Crohn’s and Coronavirus

The outbreak of coronavirus has coincided with our own little crisis, so that at first, I didn’t really appreciate the severity of the global situation.

My Crohn’s disease, which has behaved itself very well for at least six years now, has suddenly flared up. I caught a flu-like illness at Christmas time, and my poor stomach hasn’t been the same since. I got to the stage where I was exhausted and visiting the toilet several times a day … anyway, it wasn’t pretty. Thankfully it was just as the first coronavirus headlines were reaching the UK, so I was able to quickly access medical care.

The catch is that I’ve been put on steroids. These dampen my immune system and while that’s great for my Crohn’s (which is beginning to behave itself again) it’s not great when a global pandemic is occurring!

It has been really hard to know what to do. What I’ve been very aware of is that it was a flu-virus that triggered my current symptoms. I don’t want to give my immune system any more excuses to misbehave, especially with a brand new virus. I also don’t want to become one of those people overloading the NHS, by developing complications.

So we’ve applied social distancing measures to our family. We made the decision to keep the children off school yesterday. It seems foolish for me to be avoiding supermarkets, but letting the children go into a crowded, closed-in space for six hours a day, and risk bringing germs home. At first I thought we were overreacting, but a doctor friend has reassured me that we are being wise.

I’m very conscious that I was facing some deep questions just as coronavirus began making its way around the globe.

What if the treatment doesn’t work this time? What if my Crohn’s gets worse, and I have to live with debilitating pain and illness long-term? What if the treatment really doesn’t work? Will my life be cut short? Will I have to leave my family and my children?

I don’t want to sound dramatic, but these questions are very likely to be running through the mind of anyone facing a serious, chronic condition. I’m also aware that these may be the questions running through your mind right now, as you watch the spread of coronavirus, and the attempts of governments to slow and stem the tide of disease.

I think coronavirus is exposing us to things we prefer to suppress. Things I’ve had to face up to often through my life.

Medicine does not hold all the answers. When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I was surprised to discover that the doctors did not know what causes this disease (and many others). They know what the disease does, and can offer some very welcome treatments to heal our bodies, but cannot explain why a body’s immune system would turn upon itself.

And even the treatments themselves hold no guarantees. I may take the same steroids and medications as another woman my age, and she may respond and recover; I may not. Again, the doctors don’t have an explanation. Different people respond differently to different treatments, and it’s impossible to predict outcomes with certainty.

What this is all whispering to us is that our lives are not certain. We have far less control than we like to think. This is a truth we are able, most of the time, to keep at bay here in the west.

I know this because it’s how I lived before I got Crohn’s disease. I assumed that ill health and death were far off. I assumed that if I did get ill, there would be a scan, a pill, a treatment. And in the moments when such assumptions were shaken, I could silence the whisper of fear through social-media and home entertainment.

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12

I know it’s really scary, facing the unknown. It can feel like standing on the tip of a void. As I’ve reckoned with the possibility of my life holding illness, surgery, pain, cancer, and possibly an early death, I’ve sometimes been gripped with terror. What will happen to my children if my life is cut short? What will happen to me?

I’ve begun to realise, very vividly, that none of the things we trust in are strong enough in such a storm. Medicine can do much, but it cannot save your life indefinitely. The outlook is bleak – the mortality rate on this planet is fixed at 100%. You may get to live to eighty, ninety, but then you will die. And as Moses so eloquently states, even those years are weary, and full of trouble (Psalm 90:10).

My gentle challenge to you, during this fearful time, is to let yourself face those fears. Ask yourself those hard questions. Stand on the edge of the void, face the unknown.

What is your baseline trust? When all the things we usually trust in – social order, government, medicine – are being shaken, where is your hope? When a vague platitude of, “I’m sure it will all work out” no longer holds water, where do you turn?

It’s only as we face our fears that we really discover what we are hoping in, and where our trust is. Mine was in my health and youth, once. I quickly realised that a disease can easily take away all of that. Then for a while my trust was in medicine, but I learned that there are no guarantees, even for our amazing doctors.

It was painful, having my hopes, my expectations, taken away. My foundation was shaken. Yet as I discovered how weak medicine is, I found something stronger, something that is big enough to carry me through illness, pain, suffering, and yes, even death.

Or rather, Someone.

My hope used to be in treatment, in cure, in long life. Not any more. If God gives me those things, then I will thank him with all my heart, but he may not. That’s his call. And yes, I tremble as I write that. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to leave my family. I’m scared of coronavirus, just as I’m scared of the uncertainty of Crohn’s disease.

But here is what I’m hoping in.

God is bigger than Crohn’s, or coronavirus, or any other disease. He is more precious than youth, health, long life. His love is deeper, stronger, than any I could ever have known. It’s the kind of love we all long for.

As we look at our world now, pause and notice the fragility of our society. We appear so strong, with our health care, justice system and advanced technology. But coronavirus is revealing it all to be built on sand. A tiny particle, invisible to the human eye, is destroying our society.

But this is my hope … one day God has promised to renew this world. He has promised to sweep away corruption, disease, and even death. In fact, he has already removed the sting of death for those who love him. When I do die, whether of coronavirus, Crohn’s, or peacefully in my sleep as a ninety year old, I believe I will be truly coming alive. I will wake to peace, healing, and life.

While coronavirus is fearful, and evidence of the evil that underlies our world, it can also be an opportunity. It’s a chance for us all to pause, to sit in silence, just for a few minutes each day, and ask what we are truly trusting in. Youth and health may fail you. Medicine will fail you, if not now, then one day.

God will not. He can keep you safe in this life, and if he chooses for you to leave, he can give you an eternal life, un-threatened by disease, sorrow or death. Look for him.

You will find him if you seek him with all your heart.

Deuteronomy 4:29

Doubt and Silence

I am in an ugly season, of doubt and silence.

I am weary to my core, and have nothing left to give but the relentless days keep coming. The sun keeps rising. Children need dressing and feeding, and leave me no space to turn inwards, or even upwards.

My husband has a back injury that has recurred five times in the past two years. Each time he suffers terrible pain for weeks. He can’t sleep, and he recedes (understandably) into a cave out of my reach. We drift through the days, which become fuller for me, as the help I depend on from him has to stop.

My body is weary. My stomach is playing up, causing nights of pain and nausea, but I must get up in the morning to care for the toddler and get the older two to school, because my husband can’t do those things right now. I ache for breathing space; I feel my lungs are compressed by the days and hours and the pressure of carrying children and housework and husband and church.

My prayers are desperate, like the chirping of a helpless chick. Wordless, most of the time, a bewildered wail. Help. Help.

It feels as though the help does not come. I feel alone.

I have been through times of grief, times of struggle before. I have watched others struggle through bereavement, illness, and just hard days. We can be so tempted to come to sufferers with words, layering up clichés of supposed hope, which often injure and deepen the sorrow.

God works all things for good. This may be true, but in great grief we just can’t see it.

God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Yes, but I’m not experiencing God’s power right now.

Sometimes we just want someone to sit with us, to grieve with us. To sit in silence.

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;

it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.

Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. 

Lamentations 3:25-28

Perhaps, when God’s silence is most profound, this is what he is doing. For we know he knows our grief. We know he tasted sorrow and loneliness and pain to the dregs. We saw him weep in Gethsemane. Alone.

Perhaps his silence is that of companionship, where the pain is beyond words. Perhaps the tears are rolling down his cheeks in sympathy. Perhaps he is sitting right there all along, in silence.

To love, honour and cherish

My younger sister is getting married tomorrow. It has been a very busy few months, planning and preparing, on top of juggling three children.

It has also been a time when I have reflected on my own marriage, which was eleven years old a month ago. I have remembered standing at the threshold of the church, ready to step into a new life, brimming with expectation and hope.

Eleven years older and wiser, I ache for the wide eyed girl with her long hair and pre-baby body. Had we known how painful these years would be, how much we would hurt each other, how spiritually excruciating it is to cast two rough-cut sinners onto the shore and let the waves of life knock them together … perhaps we would not have taken those vows.

I read an online article a month ago, titled, “Stop telling us marriage is hard”. It was on a Christian website, and I sympathised with the writer. It must be terribly defeating to be engaged and newly married, and have all us older, weather-beaten couples throw cold water on your dewy-eyed romance. But I suspect that the writer was young, and fairly new to this marriage game. Because everything they wrote to affirm marriage (how it is designed to bring joy and togetherness, blessing and unity) though absolutely true, and certainly to be affirmed … comes at a cost, of which they seemed to be blissfully unaware (as I was, as a new bride).

For unity in marriage comes at the price of humility. As long as I am decrying the speck in my husband’s eye while ignoring the plank in my own, I am tearing down my marriage with my own two hands. And unless both partners come to realise their own sinfulness the marriage is destined for some rocky times. So either your marriage is difficult, or you have to face up to your own weaknesses. Either way is painful.

Blessing in marriage comes at the price of self-sacrifice. Again, the choice that lies before us as a husband or wife is to continue in our selfish, pre-marital ways, make life miserable for our partner, and potentially doom the marriage; or to lay our lives down in submission and service. To screw the lid back on the toothpaste because you know how much it irritates your partner. To clean up the kitchen even though it’s nine o’clock and all you want to do is lay your tired body down on the sofa for an hour and watch TV, because you know your partner finds it stressful to come down to a messy kitchen in the morning. To get up at 3 a.m. to see to a crying child, and spare your partner again and again.

Joy in marriage comes at the price of forgiveness. Because you are sinners. Because you are weak and human and you will fail each other, big time, at some point in your marriage. It might not be porn, or an affair, or an addiction (though it may well be). But it might be dissatisfaction, or laziness, or selfishness in spending, or a failure to cherish and love the other person. We can hold on to bitterness or we can let ourselves and our silly pride go, and forgive, and choose love, again and again if necessary.

Happiness in marriage comes at the price of faithfulness. Life will throw you curve balls. Sometimes just living is enough, especially with small children. There will be times when your sex life dwindles. Times when you feel like house mates rather than husband and wife. There will be times when life changes add stress to an already hectic life as you move house, have babies, change jobs. There will be times of crisis and long-term illness. In all these times we can allow our hearts and minds to wander, or we can remain faithful, holding onto the promises we made, perhaps many years ago now. We can live in the image of the God who made us, who remains at all times. But sometimes it will hurt.

So here is what I would say to that girl, standing at the door of the church as the guitar struck up, searching for her beloved at the front of the church … hold on tightly to your Saviour, it’s going to be a rough ride. But if you hold on through the years, if you wait, and pray, and love faithfully, you will find something far more precious than a happy marriage, though that is possible. You will find your rough edges smoothing out, your corners that scrape and poke your husband slowly rounding, and beneath that miserable surface … you may just find the diamond of faith and love gleaming in the darkness.

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

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.

Guilt-free parenting (3) The Principle!

What I wish to offer in this blog is a single principle which will simplify our parenting choices.

I have explored our history and concluded that much of our modern guilt in parenting springs from our culture not having fixed ‘rules’ about how women and children fit into this new ‘information age’. We have so many different voices telling us how to parent our children that we are confused, and can be left feeling guilty for almost any decision we make.

The problem we seem to be wrestling with most of all is what to do with the very small and most needy in our society – babies and toddlers.

Unlike previous generations, the mother who stays home is alone for most of the day – she has no servants, extended family are often remote (or working), and few neighbours who are also at home. Toddler groups are her uncertain refuge, where she can sometimes meet with judgement and unfriendliness, and which actually offer no escape from the demands of parenting. In no other society has a ‘housewife’s’ role been so limited, and a mother’s role so rigorous and isolated (if you see my previous blog you will realise that previous generations of mothers have been supported by extended family, servants, and neighbours).

It is no wonder that mothers are looking for more. Long ago, a housewife was a vital cog in the machinery of society. Now, full-time mothers are labelled as economically redundant, and their role is little valued by society. Also, mothers are left ‘holding the baby’ all alone for nine hours a day, a situation which is guaranteed to leave them exhausted and desperate for a break.

What is the answer? How can we, as a society, answer the needs of mothers and children? We need to work out new ‘rules’ for society that protect the mother’s need for validation and significance, without trampling over the needs of small children.

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I want to suggest a principle that we can use to make these bigger decisions, but also the smaller decisions we face as parents. Should I breastfeed or bottle feed? Should I leave my child to cry to sleep or let them into my bed? Should I return to work full or part time, or stay at home?

I want to explore this principle further tomorrow, but for now I just want to outline it. I think, if we ask one simple question, we can clarify the issues that we are wrestling with and make decisions as parents with confidence. We can withstand the aggression of people who think we have made a wrong choice.

This is the question: What is the most loving thing to do?

That’s it.

The reason I believe this question will resolve the guilt we feel as parents is that it is a secure base from which to choose and move forward. If I am confident that I have chosen what is most loving for my husband and children, and if my husband is looking out for my needs and the children then together we will be sure that the whole family’s needs are being served.

If we face criticism or judgement, we can feel secure that this is unjust; we have done what was most loving, not what was most expedient, or what was ‘best for me’. Love is never a bad motive.

I am convinced that a great deal of the guilt we feel is because, somewhere deep down, I think I have put myself first, not my children. That is what has lain behind all my guilt as a parent – I felt I should have done more or could have done more, or should have done something differently. I should have put up with the baby’s need for cuddles at 2 a.m., 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Looking back, I realise that the most loving thing for all of us was the choice we made in the end – to leave our son to cry until he fell asleep. None of us were getting a good night’s sleep, our son included. Unfortunately, we made the decision really based on expediency and sheer desperation, and only afterwards realised that it happened to be the right choice. If we had thought it through and concluded together that the most loving thing for all of us was to have a good night’s sleep I would still have found it hard to leave my boy to cry, but I would have had peace that it was the best thing.

I had not learned to ask the right question, but since I understood its simplicity it has saved me from a great deal of anxiety.

Asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ cuts through the crap. I can’t hide behind ‘what’s best for me is best for baby’ any more. I am forced to look at the situation through objective eyes and think through the consequences for me, for my husband, and for the children. I have a standard by which to measure my choices – am I being loving here, or selfish?

(And before you panic and think I am going to tell you to be a doormat, sometimes the most loving thing is to dump the kids on your husband and go out for a coffee before you completely lose your sanity. Sometimes the most loving thing is to insist on a strict bedtime, so that you and your husband can have a glass of wine in peace, and so that you can read a book, or write a blog, or whatever. It is not loving to always give a child their way.)

Tomorrow I want to look into this principle in a bit more depth and explore it. I hope you’ll find it frees you from much of the self-doubt and guilt that plagues us today.

Guilt-free Parenting (2)

This is my second entry in a series I have bravely titled ‘guilt-free parenting’. I’m writing in response to the enormous amount of guilt I hear expressed every day by other parents, and which I have experienced myself.

* * * * *

History is a wonderful subject. It reminds us that things have not always been done the way we do them. The basic assumptions of our society have not always been accepted; in fact, our culture even a generation ago had very different beliefs about family life and society.

One of the reasons I believe we are struggling so much as parents today is because we are on the beginnings of a wave of change in our society. We are trying to work out how to live in this new ‘age of information’. We don’t know yet know how the family unit fits into it. We haven’t worked out how best to fit small children into this new structure. And so we are full of guilt because our society has not yet established ‘the rules’.

Let me explain.

02 St Fagans

For centuries we had an ‘agricultural’ society. This means that society depended on farming for survival, and our values and choices were shaped by this. So the average family owned or rented a large field, and used it to grow their food. They would produce almost all of their food and clothing themselves; if they had any extra produce they sold it to boost the family’s resources.

The family unit was vital to this society. The man was needed to work the field – the sheer physical strength required to farm all day and manage livestock meant a man was ideally suited to this job. The wife was needed to process the produce and bear children to help with the work, and her ability to multi-task and breastfeed meant she was ideally suited to this job. This all sounds very pragmatic, but I am putting it simplistically. Gravestones and historical documents demonstrate that there was a lot of love involved!

The woman’s role was not considered secondary or menial. It was vital and highly honoured. To become a ‘housewife’ and to bear children improved your status in society. If the wife did not do her job well then the man could not do his job (and vice versa), and the whole family and community suffered. When I studied history I used to be shocked at how quickly many people remarried after their husband or wife died – love clearly wasn’t as important then as it is now, I thought. What I have realised since is that actually, the roles of men and women were interdependent. A household without a wife and mother simply could not function well (and the same could be said of the husband/father).

The role of housewife in this type of society involved a great many valuable skills. She had to manage staff – even poorer households would have at least one servant; most households had several. She had charge over the family budget. She had the keys (and therefore responsibility) for the most valuable commodities of the time – spices, salt, and (after the 15th Century) sugar. She was also in charge of manufacturing, either the spinning and weaving of the cloth itself, or at least sewing clothes for her household; not to mention the daily task of feeding everybody, which involved a far greater degree of home-processing than now (e.g. sugar entered the home as a hard block and had to be processed before it could be added to cooking).

What I am trying to get at is that the role of ‘stay at home mother’ was once a highly responsible and valuable position. It was not demeaning, or restrictive to women (though other attitudes of the time may have been). In fact, it honoured her unique abilities as a woman and gave her value in society. (If you are still doubting me, read Little House on the Prairie, and ask if Ma was in a demeaning or valueless role).

In this society, children ranked very low on the scale of importance, since they had no economic value. They were dependents, but as soon as they were old enough they were gradually introduced to employment – starting around the age of five or six they would be expected to help in the home, the field, or the workshop (if their father was a tradesman). Parents would be responsible for their education. The mother would pass to her daughter skills such as how to mix medicines for common ailments, recipes, and how to manage a budget. The father would teach his son how to work the land, or pass on his trade. The family spent a great deal of time together, and there was a lot of overlap – medieval pictures, for example, show women working at the harvest. Babies were transportable – they could be carried on the back, or laid in a basket under a tree, or (apparently) tightly swaddled and hung on a peg out of the reach of rats (!), while the mother got on with her work.

Mothers were never isolated; in fact time alone was rare in this kind of society. You had at least one servant you could call on to hold the baby if you needed to get on with your work; in all likelihood your mother or mother-in-law either lived with you or very close by, as well as your extended family. And if you couldn’t afford a servant you had an entire neighbourhood community of other women and older children who would gladly help you on a difficult day.

The only people who paid for child-care were the nobility, who employed wet-nurses to breastfeed their babies so that the mother’s fertility would not be compromised, and she could bear the next heir sooner.

 * * * * *

Fast forward a few centuries to the industrial revolution. We call it a revolution. In reality, between the 17th and 18th centuries agriculture gradually took a back seat, and industry became the main place of employment, and the basis of our economy. The majority of the workforce moved from the land to the factory. This led to a change in the family dynamic.

The family stopped spending so much time together. The father left the home and his family and went out to work. Women worked in the factories too, but could not continue in this form of employment once they had a baby, so they were forced to stay home and become dependents themselves. Their task-load at home was reduced – managing a household became less valuable as clothes and food were increasingly processed and produced outside the home. Bearing children prevented the woman from working, and created more mouths to feed, while her workload had become more menial, and less valuable to society.

When the state took charge of education, children over six began to spend longer hours away from home and family as well. The family unit was being forced apart.

 * * * * *

It was no wonder that women began to feel their secondary status in this society. Unfortunately, the early feminists made a mistake. Instead of seeking to restore honour and value to a woman’s role, they reasoned that women could regain value by becoming like men. They should be allowed to work outside the home, like men, and be ‘set free’ from the demeaning and menial task of being a baby-maker and a housewife.

This is rapidly turning into an article on women’s lib instead of parenting, but this background is important. We need to recognise that it was not really society’s values that turned a woman’s role into something secondary, but rather the way society was structured after the industrial revolution. Instead of women and men both being vital cogs in the machine of society, mothers were forced into becoming dependents, while their men went out and got on with the business of making money and providing for their families.

Society’s values came to reflect this over time – by the Victorian era women were meant to be dependent. They were considered weak and incapable of responsibility.

By the 1950s an ideal had arisen of a cardboard woman who loved nothing better than to keep house and raise babies, existing effectively as a servant to her husband’s wishes.

(Except, I do not think this stereotype reflects reality, apart from in a few middle class suburbs. Both my grandmothers worked once their children were of school age and neither had a particularly servile attitude towards their husbands!)

We can see that shifts in societal structure brought about a shift in cultural values. In an agricultural age the emphasis has to be on collaboration, on the collective. We needed each other to survive and for society to function, and men and women’s respective roles were equally valuable. The industrial revolution meant that we were no longer interdependent; instead the man was responsible for supporting his family, the wife joined the children as a financial dependent, leading to a society which devalued the woman’s role.

Towards the end of the last century there was another shift. We now live in an ‘information age’. It is possible for a person to live entirely independently of others. The roles of men and women are not so clearly defined. Apart from a few jobs which require our gender-based strengths (like building and labouring, or breastfeeding) most roles can be fulfilled equally by men and women. Brute strength is not required to grow the family’s food, household management is no longer so time-consuming. We have replaced servants with machines (think washing machine, dishwasher; there are even robots which will vacuum and mop your floors – yes really! Put it on your Christmas list!) The traditional role for a woman, as housewife, is not as valuable or fulfilling as it was five hundred years ago.

 * * * * *

I hope you have found this roundup of our past interesting and thought-provoking. What I have been trying to work towards is that the current trend of guilty parenting exists partly because we still have not worked out how small children fit into this new society, where male and female roles are less obvious, where work takes place outside the home, and where the family is spending more and more time apart. We still have not worked out ‘the rules’.

Instead, we are developing values in a reactionary way. We have recognised that a woman’s role at home is limited and less productive (in an economic sense) than it has been in the past. But instead of thinking about it carefully we have reacted by simply saying, “Well then, mothers must be allowed to work like men”.

We need to consider the needs of everyone involved. What does a baby or pre-school child need? What does a mother need? What does society as a whole need? What can we do to make sure that everyone’s needs are met, and the family unit is served and not lost as our society changes?

I’m sorry if you read this hoping for an answer to your guilt as a parent. I will try to answer that in the next part of this series; but at least now you understand why you feel guilty … it is because you are struggling to meet the needs and desires of your child, yourself and your family in a ‘brave new world’. We may not have crossed oceans but we are living in a new kind of society. As far as I know, no society has lived like this before, with both parents working away from home, and children educated outside the home, and so we don’t really know how best to fit child-care into this new world. We receive conflicting advice from traditionalists, who want to maintain the old family model inherited from an agricultural era; from feminists who argue that the woman’s rights are preeminent; from politicians who want to boost the economy; from blogs and forums, our parents; and ultimately from our own instincts and desires.

I am working towards suggesting a single principle which will help you make these difficult decisions as a parent, without guilt. Stay posted!

‘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.