Friday, August 21, 2015

The Brutiful

Seven years ago, we became parents to Katherine, our first daughter. For six days, we embraced our doctor's "cautious optimism" and celebrated each hurdle she passed, even as my health and vision continued to suffer after her premature birth. But then we were grief-stricken as we had to say goodbye all too suddenly to our precious 19-ounce daughter.

It was the hardest thing I've ever had to face, but it would be incomplete to end there. I have to borrow Glennon Merton Doyle's word and admit it was the most brutiful time in my life, where I experienced the most brutal, raw feelings as well as getting to be present for some amazing, selfless acts of love.

So many comforted us by their words and actions. Friends and family gently surrounded us until we could begin to stand for ourselves, shouldering the burden whenever they could.

Here is just a brief glimpse of what we experienced:
  • As I was leaving the hospital, one of the nurses who had regularly cared for me during my ten-day stay gave me a huge hug and choked out through her tears, "We'll see you in here again." She, too, had recently lost a child and knew that another baby wouldn't replace Katherine or remove our grief, but those words were received like a prophesy, offering a hope that someday we would find ourselves there again, not forgetting Katherine, but welcoming another child into the world. That somehow we would survive this.
  • After I was finally discharged, we had people providing meals every day for over a month, many of whom were previously "just" coworkers
  • Several people shared stories of their own losses, some decades old. This reminded me that I was not alone in grieving the tragic loss of a child, and I could see that they had found joy again. As hard as that season was, it meant much to witness their fortitude. And being entrusted with those stories of loss was a gift. Here was something that shaped who they were years ago, a story so close to their core that they didn't often reveal it, and I was being given a glimpse, often through shared tears, of a pivotal moment in their lives
  • When Katherine's first birthday approached, my ob-gyn office remembered her by sending us a card with many handwritten messages
  • My department regularly sent out packages via Fed-Ex. They congregated in our office, where the Fed-Ex driver would collect them at the close of every day. Some days, he would rush in and out in a hurry, others he might have time to linger for a few minutes. When we held the memorial service in Indiana, he drove to our church before it began to give us hugs and offer his condolences, even though he had a commitment so that he couldn't stay.
  • Every day for weeks, several cards arrived in our mailbox. It was one of the most emotionally exhausting but healing times of the day. We'd read the condolences, often through tears. So many different friends or acquaintances sent messages, flowers, books, even some strangers wrote notes after hearing of our loss
  • One family friend sent a necklace charm as well as the reminder that "You are still parents, even if your arms are empty." 
  • A couple friends quickly knit and crocheted preemie outfits as soon as they heard of our daughter's arrival. They delivered them to the hospital, ready for whenever Katherine would get to wear them. She never got the honor, but those items are so treasured by me.
  • I had bumped into a dear family friend while in Iowa and mentioned my pregnancy. She is a quilter and began asking me about color preferences. When Katherine passed away, she must have worked feverishly to complete the quilt and mail it to us, now to offer us comfort. It's still my favorite quilt, and in my monthly giraffe pictures of the girls, you will notice it draped in the chair behind them.
  • So much anticipation, joy, and love was showered upon us once people learned we were pregnant again.
  • Never did people suggest we should be over our grief once a certain amount of time passed or censure us as we slowly started to find joy again. Instead, friends would share their own times of tears when something would bring us or our daughter to mind. Or they would laugh alongside us.

Collective grief was a gift. Yes, we felt the loss most keenly, but knowing that Katherine's death was sobering and difficult for others meant something. She had not been forgotten. And friends, by coming alongside us as we were, joined us in that grief and affirmed us. I'm sure most of the steps above seemed like such a small thing - a meal by one lab, a card from a former classmate. But collectively, these things helped to heal us.

I wonder what life would have been like, were Katherine still alive. But I know her brief life shaped us as parents. We are different for her having lived, and we are better for it.

This may seem a strange transition, but Stephen Colbert helped to articulate my thoughts as this date neared. I read a recent interview with him, and at the close he shared about the experience of losing his father and two of his brothers when we was ten:

“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.

“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

As I reflect on the hard experiences of my life - my mom's illness, the loss of my brother and my first daughter - Colbert's closing phrase resonates with me: "I love the thing that I most wish had not happened." 

The brutiful.

I would love to restore sanity to my mother, life to my brother and daughter, but in the same breath, I'm grateful to have experienced such outpourings of love in my darkest seasons. And having lived through those experiences means that I have been given opportunity to cry with others as they enter brutiful seasons of their own.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Letter to My Daughter Gretchen: Eleven Months Old

Dear Gretchen,

You are nearly a year old. My aspirations of writing monthly letters from three months to one year quickly disappeared. I think this is due to having two children (before, with your sister, I could compose letters on my laptop while she slept on me, whereas now my attention is often focused on her while you nap). Also, your sleep has been a work in progress, not often allowing for much downtime. Come evening, my ability to coherently string words together can be sketchy at best.

You are clearly a determined and busy child. I joke that you will be the one we need to take to urgent care for stitches or the like, as you are so curious and mobile. You can climb your sister's armchair and you attempt to get on the couch by yourself.

Crawling started early for you, at six months. Then you were pulling yourself up to standing within a week. And that was the last time I felt productive! I'm sort of teasing, but mastery of those skills also led to the deterioration of your napping and sleeping. You would stir and the first thing you would do is pop up on your feet. It was as if you believed your crib was hot lava and to willingly go down would surely lead to your destruction.

This led to some exhausted weeks and months for your parents. Your naps were to the point of lasting around 15-20 minutes, and with sleep, you got to the point where some nights you were waking up every hour to 90 minutes. After Christmas, when you were sleeping much worse than your newborn cousin, we finally addressed it. I didn't think we would ever try crying it out, but what it came down to was that something had to change, and I'd already read and tried several other techniques but got nowhere. I could handle poor napping if you slept well at night, or several night wakeups if I was getting some relief with daytime naps, but we were fighting it on both counts. This meant that when I got sick (which was repeatedly this fall and winter), I would be fighting the illness for weeks, since it was hard to get sufficient rest.

We had a rough night of sleep training in early January. You actually fell asleep standing in your crib, which made me both want to laugh and cry, because you knew how to get down from a standing position whenever you weren't in your crib, but you would stubbornly refuse in your crib to budge. However, after that first night we saw immediate progress. You realized your crib wasn't out to get you and you could safely lay yourself down. This was about the time naps improved in length as well.

Around seven months or so, after your mother regularly whisking you away from the steps whenever you tried to scale the first one or two, I decided to spot you and see what happened if I let you have continue on, as you so clearly wanted to. You made it all the way to the top and were beaming with pride. We quickly abandoned the gate at the foot of the stairs after that. It was more of a nuisance than anything, as your sister couldn't operate it and we still had to keep your distance from it since you could pull it free if you got your hands on it.

You are an adventurous eater. Since you already were accustomed to putting everything possible in your mouth, it was a pleasant change to learn some of it was edible. We retired purees fairly early on, as you were determined to eat anything we were eating, within reason. You have had eight teeth since Christmas, and I can spot somewhere between four and six more trying to break through. Teething has made overnight sleeping ebb and flow. In the last couple weeks, we've had some amazing nights, anywhere from zero to one wakeups, but sometimes there might be a couple when you're pretty miserable. At least we're to the point that after some medicine and/or some milk, you go immediately back down, even if I'm returning you to your crib awake.

One thing that you insist on at bedtime is having your sister in your room. You're like an alarm system - you may be contentedly laying in your crib, nearly asleep, but if she climbs out of her bed and comes to us with a question, you alert us immediately to her pending arrival with your sudden cries.

The two of you are still close. You have equal interest in each other's toys, although she gets to play with far more of your toys than you do of hers (the day you finally get to color with her you may faint from elation).

Around the time you hit nine months, you became a little more content to play quietly with a toy for a season instead of the near-constant ball of movement that had become the norm since you learned to crawl. Now you have specific ideas of what you want from your toy basket, and it's fun to see you dig and emerge victorious.

It is always amusing to have you draw attention to anything we unwittingly left out from the night before. You are quick to spot laptop charging cords, earbuds, remotes, pens. Basically anything you want to get your hands on but we keep away from you during the day because everything goes immediately into your mouth.

One big change is that we are moving to a new home. We expected this on the horizon, likely with a move before the end of the summer. However, we went to an open house on a whim after church one day (not entirely out of the ordinary). What was unusual was that we left the house really excited about it. That began a whirlwind process of contacting our realtor for another visit and placing an offer. The move is actually in less than a week. I think it will be great to give you so much more space to explore. And at least for the time being, you will get to continue sharing a room with your big sister. She wanted this, and as I have fond memories of the late-night conversations and moments with my own sisters in the times we shared rooms, I am happy for this room-sharing to continue for the two of you, at least in the near future.

It is such a gift to see how close you two already are - I wished for enduring friendship between you two, but I thought the emphasis would be on the "enduring" aspect until you were both older. It's a pleasure to see it otherwise.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Letter to My Daughter Brennan: Four Years Old

Note: this was originally drafted six months ago in September even though it's just now being posted, so I'm back-dating it. The delay was in hopes I would gather pictures, but that will have to happen sometime later.

Dear Brennan,

You are now FOUR years old.

Since I last wrote, you became a big sister. You once told me that “everything” would be your favorite when you became a big sister, and I admit I doubted you. However, I couldn’t have guessed how much you would love your sister. Once in a while you might ask, “Mommy, why do you have to do so much for Gretchen?” or “Why do you have to hold her so much?” I answer the questions, often asking for your help to do so, and you end up giggling by the end.

You started school. As expected, you love it. In fact, when I pick you up at lunchtime, you regularly want to continue playing school. The advantage of this is that you don’t ever try to argue with your teacher!

Your adored baby, Close-and-Open-Eyes Baby, has become a frequent topic of conversation. Much like an invisible friend, she has an active life. She’s constantly having birthdays, and you will soberly tell me of when she’s naughty and we are equally mortified by her actions.

You still mispronounce words or have amusing turns of phrase. When you have a cold you regularly search out ‘neenex.’ And you will tell me, “Mommy, we never went for a bike ride in a long time.”

You continue to be creatively driven. You can – and sometimes do – color for hours. You love to roleplay.

Books sometimes keep you distracted for long stretches. We recently gave you one of Daddy’s books from childhood, The Way Things Work. It is a bit beyond you, but it hasn’t been unusual for you to request us to read a couple sections as your bedtime story (I recently read about zippers and planes before tucking you in). I love reading chapter books with you. We only have one chapter left to go in The Little House in the Big Woods, and I can’t wait to move on to the other books in the series that I remember more.

While you are quite artistic and bookish, the athletic gene seems to be missing (don’t worry – you’ve come by this absence honestly!). And during summer swim lessons, while I would try to encourage you to do everything the teacher asked of you, it wasn’t unusual for you to tell me, “I just didn’t want to, Mommy. Maybe tomorrow.”

Daddy and I really wrestled with whether or not to start you in school early. But when we weighed all the factors, it seemed you were more than ready, and the school, as well with many friends or family that knew you, agreed with us. I admit my hesitation was emotional. You have a tender heart and are easily wounded when we have to be firm with you. Add your imaginative streak, and I wondered how you would adjust to a more rigid school day. And I don’t know how you will react to a harsh word from a classmate, or correction from a teacher.

However, these concerns were unfounded. You blossomed at school. You quickly made friends with several of the girls. You are a huge rule follower, so the teacher’s word is law. If she says that when you walk in the halls, you need to pretend to put a bubble in your mouth and give yourself a hug until back in the classroom or outside, you will do it very seriously and be the best at it. You are very empathetic. Some days I would pick you up, and you would be sad. As I would draw you out, you’d admit it was because someone had a necklace break: “Isn’t that sad, Mommy? It was her favorite.”

And now I’m returning to this letter six months later. I’ll end it here for now, as I hope to add an updated one. Just know that, as always, I’m so happy to be your mommy.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Letter to My Daughter Gretchen: Five Months Old

Note: this was originally drafted six months ago in September even though it's just now being posted, so I'm back-dating it. The delay was in hopes I would gather pictures, but that will have to happen sometime later. 


You’re now five months old. It’s been a busy last month.

For a couple weeks now you’ve been quite steady sitting on your own. Whereas I used to sit behind you to catch you as you would suddenly list to the side, I don’t hesitate to leave you playing on a blanket if I need to make your sister a quick lunch, aid her in play, etc.

Napping has improved insofar as location is concerned. I made a concerted effort to transition you to your bed instead of serving as your sleeping surface, and it was a clear success. Sometimes you’ll just coo yourself to sleep, other times I may be needed to rub your back for a couple minutes, but rarely do I have to take you down to the recliner. This has been HUGE for me. I was feeling constricted, limited by what I could do during the day since I was so often holding you and yet feeling overwhelmed by all that I couldn’t do while a baby was in my arms. Now that you nap in the crib, I can wash dishes, do laundry, clean litter, and – probably the biggest for me – get back into my loft. Yes, I am retreating to my loft again, after a very long hiatus, and I’m slowly ramping up production and inventory for my Etsy shop. All of these things combined help me to feel very settled.

A friend asked me last week how I was doing with two, and I honestly answered that it was great, that I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I think much of that has to do with more normalcy and routine to our days.

I remember, with your big sister, hearing how people recommended setting the child in the crib and rubbing their back. This never worked for her. I’ve long wondered if it worked on any babies. Turns out you are the sort of baby that responds to this.  So not only do you transfer relatively well once asleep, if you do come to and start to fuss, I can usually still leave your room baby-free after a couple minutes of rubbing your back.

Of course, all of this can be quite fluid. This week I’ve felt less awesome in the mothering department, seeming to just get by. I started the week with a couple days of illness. I suspect back-to-school germs, although I’ve been the only one to succumb. Then there is that fact that you haven’t napped more than thirty minutes in a stretch since Tuesday. You had been treating me to two long naps a day (around 1.5 - 2.5 hours each), along with a couple thirty-minute naps. Now you barely reach the thirty-minute mark. And instead of only waking once a night (sometimes not until five or six am, like the week previous), you were suddenly waking up to three times a night. I’m not exactly sure why the sudden change, although cognitive leaps and mastery of new skills can often impact sleep. I’m certainly hoping the end is in sight, as I’ve resembled a zombie more than I prefer these recent days.

Speaking of new skills, you are quite the accomplished baby. In addition to your awesome sitting skills, you’re starting to scoot onto your knees when on your belly (note: feel free to delay the whole crawling thing – trust me, it’s overrated. Plus, your big sister loves to feel useful). You are alert when awake and love to return smiles and giggles. This makes you quite popular with strangers, particularly the under-three crowd at school pickup. You are able to grab toys, often preferring to rank them on chewability and gnawability, as you now boast two teeth. You love to bounce in your jumperoo and swivel in your exersaucer.

I really appreciate how mellow you are. It is easy to have you tag along to events. Rarely do you cry, even when due for a nap, particularly if you are snuggled up in a wrap.  We had several new-semester events, and you could just sleep in the carrier whenever you needed to, and watch attentively otherwise.  You were usually riveted with all the people, making your naps much later than normal, but, again, this didn’t impact your happy demeanor.

The one exception has been a couple days we attended evening church. We tried you in the nursery, but you didn’t last long either time. You were nearly inconsolable when Mommy or Daddy retrieved you, so separation anxiety seems to have set in a little early.  We’ve had one babysitter, where you did fine, so I’m hoping it’s not a guarantee every time we need to be gone.

Again, this letter has sat dormant for six months, so I’ll end here and let you wait in anticipation as to all that has transpired since September.

Love you,

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Letter to My Daughter Gretchen: Four Months

Note: This was originally drafted seven months ago in August even though it's just now being posted, so I'm back-dating it. The delay was in hopes I would gather pictures, but that will have to happen sometime later.

Dear Gretchen,

You are now four months old.

You have a full belly laugh that you share with us most often during outfit changes and when your parents are making fools of themselves with silly faces and noises.

The trend of you waking up once or twice a night continues; I suppose the bright side of this is that the four-month sleep regression has not been noticed.

You have rolled over from your stomach to your back once, but repeatedly from your back to your stomach. This makes you a bit happier at night, now that you can sleep on your belly.

You are sitting up in ever so brief stretches on your own.

Favorite toys are softees to chew on as well as the toys that activate music and sounds, like those on your playmat. You also seem intrigued by your mirror and the cute baby therein. And you also enjoy jumping around in the jumperoo.

You are growing so, so fast. You're already solidly in 6-9 month clothing, and you have a number of 12-month clothing items in rotation as well (remember: you're only four months old - you can slow down anytime!). I'm worried you will have outgrown many of your handknit hand-me-downs before the weather cools enough to wear them, but I still live in denial as they all remain stacked up in the closet, not ready to be packed away just yet.

You have been great at being flexible with our schedules. Your older sister had three weeks of swim lessons in July, and you were a champ at napping in a baby carrier every day. This may have helped foster your desire to take naps on a parent, as it's pretty difficult to get you to nap in your crib or in the swing (unless I'm vacuuming, strangely enough, although all naps -- excluding a mid-afternoon one -- only last around 30 minutes). However, you regularly put yourself to sleep at night, as you roll around and coo in your crib until you suddenly drift off. And if I had to choose when you wanted to be sleeping on a parent, I'd choose daytime over nighttime - after all, you'll eventually outgrow naps.

I'm trying to be content with the naptime snuggles. Or, rather, while I certainly don't mind the snuggles, I admit I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that it keeps me from household tasks. It helps when your older sister is easily entertained - I've been known to read piles of books to her as you sleep on me, or she will build elaborate structures or color near us. If your two naps coincide, I try to have some knitting within reach to occupy me (or I also indulge in a power nap). But then there are those days where your older sister is resting in her room, and instead of sleeping, she is emptying her toy box, dress-up bin, the bookcase, and the pretend food and it all ends up strewn over her floor. Add that chaos to a laundry basket (or two) of clean clothes waiting to be folded, laundry needing to be moved over to the dryer, and the dishes on the kitchen counter if the dishwasher needs to be emptied, and I just need to take some deep breaths and remind myself that my value is not determined in how tidy my home is. Sometimes I am allowed opportunity to tackle some of these tasks if you happily play on a blanket or in your Bumbo, but you've been teething this month, making you a bit more needy than before.

I remember learning of the poem "Babies Don't Keep" before, but it bears repeating, especially as I regularly seem to have to delay cleaning; normal tasks that used to take 20 minutes now can take days.

"Babies Don’t Keep"

Mother, O Mother, come shake out your cloth,
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
Hang out the washing, make up the bed,
Sew on a button and butter the bread.

Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.

Oh, I’ve grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue,
Lullabye, rockabye, lullabye loo.
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due
Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek, peekaboo

The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew
And out in the yard there’s a hullabaloo
But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo
Look! Aren’t his eyes the most wonderful hue?
Lullabye, rockaby lullabye loo.

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.

Author: Ruth Hulburt Hamilton

I'll leave it at this for now. This letter has been untouched for seven (!) months, so I'll close it here and try to write a new one soon.

Much love,

Friday, July 04, 2014

A Letter to My Daughter Gretchen: Three Months Old

Beginning upper right and going clockwise: 1-3 months
Dear Gretchen,

You are now three months old. I had hoped to start these letters to you sooner, but my ability to coherently gather thoughts when I did have spare moments were few and far between until recently.

The day of your arrival was filled with anticipation. The c-section went as expected and when I heard your hearty cries, I couldn't contain my tears. I don't know what it is that makes me sob when I hear a baby's first cry, but it is such an emotional time for me. Perhaps it's the wonder of knowing on one level that a new life was going to enter the world, but it stays surreal on some level until you are born. One moment I'm splayed out on the operating room table with Eric at my shoulder, listening to the various doctors work, and the next, the newest member of our family arrives and I dissolve in happy tears. There you were, so healthy with a robust cry, and suddenly we had another daughter to hold.

Acclimating you to handknits

You were 7 pounds, 11 ounces and 20 inches long. On your APGAR assessments, you scored a 9 and then a 10. I heard your initial cries, but unlike your older sister, who was inconsolable until we left the OR, you quieted as soon as you were swaddled. You were so sleepy and mellow your first day, with hardly any interest in eating until late that afternoon.

Your big sister Brennan has been enamored with you from the beginning. If anything, her fault is that she is overly affectionate. She frequently makes drawings for you, loves to plaster her face up against yours, asks to hold you, even shares her beloved closed-eyes-open-eyes baby with you, and if you're napping in my arms, she will request that I shift you so she can crawl up and join us in the recliner. I've held two napping daughters on several occasions already. She has also discussed on multiple occasions her ideas for future sleepovers when you're bigger.

I noticed early on you were a warm baby. In the hospital, you were overheating in the fleece swaddler. In fact, the first or second day home I took your temperature, convinced you had a fever. The reading was normal, but I discovered that you are quick to heat up and you didn't want (or need) to be as bundled as other newborns.

You didn't cry for the first few weeks of life. Now, you tend to reserve tears for when you're tired and wish you were sleeping. Being held in a baby carrier or rocked in the recliner soon ease your tears and help you drift off to sleep. Your legs are so strong - you were showing off early on how you could straighten them to hold your weight, and when I place you on your play mat, it's not unusual to find you have squirmed several inches away from where you started. I still don't know how you have shifted yourself 90 degrees in your crib on several occasions, even while swaddled.  I predict you will crawl much sooner than your sister did, whether or not we are ready for it.

Your sleep has been a work in progress. One difficulty I was stumped by early on was the fact that while you would take decent naps during the day, there was a season where you ate much more frequently at night, and therefore slept very short stretches. You'd want to eat, but you'd only take a half feeding before drifting off again. Even if we waited to change your diaper until you were half done with a feeding, you would tease me by appearing to be wide awake one moment, and then dropping off into a deep, deep sleep the next. You'd sleep 45-90 minutes, and we'd do it all over again. Those were exhausting days and nights.

Now, though, you tend to limit yourself to one, maybe two, wake-ups a night (the guaranteed tends to be around 4:30 am, but sometimes you might stir around 1 am or so as well). And when we visit family in Iowa, both at two months and at three months, you surprise us with sleeping through until 6:30 am or so. I'm trying to figure out what the variables are so we can recreate them at home more reliably (there are temperature differences, and your room at home faces east, so the early summer sunrise is not on our side either).

Speaking of your room, we have transitioned you from the bassinet in our room to the crib in your sister's room. I didn't expect this change to already have taken place, but as you were settling into your long stretch of sleep, which began mid-evening, we were putting you in the crib and keeping watch on the video monitor. When we turned in, we would leave you there until you woke to eat. And as some of those crib stretches went until 4:30 am or later, it just happened. Plus, with your growth, your arms can reach the sides of the bassinet, which doesn't help in resettling. Now I return you to your crib after the early morning feed, and you grant us about an hour more of sleep before you want one of us to snuggle you in the recliner for a little more shut-eye.

Hospital snuggles

I thought your older sister was a healthy child who steadily climbed to the top of the growth charts, but it appears you want to best her. She may have had three ounces on you at birth, but you didn't let that slow you down. At your one month appointment, you were 11 pounds, 7 ounces (weighing six more ounces than your sister at the same age), and by two months, you left her behind, reaching 14 pounds, 8 ounces to her 13 pounds, 6 ounces (97th percentile vs 92nd percentile).

From your first entry to the world, people commented at how much you resembled your older sister. When you were one month old, I took your first giraffe picture with you wearing the same outfit that Brennan had worn, and I also noticed I'd taken a photo of you in another outfit that was a close match to one I had of your sister.

Gretchen on left, Brennan on right

I created side-by-side comparisons, and not too many friends or family could pick out which pictures were of you and which were of your older sister (and some who succeeded focused on details that seemed to show fading in the outfits to determine the pairings, not your physical characteristics).
Brennan on left, Gretchen on right

Your days are filled with snuggles. I need to start making more of an effort to get you to nap in your crib instead of on mommy, but we'll get there. Knowing you are my last baby helps me to enjoy the contact.

When you're awake, you now love to smile. And really, once a baby smiles, the tired days are just that much improved. Even when you were having me start my day at 5 am and I'd stumble in the kitchen to find coffee and breakfast, it was refreshing to return to you on your play mat and watch you grin widely at me.

You love to kick your toys and bat your arms at them. Very recently you have taken to gripping and shaking toys as well. Tummy time is hit or miss, but you do a good job holding your head up in spite of not wanting to practice. You love to be in a sitting position as you observe everything around you.

We have gotten a few laughs from you. It warmed my heart that your first laughs were directed at your big sister. It is clear that there is great affection between you two already, so it was only fitting that you reward your sister's frequent overtures of hugs and kisses and silly dances by laughing at her.

Every parent is bound to wonder how a baby will change their existing family dynamic. After all, for us, we had already gone through and survived the sleepless nights of one baby, successfully potty trained her, were at a point where we could communicate with her and she with us. She even is off to preschool in the fall. But I was raised with three sisters and one brother, and I continue to be close to my siblings. If possible, I wanted Brennan to have a sibling.  I guess what I want to say is that even with the uncertainty of what the future held and not knowing how all our lives would change, our family didn't feel complete until you arrived.

One moment sticks out to me that I'd like to share, knowing that you may not read these letters until you're an adult yourself. The last night in the hospital, Daddy couldn't stay with me, instead needing to go home to take care of your big sister. You and I had a quiet evening together.

One of my night-shift nurses commented on the knit blanket some dear friends made to welcome the arrival of your big sister, one that I reclaimed for your arrival. The compliment wasn't unusual by any means - nearly everyone who saw the blanket admired it - but the nurse was an accomplished sewer and showed me a picture of a recent project of hers: a spectacular formal dress for her teenage daughter. The nurse began to check my vitals and noticed in my chart that I had experienced repeated nausea and vomiting throughout the day. I had tried to be proactive and warn them of this likelihood, as I experienced the same with your older sister, but apparently I was not clear enough in communicating my history, as they told me it's not uncommon to feel nausea, not understanding mine wouldn't be touched by the normal medications. We went through quite a few treatments and medications before I was finally given an effective dose of medication late in the afternoon (this was quite different from before, when things were resolved within an hour or two of your sister's birth).

The nurse was apologetic that it had taken so long to get things under control, but I admitted that if all I have to go through to get a healthy baby was a surgery that came with some nausea, it was a small price to pay. How fortunate that even though my body wasn't going to be allowed to labor naturally, I could still welcome a new baby to the world. I briefly mentioned Katherine, and how a little nausea is nothing since I got to hold you in my arms at the end of it all. I learned then that she had also lost her first child, and as we talked about what we had learned through our similar circumstances, I kept looking down at you in awe and gratitude.

Life can be so hard sometimes, sweetheart. I so wish I could shield you from every ugly and hurtful thing, but that wouldn't do you any favors. So my wish for you is that, as you encounter the hard parts of life, you find kindred spirits. Find others who will hold you up and support you through dark times, and don't be afraid to look back and remember the painful seasons and reflect on how they have shaped and changed you. You may sometimes feel alone, but those experiences are not unique to you. There is something comforting to me to know that others have faced similar tragedies and come out the other end.

I read Kurt Vonnegut: Letters a year ago and this excerpt, from a letter Vonnegut wrote to his daughter, stood out to me:

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.

You have a choice when you encounter hard times. I pray that you will be soft. That you will allow your heart to remain tender and that you will be shaped into someone who can still find joy and beauty around her.

Growing up, I used to be someone who excelled at masking her emotions and bottling everything inside, and yet I can be quite transparent in conversations now. I may cry, but I don't shirk from sharing about your sister Katherine, or my brother's suicide, or my mother's mental illness. These events, while being the most difficult things I have ever faced, have made an impact on me. I want them to matter, to make a difference in me for the better. I know of no better tribute I can pay than to recognize that I am better for having known and loved these people. Their lives have improved mine.

Your daddy and I were told several times in the months after Katherine's death that we impressed friends by how we let God work through us as we relied on Him. We would look at each other in disbelief, thinking we had done no such thing. All we recognized was that we were somehow surviving. But it touched others to see that we weren't shutting people out and that we weren't becoming embittered by our loss. We were genuine and frank when asked how we were doing. And that made a difference to those around us. I can now connect with others on a different level than I could have before due to my circumstances. I've had countless conversations, with friends and strangers, that I would have missed out on had I hardened myself and shut myself away from the outside world.

So, Gretchen, be genuine. And don't be afraid to let others see glimpses of your life's experiences. For you may find that you are not so very alone. There I was, in my hospital room, sharing tears with a nurse I didn't know five minutes earlier, all because I was open to mentioning my first daughter. A nurse who was touched enough by our conversation that, when paged to help another patient, returned after her task was done just to talk some more. Those overtures matter. I don't expect to see that nurse again. In fact, I don't even remember her name. But each step I take to be in the moment and not shirk away from transparency helps me to connect with others and see people as they are. That makes a difference.

The meaning of Gretchen is pearl. The above aside of mine suddenly takes on added significance as I reflect on your name. Pearls are formed in mollusks by irritants. They are valuable and rare and while beautiful, only come about as a defense after prolonged contact with outside forces.

It almost feels wrong to be ending your first letter on such a serious note. But let's focus on the hopeful side: May you, Gretchen Joy, embrace your name. May any difficulties you face in life only shape you to be ever more beautiful in character and spirit. May you draw others to you and may your life impact theirs. Don't be afraid to let others see you as you truly are and don't try to transform into someone you're not, for as the psalmist declares, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well" (Psalm 139:13-14). You, dear daughter, are so very precious.

So much love,

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

A Letter to My Newest Daughter: Anticipating Your Arrival

Dear daughter,

I'm writing this after midnight when I ought to be asleep but I just can't stay down. Our alarms are set to go off in a little more than four hours from now and I can't believe the day is finally here: we will meet you very soon! Some of our superficial curiosities will be answered: Will you have hair? If so, how much? What color will your eyes be? What is your size? Who will you look like?

You have a big sister who is "so 'xcited" to meet you because "I love babies", and you have parents who can't wait to meet you and welcome you into our family. You are also blessed with amazing family (and friends who are like family) who are also anticipating your arrival. I can't speak to the cats, though - they may be the ones least interested in this development.

I'm feeling you move around inside me, and I try to take an extra moment to pause and remember. This is a feeling I will never experience again. Just as I tried to savor some special (yet ordinary) moments with your big sister on her final day of being an only child, so I am trying to savor the last moments of pregnancy. You remain inside me for such a limited amount of time, and then we will get to hold you and begin the journey of discovering more about you.

You have the honor of entering the world on my youngest sister's birthday. I am sure it will be no surprise to you to learn that I am close to my three sisters, and I wish the same closeness for you and Brennan, if not always as you grow, at least when you become adults.

As you enter the world on Charity's birthday, though, I hope you will have more in common with her than just a birthday. May you have the same passion for life that she does. May you possess strong convictions. May you love others unabashedly and without restraint. And may you be generous in spirit and in deed.

These early days and weeks may pass in a sleepy haze for me, but I trust it will be filled with wonder for all of us as we become a family of four and realize how your presence fits so seamlessly into our lives.

Much love,
Left photo: taken the day I gave birth to your big sister; Right: taken three days ago

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Letter To My Daughter: Three Years!

37-42 months
Dear Brennan,

You are now three years old! (And then some...why, yes, this letter did take a while to write.)

Written on your birthday:

We've had the honor of being parents to Brennan - one sweet, bright, silly kid - for three years now.

This last week, after seeing an Operation game box, she was fascinated to learn Mommy had an operation when she was born. Then followed repeated requests for the story of the day she was born, complete with pictures when possible.

Today she woke us up at 6 am with the excited question, "Is it me birfday yet?" She opened cards and gifts, ate a pancake in the shape of a 3, enjoyed cake with friends, and wandered Bay Beach Amusement Park. As she got off the Ferris wheel in the rain, she declared, "Best birfday ever!" That's my girl.

Last summer was atypical. Daddy was invited to a five-week-long seminar in Saint Louis, so we packed him up and experienced five weeks without him (we went down with him initially for a weekend, then made another trip three weeks in so we could get in some more Daddy time).

Waiting for the train to go visit Daddy!

You were a pretty good sport, but the days were sometimes long. Some friends remembered I was a single parent for a time and scheduled a playdate or fed us dinner periodically, and I know more would have if I would have sent out a plea, but I am grateful that it was only a temporary thing and that I normally get to do this parenting gig with Daddy's help.

25-36 months

You didn't fuss during the day about Daddy's absence (you're used to days with just Mommy while he goes to work), but I think the time began to wear on you. For the majority of his absence, you would wake up crying at least once, sometimes a couple times, in the middle of each night. You didn't seem to know what was wrong but since it started with Daddy's absence, I can only assume you were trying to process this long stretch without him. I was quite appreciative of caffeine during this season.

Entertainment on the train

Since I knew the sleep I did get needed to be refreshing, I ended up bringing your convertible Dora couch/bed into our bedroom, and then I would relocate you in the middle of the night when you'd cry. After Daddy returned, you were still in this habit. Then we were all together for only a week when we went to Iowa to deliver you to Eric's parents so we could fly to NYC for a second honeymoon/tenth-anniversary trip. After we returned home again, we were again in the rut of your joining us in our room in the middle of the night, if not at the outset.

Enjoying a friend's pool on a hot day

I was asking you if, by the time you turned three, you would sleep in your room all night again, as that had been the norm for most of your life, but you said, "No - me like sleeping in Mommy/Daddy's room." No amount of bribery would work. And then, in the fall, you made it one night, and then two, and we've now reverted back to you staying in your room all night, perhaps only stirring to ask for a drink of water, after which you'd promptly return back to your own bed. It can be unpredictable, though, and now that spring is upon us, sometimes you'll arrive in our room in the middle of the night, asking to sleep in there with us, or joining us quite early in the morning.

The best baking assistant

You were potty trained during the day when I last wrote, but we'd been putting you in diapers when you napped and overnight. However, in late August, I began leaving the diaper off at naptime, and you've been dry except for one time. And as I write this now in late January/early February, I can report you are potty-trained at night as well as of sometime this fall.

Looks like you've outgrown the sandbox

I asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, and you said you wanted to be a doctor. I asked you some more questions as to what kind, and you said you wanted to "help kids" - you already love to give Mommy and Daddy regular check-ups, so learning this little tidbit meant that we picked up a lab coat for you to further embrace the role (I'm thinking I need to sew up a little tote bag for all your medical instruments as well - no professional takes their items around in a ziploc bag, honey).

You take this profession seriously

Honestly, though, it cracks me up as you seriously administer the physical, instructing me to "take deep breafs" as you put the stethoscope on my chest and back. And it seems you are pro-vaccinations, if only because you love to give shots.

If the medical profession doesn't pan out, you can always take to the high seas

Lately, though, you've been telling me that when you grow up, you want to be a mommy. When I tell you that you can both be a mommy and have a job, you say you also want to be a teacher (Daddy's influence, I'm guessing, as you know he teaches students).

You made the cutest Little Red Riding Hood for Halloween

This past fall your favorite books were a treasury of Berenstain Bears stories, particularly the "Gimmies" story, as well as a collection of four Strawberry Shortcake books you received from a friend. Over Christmas, you also received a Dora collection.

Petting a puppy, no matter that it's stone

You pick up a lot from these stories. In September we were in the mall and we'd already let you pick something out for your birthday (you absolutely had to have a Dora umbrella), and as we were leaving, you saw a collection of candy machines. Daddy reminded you that you'd already received something special, so you couldn't do candy as well, just as Brother and Sister Bear in the Gimmies story could only select one item per outing. You suddenly spouted, "The worst case me ever see!", which is a phrase from the book.

You always want to pick "flowers"

When you and Mommy were returning home from visiting Daddy in St Louis, I had packed some sandwiches, among other items, to eat on the way home while on Amtrak. The Strawberry Shortcake book that had been in frequent rotation was Strawberry Shortcake Goes to School. In it, she forgets her lunch and instead of telling the teacher, stresses about it all morning. She admits it to her friends at lunchtime, and they all select items from their own lunches to share with her. I had pulled out our sandwiches on the train, and you suddenly grabbed mine and said, "Mommy, Strawberry Shortcake's friends shared their lunch," and you proceeded to tear mine in half and put it with your entire sandwich. Clearly you misunderstood a crucial plotline of that story! (Your mommy secretly ate some from your sandwich after you were "full" from eating mine.)

Rowing with a couple aunts

One big development since I last wrote is that you are going to be a big sister! We only told you when we were going to be ready for you to announce it to everyone, at the end of the first trimester. In preparation, I'd been finding secondhand books about babies joining families (many of which follow a standard formula) and I would periodically add a new one to the rotation.

Just making friends with a zebra, no big deal

The first book I gave you when I shared the news depicts a baby in the womb. You were entranced by a picture of a mom sitting up in bed in the middle of the night with her hand resting on her stomach. I explained to you that the baby was kicking the mommy, and as soon as you learned that, you started placing your hand on my tummy. "Is baby kicking now, Mommy?" I tried to explain that baby would need to get a bit bigger before I could feel the movements, let alone you, and it was going to be a while. Your response? "Maybe after naptime."

Taking care of one of your babies

The formula in these sibling books often have an older sibling struggling with the transition: tired parents, having to keep quiet during naptimes, witnessing the baby getting all the attention and gifts, until they are pulled aside and shown their own baby pictures and begin to learn ways they can help. I have been trying to make you aware of what the change might be like and what baby can and cannot do when she is first born. Once I asked you what you thought your favorite part of being a big sister was going to be. You answered, "Singing to baby and holding her." I affirmed that her baby sister would absolutely love that. And then I asked you what you thought the hardest thing might be about becoming a big sister, and you optimistically declared, "Nothing, Mommy. I love it ALL." I appreciate your spirit, but somehow I think your answer might be different in a couple weeks.

Daddy takes weekly pregnancy belly pictures - you've been wanting to be in them with me lately

As I've mentioned before, whatever your current stage is tends to be my favorite stage. Right now, I love watching you master puzzles, draw pictures, fill coloring books (you do great coloring in the lines, but you totally judge your friends: "Mommy, Paige *scribbles*!"), and carry on amusing conversations. 63-piece puzzles are no big deal, and you can even do one of your 100-piece ones on your own, too. You love to dance, are inquisitive, and show such a passion for life and learning. I love snuggling with you on the couch when you ask me to read a chapter book (we actually started Little House in the Big Woods recently).

I love seeing your creative side come through, and I love watching you play games with Daddy, sometimes with my participation as well (can I blame the pregnancy brain on coming in third in Memory?!). I enjoy seeing you mature and take on responsibilities and lecture us on manners: one of your main jobs is to empty the silverware tray from the dishwasher; you take it upon yourself to fill the cat dish if the food is low, and you sometimes ask if you can help set the table. It's also pretty typical that you ask, "Can I be 'scused?" when you are finished with dinner, and you're not afraid to lecture us if we don't use good manners ("Mommy, you didn't say 'You're welcome'" or "Daddy, you didn't say 'scuse me' after you burped").

You LOVE to color

I also love how observant you are. A couple months back, while sharing lunch with friends after Bible study, I was talking with someone when I saw you leave your friends and approach one of the other mothers. I at first thought you mistook her for me, but then I overheard you tell her, "Carrie walk down the hall and is going to the stairs." All the mothers were oblivious, but you noticed the little toddler leave the room and knew you needed to tell her mother. I was so proud of you.

You notice the smallest things - here, an ant

You are showing me the traits that make me think you will be a stellar big sister (and person in general). You love knowing routines and rules and are pretty awesome at following them. Better than that, though, you love enforcing them when others are at our home, which is pretty hysterical to witness. Your babysitter will report how you seriously told her we need to shut off lights when we leave rooms, or how we put paper on another book when coloring with markers so the table or floor doesn't get stained. I think the stereotypical "bossy" big sister may emerge, which will bring about other conversations, but on the whole, I love knowing how helpful you are bound to be.

"Mommy, this the most beautiful baby me ever see!"

You have declared some of your stuffed animals for baby and you no longer play with them. You have two teddy bears that are current favorites with you: "Warm and Cozy Bear" and "Beary", sometimes also called "Notre Dame Bear" because of the shirt he is wearing. The latter has a monkey counterpart that was also given to us upon your birth, and you've earmarked that one for baby, convinced it will be one of her treasured friends. Another favorite of yours is "Close Eyes-Open Eyes Baby", which is quite a mouthful and so funny to hear you say when you're sleepily asking us to help you find her.

We only have six more days before your little sister will arrive, and she has been quite active lately. You love when I invite you to place your hand on my stomach and feel her move around. Sometimes you bend down and say, "Hello, baby! This is your big sister, Brennan!" I love your excitement. I think it also helps that I have three good friends here who are going to have babies in April as well, including the mother of your best friend, so you get to share this journey with her.

Your first self-portrait, done entirely on your own as a surprise - you were very proud!

For better or worse, I see you've been demonstrating perfectionist tendencies. In one instance, you were coloring. Now I've never insisted you stay in the lines, but you will often turn to me when you stray out and report sadly, "Mommy, me go out of the lines." I let you know that it is okay, that *everyone* does this, even mommies and daddies. But on one particular occasion, you were so upset at yourself that every time you "messed up", you tore out the page and ripped it up. This happened several times, even with me doing all I could to calm you down and let you know it wasn't a problem. I've long struggled with perfectionist tendencies, and I like to think of myself as a recovering perfectionist now. I have to admit I feel bad for passing it on to you.

Even as you grow, you're still my little girl

My other vice has been as a people pleaser, and I see some of this in you as well. A friend mentioned a term that we sometimes use to describe you: "threenager." When we chastise you if you're about to do something dangerous, or correct you when you're acting up, you will sometimes leave the room or retreat to a corner to lay down until you're feeling better. I'm always amused when you try to hide your emotions: "Mommy, me eyes just wet, me not crying."

Here in Wisconsin, the cutoff for school is September 1. With a September 15 birthdate, you are bound to be one of the oldest or the youngest in your class. We've been wrestling with what route we'd go, but it's clear that you are so ready academically and socially that we are pursuing 4K options for next year, with the expectation that kindergarten will follow the following year. Your daddy has predicted that you will be reading by the time you are four, and I'm not sure that he is too far off. We took you to one possible 4K site early this year, and while you loved the time there, it was hard to believe these children were at least one year older than you and had already finished half a year of school. It's likely because you're so interested in letters, etc., but other than writing out the date - we haven't done any writing of numbers - you were more than able to keep up. In fact, they practiced tracing out their names, and you've already written yours out without any help beyond me telling you the letters. Another time, you decided independently you wanted to write out your letters, so you grabbed a sheet with the alphabet on it as well as a blank piece of paper and got to work copying them.

Writing out the alphabet

Your vocabulary has blossomed, although your pronunciation is still a work in progress. I'm always entertained when I've taught you a word (like sunset) and a day or two later, you will seriously ask, "Mommy, do you know the word sunset?" Or, due to episodes from Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and Peg + Cat, you've asked, "Do you know what empathy is?" and "Mommy, this is a [s]phere!"

I'm touched when I see your sensitive side come through. A few weeks ago, we were driving to small group. Sometimes you've woken up due to a bad dream, and on that particular night, you said you'd recently had a bad dream, but when you woke up, you prayed that you wouldn't have any more bad dreams and you were so excited to report that you fell back asleep and didn't have any more bad dreams.
I've been working on this letter off and on since September as I periodically sneak away to a coffee shop, but with your baby sister arriving in a week, it's time I finally gather the pictures and post this, so this letter is admittedly a little scattered. To add to the jumble, I'm closing with some of the Facebook statuses I've posted which involve you:

Brennan, while I was painting her toenails: "Mommy, they are so pretty - they make me want to DANCE!" 3/21/2014

Being awakened by a haphazard ukulele serenade at 7 am: good or bad way to start the day? Discuss. Also, keep in mind the toddler performance was actually intended for our cat Augustine. 2/27/2014

If you have to go out in negative temps, it pays to be a knitter. 2/26/2014

Brennan is all about making valentines for her friends. Some are going better than others. 2/7/2014

Overheard from my toddler (to her best friend): "When you're old, you die. Like when you're 15. Or 21." 2/4/2014

"Mommy, I love pizza, but I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE hockey!" 2/1/2014

Brennan has set herself up in her chair with a blanket and a book and thinks this is how we should spend our day ("but we still have to take naps, Mommy, because babies make mommies want to sleep"). 1/28/2014

Brennan drew a picture of herself and said she was also going to draw someone "very special." She revealed it was her baby sister. Just when she starts to wear on me by not napping and being a little more disagreeable due to that fact, she goes and does something sweet like this. 1/15/2014

My daughter, the budding poet: "Hear that noise? It sounds like the snow is singing!" 1/13/2014

My sisters have great husbands. Last night I enjoyed the company of Casey as he joined us for hours of games. This morning, when Eric got up with a bright-eyed Brennan at too early of an hour, Chad offered to watch her so we could sleep longer. When we woke up, we learned she had been taught the names of some of the chess pieces as well as how to set up the board. She was on her way out to his shop to sand, but decided after a swipe or two that it wasn't a very fun "game."  12/26/2013

Brennan has a finger puppet nativity. After she colors the characters, I cut them out. I encouraged her to finish, as Jesus might be lonely without his parents. This is when she informed me that, in fact, Mary and Joseph were actually at a friend's house and the wise men and angel were babysitting. What service - expensive gifts AND free childcare! Also, I learned yellow is Jesus' favorite color. 12/16/2013

Highlights and observations from our car trip to Iowa:
- Brennan's short list for little-sister names includes Circle and DeeDee
- Brennan's rendition of the Zacchaeus song includes the line, "Jesus said, 'Zacchaeus, you come down. There's snow on the ground. And I have two sleds.'" 11/26/2013

"Mommy, can you turn off the little light in my room? It's making shadows on the wall. I see a dragon in the water, but dragons are supposed to be in caves." 11/13/2013

You bring so much joy to my days, and I can't wait to see how having a little sister shapes you. I am so thankful I get to be your mommy.