Letter to My Older Daughter: My First Baby

Dear Debbie Joy,

Last Sunday morning, we met your precious little sister, Gabby Jane.  Perhaps it’s a bit of a surprise that the first letter I’m writing after her birth is to you, not to her. But as I launch into the journey of parenting another little human, I realize how much you’ve given me.  You made me a mother.  Your birth broke open my heart to love, hope for, and grieve this world more than I ever thought I could.  Moreover, before your birth, my biggest fear was that my child wouldn’t love me. Once you were born I realized that worry was silly; my love for you was enough to hold us both long before you first uttered that sweet sentence, “I love you.”

Photo on 2-26-17 at 5.21 PM
First photo of Debbie and me

`

In the months leading up to Gabby’s birth, you became obsessed with babies. You carry your baby doll everywhere—to church, to the grocery store, in the car.  When we’re home, you bring her to me and request, “Cozy?” That’s my cue to swaddle her in one of your old flannel blankets.  You gently rock her to sleep and then place her in bed.  You cook baked beans for her in your play kitchen while carrying her adroitly on your hip.  You softly stroke her head and murmur, “Sweet baby, sweet baby, I love you.”

BIRTH BALLS
Last photo Debbie and me with her as my only child…bouncing on our birth balls!

I wasn’t sure what to make of all this until your daddy told me, “What she wants most is just to be you.”  I tried to deny it, but I realized there’s no mistaking the resemblance between the phrases of comfort and affirmation you offer her and those I give to you, and between your busy multitasking of holding your baby and doing your “chores” and my constant balancing act of motherhood.  In your playful mimicking of my behavior, I see something that I never expected to see or believe: For all my faults, for all the times I’ve failed, I am a good mother.

This knowledge changes everything as I become a mother to baby Gabby.  Though I know we’ll face many struggles as we go from one child to two, both under the age of two, I know this time that, through God’s grace, I can become the mother God has called me to be.

Watching you become an older sister this week has been one of the greatest joys I’ve known as a mother. You showed your nurturing nature yet again as you met your sister, declaring, “My baby!  Us hug.” While some of your “pats,” “hugs,” and “kisses” may be a little rougher than I’d like, the tenderness you hold for her is obvious.  Gabby will grow up looking to you as an example of strength, courage, and compassion.

Thank you for turning me into a mother.  And always remember, though you are currently more than three times the size of your sister, you will always be a baby of mine.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughters: The (Other) Work I Do

Dear Baby Girls,

Yesterday in the grocery store, the kind cashier asked me, “When are you due?” But I misheard her and thought she asked, “What do you do?” When she corrected me, I was briefly annoyed that, once again, my voluminous pregnant belly is the first (and often, it seems, the only) thing people notice about me.  But then I thought again.

My answer to the question, “What do you do?” would have been, “I’m a graduate student at Vanderbilt.” I probably wouldn’t have said that I’m a mother, because, honestly, people don’t put much stock into the real work of parenthood. Saying that I’m getting a PhD feels a lot more comfortable to my fragile ego than admitting that I spend the majority of the hours of my week chasing a toddler, while my “real [professional] work” gets squeezed into the limited hours I have help with childcare.

37681252_10158014721359896_7608327903922618368_o
This summer, you’re much more likely to find me in a park than a library carrel.

Here’s the truth, sweet daughters.  When I can put aside my hang-ups with social recognition, I know that raising you is the most important work I’ll ever do. And while the work I do as a mother certainly has slowed my progress on my dissertation, I will never regret the timing of my pregnancies.

Truth be told, being your mother has inspired my academic work like nothing else. I research and write about women’s voices in the Bible and how people of faith have heard or ignored those voices.  I write about how women’s lived experiences of suffering inform the shape of Scripture. I write about how birth, breastfeeding, sexual assault, and child loss are matters of theological import because they matter so much to God.

When I write about these things, I’m always thinking about you—what being your mother has taught me, and what I yearn for your experience of womanhood to be.  In some small way, by resuscitating biblical traditions of women who bravely “spill[ed] out [their] hearts like water in the presence of the Lord” (Lam. 2:19), I hope to take part in making a world where your voices are more readily respected as authoritative as well.  I’m certain the passion I have for the “other” work I do flows straight from the passion I have to see you grow into strong women of faith.

It may be awhile before strangers ask me what I do for a living again.  My pregnant belly is huge and distracting, after all. But when they do, I’ll say with pride, “I work at home raising my two daughters. And I’m getting my PhD in religion.”

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughters: What’s in Your Names?

Dear Baby Girls,

Last night, as I finally took the shower I’d wanted to take all day, I was thinking about the two of you. I was reflecting on the names that your daddy and I chose for you and about how those names reflect, in part, my own spiritual journey over the last two years.

***

Deborah

 We initially chose the name Deborah for you, sweet Debbie Joy, because it was the name that Grandma Janet had picked out for the daughter she didn’t have (that daughter turned out to be your daddy and Uncle Robert instead).  Your name is like the memorial stones of Joshua 4, placed there so you, your parents, and your children will remember the faithfulness of God manifested vividly in the life of your grandmother.  We see so much of her beautiful spirit in you.  You already have her contagious sense of humor and irrepressible laughter.  Your warmth when you meet strangers reminds me of the welcome she extended to me from my first moment in her house.

36519238_10157946207729896_9052421253163384832_nAs beautiful as your name would be simply as a memorial to your grandmother, it has come to mean even more to me than that.  In the Old Testament, Deborah is a judge, a leader of her people.  She holds God-given authority as a woman in a world where men rule and Israel is an insignificant entity among the nations. She fearlessly pursues her calling into waters where others—especially men—do not dare to tread.  That story resonates with me now because through the time of my pregnancy and your infancy, I feel I too have found my God-given strength and my calling as a mother and a teacher/scholar.  I had never felt as strong as I did when I brought you into the world, never so confident in my reflection of the imago dei as when I cradled your life inside of mine.

***

Gabrielle

Gabby Jane, you were a beautiful surprise during hardest season of my life.  During that time, while everything else in my life pointed to disintegration, your determination to keep thriving pointed to a God who makes all things new.  During my pregnancy with you, I realized that my strength never can be enough.  I couldn’t deliver myself or my family from the darkness that threatened to overtake us.  The difficulty of our lives seemed to manifest itself in my pregnancy with you.  While my pregnancy with your sister was smooth sailing, my pregnancy with you seemed fraught with anxiety from the start, when a doctor told me hours after I found out that I was pregnant that she “didn’t concern [herself]” with your embryonic form due to the likelihood of miscarriage (I’d just been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease  known to raise the odds of pregnancy loss). Even after you beat the odds and I exited the first trimester, pregnancy complications kept arising.

So we chose a name for you that reflected the God whose presence I had felt, no matter36580987_10157949382459896_6009871978364665856_n how faintly, during the months of my pregnancy.   I realized during my pregnancy that the strength I’d found within myself meant admitting my helplessness before the only One with whom it is perfectly safe to be vulnerable.  At the end of my strength, I found a God who has always been strong for me, and who pours his Spirit into me to allow me to do what I could never do alone. I started to walk with a faith that did not mean naively thinking everything would be perfect, but instead that God would be Immanuel even when things were wrong. Your name means, “God is my strength,” because through my pregnancy with you, I learned that I will lose the battles I fight alone, but “in all of these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

***

Sweet daughters, second only to the reality of how much you are loved, I want to teach you about the strength that will carry you. It will not fail you.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughters: The Vulnerability of Our Bodies

Dear Baby Girls,

I never thought I would be so blessed as to be the mother of two beautiful, strong, smart daughters.  I thought that I would bear all boys, like your daddy’s mother before me, and continue the Larry family tradition.  But your daddy apparently has a talent for sharing his X-chromosomes, and so here we are, and I could not be any happier.Image result for body outline

I admit, though, that the knowledge that I am raising not one, but two girls to be self-confident women also gives me a certain level of anxiety.  I know how strong women are, but I also know that in our society, our bodies are vulnerable at times.  I can anticipate some of the experiences you’re likely to have because you are female-bodied.  I know what it’s like to get nervous at night walking from CVS Pharmacy to my car, clutching my keys in my right hand like they’re going to save me from an attacker. I know what it’s like to have to feel like I must justify my belonging in certain male-occupied spaces of Church and academy.  I know what it’s like to watch news of an election with tears streaming down my face because America put a sexual predator into office. And while I can relate to certain experiences you may have by virtue of the fact that I’m also a woman, I know you’ll have yet more experiences of marginalization particular to the discrimination you’ll face as women of color.

Recently, for the first time, I made a police report about an inappropriate action against my person. Making that report was the hardest thing I have ever done.  I was afraid of not being believed, of being mocked. I did it not because I wanted to press charges, not because I wanted revenge, but because I was thinking of you girls.  I was thinking about the mother I want to be for you and the example I want to set for you. In all I do, I want to live in a way that makes manifest these things:

I want you to know that I will always believe you.

I want you to know that your bodies belong only to you.

I want you to know that no one is entitled to touch you or speak about you in a way that disregards the indisputable fact that you are created in the image of God.

I want you to know that your instincts are good and right.

I want you to know that your bodies are not the problem.  The problem is the brokenness of systems and the sinfulness in human hearts—however you cast it—that abuses what is beautiful, good, and holy.

I want you to know you are beautiful, not because you have the right make-up or clothes or hair but because God made you and said, “She is good.

I want you to know that I will always love you, regardless of whether the choices you make of what to do with your body or with whom you share it are the same or different from the ones I have made.

I love you both so much. My heart breaks for the pain I know you’ll experience at some time or other, but it swells with joy for the life that you’ve already shared with me.

Love,

Your Mama

 

 

 

 

Why I Love Pregnancy

I write this post in awareness of the range of experiences people have concerning pregnancy and parenthood in general. I know that there are many ways of becoming parents, not all pregnancies are joyful, and that infertility and pregnancy/child loss are incredibly difficult paths that many friends of mine have walked.  In addition, many of my friends have found that parenthood is not part of their path to meaning and fulfillment!  This post merely represents my reflections on my own journey.

Recently a friend asked me to share why I love being pregnant.  4 months into my second pregnancy, I know definitively that the months of my life that I’ve spent pregnant have been some of those that I’ve felt most physically whole. While, to be honest, natural childbirth itself is something I’m still learning to appreciate (I don’t envy anyone who was in the room with me last time…), I’ve found deep meaning from the journey of pregnancy itself.

My pregnancy reminds me daily of the love and passion my husband and I have shared uniquely with each other. Our love isn’t always easy, and sometimes, in fact, it has been very difficult. Even with a relatively sound understanding of the biological processes involved, it remains the greatest miracle I’ve ever known that our love for each other can make a life.  I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Song of Songs, which is basically a love song between two people with no clear mention of God at all. Many people have speculated about its place in the Christian canon—especially because some of the imagery is pretty darn explicit.  But I think the canonizers of Scripture were really onto something.  The love between people—even eros–is a reflection, albeit sometimes a pale one, of the power of God’s love to give life abundant, life overflowing into more life, life that perseveres through death and darkness and begins sometimes with a baby’s cry.

The way my baby is cradled in my womb right now echoes the way God has always cradled the world from the moment of creation. In Genesis 1:2, at the very beginning of everything, the spirit of God “broods” over the world like a mother bird broods over her young. The first nine months of my child’s existence, all s/he knows is the feeling of being perfectly held within a life that provides everything for him/her.  Whatever I eat feeds my child.  Every breath I take gives life not only to me, but to him/her as well.  My body knows that it has to hold the little life within me until my baby is ready to survive on its own.

7 daysGod has used pregnancy to show me this dimension of the Spirit. If my body can care completely for a baby, giving him/her whatever is needed with little intentional input on my part, how much more does the God of the universe–perfect, wise, and loving–care for all of us, held within the divine embrace!  And while after nine months my body will send my little one into the world, we never need leave the enfolding of God’s own being.  In life, in death, and in life beyond death, we are still God’s children, lulled to peace by the sound of our divine parent singing over us with thanksgiving (Zephaniah 3:17).

Pregnancy, in which my body is not wholly or even primarily my own, is my first way to say to my child, “This is my body, broken for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24).  As I’ve found while parenting my first daughter from birth to toddlerhood, there are nearly infinite other moments in parenthood that demand a relinquishing of selfhood.  Pregnancy takes over my body and prepares me to give up the self-centeredness that has largely ruled my life.  It isn’t the same kind of bodily overtaking as power-based personal violence, even though both involve loss of control.  Pregnancy is an invitation to expand my body, heart, and soul.  Though it takes from me, it gives back to me. It offers freedom to love more than I ever thought I could.

I know that pregnancy matters. I walk through this journey for a second time knowingthat I give my body so that my child can have his/hers.  Moreover, I give my body in hopes that, by offering myself wholly, even wholly broken, I can prepare my child to live into the gift that Christ has already offered his body for all of us.

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Daughter: 1 Year

Dear Baby Girl,

I’m not often at a loss for words to write, but today, on the eve of your first birthday, the fullness of my heart isn’t easily confined to paper. It seems like yesterday when I was feeling those first contractions with excitement, wondering if this was the long-awaited kairos when you and I would meet face to face. It seems like yesterday that I was immobilized in the pain of active labor, unable to believe that life could come from something that felt so much like death. It seems like yesterday when I experienced the absolute joy and perfect relief of holding you for the first time, when I believed fully, maybe for the first time, that miracles are real.

IMG_7311.JPG
1 week old

But a year it has been. As I watch you now, fluffing your hair with your brush and tipsily standing by yourself, all while yelling, “HI, BABY!” to me, it’s hard to believe that it’s just been a year since you were a helpless bundle of poopy joy.   It’s hard to believe that it’s just been a year since we met, and I knew you were the one I’d been awaiting for 9 months. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since you’ve been the first and last waking thought of my day.

unnamed.jpg
One year old

Baby Girl, I could write all day long about all the ways you are fearfully and wonderfully made, created by God for good works. I could tell endlessly how proud I am of your every accomplishment. But for now, in this last letter to commemorate your first year of life, I simply want to say, “Thank you.”

Thank you for putting up with my parental incompetence (even though your seeming patience may be a function of your inexperience and relatively limited verbal skills).

Thank you for showing me that, as imperfect as I am, I have more patience, kindness, and strength than I knew.

Thank for you for awakening in me a love that could only reflect the nature of God’s parental love.

Thank you for reminding me the wonder of the ordinary, everyday miracles that I had forgotten or overlooked.

Thank you for making me into a mother.

Part of me may be a little wistful and weepy as you exit babyhood and rocket towards toddlerhood, but mostly, I’m just joyful today. I can’t wait to see the woman that every day leads you towards becoming.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter: “Is that baby yours?”

Dear Baby Girl,

On a random Saturday last month, your daddy and I visited Goodwill with you to donate the floor lamps that you’d nearly been toppling on yourself. While I browsed the linens section, your daddy headed off to look at the outdated VCRs (I bet you don’t know what those are).

And then a stranger stopped me and asked, “Is that baby yours?”

“Yes,” I responded simply.

But the stranger continued to give me a skeptical look until your daddy came over, providing the missing link to explain the hue of your skin.

“Oh,” the stranger said, satisfied at last.

Photo on 1-26-18 at 8.56 AMI have already lost count of the times in the last eleven months I’ve had this conversation. There are a few forms of it with varying levels of offensiveness—people asking the race of your daddy, wondering if you’re “Indian,” calling you “Moana,” or saying that biracial babies are the prettiest. I worry that, eventually, these nosy strangers will convince you that you are the strange one. Here’s the truth:

What is strange is the assumption that racial homogeneity makes a family. When your daddy and I laid eyes on each other almost five years ago, we knew full well that he’s black and I’m white. But primarily, we saw in each other a person we wanted to know and be known by more than anybody else in the whole world. We knew that our biracial kids would face ignorant questions from people who don’t understand the richness of life that we experience. But we weren’t afraid to become a family.

What is strange is the assumption inherent in the question that biology makes a person a mother. Right now, I know at least 3 families in our community who are currently in the adoption process. When the adopted children come home and the families are united, the adoptive parents will be parents, no less than parents who fuse sperm and egg to make a baby.

Here’s the thing, Baby Girl. Families aren’t made because their melanin glues them together or because a baby grows within a mother’s body. Families are made because somebody says, “No matter what happens, no matter what you do, how no matter how we change, I’ll still be there for you.” That’s how I’ve felt about you since the moment I knew you existed. So even though one day you’ll be all grown up, and you may not feel like my baby any more, I will always be your mother.

One day, when you’re old enough to talk and express your opinions even more than you do already, someone will probably walk up to you and say, “What are you?” You can say whatever feels right to you in response. It isn’t your job to explain your story to them, because it isn’t any of their business to ask. And more fundamentally, the phrasing of the question reflects a construct of race as far more static and determinative than we know it to be. Because here’s who you really “are”:

You are beautiful. You are beloved. You are the creation of the love of God and two parents who love each other deeply. You have been so very wanted since before you were even born.

That’s who you are. And yes, I am so very proud to be your mother.

Love,

Your Mama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Daughter: Home

Dear Baby Girl,

You just turned 10 months old. Earlier this week, we spent Christmas in one of the more unlikely places I’ve come to call home: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta that was overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, and I was unprepared for the neighborhood of inner city Milwaukee where your daddy grew up. One of the first times your daddy got really irritated with me was when I tried to pet a pit bull stationed at a neighboring house. “Don’t touch that dog!” he told me. “He hasn’t been raised to be a pet.” That neighborhood was the last place I thought I belonged.

But in your grandparents’ house at 30th and Hampton, I found a grace I hadn’t expected. When I met your grandparents, I encountered a welcome that astounded me.   “As long as you’re here, you’re our family,” they told me, back when your daddy and I were just dating. As soon as your daddy and I got married, they called me “Daughter.”   I didn’t regard my trips to Milwaukee as an exercise of spousal duty, but instead anticipated the return to the safe haven where I was fully known and fully loved.

Christmas day this year, I passed through the threshold of the house on 30th and Hampton not like a stranger, but like the prodigal returning. It felt like coming back to where I belonged after a long exile. “Welcome home,” your uncle said to me as I walked in. I realized that he was right—somehow, by the grace of God, that place had become my home, and yours too.

unnamed

There’s a lot of history there. The fireplace mantle roughly outlines the story of the lives that unfolded there—baby photos, triumphant graduates, prom dates, wedding, grandchild (that’s you!). There’s the wall where the tennis and wrestling trophies, musical awards, and team photos showcase the pride of two parents. There’s the poem about selfless marriage love that chronicles the forty years your grandparents spent together on this side of heaven.   There are the dents and scratches in the floor and the walls made by the brothers’ (mainly, I gather, your daddy’s) misdeeds. There are the semi-functional control pads with which your daddy and his brothers battled for Super Mario supremacy. There’s the weight of memory that this was the first house to which your daddy and his younger brother came home and also the place where your grandma died. It’s been one of my life’s greatest honors to be woven into the history of that house not only through marrying your daddy, but also through the love your grandparents and uncles have extended freely to me.

When I think about the home we want to make for you, I think about the house on 30th and Hampton. It’s not so much about the physical house, but about the capacity of a place and a people to brim with so much life. It’s about the potential of a family to stick fiercely together through hard times and good, and yet to welcome strangers like your mommy with hearts and arms wide open. It’s about faith that builds a foundation for everything else, so that when the unthinkable happens, the home may shudder for a moment, but it never falls down. It’s about a place where you are fully known and fully loved.

If we make a home like that for you, we will have done well.

Love,

Your Mommy

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Daughter: Pain

Dear Baby Girl,

You’re 9 months old now, and you are nothing but a joy.  You babble constantly, interspersing a few words intelligible to me in the midst of your own private language.  You crawl and try to stand up.  You enchant everyone you meet with your vivacious personality and cuteness.

I wish I could say that in this season, all I’m doing is relishing in your adorableness.  The truth is, Baby Girl, that I’m in a season of unexpected pain.  I wake up in the morning feeling its heaviness descend on me before I even remember what caused it.  I go to bed wondering if the next day will be the same.

I’m learning how to be a parent in this season.  I never meant to let you see me cry.  Of course, when you were born and I held you while the midwives repaired the carnage, crying was pretty much the first thing you ever saw me do.  At first, I didn’t mind crying in front of you, because I realized that you didn’t notice the difference. But now, as I see the glimmers of empathy emerging in your character, I worry.  Will letting you see me cry scar you?  Will it make you feel like I don’t love you enough?

The other day, you and I were sitting at the table, eating our lunch, and I started crying.  You looked at me curiously, as if to say, “What’s the matter, Mommy?” I said to you, “Mommy’s fine, Baby Girl.  Nothing’s wrong.”

Then I realized that was complete bull#$%@.  I was lying to you about my feelings. The last thing I want to teach you is that you have to pretend everything is okay.  I don’t want you to think that the only acceptable feelings are those that are social media-worthy.  I study biblical lament, after all…what was I thinking?

So here’s what I want you to learn from me, for those moments of your life when you, too, will climb emotional mountains you never thought you’d face.

I want you to know that there’s no shame in your tears.  I’m guessing that you, like me, carry big emotions.  While not every moment may be the most opportune for their expression, your feelings are worthy.  Empower yourself to find the space in your life to let them run their course.

I want you to know that we worship a God with whom we can entrust the totality of our beings, who does not wince in fear or disgust at the sight of our most jagged places of brokenness.  God does not reject our grief, but holds it and shares it in his own being.  In taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, God committed to sharing fully in an existence marred by pain of all kinds.  We can trust the Christ who cried, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” not only to accept our deepest hurts but also to weep along with us.

2653189763_1741773412_b.jpg

I want you to know that no matter how long or painful the night is, morning is coming. Sometimes the movement of our God is almost imperceptible, like that moment when the world hovers between winter and spring–winter’s chill is still in the air even while the first flowers of spring are blossoming.  But even now, I believe the final victory over all that breaks us is already won, and the full unfolding of God’s restoration will come upon us.

Next time you see me crying, I’ll say to you, “I’m not okay right now, Baby Girl. But one day, all will be well.”  And I’ll hold you in my arms until the tears pass.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter: Brave

Dear Baby Girl,

You’re now 8 months old. You do so many things now—use the baby signs for “more,” say words like “Daddy” and “dog,” scoot your way around the kitchen, and, my personal favorite, eat Cheerios.

Everybody can see the transformation in you. But the transformation in me has been less obvious to outsiders. It’s mainly just something that I feel and know within myself.

Photo on 10-31-17 at 6.17 PM #3

Courage has never been one of my foremost characteristics; I’ve tended towards anxiety and over-caution. I have also been avoidant, as I hate conflict, especially with people whom I perceive as being more powerful than I.

I may be a nervous wreck sometimes where you’re concerned (by the way—I need you to stop trying to crawl into the dishwasher), but on the whole, I approach my interactions with people differently because of you. When I think back to people who, quite frankly, used to terrify me, the idea of them doesn’t intimidate me any more. Honestly, I’d like to see them try to get in my way when you’re with me.

While you’re in my arms, I feel like Superwoman.

It started when I was in labor with you. While your daddy and I were at the birth center getting ready to meet you, I was scared. I kept telling everyone who would listen that I couldn’t give birth to you, that I was afraid that it would hurt. (Ha.) But then the midwife told me that I could push, and suddenly I wasn’t afraid anymore. I knew that I had the power to bring you into the world, and I was determined to give you life right then and there. So I did.

Knowing that you are with me makes me so much braver than I’ve ever been on my own. I can make harder decisions, have more honest conversations, and be brutally aware of who I really am. Thank you for helping me be brave.

Love,

Your Mama