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Stepping On Cheerios
Finding God in the Chaos and Clutter of Life
By Betsy Singleton Snyder
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
A Hail Mary
Then Mary said, "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be with me just as you have said." Then the angel left her. — Luke 1:38
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me — "Let It Be," The Beatles
I love football because it's so unpredictable. The weirdest things can happen, right? Such as lateral trick plays in which the chaos of the moment unfolds and the way a running back's smooth dodge can suddenly bring a team ahead on the scoreboard in the final minutes of a game. And there's that famous last-ditch effort when the quarterback drops back, his offensive line holds, and he launches that oblong ball spiraling through the air in a lovely, long arc. Wait for it; wait for it as it becomes clear. The ball is finally caught by a young man whose body is hanging in midair. It is a moment worthy of the ballet, when his feet touch down in the end zone. It is a Hail Mary. It appears both crazy and divine.
I've met divinely crazy. I caught a Hail Mary and then three more — ahem — quite late in life. I became a mother of four boys, including triplets, in two and a half years when I was forty-sevenish. I didn't dare drop the extras God had so gloriously and unpredictably thrown my way. I had expected ordinary, and I got extraordinary. Isn't that just like God and the insanity of football? You may not know what's coming in life, but it wouldn't be any fun if you did. Plus, you might refuse to participate because what if you got hurt or couldn't control most of life, which you can't? So let's face it. Authentic, no-holds-barred living creates risk, and there's no decent spiritual growth without these untamed ingredients. No one grows into mommyhood without her complimentary set of bruises and a strong need for a good age-defying hair-care regimen.
If we bracket the football motif, there are other reasons I'm not your typical mommy, as if any woman's story is cut out like a cookie. No, we women must have a few flashy sprinkles on top of our own lives. Still, my story is, at times, one of biblical proportions. Genesis unplugged, if you will. Thank you, Jesus, for the drama, truly.
For one thing, my perspective on parenthood has been shaped by my marrying someone who is older than me and who waited a long time to get married. Before we met, Victor had done everything, it seemed, except tie the knot and have kids. He'd been a marine, been a hospital orderly, worked with troubled kids, operated a gas station, become a doctor and practiced medicine, served in medical missions overseas, gotten a law degree at night, served in the state legislature, and run for Congress and won. Low achiever, huh?
We met while Victor was representing Arkansas' Second District. We dated for two years, and after extensive negotiations, I coaxed him into a family adventure. (I was about as subtle as my bird dog is when she drops a squirrel on the floor, all earnest in her pleasing look, not knowing she's blown it for the cute little mammal.)
I hadn't misrepresented myself. On our first date, I told him, in response to his question of what I wanted in life, that I wanted to get pregnant, have a baby, and dodge Legos. I didn't realize when I said it aloud that it would turn into such a whopper of an adventure.
We had our first child when Victor was fifty-eight. For perspective, he was born when Harry Truman was president, and I was born when JFK was president. George W. Bush was president when our first child arrived. That's some history and frame of reference. But don't be fooled. No matter how old you are, children keep you culturally relevant. Victor buys indie CDs (yep, he still buys CDs), and I download music by Katy Perry and Adele, which exists comfortably next to the music of The Wiggles and Les Misérables and Hamilton. In seminary, I had a word processor, and there was no e-mail, let alone texting and Tweeting. Cell phones were ginormous and few people carried one. My spouse and I lived through segregation to the Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage. We're really old, and sometimes people think we're the grandparents.
That's not all bad. God has a knack for picking older parents. Take Sarah and Abraham. God promised them children — as many as the stars in the night sky — in a conversation that spans about ten chapters of Genesis. It seemed to take forever, and there were a few twists and turns before they had Isaac, which — get this — means "laughter." I suspect that the name Isaac was chosen not only because Sarah laughed at the prospect of having a child at her age but also because in the grand scheme of life at any stage, faith is a big laughable leap, like a Hail Mary or, for some of us, a Hail Sarah. I discovered the shocking and glorious truth of funny faith when the doctor told me that my twins had turned into triplets. By the way, I didn't laugh when I got the news. In fact, I sobbed every night for a week. I'm glad I didn't know about the pending heart failure that I would have after they were born. I might have held a teeny grudge, but once in my arms, they were just so puppy-breath adorable.
Every future momma is stepping into uncharted waters. I think that's why I fell in love with Mary, the mother of Jesus, especially after the mission trips I made to Russia. The images or icons that hang throughout Orthodox churches there are painted, carved, and even made of metal. Each icon recalls a story, almost like an old family album kept from before you were born, to show you later, after you've matured, who you are. Your story seems minuscule, but God usually works with small, seemingly unimportant humans to change the world.
Why is that?
I think God cares less about obedience and more about imagination. God wants us to have a vision that's bigger than we are. After all, you can't get much more modest and less showy than an unmarried teenage peasant girl prepared to live the quiet life in Bethlehem. Mary is a model for pondering what big surprises God may be up to in our lives. She's a testament to an engaged relationship with the Divine Wrestler, involving the hard and profound work of listening for preposterous whispers from angels (Luke 1:26-38). That's what Mary did. She listened, pondered, and then let it fly.
And the next thing Mary did was run and tell her much older relative Elizabeth, who was also expecting a boy, this startling good news. Luke says their get-together was like a party, or maybe that's just how I read the story. They hugged, a baby kicked, and Mary sang a powerful anthem about the ways God lifts up the lowly and struggling. Then, maybe they went to shop for swaddling clothes and have a latte. Maybe that me-time let them know how important they would be to each other. Moms need one another, God knows.
Luke doesn't give us another story about them together, but we know these two mommas — and their sons — had a special bond. How else could they have made it through parenthood, but for support, faith, and coffee? Through the diapers, the Legos (I feel sure Jesus built with Legos and gave everybody his snack), the splashing in dirty river water (which was John's favorite activity; along with judging people a little too harshly), and the way those boys brought home just about anybody for supper.
We grown-ups sometimes forget how much childhood matters. It's filled with the sacred and is not to be missed when it comes around again during parenthood. And parenthood is the time of spirit formation in which we don't realize until later that everything kid-drenched around us was and is a gift.
Let that Hail Mary of momma-ness sail from your fingertips because blessed are those of us who savor the sacred moments of this beautiful, challenging work known as motherhood, both the boringly simple and the show-stoppingly profound.CHAPTER 2
My Big Fat Anxiety Attack
So, brothers and sisters, because of God's mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service.
— Romans 12:1
Pay mind to your own life, your own health, and wholeness. A bleeding heart is of no help to anyone if it bleeds to death.
— Frederick Buechner
Think about the challenging task of becoming a spouse in the unexpected craziness of this world. When I've helped young adults who are preparing for marriage, many of them have been surprised that premarital discussions have brought them to tears. Of course they get weepy! We're talking about leaving behind single adulthood and the childhood mantle to launch into the "married people universe." Couples may be excited, even thrilled beyond their wildest dreams, but the unknown of a new, challenging role brings a feeling of loss as well. Whether marriage or motherhood, good and great changes may create not only feelings of sadness but also feelings of uncertainty, imbalance, and questions.
That is the path of this risky enterprise God has created called life. We get to experience and probe the full gamut of so much chaos and creativity, from the bugs my boys offer me for awe and inspection to the struggles I have about whether I'm breaking even on this mom path. It's a good thing God is so patient with self-obsessed me and my performance issues. I guess that makes me a good test case for how to lean into a motherhood anxiety attack.
My first long-awaited pregnancy was like a delicious drug. It could have been the hormones, but I think the whole experience was also embedded with a spiritual chip. I inhaled basically every minute of the anticipated "baby land," especially how I felt: thankful, creative, loving, joyful. I wasn't even sick, although I could not handle coffee — at all. My mom and sister warned me that roasted beans and their delicious aroma might become a smell and taste jettisoned, temporarily, for hot chocolate. They were right; this is a minor inconvenience that apparently runs in the family. Despite a long labor and C-section, after which I was handed a gorgeous, fat baby, I developed an almost immediate amnesia for the birthing discomfort and a new love — baby love — which almost made me forget how blue my husband's eyes are. Let's say they're a nice addition to the gene pool.
Pause the remote on this nearly perfect scene. Most of us know firsthand that life — marriage, pregnancy, children, family — never runs smoothly. As a pastor and a friend, I've known lots of expectant women who've had pregnancy problems arise, such as debilitating nausea, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes. None of these complications are a joyride because they not only taint the pregnancy experience but also change your life forever. After getting off scot-free the first time, I made up for it the next round.
Being on bed rest may be the closest I'll ever come to any quiet, contemplative life in a religious order.
I'm not easily scared. I've been through political campaigns, including one during which my husband was likened to Pontius Pilate. People may not like him, but I'm the only one who can call him biblical names. (You big strong Samson, you!) Of course, I'm also a pastor — a woman pastor — which is not for the faint of heart either. Thank heavens my Bible has lots of women leaders in it and women whom Jesus loved — women who were accountants, masseuses, chefs, theologians, prophets, moms, wives, brides, widows, students, small-business owners, marketers, and evangelists. Thank heavens, too, for the many devoted Jesus followers who have not been snarky to me, continue to affirm my call, and never say my passionate voice sounds angry. I love y'all.
Politics and church work. I told you I'm not easily intimidated, but my second pregnancy was different, crazy different. Sisters, no one plans to have triplets. I promise that it never entered my realm of possibility. Multiples in threes seem mystical and curious. In my case, the whole event had the Ripley's Believe It or Not seal of approval because I'm also ancient, and being pregnant with triplets is called a high-risk pregnancy for all babies and moms. Anything can happen, and some very unpleasant things did happen.
First, I developed preeclampsia at twenty-nine weeks, six weeks before I delivered. During that six weeks I was on complete bed rest. To put this in perspective, I had worked outside the home in a busy profession for almost twenty years. Suddenly, I became a human incubator. The doctor ordered me to cease work communication with my church family of almost eight years and stay on my side all day, every day. I always pictured bed rest in cute pajamas, propped up on pillows, eating chocolate, and reading. That wasn't it. Sitting on the nest is physically and emotionally exhausting work. Go ask a hen.
I wasn't prepared for the boredom and confinement of bed rest either. Big adjustment. The only things I could do were sleep, eat a little (my stomach had relocated in my throat), and watch television, which, after a while, will drive you insane. This pregnancy was before the vast array of digital options available at our fingertips, but I don't think I could've Tweeted even if I'd wanted to. I did take some clumsy selfies of my Easter-egg belly and our toddler with my first iPhone. Hurray. Being on bed rest may be the closest I'll ever come to any quiet, contemplative life in a religious order. These changes in my daily routine may sound minor, but they weren't for me, since they were moving me closer to an epic identity crisis.
Here's the worst part.
After I delivered the triplets — all healthy boys — I had trouble breathing, actually taking in air. I was soon back in the hospital with a cardiologist standing in front of me, wondering aloud if I should be intubated. He didn't just say that, did he? I was in cardiac failure, a result of a virus that attacked my heart during pregnancy. I might improve, stay the same, or get worse. No one could predict.
Carrying that reality with me, I lived between bouts of crying and pumping breast milk. Looking back, the pump needed to go; but for nine weeks, it was a way of controlling a situation beyond my belief and acceptance, as well as bonding with my preemies. One of my spiritual growing edges will always be letting go. And you will never hear me say, "Let go and let God," because I like to argue with God. I think God likes it too. Check out those conversations with Abraham or Moses or that sassy Canaanite woman who challenged Jesus to help her daughter. Just like a mom.
By the time I was home, little of my life seemed familiar to me. I had one toddler and three infants, no pastoral work, an unhealthy and rather wrecked body, and zero privacy because — guess what — I needed every hand on deck I could possibly get.
My motherhood story may be on the extreme end of personal dislocation and stress, but that very same experience became a way to examine the losses and change in the light of God's grace.
Identity Change Is Scary, but There Are Ways to Lean into It
As might be expected from a pastor type, I'm going to throw out some obvious reasons that new motherhood — and being a parent forever — forces us to look at ourselves realistically, check our needy boxes, and reduce the fear and trembling. Most of the great God-people relationships in the Bible are about this sort of reckoning. Grab a double-shot espresso or your favorite tea and gather round. It's confession and communion time.
Give in to This Time in Your Life
I know, I know! There are so many moments, when it's all new, that you can't imagine ever souring on motherhood or the precious lotion-slathered bundle in front of you. I felt the same way. Sisters, all it takes is lost sleep, a chemical imbalance, too much advice from anyone and everywhere, perfectionist tendencies, and the tedium — yes, tedium — of being with small children every day to question who you've become. Often, I spend more time worrying about what might happen. Isn't that just like a trusting Christian? No wonder Jesus spent a lot of time trying to tell us that worrying our brains out won't help one single bit and that God will offer us not what we want (our old body back), but what we need (Luke 12:22-31). Then there are the days that the whole shebang goes off the rails. Way beyond tedium.
By the time we got all the babies home, Victor needed to return to work in DC, with a new Congress in session and a new president. My timing has always been fantastic. Thankfully, I'm sister-blessed. It's a fact. All of my brothers did extremely well in the selection of spouses, and therefore I have stellar sisters-in-law, real keepers. Aunt Becky volunteered to spend the night the Sunday night before Victor caught his mid-morning flight back to DC. In the wee hours of Monday, we sat around the nursery on the twin bed and in rockers, arms full, occasionally whispering. Aunt Becky casually mentioned this was going to be a great birthday. What? My sister-in-law chose to celebrate her birthday in our chaos. I should probably say she gives great gifts, like that mini lava lamp for my church office.
Excerpted from Stepping On Cheerios by Betsy Singleton Snyder. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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