We went to a lovely wedding today. Admittedly, I spent most of it trying to prevent BabyGirl from bumping herself, screeching over the vows, and breaking my necklace (she’s every inch the nine month old) but it was still wonderful to be present when two people commit to love for a lifetime.

The year we got married there were another six couples from our group of university friends who also tied the knot, and we were present for most of them. That was eleven summers ago. Then, weddings filled me with hope and anticipation. Now … I don’t know. I am so excited for the couple getting married. It’s a wonderful time. But it’s also awesome in the traditional sense of the word. A lifetime is no small commitment.

I think now, knowing something of what it takes to make a marriage work, I feel a sense of fear as well. Marriage is no light undertaking, and I tremble a little for the newlyweds in their innocence.

We recently heard that one of our university friends, who got married maybe eight weeks before us, have separated. It was sad and unsettling, and made me appreciate more deeply the courage and determination it takes to be faithful for ten, twenty, thirty years and more.

It made me consider what makes a marriage work. How can any couple, entering into marriage, be sure of still being together at death, whether that is five or fifty years away?

Some would say it’s luck. You meet the right person. You both happen to stay in love.

I don’t think so. Looking at my own marriage, and being fully candid, there have been many times when each of us have wanted to walk away. Neither of us are perfect. Far from it. And when lack of sleep, difficult children, and sin are all stirred together, marriage can become a battle ground.

So how have we lasted almost eleven years? And how do I have confidence of lasting another eleven and longer?

23 PembrokeFirstly, at one level, there are no guarantees. I cannot control my husband. I have no guarantee that in ten years time he will have been faithful, or that we will still be married. So my deepest confidence must always be in my Saviour and God, who has promised absolute fidelity and never breaks a promise. If he is my joy and my hope, then even marital breakdown will not destroy me.

But, secondly, there are a few things that I think make a marriage ‘work’.

My husband and I are committed to the marriage as well as to each other. Before we made our vows we were committed to a lifelong relationship. It is important that divorce is not a possibility. If even the thought of leaving is allowed, then it will almost inevitably lead to dissatisfaction and then acting on it. When there are hard days (and we have known many), that commitment has kept us together when the easy option is to walk.

Marriage is a covenant, but most people of my generation treat it like a contract. What’s the difference? A covenant has no conditions attached. When I made my vows they were not dependent on my husband keeping his. Nor were his dependent on me keeping mine. With a contract, if one party breaks their promise the other is free to walk away. Not so with marriage. If my husband fails to love, honour and cherish me, my vow to love, honour and respect him still stands. This ensures that when one is struggling the other will work at the relationship. At different times we have each broken our vows to one another, but we forgive, and learn, and try to change.

Marriage is ultimately a picture, designed to help us understand Christ’s relationship with his church. Aiming for this keeps us from being self-centred about our marriage. Marriage is not, firstly, about my happiness or my husband’s happiness. It is about reflecting something of God into this broken world. It is wonderful when a marriage brings happiness, and it is meant to be a place of blessing and joy, but even bad marriages can bring glory to God if the husband and/or wife are committed to love and fidelity, as Christ is committed to his Church.

I think these are the three things that have made our marriage ‘work’ so far. It is far from perfect and I am not holding us up by any means as an example for people to follow. I have already said that we have each failed to keep our vows, and have each wanted to leave at different times. Adding a third child has put a new level of strain onto the ropes of our relationship, and some days I find myself clinging on by prayer alone. I know my husband feels the same. But knowing that this is about more than just him and me, knowing that our commitment resonates in eternity, and knowing that God is for us and with us in this brings perseverance, and levels of joy that would otherwise be unknown. For I find that each time we come through a difficult path, our relationship is deeper and stronger than before. If we had given up we would not have known that deeper love. We would have lost out on joy.

 

Running Joy

I must start with a disclaimer. I don’t run. I am bad at it. I imagine I look like a string puppet from behind. Apparently my feet don’t pace evenly but randomly, like a penguin. Or so my loving husband tells me.

However, in my days of yore I took part in cross country races. (I always came last. Long-legged boys from older classes would leap past me, gazelle-like, splattering me with mud as I picked my way around the bogs, trying to avoid wet feet.) Follow the path at your feet

I like the idea of running; but I’m just not good at it. And I’m ok with that. I enjoy other sports instead like badminton and the school run.

So why am I writing about running?

I know this blog is about joy but bear with me for a few paragraphs. I’m kind of in a boggy place right now, in terms of joy and spiritual life. I suppose it reminded me of those old cross country runs, slogging along wet gravel paths, trying to find the least slippery way through the mud, that feeling of not enough air, of pushing your legs to take one more step. One more step. One more step.

I haven’t slept through the night for nine months now. BabyGirl sleeps. But I lie awake, trying not to think about irony, or how I’m going to survive the next day, and how much damage I’m doing to my children my being grumpy and exhausted all the time.

It’s a slog. Reading the Bible is painful. Praying just ends up in a vague mess of tears and pleas for help which so often seem to go unanswered.

And it struck me that when the Apostle Paul described life as a race, he meant a marathon, not a sprint. There are times when your frozen legs feel like lead, the wind is in your face, hail is stinging your cheeks and other runners are passing you. It feels like you’re not going to make it. You’re wondering why you entered this race in the first place.

I’m tired. I’m irritable. I’m angry with myself for letting my short temper and impatience get the better of me again and again. I’m frustrated that I cannot hold onto God more firmly, or make more room for the Holy Spirit to work in me, or let the life of Jesus into my home through me.

Where is my joy? I’ll be honest … right now, it’s a damp little flicker that seems to be failing against the dark.

I know I’m not the only one. Which is why I’m being open about it. This blog is about joy, but I always wanted it to be clear that there is joy for the hard days as well as the days when the sun shines and running is all downhill. In fact, there is joy especially for those days.

There is joy in knowing I’m flexing spiritual muscles, even though it hurts. I’m learning to give myself up for my children, to be more humble, more sacrificial, more like my wonderful Jesus. It’s tiny baby steps. But it’s progress.

There is joy in knowing that I’m loved even here, even now. Even when I’ve nagged the husband, and berated the kids, and lost my temper, and told God that he isn’t being fair, stamped my spiritual feet and told him that he’s asking too much. (To which he softly replies, “Too much?” And holds out his wounded hands).

There is joy in kneeling at the cross and reminding myself of the forgiveness that is mine. The grace that is poured on me to start again tomorrow as if today never happened.

And soon the sun will be out, and the path will be dry at my feet, and that finish line will be visible on the horizon.15 View from Garden

A study in fear

Fear seems to shadow me at the moment. More than shadow; its sickening claws have got a grip around my throat and I’m choking on it.

I’m afraid of sickness. A vomiting bug has been working its way through the family and so far, by the grace of God, only myself and BabyGirl have stayed well. But in an attempt to keep the sickness in check I’ve been on a cleaning frenzy, bleaching surfaces and washing my hands until they are raw. My house is probably the cleanest it’s ever been, but I’m exhausted and a bundle of nerves. I snap easily at the kids and my husband.

I’m afraid my daughter is going to keep waking me up at night. She had a nasty cold last week and woke three or four times a night, needing to feed back to sleep. She had one night of sleeping well and now she has another cold. I’m afraid she’s going to keep waking me. I’m tired, and tired of being tired. I want to feel normal for a while.

Even when she does sleep, often I can’t. I lie awake in the dark, turning over and over in my mind … have I cleaned every door handle, did I wash the baby’s hands before she ate, did I clean the toilet thoroughly?

I feel frustrated. I’d really got a handle on the fear through therapy and mindfulness, and I suppose just having a stretch without any nasty bugs in the house.

I feel alone. I want people to understand how every day is a desperate clinging to sanity and reason instead of giving into the impulse to clean everything in sight. In fact, often the only thing that stops me cleaning everything in sight is sheer exhaustion. I do what I can and then pray.

Where is the joy? That’s what this blog is about, isn’t it, what my life is aiming at? Joy …

I’m remembering that joy is not dependent on circumstances. It is deeper than that, bedrock.

Joy is dependent on Someone. I am realising that my fears are an indicator of how little I trust Him. Of how I cling to control, because I think I can manage things better than Him.

I turn to well-worn passages and I weep because this Saviour suffered so much willingly, undeservedly, and I can’t bear a bit of discomfort even for an evening.

I remember that he knows fear. He knows fear. He sweat blood, and still turned and faced what he feared most.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring. I may end up sick and miserable for a while. I may be well. I may sleep through or I may be woken every couple of hours. I don’t know.

But he knows. And I’m not sure why, but that brings some comfort. He knows. If I can calm myself and look to him, he will give everything I need to face whatever comes tomorrow.

I’m still alive …

I’ve been rather quiet lately … the stork paid our home a visit four months ago, and our new BabyGirl has kept me very busy!

12 Pembroke
Motherhood

The arrival of a baby into a family is an occasion of both overwhelming joy and stress at the same time. My emotions have run into peaks of love and delight and valleys of despair and anxiety these past months. I have understood the meaning of God as my rock as I have so desperately needed a constant, a level surface under my feet. Emotions are like breakers, threatening to sweep me away.

In times of stress it is so easy to cling to the old lie – “things will be better when …”

I place my hope in a change in circumstances, looking forward to easier days. But this is a false hope. Easier circumstances would relieve some pressure, but our calling in this life is not to seek ease or mere happiness. We are on a quest for joy, and the Bible assures us that joy is found in service and sacrifice, and in knowing Jesus better, not in comfort or ease.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. Mark 10:43-45

Prayer has been particularly hard as hormones and sleep deprivation turn my brain to cotton wool. I have found great peace in simply offering my day to the Lord at its start, determining to serve him, my husband and children, trusting him to provide the strength.

My default is to panic when I have a poor night’s sleep. My automatic thought is, “I won’t cope tomorrow”. And of course it is harder to cope with two rowdy, challenging boys and a new baby with less sleep. However, the discipline of pausing that thought and reminding myself that my loving Father has provided me with the right amount of sleep, and that he will provide me with the grace to cope, has brought great peace and blessing.

It is a discipline, though, and many days I fail.

What are you struggling with at the moment? Are you waiting for comfort and ease? May I encourage you instead to look to Jesus for your strength and joy, and to determine to trust him to provide for you what you need for today, to do the work he has given you to do.

Pregnancy after trauma

Today some wall stickers arrived that I ordered for our baby girl’s nursery. I also ordered some furniture paint online so that I can freshen up our baby furniture (which is looking decidedly tired after serving two little boys).

Anyone who has not known the trauma of a high risk pregnancy and delivery can have little understanding of the faith required to do these small, perfectly normal things.

My first pregnancy almost ended in tragedy, for myself and my baby. I developed aggressive pre-eclampsia early in the pregnancy. My son had to be delivered at 30 weeks by emergency caesarean section. Both our lives were put at risk, and the decision to have another natural baby (rather than adopting) has been very difficult. My second pregnancy ended with a natural, full-term delivery. I had hoped this third pregnancy would be different. That I’d be able to relax and enjoy it (as far as pregnancies can be ‘enjoyed’!)

So far I’ve been as anxious as ever. After wading through weeks of severe sickness, I’m now, according to the pregnancy websites, meant to be enjoying the second trimester ‘bloom’. Instead I feel as though my body has decided to skip over those happy middle weeks when women are pictured jogging on the beach, playing football with their children, and generally enjoying a burst of energy, and go straight to the third trimester.

My stomach has expanded to the point that I feel ready to burst, and I am heavy and uncomfortable whatever I do. I have anaemia, and literally could sleep at any point in the day, even after an hour’s nap. I still get waves of nausea, and seem to have no immune system whatsoever.

But hard and jagged under all this is a bedrock of fear that I cannot seem to shake. It makes the niggles of pregnancy seem minor. I tell myself that I have successfully carried one baby to term, and this reduces my risk of pre-eclampsia. I tell myself that the chest pain is just heartburn, that the palpitations are anaemia, that the exhaustion is perfectly normal for a woman in her early thirties with Crohn’s disease.

I am not convinced. Instead, I am not expecting to go full term. I am waiting for something to go wrong. Sometimes I feel my daughter kicking and feel that she is struggling for life. I imagine her wrestling for oxygen as the placenta reluctantly surrenders what she needs. I feel like my body is a hostile environment for her; who knows whether my immune system might start reacting again and prevent her from growing.

So I bought stickers for her nursery and paint for her cot, but with a lacing of fear about the decision. I wonder if these things will one day bring me pain.

I am aware that today I have let go of my ‘life to the full’ motto. I am allowing myself to listen to the whispers of the demon Fear. I am finding it hard to listen to the voice of Christ, which says, ‘do not be afraid’.

So I remind myself that I am here on his business, not mine. I am here today, and today my job is not to worry but to let Jesus live in me. I am here to be his hands and his feet.

And I pray that my little girl will live and grow and become his servant also.

My Breastfeeding Story

This follows on from this post. It was meant to be my next post but Easter got in the way!

 

When I fell pregnant with my first son, I planned to breastfeed. I looked forward to it. My mother had breastfed all three of her daughters without any fuss, and I expected to just take to it. It was natural, after all, and none of the pregnancy books/magazines/websites suggested that it would be anything other than a natural and easy experience.

My son’s birth was designed to shake me from my determination to control and be the best at everything. I developed pre-eclampsia and he had to be born ten weeks early by emergency caesarean (instead of full-term in water, as I’d planned).

All my expectations were shattered, including the joy of breastfeeding. I didn’t even get to see him for twenty-four hours, and after that my physical contact with him was severely limited. My milk supply dwindled, despite hours spent with my ‘mean green milking machine’ (as my sisters dubbed the hospital’s breast pump), and after three months I gave up in tears.

I quickly realised that formula was the best option for me and my son, and managed to let go of the guilt.

Then two years later I was pregnant again. After we clocked up more than thirty weeks of pregnancy and began to grasp with relief that this baby would not arrive prematurely, I was ready to breastfeed again. This time, I assumed, all would be straightforward.

However, this was no picnic either. My milk came in late, and we spent one night trying to console a screaming baby who could only get dribbles of colostrum from me. We gave him formula in the end, using a sterilised spoon to avoid the horrors of ‘nipple confusion’.

Eventually my milk came in, but our son was still struggling to latch properly. We spent the first three or four weeks of his life visiting different breastfeeding support groups, when really I needed to be resting. Eventually one lactation consultant realised that our son had a tongue-tie (when the connection between the tongue and the floor of the mouth is too tight). Another trip out to the hospital to get his tongue clipped, and finally we made some improvement.

It was still another few weeks before we really got the hang of it. Those were long, exhausting months. Feeds could last as long as an hour.

So to spare other mothers the agony of struggling to feed for weeks, and finally giving up (I was literally hours away from throwing in the towel) here are my tips for breastfeeding:

Recognise early on that this may not be easy. Some mums and babies take to it like ducks to water, but for many it is a painful learning experience!

Get skin-to-skin contact and establish breastfeeding as early as possible, ideally in the moments after birth. Make sure your partner and midwife know that you want this, or your baby will be plonked on top of your nightie, and everyone will forget about trying him on the nipple once the post-labour nausea and exhaustion kick in. It was several hours before I tried my son on the nipple, and I’m sure that affected how he took to it.

Get support. Ask other women who have breastfed for their tips and support. Have your partner, your mother or a good friend with you when you are shown how your baby should latch on – it is very difficult to see yourself whether your baby has a good latch. It was my husband who would tell me the latch was not correct, and insist I disengage our son and try again. Without his support, I would not have been able to feed correctly, I would probably have developed mastitis, and been forced to give up.

Mastitis is an infection of the milk ducts. Basically, if your breast is not properly drained during feeds then your milk ducts can become blocked and infected. The way to prevent this is firstly to ensure your baby is latching correctly. Secondly, if you notice hard, sore lumps developing in your breast apply a warm flannel to the area and gently massage them to loosen them and push the milk down to the nipple. Express (by hand or machine) to ensure the milk flows again.

If your breasts are cracked, bleeding and sore you can buy nipple shields for a few pounds to give your nipples a break for a few days. This can also help with a poor latch. If you are in serious pain, I honestly do not think it will hurt to give your baby expressed milk or formula for a day or two, from a bottle, in order to give your body a chance to heal. Don’t give up expressing though (you may find hand expressing less painful) or you risk developing mastitis.

If your baby is frantic and cannot latch on because he or she is too hungry, don’t be afraid to give them a small drink of expressed breastmilk or formula from a bottle that they can calm down enough to take the nipple. I know all the midwives are screaming out ‘nipple confusion’ but in my opinion the risk of this is overstated. If you gave your baby a bottle every feed for a couple of days you might find a problem, but the odd bottle here or there isn’t going to make much difference.

Babies are forgetful. You will have one amazing feed when they latch on perfectly and take a full feed without a fuss. Then the next time you feed they will gape and suck half-heartedly, fall of the breast, and generally go back to being newborn and having no idea how to latch on. Until they are at least six weeks old they aren’t aware of patterns, and so expect them to be erratic in just about everything.

Some mums I know have found their baby loses weight on breastmilk. This may be because the mother produces poor quality milk, in which case formula is the best option. However, I suspect sometimes this is because of the general advice offered about breastfeeding which is the worst advice ever: “Ten minutes on each side”.  I know of no newborn who can drain a breast in ten minutes, leaving mum at risk of mastitis; and also this completely ignores the way milk is produced. The first milk the baby takes is quite thin, almost watery. As the baby drinks the milk becomes richer and thicker, contains more calories, and is more filling for baby. It is very important to give your baby one breast and let them drink until it is empty. Then offer the second breast to top them up and let them drink until they stop. This may take as much as forty minutes with a newborn as they are weak and fall asleep often (keep waking them!) As baby gets more efficient then you may find ten minutes is enough. However, in the early weeks that is not nearly long enough. Ensure you alternate which breast you offer first between feeds so that each side is drained every other feed.

Rest. Mothers today seem to feel they must get back to normal as quickly as possible. For some women this seems to be perfectly fine – a couple of my friends seem quite capable of going grocery shopping within days of giving birth, and if this is you then enjoy it and be thankful! For most mums I know, pregnancy and birth strips them of strength, vitamins and energy. Feeding a baby requires all those things, and rest is essential. If you are using up all your energy on housework, chores and visiting friends then your body will be slower to repair and will be trying to preserve calories instead of giving them to your baby. Rest. Rest and rest. Take naps with your baby (be rude to visitors if necessary). Hang a sign on your door asking visitors to call during hours convenient to you. Eat takeaway and ready meals for as long as you need to. Take long baths. Catch up on TV shows while you breastfeed. Listen to the Bible or sermons. Sit. You and your body have earned it. For the first few weeks I noticed a huge difference in my milk supply on the days when we were busy and I was rushing around.

Eat. Now is not the time to worry about losing your baby weight. There will be plenty of time to do that later, and establishing breastfeeding will help more than counting calories now. Breastfeeding takes an enormous amount of energy – 2,500 calories is your recommended intake. I lost 1lb a week while feeding my son and I enjoyed cake, ice cream and chocolate daily. It was the best diet I have ever been on! Mothers make a mistake eating low fat food during these early weeks. Right now your body and your baby need good amounts of healthy fat (cheese, lean meat, butter, whole milk). Enjoy guilt-free eating for the first three to six months!

 

Drink. Have a glass of water to hand when you sit down to feed your baby. You will find thirst hits you often in the early weeks.

 

Take your time and relax. Breastfeeding is God’s way of giving new mothers regular forty minute rests through the day when your body needs it! Don’t feel guilty about the laundry, dishes and hoovering. Those can wait. After a few weeks your baby will be much more efficient and feeding will take less time. Right now, you and your baby are in the best place on the sofa or in bed. Enjoy the intimacy and a valid excuse to put your feet up. Within a few weeks you will be longing for that excuse!

 

Be determined. Breastfeeding, especially early on, can feel endless and a waste of time, but I promise you that if you persevere it is far easier and less time consuming than formula feeding. I remember feeling so disheartened after putting my first son to bed each evening, and then facing a mound of bottles to be washed and sterilised, when all I wanted to do was sit down and rest. With breastfeeding I could put my son to bed and enjoy my evening. When he woke in the night I could pick him up before he began properly crying, pop him onto the breast and fall asleep while he fed in bed next to me, then stir to put him back in his cot (once he was about three months old and we had established feeding). With my first son night feeds were desperate. I’d scramble to find my dressing gown, stagger downstairs and find a safe place to put him while I warmed the bottle and his cries escalated to hysteria. Sometimes I’d overheat the bottle and stand in a panic running it under a cold tap while he screamed. By the time he’d fed, I’d be more awake than asleep and would often lie awake until his next feed. What I’m trying to say is, if you persevere through the early weeks, breastfeeding becomes easier than formula.

 

I just want to end by returning to the theme of this blog – life to the full. Neither breast nor formula feeding feels like ‘life to the full’. Either way baby wakes you through the night, and sometimes wants to feed all day. Either way you are exhausted and pushed to your limits, physically and emotionally. Parenting is an exercise in self-sacrifice. But, to quote my favourite person, “Whoever would hold onto his life will lose it; whoever gives up his life for me will save it”. By raising a child in love, for Jesus, you are spending your life in a worthwhile way, and you will find it full of joy.

 * * * * *

My favourite feeds with my second son were the night feeds. I had terrible post-natal depression, and the first six months of his life are mostly a black hole in my memory. Apart from the night feeds when we would sit, just him and me, enclosed from the darkness in lamplight, and I would pray.

Here is love

Our culture has many false assumptions about love.

Very often what we mean by ‘love’ is warm feelings towards another person.

Being ‘in love’ means that a person makes us feel excited, happy, tingly, aroused.

Both these definitions are very self-centred. They focus on Me and My Feelings.

 * * * *

Love in the Bible is an action. To quote Massive Attack, ‘love, love is a verb, love is a doing word’.

To quote a slightly more famous person,

‘Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).

This means that love, real love, involves sacrifice. It involves putting Me and My Feelings aside, and putting the interests of others ahead of my own.

It also means that those we do this for are our friends, not those we especially like, or enjoy the company of most.

 * * * * *

More astoundingly, it means that the Person who said this considers us friends, because he laid down his life for us.

This is the essence of Easter. Jesus did not consider his own comfort, his own happiness, even his own life to be more important than our need. He did not rationalise, or draw a line in the sand, ‘this far and no further’. His love is radical, the right kind of extremism.

He held back nothing.

 * * * * *

We are meant to be moved by this. We are meant to consider his strength, his determination, his courage, his selflessness … and worship.

 * * * * *

We are also meant to reflect on ourselves. How often do I love like this? Even my own husband? Even my own children?

How often am I drawing lines in the sand, hoarding my reserves, trying desperately to cling onto my own life and happiness and comfort, instead of pouring it all out for the good and happiness of others?

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.

But whoever gives their life for me will find it.

(Luke 9:24)

Guilt-free Parenting (4) – what does it look like?

This blog entry has been written and reworked about ten times this week. I’m really struggling to expand on what I mean by ‘what is the most loving thing?’

You’d think it would be obvious, but in my personal experience, and in observing other parents first hand (and on forums and other blogs) I have come to see that our motives as parents are often veiled, even to ourselves. We can think we are loving our children, when we are not.

I think the best way I can do this is to offer examples from my own parenting experience to illustrate what I mean. What I don’t want is for anyone to feel I am judging them for their parenting decisions – I recognise that for most of us, parenting is done in survival mode, and often our decisions are born out of sheer desperation!

When I first became a parent I was determined to be the best parent I could be. This, I think, is probably what most of us aim for. No one cradles their first child and thinks, “Well, now my life has changed. I’m going to be a safely average parent.”

However, speaking personally at least, my motive included a hefty dose of pride. I didn’t see this at the time. I thought I just wanted what was best for my baby (and I did, but this was at least equally matched by pride). The pride was first in my belief in my ability to be the perfect parent (I had no idea that tiredness and the nature of children would reveal a new level of impatience and selfishness in myself); and secondly in my desire to be the perfect parent. I wanted to be admired and looked up to as a good mum. I wanted my children to be glad they had me; my husband to see what a great mother I was; and I wanted other people to ask me for advice because I had such lovely, well-behaved, securely attached children.

Oh I’m blushing now. Such honesty has come through years of falling again and again to my quick temper, my impatience, and just basic selfishness that doesn’t want to play cars or talk about lego spaceships, but wants to check facebook for the tenth time this morning (or just finish a cup of coffee without having to get up to wipe someone’s backside, for pete’s sake!)

Looking back, many of my choices were a mixture of pride and love. I did genuinely want the best for my babies, and still do, but mixed in with that is that pride at being a ‘good parent’, and also a desire for my own fulfilment.

What I mean is that I believed having children would bring me fulfilment, and make my life complete. (If you read a bit of my blog you’ll understand that a strong driving force in my life has been a desire for ‘life to the full’). What I believed would fulfil me was being the best parent ever. This led to a skewed decision making process, where I put the interests of my baby above my husband, and my own physical and mental health. That’s what a good mother does, I thought, and I was determined to be a good mother. It also led to a great deal of disillusionment as my children, far from fulfilling me, drained me of all energy and happiness and left me an exhausted, gibbering shell.

One way I thought I was being loving was because I couldn’t bear to leave my sons to cry. I had read all the blogs and books which labelled ‘crying it out’ as cruel. How could I leave my helpless baby to cry alone in the dark? All he wanted was his mummy. But I was exhausted and unable to function because of sleep-deprivation.

Now, there is a huge difference between a baby under three months of age, who is still learning to trust his caregiver and who is still disorganised in their sleep rhythm, and a baby of six months and older, who usually is getting enough nutrition during the day to no longer need milk at night, but who also now is securely attached to their parents and knows their needs will be met. There is also a huge difference between the child who is very anxious and needs a great deal of reassurance and close contact with his parents, and the baby who has just become used to a habit of falling asleep that is now disruptive to the family.

Let me explain – my two sons were bad at falling to sleep. Neither of them would willingly just lie there, close their eyes and drop off. Those cute pictures of babies who have fallen asleep in their high chairs are a mystery to me. My boys fought sleep. The only time they fell asleep without protest was in the pram or car. (And yes, we tried swaddling, dummies, patting, picking up and putting them down. In fact we could probably write a book of ideas to try to get your baby to sleep.)

With my eldest we got into the habit of rocking him to sleep. We had read the books and knew it was a rod for our backs in the making, but there was no other way he’d sleep when he was tiny. It’s time together, I tried to tell myself, bouncing around in a darkened room at 8 p.m. … though all I really wanted was to sit down on the sofa and not move for two hours. However, when he got to nine months old and woke every night at 2, 3 and 5 a.m. to be rocked back to sleep, and when he got too heavy for me to do it (we had been taking shifts) my husband put his foot down. (Did I mention that the rocking had to be done standing up? If we sat down our son would scream blue murder).

Basically, we were held hostage by a nine month old baby.

Again, looking back, my motives were mixed, but had a great deal of selfishness in them. I couldn’t bear to leave my baby to cry – the reason was partly because I feared we were refusing a need for comfort, but also a great deal of it was because I was protecting myself. I didn’t want to feel upset because he was crying.

Again, I want to stress that there is a huge difference between the crying of a four-month old baby, for example, and a nine-month old. My son was waking because he wanted to be rocked, not because he needed us. We realised this because he would quite happily settle if we rocked him in his car seat and not in our arms. It was the motion he wanted, not reassurance or physical comfort.

And his want (not need) was making us exhausted, irritable, and resentful.

Having left him to cry himself to sleep for a few nights, I realised that this had been a good decision. We all needed a good night’s sleep, our son included. He just needed to realise that it was possible to fall asleep without being rocked. His cries (which lasted 40 minutes the first night, 30 the second, and then gradually tailed off until he would moan for about ten minutes each night) were an angry protest, not distress. I should also add that my husband would go in to check him every ten minutes or so, until we realised that this was actually upsetting our boy more. He settled more quickly and with less crying if we just left him to it (listening out for that hysterical, I need you cry).

The joy of the ‘loving’ principle is that it will look differently with each family. The key is knowing your child, and knowing yourself. If my child is anxious and needy (some babies just are) then it would not be loving to leave them to cry at any age. If my child is demanding and whiny then it is loving to teach them that they are not the centre of the universe. Asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ balances the needs of each family member, and allows parents to decide for themselves which ‘wants’ of their child they are able to allow, and which they must lovingly decline.

To give another example (if you’ve read enough please just skip to my summary at the end), a child may want to sleep in their parents’ bed, but it is not always loving to give in.

I had planned on allowing our children into our bed, but once I realised this involved being repeatedly elbowed and kneed in the back, not to mention having my pillow stolen and being forced right to the edge of my bed because my son hates feeling ‘squashed’ (by which he means having any part of his body in contact with another human body) we quickly returned him to his own bed. We were all much happier that way, and occasionally, if he can lie still and enjoy being close to us, he is allowed to cuddle in bed in the mornings (if his parents are already about half awake and it is nearly time to get up).

Lastly, asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ has really helped me as my children grew older. A small baby has very basic (albeit very intense) needs – food, sleep, and security. In the long run, many of the decisions we agonise over actually make very little difference to their developing into healthy, happy adults. However, as the child develops and grows, how we relate to them and the choices we make have increasing weight in their lives. I realised recently with my two boys that their ‘love’ needs are very different. My second son, age four, is very easy for me to love. His primary need seems to be for cuddles, and as long as I am available for a quick hug and kiss at frequent intervals, he is very happy to play by himself. I love giving hugs and kisses, so our personalities meet very well.

My older son … he is another kettle of fish altogether. He has never been cuddly, pushing me away from a very young age when I tried to offer physical affection. Cuddles are asked for always on his terms, and they are usually very intense, brief, and sometimes silly. What he loves is when I play with him, talk to him, and just generally do stuff with him. I find this form of love very hard to give. I am an introvert – I love my own headspace, and my oldest son loves to invade. He will ask a thousand questions in an hour. He will tell me all about the picture he drew, the lego model he built, and while I try to be affirming and positive, some days my heart sinks. Some days, I can barely talk by the time my husband comes home, my resources have been so drained.

I am very slowly learning how to work out the most loving thing in each situation. Usually, the most loving thing is for me to set aside whatever I am engrossed in, and give my son at least half my attention. I am very bad at doing this, especially when I am tired. But, I have learned, sometimes the most loving thing is to explain to my son, kindly but firmly, that mummy is tired now and needs to stop talking, and that he must think of mummy and go and play quietly in another room (or find his brother and talk to him).

 * * * * *

A quick summary, because I being concise is not one of my strong points and you may have got lost in my ramblings:

This question, ‘what is the most loving thing?’ does three key things for us as parents.

  • It clarifies my motives. Had I asked this question when my son was waking us through the night, I would have made the same decision as a young parent to leave my son to cry, but it would have been for very different reasons. As a result, I would have had far more confidence in the decision. It would still have been hard to hear my son crying the first few nights, but I would not have been wracked by guilt for months afterwards. In fact, we probably would not have got to that point of extreme exhaustion in the first place.
  • It reduces the issues involved to one basic question – the question I asked in the first blog entry of this series – is my child loved and feeling secure today? If I can say ‘yes’, then I am making good decisions. If I am not sure, then perhaps I need to reassess and ask again, ‘what is the most loving thing’?
  • It keeps us from swinging to the extremes of parenting – either making myself the centre of all decisions and putting my child’s needs second; or putting my child at the centre of all decisions, and thus making everyone else’s needs secondary, including my own. Neither is healthy for the parents or the child. Instead, a balance is needed, where parents make sacrifices so that their child grows up loved and nurtured, but also where a child learns that the universe does not revolve around them, and that they exist to serve as well as be served.

Ultimately, going back to the whole point of this series, this question releases us from the guilt we so often feel as parents.

It frees me from the need to judge others who have decided differently from me (so I am not sitting in disapproval when my friends choose to return to work and employ a child-minder – I trust them to make loving decisions about their own family, knowing themselves and their own children).

And when, as happened recently, someone declares to my face that my choice to stay at home full time is the ‘lazy’ option, I may laugh (and then blush as I realise they are serious), and I may feel bewildered and a little angry (really? You think this is the easy option?), but ultimately I am not bothered. Because I know they are wrong. I have not made this decision out of laziness. Perhaps, as I’ve said above, my original motivations were not purely selfless or loving, but now, knowing the daily grind and exhaustion of being a full-time mum, I am still choosing it. My husband and I have looked at the options and concluded together that this is the most loving thing for our boys at the moment. And quite honestly, the longer I do it the more I realise it is the right option for me too.

My life is lived to the full as I learn to love.

‘I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full’

Well, you’ve read my catalogue of personal problems and you’re still with me!

Since this blog is boldly titled ‘living life to the full’ I suppose I ought to explain what I mean by it.

If you’ve read my previous posts (all three of them!) then you’ll know that my life has not exactly been a bed of roses. In addition to the poor health I described, I’ve also known personal betrayal, pain in various relationships, as well as depression.

God blessed me with a kind and loving husband, but the early years of our marriage came with illness, financial strain, and the usual adjustments that come from throwing two young and inexperienced sinners together in a small space! Add two children into the mix, along with a hefty dose of ill-health and anxiety and we find me, sitting on the side of my bed in tears, holding open the gospel of John.

I had just read the promise of Jesus, “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”

I believed those words were meant for me, for anyone who called Jesus ‘Saviour’. So how come my life was anything but ‘full’? How come I sat here with a gaping emptiness in my heart? How come all the things I’d thought would make it full were actually draining me dry? A husband, a house, children … instead of joy all I felt was exhaustion and misery, and a cloying sense of walls closing about me.

“Jesus,” I sobbed. “I want that full life! I want it so much! Why hasn’t this promise been fulfilled in my life?”

* * * * *

Perhaps right now this is you. Perhaps you wake in the morning with a desperate sense of claustrophobia. Perhaps you face illness, pain and exhaustion, or perhaps you are just struggling to adjust to the mundane life of a mother.

Perhaps you are considering walking away from it all.

God takes his time in answering our questions. He does it thoroughly, building up layers of understanding until we deeply grasp his intentions. He doesn’t offer light, blithe solutions.

I had to struggle for several years before I fully understood what Jesus was promising.

* * * * *

Our society holds self-fulfilment as the ideal. We pursue comfort and personal happiness above all things. What we mean by ‘life to the full’ is the freedom to pursue our desires and feel personal satisfaction in achieving them, whatever those desires might be (a good career, a happy family life, a comfortable home …)

We find ourselves feeling depressed and anxious either when those desires are frustrated (we do not meet Mr Right, or we are unable to have children, or our career ambitions are thwarted); or when those desires do not meet up to our expectations (our partner does not fully meet our desire for companionship, or our children in fact drain us and leave us exhausted instead of giving us a reason to live, or our career fails or ends up not satisfying us as we’d hoped).

This was what happened to me. I believed that ‘life to the full’ for me was having a husband and children to care for. I believed that staying at home and raising children and keeping house would satisfy me (and there was some altruism in there also – I believed this would bless my husband and children).

I was very quickly put out of my delusion. My husband, instead of being always attentive to my needs and ready to listen to my thoughts, proved distant and detached. He was resistant to the idea of children for a while (not forever, but for longer than I wanted).

[In fairness to him, I should say that at this point he was recovering from a mysterious and painful illness picked up on a mission trip; he was out of work and depressed, and still reeling from the big changes of getting married and finding himself responsible for another human being.]

When we agreed to expand our little family, I was hit with ill health, and the children proved to be a drain on my resources, rather than the little sources of joy and fulfilment I’d anticipated. Far from fulfilling me, they emptied me, leaving me exhausted and disillusioned.

Again, I’m back to me sitting on the bed, asking Jesus what had happened to his promise.

 * * * * *

God began to answer my longing for ‘life to the full’. My friend lent me a book by a new Canadian author, ‘A Thousand Gifts’ by Ann Voskamp. I wept through the first few chapters as she described feelings of aloneness and despair. She was mother to six, and woke every morning with dread and depression. At last, another mother who felt as miserable and isolated as me! Another mother who had been let down in her longing for ‘life to the full’.

Astonishingly, this was one of the verses Ann quoted in her quest for peace and joy. She had walked the path that I was now on.

In beautiful language, Ann describes our condition as being ‘closed to grace’. We become blind to the gifts that God is showering all around us, and see only the lack, the hole, the absence.

She began to list God’s gifts to her, writing down any incidence of beauty or joy that she perceived, from rainbows in the washing up bubbles (they’re there – look next time you’re elbow deep in greasy water!) to sunshine falling on daffodils, to the laugher of her children.

She learned to count even difficult things as blessings, and I began to see that my piles of laundry and dishes were actually the result of God’s blessing. How many women in third world countries would love to have more than one set of clothes to wash; how many women would love to have more than one floor to clean; how many women around the world would give anything to be woken in the night by the cries of a child, but their baby either sleeps in a cold grave, or their womb and their arms remain empty.

Thankfulness was the key to my escape from depression. Instead of listing the things I considered burdensome and tiresome, I tried, instead, to notice the gifts. It was astonishing. The more I looked, the more I saw. I can’t say my heart sings at the thought of washing a pile of dishes now, but I have trained my heart (and it is a discipline) to look for joy. I might not enjoy washing the dishes, but I enjoy the time it gives me to think (my favourite activity!) or sing and pray; and I thank God while I do them that I have been able to feed my family, not just what they need, but delicious and healthy food.

It may sound unrealistic; and from my starting point it did. How can I thank God when I am in pain, and depressed? What is there to be thankful for?

I started with a ring of crocuses on the grass, lit by spring sunshine. With a cup of good coffee. With a hug from my son. It grew from there. The more I opened my heart and willed myself into thankfulness the more natural and obvious it became.

* * * * *

There is another aspect to the full life, however.

Through the writing of C. S. Lewis, John Piper, and Tim Keller, as well as the preaching in our church, I began to see that often we do not receive the promise of Jesus because we are looking in the wrong place. We assume that ‘life to the full’ means my own personal fulfilment. And when our desires are not met, or the things we desire prove insubstantial, we are left empty and hopeless. Or we look somewhere else. So if our marriage lets us down, we reason that we married the wrong person. He is not the right man to fulfil me; I must marry another. Or my job is not satisfying me; I must have children as well, and a second car, and a bigger house, and a holiday, new clothes … we stuff our lives with things trying to fill that empty chasm which only gets bigger as fewer and fewer things satisfy.

 * * * * *

65 Sunset Nolton Haven cliff

The book of Ecclesiastes puts it this way: God has ‘put eternity into the hearts of men’.

I think what the writer is trying to convey is that sense of emptiness we all live with. That sense that this world is not enough. Even the best of human relationships cannot possibly fully meet our every desire and need.

What is the answer?

 * * * * *

There is only one Being I know of who is infinite. Who is Love and goodness and justice and kindness, and who will love and give himself utterly for my joy.

There is eternity in our hearts, and it follows that eternity must fill it. We were made for God himself.

The thing is, Jesus will accept no rival. He is a jealous God – and this is not a negative thing. Would you be happy if your husband or wife thought nothing of admiring other men or women? Jealousy in a lover (as long as it is not possessive or selfish) is a wonderful thing. God is jealous of our hearts – he wants us to be utterly his.

And we love to fill our hands with things. I was grasping after marriage, housekeeping, children, health … anything other than Jesus to fill that gaping hole in my heart. As long as my hands were full, there was no way I could take his hand.

He was standing there, holding out his hands, waiting to offer me ‘life to the full’, himself … but I was too busy trying to hold onto the many other things I thought I could keep and be happy.

C. S. Lewis likens it to children refusing to come when called because they want to play in the mud; when their parent is offering them a day at the seaside.

Keller calls it ‘idolatry’ – worshiping lesser, created things, offering ourselves to them, when we should be offered utterly to God.

Whatever you call it, it makes us miserable.

* * * * *

“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it; but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

This is how we receive ‘the full life’ that Jesus promised. We cannot receive it if our hands are already full of things, full of marriage, or children, or work, or ambition, or Self.

We must give these things up, let them go, so that we can receive all of Jesus.

What does this look like?

It means I make time to pray and listen to God through his word. It means through the day I speak to him, thanking him, praising him, looking for ways to serve him. I let go of the time I want to call mine, and take God instead.

It means I ask God what he wants me to do in any situation, not deciding for myself what I should do. I let go of the controls, and take God instead.

It means I look out for the interests of others as much as my own, even preferring other people to myself – so I ask my husband what will make him happy and try to do it; I ask myself what is best for my children and do that (even if it means I have to give up my one sit-down of the afternoon in order to teach them how to share nicely); it means that I make sure I have my heart and soul in order, and get enough rest so that I am ready to serve my family again in the morning. It means, sometimes, that I ask my husband if I can go and get a coffee by myself to recharge my batteries, because I’m starting to feel irritable and stir-crazy! I let go of myself, and take God instead.

It can be painful. It feels like loss, at times. I no longer have a tight, curvy body – well, the curves are there, but in all the wrong places! But I remember that someone once gave his body for me, and that gives me courage to smile in the mirror and give thanks. I have very little time to pursue my own interests any more. I have learned to tidy regularly (though I despise the chore), because my husband feels easily stressed by clutter. Clutter doesn’t bother me, but I’ve learned I’m learning to put his interests first.

Some things are harder to give up than others. I’ve begun to see that the fulfilment of parenting is less about the joy children bring (though that is undeniable, and heart-achingly sweet), but more in the practice of daily self-sacrifice, and daily opportunity to serve the good of someone other than myself. I fail often. I frequently forget, and find myself snapping over spilled drinks and mess and broken objects; but God is so patient with me, and so forgiving.

I am still often tired, and sometimes have pain, but the more I take time to notice God’s gifts, and the less I cling to trinkets and instead seek the real treasure of loving God and being loved by him, the more joy I know, and the lighter my burdens have become.

* * * * *

‘Look for Christ and you will find him. And with him, everything else’ (C. S. Lewis).63 Sunset Nolton Haven cliff

My first blog entry

Wow. This is a little scary. I’ve thought about writing a blog for a long time. I’ve planned it in my head. I’ve written dozens of entries already (in my head).

But it’s one thing to think about writing a blog, and another thing altogether to actually put my thoughts and feelings and beliefs out there for anyone to read. As if I have any authority on the matter at all. As if what I think is worth consideration. As if I am ready and prepared for anyone to criticise me and my life.

Well, I suppose I do believe I have some authority on some things. I know quite a bit about being a Christian woman in 21st Century Britain. I have almost ten years’ experience as a wife, over six as a mother, and during my lifespan I have experienced depression, bereavement, friendship, rejection, work, buying and keeping a home (twice), emetophobia (fear of vomiting), planning a wedding, childbirth, pre-eclampsia, Crohn’s Disease, a caesarean, buying a car, potty training (twice), breastfeeding and bottle feeding, sleep-training, camping, air-travel, disappointment, hope, marriage, church life, and a whole lot of joy.

Things I enjoy doing are cooking, sewing, reading, writing, painting and taking photos (not especially good ones).

So any of these things, and more, might appear on this blog at any time. It doesn’t make for a good strapline does it? So I just summarised this blog as ‘living life to the full’ because that is what I want to do.

I don’t usually manage it, just so you know. I’m an idealist, so I sit around and think a lot about how things should be, and then go and mess it up.

But Jesus came so that I might have ‘life, and have it to the full’ and that is what I aim at.

So, in the coming days, if you come back (and I won’t blame you if you don’t) you will most likely find articles on being a wife and mother (since that is what I spend most of my time doing at the moment), a few on surviving Crohns and emetophobia (which I hope will make you laugh if nothing else), and some on craft and cooking. But running through it all will be this thread (I hope) of seeking joy and fulness and God in all of life, which is for everyone.

I hope this blog encourages you. I hope it makes you think. I welcome respectful disagreement – I love to be challenged in my views. My favourite people know how to do this without making me feel either stupid or inferior.

Above all I hope these humble pages lift you from the shadowlands to see the Reality we all desire.