Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Weary Year

2016 almost perfectly encompassed a year of babyhood. I started the year pregnant and exhausted, just two weeks out from giving birth. I wasn't expecting Nadia to come early; from the beginning I felt like I couldn't catch up, she was growing so quickly. I wanted to appreciate these last baby moments, to not wish away my time with a toddler and kindergartener. I chose “moment” as my word for the year because I didn't want to rush through; I wanted to stop and notice the little moments.

I knew this year would be challenging, but somehow I hoped I would make this three child transition with grace and ease. I pictured myself calmly juggling their needs, taking it all in stride. I had already done two kids, surely one more shouldn't be that much more difficult.

Except that it was. I wasn't the mother that made life look easy, more the one that makes me people think, “Parenting sounds kinda miserable.” I've always been a fan of painting an honest picture, and I appreciate others who have been honest with me. Like all the ones who said three kids was stressful. I probably should have taken them seriously.

My journal this past year reads something like this, on repeat: “This is really hard. I am so tired. I am overwhelmed. Why can't I enjoy this? I am just so tired.”

After nearly a full year of “why is this so hard?” I finally recognized the other piece of the puzzle: postpartum depression. It seems obvious looking back. It's not my first experience with depression; you'd think I would recognize its familiar patterns. I guess it was a relief to realize it's not just that I'm really bad at this, that there was something more going on.

“Moment” seems like an ironic word choice for the year because looking back I don't remember a lot of moments. The year seems draped in a fog. Mostly I remember the feelings: weary, stressed, overwhelmed, irritated, discouraged.

I remember a lot of screaming – a crying baby, a tantruming toddler, a kindergartener always on full volume. I remember feeling like my head would explode. I remember losing my temper and feeling like a bad parent.  I remember the effort of just trying to get everyone through the day.  I remember lying in bed exhausted, knowing I would be awakened again in a couple of hours, night after night all year long.

That's not what I want to remember from this first year of my last baby. But as Nadia approaches her first birthday, I feel less sad at the passing of time and more relieved. Maybe she will be healthier. Maybe she will be more content. Maybe she will sleep. I don't want to wish away the time, but I'm also glad this year is over.

I know the screaming is not the full story. If I think hard, I can remember chubby baby cheeks and baby giggles. I remember Nadia crying and crying until she got me back. Then she cuddled her head against my shoulder, quietly breathing me in. She didn't care if I was being a success; she just wanted me.

I remember Juliana's pride at reading her first story. Even with all the interruptions and distractions, without a lot of fabulously inspired activities, she is learning. I think of her unflagging enthusiasm for life, which my lack of energy has never managed to destroy.

While I do remember a lot of screaming from our three year old, I also remember her sweet smile and bright, mischievous eyes. I remember the funny thing she said. I think of her crawling around on the floor and lavishing Nadia with somewhat aggressive love.

I remember Kevin taking the girls outside to play, putting in a load of laundry, or trying again to get the baby to sleep. It's not always easy being married to someone who is exhausted and depressed and easily irritated, but he has tried to be helpful and patient.

With time the fog will lift and I will look back on this year with more benevolence. I'd like to write this in retrospect, looking back on the good things I learned through difficulty, summing it up with a pretty picture. But right now I'm still in the middle of it. Most of life takes place in the messy space before tidy conclusions.

I know depression still has a bit of a stigma, and that's why I choose to be open about it. I have appreciated others who have been honest about their own struggles. There is always the risk of people discounting your story or giving advice to “just pray more.” We don't want to look as weak as we feel. We so much want to have it all together, but we all need to know it is okay to struggle. We all need to be reminded that we are not alone.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Waiting for the Light

This is the season of darkness. We eat breakfast and dinner with a backdrop of blackness. Every day is just a little shorter, as the night attempts to overcome the daylight. Some days when the sun does rise, it seems to make amends as it clears the frozen air with orange and yellow light. Other days the sun stays hidden behind a heavy layer of haze and smog and dull clouds. Our lungs are choked with coal dust. If the sun appears, it looks like the weak faded sun of an old, old world.

As a child at Christmastime, I was only aware of the excitement– the decorations, the cookies, the presents waiting under the tree. But as adults, we bear the weight of awareness. We see the brokenness and pain and conflict of individuals and families and nations that do not pause for the “most wonderful time of the year.” Some years we feel less like calling, “Merry Christmas!” and more like crying, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”
And so we enter the season of Advent. A season of expectant waiting, one in which we join with the groaning of a creation longing to be restored. Each week the wreath on our table is lit by one more candle. Hope, peace, joy, love. Each week we say a new prayer, something simple and childish and so fitting.

Jesus, you are light even in the darkest places...
Jesus you are peace even when there is hatred...
Jesus, you are joy even in the saddest times...
I didn't know much about Advent as a child, beyond waiting eagerly for my turn to open the little door on the advent calendar. I didn't even realize that Advent was a season, the start of the church calendar. Our solar calendar year starts in a flurry of resolutions and new beginnings, recovering our schedules and diets and budgets after a season of celebration. This year we will get it right! How appropriate that the church calendar year starts in quiet reflection, in waiting. This is something bigger than ourselves.

This year we haven't done many Christmas activities. We put up our decorations and strung all the lights, but we haven't even made a single Christmas cookie. Generally I enjoy baking, but this year cookie making means children fighting over turns and a baby crying at my feet, and that sounds more stressful than fun.

We made a faux gingerbread house (from a cardboard box). The girls enjoyed meticulously covering it with wafers and candy, while Nadia scavenged for candy wrappers on the floor. We planned a student Christmas party which was postponed due to sickness. I have searched Taobao for Christmas presents. We read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
But this year doesn't find us particularly jolly. Last week both Kevin and our teammate lost grandparents, and they mourn far from family and home. Our family has been dealing with colds and throwing up and not sleeping. I feel the weighed down by a hard, tiring year.  Too many hormones, too much screaming, not enough sleep. Nearly every one of the girls' friends here have been sick this past week.  We have friends who have lost family, who are in the hospital, who are worried about children or spouses or parents.

There is no place for weariness or grief in our idea of holly, jolly Christmas. But this is what advent is all about. We don't have to make joy; we just wait for it. We accept this dark night. We hold tenuously to hope, we breathe in peace, we watch for joy, like the dawning of the morning.
Each week we light another candle – three this week, the week of joy. Each week the night comes a little earlier, but our dinner table is a little brighter. In the kitchen window, star lights shine clearly against the darkness.

Emmanuel, God is with us. With us in the grief, the sickness, the darkness. This is Christmas:
Light rising in the darkness,
Hope springing from weary despair –
A world resigned is surprised by joy.

A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.