Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sarah's Fingerprints

Sarah Harkins... Sarah Harkins... That's interesting, I know a Sarah Harkins. The Clay Rosary Girl. How sad about that other Sarah. I'm glad it isn't the Sarah Harkins I know.

I cried a few tears for the unknown Sarah and her unborn baby, Cecilia, who died unexpectedly this week. I prayed and followed the donation link. And at some point, I discovered that it was my Sarah and her baby. I say my Sarah not because I knew her well or because I had even met her in person... but because I did know her for a while. And I did love her.

We talk about our "internet friends" and laugh over how our husbands think we're strange and how it is hard to describe just how much someone can mean to you even if you've never looked into their eyes or shared a hug. But don't we all know the truth? That somehow, even through this limited electronic connection, we are still able to connect with souls.

Sarah is beautiful. She inspires me. She was generous with me. With others. She was generous with God.

I love her work and I am fascinated by the process of creation. How much thought, prayer and work went into even the tiniest of her beads! I waited two years for a reason to purchase one of her rosaries. The rosary now belongs to my 9-year old Button who received it on her First Communion. I brought it out yesterday to see, to touch it, to pray. And that's when I saw Sarah's fingerprints embedded in the beads.  I touched them and I wept.

I am the last person who should be writing about Sarah. We were just "internet friends." But truth be told, I am grieving. I remember when she took a leap of faith into the adventure of homeschooling. I remember our emails and the thoughtful comments she left for me. I remember when she donated her work to help me out. I remember when she trusted God and lovingly birthed her gorgeous and special Mary Faustina. I wasn't there, of course, but she let me in by sharing her life. And I became attached. 

If you are blessed enough to own one of her rosaries or pieces of jewelry, I encourage you to look for her fingerprints. A connection. A sign of hope. Like the symbol of the anchor that she loved so well. It is proof of God's unique design for her body, her soul, her life. That she loved and lived for God and that... that He Who made her hands to bless, will not forsake the ones left behind. 

A consolation.

If you haven't yet donated to Sarah's children, please do so here. She homeschooled her little ones, including her beautiful daughter with downs syndrome. Let's love them well.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Spacing Children Without NFP

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 "rules" 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 average return to fertility is between 13 and 21 months postpartum 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.

One final note: 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. But there are also those women whose fertility returns in spite of all their efforts. Or who have personal reasons for not ecologically breastfeeding. I get that and honor it. Peace, sisters.

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)

This article was originally published on this blog in July of 2012.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Catholic Feminist? Reconciling the Irreconcilable

It couldn't have been more than a month or two ago that I was debating the use of the term feminist with a friend. I whole-heartedly rejected the idea that a Catholic woman would need or want to embrace the term. Why would she when she has a beautiful, whole, and healthy identity in the person of Jesus Christ? Even if we can reconcile the term with the faith (a huge stretch), why is it necessary?

And then I wrote this...

So... life humbles. And I've done a flip-flop of sorts. I still entirely reject the secular mainstream feminism -- which is simply an extension of an anti-life, anti-family, narcissistic worldview -- but now embrace a new use of the term. Not a "reclaiming" as some would like to do (I don't believe it was ever truly ours)... but a redefining. A takeover. 

If you ask me if I am a feminist, I will now answer yes, but then I'll give you an earful about why I don't mean what you think I mean. The depth and joy of Catholic femininity can't be contained in a label or slogan. I use any reluctantly. But at this moment in history, I can see the value of a deliberate defiance of the culture. 

I refuse to let mainstream feminists speak for me. And my purpose in resurrecting such a word in my life at all is to bear active witness. It is poking the hornets' nest. It is forcing a conversation that must be had in order to fight injustice. 

There's a place for activism on behalf of the natural rights and dignity of women, especially in a world that increasingly devalues what is good and beautiful about womanhood. As Catholic women, we need to take that place. We may be secure in our rock-solid-awesome Catholic families and parishes, but I assure you that there are women out there who desperately need our hand and our voice. 

So, can a Catholic be a feminist? If you define feminist by the terms of the world, then I shout a resounding NO. The possibility can only exist in a "New Feminism" ... and I invite you to read more here at The Guiding Star Project.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Discovering God's Purpose for Your Blog...

After writing multiple times in the past year about the changing world of blogging, taking a sabbatical (and living to tell about it), and then jumping right back in, I would like to add a couple more thoughts...

Actually, I'd like to let Charlotte add a couple more thoughts. She wrote a rather thought-provoking post this week as she announced a blog break. She's wiser than I in that she didn't set a timetable for her absence - she simply gave herself permission to go.

Her post affirmed the direction that I discerned for my blog during my sabbatical . I know what she's talking about. It bothers me. But I left, got my peace back, and returned with a firm sense of purpose. I have a blogging identity. It has nothing to do with any other bloggers out there... and everything to do with how the Spirit is working in my life.

Then there is Mary's post (which I saw just minutes before I intended to post this), which is further affirmation and confirmation for "mediocre" bloggers who are really the heart and soul of the Catholic internet community. She, like Charlotte, reminded me to look neither to the right or the left and just keep looking up.

I have my blogging blinders on. I have a firm purpose which I worked out with much thought and prayer while on sabbatical. I am committed to that purpose and to fighting the tendency to blog someone else's vision. I am also no longer in high school... and I refuse to allow likes, dislikes, accolades, links, awards, pettiness, or any one person to define my major actions or my purpose.

So... do you blog? Because if you do, I want you to read those posts when you have a moment. You may find that you know what these lovely gals are talking about.

And then I want you to repeat after me...

I am a uniquely gifted woman of God. My beauty lies not in how much my blog looks like anyone else's, but by how perfectly I am responding to His holy will for my life. 

Because my own blog sabbatical yielded so much fruit, I encourage all bloggers to take one of their own. Unless it provides a necessary portion of your income (and maybe even then), you should step away at times to remember what it is like to breathe and work and laugh without turning it into a blog post. God wants great and good things from you and perhaps you are having trouble listening over the noise of blogging.

In addition to the blessing of being available for God's plans, I promise that you will learn two things:

1) That you have (in some measure) an unhealthy attachment to the blogging world. 

2) That almost no one truly cares if you blog again or not.

I don't mean to sound harsh but it is the cold internet reality that "when you move your feet, you lose your seat." You will be missed by a few but it is unlikely anyone will even cry. People move on quickly. If number 2 causes you feel a lot of anxiety, then please recall number 1... and take steps toward a good spiritual cleaning.

If we're honest, then most of us can admit that we've been guilty of putting our blogging egos before our holy purpose. Yes? That would be me. But the appropriate response to that self-knowledge is to fight like heck to get things right. 

We can be savvy without being worldly.
We can be confident without being arrogant.
We can protect our intellectual property while still being generous.
We can earn some money without being covetous.
We can accept compliments with humility.
We can embrace criticism as a means to sanctity.

So what does God want from your blog? Not what do YOU want from your blog or what do you think God wants from your blog... but what is His actual dream for your keyboard. I discovered through my time away that it wasn't actually what I thought it was and I am grateful for the redirect.

If you need some silence to figure out your blog purpose (and you likely do), then take a break. Make sure it's long enough to sever unhealthy attachment. Return to blogging if He wills it. And if you've used your time well, you'll be humbler, happier, holier, more authentic, and more fruitful than before you left.

I am dreaming of a blog revival. We can never go back to the way it was in the beginning but we don't have to... the Spirit is here with us in the present. It's about ongoing conversion. Let's give everything and watch God light it up.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

When Children Fly...

It's been almost a year now since this little girl made her grand entrance. I was so eager to see her sweet face and kiss her tiny feet  - and today she is walking and talking and playing with toys. Pardon the old cliche but... it goes so fast. Takes my breath away.

I promised myself I would never be one of those old ladies who tut tut's over young moms and repeats those tired phrases. I'm already breaking that promise. I see the pretty mamas at the back of the church, overwhelmed and frustrated by the little fussing people charged to their care. Don't blink, mama... it goes fast. You'll wish you had these precious years back someday. They give me that look. I know that look because I've given it. It says: Yes, nice old lady. Blah, blah, blah. Now please step aside so that I can find a changing table and pick the mushy fish crackers out of my hair.

And then there's this guy who is getting ready to leave the nest....

His head and heart are yearning for more. He loves us, I know... but God made him to move on. And he's feeling that pull. It doesn't seem to make him particularly sad but I feel my heart break a little each time he stretches. He wants to go to college early. He asked and we gave a conditional yes. My yes went up and my heart sank down, down, down to my toes. It weighed me down for a few days.  He tells me not to be sad because he'll be back... but I know better. We all know that even when we come back things are... different.

He was the first to enter my homeschool. He'll be the first one to leave it. Then one by one, they'll all fly...

Between my littlest and my biggest there are a few more gorgeous little souls. And one special little guy who took a piece of my heart when he left for glory. He was only 2-inches long in my hand but his soul... ah... just bigger than I can embrace. I still think of him as my littlest one... but he would be four now and a big brother to two siblings.

Today is his birthday. His silent, lonely little birthday. Four years ago, I quietly bled and waited for him. I felt labor pains and the hours passed by in a surreal blur. Taking care of my kids... losing my baby... planning lunch... losing my baby... talking on the phone... losing my baby.

And then, after the part of labor that steals breath and courage from even brave mothers... it was over. One minute he was safe within and the next, well, he was safe forever. I cannot complain about that since it is what I desire for all of my children. But I think of him and miss him. He is Matthew. He is mine. And he lives. I weep and laugh alternately. My arms ache to hold him but then I think of our meeting someday and I am consoled through my tears.

I wanted to see his little grave today. Such a beautiful day! At home, I lost confidence in my ability to find his plot in that big cemetery and so I did a grave search online. I tried different searches and could not find him anywhere. My heart started to pound and tears sprang to my eyes. I cannot find him. So I did a general google search and nothing came up. Nothing. I couldn't find Matthew. And I didn't have the courage to go to the huge cemetery and look without finding.

I know it's not completely rational. Why would an internet search hold power over my heart? He doesn't care that his name isn't recorded on the internet. He doesn't care that we didn't go to visit his tiny grave today. But I couldn't find my little one and it hurt so badly.

The Chief is going to take me to the cemetery this week and we will, of course, find the spot with relative ease. We know how to find it. I wish that my humanity did not need such consolations. I wish that I could just rejoice in my baby's happiness. What is it about a motherhood that must break not only over sorrows but also over our joys?

When I was a young mother and a new-ish practicing Catholic, I didn't like the devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows. I was turned off by her blue and weeping countenance. I felt young and secure and those depictions were depressing and reminded me of great-grandmothers and doilies and their mysterious dusty, antiquated version of religion. I don't remember the day that changed but, at some point, I learned to love that image of Our Lady. She is beautiful. She is courageous in love. She shows us how to walk in grief and trial with grace and beauty. And I depend on her.

One way or another, I am going to be separated from all of my children. For a time. Please God, only for a time. Until then, my heart will continue to break off into little pieces on this earthly journey. I am counting on Blessed Mother to help me sweep them up and present them to the Lord. He'll know what to do with them.

Thanks be to God.


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