Monday, November 30, 2015

How to Love a NICU Baby (and His Momma)

Premature babies don’t cry. At least mine didn’t. They make a labored grunting sound that seems sweet at first, but then you learn that it’s because they are gasping for air to fill their under-developed lungs. And that is anything but sweet.  I’ve never forgotten that silent operating room where I welcomed my twin boys into the world eight weeks early. In the fast-moving moments of their early and unexpected arrival, I held my breath in fear over the unknown path that lay before me. Premature babies don’t cry, but their mothers make up for it.

I’ve stood in a dark neonatal intensive care room with a fellow mom, as we stared at our tiny babies. She preparing to leave to go home, me preparing to stay there for the next five weeks. Our babies weren’t leaving, she just couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel next to the hospital any longer. Life and death are happening in the NICU—life is sustained by faithful doctors and nurses, and death is always around the corner as fragile babies fight to survive in a world they weren’t meant to enter just yet.

Loving premature babies is a pro-life issue.

It might seem strange to fold a discussion about premature babies into one on life.  But they are linked. Today marks the end of Prematurity Awareness Month. Unless you know someone who has passed through the NICU, or passed through the NICU yourself, you might not even know that this month of awareness exists. But it’s a vital component to our discussion on the sanctity of life. For a long time 24 weeks has been the big milestone for viability. If you can carry your baby until then, your baby has a much greater chance of survival. After 28 weeks the long-term effects of prematurity aren’t as severe. Babies born after 34 weeks often cannot be distinguished between babies born at term by the time they reach their first birthday. Medicine has come a long way in how it cares for tiny babies. And here is where the pro-life argument is strengthened. The irony of these life-sustaining measures is that doctors and nurses are daily working tirelessly to save the lives of babies that are legally considered life unworthy of protecting. Every day, doctors and nurses use their skills to heal and care for babies that are legally unprotected while inside of the womb. In some states a 24-week baby can be aborted, but in all states a 24-week baby is given a chance at life if born.

But the reality that all lives matter goes beyond just the babies in the incubators, though they absolutely matter. Like abortion is not just a tragedy against an unborn baby, so a premature baby is not separate from a mother who loves him or her. In some cases, babies are in the NICU because of something the mother has done or because the mother does not care about the baby, but in other cases the mother is deeply impacted by the separation from her baby. As one NICU nurse told me on a particularly difficult day, “you aren’t meant to be separate from them yet. It’s okay to feel the pain of that separation.”

As Prematurity Awareness Month comes to a close, how can we as Christians love both the premature babies and the mommas who yearn for them? Here are a few ways:

Hold the babies: There are a variety of reasons a baby may not have parents visiting. Sometimes it is because the parents live far away or need to go back to work. Others it is because the parents have done something to contribute to the baby’s prematurity and therefore don’t (or aren’t allowed to) visit. Many hospitals allow for volunteers to hold the babies that are well enough to be touched. Physical touch for a premature baby is a life sustaining measure. All of the wires, incubators, and tubes in the world can only do so much to recreate the womb for a baby who is not supposed to be outside in the world yet. Physical touch, while it seems small, is actually a very helpful and purposeful way to honor the life of these tiny babies.

Love the mommas: The separation the mother feels is unnatural to her. It feels like a part of you is missing. Pumping in a sterile hospital room, transporting milk to the hospital every day, separation from your baby (or babies), medical terminology you aren’t familiar with, and recovering from a physically traumatic event all contribute to emotional and physical fatigue. There is so much unknown. Will my baby survive? Will he have long-term health problems? Will I be able to care for him if he does? Our church provided meals for us the entire time we were driving back and forth to the NICU, and arranged for transportation for me to get to the hospital every day since I was unable to drive. This transformed my experience and gave me the energy I needed to care for my babies. But even as I type this I recognize there is a lot of privilege that is wrapped up into my NICU experience. I didn’t have to go back to work. I lived near the hospital. I could afford to stay at the hospital if I wanted to. I could even afford to eat lunch at the hospital if I stayed later than I anticipated. I had insurance that provide a hospital grade pump for me. I am married and didn’t walk through the difficulty alone. Prematurity is often tied to poverty, and it is a vicious cycle. From the chance to receive good prenatal care to the care needed after hospital discharge, pregnancy alone is overwhelming to someone living in poverty, and adding a premature baby to the mix only heightens that feeling. As Christians, we could do a lot to bolster our argument for the value of all life by loving pregnant women well (especially those in poverty) and loving mothers of premature infants well (especially those who feel all alone).

Every day there are fragile babies lying in a hospital room somewhere who if they were still in utero are legally allowed to be killed. I’ve seen them with my own eyes and held them with my own hands. The more we advance in our understanding of how a baby can survive outside of the womb, the better our argument against killing them inside the womb gets. The pro-life cause wins when babies live and thrive at every stage—from eight weeks early to five days late. The pro-life cause wins when we acknowledge that pregnancy isn’t just about a baby, but a mother, too. And loving NICU babies and their mommas is a good place to start in practically living out what it means to be pro-life.

****This post is in support of the Evangelicals for Life Conference put on by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (January 21-22, 2016 in Washington D.C.). If you are interested in attending or viewing the simulcast you can register here

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Tale of Four Thanksgivings

That first Thanksgiving was hard, so hard that when I think about it I still feel the pain that flowed through my weary body. I remember how I felt that first Thanksgiving, achingly aware that my body was empty. Empty of a baby that I wanted so badly. Empty of the hope of a baby any time soon. I was surrounded by pregnancy in every sphere of my life, and I could barely choke out the words “I’m thankful” when we all shared our Thanksgiving joy around the dinner table. It felt like a lie. I didn’t know how to be thankful when living felt like death and tears came too easily for my comfort.

Little did I know it would take two more years before I would know the joy of pregnancy again.

I remember how I felt that second Thanksgiving. When treatment was inevitable and I had no assurance I would ever hold a baby in my arms this side of heaven. I spent my holiday battling hot flashes and mood swings in a drug induced menopause all in an attempt to get my body to do what I felt in my heart it was supposed to do—carry and sustain a baby. It was a little easier to say the words “I’m thankful” that Thanksgiving. I had seen God work. I could see, though dimly, that through the dark and heavy clouds of loss and infertility, God was doing something in my sad heart. I just didn’t know what it was yet.

I remember the fourth Thanksgiving, smack in the middle of the baby years with twins, spending many hours pumping and feeding and going to the doctor and therapy. I wondered why after all my longing for a baby God would give me such difficulty with their lives. I wanted ease, not discomfort. I wanted simplicity, not complication. I was so overwhelmingly thankful for every ounce of them, yet I struggled with my circumstances that looked different than I anticipated. Yet still, God was doing something.

Here I am on the sixth Thanksgiving. Lord willing, farther along than I was in the beginning. Still waiting for prayers to be answered. Still battling discontentment with the life I have been given with its mundane struggles, sin, and sorrow, yet daily reminded of the rock solid truth that God is a good and faithful God to his people. He doesn’t leave us. He gives us only good things, even if our definition of good is different. This Thanksgiving, I feel like I am coming to terms with the reality of life in a broken world and I am thankful for it in all its complexity.

I’ve had Thanksgivings of want and Thanksgivings of plenty, Thanksgivings of rebellion and Thanksgivings of restoration. It’s easier to say “I’m thankful” than it was in the beginning, but not because I got what I wanted. These children give me much to be thankful for, yes. But it is more than that. I’m thankful that in my darkness and cynicism and unbelief God did not forsake me. I’m thankful that when I wrestled through the lot he was giving me he still pointed me upward and worked faith into my brittle heart. I’m thankful for years of sorrow and loss, because in the loss of what was most precious to me God was found to be infinitely better than any earthly thing. I’ve learned in the wanting that God shows up, that he can be trusted, and that even when the clouds hang low a break in them is coming.

So I’m thankful this Thanksgiving. As I kiss my boys goodnight and tuck them in bed, I’m so very thankful that they are here with me. I’m thankful for their boundless energy and middle of the night cuddles. I’m thankful for the life they bring to our home that was once so strikingly empty and quiet. But I’m equally thankful that God was here with me as he taught me how to wait on his timetable.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Give Us This Day Our Daily Milk

I’ve never had to wonder where my next feed would come from. For as long as I can remember the low growls of hunger have been quickly satiated by a stocked refrigerator and pantry brimming with snacks. Hunger is not a pain I have felt acutely, except for when I wait too long to eat or am too busy (or lazy) to walk the five feet to the endless supply of food to meet my needs.

But I have felt the hunger pains of another.

Feedings have always been a source of anxiety for me as a mother. From the early days of the twins’ life, I cried as they struggled to eat on their own, only to be met with exhaustion from working too hard, causing them to choose sleep over food. Every meal matters for premature babies, but sometimes eating is just too overwhelming when you weigh five and six pounds at six weeks old. So I struggled and cried and pumped and cried. With each finished bottle we rejoiced. With each minute spent hovered over the kitchen sink washing pump parts and bottle parts, I quietly prayed I would never have to do this amount of work to feed my little people again. With each feeding I hoped in weak, new mother desperation that these ounces of milk would fill their hungry bellies and put fat on their little bones.

Over time it did. Over time they grew. Over time they enjoyed eating. Their desperate cries for food grew less frequent, and I started to forget what it was like to experience the hunger pains.

And now we have Seth.

Seth, who came out with a knife and fork (as the pediatrician likes to say). When you are nearly nine pounds at birth, your feeding situation is far less dire. But I’ve been reminded again of the desperation I felt in those early days with Luke and Zach.

While I’ve never been in want for food, I have held a baby who has forgotten that food will come if he will only calm down, trust his mother’s care, and receive it. I may not have to beg God for my daily bread to come down, but I do regularly find myself praying for daily bread to come through me for the well-being of my baby.

Like so much of motherhood, feeding Seth is an exercise of faith. I’m reminded with every feeding that the same God who cares for the sparrows, cares for my baby. The God who waters the plants with rain from above, also provides food for image bearers like my son.  “Give us this day, our daily bread,” I say quickly in a prayer, yet I fret and forget my hurried prayer when Seth doesn’t seem to get what he desperately needs through me—his only source of the daily bread I just prayed for.

God is in the business of stripping us of every ounce of perceived strength and self-sufficiency. So while I stare at my full refrigerator and basket full of groceries and think I’m not in want for food, I am brought to my knees in weakness when the most needy people in my life cry out in hunger and I don’t have the energy or supply to give it.
Like every weakness God gives us, this is a call to trust in the God who sustains everything, who is upholding the universe by his very word. The God who spoke everything into existence, made manna fall from heaven for the Israelites, and opens blind eyes calls me to trust that he will sustain my baby through me.

“Give us this day, our daily bread,” I pray again. “And give us our milk, too”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

You Have Gifts and I Have Gifts

My sister-in-law and her kids just spent ten days with us. While it was quite the circus around here, I got pretty used to our evening dinners together and growing addiction to Call the Midwife. Parenting alongside another mom for ten days gave me a helpful perspective I've been working through since I became a mom two and a half years ago.

There are many different kinds of moms. And that is a very good thing.

My sister-in-law is a woman of many talents. She can walk into a room and redecorate it in her mind in a matter of seconds. In fact, I sent her a picture of Seth's room before we completed it, asking for help with how to fit everything in there, and immediately she sent me back a sketch of an idea. Did I say she is quite the artist? She is. Her kids regularly ask her to draw pictures of their favorite animals or characters for them, and she gladly obliges. She can make stuff out of Play Doh. She can put together toys and build towers and train tracks without getting frustrated. She is crafty and can think of fun projects for our kids to do together. She is resourceful and servant-hearted, always willing to go the extra mile for people.

She is nothing short of amazing.

And I am nothing like her.

I like other things. I do other things. I am good at other things. Her kids expect different things from her that my kids would never even dream of expecting, and vice versa. She parents her kids out of her gifts and strengths, and I do the same with mine. We both bring something to motherhood that the other does not have, and through this we are helping shape children who will bring different strengths and gifts to the world.

The world needs mothers who are crafty and the world needs mothers who pretend with their kids. The world needs mothers who have dance parties and the world needs mothers who play kickball. The world needs mothers who do all sorts of things, because the world needs kids who do all sorts of things.

Often we see the strength of others as a commentary on our weakness, we feel threatened by them and judge them to protect our own feelings of inadequacy. But their strengths are not a threat to us. They are a gift. They are an opportunity to stand in awe of the abundant creativity of God. Just like we can't all be doctors and scientists, we can't all be crafters either. It's not cause for comparison, but cause for appreciation for how God has gifted each of us to parent the children that God has given us.

My friend Trillia Newbell says it well in her book Fear and Faith:
In our fear of being judged as lazy or of incurring the Lord's disapproval, one way we might seek to feel better about ourselves is to mock other women. Yet have we ever stepped back to consider that some women have been especially gifted by God as cheerful, thankful homemakers?
She goes on to say this in response to our comparison:
What if you rejoiced instead? Perhaps if you see women who excel in areas you do not, it can be used as an opportunity to thank God for His creative design. 
So embrace your strengths, my friends. But also, embrace the strengths of others. Every gift and ability we have been given is working together to serve the world that God has diversely created.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I've Been in This Tunnel Before (Thoughts on Baby Number 3)

It’s been eight weeks since we welcomed Seth into this world. Like his brothers, his birth was not without fanfare and a little bit of crazy. Unlike his brothers, he was five days late and I was in labor with him for over 24 hours. At 3:49 AM he was born via c-section after the doctor determined his heart rate drops were enough to warrant getting him out quickly (rather than drag it out for a few more hours).

And out he came—all 8 lbs 15 oz of him.

The transition from two to three has been easier in some ways. I know what to expect from babies. I have a full term baby this time around. He’s been a more content baby than the twins were. It’s amazing how rapidly they develop in those early days when they aren’t premature. But in other ways it’s harder, like I feel like someone threw me in the deep end of the pool and handed me three kids harder. My mom stayed with us for three weeks after his birth and the night before she left I could feel my chest tightening as I anticipated trying to do this whole three kid thing by myself. So far, I’ve survived.

But more than anything I’ve really enjoyed these last eight weeks with him. Because I’ve done it before I know that these early days—when he is waking me up at night desperately wanting food, yet also desperately wanting to feel the comforting warmth of my familiar body—these days won’t last forever. Soon he will be easily distracted while eating. Soon he will want to move around and away from me, as he starts to explore his little world on his own. Soon he will be like his older brothers, still dependent yet growing more independent by the day. Soon he won’t need me nearly as much as he does right now. These days of newborn sweetness are so very short. I know that now, and so I’m savoring every last ounce of their sweetness.

When I was in the thick of the first year with the twins my sister-in-law helpfully told me that while it feels like the season won’t end, it will. What I didn’t have, that I now do, is perspective. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel because I’ve been in this tunnel before. Weeks and months don’t seem so long when you can look back on ones you have previously lived. Often I spend my days wishing life would just slow down so I could savor every new word uttered, every new developmental milestone hit, and every snuggle that never seems long enough because now I don’t have enough arms to go around. But time just keeps on moving, taking all of us with it.

So it’s been a good, exhausting, rewarding, and fast eight weeks with our new little guy. We look forward to many more. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Happy Release Day!

Today is the day! I've already birthed one baby this month, now it is time to birth another. The Accidental Feminist: Restoring Our Delight in God's Good Design releases today (actually it released yesterday, but who is counting?). After a year and a half of writing, planning, editing, more writing, and more editing, it is finally time to release the book to the masses.

Unlike Seth's arrival, I've known this due date for a while now, and it is hard to believe it's actually here. My prayer throughout the entire process was that God would use it to encourage his people and make himself known in greater measure. The prayer is still the same and I pray it for you, dear reader.

So happy release day, The Accidental Feminist. I'm glad you are here, too!

And at some point I'll write about Seth's eventful birth on May 19, but until then here is a picture of my two babies born this month.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fear and Feminism: A better answer to our fears

Yesterday we looked at how feminism was in part a response to very real fears women faced. Today we will look at how the Bible speaks to those fears and gives us a better answer.

Sarah knew fear, right? She was taken from her homeland and family with no hope of seeing them again (Gen. 11:31). She was barren with no hope of a child (Gen. 11:30). Twice she was given over to a pagan king because her husband feared for his life (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18). And that’s just what the Scriptures tell us. You could say that fear was probably an ever present reality in her life.

What marked Sarah ultimately, and maybe not always in the moment, is her hope in God. Her unwavering belief that God would do what he said, that God would deliver on his promises to her, and that God would never disappoint her. This is why Peter, in 1 Peter 3:1-6 uses her as an example for us to follow, not because she did it perfectly, but because ultimately her hope rested in God alone. We know that she didn't actually do it perfectly. In fact, like us, she gave into her fears on more than one occasion that we know of (Gen. 16; Gen. 18:9-15).

But the context of 1 Peter 3 is a rather fearful one isn’t it? Peter starts by telling women who live with a disobedient or unbelieving husband how they should conduct themselves. He exhorts them to live their lives in such a way that their husbands see the conduct of their character and are won to Christ. A disobedient or unbelieving husband would make any woman feel a little fearful over the future, or even the moment by moment complexities of her day. That is why Peter provides us with an example to follow. He presents his hearers with a woman clearly understood what it meant to live with a husband who was not always obedient to the word, and his hearers would have known that. Then he gives us the punchline, the moment of truth for Christian women threatened by our fears:

And you are her [Sarah’s] children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening (1 Pet. 3:6).

This can encourage us even today. We, too, live in a frightening world. Our sin alone can scare us to the core. But there are countless other earthly realities that threaten our faith daily. I have had two miscarriages, which I’ve talked about before on the blog. One happened while I was writing the book and it was more complicated than we anticipated. It was so difficult that it caused my husband and me to wonder if we would ever try for another baby again. It rocked us and terrified us. I’ve also never had a pregnancy without some type of complication. This one carried minimal risk for a while (it’s resolved now), but it’s still not a normal one. Pregnancy brings out all sorts of fears for me. Will I ever hold Seth? Even as we get everything ready for his arrival, I battle a lingering fear in the back of my mind, will this all be in vain? Will I be stricken with grief again? Maybe your fears are similar, maybe they are different. But the reality of living in a sin-cursed world means there is a lot to be afraid of.

I don’t know what brings out your fears. Maybe it is a husband who doesn’t lead you like he should. Maybe it is the prospect of a life of singleness. Maybe it’s infertility. Maybe it’s a move that is on the horizon. Maybe it is family member who doesn’t know Christ. Maybe you have a difficult child or a difficult job. Maybe your bank account never seems to have enough money in it. Does the thought of your children leaving for college or driving a car for the first time bring you to your knees in fear? Are you fearful over school loans you feel like you will have forever?

The list could go on.

The answer for us all is still the same: We are Sarah’s children, if we hope in God and do not fear anything that is frightening. Feminism can’t remove our fears anymore than it can give us the power and autonomy we crave. It’s all an illusion. What we really need, what stands the test of time, is hoping in the God who knows the end of our circumstances, who is over every detail of our painful, broken lives, and who has promised to always do what is good for us.

It can be frightening to submit to your husband. It can be frightening to give your life to raising children. It can be frightening to face a life of singleness or barrenness. It can be frightening to embrace your season and give up a beloved career, rather than trying to have it all. It can be frightening to go to your job every day when you are regularly left wondering if the job will be there tomorrow. It can be frightening to pour your life into your local church with the gifts God has given you. It can be frightening to love your neighbors and enter their lives. It can be frightening to open your life up to friends, roommates, and family members. Life in a broken world is fraught with risk and fear.

In all of these areas, we are giving ourselves over for the good of another, not us. That is always frightening.

Left to ourselves we should be afraid. Hedged in, protected by our loving creator, we have nothing to fear. Feminism is not the answer to our fears or our deepest longings. Hoping in the God who created us, loves us, and promises us a brighter future is.

We are Sarah's children if we trust in our all powerful, all loving, all wise, and always good God and do not fear anything that is frightening, even the fearful reality of living in a fallen world. 

*If you want more information about how feminism has influenced us as women, you can order The Accidental Feminist on Amazon.