Friday, October 30, 2015

Losing the Illusion

I write about pregnancy a lot lately because I find it so consuming. Right now it is the most time consuming, physically challenging, energy demanding, emotionally draining area of my life. However much I feel like it should be a side thing I just add on to normal life, that is not my reality. It has also been my primary platform for learning, a lens that colors my whole view of life. Thus it’s pretty much always on my mind.

One reason I think pregnancy is difficult is because of the lack of control. Before you even get pregnant, the process begins. Maybe it is a surprise baby that you totally weren’t prepared for, or maybe it is a baby that was a long time in coming. Either way you may find yourself saying, “I did all the right things - why did it still not go my way?”

Then there is the first pregnancy scare or pregnancy loss, the frightening diagnosis - the first realization that you have so little control over this new life growing inside you. My confidence has actually decreased each time I’ve been pregnant, likely because I know more and more people who have experienced loss at every stage. Beginning this pregnancy I honestly felt like there was about a 40% chance I would actually end up holding a baby at the end. The actual odds are much better, but aside from a few obvious areas, there’s really not much you can do to increase them. 

We also have little control over how our body handles pregnancy. We can make choices that have an impact, but in the end, some people will throw up for 9 months despite their best efforts, and some people will feel great with very little effort, with a lot of variation in the middle. Things we used to be able to do, like get restful sleep or climb stairs without pain, slowly fall by the wayside. Which is unfortunate if you happen to live on the fifth floor.

And perhaps what I find most difficult, I feel out of control of my every day life. I try to make lists so I will remember everything, but things still elude me. Or I forget to even look at my list. More than one day of missed laundry means no diapers, more wet clothes than will fit on the laundry porch, and all that is remaining is 15 unmatched socks. It is amazing how fast the house descends into messy chaos. And darn it all, people expect to eat everyday! So many simple things that don’t cause much trouble in normal life start to snowball as soon as I am feeling bad. I have to ask for help or leave it undone, and I hate either of those options.

I hate feeling out of control. And as I’ve mentioned, I don’t love pregnancy. But I have decided - it’s probably good for me. Sometimes we all need to come to a point (or many points) in our lives when we can’t control it all. The illusion is up. We’re not as great as we thought. 

The realization comes in all kind of forms. Illness. Infertility. Moving overseas. The “why are you still single?” question. The first time your child acts like Ruler of the World. Unemployment. Returning ‘home” from overseas. Honestly, there are so many things in life that humble us, that make us cry out, that bring us to the place we perhaps needed to be in the beginning. A place of realizing “I can’t do it all” AND “It’s not all on me anyway.

I just finished re-reading a memoir called As Soon as I Fell, by Kay Bruner. I read it last year for the first time, but it already merited a re-read. There is one particular section at the end I read through several times. Kay was an overseas worker, working on translation and raising her family in the Solomon Islands until her whole life fell apart. As she walked through a painful process of breaking and healing, she shared an experience of talking to a pastor at a retreat.

I went and sat down in front of a pastor I’d never met before, and haven’t seen since. I wanted to tell him a little of my story, but all I could do was [tell him my work] before I started sobbing.

I sat and cried for a long time, and the only other thing I could get out was: “When will it ever be enough?” It was as if I hoped that, one last time, I might seize back control.
That man looked at me and said, “It is enough already.”

With those words, a sense of freedom and peace came over me, like I had never known. For the first time I actually experienced the reality of Jesus’ words, “It is finished” on the cross. Those words covered everything. Everything is done already. God has taken care of it. Sure, there is work, and I can participate. But I’m going to walk in the cool of the evening and know that it’s not all up to me. God is in control. I am not. It is good.

[Linking up with Velvet Ashes: Control]

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Chinese Style Check-Up

When I was pregnant with Juliana, we made several overnight treks to Beijing for prenatal appointments. It was our first baby, and I thought they actually did important things at prenatal appointments.

The next time I was pregnant, trips to Beijing seemed costly and highly inconvenient, so I decided the local hospital would be fine. But I did go to the newer hospital where you have to pay almost $2 to see the doctor.

But were always tons of people at the newer hospital, plus the 20 minute taxi ride is kind of inconvenient, so this time I decided the older, closer hospital with the 80 cent doctors was sufficient. Third baby, right?

Wherever they happen, I don’t look forward to doctor visits in China. Today I was scheduled for a 25 week check-up and 4D ultrasound. Apparently 4D ultrasounds are standard procedure to check the baby’s facial features. It seemed like it could be interesting, so Kevin decided to come along as well.

We arrived at the hospital for an 8am ultrasound appointment. That’s right - I guess 4D ultrasounds are fancy-smancy enough to warrant appointments. First we had to go pay the money (you always pay up-front), but fortunately it was early enough the lines were still short. Often there are 20 people in line - and you may have to go through the line several times to pay for each separate procedures.

We didn’t have to wait too long for our appointment either. The ultrasound tech scowled when Kevin entered the room.
“You have to wait in the hallway.”
“Why?” We asked. “In America the husband is allowed in.”
“This is China,” she said.
Kevin retreated to just inside the door where he could still see, and the tech apparently decided it wasn’t worth fighting over.

You would think a 4D ultrasound would be interesting, but you know what’s not interesting? Lying on a table for 40 minutes when you can’t see anything and the doctors don’t tell you anything. The monitor is positioned so the tech can see it, the only one who needs to be in the know. I might have fallen asleep except it was very uncomfortable to lie on my back for that long.

At one point we tried asking what they were looking for in this ultrasound. The tech gave me a Look and didn’t talk to me the rest of the time. Oh right, it is not the patient’s job to ask questions or receive information. Every so often the tech gave me an unpleasant look and pushed down a little harder on the ultrasound wand. I contemplated whether this was a “something is wrong” look or just her permanent facial expression.

For about half of the ultrasound, we could hear a woman crying just outside the door. I wasn’t sure if she was in pain or distressed, but the ongoing, animal-type moaning was rather disconcerting.

After a long while, she called in the head tech to take a look. Apparently she couldn’t find something, although I’m not exactly clear what. The head tech also ignored me completely, but she did look moderately pleasant while doing so.

When finished, they sent us out into the hallway to await the report. Since they didn’t say anything, apparently everything was okay? Kevin used my phone to quietly video part of the ultrasound, so at least I could see it in retrospect. Most of it wasn’t 4D anyway, since they were also doing the anatomy scan.

They handed us a report with a couple of cute pictures of the face. My student friend, who came with us to help with translation, tried to make sense of the report.
“This is the size of the head...the length of the arm. The heart looks okay. They could see the kidneys but not the liver. I think everything else is okay, but I can’t understand some of these things.”

Kevin headed off to teach while my friend and I went to get the glucose blood test done. More waiting in line to pay (16 cents), then upstairs to the laboratory. They said we first needed to go back to the OB doctor.

Back to a different section of the hospital where the OB nurse said we needed to pay the fee again. I was feeling a little woozy since I was fasting for the test, so my friend kindly told me to sit and wait while she went downstairs again to pay the money.

Like most doctors, there were no appointments, strictly a first-come-first-serve basis, so we were pretty far down the list. The waiting area was filled with women in various stages of pregnancy and a few of their mothers. Men aren’t allowed even in the waiting room of this area.

Eventually we were called back to the doctor. We crowded around the desk with 10 other people. Privacy...not such a big concern. The doctor asked the women to weigh themselves and then call out their weight for her to record. I can imagine that going over well in America! Fortunately I have been in enough embarrassing hospital situations that it takes a lot more than announcing my weight to a group of strangers to faze me. (Besides, one the other ladies weighed more than me.) While the doctor measured waists, listened to heartbeats, and prescribed medicines, I examined the cheery posters showing pictures of babies with various birth defects.

When my turn came, she carefully examined my ultrasound pictures. “It looks like a foreign baby! Look, it has big eyes and a big nose!” After she asked several simple questions I could easily answer, she told my friend, “I don’t know why she brought you! She can understand everything fine!” Yes, but there is a little difference between understanding “How many weeks are you?” and other medical details!

After a 3 minute check-up, we said we needed to do the glucose test. Well, apparently at that point it was too late to do it (that’s my guess, who really knows) and she said we would have to come back another day for the multi-hour extravaganza. I’m so excited. So much for fasting.

When we finally left at 11am, I was glad for my granola bar. Also, I was happy I will not be having my baby in Yinchuan.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Self Care is not Selfish

[While this is addressed specifically to mothers, the ideas are all pretty universal.]

Dear Mothers,

Self care is not selfish. It’s understandable that we get confused, when advertisements tell us things like “Take care of yourself (with our $30 skin care product)” and “You deserve the best (aka. our cruise to the Bahamas).”

On the other hand, we are continually inundated with stimulating activities for our children (only 90 minutes prep required!), the newest current-most-important-health-ingredient recipes which will require every pot in your kitchen, and incredibly important causes to which we really should devote our whole heart and soul. Who on earth has time for self care, when our children’s health and development, and possibly the state of the world, rests on our shoulders?

It’s tricky because some of those basic human needs and desires take a back burner when children enter the picture. Things like sleeping all night or sitting through a whole meal or being able to lock the bathroom door (without anyone screaming outside it). We do have to give up some of our pre-child expectations. In light of children, they do become selfish.

And yet we still have needs. Our bodies need sleep and food and exercise. Our minds need adult stimulation and an occasional quiet moment to air out. Our spirits need space to connect with God. Our soul needs emotional health.

Neglecting these needs is not selfless; it is foolish. We have limits, and if we keep pushing we will reach those limits. We will eventually crash and burn.

If we are paying attention, we will recognize the warning signs as we draw near the edge of our limits. Warning signs like being irritable all the time. Yelling at our kids. Ending every day feeling drained and exhausted. Feeling disconnected from God. They only become stronger when ignored - resentment toward our children or spouse, illness, feeling depressed or out of control, dreaming of escape (if only to a really quiet hotel room). We all have warning signs: what are yours?

There are times when we are pushed to our limits by circumstances outside our control, when we operate in what my mom calls “survival mode.” There are times when health is just not a reality - say if you are pregnant and throwing up for months. There are times when your needs will definitely move to the back burner, like when you are up every 2hrs with a newborn or when your children are sick. There are crises and deadlines and moves and jet-lag. But these times should not be all the time.

So how do we make self care happen? It might look very different for each person depending on our circumstances and our personality, but some good question to start with are “what are my most important needs?” and “what fills me?”

I need sleep. Even when I am not pregnant and tired all the time, I need more sleep than some (I like to think it’s because I use my brain so much...). If I don’t get enough sleep, I am cranky. It takes twice as long to complete tasks because I can’t think clearly. Right now especially, I need adequate nutrition and protein snacks to feed my body and baby. I need exercise, especially yoga to calm my mind and stretch aching joints.

Even if the “30 minute daily quiet time” (not a biblical mandate) doesn’t often happen, I need connection with God throughout the day. Maybe that means listening to music, writing out verses, reading the same chapter for a month and letting it sink in, appreciating beauty in nature, reciting prayers or verses with my prayer beads, journaling, reading a short devotional...many small, scattered moments of “practicing the presence of God.” I also need consistent time apart to focus and go deeper.

I am an introvert. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), that did not change when I became a mother to an energetic extrovert. I need some quiet and space. I need tiny moments throughout the day, and I need chances to get out of the house or be in the house by myself.

If I continually ignore these needs, my well-being suffers. My family also suffers, because I cannot care for them well when I have nothing to offer.

Refusing to accept my limits and take care of myself is not selflessness; it is pride. It is working really hard to show I have it together in every area. It is trying to show that I have super-human strength. It is claiming that I am so very indispensable my world might fall apart if I take a break.

Don't ignore the warnings in your life. Allow yourself to have needs and limits. Figure out how to make self-care a reality in your life.

[Linking up with Velvet Ashes: Warning]

Friday, October 2, 2015

On Pretending to be Useful

I have read my fair share of stereotypical gender roles kind of books, many of them talking about how important it is for a woman to feel beautiful. If you look through the magazines with their 15 step facial cleansing routine, it seems like a reasonable assumption.  But as my 360th day of ponytail might suggest, beauty has never been top on my list of concerns. Sure I wouldn’t mind being beautiful, but it doesn’t keep me up at night.

What I want is to be useful. And I don’t mean in a holier-than-thou kind of way, because as much as being useful, I want everyone to notice how very useful I am and marvel at my mad skills. I want someone to say, “Wow, how do you do it all? Raising bright, creative, disciplined children. Making incredibly healthy meals in a spectacularly clean house. Interacting with students every day. All while being an indispensable leader, writing profound books, being famous, literally saving lives - we are truly inspired.”

And that’s why I don’t want to show how useless I sometimes feel. There are days when I do nothing. Not Gilmore Girls marathon kind of nothing. But nothing outside of my home, and nothing inside of my home that won’t have to be done all over again tomorrow. Nothing that says, “Look at me, I’m leading a super important life here in China!

When we tell people back in America we live in China and they get that “ooh exotic” look in their eyes, or when people (untruthfully) say something like, “I could never do what you’re doing,” I don’t think they are envisioning another day of laundry and hitting and tattling about hitting. Because everyone does that. Besides a laundry porch instead of a drier, it doesn’t even look much different than it would in America.

And sure sometimes I do things with students and “impact lives,” generally in a vague, unmeasurable way. I do the “supporting spouse” thing, which is something like more laundry and cooking and keeping the house livable. And maybe at the end of the day I grew my baby a little bigger and I kept my toddler from eating an entire crayon and I taught my kindergartener how to write a 4. But is that enough? Would it ever be enough?

I don’t want to tell how ordinary our lives are sometimes, how full of the mundane necessities of life, because people want to hear the glory and the suffering, the exotic “this could never happen in America.” People want to hear about The Results. Not The Laundry.

(In fairness, nobody wants to hear about laundry wherever you live; it’s very boring. But it is especially anticlimactic when you are talking about China.)

I don’t want to tell how ordinary our lives are sometimes because I’m afraid people will ask, “Why are you there anyway?” It’s hard enough to hear that question from myself. I know this is where we should be now. I want to be here. But sometimes I wonder if it matters that I’m here.

Especially in this not-so-productive season of my life. This season of limited energy and focusing on what has to get done. This season of learning about weakness and limitations, which is humbling.\\

Some would say growing a baby is productive - it feels like a lot of work sometimes, but it looks more like doing nothing much for 9 months and then you happen to get a baby at the end. Most would say that raising children is important, but often it looks like doing and saying the same things over and over for years and wondering if it’s getting through.

So why are we here, living lives that seem way too ordinary?

This may not be the right answer, or the best answer, but this is the answer I have right now.

We are here to do life in China. Laundry, messy floors, home schooling, all of it. This is not just our jobs; it’s our lives. It’s our children’s lives. China is where we work and play and learn and discipline. We want our students to see that we are not just passing through - we are choosing to live our lives here.

In reality, our lives do look different than they would in America, especially in a million small ways we hardly notice anymore. We do deal with unique challenges. We have great opportunities and witness exciting change. But much of our lives are just eating and sleeping and cleaning and doing life stuff.

And it’s not enough. It will never be enough. The need is always before us; the plans and dreams are always more than we can realize; the tasks will never be completed. At my most productive, I am not enough. But then, in the end, I don’t have to be. It was never all on me anyway.

[Linking up with Velvet Ashes: Fa├žade]