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)