On Postpartum Depression and Releasing Control

One of motherhood’s greatest challenges is how it forces me to let go of my control freak tendencies. The mess, the unpredictable behavior, the demands on my time and energy; all of it is out of my control.  (I know you don’t need me to tell you all the ways toddlers and newborns can thwart our attempts at order, cleanliness, and calm; I’m sure you’ve seen all your mama-friends’ Instagram stories.)

Yes, my kids are always messing with my dreams of a neat and tidy home, but it’s not only my external environment I like to control. I want to be in control of myself—my time, my emotions, my personal growth. I like to have it all together, and I like for other people to think I have it all together. And I can’t have it all together, I want that to be my choice. Dirty dishes in the sink? I decided to leave them there; I’ll deal with them tomorrow. Going out of the house with spit-up stains on my shirt? I chose not to check the mirror one last time before I left; I decided no one would notice or care; I decided I didn’t want to make the effort to find a clean shirt again. It’s all my choice. I am in control.

Until I’m not.

I’ve spent my entire life trying to keep it together, but postpartum depression was the thing that finally brought me to my knees.

I often describe PPD as something like an out-of-body experience. It felt like I was watching each anxiety attack from far away, trying to get through to that girl standing in her kitchen. I’d think, “There’s no reason to feel this way. Everything is ok. Take a deep breath. Calm down.” But those thoughts couldn’t reach whatever part of my mind was reeling. I was no longer in control of my emotions, my responses, my thoughts. It’s a scary feeling, to be honest.

Before PPD hit, I was white-knuckling my way through motherhood like a nervous new driver grips their steering wheel. The result was that I was often overwhelmed because I was living like it was all up to me while believing I wasn’t up to the task.

I’ve heard it said that while we need not be grateful for every moment, there is something in every moment to be grateful for. This is how I’m thinking about my PPD; I wish I had never experienced it, but I’m on the hunt for things to be grateful for within the experience. And one of those things is the recognition that I need to cede control of my motherhood journey to Jesus.

In A Family Shaped by Grace, Gary Morland writes that even after we’ve eliminated bad habits and disharmony from our families, and even after we’ve adopted more peaceful practices, we still need to hand over our families to Jesus. He writes that we need to release four things: our family, our roles, our limits, and the results.

Theoretically, I always understood that how my children turn out is not entirely up to me, but what really got me thinking was this new idea about releasing my role and my limits. Gary suggests this prayer: “Thank you that my limits are the beginning of your life being revealed in my mortal body.” Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he said that Jesus’ power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

I have spent my entire motherhood journey trying to compensate for my limits, but postpartum depression taught me that I just need to release them to Jesus and trust him to fill in the gaps. Gary goes on to write, “I act as if releasing control is a sacrifice that I have to do as an act of faith out of obedience. In reality, releasing is a relief. It’s a gift.”

This has been true for me. I’m grateful for my postpartum depression because somehow, miraculously, in its aftermath, I’m feeling a sense of sweet relief. Maybe this is how God is redeeming that hard, painful season. I feel as though God is healing not just the depression; He’s also redeeming the mothering I did before that point. I’m not merely returning to how I mothered before the PPD set in. Instead, I’m moving forward in an entirely new sort of freedom and grace.

That doesn’t mean I do it perfectly. (Yesterday, for example? Rough.) I still find this baby and toddler stage extremely challenging, as yesterday’s grumpy mood testified to. But it does mean that I am loosening my grip on the steering wheel, even in the midst of the chaos and the crazy.

“You have been specifically wired and gifted to cover your specific assignment, your course on the river. Your family is your course on the river. But you were made to do this in union with God, not on your own.” –Gary Morland

How this Perfectionist is Learning to Rethink the Spiritual Disciplines

“Discipline” is one of my strengths on Strengthfinders. I hated that fact, when I first read my results. I wanted to cross it off the list and trade it for a different strength. Because 1. Boring, but 2. Wrong! I never think of myself as very self-disciplined. I only follow through on things when the approval of another person is on the line. (Gretchen Rubin would call me an obliger.)

I’ve since learned that the Strengthfinder people define discipline a little differently. They write, “Faced with the inherent messiness of life, you want to feel in control. The routines, the timelines, the structure, all of these help create this feeling of control.” Ah yes. That does sound like me.

I like rules, and I like tasks, and I like to be able to cross things off my to-do list and yes: It gives me an illusion of control over my time, my day, my life.

I don’t know when I first heard the term “spiritual disciplines,” but needless to say, I latched on. Here are what my perfectionist instincts tell me to do:

  1. Make a list of spiritual disciplines. A lot of them.
  2. Pull out today’s to-do list.
  3. Add each spiritual discipline to the list.
  4. Complete each discipline in a controlled environment and within a reasonable timeframe.
  5. Cross each item off the list.

Ahhh. Doesn’t that sound just like something Jesus would do?

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When I read Scripture these days, I see that’s how the Pharisees operated, and it’s how they tried to convince everyone around them to operate, too. They wanted to control their faith, as I have so often wanted to do.

But Jesus came and preached another way: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly,” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists the disciplines as meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I would have never even considered things like guidance, celebration, simplicity, or solitude as disciplines, primarily because How do I cross those off my list? They aren’t easily measured or tracked.

We are obsessed with metrics these days. We track the number of steps we take each day, moving something as simple as walking into the realm of accomplishment and enough/not enough. Facebook tells us how many people like what we have to say, and Instagram shows us how many people have watched our stories. (I’ve heard that there are actually cheat hashtags you can use on Instagram, to make it look like you have more likes and followers.) We believe these numbers give us value; this is our economy.

I’m not a numbers person, but I have created my own economy based on productivity, accomplishment, and doing enough.

Foster writes, “to know the mechanics does not mean that we are practicing the Disciplines. The Spiritual Disciplines are an inward and spiritual reality, and the inner attitude of the heart is far more crucial than the mechanics…”

My pursuit of the disciplines was hardly an unforced rhythm, because I was focused almost entirely on the mechanics.

My instinct is to view those practices as a means of getting good at faith and good at relationship with Jesus. And no doubt—there is work to be done. But Jesus doesn’t ask me to good at, well…anything.

He just asks me to follow, to watch, and to keep company. To be like Mary as his feet. He asks me to trust that He is good enough for the both of us, that His own goodness is transforming me.

When Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, what was she doing if not practicing and acting on her faith, like I wanted to by practicing the disciplines? But she did it so naturally, so joyfully, so instinctually. She sat and she listened.

I am learning to view these disciplines not as items to be crossed of my to-do list, but as perspectives to take on; as ways of looking at the world; and as means of interacting with myself, God, and others.

I'm learning to look at spiritual disciplines not as items to be crossed off my list, but as ways of looking at the world. (1)

I shared a little bit about this when I talked about what I learned this summer. Over the next few days, I’ll share some surprising new spiritual disciplines that are making a difference in my life. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Some further reading:

I read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline a couple of years ago with our old small group, and I highly recommend it. That’s the book that got me thinking about the disciplines for the first time in a new light; he shares how to engage practically with these disciplines, but also captivatingly conveys the true meaning and vision behind them.

Not long after that, Emily Freeman began publishing posts about unexpected and unusual spiritual disciplines, which I love. Those posts have also been instrumental in helping me look differently at the rhythms and routines in my own life, and how they all can be tools for helping us follow Jesus.

 

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

–Pablo Picasso

The boys and I went to the library yesterday. We are so fortunate to have an amazing library nearby–it’s exactly what you could most hope for in a library. Kids are loud and running. They play and read by themselves, with their parents, with their friends. The shelves display a slew of brightly colored books, and the floors are covered with cushions and bean bags and carpet squares. Throughout the room are open-ended, creative toys of every kind imaginable. The children know the librarians by name; we never walk in without Ian asking, “Where’s Miss Monica?”

Along one side of the building, the walls curve like a wave. From end to end, they are covered with displays like a clothesline; sometimes, blown-up copies of a classic children’s book illustrations will hang there, or sometimes, large letters of the alphabet.

When we showed up at the library today, the walls were adorned with a display of artwork from the neighborhood elementary school.

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Ian occupied himself at the train table, Leo dozed in the stroller, and I strolled along those curved walls, looking at piece after piece. Watercolor and colored pencil, pastels and crayon. Realism and cubism and pure fun. See that human model in the picture above, with the red shading? There were dozens of pieces just like that, each in different colors and focused on a different part of the figure. (I kept thinking that it would be cool to hang a series of those in a row down a hallway in my house.)

I have really fond memories of my elementary school art classes. I remember learning about pointillism, patiently creating the image of a fruit bowl with my set of scented markers. I remember drawing random squiggles across a page, and then filling every open space that remained with a different pattern. I remember struggling to come up with enough diverse patterns–what a lesson in creativity that must have been.

One of the men in our current small group is a painter, and you should see the amazing stuff he creates. His paintings look like photographs; it blows me away. Once after Leo was born, we hosted group at our house, and I told Evan, “I feel like I need to take down all my craft projects, if Dennis is going to be here.” It’s true–I have canvas that I’ve swirled color across, song lyrics and Scripture verses I’ve displayed throughout the house, but nothing that–in the presence of someone who actually makes a living creating with paint and canvas–I would call “art.”

My grandmother, Nanny, is a watercolor artist. Her Christmas card is my favorite every year, because she paints a beautiful winter landscape. Right now, I’m looking across the room at a landscape she painted, and we have several other pieces by her as well. They are some of my most prized possessions, the kind of thing I’d want to carry out of our home in the midst of a fire. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching Nanny paint and painting alongside her.

I’m so grateful for elementary school art teachers, who are told by politicians and standardized tests that their subject area is insignificant, their classroom supplies a waste of funding, and yet show up to work every day to tell children the truth about the very way they were made: “You, child. You are an artist.” They create space in which children learn to experiment, to mess up, to express, to practice. It’s a lesson I needed then, and it’s a lesson I need all the more today.

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So, today: let’s be artists. In our kitchens, on our computers, with our words, with our hands. With our paintbrushes and fabric swatches and screwdrivers and frying pans. In our laboratories and cubicles, in meetings and in nature, from 9-5 and in the wee hours. With our kind words and our open hearts.

Let’s do what we were made to do: create something good.

“When we live free, we are able to give freedom. When we live loved, we are able to give love. When we are secure, we are able to offer security. God reveals himself through every artist, and the artist is you.”

Emily FreemanA Million Little Ways

 

Believe what you say.

I recently listened to Liz Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and she said that we should speak to ourselves the same way we speak to our very good friends.

When I am writing, I’m quick to think, “This is terrible and boring, and no one will ever read it. I am a terrible writer.” But if a good friend was struggling with writer’s block, I would tell her, “Keep trying! You are a phenomenal writer. The effort is worth it, regardless of the outcome.” With motherhood, I think, “I am terrible at this! I can’t believe I’m so impatient.” But I would tell my friend, “Motherhood is hard work, and you are the best possible mother for your children.”

When we care about people, we gladly and generously share the encouragement and truth they need to hear in moments of struggle or weakness. We offer solidarity and a “me too” as a shoulder to lean on. And we believe these things for them. Why is it so hard to believe them for ourselves?

Ian received a set of Magna-Tiles for Christmas, and he loves them. He will spend hours every day building towers, houses, and cars. The thing about Magna-Tiles, though, is that they are a bit wobbly. There are limits to how secure you can make them, so you can imagine what this is like for a toddler with chubby hands and a limited understanding of physics. If his structure falls, he almost always screams, knocks the rest of it over, and throws himself onto the floor in a fit. Wherever you find MagnaTiles, you can find Ian’s temper lurking.

He and I spend a lot of time talking about how it’s ok when things fall down, we can rebuild, that’s just the nature of the game. We talk about taking deep breaths and trying again. And again, and again, and again.

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Several weeks ago, Ian grabbed my hand and sat me down on the living room floor. “Build big house, Mama, pwease,” he said. I’m no architect, but I set out to build the biggest house our stash of magnets would allow. But I didn’t have the exact pieces I needed to make it sturdy, and I kept bumping it with my clumsy hands. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, perhaps.) The fourth or fifth time I knocked it over, I let out a loud, “Ughh!!”

Ian looked up at me and said, “That ok, Mama. You build new house!”

I wish I recorded a video of that little moment, so that I can play it back for him in the future. Then, every time he knocks over a block tower, can’t sound out a word, or doesn’t make the team, I could gently remind him, “Try again, sweet boy.” Each time he grows frustrated, loses hope, and needs to be reminded of who (and Whose) he is, I can remind him: “Deep inside, little man, you know the truth. Failure is fine. Mistakes are good. Let’s try again. You are brave. You are beloved. You are enough.”

It happened again last night. I made a batch of meatballs to serve with spaghetti, only to realize that we didn’t have any pasta sauce in the house. In moments like that, I am likely to succumb to the inner critic who says that I will never be able to get my act together, can’t remember a simple thing, am terrible at this housewife gig. These small mistakes reveal that I am still struggling with perfectionism in the worst way.

Just minutes before, Ian had been dancing around the kitchen yelling, “Hooray! Yummy meatballs! Hooray!” I looked at him and said, “Ian, we can’t have meatballs. I forgot the sauce.” I expected a meltdown, but he looked at me and gently said, “That ok, Mama. You no need be sad.”

I know that in those sweet moments, he was mostly mimicking me. He has heard me offer those same phrases many times before. Just a few minutes after my own MagnaTile house collapsed, he built a truck, it crashed, and he threw a fit. It’s happened a million times since then, too. But you know what? I think there’s value in the mimicking. Maybe if that thought– “it’s ok, deep breath, try again,”–crosses his mind every time a tower falls, he will eventually internalize it. The deep breaths and second chances will become second-nature, as much as the temper tantrum is now. I’m not sure. But I have hope!

This is the thing about parenthood: I need the reminders as much as Ian does. Motherhood helps me recognize my own weaknesses while learning to help my boys avoid the same pitfalls. I don’t want failure to derail my boys the way it often has derailed me. I want them to know their identity is not molded by their achievements, friendships, or reputation. Their identity is formed fully and completely by merit of being a beloved child of God, a friend of Jesus.

Maybe if we actually believed the things we say, the entire structures of our lives, vocations, and relationships would feel less tenuous. We’d believe that even if they got knocked down, we could put them back up just the same as before but with the weaker areas reinforced, stronger in the long run. We’d step less gingerly around them for fear of knocking them over. We’d build with enthusiasm, not afraid of mistakes along the way.

Length and Breadth

“Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

–Genesis 13:17

At small group a few weeks ago, we spoke about the way Jesus approached each miracle differently: mud on the eyes of one man, send another man to the river, let a woman touch his cloak, use the power of his voice.

I love this about Jesus, but I admit that it is very difficult for a rule-following, people-pleaser like myself. I want a checklist, please. I want step-by-step instructions and guaranteed outcomes. I don’t do well with open-ended.

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All my life, I looked for signs that I am on the right track, doing the best thing, making the correct decision. In motherhood, I have wavered about working full-time or part-time or from home or not at all. In writing, I wrestle with what to write or not to write, who to share it with, and how much time it all takes. In relationships, I wonder if I am being needy or honest, generous or self-serving, friendly or grasping for approval.

Here in Genesis, God tells Abraham, “Here is the land I’ve given you. Now explore it. Go right up to the edges, cover every square inch.”

He didn’t rope off the territory with barbed wire. He didn’t string up caution tape or post “No Trespassing” signs. He didn’t say, “Tread carefully, lest you misstep.” God gives Abraham the permission to walk without concern for where the border lies, a wide and expansive space in which to become the man he was meant to be.

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I know I shouldn’t define my identity in terms of the stuff I do. I understand that how I spend my time is different from who I am. At the same time, if I feel confident in anything, it’s the roles God has given me: wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, writer. I know those well.

I often wonder if I am living under and within the shelter of God’s will, like any good Sunday school attendee. In each of those roles, I question my motives and choices and obsess about the outcomes. 

But I’m tired of this. I no longer want to behave as though each role is accompanied by a well-defined list of DOs and DON’Ts. I am not walking on a tightrope. God has given me the permission and freedom to explore each role fully, to try and fail and then try something new.

My pastor once said, “God cares more about who you’re becoming than what you’re doing.” I need to repeat that phrase to myself every day, as a means of choosing joy and, well…staying sane.

I want to walk the land like Abraham, exploring the length and width, depth and breadth of my life. I want to create new paths by wearing down the earth with the soles of my feet. I’ll return to the familiar places at the end of the day, but I’ll do so with the peace of knowing that I wasn’t afraid to venture out. These are the unforced rhythms of grace, the light and easy yoke I wear.

I’m hopping the fence, friends. Let’s start walking.

A Reflection on Lent So Far

As the calendar turned to February, I found myself really looking forward to Lent this year. That’s a new feeling. In the past, I’ve appreciated Lent, understood its significance, and even learned something… but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it or looked forward to it in any way. My perfectionism always got the best of me, and I think I looked at fasting as another opportunity to mess up something important.

I’m experiencing a shift this year. It may be small, but it feels dramatic. My usual achievement-driven and perfectionist anxiety is absent. We are about one week into the Lenten season, and the predominant feeling I’m experiencing is peace. As I think about my fast and other practices I’m trying to incorporate right now, a slight smile crosses my lips. I feel free and joyful. I haven’t done them perfectly–I’m behind on my Bible reading, and I kinda cheated on my fast the other day. Still, the joy persists.

On the most recent episode of the Sacred Ordinary Days podcast, Jenn and Lacy talked about different ways to approach and think about the Lenten season. (First of all, did you know that the word “Lent” actually means “springtime”? I love that so much!) A lot of what they shared was new to me, and I loved it.

They suggested approaching Lent with curiosity. When I approach a fast with curiosity, I’m no longer just trying to break a bad habit or become more spiritually mature. Instead, I’m now asking, “What will my life look like without this certain thing?” With curiosity as my greatest motivator, that question goes from being whiny and discouraging to hopeful. I am daring to imagine that I can use my time, energy, and emotions towards bigger and better things.

They also talked quite a bit about how fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (the three primary practices associated with the Lenten season) can help us lean further into our true selves by stripping away the parts of our identity that don’t belong. A few months ago, I told my small group that while I understood (in theory) that I should place my identity in Christ, I wasn’t sure exactly HOW to do that. Maybe this is part of it: an intentional stripping away of the things in which I put my identity that don’t match up with my authentic self, with the person God’s calling me to be.

It sounds lofty and even a bit confusing, and it is. But I’m considering it.

So, here’s to Lent: a time to get curious, a time to become more fully ourselves, a time to imagine what our lives could be with fewer distractions. A time to turn off, turn away, and then turn around to face Jesus, our crucified and risen King.

What I’m Not Doing in 2016

One thing I’ve learned about myself over the past few years is that I make arbitrary rules for myself. Some of them emerge out of habit: having only done something one way for most of my life, why switch? Some rules emerge because of “shoulds”: this is how successful/smart/creative/responsible people do it, so I should do it that way too.

It sounds so silly, but showering in the morning was one of those rules. It’s something I’ve done for so long, I never considered an alternative. Most people talk as though a shower is a necessary part of their morning routine; both my mom and my husband will tell you that they need to take a shower to fully wake up and get going.

Me, on the other hand? For years now, I have hated to shower in the morning. It feels like an abrupt start, like when someone tears away the blanket you’ve been cozily sleeping beneath. The worst part, though, is that while I’m showering, I start running through my mental to-do list for the day. It’s as though the whole day looms before me, and I immediately lose any of the sleepy, unfiltered thoughts I might otherwise dwell on. My brain immediately goes where I don’t want it to. I also hate the idea that I could be using that limited time before my boys are awake to be writing, reading, or even eating breakfast without having to share it. (Confession time: I don’t like sharing food with my toddler.)

I thought about what my ideal morning would look like. I want to get out of bed before the boys are awake. I want to make a hot cup of tea or a cold glass of iced coffee, and I want to sit by candlelight with a journal and pen. I want to start my days slowly, quietly, creatively, prayerfully. I want to get my thoughts down on paper, read my Bible, and ease into the day from there.

So, I started showering at night. Admittedly, I sometimes forget and am stuck doing it in the morning, and I haven’t magically become a morning person. It’s still hard to force myself out of bed most days, But once I am out of bed, I enjoy my morning immensely more than before. I’ve broken my own rule, and my life is better for it.

This time of year, every blogger and person on social media is talking about their resolutions, goals, and words of the year (myself among them, obviously). I enjoy those posts, but the ones I love even more are the “unresolutions,” the lists of what people are NOT going to do, or the list of things they’re content to be doing already. Anne Bogel and Tsh Oxenreider both wrote posts about the 3 things they are NOT doing this year.

Inspired by them, here are 3 things I’m not doing this year:

  1. I’m not showering in the morning. I mean that literally, but I also mean a bit more than that: I am not going to follow my own stupid rules. If something isn’t working for me anymore, I’m ditching it. I resolve to do whatever is best for me and my family on any given day. I think this falls under what Anne Lamott calls “radical self-care.” I won’t fall victim to the “shoulds.”
  2. I’m not preparing for the 11 p.m. inspection. I think I first heard about the “11 p.m. inspection” on Gretchen Rubin’s podcast, but I’m not sure. As soon as I heard it described, I thought, “Guilty as charged.” Every night, I start frantically cleaning and straightening as if someone is coming to do an 11 p.m. inspection of my house. And you know what? NO ONE is coming to make sure all my dishes are done, floors swept, laundry put away by 11 p.m. This habit tends to stress me out, because I often would rather read a book, going to bed, or hang out on the couch with Evan. It also stresses Evan out, because he feels like he should be up cleaning with me. I’m moving forward differently. Sometimes I will feel better if I put the dishes in the dishwasher and put away Ian’s toys, but if I’d rather do something else? I’m giving myself permission to skip the 11 p.m. inspection.
  3. I’m not picking up my phone before 10 a.m. This is a new one I haven’t attempted yet, but I’m going to give it a try. I’ve fallen into the terrible habit of checking my email and scrolling through social media before I even get out of bed. On top of that, I am feeling much too tethered to my phone during the day. Right now, my phone is both an addiction and a distraction. I hope that by ignoring it in the morning, my day will be off to a better start, and I’ll be less inclined to mindlessly check my phone at other times. (I’m considering buying a regular alarm clock so I don’t have ANY reason to pick up my phone.)

When I thought about making room for joy this year, it quickly became apparent that part of the process will be addressing things that steal joy. I need to say “no” to certain things in order to say “yes” to the new, better, and more important. Hopefully, saying “no” to some useless rules, needless stress, and bad habits will make 2016 more joyful.

How about you? What are you not doing in 2016?