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.

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.


Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A Letter to My Daughter: 2.5(ish) Years Old

25-32 months (beginning in top left, going from L to R)
Dear Brennan,

You're nearly 2.75 years old now.

Much has certainly happened. I'd say I would only hit highlights here to keep this short, but you probably know by now that my fingers don't know when to stop typing. Plus, it's the only way I'll remember some of these things, so I'll document away.

You experienced trick-or-treating for the first time this past Halloween. The weather was pretty cold and windy (due in large part to the effects of Hurricane Sandy). We had been given a ladybug costume, so I bundled you up after talking you through the process. I drove to a nearby neighborhood, and we spent about 45 minutes going door-to-door. Due to your limited speech and overall shyness, you would be mute at each door. However, you happily handed over your pail, and as we turned away from each home, you could barely wait before you were begging, "More? More?" You somehow knew the items in your pail were desirable to eat (although I'm not sure about the Pez someone dropped in there...), even though much of it was new to you. Is now the right time to tell you I ended up eating most of it over the last few months...? (Hey, some of it was actually too hard - or too delicious! - for you to handle!)

"You ate my candy?!"

In the last eight months, you've finished with teething - the final canine and all four two-year molars have come through. We're certainly happy to be done with that season, as overnight sleeping is harder for you during those times.

You asked to nap on the couch

There have still been stretches of weird sleep interruptions, though. I'm not sure what the cause is - it isn't regular enough to make me think we need to sleep train and almost makes me wonder if you're still feeling the molars come in - they're through, but not completely.  Honestly, though, I think one of the perks to you being an only child at this time is the fact that we can respond to your needs instead of having to let you take the back seat were you to have an infant sibling. I suspect others might view this behavior as catering to your whims and a little too indulgent, but if you're having an off night and having mommy or daddy come in for a few minutes to comfort you helps, I'm more than happy to offer you the reassurance that your parents love you and are there for you. I just need to make sure I don't fall asleep. Typically I can slip back out after you've drifted off again, but too often I fall asleep on the floor next to your crib, waking up hours later stiff and uncomfortable, only retreating to bed then. Aches and pains and increased caffeine intakes are small prices to pay, though - this season will go by all too quickly.

What you're forced to do when Mommy and Daddy tire of Duck, Duck, Goose - play with inanimate friends!

Whenever we see our extended family, I'm delighted to watch you interact with your cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. They all enjoy you, and you thoroughly enjoy the times with them all. I have fond memories of visiting cousins and grandparents, and watching it happen for a new generation is special.

Time with family is precious

We spent Easter with your paternal grandparents. Daddy said we could go to the town Easter egg hunt. I was expecting the traditional hunt: city park covered with eggs, a line of children released at the same time to collect as much as possible. However, this small town had a charming tradition. Everyone lines up to receive a ticket, then all the children walk up and down main street, scouring the windows of all the local businesses for the matching number. Once found, the child goes inside to collect their "basket". We found yours at the movie theater, and you were quite excited by the popcorn and M&Ms. You turned in your movie ticket, however, to Papa, who gave you money for your piggy bank.

I'm not one to romanticize a certain age or time and can honestly say that my favorite age of yours is wherever we're currently at. I think a friend's father described it well: "It doesn't get easier, it just gets different." There may not be the middle-of-the-night feedings, but now I'm wrestling with how best to guide you and discipline you and encourage you in new things. There are highlights and struggles at each age, and I delight in witnessing more and more of your personality emerge.

There are certain aspects of your current age that I want to remember. You sometimes take off outside, running with the awesome toddler run, arms flailing to the sides and your legs churning. It's not graceful, and it may not be much faster than walking, but it's absolutely precious.

We introduced you to Candyland and Chutes and Ladders recently, and you enjoyed them, not caring whether you won or lost. You didn't yet know that drawing a "special card" in Candyland that actually sent you back to the beginning was a bad thing. And we exaggerated our excitement when we "got" to ride down a slide in Chutes and Ladders. I know all too soon you will be aware of winning and losing and take it more to heart, so I'm savoring this stage as long as it lasts. And hopefully we can instill in you the desire to do your best and encourage others in their successes, even if it means you "lose".

A couple weeks ago we met a friend at a coffee shop. I was leading you back to the children's area when I realized you were overcome with the song on the radio - you couldn't not dance. You trailed after me, holding our napkins, pumping your arms and wiggling your body. I loved every moment of it, and I loved watching other patrons we passed, from college-aged students to elderly individuals, catch sight of you. From young to old, their faces beamed and it warmed my heart. You had no qualms, no embarrassment, no awareness of their attentions. You were just being yourself and, in so doing, bringing joy to those around you. That's an important lesson to learn.

You with some friends, both new and old

I'm also pretty delighted as I watch you explode in your vocabulary. At your annual appointment in October, I told the doctor I knew you were behind in your acquisition but that I wasn't worried. However, I did ask her to let me know if or when I should be worried. After having observed you, she said while she did expect two-word sentences at that point, she didn't see any reason to be concerned. However, we could have you evaluated in a few months if we didn't see much progress.

You kicked me off of my mat while I was trying to exercise

Come January, I scheduled you for an evaluation. A professional came to our home, asked us questions while she also observed you. At the end of her time, she agreed that your vocabulary was small compared to your peers, but she didn't recommend admitting you to their program. In her assessment, the words were there and they would come when you were ready. In short, you were too comfortable in your non-verbal communication and we needed to frustrate you more. She gave some suggestions and we tried to implement some to encourage your speech.

Around that time, you probably had a couple dozen words you used. You did make some progress over the winter with adding new words, but we were pretty entrenched at the stage of you only using a single word or two.

Even with your limited vocabulary, you've still found ways to entertain us. Below is an account I shared with friends:

So Brennan still doesn't talk much, but her favorite number at the moment is three. The following is not an isolated incident.

Parent: Okay, Brennan, before you can be done with dinner, you need to eat TWO more bites.
Brennan (plaintively, holding up the appropriate number of fingers to add to her plea): Three?
Parent (solemnly, after pretending to seriously consider this alternative): Okay, THREE more bites then.

We really want to laugh and tell her she's doing it wrong, but I can live with her poor negotiation tactics for a bit longer.

Suddenly, in the last three or four weeks, you have had huge strides in your vocabulary. Some of this may very well coincide with visiting one of Mommy's friends, who had a daughter five months younger than you but much more verbal. It's amazing to witness your progress, and you often repeat many of the words I say as we talk. Earlier this week you even composed your first original song: "Mommy, Daddy love me so much! Hugs! Kisses!"

You love singing and playing instruments

You still love books, and you adore puzzles. When you turned two, Grandma and Papa gave you some 24-piece Dora puzzles. With those, you started out by handing us the pieces, we'd place them, and you'd snap them together. Then you started figuring it out yourself, and we've since been on the search for more challenging puzzles. You enjoy 24-piece ones, but they're not a challenge. And I absolutely laugh when we go to the library and you play with the wooden puzzles with about nine pieces (or less...). In fact, I recently picked up three 63-piece puzzles from garage sales, and in a couple days, you already managed to figure out how to do one of them without any assistance (and when we help with the others, we just tend to group like pieces together, or point to the box to show you what piece we need to look for next). It's because of your great attention to puzzles, beads, and other fine motor skills that kept us from worrying about your vocabulary acquisition.

Puzzles, reading, and crafts are favorite ways to spend time

You are developing your own sense of style, offering suggestions (or demands) as to what you want to wear. On one memorable day, you insisted on wearing a Spongebob shirt we had been given. I was surprised, as this character is unknown to you. When I asked who was on the shirt, you excitedly shouted, "Cheese!", so I had to humor you.

Your emerging style

One night at dinner I was excited to introduce mandarin oranges to you. I said when you finished with your plate, I had a special treat. I set the orange down next to my plate and ran to the kitchen to fetch something. When I returned, the mandarin was sticker-less but suddenly possessed bite marks through the skin. The bite turned you off, and it took you a while to agree to try a slice. However, in that interim, you assigned yourself the job of Chief Mandarin Peeler. Heaven forbid we try to have a mandarin without your assistance!

You recently became fascinated by the book Nathan and Nicholas Alexander, starring a mouse who wants to live in the elephant's toy box. We had some stuffed elephants, but I decided we needed to add your own toy mouse to the mix, so I told you I would knit one. While you slept, this mouse was made.

I had suspected he was going to be creating living quarters in your toy box when you slept (we’d been peeking in there after nearly each reading to see if we had our own mouse visitor). But you've chosen to let him bunk with you. In the days immediately after his arrival, he was often found in your hand or nearby as you occupied yourself with other activities.

Another exciting development is potty training. At a garage sale last month, I picked up a second small potty so each floor's bathroom would have its own. I happened to show you how when you got bigger, there was an insert that could go on the big potty, and apparently that was the incentive you needed. A week and a half ago, you woke me up around 5:30 am, standing by our bed saying, "Mommy - big potty!" Your diaper was basically dry, and you went right away! I dug out the training pants, and you were on your way! That Friday, you went successfully 12 (!) times, telling me every 30 minutes or so: "Momma, potty!" We've had a couple less than awesome days in that department since then, but we've also had four accident-free days (and several with only a small accident). You rock at using bathrooms in public; I'm especially amused at your delight when you hear other patrons go: your eyes go big and you applaud them (fortunately, these cheers are masked by the flushing of toilets). There have been far fewer accidents than I expected, and other than the toddler room at church the first Sunday, no accidents in public. Yesterday was a big milestone as well; you went poop on the potty for the first time! You were excited as it happened, telling me, "Momma - big snake!" [I'm sure the internet is glad to know of this story - you can thank me later, or bill me for your therapist.]

All these developments reveal to me what a big girl you're becoming. You are generally patient and sweet, not often annoyed or upset. One of your recent disappointments was when you learned you couldn't marry Daddy because he was already married to Mommy. For days you'd shake your head as you sadly told me Mommy and Daddy were married.

Still processing that you can't marry Daddy

Your hair is still pretty curly, especially when it's humid outside. Just about every time we go out, a stranger comments on how beautiful your curls are. Today it was a parent at storytime, yesterday it was a Target employee stocking shelves, last weekend it was both at a Philosophy gathering and at the church potluck. I love to pull the curls that hang near your eyes, saying "Boing!" as I release them; I've done this often enough that you do the same now, too.

What you did instead of nap - playing "Row, row!"
I still guard my tablet and iPod closely, using them sparingly as special rewards or entertainment when out in public or in the car for long trips. Some of the apps have reinforced your knowledge of the alphabet (you know all uppercase and lowercase letters and can successfully count to 15 or so). And some apps are just for fun, like when you take a call from Elmo.

And now here's where I transition from documenting your milestones and move to more general impressions and thoughts.

On a sobering note, a couple events have taken place, one which made enough of an impression in our country that you will hear about it as a part of our history, another which happened in a smaller sphere.

The latter event, heavy on my heart, was the death of a student. My second year of teaching was spent with delightful seventh graders. They've now since graduated, many of them finished with their sophomore year of college. Since January, three members of the class of 2011 have died. One of those happened to by a student I had in class. This April, she was murdered violently by her ex-boyfriend.

Certainly you know I have lost loved ones, but this news really shook me. I think it was the gruesome nature of a crime committed against someone I nurtured in my classroom for one precious year. And the fact that I am a parent to a daughter means I reflect on events like these more internally. I remember Becky as a sweet and spunky junior-high student. And in the intervening years, while still possessing a vibrant personality, she also found herself in a relationship fraught with domestic violence. Apartment neighbors heard fights, co-workers saw bruises, but nothing was done, and now everyone is reeling from the consequences.

In the immediate aftermath, I was pondering all of this. You are my precious, beautiful daughter. I have hopes you will live a full life, filled with love and following your passions. Certainly Becky's parents wished the same for her. Darling, I know finding love will likely be a priority of yours. But remember that you have value, you have inherent worth. Never let anyone tell you differently. Never let anyone abuse you verbally, emotionally, physically. Do not settle because you think that is all you deserve or as good as you can get. Find someone who will support you, encourage you, challenge you to do and be your best. Be with someone who treasures you and is amazed by you. Find someone who values your beauty inside and out and protects you.

It can be tough enough believing in our intrinsic worth. At least this recovering perfectionist and people-pleaser has self-talk that can fixate on my shortcomings. Maybe the house is a mess, or we're still in our pajamas when Daddy gets home, or I'm unshowered (or all of the above). Maybe I was too short with you, or I worry that I'm not giving you enough attention. But you know what? Your daddy is my primary cheerleader. He counters my negative self-talk with affirmation, love, gratitude, and grace. He repeats to me what he knows to be true, and he is genuine, so I believe. Find someone who values and respects you like that.

You were aghast to learn goats go poopy and potty on the ground!

The other event that has had an impact across the world happened shortly before Christmas. In December, there was a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, where 20 young children died as well as several adults. I was shaken up over it, as many were. You struggled sleeping that night, and as I was next to your bed, holding your hand to help you drift off, I couldn't help but make the comparison that while I was being slightly inconvenienced by this small change in my evening plans, there were 20 sets of parents out there, mourning the loss of their 5-year-old children, just wishing they could be snuggling with them that night. Wishing they could be frustrated when their child woke up crying, or complaining about toys strewn over the floor that needed to be picked up yet again. Wishing they could hassle their children about homework or about not finishing their dinner. All too suddenly the routine and normalcy disappeared, and memories of those times took on special significance, times that would be wished back if possible. The extraordinary ordinary.

I think Daddy and I have an advantage in this area - it's credit to your sister Katherine, the influence she continues to play in our lives. Her life was so short that it makes it extra special to get to witness your accomplishments every day. I was nearly brought to tears the first day you started potty training. You are getting so BIG and I get to be your mom and witness it firsthand. What an amazing honor. The ordinary is profound.

We LOVE spending time with you - you're basically the best kid ever

That reminds me of what a former pastor's wife wrote recently. Laundry used to be a huge chore for her, folding and sorting over and over again, the task never completed for long. She used to grumble as she faced the unending sort/wash/dry/fold/put away cycle, until she realized it could be an opportunity to pray. This transformed the task into one she treasured; as she folded socks, she'd pray for her children's steps to be guarded, as she folded underwear, she prayed for future grandchildren, and so on. It's both silly and profound, isn't it? How am I facing my daily tasks? Grumbling or being grateful I have a home that gets messy? Annoyed or blessed by the books and toys given to you that may spill over, but also offer many hours of entertainment and enjoyment? Fixating on the extra time required to do common tasks as you want to add your "help", or delighting in your willingness and desire to contribute to the tasks required to keep our home running? It's all a balancing act. The same task can either be treasured or reviled. But I have a choice in how I view it. And how I view it will shape my character.

I often think in tangents and stories, and the above train of thought reminds me of the following quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.

This is said more for my sake than yours now. My primary jobs are wife and mother, and I should approach all the tasks related to both with this attitude of joyful servanthood. This is my calling. And as you get bigger and want to help more and more, where "help" still means "slowing me down," I more often than not remember that I'm investing in you, trying to teach you what you need to leave home an accomplished young woman. This may mean taking twice - three times? - as long to vacuum because you want to be RIGHT THERE guiding our progress with every step. Or patiently helping as you transfer clothes slowly from the washer to the dryer.

All this to say, it can be a dark world out there. I'm just treasuring the fact that you don't yet know about the evil out there and I can protect you from it for a while longer. To you, injustice is Mommy not letting you have cookies for breakfast (as if that's ever been a thing, but that didn't lessen your tears). And of all the negatives out there, I don't want our home to be another example of disappointment, sadness, hurt, and anger. I want home to be a safe place, a place where you thrive. A place you find comfort while we all grow and support wherever you find yourself.

Upset that we didn't give her giraffe yet another ride on her bike

Even with these sad events, there are still bright spots, still hope. During the school shooting, I stumbled upon a quote from Mister Rogers that was making the rounds on social media:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.
That quotation pretty much sums it up for me. I can't protect you from everything. But I sure will do my best to instill in you the ability to see all the beauty in the world. All the amazing things, from the simple to the profound, that we get to witness each and every day. I trust you will become someone who looks at how you can make a difference: reach out to the ostracized, stand up for the bullied, help those in need in both small and big ways. 

No pressure, huh? Truly, though, I hope as each day goes by, we learn more and more about how we can love and serve those around us, whatever we may do.

Hugs and kisses,