To the couple with the fixer upper

As I sat to write this, my children were having a heated Nerf battle and the television blared in the background. My ears, however, were attuned for a sound much more subtle. Taps or thuds from beneath the floor boards.

Otherwise known as the universal signal for distress for amateur handymen everywhere. It could mean anything from an “S.O.S.,” to “please, fetch me something, flip the breaker or hold this flashlight for me.”

Fixing up a home is not for the faint of heart, as I was reminded again just this past week.

A few months ago, my better half went to close windows accessing the crawl space beneath our home before the first true cold snap of the season bared down on us. Shining a flashlight into the gaping space before crawling underneath and sealing up everything, instead of seeing dirt he was met with a glare from his light hitting standing water.

The sump pump we thought had been installed when we bought this home not even two years ago was actually…not a sump pump. And because life works this way, our region of the country experienced record shattering rainfall last year. It was a perfect, water-logged storm.

Because what’s one more project when you’re a family with three young children and one more on the way, who also happens to homeschool, with a husband who works full-time as he tries to complete his master’s degree on the side?

Let’s add one more thing to the pile because we may as well. We totally have the extra time, energy, money and brain cells to figure out how to solve one more problem, right??

And these major repairs always seem to crop up at the most convenient times, don’t they?

The toilet only backs up after the kids have gone to bed as you sit down on the sofa with a bowl of chips and the television remote.

Pipes only freeze overnight on a Saturday so there’s no chance for hot coffee or relaxing on a Sunday morning.

The full scale emergencies only arise right around when you’re both excited to finally see your savings account balance actually growing, and a family vacation seems within your grasp.

I can’t tell you how many sandwiches I’ve made for whatever pulled together work crew we might have at our house on a Saturday. Or how many baby gates we’ve had to live around to keep small children out of the mess of yet another repair or renovation. Or how many times we’ve had to live without appliances or entire rooms at a time. Or the number of weeknights or weekends my husband was preoccupied with another project and I wanted to pull my hair out after who knows how many straight days spent cooped up with feral kids.

This last week, almost every night I hosed off his mud-caked coveralls so I could wash them. I set a hot dinner in front of him and tried to feed him enough to bring his exhausted body back to life so he could push through for one more day. I sat silently berating myself, wondering why I didn’t learn how to rewire an electrical outlet instead of learning how to iron decals on to cotton shirts in middle school home economics class.

We know the tangled and confusing web of pride and resentment that comes with home ownership very well. We find ourselves thankful when there’s enough funds to cover whatever emergency repair crops up and thankful that my husband can do most of the work himself, and also completely exhausted by all of it and ready to move into an RV to avoid doing one more project – even if it’s jusr changing a light bulb.

This crisis is not our first rodeo. The first home we bought was the very definition of a fixer upper. In fact, we spent nearly ten years on it before we outgrew it and had to move on. We had just moved back to Maryland after his stint in the service. We were supposed to be renting a small house in the even smaller town we both grew up in. But he caught wind of a large home for sale just up the road.

He went to have a gander. Beneath the rugged exterior, the odor of cat urine and the sight of insulation pouring from holes in the walls and ceilings, it’s grandeur and charm and character were obvious. He brought me back to take a gander, and we were both officially smitten.

We could see what had been. We could see what could be, even under the layers of neglect and age.

Having gotten married young and quickly, much to the surprise of those around us, we figured what was one more major life decision that didn’t seem to quite add up? We only had practically no money and my husband and his father would be working on the house when they weren’t working full time. But what’s the worry? What is rhyme and reason when there are dreams to be had??

The project was supposed to take four months. It ended up taking fifteen.

But oh, how we mourned when we sold that house. As the last of the furniture and boxes were carried out, after sleeping for about three hours the night before, as we woke to prepare to sign away that home and a chunk of ourselves, we walked through it one more time. I hugged the walls and said my silent thank you’s.

For those creaky stairs. The unfinished trim and molding. My tiny laundry closet. The second bathroom I insisted we needed to install upstairs if my husband ever wanted to have more children. The original bathroom I had repainted just a year before, the one I trekked down to in the middle of the night I don’t know how many times as an unborn baby bore down on my bladder.

I remembered living without a dining room for nearly three weeks, hurrying small children through the room before they could cover themselves in plaster dust or hurt themselves on some large, jagged tool. I remembered many projects when I had propped a baby gate up to keep tiny kids out, stepping over it to fetch a snack or sippy cup countless times, hurrying back justbefore the paint could dry on my paint brush.

I remember arguments we had in the kitchen and just about anywhere else when we were both tired of this project that didn’t seem to end.

But we remembered that magic of what it meant to make something yours. And to do it together. To know something so well, every nook, crevice and cranny, from the attic to the basement. The familiarity of knowing the floor creaked in one particular spot – disastrous to learn the first few times we tried to lay a tiny baby down for a nap. Or that the hot water would run out after fifteen minutes. Or how the house had settled and you could tell by the trim over the bedroom doors in the upstairs hallway.

How that familiarity is what makes a house a home.

Oh, but the bones. It had such good bones. And we hope the people living there now are treating it well.

We’ve since moved on to house number two. A much “younger” home this time, only about sixty years old. I stare at the brick exterior and the paint peeling on the trim near the gutters. I can’t wait to paint bedroom number four from a sky blue to a rich gray to make a nest for baby number four. We have more work to do. And I’m thinking we always might if we keep setting our hearts on these older homes.

People who choose fixer uppers they have to manage through themselves don’t do it expecting it to be easy. And, being completely honest, sometimes a house that needs extensive work done is financially the only option. 

But we also have this reserved hope. A hope that says making everything our own will be worth it. It helps us have eyes to see what’s underneath, what’s been deemed lost. What was once there.

And what could be there again.

 

I’m the mom who struggled with her unplanned c-section

When my son was placed in my arms for the first time, I waited.

I waited for every transcendent emotion people always talk about feeling when meeting their first child for the first time to descend on my exhausted body.

I waited for my body to tingle alive, for a heaviness to settle into my chest as my heart grew in size. For all the purposes I never knew I had to suddenly be realized.

That’s how everyone describes that moment. The moment a newborn is laid across their mother’s chest as they yowl their first cries after passing through her body from one world into the next. I waited for a feeling akin to someone having plucked a star from the sky, its distant light a constant and mysterious companion in much the same way my flesh colored bump had been the last nine months, and handed it to me.

I didn’t fully experience that.

I was too shell-shocked after his birth to have that moment.

I had been awoken minutes before that by a gentle shoulder tap from my doctor, her voice piercing the gray fog that had settled in a cloud over me, floating though tethered by relief. I had a son, she said. She conversed with a nurse who was with her as I tried to distinguish the ceiling from the walls and the curtains from the floor.

On the way back to my room, my gurney wobbled along as ceiling tiles swam past overhead. A few times, my nurse told me to hold my gut as she made a turn too sharply or the wheels of my unwieldy bed skidded against the wall. The thought of touching myself where my incision was felt nauseating as I gently braced my abdomen.

My first moments awake were peaceful, but the last few minutes I remember being awake were filled with unrest. Hospital staff hurried as contractions ripped through me in a cold operating room. There was no time to be afraid of the anesthesia, or think about the what if’s. People prepared the room as I laid there waiting, watching the hands move on a clock on the wall, hearing the radio blare in the background, wanting the entire thing to be over with.

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If there was ever a moment in my life, ever an impasse where I might have decided to go back and change my mind about something, it would have been that moment. I had no idea it would be like this, I thought to myself.

When I considered birth plans, I had in mind the fairly typical experience: I would give birth at a local hospital, avoid drugs if I could, not let my labor be augmented in any way.

I felt most strongly, though, about not wanting to have a c-section.

Famous last words.

Afterward, when I first considered everything that had gone on, I realized I had “failed” on nearly every front. I had drugs. I had pitocin. I was induced. And the crescendo was a c-section under general anesthesia.

I thought women were supposed to feel powerful and reborn after giving birth. I felt like the weakest woman who had ever endeavored to have a child.

It felt the most presumptuous thing in the world to be handed a new baby to care for after surviving what felt like my own private war. It was painful. It was terrifying. It was everything I didn’t want. And now, I had my child connected to my skin as we tried to work through the motions of breastfeeding for the first time, and I tried to reconcile everything from the fifteen hours before that moment when I’m not sure I could have told you which day of the week it was.

I had missed his first cries. I hadn’t seen him pulled from me. I didn’t get to watch his first bath, see the first time they slid a knit cap onto his head and wrap him in a froth of knitted blankets. I didn’t know how big he was. How long he was. I didn’t get to experience seeing my husband fold him in his strong arms for the first time as he became a father.

My son was the most beautiful creation I had ever seen, despite every imperfection I was sure I would pass on to him. He hardly cried. He slept. He was a gentle introduction to this parenting gig. I still couldn’t shake an underlying detachment or distance from what should have been the greatest moments of my life.

 I felt the sharp expectation to adapt automatically. I felt like what should have been some of the biggest moments of my life had been stolen from me. I felt like I needed to force some of the instant maternal happiness mothers are expected to have.

Before I was sent home, nurses gave me papers with care instructions for my incision. I would need to clean my wound with a gentle soap and peel the medical tape strips off by the end of the week. The thought of having to actually touch my bare incision was awful. When we got home, I could barely stand to pull out a handheld mirror and check the status of it as it healed. It was a part of my body I refused to recognize.

I didn’t have words for what felt so confusing and almost hurtful about those first days. I knew I should be glad my baby was born safely and that I had made it through relatively unscathed. But that didn’t change the trauma I felt like I had experienced. And I was ashamed to admit it. Mom guilt kicks in early before we even have a name for it.

When I think back on that young mother, I wish I could grab her hand from beside her hospital bed. She must have been so afraid. And she wouldn’t believe me if I told her she was going to willingly go through this ordeal three more times. In that moment, she might not have believed me if I assured her a thousand times over how worth it it was. She just didn’t know it yet. The miracle of chocolate milk rings around tiny mouths. The gift of fuzzy bed head, tiny hand prints on the windows and being so needed and wanted by someone.

I would tell her she wasn’t broken. And that she was going to spend an inordinate amount of time needlessly thinking she was. She would wonder why she felt like she wasn’t like other women. She would wonder why it was this particular thing she couldn’t manage to do. When, truthfully, each parent experiences this reality for one reason or another, at one juncture or another, multiple times. This one just happens to be hers.

There are so many times in our parenting journey where we feel more like a passenger than a parent. We might weather one crisis or another, one setback and then the next, wondering what happened to feeling in command of everything. Because the world expects you to give account for everything and to be in complete control. To be ready to explain yourself when things go awry. To enjoy every part of this motherhood experience without caveat.

For mothers who experience unplanned c-sections, that is one of our first introductions to the frustrating, breathtakingly hard and beautiful terrain of parenting. We wonder if there was anything we could have done differently. We’ll stack ourselves against the mothers we think are more cut out for this than us long before we realize that every parent feels this way about one thing or dozens of others.

It’s our first experience of making peace with our limitations and differences. And the truth is, this parenting miracle never really belongs to us. We belong to it.

And we all have that in common.

 

 

 

 

 

We need moms who talk about it.

I can’t tell you how many mom-related “S.O.S.” signals I’ve sent over the last decade.

Why make one five minute phone call when you can send eight text messages in a row from a Dunkin Donuts parking lot about how you’re going to absolutely lose it on your kids when it’s only 11 a.m. on a Tuesday??

Friends who listen are the lifelines you never realized you couldn’t live without until you wanted to know you aren’t the only mom who has thrown a box of graham crackers across the kitchen because of undiluted frustration and exhaustion.

It’s texts sent at three a.m. even though you know they aren’t awake, or at least they shouldn’t be, but you know they’ll write back at the crack of dawn when their feet hit the floor. It’s conversations spent staring into the rings of your coffee cup as you try to put all the aching you feel into words. It’s having the person whose couch feels so familiar, so safe, you can spill your ugly guts on it and know you’ll be held in quiet confidence.

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I’ve tried to funnel my thoughts into words when they feel so tangled it doesn’t seem like they will all come out.

I’ve talked about how scared I was.

How tired I was.

How depressed and anxious I have been.

How unfulfilled I felt.

How detached I felt.

I’ve talked about wanting to cop out of whatever it was I had committed myself to when  I just wanted someone to humor me and tell me it was okay to quit. I’ve lamented over why something happened to me. Why one particular thing or another needs to be my particular burden. I’ve asked a listening ear how exactly does a person parent well while they try to scrape up their shattered dreams and expectations from the pavement?

I’ve talked miles around people’s heads. Sometimes, about the same things over and over again.

And every time I think I’m charting some unknown territory when sharing my fears and failures, I realize I’m surrounded by moms who have walked similar paths to me already. Every time I think, “this conversation, this admission will be the one time someone says they don’t understand. This will be the one that changes how this person sees me,” I’m amazed at how wrong I can be.

I’m amazed at the willingness of some to “go there.” To talk it out. To listen and reserve judgement. To share their own battered hopes and dreams in quiet trust, with the hope of reaffirming someone else’s story that seems to be coming undone at the edges.

I get what it’s like living in this social media saturated world. There are many people out there who are so brave. Who have shared their stories on large platforms, thinking that if it reaches even one person who needs to hear it, then they will have done something akin to moving a mountain: they will have loved someone enough, even a stranger,  to reaffirm to them that they are not alone.

The older I get, the more I write, the more I grasp how much I play things really close to the chest. I realize just how much of myself I don’t share because there’s always the invisible tether of self-consciousness attached to me.

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The more the years tick by, the more I work to shed the weight of expectations and decide what I actually really want to care about. Even if I don’t blast every part of me as loudly as I can, I resign myself to thinking that perhaps one day, every secret shame and hurt can be used for something greater than myself. If I can be as brave as the person who reaffirms me, then I’ll be learning how to do something right.

I’ll get there.

So many out there feel the same way. They just might be quieter about it than others. We might just have to look harder to find them, but they’re there.

They might not share every cog in their stories in 800 word posts, or from their seat at Bible study. They might not lay it all out there, at least not right away. They may even seem detached or removed, running cool instead of burning hot. But, oh. Their heart? Their heart beats fast and true and holds an ocean of secrets.

Sometimes, the ones who can change everything with their story are the ones who grasp the hand of some hurting heart sitting across from them, look them in the eye and say, “me, too.” They might just be the ones we never see coming, and sometimes the most common miracle we can experience is the kindness of another.

None of us are perfectly nailing this motherhood thing (or this living life thing.) We are all broken in some way.

For so long, though, many of us have sat longing and lost behind the veneer of motherhood. Wanting just one person who understood the immense sacrifice, the trials, the hurts that come with raising a family to reassure us that we weren’t weak at all. It just really is this hard.

We sat waiting to be understood. Many of us still are. Worried it will cost us something to say, “I didn’t know it was going to be so hard. But I feel alone. I feel scared. I feel detached.”

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We need the brave ones, even when they’re quiet, even when they are still a little scared, even when they are the ones you least expect.

Who talk about how they went to counseling. How they take the little white pill every morning.

How they had the most terrifying and vulnerable conversation with their doctor after circling “almost always” on a paper quiz after giving birth just weeks before.

Who drop off casseroles with no expectation of even needing a thank you.

Who answer the phone when it isn’t convenient, and open their doors even when their home is messy, but at least there is a clear path to the sofa.

Who pour cups of coffee or wine and absorb the shock waves of another who is angry, hurting, lost or broken.

Who talk about their child who died.

Who share about their broken marriages.

Who talk about being ashamed.

Who break the silence of infertility.

Who challenge the stigma of miscarriage.

Who open up about their grief.

Who say, sometimes, they think about what might have been if they had made another choice, even if they wouldn’t change anything about their life.

The people who change the world are the people who share the scars of their own world.

And let the light in.