Spacing Children Without NFP

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The average space between our children is a little over two years. This fact often inspires random strangers to comment about how nicely planned our family is. The "perfect" spacing they say. 

"Oh! Three boys and four girls! How Peeerfect! How did you manage that?"

To which I reply...

Thank you very much for your enthusiasm. But I didn't have anything to do with it. God planned it all. Really.

And that's the full truth. I'm going to make an intimate confession here and reveal that we don't know a thing about NFP. Well, we know some things and own a bunch of books about it -- but it's been, oh, about 19 years since our class and since we haven't used it really at all, well, we've forgotten some things. (We are not anti-NFP. We simply haven't used it.)

But in those years we've also learned a lot about the nitty gritty of life-giving love and the physiology of fertility and motherhood. We were also given a gift when our oldest was several months old that became one of the greatest blessings of my motherhood. The book Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing is not just a technical how-to for postponing fertility through breastfeeding, but a way of life... of beautiful, natural, sacrificial love. It's less a manual for family planning and more an encouragement to surrender wholly to the vocation God has blessed us with.

There's no charting, no temp taking, no lengthy abstinence. But there is a reason that it is not a more popular method, and that is because it requires a total lifestyle commitment to breastfeeding on demand. Over the years, I have come to realize that this sacrificial way of life is actually one of the most beautiful and consoling aspects of my motherhood. God has allowed me the ability to perfectly nourish and nurture my youngest children... and the icing on the cake is that refreshing pause in fertility.

How does it work?

It's rather simple, actually.

God designed the act of breastfeeding to suppress the hormones that cause a return to fertility. So, a lifestyle of nursing on demand very naturally allows some space. To maximize that space, certain basic guidelines need to be followed. As I said, this is not particularly restrictive for me because it has become a way of life. The blessings far outweigh the discomfort. But it is definitely more challenging in our "freedom" and gadget-loving culture which seeks constantly to separate mother and child and frowns upon lengthy nursing. 

My return to fertility has between 13 and 24 months postpartum with 8 children and I generally nurse my children for two years. The following are the "rules" (I hate to even use that term) that we follow but it all boils down to frequency of nursing and physical contact with the baby

~ Nothing but breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

Period. Barring any medical contraindications, nothing else is needed. Even during the hot Summer months when hydration is extra important, frequent nursing is sufficient.

NO BOTTLES OR PACIFIERS

Mamas are designed to pacify and babies are designed with a strong need to be pacified. God created us that way and a plastic pacifier is a only weak substitute for His original design.  Babies will nurse when they are hungry (which is designed to be frequent) but also because it comforts them, makes them happy, and reduces pain. (Incidentally, if you've never nursed a baby through a vaccination, insist on it next time. The baby will be happier and the staff astonished at how quiet your child is.)

We have briefly used pacifiers to calm screaming infants on car trips but have always considered it to be an emergency measure and not the norm for comforting a child. As they get older, our ecologically breastfed babies have all rejected the pacifier (much to my astonishment), even in the car.

FREQUENT NIGHT FEEDING / CO-SLEEPING

Night feeding is a critical element in hormone suppression because estrogen levels tend to rise at night. If you follow the other elements of ecological breastfeeding but sleep apart from your baby at night, you will likely experience an earlier return to fertility. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, that getting out of bed 3 to 5 times per night is practically unsustainable.

I know the objections so I don't need to be lectured. There are many safe ways to be next to baby at night. It takes creativity and a little sacrifice but the balance for me has been overwhelmingly positive. I am a terrible sleeper so night feeding is a definitely a sacrifice . The upside is that I am able to remain in the comfort of my own bed and have the most beautiful bonding during the shortest developmental period of my child's life!

A note about safety: It is easy and intuitive to make a safe sleeping space that you can share with your child. Certain things do increase safety risk, such as morbid obesity and big blankets. I don't ever put a child next to my husband who sleeps extremely heavily. Common sense stuff that is certainly variable according to individual circumstances.

Sleeping close to my infants has actually allowed me to keep my children safer. In one case, I was able to save the life of my son thanks to my poor sleeping habits and close physical proximity. He was struggling to breathe. Completely silent. Nothing that would have been heard on a monitor. His small movements awakened me and as I admired my sleeping beauty, I became aware of his barely noticeable distress. Thanks be to God. In his own room, he would have quietly died. In my household, co-sleeping has reduced the incidents of SIDS.

FREQUENT HOLDING / ALLOWING BABY TO FALL ASLEEP AT THE BREAST

I know. I know. Totally opposite to what grandma keeps telling you. I can't tell you how many times in life well-meaning maternally oriented people have told me to "put that baby down." All I gotta say is... No. My kids are all extremely social, confident people. And I "spoiled" them all rotten in my arms when they were babies. Holding a baby is not spoiling but rather meeting a strong, God-given need to be physically nurtured. Yes, they do get used to being held and rocked to sleep. Yes, they do eventually sleep fine on their own. This time is brief. Embracing these small sacrifices allows us to enjoy the incredible blessing of the moment.

NO SCHEDULES

This is hard for moms, particularly for those of us who have other children to care for, but breastfeeding is not designed to work with a schedule. Breast milk is quickly digested and babies needs are constantly, constantly changing. During periods of tremendous growth in infancy, there are days when a breastfeeding mother thinks that she does nothing but nurse, and it's almost literally true. Those are the days when mama has to figure out how to brush her teeth or make lunch with a crying baby in her arms.  New mothers often lose confidence and feel like they are "not making enough milk" or that they have a particularly difficult baby. I have learned that ALL babies are "high need" and some just express it more loudly. It is challenging but the baby is only following God's design of supply and demand for nursing. They want to grow. They are not ready to be independent. It is a gift we give... and we can't give it well only on our terms. We must surrender.

A personal note about schedules: My firstborn had severe reflux as an infant, losing every single feeding all over me, the floor, the bed, whatever was in the way. He did this as a toddler and threw up almost all of his meals.  As a baby, he nursed constantly, for nourishment and comfort, and I was exhausted all of the time. A well-meaning family friend gave me a book on how to structure the feeding of infants and, in desperation,  I began to follow it, to the detriment of my malnourished and suffering son. He cried even more and was not thriving. A couple weeks into the experiment, another friend mailed me a copy of Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing. I read it in an  afternoon, scooped up my baby boy, and didn't put him down for 3 years.

SACRIFICIAL!! It was hard. I nursed that boy 24/7. He'd spit up, I'd clean up, and nurse him again. He clung to me fiercely for three years but he grew in stature and love. And then, he let go. Today, he's preparing his college applications... and I have no regrets.

NO RESTRICTIONS

Stay away from any practice that restricts nursing or keeps you away from your baby. Yes, for a brief window in his life, you will be your baby's everything. You will take him to adult functions (or stay home) and find super creative ways to spend time with your spouse. There will be times when you just want to run away and be free... there will be other times when you will find brief glimpses of the perfection of your vocation from the rocking chair in your living room.

In these "rules," I have, more or less, summed up the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing promoted by Sheila Kippley. Her original book changed my life. I do not live out attachment parenting exactly as she prescribes it but her words have challenged me to give more than I ever considered giving. I honestly have no regrets. I have had to make many sacrifices to live this way but it is a beautiful way to live.

For those of you who do not wish to live this lifestyle. I'm not judging you and I expect that there are preferences and exceptions and challenges that make your lifestyle different from mine. I am writing only to publicly share a largely unknown treasure for those who have never heard of it or who just need a little encouragement to explore it.

This method is not perfect by worldly standards because, by it's very nature, it requires flexibility and openness. There are many variables that cannot be perfectly controlled. Again, it is less of a method than a natural lifestyle. Before pacifiers, before bottles, before bouncy seats and swings... there were mamas' arms. Thanks be to God for the gift of technology, especially for those with medical needs! But all things being equal, God's original design is perfect.

EXCEPTIONS

I have met many women over the years for whom this method does not work. They are often telling me this while their babies drink from a bottle or suck on a pacifier. Or it is revealed later that they have frequent babysitting or do not co-sleep or do not let the baby fall asleep at the breast. Or that they will go on outings without baby and use a pump. Doing those things does not make someone a bad mother, but it does interfere with the biological law which governs a return to fertility.

But there are also those women whose fertility returns in spite of all their efforts... 

For those who have followed every guideline and still find their fertility returning very early, Mariette over at The Natural Catholic Mom has some theories about why that might be the case. I think her thoughts have a lot of merit. Exclusive and Ecological Breastfeeding Are Not the Same

For more information on the nitty gritty of the amazing, God-gifted method of spacing babies naturally through breastfeeding, please refer to the following resources:

Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing: The Ecology of Natural Mothering (Kippley)

Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood: God's Plan for You and Your Baby (Kippley)

The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor (Kippley)

 The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing (PDF)

Traveling With Your Sensitive Toddler

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"I want to go home."

She looked straight into my eyes and I knew she wasn't bluffing. She wasn't whining, she was insisting. We had been on the road for only an hour. Yes, this was going to be a long trip. She repeated those words many times over the next week and then finally, we were home. But the middle days... Oh those middle days.

Having raised 6 children out of toddlerhood (so far), I should be the expert. I should have been completely prepared for my 7th when she reached the age of two. Not so much. 

My current toddler is brilliant, loving, and sweet but she also happens to be highly sensitive. Call it a sensory processing issue or whatever... she's an amazing kid with huge intensity. Add a new baby brother to her world and... BOOM... many of you have toddlers and you know what that looks like!

So our recent 9-hour trip to drop my oldest off at college was a source of anxiety for me. My own stress level was only secondary to hers and that was the fundamental problem and my primary concern. She's an amazing kid who loves life in a big way; but life gets bigger and bigger for her until it overwhelms.

Too much too often too quickly too loudly.

I had no idea how we would help her navigate all the sounds, sights, smells, strange people, noises, and routine disruptions. Naturally, I consulted the Parenting Manual under the section "How to Mother a Passionate Toddler" and read...

HaHaHaHaHaHa!

Right. That's what I thought it would say. But with a little planning and a lot of compassion and patience, we made it and it wasn't horrible. For those of you who have sweet little tigers like mine - full of life and love and then some - I've compiled a few tips that helped with our trip. Again, I'm no expert and haven't experienced much of this with my other kids, but these are things that helped my girl...

  1. Pay attention to the Bucket
  2. Buy a carrier and use it
  3. Sleep consistency
  4. Grounding tools
  5. Sit down and read books
  6. Good Nutrition (No candy!)
  7. Limit activities
  8. Steady Discipline
  9. Plan B (When all else fails)

1. PAY ATTENTION TO THE BUCKET

The "bucket theory" for human beings goes something like this: The body is like a bucket and fills over time, drop by drop. When the bucket is filled with toxins, irritants, allergens, etc., it starts to overflow and react. There's only so much it can hold without negative effect. For a sensitive child (or adult), each new person, sound, smell, etc. fills the bucket and sometimes cause an overflow.

For a toddler, "overflow" = breakdown.

I can tell you firsthand that once the bucket is full, it takes a long time to empty it. Preventing the full bucket in the first place is much easier than restoring it to a healthy level. All of the tips that follow below are geared toward keeping drips below the brim while traveling. (Here's a link to a brief and helpful overview of the bucket theory for sensitive people: The Bucket)

2. BUY A CARRIER AND USE IT

For the times when the world is just too big for a toddler, a carrier is parenting gold. Being close to you is a stress reliever. You become a safe zone... home base... and they never have to leave it even on the go. 

Our Ergobaby carrier carries up to 45 pouds so it's perfect for a toddler. She's too heavy for me but my sons and husband can carry her easily. We have both the Performance model and the original and the guys really love the Performance.

3. SLEEP CONSISTENCY

It is helpful to keep sleep habits and location as consistent as possible. My smarty pants 3-year old was definitely nervous about all the places we were going since they were all new. She kept asking to go home and we couldn't oblige... but we were at least able to come back to the same hotel bed every night. We had the opportunity to stay with friends but we opted not to (much to the other kids' chagrin) and instead made an investment in stability and toddler peace. 

If location consistency isn't possible, keep the routine and accessories consistent. Same blanket. Same pillow. Same stuffed animal. Same PJ's. Same prayers. Same kisses and hugs.

4. GROUNDING TOOLS

Bring the familiar. Bring the controllable. Be prepared to place something in their hands to help help them feel secure when all else seems to them like it's hectic, scary, and unfamiliar. My daughter likes to draw and erase and she will work feverishly at a little dry erase board when she is stressed. She also likes to look at familiar pictures on our phones or other devices. I've noticed that when she's feeling anxious or tired, she usually asks for pictures. It has become something of a cue for us, letting us know that she needs decompressing.

Another tool we prepared in advance was a teething toy. Even though she's 3 now, we've noticed that she chews things to bits when she's out of sorts; clothes, books, purses, whatever. So we bought a pretty pink chewy thing in the baby section and when the going got tough in the car, presented it to her. She was skeptical at first (You mean I'm allowed to chew on this?) and a little sheepish (she knew it was for babies) but ended up falling happily asleep with it in her sweet little paws.

Calming essential oils are another wonderful tool. Find your child's favorite calming and "happy" oils before the trip and have them ready. 

5. SIT DOWN AND READ HER BOOKS

As long as she hasn't moved past the reasonable stage, this IS the magic pill of toddlerhood. 

6. GOOD NUTRITION {NO CANDY}

When my older kids were smaller and needed to spend long hours waiting at the pool or gym, I often controlled their behavior by bringing snacks or treats. Most of the time that meant candy or garbage food. I learned the hard way that candy makes people feel lousy and causes energy crashes. Yes, there are times to thank God for the well-timed lollipop but regular use backfires.

If a kid feels lousy, she will act lousy. Keeping her body nourished properly and in a timely manner saves us (and her) and lot of misery, especially when on the road. She's hungry and it's not dinner time? At this age it doesn't matter... feed her anyway. And feed her good stuff.

7. SIMPLIFY YOUR SCHEDULE

If the carrier isn't enough to keep your child steady, limit activity and known stimuli. Instead of doing five things in a day, do two. And decline the overwhelming Omnimax. I know... it's a bummer. But this motherhood thing is about loving people not collecting experiences. 

8. STEADY DISCIPLINE

I am so tempted with this girl to just throw in the towel and give her whatever she wants anytime she wants it to keep the peace, especially when traveling. But it is so important to keep steady and consistent. They crave the stability, they need the consistency, and loving boundaries will prevent bad habits from forming. 

When reasonable and loving discipline fails, distraction methods, book reading, naps, food, and cuddles have all been tried, and the total breakdown comesanyway, I have nothing really to offer except for Plan B...

9. PLAN B {WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS}

Sometimes there's just nothing you can do. You've used every tool in your box and your sweet kitten has become a raging cornered tiger. It happens. And it has happened to us more times in the last few months of my motherhood than all the 18 years combined. When hugs don't work. When bribes don't work. When food is refused and sleep is impossible. When discipline has no effect. When the child has lost control over her passions. When the kitten becomes the tiger...

  • Summon up every bit of compassion in your soul and use it liberally. 
  • Find the quietest, darkest place you can to ride out the storm with them.
  • Don't react in anger.
  • Respect boundaries (sensitive kids can get overwhelmed and might not want to be touched) but stay close for when they're ready.
  • Speak softly.
  • Pray out loud softly but loud enough for them to hear, asking Jesus and Mary to bless them with peace.
  • If others are around, ignore the prick of pride welling up. Pride brings embarrassment. Embarrassment can sometimes lead us to unwarranted anger. Prideful anger can lead us to act sinfully.
  • Take as long as the child needs. Let your plans go. 

I know it's hard but we can't give in to resentment. They need us. They are enveloped in emotion and stress and they need the love of Christ Jesus through those into whose care they've been entrusted. There's no one else in the world better equipped to love that child in their moment of need than we are. It's a cross but we'll carry it just fine. And one day, it will feel lighter again and all the love we have poured into our child will have been a part of their formation. Isn't that a beautiful thought? Formation in love. 

Happy travels! St. Christopher, pray for us!

Do you have suggestions for loving sensitive little ones during travels? Please share in the comments!

Catholic Spiritual Bouquet Coloring Page

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Once upon a time in a land far away, I thought that I could be anything I wanted to be and I imagined that I would end up in a prestigious art school. I knew that they could (and would) take my rough little attempts and refine them until I was a master. 

Little did I know then that art school would never happen, and that I would not only end up with no training, no art degree, and no claim to the name "artist"... but that I would ultimately be okay with that and be satisfied with periodically drawing something to please my children.

I simply didn't know that God's dreams for me were bigger. I didn't know that success wasn't quite that linear and that He would draw a depth of talent out of me in other ways that looked sort of like art... but are less easily grasped and touched. And so... in gratitude that God saw fit to give me more than I even knew to ask for, I drew a little something to share with you...

So that you can bless others.

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This spiritual bouquet prints out black and white to an 8.5" x 11" piece of paper unless you scale it down to make smaller cards. I think it's the perfect Catholic Valentine but can be given for any occasion. 

It prints as a black and white outline to leave room for coloring and creative expression. The middle of the page is blank for you to write in whatever you want. I chose a simple hand written spiritual bouquet for my sample. It can be the background for a birthday letter or an Easter greeting, a Mother's Day spiritual bouquet, an ordination anniversary, or... just to color for fun.

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We have printed these on card stock and used art markers and illustration markers (in the pics above) and have also used crayons, colored pencils, and have printed on a lightweight watercolor paper to use with watercolors

I never did learn how to use oil paints or fully refined my natural gifts. But I love to throw in my pennies here and there to contribute to the wealth of Catholic culture, built by the hands of the faithful... by the grace of God. 

While I certainly take advantage of the mass marketed cards and gifts at the box and dollar stores, there is something so satisfying and deep about building and sharing smaller. 

If you can use this FREE template, sign up at the link below and enjoy! If not, perhaps you can share this post with someone else who can. Thank you so much... and thanks be to God! 

...

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Crossing the Threshold to Joy in the New Year

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My heavenly Father spoils me when He knows it isn't going to ruin me; and the rest of the time He allows me to grow strong in Him, even when growth requires that I first be broken...

I stepped up to the precipice of the New Year with a burden of sorrow on my heart. It thumped a dull but steady pain, and I stumbled over the exhausting thought that another year was starting... and I had nothing left in the tank to bring. The knowledge of how truly blessed I am sustained me... but the feeling of blessing was gone. 

I knew those truths but still lost courage, slowed to a crawl, and barely inched over the threshold of 2018. 

My Lord loves me passionately, foolishly, endlessly... and knowing that kept me pushing through these last months even though I raised my petulant, childish fists in His direction more than once.   So much like my 1-year old who is all cuddles and peaches until he is sick or tired... and then his tiny frantic clenched hands will swing even at his own mama.

My "Where is God?" sounded pathetic even to me while I swam in a life of absolute treasure and abundant love and goodness. Pathetic little fists of fury.

I am LOVE. Why do you strike at me? 

Because I need you... but I am tired. I am afraid.

When I'm healthy and in control, I don't necessarily feel His absence or His Presence at all since my focus is solely on me. It is so easy to say "I AM BLESSED!" and "I feel God's Presence" when things go my way; but the consequence of that shallow understanding of relationship means that the slightest discomfort can throw me into a mini faith crisis.

I assume that my comfort means that He is present and that my discomfort equals His absence... like a feverish toddler who doesn't understand that the hand of Love is not also the cause of the pain. 

And this year... oh my... this year...

He let me hit bottom hard in so many ways... mentally, physically, spiritually... even while He held my wounded body and soul.  My sufferings are truly so small when held up to the heartache of the world. But I hadn't prepared well to carry even a light cross and my own small heart filled, swelled, and burst.

Am I going to die soon, Lord? Is that what's going on? Why the sacrificial pile-on? If you try to give me that kind of medicine, I'm going to wail and thrash and throw it up. You'll have to hold me down...

So He did.

My faith was rocked. My body was attacked by disease. My heart died and grieved a thousand times and I grew smaller.

You have left me, Lord! Shall I just become a Protestant now? Or maybe just a nothing? Yes, a nothing... Then there will be no expectations and no disappointment.

That tiny and ridiculous threat poured out of my broken soul with a torrent of tears and a weight of sorrow which I could not bear on my own. I felt it and knew it and...

He called my bluff instantly.

He created me, formed me, restored me, awakened me... and He knew that I would not go. He held me down like the petulant toddler that I am, not with force but with irresistible fire... 

Twenty years ago, I would have left you, Lord, because I wouldn't have been sure about you. But I know Who You are. You are irrefutable. You are solid and deep and forever. You are flower, you are ocean, you are Life. If I deny you now, I deny myself and could not just become a nothing but would necessarily become depraved. I cannot choose that.

So I chose joy.

I chose to remain at His feet and let Him be Father. 

From that place, I was safe and free to look around and see how He has woven my joy and my salvation into the very fiber of my enormously beautiful and bountiful life. 

God sends His Holy Spirit endlessly across the wasteland. He pours life into the cracks of our brokenness and whispers the gentle command: TRUST. And He sends us His earthly servants and heavenly brethren to carry us faithfully and tenderly. 

I recently chose my saint of the year... or rather let the saint choose me... St. George.

I thought that was very appropriate since I sought courage and strength for the next leg of the journey. Then I chose my word of the year through a random generator... STRENGTH.

Yes. I'll take it. Not on the false premise that I will grow in strength and power but that God will use the emptying of this last year to fill my life with His Presence. I will still be broken, still be small, still be weak, tempted, stumbling, and humiliated. But I will be strong in His majesty...

... and what a blessed relief. I'm ready to hand over the weight.

New Year's passed along with a birthday party and a feast day celebration. I shut off the parts of my heart that couldn't bear another step and just kept going. And then... joy began to grow again.

I know you, Joy... I have known you all along but I have been battered and torn and tired. But the Spirit buried you deep in my soul many years ago and that is how You return to me...

Not from the outside pouring in... but from the inside blossoming out. 

You are showering me with grace.
You are restoring my faith and my hope.
You are washing my eyes free from the dust.
You are sanctifying the suffering and...
Breathing life into the lifeless.

I open a book and You speak to me about STRENGTH...

Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death... (Revelation 3:2)

And I rise again with Christ.

However...

I didn't rise until I had cried out to God with raging tears.
I didn't rise until I had been physically broken and felt real fear of death for the first time.
I didn't rise until my heart had been broken by loss.
I didn't rise until I suffered humiliation.
I didn't rise until I had failed people I love.
Until I saw that I couldn't shake the cross.
Until I couldn't reconcile the scandal.
Until I lost the sunshine.
Couldn't fill the void.
Couldn't mend my own heart.
Couldn't. Be. God.

Then... THEN He rose in my heart like the gentle morning sunshine and invited me to begin again with the consolation of His hope and joy planted deep in my soul. 

You are not lost, Daughter... You were just sleeping...

Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death... (Revelation 3:2)

2018 is not going to be a cake walk. For all I know, it could surpass the startling 2017. But He makes it all easy and sweet in His time. Thanks be to God.

"...and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a storm of wind came down on the lake, and they were filling with water, and were in danger. And they went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even wind and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:23-25)

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My Biggest Mistake as Mom of Teens

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True story: My kids' greatest strengths are usually things that I never taught them. Remembering that helps me to be a better mother because I put less effort into molding them into a mini version of me and more into loving them into the people God created them to be. 

When I first became a mother, my plan was to mold my kids into little versions of perfect. My assumption was that I could teach goodness and talent (even if I didn't have it), they would learn it, and the outcome would be controllable. If they eventually wandered off the reservation, it would be with full knowledge of what they could have been and as such... a ridiculous option.

So... I was pretty much assured of success. 

When I started homeschooling, that mindset transitioned perfectly into our educational model. I provide the input through books, videos, experiences, etc., and they would naturally drink it in and be formed to that material input. 

Twenty years later, I am not only less confident in that model of motherhood and education, but I am convinced that I was wrong on at least one major point...

I thought that my purpose as a parent was to form my children to my own image (or at least a perfected version). I was wrong. My purpose as a parent is to love my children and lead them to God's will for their lives. What that looks like for each child looks very little like anything I ever envisioned... and it often means that I am left feeling unsettled or surprised by their actions, successes, and failures.

Oh, how painful these parental epiphanies can be! All this time I thought I was just loving them when the reality was that I was often serving my own needs...

The need to be right.
The need to be in control.
The need to be admired.
The need to be validated by my children's achievements.
The need to be successful.

In a crazy mix of pride and authentic love, I want to be that Catholic mom who doesn't have any children stray now or later. The brutal truth is that this desire is driven by two things:

 1) I truly love my children and want them to gain heaven
2) I simply don't want to be that mom. 

Teenagers have a way of knocking your pride all of over kingdom come. Some of it's their fault and some of it's mine. And since I'm focusing on on my faults in this article today, I'll just repeat it again...

My biggest mistake as a mom of teens... has been trying to raise them in my own image instead of raising them into God's vision. 

Teens can be stinkers and they push back hard sometimes. For the first time, I see the gift in that. I see that I need to be reminded of my prideful overreaching. I see that they need to sometimes fight for the room to stretch into their own space and identity. And what a tragedy it would be if they really did end up just a younger version of me.


Dear Children,

Parents dream of raising great children to great things; but true greatness lies in our capacity to love and serve others. I pray that you will grow into the beautiful elements of your parents dream for you... and then explode that mold. Make it bigger than our little dreams. Make it fruitful beyond our plans. If we have given your heart any inclination towards love and service, take it and run straight to God with it. He will perfect what we have muddled. He will heal the bruises and raise it up to greatness in His time. 

Those bruises though... I'm sorry for the times I've failed you. There's a lot I didn't know and a lot I did know but just ignored out of selfishness. I pray that my own faults will never be a significant stumbling block for you, but I won't lie... I know who I am and how I am. And I'm sorry.

If I could do it all over again, I'd probably still make the same mistakes. But maybe I would make them less often and less harshly. Perhaps I would be able to communicate God's love for you more effectively through my own witness. And yell less. And apologize more. 

Perhaps I still can. 

Love you forever,

Mom


Homeschooling Through Chronic Illness (when mom is sick)

I have a secret about my homeschool and it's finally time to tell it. Okay, I have a few secrets...

I don't know much more about how to successfully homeschool today than I did at the beginning almost 20 years ago. I don't really go to homeschool conferences. I don't belong to a co-op. I know a lot about homeschooling and I've read all the books and purchased all the programs... but my days... they've been uncertain and long. And I've spent more than a few of them battling chronic illness.

I guess that's not the most flattering picture to paint of myself but... that's not the secret that I came here to tell anyway.  

This post is really about the secret that I discovered while slogging uphill for this dream and for my family. It's about the real gift beyond the details of these days and what I want to be able to pass on to every homeschool mom I know...

Truly successful homeschooling is never about how much material we can stuff into a kids' brain, it's about lighting a fire in their very souls. And there is no one best way to do that. It is much more about trusting the process than about planning for perfection. Success isn't for the perfect, it's for the persistent.

I clearly remember the time I kicked an American Doll horse in anger and broke my toe. That's often what my version of "persistence" looks like...

Fail, wail, move on, stop kicking toys.

That toe has never healed completely and that's frustrating but it makes for a great story that the kids love to tell. And in a strange rubber-meets-the-road-on-Calvary kind of way that usually only homeschooling moms can understand, I think I can call that a success.

The family is made to nurture body, mind, and soul. We were created to do this. We don't really look like a school. We often look like a first class mess. But that is the gift... 

That God allows us to become nothing so that the flame of His Love might rise and become a blaze in the heart of the family. 

One of the best lessons I ever learned about homeschooling was from a local mom who faced a life-threatening illness and was sick for an extended period of time. She told me that she spent many days resting in a hammock on their enclosed patio while the kids pressed on, more or less, with their homeschooling. Her kids told me how they used to pretend to work or study and they laughed and teased each other about what they really did when they were supposed to be working. She told me (with a smile) that she never doubted their decision to continue homeschooling even when she wasn't able to do a thing. Because it wasn't about her. She knew their decision was right and she trusted that God had a plan for her illness. 

Her kids are all grown now - successful, happy, smart, faithful, and all good friends - and I've never forgotten what she told me. She successfully homeschooled imperfectly from a hammock. And joy grew out of that. 

When I went through my own early years of chronic pain, illness, and fatigue, I didn't call her. I didn't really know what was wrong with me and I thought I was just a loser homeschooler. I didn't think that anyone was as lousy at this as I was and I imposed a kind of isolation on myself, determined to figure it out on my own.

But I wish I would have called her. I wish I would have let her see the tears. 

Six years ago, God allowed me to set down my cross of illness for a time. Since then, I have been on a journey of healing; not just my body, but also my battered mind and soul. And while I have never doubted for a moment that homeschooling was a worthwhile journey and blessed by God, I have never stopped doubting my own role in that beautiful dream.

Why did He make these beautiful children and then give them this wildly inadequate mother? 

It's all about the secret:

The mess is part of the gift. It is the stripping down of ego until we can see nothing but the grace of God. 

That is the secret, the gift of chronic illness. That through all the pain and struggle, we are presented with the reality that we, in ourselves, are small.... and that it is God who stands in the gap and enables us to rise. Thanks be to God.

John 12:24–25
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

How Motherhood Can Heal the Jaded Woman

New motherhood is a golden moment in a woman's life where the opportunity to be permanently changed is tangible, powerful, and immediate. No, I'm not talking about whether or not YOU feel or see any difference. The change happens regardless; because the child is placed into your arms and instantly, you are loved... by a brand new person who doesn't know anything about your failures. And frankly, doesn't care.

Doesn't care if your hair is all messy from labor.
Doesn't care if you've got dark circles under your eyes.
Doesn't care if you are struggling to find words.
Doesn't care if you aren't sure about this whole motherhood thing. 

His love is yours. Period. 

It is an exquisite moment of renewal. There is no history. No memory of wrongs done. A clean slate. 

Those eyes and tiny fingers... they seek you out as often as possible. To connect with you and to love and be loved. Special talent is not required... simply your presence. 

We tend to think of ourselves as being in a role of power over our little ones, but perhaps the greatest potential power is that of the child over a mother's heart. We think we are the lovers and the healers. But I don't know... seems to me that the greater power lies in the helpless devotion of the child.

I was just 21 years old when I held my firstborn; and those initial moments were not ones in which I felt dominant or in control, but ones in which I felt smaller and more humbled than I ever had in my life.

My arrogance fell away.
My selfishness fell away.
My knowledge fell away.
My self-importance fell away.

I held a tiny human in my arms and felt as though I held the mysteries of the universe all wrapped up in my soft baby. Aware of my complete insignificance, I let the awe and fear wash over me in giant waves as the nurses showed me how to care for my son. Those waves crashed upon me again and again as he cried in hunger and turned toward me for nourishment and comfort. And again as I changed him for the first time. Imperfectly.

And still he loved me. 

As those waves of emotion rolled over me, I felt the sharp edges of my womanhood softening, smoothed by the tiny majestic moments. My memories now forever included this child and were filled by him. And no pain or bitterness that I had felt in my life would ever again be felt as sharply simply because he was there. No wound that I had received could hurt as much as the love of this child could heal. 

When I tell people that I've had 8 children, they often stare in astonishment. You must be crazy! Life must be very hard! But I have a secret that they don't know...

The births and the love and the precious lives of my children have continuously washed over me for the last twenty years... and my bitterness doesn't stand a chance. My heart hardens and then it softens; washed over time and again by the smiles and tears of the most precious people on earth.

I am sometimes envious of the beautiful professional women I see around town with their pretty shoes and manicures. I wonder if I will ever be without a little one on my hip or a baby nursing at my breast. And then I remember...

I am happy. I am softened. I am loved. 

As the children have grown, that hard edge sometimes threatens to creep back into my soul again alongside the sufferings and sorrows of life. Shut the door! It cries. You can't be hurt if you keep it closed. And I shout back...

It is a lie.

Let your love wash over me, Jesus... let your love wash me soft. That even when the bitterness rises in my memory, it can never stand against the rolling power of your merciful love. 

Surviving the Teen Years (Confessions of a Tired Mom)

I was that mom who was going to have the best teens ever; the ones who were obedient and cheerful and faithful. I was convinced that I would be able to mold them into happy, good people by the sheer power of my love and that there would be no arguing in my house ever. There were only two problems:

1) Me
2) Them

My plan was rolling along marvelously before they were teenagers. Those years between 10 and 12 are really deceiving... They have a mom convinced that she has successfully managed to navigate the uncertain transitional period between childhood and big-kidness. Thirteen was actually a pretty great year, too, and then 14 started to make me nervous. I sensed a little bit of stretching and pushing and expanding. And my world started to change. 

It was right and good of course. It's supposed to happen that way. And yet... it wasn't the way I planned it. My primary mistake was that while they were transitioning into autonomous human beings, I forgot to make the transition as well. I still saw them as an extension of myself, and that natural stretching of mind, body, and soul felt more like a painful tearing that I was not prepared for.

Moms of littles, don't let anyone tell you that teenagers are horrible. They certainly don't have to be that! But I've seen enough now in my own and other families to know that teenagers are often stressful on a mom... in new and wild ways that can hurt and startle. You only have a moment for a sharp intake of breath before you begin to frantically search that young-old teen face for a remnant of the 12-year old you think maybe got left behind on the last vacation.

Because seriously, that is not my kid.

I once asked a good friend why there are so many Catholic mom bloggers of young children and so few with teens. She said: Because they are fully engaged in their vocation. They do not have time for blogging. Seriously. Not only do teenagers have a way of sucking your brain and lifeblood from you but you can't post cute stories about their potty training adventures anymore either. And you can't really post their struggles and drama. They're not you anymore. They have a reputation. They are growing, growing, growing... gone.

How do you do it with all these kids? Oh, how many times I gave myself a mental pat on the back and straightened up tall and answered: Oh, well the big kids help a lot. It makes it so much easier. Now, in humility, I must admit that it's harder than it ever was... because a teenager tying a sibling's shoe before Mass in no way offsets the drama of the growing up and out years. Give me a choice and I'll take untied shoes at Mass every time. But there is no choice...

Can't go around it... gotta go through it.

No toddler is capable of doing what a fully aware stretching teen can do on a bad day... None. Give me your hairy screaming fit of a toddler at lunch time and I'll raise you the intense life or death teen drama at 2am. 

My kids are good kids. I love them. I like them. But they are kicking off the old self and trying to fly and it gets a little messy sometimes. You can't write that stuff on a blog. Not really. 

If you don't have teens yet, the best pieces of advice I have to give you are these:

1. Jealously guard and nurture your relationship with your husband.

Because one day, you're going to get kicked around a bit by those kids you poured yourself into... and you're going to turn to your husband and feel a twinge of regret that you didn't give him more. 

Those kids are made to fly. You two are together for keeps. 

There will come a day when you'll call him on the phone (especially if you have multiple teens) and you'll tell him "Honey, these kids don't like me at all and there's nothing I can do about it. I have to be the mom because I love them. But I really need someone to LIKE me today." And you'll see with new eyes how God designed your people to grow... and how he designed your marriage to blossom. 

If I could do it over again, I would still pour the same amount of energy and devotion into my kids. But I would give my husband the same... and more.

2. Remember that your kids are not you. And take care of yourself.

All of that energy and effort of mind, body, and soul that you've poured into your little kids... it's all good and worth it. But you've got a long way to go, mama... and you need to make sure you're prepared for the long haul. Take care of yourself. Not in a selfish way. But in a way that honors the God-given gift of who you are. Twenty years from now, God's going to ask you to keep serving your people, so make sure you've been a good steward of mind, body, and soul.

Make sure you know who you are apart from your children. 

3. Pray without ceasing. 

This is your lifeline. Pray, work, and trust. Lord, have mercy.

I could write for days about those three points but there are a couple more things I want you to know before I close...

I would rather clean a blowout poopy diaper than argue with a teen. I would rather deal with hairy toddler fits than teen meltdowns. I would rather break up arguments over who used whose red crayon than engage in teenage drama. Because on one end of the spectrum, the primary concern is the care of little bodies and emotions. On the other, is the hardcore care of souls. I've got three teens now. Stuff just got real. 

I'll say it again just to be sure you didn't miss it. Teenagers are incredible people. I just don't want you to be surprised or distressed when they start to act a little like you did when you were a teen. You'll see "the look" for the first time and it'll freak you out. AH! I did this to my parents! But it's okay if you remember that because it will help you have empathy when you want to kick them out...

With only the clothes on their backs.
And no dinner.
With a sign that says: "I know everything so it probably won't take me too long to get a job, a house, a car and my next meal."

I often stand in awe of these beautiful maturing people. But I also stand in authority over the not yet flown. And I have never been more grateful for the gift of my spouse. Maybe it's just that I feel so often like punting the kids through the door. Or perhaps it's simply that I have finally learned that my children have an identity. And that it's not me.  

Come, Holy Spirit. 

*Permission received from all of my teens to post this publicly. They understand that it was not written about any one of them specifically and we had a healthy laugh over some memories. :)

Mateo's Story: The Day I Met Jesus (Guest Post)

This story was first shared on Facebook by my friend, Jen. I asked permission to share it here and the words written below are hers. I thank God for the gift of Mateo and his amazing parents. May the testimony of his life and death bring courage, hope, and healing to those reading.


Mateo's Story

by Jennifer Calabretta

I'll be honest, I am hesitant to share this story this morning. It starts out as a real downer, ha... But it has been TEN years today since we said our goodbyes to this sweet baby and began really walking down this crazy road that we never saw coming. And while many think it sounds like entirely too much, I cannot imagine our life any other way (especially without Mateo & later our daughter Sofia, and the 2 other sweet babies we have miscarried).

But I decided it is important to share for 2 reasons.

ONE, so many people go through the pain of a hard diagnosis, or losing a loved one, or just LIFE, and it remains only their cross. It is lonely. But life is never something you should go through alone. Grief and Anger require people to talk and share and reach out and cry; just to get through it still standing up! So many people reached out to us, and it made every difference.

TWO... It serves as a reminder to me that God is good. All the time. He walks through every single storm with us, and continues to do so. I do not know how Andre and I (& our family) would have survived all of this without Him. He sent us answered prayers, beautiful kids, homemade meals, loving friends, concerned family, well time scripture verses and moving song lyrics... all reminders that even the HARDEST situations can be gotten through.

So again, I apologize for the toughness of this. You don't need to read our story throughout the album if you don't want to. But I just felt compelled to share this today; and to share that God is always present, especially in our hardest moments. And with Him ALL things are possible. So keep on working through whatever life has handed you; you're destined to win:)

Mateo was born at 12:00pm on April 21, 2007. I finally figured out that I was in labor around 6 am that morning. I think I actually started earlier than that, but because I was only 35 weeks along, I didn't really think that it would be labor!! But when Andre came out to our Living Room at 6am and saw me taking giant breaths and squatting in the "Fat-Man" chair, he sort of figured it out right away.... 

So there we were, at 8 o'clock in the morning in the Labor & Delivery ER. No nurse really seemed to believe that I was in labor, despite the fact that I was swearing unholy words under my breath between contractions and shared with anyone who would listen that I had no problem giving birth in the wheelchair I was being escorted in if no one wanted to put me in a bed:)

So obviously - it was quickly concluded that I was in labor. 8cm the whole 30 minute ride on the slow and bumpy highway!!! Then my water broke, and we were sure Mateo would just come shooting out (sorry for the graphic imagery:))... but the weird part was that my labor actually stopped then and there. He just decided to slow it down. It would be another 4 hours before Mateo would come; it was really our calm before the storm.

At 12:00pm, the urge to push came and we went for it. 3 good pushed and Mateo was OUT! This whole labor, all we kept saying was, "How is he coming 6 weeks early? My entire pregnancy has been perfect, what's going on?" 

Nothing seemed to make sense. And then Mateo was born... and we realized we were in for so many more questions. Mateo was 5lbs 6oz when he was born, with a full head of black hair (as you can see in the photos!!). He had all 10 fingers, all 10 toes, and he was beautiful. Yes, I know I am partial because I'm his Mom... but he was perfect:)

But there were so many problems as well. When Mateo was first born, we had the NICU staff nearby as a precaution because he was early. Little did we know that they would be angels in our midst. Mateo wasn't breathing when he came out, and it actually took the NICU doctors and nurses 10 minutes to get a tube in to help him breathe. His fingers and toes were stiff and misshapen. And his arms and legs were not straight. 

We would later learn that the medical term for this is arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. It is a congenital condition that forms in the womb. When muscles aren't exercised during development (as Mateo's apparently were not), they become stiff and contracted. So when Mateo was born, all of his major joints were stuck in this manner. Needless to say, he was flown to the Cleveland Clinic NICU within an hour of his birth... and there we were, left with a whole lot of questions... and NO answers. 

But we love(d) him... and that was really all that mattered.

26224_388364857079_984857_n.jpg

Over the course of the next 2 weeks, we learned a lot of things about Mateo. We learned that whatever he was "suffering" from was probably a completely random occurrence. However, this randomness left him with very weak and brittle bones (that would fracture very easily), misshappen and underdeveloped external body parts, and no responsiveness to us. At least not externally.

I knew, in my heart, that every song we sang him and every book we read him was heard. I know that he appreciated the Lullaby CD that we played for him all day every day. I know that he hated the girly socks I put on him every time we came to visit. And I knew that he loved us - even at 3 days old - I just knew.

And on the inside...he was perfect. 

His heart, his organs, his blood... Christlike, right? Broken on the outside, but perfect on the inside.

It was amazing that every day we would keep getting these terrible diagnoses from doctors, and our glimmer of hope for a recovery kept moving farther and farther off ... but somehow, Andre and I knew Mateo was bigger than all of this. 

We knew that no matter what happened; that our lives were better having spent it, even a short amount of time, with him.

And a short amount of time it would be.

On a side note - most of my adult Catholic life I have struggled with this image of Mary. Understanding what it is like to be a mother to such a great son; understanding how you just stand by them watching such a great sadness and pain happen to one you love so much... It was always so beyond me... But I will tell you what, my greatest solace - in not only those 2 weeks, but NOW as well - was in Mary. Because it was in those moments that I felt so alone, thinking "who the heck does this stuff happen to?", I knew that there was at least one other person who had... I had a companion. And what greater Mother to learn from...

But May 4, 2007, is not a day we will quickly forget. It is the day we decided to take Mateo off of life support. To some, it might seem impossible to imagine ever making a decision to say good bye to your child. But there was a point, when we realized that the life HE was living was not the one he was meant to live. 

We had spent two weeks with NO answers. No reasons. It seemed that Mateo should have been this perfect baby with this perfect life. But life happened differently.

The evening before, on May 3, Mateo's doctors told us that they had done a biopsy to test his muscle for possible answers, but they, in fact, were not able to find any muscle; ANYWHERE in his body. In essence, while his organs grew, his body stopped growing very early on in the womb. And unfortunately, what you don't grow in the womb, you cannot grow outside of the womb. So we were left with no other choice.

It was such a sad day; the day we made that decision. But we knew that Mateo had a greater Life waiting for him in Heaven.

We made sure that we got our whole family together at least once. Dante, our oldest, got to meet his little brother. We thought it was important, even if it only lasted for a few moments.

Mateo mustered all of his strength to stay with us for a whole 15 minutes on his own. They took Mateo off of all of his machines, they brought him and put him in my arms. It was 12noon on Friday. And I breathed in every bit of him that I could.

This picture here is one of the last we took before taking him off of the machines and saying goodbye - and while it is one of the hardest to relive, it reminds me of the Miracle of Life. It reminds me that God is so much greater than the circumstances He meets us in. 

It reminds me that on THAT DAY - I MET JESUS ...

And I held Him in my arms, and I kissed Him when He died... and I loved Him, the best way I knew how; and I knew that he held together the pieces of my broken heart so that I could remember every piece of love I had for him.

And I will take that memory with me, every day, for the rest of my life.

And that same love, that I had for my son and my God at that moment, is unequivocally the same love that I have today for my husband, for Dante, for Cabrini... and for our other angels, Jeremiah, Sofia & Gabriel. And it is a love that binds and renews and purifies...

He really is our "Gift of God" (Which, in fact, is what Mateo means in Latin... awesome, huh:).

Amen.

Jennifer Calabretta is a wife, mother, and graphic designer from Northeast Ohio. All photos above are her property and permission must be granted for use.The "Courageous" graphic above is her design and you are welcome to share. 

Raising Strong Daughters in a Dog Eat Dog World

As the mother of four daughters, I have a lot of complicated thoughts about them, about the world, and about them coming into contact with the world. My own experience as an American woman plays into those thoughts heavily and I will not lie... sometimes they terrify me.

This world is dog eat dog and many women get chewed up and spit out right from the beginning. 

But because I cannot keep these girls locked up in the house (I mean, please... we'd drive each other mad eventually), I have had to face those real fears and determine a solid path for raising my little women. 

I was not a confident young woman. I was a "feminist" (because what secular young female isn't?) but it was all bluster and silliness. The truth was that I was just a young girl trying hard to be loved by someone (anyone) and not get kicked around too much by life. My self-confidence could be shattered by a finicky bottle of hairspray or a devastating break up... Sometimes it all seemed mashed up together in a sloppy painful heap. 

Unfortunately, that left me in a difficult blank space where I was neither nurtured fully as a human being nor protected from the predatory "dogs" of the world. I look back on my youth with much sorrow and regret. It wasn't until adulthood that I really learned my worth and discovered a depth of true joy...

So how do we raise our daughters to be the beautiful, sensitive, strong, wonderful women God created them to be... without hardening their hearts or turning them into dog bait? 

I don't have the answers, but I have a few ideas...

1. Stop Knocking Her Down (Be an Encourager)

If we want our girls to rise up straight and tall, we can't keep kicking them down. And moms, I mean we have to stop nitpicking the life breath out of them. I am guilty of this and I do it because I care... or rather because I worry. I want to fix everything and make it all perfect and better so that they are happy forever and ever. 

But oh my... sometimes I'm stomping on those sweet toes when I should be washing their feet. I forget my role as soul-lover and wear the gaudy hat of nagging tyrant. Awful. Fear-based mothering is a drag on the gentle soul and a bludgeon on innocent heads.

As moms, we have to keep them accountable and maintain certain expectations so that our kids can grow healthy and succeed. But we've got to make the balance of our interactions fall on the positive side, so that when they are grown and gone, the "mom voice" in their heads (yes, it will be there), is one that communicates truth, joy, beauty, encouragement, and strength.

2. Don't Let Others Knock Her Down (Rise up, Mama Bear!)

Dear sister mama bears... this is your cue. The common thought is that kids are resilient but let's not forget the dramatic rise in teen depression, suicide, and abuse. Resiliency does not mean that children can't be deeply wounded, simply that they learn coping strategies and have the ability to heal (or hide) their scars. Not every injury heals well but there are many injuries which are preventable. You daughters are vulnerable to predators (emotional, spiritual, and physical) and they need you to be "that mom" who is in the right place to mentor their young souls. 

You don't have to be helicopter mom but you do need to be alert. Do what you can to keep her physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe during her formative years and all the eye rolling will be worth it someday. 

I was a sensitive kid trying to fight my way through a dog eat dog youth culture. That did not go well. I didn't know how to fight. I needed someone to see what was going on and fight for me when I didn't have the skills, courage, or strength. I needed to know that I wasn't on my own. 

3. Teach Her How to Fight (Mentor Her as She Grows)

Okay, I don't mean sharpening her nails before a behind-the-school scratch fest. I mean that mamas have to teach their girls to defend what is good and beautiful about themselves. A feminine heart is one of God's greatest gifts to the world because it thrives on serving the needs of others. It is worth protecting. 

So, define what it means to "fight" and teach her how...

A woman's "fight" should never be an attack on others but only a defense of what is good and true. We are strongest when we lead others to be their best, not when we force them into doing what we want them to do. Our inner lioness is not designed to defend our egos... but to serve and ignite the world. 

Teach her to defend those who are weak and oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable. Teach her that she is worth fighting for and defending and give her the specific words and action steps to use when faced with someone who makes themselves her enemy. And teach her to identify an enemy... Because sometimes enemies come disguised as our greatest desires. I'm convinced that behind every angry feminist is a little girl left defenseless in the presence of "dogs"... male and female. 

4. Reveal Her Beauty (Be A Mirror To Show Her the Truth)

How ugly I felt as a young girl and woman! No shower could take away that feeling of disgust that I had for myself. I fell short in every way in my own eyes and it wasn't until I met my future husband (who then introduced me to Jesus), that I could see the truth mirrored for me. It is still difficult to believe! But the gentle love of my man and my God have taught me how to receive love without being afraid of a follow-up kick to the heart. 

The dogs of life had shouted lie after lie at me on a daily basis and I learned to believe them. As a mother, I realize that I have a  duty to show my girls who they really are... because the world will always feed them lies. 

When they are in your home, they should have no doubt that you love them and they should always see their beauty mirrored in your eyes. Tell them, show them, hug them, strengthen them. 

5. Introduce Her to Strong Women (Model Strong Womanhood)

Worldly wisdom says that "strong" women are successful, rich, and bold. True wisdom says that strong women are those who serve with such love and joy that they change the world, one soul at a time. Truly strong women are those women who refuse to become a "dog" in society and who use their feminine gifts to make the world a beautiful place where every soul knows its worth. They don't step on people to get where they want to go... they lift others up and are carried upward in the process. 

You're far more likely to find truly strong women in your own families and communities than you are on a Hollywood screen. I'm talking strong like Grandma... not brash like Beyonce. Big difference!

And be the strong woman you want her to be. Show her what it looks like. 

6. Teach Her That She Has Value Unattached to Her Successes or Failures (Be a Truth-teller)

The measuring stick of our culture is unforgiving and seems to unalterably attach our individual value to our successes. What we do becomes synonymous with who we are and inevitably, young women lose their identity in the midst of their activities. Life is rocky. And when a girl asks herself who she really is, the words that often invade her heart are...

worthless
ugly
failure
unlovable
stupid
miserable

We need to teach our daughters that they are valuable for WHO they are apart from what they do, what mistakes they have made, what victories they have won. Then when life gets a little crazy, they won't lose themselves in it. They will know... I am valuable simply because I exist.

The only way I know how to do that for a girl is to share with her the love of Jesus Christ, Who loves all, knows all, forgives all, and became man so that He could enter into our suffering... and shatter it. They not only need the consolation of such knowledge but they need the truth that accompanies it. We have a purpose. Happiness comes with discovering and acting on that purpose.

Dear Daughter,

You are amazing. Created in love out of love so that you might live in joy for eternity. Ignore the dogs. You are made for more. And when you forget that and need reminding, I'll be right here to tell you. Again and again and again.

7. Be Ready To Catch Her (Be a Healer)

She's going to get hurt. She's going to fall. Be there. 

Be that mom... 

Encourager.
Mama Bear.
Mentor.
Mirror.
Model.
Truth-teller.
Healer.

That's the best you can do. I will be praying for you! 

A Mother's Secret Moment {surrendering to life}

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I sit in the darkness and count my blessings. Over and over I count them... and then add one more. It is that profound moment in a mother's life. That isolated, heavy, light, surreal moment when no one in the whole world knows except mother of the biggest thing that really ever happens. A new soul... a new soul. The whole world swirls around me in the dark. And I sway and count rhythmically and slowly. Buying a little time, catching  my breath. Measuring time so that I won't miss the breathtaking moment when the soul chooses surrender... and joy.

It takes two days to find that surrender. It isn't that I'm not willing or that I don't know it will come... but that the world is noisy and fast and I need time - time to be alone with this seedling - and to allow the unfolding to occur. 

It never feels like a yesat first but rather a moment of sheer stark terror when mortality and heaven collide with tremendous force. And the first and only thing I want to do in that moment... is to set down my cross. May I, Lord? May I set it down? Just for a moment?

Just for a moment, He says. I will take it. Lean in, Melody... lean in. I will carry your cross until you are ready to pick it up.

Am I ever really ready to pick it up again? From the very first moment two decades ago when I learned I was a mother, I was ready to run. That first time I only feared the unknown. After that, I knew very well why I was afraid; and it is for that reason that I need this precious moment in the silent isolated darkness... to face it and surrender over and over again. Nine times now I have done it. And nine times I have watched my capacity for life expand beyond reasonable bounds. I know the truth about joy. But I just need a moment.

I used to have to wait for the little plus sign... but now I just know the signs of my body. I've done this enough to know the drill. My body changes. My emotions change. My cravings change. My very soul begins to change. Another weak fiat is clasped in my nervous hands - two pink lines -and I slowly uncurl those stubborn fingers. 

What will the world think, Lord?
What do youthink, daughter?

I am overwhelmed by the injustice of the dampening of pure joy by the hardness of worldly hearts... and my temper flares. This child is too beautiful for the world! Too glorious for their eyes and judgments! But I am tainted like the world... and I am tired. And... I just need a moment.

So the darkness remains and my eyes are squeezed shut, wishing the cross to be lighter. But I will my hands to rise up with my fiat. My fingers splay outward and surrender rolls off the tips and also off my tongue and out of my very soul...

Yes. I surrender. With joy.

A tremendous wave of grace crashes upon me, reminding me that He is powerful. That love is not a sentiment but a wild sea. It is a raging storm that draws in the heart and raises it higher... higher... higher. But it takes crazy courage to invite it in and let it reign. 

This child is more than my fear. An immortal soul. Imago Dei.I surrender to awe. I surrender to love. I speak my fears one more time but it is only a ceremonial act. I throw them out fiercely one by one and watch my mighty God strike them down...

Sickness.
Weakness.
Failure.
Discomfort.
Loss of control.
Ridicule.
Miscarriage.
Loss of freedom.
The pains of birth.
Loss of time.

I shout them out and He slays them as dragons and binds the lies which grip my heart. And He replaces them with a song...

You are enough. Your baby is enough. You are free to love. You are free to know joy. Dance in the Presence of your heavenly Father and make an offering of your very life. It is beautiful and good and you know it is. You look into the eyes of your children and you know that you have already embraced this little one... that this moment is the beginning of surrender to joy. Let the blossoming begin. 

It used to be that I was eager to share our news immediately. As the years have gone by and our numbers increased, I am less and less eager. It seems the moment the word is spoken, the mystery is diminished under blithe speech and gossip. The sacred treasure is exposed to harsh light. The talk turns to names and dates and nausea and numbers. And really... all I want to do is breathe in the unspeakable beauty of the sacred dignity of the newly created soul. Eventually, I will get to those other details... but for now, I just rest in the moment. Thanks be to God.