This is the second post of what was supposed to be a two-part series leading up to Mother's Day. The first can be found here. The third and fourth are forthcoming.
There is a lot of well meaning but unhelpful advice for new moms out there. Last week, we looked at a brief talk by John Piper in particular, titled “Soul Care for Exhausted Young Mothers.”
Not too long after Queen Bee had been born, a friend who had also recently given birth texted the above post to a group of fellow moms I was a part of. My friend said it had been very encouraging to her. I, however, found it to be the opposite.
Last week, we focused on some specific critiques of Mr. Piper’s article, getting to the root of why specifically I found his words discouraging. We also looked which words of his I found actually encouraging. Today, I follow it up with some advice that I hope will be more helpful for those who, like me, found Mr. Piper’s words more burdensome than uplifting.
I only have two, brief pieces of advice for the exhausted mother of an 8-week-old newborn. First, slow down. Second, give yourself grace.
Mr. Piper advises, “don’t let the baby slow you down. Do what you need to do for your own souls.” Contrary to what Mr. Piper suggests, I would posit that sometimes the very thing we need to do for our soul is to slow down, particularly when it comes to young children.
Several years ago, I read the book Anxious by Amy Simpson. I don’t have the book anymore, so can’t quote it directly. But the thing I got most from the book was just a side comment she’d made. That we Americans can sometimes have an unhealthy obsession with efficiency. And that really struck me at the time, as the parent of an infant and a toddler, with how much of the stress in my day-to-day life could be released if I let go of the idol of efficiency.
Clearly, there are times when it’s important to be efficient. Like when you’re trying to get the family out the door and to the emergency room because (a) you think your husband is having a heart attack or (b) the baby is lethargic and hypothermic. (Ask me how I know.) But, also speaking as a recovering perfectionist, there are times when a quest for efficiency overshadows other considerations that are, in the bigger picture, more important.
Consider, for a moment, the example of a baby who is learning to eat. One of the more challenging aspects of the first year of my children’s infancy (other than the sleep deprivation) for me was the period when the Bees were learning to feed themselves. They still needed to nurse full-time, because they weren’t yet getting enough calories from just finger foods. But feeding them solid foods in addition and cleaning up from the resulting mess doubled the amount of time I spent feeding each girl. It felt like I spent half my day either feeding the baby or cleaning up from feeding the baby.
I remember one particular incident with Miss Bee vividly. I’d strapped her in the high chair with a bib, then sliced some pear very thinly and warmed it briefly in the microwave to soften the pear enough that she could gum it (no teeth, yet) and not choke on it (see note on previous post about the most important job of an infant being to stay alive). Miss Bee kept trying to grasp the pear off the tray, but it took effort (still working on fine-motor skills). Then, she kept trying to bring it to her mouth (still working on hand-eye coordination). It got her chin. And then her cheek. And then her other cheek. And then it finally got into her mouth, at which point she tasted the deliciousness and in her delight forgot that she still needed to keep those chubby little fingers closed. She opened her fist and the pear slice slipped from her mouth and down to her chin, where it stuck, dangling. Miss Bee promptly broke into tears of disappointment, pear still dangling from her chubby little chin.
Would it have been more efficient in the moment for me to simply pop the pieces of pear or spoon of baby food into her mouth? Sure. But in the bigger picture of things, it was more important for Miss Bee to learn sufficient fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination to eventually feed herself. Because I didn’t want to have to spoon feed her for the rest of her life if I didn’t have to. (Update – she feeds herself just fine, now.) And in order for her to learn these things, I had to slow down and give her the time to learn. This is simply how it works with children of any age.
Which leads me back to my main point. To raise a child, you must first slow down.
In order to have the time to slow down for very young children, you will need to make or find the time. And that will involve giving up of certain other things, because your children, frankly, take priority. The church will survive just fine without you (particularly since your absence or stepping back will likely only be temporary).
Practically speaking, finding time to slow down for your child may mean going to Sunday morning service (when everyone is healthy and has the energy) but taking a break from small group commitments. Or vice versa. Or keeping up with small group, but stepping back from the youth group you used to volunteer with. Or vice versa. This is going to look different for every family, because every family’s needs and abilities are different. And even within a family, it will look different at different points throughout your children’s childhood as their needs and levels of independence change. This is normal, and it is ok.
As I said in last week’s post, find community that is life-giving instead of life-draining for your family as a whole. (And remember, you are a part of your family, so it needs to work for you, too.) It doesn’t need to work perfectly or ideally for everyone, but at least be doable for everyone. And focus your efforts there for the time being.
And in the process of figuring out where to focus your efforts when getting used to life with a newborn, whether that is with church, your marriage, a career, a circle of friends, hobbies and passions, etc., remember to give yourself grace.
Give Yourself Grace to Try New Things
Now, I’m not talking about using “giving myself grace” as an excuse to routinely neglect your responsibilities toward your children. Or about giving your husband (if we’re talking to mothers, here) grace if he routinely neglects his responsibilities toward his children. That would be enabling sin, and is neither healthy nor desirable.
Instead, what I’m talking about is giving yourself enough compassion to learn from your mistakes (and believe me, there will be plenty) in the day-to-day and move forward toward becoming a better parent. Somewhat along the lines of what was described in this post about repentance and regret.
As you enter this new stage of life of being a parent, don’t be afraid to try new things. In any aspect of your life. And in the process of trying new things, don’t beat yourself up when an idea doesn’t work. Give yourself grace to let it go and to move forward and try something different. Try to treat it more as a learning experience and less as a failure, when possible. Speaking as a recovering perfectionist, I realize this is hard, and am preaching to myself, here.
In the process of this learning experience and trying new things, give yourself permission to get a little creative. Keep the main thing the main thing, and be flexible (within reason) with everything else. Is it more important that you have a rigid devotional time every morning at 5:45am consisting of 5 minutes of prayer, 20 minutes of Bible reading, and 10 minutes of follow-up journaling? Or is it more important that you regularly be reminded that you are in the presence of God?
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.Matthew 11:28-30
When you are a parent to a brand new baby (or going through any kind of crisis, frankly [not that a baby itself is a crisis, but the upheaval to your daily routines that accompanies a newborn can feel like a crisis]), it is ok to give yourself permission to rest in God’s presence.
Because, let’s be honest, you’re probably not getting it anywhere else.
Getting Creative with “Being in the Word”
In the more practical aspects of his talk, Mr. Piper suggested prayer/worship and reading the Bible and other “Bible saturated” books (including audio books).
Prayer is a great place to start. It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be flowery. It doesn’t even have to be out loud. It can be done while feeding a child, while taking a shower, and while falling asleep in bed (among a variety of other situations). At some point when Queen Bee was an infant, I realized it was probably better for me to pray for one minute fifteen times a day than it was for me to stress and agonize about praying for a fifteen-minute session one time a day. (Though, to be honest, my prayers tend to be more of the 10-30 seconds variety.)
You can also put up reminders around the house to pray. Miss Bee’s middle name is “Grace.” And in her bedroom, above the crib, I had hung painted wooden letters with her name. As we were sleep training her, and she was screaming her little head off in the crib as I was desperately rubbing her back and shushing her, it was an unintentional but tangible reminder to be praying for grace for both her and myself in that moment.
If there are Bible verses that have been particularly meaningful to you, you could write them on a sticky note and put one on your bathroom mirror, one on your computer, one on your fridge, one on your closet door, anywhere you happen to look on a daily basis (your purse, your utensil drawer, the possibilities are endless). Just the visual reminder can be a prompt to think about / meditate on that particular verse.
And especially if you come into parenthood already with a rich knowledge of Scripture, there will be situations that naturally prompt you to remember particular verses and to think about them. I like to think in particular of Jesus’s words in Luke 18.
People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”Luke 18:15-17
The kingdom of God belongs to babies and children. One must receive the kingdom of God like a little child in order to enter it. This is something that strikes me particularly in moments when my children display complete trust in me and a complete lack of shame. Like their trust that I will provide food when they say, “I’m hungry.” Or when they trust that I will put a shoe on them when they wait for me to squat next to them before shamelessly sticking a leg up and barely missing my nose with their naked toes. Or when they stop and admire God’s handiwork in the dandelions sprouting in our lawn.
And, guess what? If you don’t come into parenthood already with a rich knowledge of Scripture, I just gave you a verse to put on a sticky note! And two more will follow at the end of this post.
Remember, God’s grace is sufficient for you during this time; a lack of Scripture knowledge cannot take that away. And, God willing, as your child becomes more independent, there will be time later to gradually enrich your knowledge of Scripture. (A bible reading plan for overwhelmed people is planned for a post in the not-too-distant future.)
Briefly (because I know your time is precious), here are a few other ideas to possibly try out, as you find the time. If something doesn’t work out for you, I won’t be offended. These aren’t even necessarily things I do (or do routinely), they’re just possibilities.
Also, take baby steps. Start with one and see how it goes, don’t feel like you have to try all of these at the same time, then get burnt out and give up because all of them at the same time takes too much effort. (Preaching to myself, here.)
- if you are more of an auditory learner (disclaimer – I’m not), find things you can listen to in the car or whenever you find yourself regularly listening to music or podcasts
- listen to Psalms set to music
- I don’t know anything about these people, but they appear at the top of a Google search (see how easy that was!) and offer samples to listen to before purchase.
- listen to audio versions of the Bible
- listen to Psalms set to music
- if you are more of a visual learner (that would be me)
- put some Bible verses on sticky notes or index cards in places you’ll routinely come across them
- sign up for a devotional service that sends you a text or email daily or once-a-week, whatever you think you can manage (disclaimer – I’m not normally a fan of relying exclusively on devotionals for one’s diet of Scripture, but desperate times call for desperate measures)
- if you don’t like the first devotional service you try, don’t feel obligated to stick with it. Try a different one!
- ask other moms (new moms and more experienced moms) what they do/did, and see if any of their ideas might work for you, too
- as an added bonus, you’ll find out what normal people (i.e., not pastors who are paid to study Scripture as part of their full-time job) in your type of situation can actually accomplish. This can help set a more realistic goal post for yourself in the process.
Give Yourself Grace when Discovering Your Limits
Speaking of realistic goal posts, you are not a robot. Nor a superhuman. (Preaching to myself, here.) God designed you to need sleep, to need food, to need healthy human companionship (beyond your infant), to need rejuvenating rest and solitude. If you are not getting these things, it will be that much harder to be an adequate parent to your child. Your child has needs, but so do you. If your cup is empty, you will have nothing to pour into your relationship with your child (or spouse, etc.). Remember how I mentioned in the last post my mom literally working herself into a bout of pneumonia after childbirth because she didn’t rest when the doctor told her to? An extreme example, but it happens. It is not selfish to take care of yourself in order to take care of your child, no more than it is to put on your own oxygen mask in the airplane before putting one on your child. Because if you have not first taken care of yourself, then when you pass out from lack of oxygen, that will put an extra burden on those around you that otherwise may not have been there.
The tricky part is learning to balance these needs, particularly as your child is in different stages of development. You’ll probably go through lots of trial and error in the process of this balancing act, and that’s ok. If you realize you’ve overextended yourself and are feeling chronically overwhelmed and irritable, it is not sinful or selfish to lower standards that can be safely lowered or to stop doing things that are not completely necessary for the health and wellbeing of your family.
If you find yourself snapping at your husband or being short with your child, should you apologize? By all means. But also realize that God gave you emotions for a reason, and sometimes these emotions are telling us that we’ve reached the limits of our human capabilities. If these feelings of being overwhelmed and irritable are chronic instead of occasional, maybe this is the Holy Spirit’s way of nudging you to make a change and stop trying to be Super Woman. If this is you, give yourself grace in the process of discovering your limits, so that you may move forward toward being a more compassionate, understanding, and healthy person (and parent!) in general.
And this process of discovering limits and balancing your needs with your child’s and family’s needs is going to look differently for different people, because every person’s needs and abilities are different. It is so stinking hard, but do your best not to get caught up in the comparison game of either thinking you are so much more inadequate compared to other parents/families or so much better compared to other parents/families. You never know which family is struggling with past trauma, with hidden disability, with struggles in extended family, etc.
Wrapping It Up
As we wrap this up, I’d like to finish with two particular verses, as follows. At first glance, the first verse is a little weird. But bear with me.
How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!Matthew 24:19, Mark 13:17, Luke 21:23a
Jesus is telling some of his disciples about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, that there will be war, famine, and desolation. In the middle of all the horror, he takes a moment to express a special empathy for mothers of infants. And three of the four gospel writers included it in their narratives. Jesus himself recognizes the particular burdens that being a parent of a helpless infant can bring. He doesn’t express empathy for the city leaders facing invasion. Or the priests watching their beloved temple fall. Or the soldiers slain in battle. (Not saying he didn’t have empathy for them, too, just that he didn’t focus on them in this particular moment.) Jesus expresses empathy for pregnant women and mothers of infants (described as a “nursing mother,” since bottles and formula weren’t an option back then).
Mothers, Jesus sees you.
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well… For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12
Here, the apostle Paul is writing of his ministry to the believers in Thessaloniki. And the metaphor he uses to describe his care and devotion for these believer is that of the mother of an infant. My fellow mothers, even as fallible, imperfect people, we have an opportunity to reflect the Gospel to our children.
And, because most of the advice here would work equally well for new fathers, I include Paul’s metaphor of fathers, as well. Notice the nurturing words Paul chooses, “encouraging, comforting, and urging,” words that work as equally well with an infant as they do with a teenager. (I presume, not having parented a teenager, yet.)
Next week, we’ll take a look at some better resources for new parents. And the following week, we’ll explore how churches can better support new parents in their congregation.