’ve written my post encouraging us towards more.

I attended an event declaring hope for love and unity and I lit my candle with all of the others in attendance.

But it doesn’t seem like enough.

Because I face this dilemma…

A dilemma that I am not proud to admit.

But nonetheless, here it is…

I realize that I am just a few steps away from fading back into the world of pretending that there is not a human against human problem. A problem that leads to humans beating other humans with flags and torches and fists. A problem that leads to humans spraying fire from aerosol cans, and throwing rocks and punches. A problem that leads to cars being driven into crowds with the intention of devastation.

I watched these horrific images as they were occurring two short weeks ago. I saw similar images in the days that followed. They continue. The stories haven’t gone away.  And yet…I am just steps away from slipping back into my alternate reality where it didn’t really happen…where it’s not still happening. And I recognize that this is not okay.

If I actually believe that love is necessary to change this human against human problem, I genuinely MUST be willing to increase my capacity to love. Like our physical bodies that do not become stronger unless they are pushed out past their limits, my capacity to love is increased through my stretching and moving beyond what is comfortable for me today.

I must ask myself who I am uncomfortable loving. Ugh. I know…I really just said that.

And because today I am referring to the type of love that is demonstrated through my actions, I am asking the deeper question of who I am uncomfortable interacting with. I am asking this question because it leads me to a deeper truth about myself. I am asking this question because I actually have answers. When I ask myself who I am uncomfortable interacting with, I find out who I struggle to love.

I am far from proud to admit this, but there are people groups that I avoid. I avoid them with my presence. I avoid them with my words. I avoid them with my eyes. And this is not love.

I am grieved by the way my avoidance adds to this human against human problem.

And so today, I commit to stretch my capacity to love. I commit to make myself uncomfortable so that what is uncomfortable today may become comfortable tomorrow.

I will lift up my head and stop avoiding with my presence, with my words and with my eyes.

I will choose to say hello. I will choose to smile. I will choose to wave. I will choose to ask, “How are you?” and wait patiently for a response. I will choose to do this especially when I know I am uncomfortable. How can I live out Jesus’ command to love my neighbors if I keep pretending that some of them aren’t even there?

I know that these actions may seem small and insignificant to some. That’s okay.

For me and for any of the rest of us knowingly a few steps away from slipping back into the alternate reality that everything is just fine, would you consider another option?

Ask yourself the hard question…who do you struggle to love?

Take an uncomfortable step…say hello. Wave. Ask them about their day. Listen.

Know that these steps are good. Simple as they may sound.

Despite the awkward.

Despite the discomfort. 

Change occurs through the awkward.

Change occurs through the discomfort. 

When Celebrating Feels Unnatural: A Mother’s Day Reflection

My journey of motherhood is complicated. As time passes and I am granted more opportunities to enter into the stories of other women, I am beginning to recognize that the journey is complicated for most of us. Literally, for most of us.

I have learned that celebrating Mother’s Day can feel like an unnatural choice. To many, Mother’s Day does not automatically come with a simple dose of all the positive emotions one might assume. Recognizing Mother’s Day can easily bring to the surface emotions that we have worked unreasonably hard to hide. For some, loneliness, disappointment, grief, longing, bitterness, guilt, and shame are a part of this day. They are the pieces that make the celebration feel a bit unnatural.

Here is what I want you to know…You Are Not Alone. Not. Even. Close.

As I think about my own rocky journey, I remember the days that I sat in silence…in confusion…in loneliness. Years of infertility. Burying my 3-day-old daughter. Watching caseworkers remove our son following a failed adoption. For many years, there was absolutely no desire to celebrate.

Ten years ago, I was given the unexpected gift of a beautiful healthy son. Two years later, it happened again. Yes, TWO amazing sons! One who looks like his daddy and one who looks like me.

And with that, there is something else I want you to know…those two boys didn’t take away the pain of the journey and their arrival didn’t eliminate the path I had already traveled.

There are many truths I have learned through my own journey and one I’d like to gently tell you today…my pain has only lessened as a result of giving myself permission to deeply experience the fullness of the emotions that have accompanied my journey.

So, this is what it looks like today…I wear this awesome set of rings bearing the names of the four children that’ll always have my heart. We grill lunch and eat with my mom who is experiencing her first Mother’s Day without the man who made her a mother. My husband and sons plant flowers and build a garden in our yard. We eat ice cream at the grave of my daughter. I say a prayer for the son that I do not get to raise.

It’s complicated. And yet, I have found peace, beauty, AND joy in the ways we honor our complicated story.

I know your story is complicated too. I know this because I have heard the stories, countless stories. Maybe I haven’t heard your story but stories that may not be as far off as you’d imagine. Please know that your journey matters…the parts that are easy to celebrate AND the parts that make the celebrating less natural.

And please know that you are not alone. NOT. EVEN. CLOSE.

Paralyzed by Compassion

In my experience as a therapist, anxiety can, at times, overwhelm even the most functional individuals. It can lead to feeling hopeless….like there is no way out. It can lead to feeling helpless…like there is nothing you can do. Anxiety can lead to a physical and cognitive sense of paralysis. If you’ve experienced significant anxiety, you know exactly what I mean.

Over the past days, as I have looked through articles and horrifying images of the chemical weapons attack in Syria, I have ridden quite the pendulum of emotions.

I have felt deep sadness. As I looked at the devastated man holding his dead 9-month-old twins, I experienced flashes of my own story. I have wept tears for him and for the other men and women who have watched their children and family members die in an unbearably heinous way.

I have felt that anxiety that I initially spoke of. The kind that overwhelms and paralyzes. I have had to look away and catch my breath because the words and images were too much for my heart to take in.

We SHOULD be affected when we see others hurting. We SHOULD feel deeply for them. This is empathy. Empathy leads to compassion. Compassion leads to action.

But sometimes we don’t get through that full equation. Sometimes the taunting of the anxiety stops us in our tracks before we move to action. It tells us, “There’s no hope. There’s no helping. There’s nothing you can do about it.” That’s where the paralysis sets in and numbing your emotions or avoiding feeling it all again seems like the quickest and least painful way out. Here is what I have noticed, sometimes inaction is not just a product of not caring but it can also be a product of feeling overwhelmed by caring.

Because I have experienced anxiety in my life and because I have sat with dozens of individuals who experience anxiety on a regular basis, I want to gently whisper these words to you. Focus on taking just one step. And know that it is good.

Contrary to what the anxiety may be telling you, you do not have to have the perfect solution. Your compassionate actions do not have to be THE answer. Take just ONE step. Focus on doing ONE thing. ONE action. When the anxiety tells you there is nothing you can do, do ONE thing. When the anxiety convinces you we are all doomed, do ONE thing. When the anxiety makes you think you are insignificant, do ONE thing. And know that it is good.