Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Thoughts on coming through a hard season

This weekend was good. Jeff loves to cook a big breakfast, so Saturday started with eggs, bacon, pancakes and coffee. I cleaned the house while he played with the kids. We ordered pizza for dinner and watched a movie. Sunday was morning Mass followed by more little projects, a nice long nap time, a trip to the park and leftovers for dinner.

A weekend of normal. The normal we have been craving for more than a year.

I can’t pinpoint one moment where we went from typical levels overwhelm to extreme. Somewhere between the onset of morning sickness and Helen’s birth we must have passed over the threshold. And then the hits started coming. Pregnancy stress, a less-than-ideal delivery, postpartum recovery, physical pain, sleep deprivation. Relationships shifting, unraveling, neglected and misunderstood. Business trips, loneliness, and a marriage unintentionally left on the back burner for too long. A new kindergartner, a challenging three-year-old, a baby with a life-changing diagnosis. Medical tests, early intervention appointments and hours spent on Google learning how to parent a blind child. Somewhere along the way we ran out of resilience, and life became survival.

There are seasons in life when the pain doesn’t lift. It has to be lived with, and in. I was pushed to my limits - physically, mentally and emotionally. Most days I felt like I was walking around with an open wound, my heart absolutely rent from the numerous blows.

God uses these hard seasons to change our hearts.

I am thankful for the things that have been stripped away this year. The selfishness, the immaturity, the laziness, the perfectionism. The tepidness of our marriage. The worries over things that don’t matter. And I am thankful for the fruit that has grown. A more active prayer life. Wisdom, clarity, insight. Faithfulness, patience and docility. A deeper, stronger ability to love.

Looking back on the last year is painful. There are so many things I wish could have been different, so many times I wanted to feel happiness without the suffering. Helen’s first birthday. Watching Matthew grow. Experiencing all the firsts of Laura’s kindergarten year. The memories are almost bitter as I remember how much my heart hurt.

But the joy was there, too.  

And maybe the joys of the past year have been that much sweeter for being set against the backdrop of pain, struggle and grief. Like the stars in the sky, my attention settles on them because of the contrast. The sweet smiles of our children, the solid foundation of our marriage, the consolation of our Catholic faith.

Our family is like a ship that has been through a long, tumultuous voyage. We are weather-beaten to the extreme. We fought for our very survival through storm after storm. We stared pain and trouble and exhaustion and despair in the face, time after time. But God was with us. And He drew us closer to Him through these storms. And always, we had hope.

So this weekend was like sailing into the harbor you knew was there but wondered if you’d ever actually reach. The calm waters, the mix of triumph and relief,  knowing the worst days are behind you, at least for a while. And you are stronger for it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Terrible Two-to-Threes

Photo: Three-year-old Matthew sitting on a ladybug statue

Everyone talks about the terrible twos. Some people say the threes are even worse. But in my experience, the most challenging, pushed-to-the-brink-of-sanity phase is the two-to-threes.

It’s the transition from toddler to preschooler, when their little brains start to form rational (and not-so-rational) thoughts. When they step into that higher level of thinking but their emotional intelligence lags behind. They are aware of bigger more complicated feelings but have no idea how to process them.

This incongruence leads to situations where your child is throwing an epic tantrum, screaming at you to “put my poop back on” after a diaper change. True story. I had to leave the room because I was laughing at the absurdity of my life.

We’ve been going through it with Matthew lately. He can be so much fun, so joyful and so thoughtful. And at the same time, he completely pushes me to the edge of my sanity. I have been close to tears many days from feeling utterly helpless. I will even admit to Googling “three year old is driving me nuts” which told me that I am not alone in this.

Then I found this journal entry from when Laura was going through this same phase:

I know my biggest challenge is going to be interacting with Laura. She is in one of those stages of learning new things and testing boundaries. It seems like I'm constantly correcting and she's constantly whining or yelling in protest. I know this is developmentally appropriate. Her brain is still immature and not able to regulate the strong emotions of her desires. Nonetheless, I fall into thinking that since she understands my words she should be able to follow my instructions, and I see her lack of compliance as disobedience. I take her negative emotions personally, and I feel disrespected, hurt, and angry.

So there are two ways to approach the interaction. I can be the stern parent, trying to bend her will to mine. I've tried this enough to know that A) it doesn't work and B) it creates more discord between us. It's the easiest approach, however, and I find myself using it mostly when I am too exhausted or distracted to give attention to the situation. Plus it feels justified - I'm right and she's wrong, so I am allowed to act angry.

The other approach takes concentrated effort. It requires me to stop whatever I'm doing, think about the best response, and, most importantly, sacrifice my feelings and desires. Sometimes it means holding the limit while empathizing with her feelings. Sometimes is means simply letting go and accepting that just because I would prefer that she not do something doesn't mean what she's doing is wrong. The key to this approach is to speak nicely. When frustration and anger are your emotions, this can seem impossible.

As I sat eating breakfast this morning, I know this impossible task is the key to my day. And the words come to me.

Speak generously instead of selfishly.

Let my response overflow with love. Give her grace. Sacrifice my feelings.

And all of this is equally true for Matthew. It is hard and it seems like things will never change, but eventually, gradually it does.

It is worth it to persevere. And when you make it through, the threes don’t seem so terrible after all.

What works for us:

Get your own emotions in check. Your emotional/physical/mental state will greatly determine the tone of your interaction. Make sure you are calm enough to be kind and keep things in perspective as the adult.

Connect, then redirect. This is a suggestion from both books listed below. You have to connect with the child and really show them you care about their feelings. To you it’s just a red cup instead of a blue one, but his disappointment is real. If you show him you care about his feelings, he can calm down enough to move forward.

Hold the limit, but be kind. Being kind to your child is not the same as being permissive. You can enforce a limit without being stern or threatening. Think of talking to your child the same way you would talk to a friend or your spouse.

Let it go. If you set a limit you have to be willing to stand by it. A child pulling the pillows off the bed is annoying to me, but he’s not disobeying unless I tell him to stop. Sometimes it’s easier on everyone to let them play and then clean up later than to duke it out over something trivial.

Be kind. It’s worth saying twice. I love this quote from Dr. Daniel Siegel:
"Kindness is more than simply being nice to others – it is actually a sign that our brain is working properly and able to focus on solutions."


These are the books I go back to time after time. I don’t follow each approach exactly, but the basic concepts have shaped how I approach parenting.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents' Guide to Raising almost Perfect Kids by Dr. Gregory and Lisa Popcak

*No affiliate links, I just love these books.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

How Helen Sees: Meet Helen

I’m so happy to introduce you to our sweet Helen. She is my old soul, my calmest, most content baby and a little piece of heaven. My mom likes to say she plays with the angels.

Photo: Baby Helen laying in her crib and grabbing her toes

Helen has a visual impairment due to a birth defect called coloboma. At five to seven weeks gestation, the fissure at the bottom of the eye stalks closes or “zips up.” When the closure is incomplete, a gap is left that can affect various structures of the eye. It can range from a small interior defect to a more visible coloboma of the iris or even the eyelid. An iris coloboma causes the pupil to look like a keyhole or upside-down tear drop. Some colobomas are merely cosmetic but others can greatly impair vision.

Photo: Helen's eyes with iris colobomas

Helen has colobomas in both eyes that affect the iris, retina and optic nerves. In her right eye, the coloboma includes the entire optic nerve and the macula, so we do not expect much vision in that eye. The eye itself also appears to be smaller, so we will ask at her next ophthalmologist appointment whether it would be considered microphthalmia. Her left macula is intact, but the coloboma has disrupted the optic nerve and her lower retina. She also exhibit frequent nystagmus, where her eyes move back and forth involuntarily.

Photo: A diagram drawn by the ophthalmologist showing the extent of Helen's colobomas. The shaded area under each curve indicates the part of her retinas and optic nerves that is missing. The small "x" represents the macula.

Doctors cannot predict how this will affect her vision, so we will have to wait until she is old enough to tell us what she sees. At this point, we know she has some vision. She can see light and shadow and responds to large movement. Her acuity is estimated somewhere between 20/600 and 20/1200 (less than 20/200 corrected is considered legally blind). The nystagmus can be a factor in how well she sees, and the retinal colobomas may also limit her field of vision. As she gets older, it has been more noticeable that she primarily uses her other senses, like hearing and touch, to explore the world.

Coloboma can be related to other syndromes like CHARGE, but Helen doesn’t seem to have any other characteristics that would suggest that in her case. Her kidney ultrasound and nasal scope were clear. The echocardiogram showed two small holes (ASD and VSD), but they are not expected to cause any problems. She has been on track with meeting her developmental milestones so far, so the colobomas appear to be an isolated trait.

I feel like Helen’s story is too special to keep to ourselves. In the past six months, she has opened our eyes and our hearts to a whole new world. There is so much to learn, so many questions to answer, and I am so grateful for the other parents who have shared their experiences through blogs, Facebook groups and social media. I hope sharing Helen’s journey will help others as well.

You can follow Helen’s story here on the blog or on Instagram at graceofthemoment or #HowHelenSees

Friday, October 28, 2016

Life Sketch 10.28.16

I’m hoping to do posts like this periodically to give a peek into our everyday life. This first one will be a bit of an introduction to our family.

Life lately. Where do I begin? It has been like an endless marathon for the past six months since Helen was born. I feel like I’m finally coming out of the postpartum haze. My energy is coming back, life is getting more manageable day-to-day and we’re starting to build back the margin that has been missing for too long.

I am feeling every bit the stay-at-home mom of three little ones. Showers are a luxury, and makeup and hair products are for Sunday morning church. I’m pretty sure the pre-kids me would be horrified at how disheveled I sometime look – and in public! I won’t pretend the sacrifices aren’t massive, but I can’t overstate the joy that I have found in motherhood, especially in these early years with babies. This too shall pass. Someday I will have time to blow-dry my hair but no baby to rock to sleep.

My wonderful, steadfast husband has been burning the candle at both ends all year for us. He works at a corporate job and has stretched his work schedule to help accommodate the extra time needed at home with a pregnant/postpartum wife and three little ones. Making time for him to give his best at work is finally a priority, and he even got 48 hours to himself when I took the kids to visit family last week. I cannot put into words what a blessing he is. So thankful for eleven wonderful years of marriage.

Laura has transitioned beautifully to kindergarten life. Her outgoing personality is satisfied much better by the fast pace of school than it was here at home with me every day. We enjoy our time together in the afternoons, and days off school are a special treat. Laura’s favorite things are owls, stickers, and drawing pictures. She is the most perfect version of a five-year-old I have ever seen.

Then there’s Matthew. He is three years old, happy-go-lucky, a total ham and is just all boy. I’ve been a little surprised at how real the “middle child” thing is, and I have to be mindful about carving out time just for him. He is the most intense in his need for attention and affection, which has been true since he was a baby. But man, that kid makes me laugh.

And Helen. My joy. She is a lovely, fat baby who loves to giggle. The ideal third child, she is patient (who describes a baby as patient?) and go with the flow. She naps 2-3 times a day in between school drop-offs and errands. Loves to bounce in her doorway jumper, loves to nurse to sleep. Her first pair of glasses are ordered and should be in next week, so I’m holding on to these last few days before she becomes my sweet little four eyes.

I can’t paint a picture of our family without including the core, which is our Catholic faith. We are blessed to be members of a wonderful parish which also has an amazing school. Our faith has provided a framework for all the ups and downs of life. Through it we are able to find meaning in each experience and see blessings in both our joys and our sufferings.

Overall, life is pretty typical. There’s lots of dishes and laundry. We read books to our kids and tuck them in at night. We watch HGTV and spend too much time scrolling through our iPhones. We I drink lots of coffee. And I try not to forget that these are the days. The beautiful days where life is full to the brim and we are living every second. My heart overflows.