Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from a Dead Beetle

There is a dead beetle outside our front door. This is not something I would normally be aware of or pay any attention to if it weren't for Reese running to the door multiple times a day saying, "bug! bug!" She actually wants to go out and see this dead bug. She crouches down next to it and points and says "shhh" and I let her believe that it's just sleeping. This has been a part of our routine for almost a week now and you would think I would just get rid of the bug, but I can't because it seems like such a highlight in her day.

Discovering grass
Well, this afternoon we were out on the patio looking at the bug (again), and I started to think about how incredibly fascinating life must be for Reese. I look at the bug and think, "Seriously? It's a dead bug. It's gross." But to a toddler who's never seen a beetle? What an important discovery! Whenever she's fascinated by something new, she always looks up at me and says a few words in her baby jibberish, which I interpret as, "Mommy, don't you see this wonderful thing I found? Come look at it!" So I come and look at it, and we both see something equally amazing. She's amazed by the bug. I'm amazed by her amazement. And then suddenly I start to remember what it means to be fascinated with simple things in life. 

Investigating my cell phone
Sometimes I wonder why I stopped finding life so fascinating. As I sit here now and ponder the reasons, neither one is really surprising. One, I'm busy. I'm too busy for this, too busy for that. And certainly too busy to marvel at a sunset (and even if I do, it's a fleeting second of, "oh, that's pretty" and then I continue on to the next task). Two, it's part of my routine. There is so much beauty around me every day like the view from our patio or the clear night sky, but I never notice them anymore because I take for granted that they will always be there.

Examining Flowers
It's hard to believe that there was a point in time when I was a toddler and I was amazed by dead bugs. Somewhere along the way I forgot how wonderful it is to be in awe of the world. Having a child has re-opened that fascination in my life. I am in complete awe of everything Reese does from brushing her hair to saying a new word. From the first moment I held her all the way to watching a dead bug be dead, I've never stopped being amazed by her existence. I could stare at her toes, the curls in her hair, or the dimple in her cheek for hours without ever getting bored. I could spend all day marveling at God's ability to so perfectly mesh two sets of DNA into the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, or how His guidance brought me through so many choices, changes, and obstacles to land me in the middle of this wonderful life with this wonderful family. 

Despite her limited vocabulary and lack of any significant life experience, I can't believe how much I learn about life, love, and myself from my kid. Reese's fascination with life reminds me to never just walk by something fantastically beautiful without taking a minute to stop and get lost in a moment of total amazement; to never take simple things in life for granted; and to cherish every moment I get to spend in complete awe of her every move... even if all we're doing is watching a dead bug sleep.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Our Daily Tug-of-War: The Moments that Drive Us Nuts and the Love That Brings Us Back for More

I'm finding that having a toddler in the house has caused me to experience a lot of "those" kinds of moments. You know, those fishing-your-wallet-out-of-the-garbage, meltdown-in-the-store, diaper-change-turned-wrestling-match moments where you roll your eyes, look up toward the sky, and silently ask God to remind you what you were thinking the day you and your spouse looked at each other and said, "Hey, let's have children."

Now, as much as I am kidding when I say that, I'd still like to answer my own question. This is a story I call "The Same Thing Happens Every Day." Not that I experience this exact sequence of events every single day, but I definitely experience a daily tug-of-war between total aggravation and utter bliss in my role as a stay-at-home mom. It's a constant cycle that begins again every morning and looks something like this:

Reese and I sit down for breakfast. I hand her a bowl of oatmeal and a spoon and pour myself some cereal. She takes about 3 bites and then dumps the oatmeal onto the tray of her high chair where she proceeds to swirl it around, alternating the use of her spoon and her fingers. She manages to eat quite a bit of it, but not without purposely dropping a few globs onto the floor. I finish my cereal, grab a napkin, and begin wiping up the spilled oatmeal. Big mistake! She drops her sticky spoon on my head, leaving chunky tan highlights in my freshly washed hair. Cue the eye roll.

I finish cleaning up breakfast and then lean over the kitchen sink to rinse my hair. Reese tugs on my leg and says, "Up!" I stop what I'm doing, pick her up, and ask her what she wants. She doesn't say anything. She just wraps her arms around my neck and lays her head on my shoulder. I kiss her little head and suddenly I forget about the oatmeal.

I throw my sticky hair under a hat and we leave for the store. We're just a few aisles into our shopping trip when I remind Reese for the third time to please sit down in the shopping cart. She says no for the third time so I pick her up to carry her. In her whiniest voice, she yells, "Down!" She wiggles from my grasp and then runs in the opposite direction. I catch up to her and make her sit in the front of the cart. She starts crying, and I look over the list and wonder if we really need the rest of the stuff on it. Still crying, Reese grabs the list and throws it on the floor. Well, I guess that answers my question. Cue the eye roll.

When we get home, she's asleep in the back seat. I lift her out of the car seat and carry her inside. She is half-asleep and her body is limp in my arms. We sit in the recliner and I rock her back and forth, remembering how I rocked her as a newborn and at 4 months and 6 months and 9 months and all the time in between. I think about what a blessing she is to me, and I forget about the grocery store incident.

When she wakes up from her nap, I'm not quite done with dinner, so she plays with her toys while I cook. Although I try to peek in on her every couple minutes, she somehow still manages to remove all of the clothes from the bottom two drawers of her dresser. I eventually discover the mess and as I put the clothes away, she starts emptying a box of kleenex. So I pick up the kleenex and as I throw it in garbage, I look in the can and see my car keys sitting in a glob of ketchup. Cue the eye roll. 

Just as I finish making dinner, I turn around and she's standing there holding up her Chicken Dance skirt (yes, it is a skirt that plays "The Chicken Dance"). I help her into it and press the button. She laughs and laughs as we twirl around the living room holding hands. I'm reminded how lucky I am to be home during the day to share these moments with her. Suddenly, I forget about the clothes on the floor... and the shredded box of kleenex... and the keys in the garbage.

At the end of the day, she picks out a book and Matt and I take turns reading to her. Then we both give her a kiss and a hug and tell her how wonderful she is and how much we love her. I take her in her room and lay her in bed. I say her prayers and she folds her tiny hands and says, "Amen." Then she brings her little finger to her lips and says, "Shhh." I whisper back, "Shhh. There's a baby sleeping in here" and slowly back out of the room. And suddenly, I've forgotten about everything else in the world except for how much I love that kid.

And there it is. That's why we do what we do. Because for each and every moment of extreme aggravation, there is an equal and opposite moment of unrelenting love - a love so strong that just the thought of its intensity can bring you to tears. It's that love that has the mysterious ability to erase every frustrating incident, every difficult sacrifice, every painful contraction. It's that love that carries you through the exhaustion and the changes and the challenges. And it's that love that makes you and your spouse look at each other one day and say, "Hey, let's have more children."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I'll Take What I Can Get

I pulled into the parking lot of "Sneeze, Wheeze, and Itch Associates" just as Reese was falling asleep for her nap at my friend's house across town. Knowing she was in good hands, I let my worries drift away as I sat in the waiting room, opened my borrowed copy of The Help, and picked up where I left off. I almost always forget to bring a book to the doctor's office (unless of course you count Bear Snores On or Bunny on the Beach), but today wasn't just any doctor's visit. When I called to make my appointment for the allergy testing recommended by my primary doctor, the receptionist told me to plan to be there for up to four hours. Two years ago, I would never have been excited for a four-hour trip to the doctor. But now? All I could think about was how much quiet reading time I could enjoy in four hours. I could only hope it would take that long.

After completing my in-take paperwork, I read 15 pages in the waiting room before the nurse called me back. She took my vitals and left me alone to change into a gown and wait for the doctor. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. Twenty. I didn't care. I read another 20 pages. Finally, the doctor came in to talk to me about my symptoms and prep me for the test. If you've never had allergy testing done, it's probably the least fun thing you can do with a couple hours of spare time. You lay on the exam table with your back exposed and the nurse pokes you over 50 times with little needles, each one containing a different common allergen: molds, grasses, dust mites, pollen, ragweed, animals - you name it, they stick you with it. It's actually more of a nuisance than real pain. Either way, I didn't care. I read another 10 pages while they poked at my back.

They told me it takes 20 minutes for the test to work, and they both left the room. By the time I heard the door close behind them, I could already feel the itchy welts rising up on my skin. You're not supposed to scratch them, so I laid there on my stomach and wiggled back and forth as if I could somehow claw at them with my imagination. I did my best to remove my thoughts from the itching, from the fact that I was lying half-naked on a table in a doctor's office, from the laundry and dishes waiting for me at home, from my child sleeping across town. I immersed myself completely in my book and, despite my discomfort, I read another 20 pages.

The nurse came back in to read the test. She took measurements of the welts, rattling off the ones that came up positive (ragweed, grass, trees, cats, dogs... no wonder I'm such an itchy mess). She applied a hydro-cortisone cream to what she called "the big ones." It relieved some of the itching, but definitely not all of it.  Then she proceeded to tell me that she had to repeat the test on my arms for the allergens that were "questionable." She poked each of my forearms four times and left the room for another twenty minutes. Now, not only could I feel the welts rising on my skin but I could see them too, and those were even harder not to scratch because they were so easily within reach. I returned my mind to the blissful enjoyment of reading in complete silence and took in another 20 pages.

After over 3 hours and 20 minutes at "Sneeze, Wheeze, and Itch Associates," I walked out the front door with a packet of information on allergy shots (which are going to cost me who-knows-how-much), my back and arms covered in itchy welts, and a long list of things I'm allergic to but probably can't avoid coming in contact with. But despite all those things, I just spent over 3 hours with no responsibilities other than lying still and reading a book. As I pulled out of the parking lot and began the drive to pick up Reese, I turned the radio up a little higher, sang a little louder, and smiled a little bigger. I read almost 100 pages in one sitting and it was awesome.

Over the past 15 months, I've had to lower my standards of what constitutes "rest and relaxation" and find some creative ways to recharge my "mommy" battery. Sometimes it's a dinner date with Matt or a girls' night with friends. Sometimes it's a slow walk to the mailbox or a late-night glass of wine. And sometimes it's three very itchy hours in a doctor's office with my nose in a very good book. So what if I was lying on a table covered in tissue paper instead of in a hammock on the beach? So what if I was getting poked with needles instead of getting massaged with oils. So what if I was itching with awful discomfort instead of relaxing with blissful joy? All that mattered to me was that I was reading. Alone. In silence. And these days, I'll take whatever I can get.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Proud to be a Nothing

“Mom, when I grow up I want to be a nothing… like you.” That is one of my mom’s favorite quotes from my childhood. An innocent five-year-old’s attempt at the greatest compliment a kid can give her mom, “I want to be just like you.” Even though I didn’t have the right words at five years old, I always knew in my heart that someday I would sacrifice my career to serve my family. I held onto that desire through high school, college, and even graduate school. When other students were talking about wanting to be counselors and professors, I just wanted to cook and clean and raise my children. It’s the path I was called to; my dream job; and the life I always wanted.

But just because it’s the life I always wanted, doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of days where I really do feel like a nothing. The hardest parts are the repetitive, mundane tasks like folding laundry that’s just going to get worn, cooking food that’s just going to get eaten, and cleaning toilets that are just going to get… well, you know. Just yesterday I was mopping the kitchen floor and thinking, “I have a master’s degree and I’m scraping up crusty applesauce.” Or how about the days when Matt comes home and tells me all about his day at work, and then asks me how my day was? Well, let’s see… We ate breakfast. Played inside. Ate lunch. Played outside. She napped. I cleaned. Same as yesterday. Same as the day before. Same as tomorrow….  

In the moments when I feel like a nothing, all I have to do is wait for Reese to wake up from her nap and watch her run into the kitchen, point to the back door, and yell, “outside!”  As soon as I get her shoes on and open the door, she runs across the patio to the blue plastic swing hanging in the tree. "Wing," she says over and over as I help her into it. I give her a big push, ducking underneath her as she soars up toward the leaves. She giggles with joy and says, "again, again." I push her again and then hide behind the trunk of of the tree, popping out as she flies by. Every time she sees me, she points and says, "Ma-meeee." And every time I hear that word, it reminds me that I am the whole world to this tiny person.

Then we come inside to get ready for dinner, and I see Matt pulling into the driveway. He comes inside and comments about how great the house looks, or how good dinner smells, or how pretty I am. Later, we sit down for dinner and hold hands to pray. Matt always starts by saying, “Lord, I just want to thank you for Lisa and all that she does for our family.” And when I hear that, I remember that I am the whole world to this big, grown up man.

And then at the end of the day, I climb in bed. I am tired, but I am happy because even though I may be a nothing to the rest of the world, to my family I am far from a nothing. I am an everything.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A 9/11 Tribute: United We Stand

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat on my bed in my pajamas barely able to eat my Cheerios as I watched the twin towers crumble on the TV screen in my dorm room. I was one month into my freshman year at Illinois State University and I will never forget that moment and the overwhelming feelings of fear and uncertainty. I will also never forget the days following 9/11 when people across the nation let go of their differences and stood together as one community to honor the fallen and promise those who attempted to destroy us that we would rise from these ashes.

ROTC 2001 (that's me in the middle)
But what I will really never forget is how quickly life returned to business as usual, especially for people like me who didn't lose a parent, a sibling, a son, or a daughter on that day and didn't send a family member off to war in the months and years that followed it. Many of our personal bubbles were never directly impacted, and being that far removed from the scene of the crime and its aftermath makes it that much easier to forget that we still owe something to all those whose lives were changed forever on 9/11/01 and those who have put their lives on the line every day since.

Over 2500 people died that day, and that doesn't even include the additional men and women who have died while serving our country over the past 10 years. Sure, we can express our condolences and show our support with bumper stickers on our cars, American flags outside our homes, and ribbons in our trees, but we owe them more than that. For the people who lost their lives, the children who lost a parent, the spouses who lost their partners, the soldiers who went to war, and all the men and women in uniform who continue to risk their lives to ensure the safety of our nation and it's people, we owe them more than "thank you for your service" or "sorry for your loss."

We owe them the knowledge that our freedoms are not taken for granted and that no one's death was in vain. We owe it to them to stop complaining about trivial things like the length of a red light or the line at the bank; to reject the cultural shift toward attitudes of entitlement; to promote equality so every American can enjoy the same freedoms; to maintain our unity with simple gestures and common courtesies; to be kind to one another and help those in need; and to choose love, compassion, and forgiveness over hate, anger, and revenge. Most of all, we owe it to them to say the Pledge of Allegiance; to remove our hats, cover our hearts, and sing our nation's anthem; and to keep patriotism alive.

Proud of you, Mike!
To all those who lost a loved one in the 9/11 attacks or the war that followed, we remember you. To all those who continue to protect and serve our nation (including my little brother who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2010), we thank you. And to every American, may we honor those who have died and those who proudly serve with hearts of compassion, words of kindness, and actions that send a constant reminder to the rest of the world that we are America and "united we stand" indeed.

God Bless the USA, today and always.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Five Things Every New Mom Should Know

I am at an age where all  of my friends are becoming moms. If they don't have kids already, then they're pregnant or trying to get pregnant. With my friends who do have children, we talk a lot about all the things no one tells you before you have a baby (like how awful the recovery process can be, how much it hurts to start nursing, or how guilty you feel for enjoying your alone time). Everyone talks about the love and the joys and the fun, and of course those things are amazing, but there are a lot of struggles and challenges and tears, and those things are normal too. Of course, there are a lot of things you can only appreciate by experiencing them, so it won't help anyone to hear about how painful contractions are or what sleep deprivation feels like. So when I say, "There's so much no one tells you," I'm mostly referring to the things that would have actually made a difference in the way I started this journey. My actual list is quite extensive, but here are the top five:  

5. Maternal instinct is real. I was so nervous about knowing what to do when Reese was born. I had never breastfed, bathed, or changed a newborn baby. Will I even know what to do?  How will I know if something’s wrong with her? How will I handle extended bought of unexplained screaming? Looking back, I wish I would have spent a little more time enjoying the anticipation of becoming a mom and a little less time worrying about it and preparing myself for every aspect of it. So much of motherhood really is instinctual, and I am still amazed by how much I “just know” about Reese. So go ahead – put the books down. You already have all the skills you need to be a great mom.   

4. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to do everything right. When I first had Reese, there were so many things I tried to research – like the best toys, when to start solid food, how to discipline, and the list goes on. But the more research I did, the more confused I was. Every book, website, doctor, and parent will tell you something completely different. Not that you should disregard every piece of advice, but just listen to it knowing that nobody knows your baby and your family better than you. So try not to worry about giving your kid attachment, digestive, or social issues because you let her sleep in your bed or started solid food too late or waited too long to start preschool. There’s conflicting evidence about everything. Just do your best to do what you know is right for your unique baby, and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Listen to those maternal instincts and, again, put down the books.
3. It’s okay to have moments of misery. After Reese was born, there were days (lots of days) where I was absolutely miserable. The aftermath of childbirth, the first few weeks of breastfeeding, and the sleepless nights were some of greatest physical challenges I’ve ever experienced. I remember standing in the kitchen with my head on the counter promising myself that I will never do this again. There were days in the early stages of breastfeeding where I would cry just thinking about her next feeding. In those challenging moments, I remember wondering if there was something wrong with me. I thought I was supposed to be overcome with unwavering happiness, which only added emotional guilt to the physical misery. I never understood why we’re not supposed to talk about this part of motherhood. I don’t say it to be negative or to scare unsuspecting moms-to-be. I say it so you know that you’re not alone in those dark moments.

2. Life doesn't go "back to normal." When Reese was about 6 months old, I went through a small period of minor depression. I thought, “It’s been 6 months. Why don’t I feel back to normal? Shouldn’t I be adjusted to this role by now?” I waited for my body and my marriage and my daily routine to get back to what I had always defined as my “normal” life. When they didn’t, I thought something was wrong with my ability to cope with motherhood. I knew that babies turned your world upside down, but I always thought that eventually the dust settles, your body heals, you make the necessary adjustments and then everything feels normal again. Clearly, I was wrong. It’s not about waiting for the dust to settle. It’s about learning to stand on your head and accept your upside down world as your new “normal life.” 

1. The greatest self-improvement tool in the world is growing inside you. After I had Reese, I realized that I have both an amazing opportunity and challenging mission ahead of me. There are so many values I want to instill in her so she can become the best possible version of herself, but I can’t give her what I don’t have, which means that I owe it to her to become the best possible version of myself first. I decided to work on really get in touch with who I am and address the parts of my life and my personality that need improvement. I’ve learned more about myself and my purpose in the past 15 months than I did in every other stage of my life combined. One of the many things I’ve learned is that personal growth doesn’t happen automatically. Self-improvement is a choice. We all have room for it and we owe it to our children to capitalize on the opportunity to seek it.

That’s it. Those are the 5 things I wish I knew before I became a mom. I hope all of you who are expecting moms, new moms, and future moms are reminded that everything you feel is normal; that you’re never alone in your struggles; that no one has all the right answers but we’re all doing our best; and that every day is an opportunity to celebrate the good times, learn from the bad times, and grow into our best selves so we can provide our children with the skills, support, and encouragement to do the same.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Welcome to My World

After over 3 years of renting a small house on the family farm, we have finally decided to hire a realtor and start house hunting. Although we aren't in a huge hurry to pack our bags and we plan to take our time with the process, it is possible that this was our last summer in this house. And as excited as we are to finally have a place to call our own, we're sad to leave the house where we started our lives together. So in honor of our little town and our tiny farmhouse, here is a snapshot of life on the farm....

If you travel toward the southern end of Interstate 39 in central Illinois, you will pass a small town with no stop lights, no restaurants, and no buildings over 2 stories tall. If you venture down the off ramp, you'll see the bank with one drive-up window and the Casey's General Store where the local farmers get their morning coffee. If you make your way out of town, you'll see miles upon miles of corn and soybean fields. Somewhere among those fields is a little yellow farmhouse with chickens roaming in the yard and a barefoot toddler pushing a stuffed bunny in a miniature stroller. Welcome to my world.

I say that we are farmers, but really it's my in-laws who farm full-time, although Matt does work in the field part-time during the busy times of planting and harvesting.  His parents live in the next house down from us (about a half mile down the road), and his grandma lives in the next house after them. Now, I'm sure you're probably feeling sorry for me for having to live so close to my in-laws, but there are some definite perks - like when Reese was a newborn and Matt's mom would come down just so I could take a shower and start dinner or when having an evening alone is as easy as running the baby next door.

On most mornings, Reese and I head out to play in the yard and I see my father-in-law working out by the machine shed. We wander over to say hi and Reese pretends to drive the tractor. Then we continue up the gravel path toward the chicken house. As soon as the chickens see us they all come running and Reese feeds them our produce and bread scraps from the day before. Then we head back toward the house where I push her in the swing or take her for a ride in the wagon around the edge of the property (which makes up for the days when I skip my workout).  

In the 6 years since I've been with Matt, I've participated in a lot of activities that only happen when you live in a place like this. In the spring we raise a new batch of chickens to butcher, and yes I have participated in the "annual chicken slaughter" where we kill, bag, and freeze about 60 chickens, which means I never buy chicken (or eggs) at the store. It's a big family assembly line (or I should say dis-assembly line), and I love knowing that our meat isn't pumped with hormones or poorly treated (which is well worth a couple days of chicken guts on my hands).

In late summer we harvest the sweet corn at its peak of freshness and we shuck, blanch, and freeze enough corn to last all 3 of our families (us, Matt's parents, and his sister's family) until the next sweet corn season. In the fall, I pick apples from the trees in the yard and I freeze a year's supply of apple sauce and pie filling. The harvest season is usually finished just in time for Matt to get all of his friends together to hunt on his family's property. We usually count on Matt killing at least one deer to supply us with ground meat for the year (deer is incredibly lean and much healthier than beef).   
By far though, my favorite thing about living in the country is the separation from the rest of the world. Time just seems to slow down out here (even for someone like me). We don't hear sirens or horns or trains at our house. We hear birds and crickets and motorcycles on leisurely rides. When I stare off into the distance and see only the blue sky and green fields, I find it easier to forget my troubles, quiet my mind, and spend a few minutes with God. Although it can be tough to drive 20 minutes to the next decent-sized town (you don't make a "quick run to the store" out here) and I don't have a lot of neighbors to keep me company during the day, it's well worth the trade-off to be able to roast marshmallows and hot dogs over a bonfire or to sit on the patio with no other houses in sight or to look up at a clear night sky and see every single star. Some people call it the boring-middle-of-nowhere-boondocks. I call it home.