Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Darkest Hour

I keep thinking I'm going to write THE POST where I solve parenthood. And the problem of sin. It's like how I used to start every new journal as neatly and epicly as possible, because I was sure that upon my untimely young and tragic death, every word I put to paper would be collected, hoarded, and turned into a best-seller. Humility is one of my stronger suits.

But lucky for you (I know, I flatter myself), I'm back to the drawing board.

Parenting (ah yes, this again. Shocking. All my posts are the same these days) is a lesson (beating?) in extremes, and I am not a fan of the extremes, at least the difficult ones and how frequent they've become. It reminds me of that carnival ride with the ship that goes back and forth, like a swing, you know the one. One of my friends was proposed to on something like that, except more of an actual swing. Her now-husband refused to release their swing to fall back down until she answered the proposal. With parenting, I feel like I can't even resolve one extreme before being released, screaming and occasionally throwing up, to the other extreme. I don't get the chance to agree to any of it.

One day can encompass productivity, excitement, joy, contentment, wonder... but also intense frustration, anger, disappointment, exhaustion, bafflement, hunger, depression, guilt, inadequacy, resentment, and despair. The ride makes me sick. Legitimately sick, like sores breaking out in my mouth from lack of control. Sometimes I go to bed feeling totally whooped, other times I'm able to work myself back to the middle somewhere so that I have a better place to start in the next morning.

I only like the boat to rock if I'm the one rocking it, and I'm not even sure I'm in a boat anymore at this point. I don't do so well with emotions, let alone extreme ones. Parenting manages to encompasses both the best (some truly movie-like moments that I would otherwise think myself incapable of feeling or experiencing) and the worst moments of my life. The in between parts feel boring and hard and I feel guilty for just wanting to get past this stage, because what if the next stage is like this too, and I just go through life wishing for something else and never experience life?

Guilt is another theme I'm working on in my life - not guilt over what I've done or am not doing, but guilt over how I'm not living up to what I think other people expect of me. I've come to see recently that I might have a slight "thing" about control. I seriously wish I was a drinker sometimes, but I can't bring myself to get drunk or smoke or take [even prescription] drugs or throw things or scream because "I don't want to lose control of myself." I've always thought of being in control of myself as a virtue, but it's a very tiny step from trying to control everything, and I definitely don't see that as a virtue in other people. In fact, I have an arsenal of names for people like that. Being in control of my life is beginning to feel nothing more than hard-headed, though. Maybe I'm just not that good at taking it all on by myself. Actually, I am kind of good at it, but there's just no off switch, and that's where the issue arises, I suppose. (here's a picture for you, in case you're getting bored of me trying to self-soothe at the end of every single paragraph)

I've also been thinking (jeez, where am I getting all this time to think from?!) about parenting as an introvert. I've become a little less extremely introverted as I've grown older, but I think I'm reverting. Lately, I just want to BE. ALONE. For like a few hours. Or maybe a whole day (attainable goals only, here, people). I think the last time that happened was like 8 years ago. For real. I'm becoming a compulsive showerer (totally against my nature) because the bathroom door has a lock on it and people generally respect that they can't barge in on an occupied bathroom.

I'm about to get PG-13 here, so consider yourself warned.
This whole being-alone obsession is a little rough on the ol' marriage. I was crying in bed about my total lack of romantic or sexual interest recently (recently being since getting pregnant with my second a year+ ago), and really no light at the end of the tunnel. I've been holding out hope for the LST's (Longest Shortest Time) parents-and-sex podcast series, and installment 1, which came out the very next day after my little sniffle fest, did not disappoint. I always get in to trouble when I compare myself, and I'm especially vulnerable to comparisons when it comes to my love life (aren't we all? Please say yes.).

I've had this impression that healthy couples can't even wait the doctor's recommended 6 weeks to have sex post-baby. Seriously, I congratulate you if you're in that camp (I'm not being sarcastic, though maybe a bit bitter). I was so relieved and validated to hear that complaining about your sex life isn't even allowed for the first YEAR after a baby, according to the LST. I still feel kind of sad about the state of things, but it at least takes a weight off my shoulders to know that my complete lack of interest is normal and not shameful. Seriously, listen to the podcast (very, very NSFW) if you've had a kiddo in the past few years. There are some gold nuggets in there, such as: "sex" should not be defined as vaginal intercourse or mutual orgasm. Childbirth leaves you with physical (and sometimes other kinds, too) wounds. That's kind of a huge topic on its own, but I include it because it's a very real part of the overall struggle I'm engaged in with my life right now, and as usual, I think we all benefit when we're able to talk about real things that we have in common, but too seldom have the invitation to commiserate on or the encouragement of knowing we're not alone. (Just call me super-run-on-sentence girl!)

Anyway, another point he (guest Dan Savage, that is) makes is that some parents are being clung to and sniveled on ALL.DAY.LONG, and when you get to the end of the day and have even the opportunity for some private time with your significant other, the last thing you want is to be touched in any way any more (see also, correlation between breastfeeding and lack of libido). I find myself exhausted of being needed so much. Yet how can I say no to little arms reaching out, and my husband needing a hug? I don't really want to say no, but I do slide into patches of burn out. I feel stretched too thin at just about all times. I disappoint myself by finding affection so very undesirable.

I find motherhood to be a relatively thankless job (except on Mother's Day, which I freakin' love), and to be honest, I like to be recognized for things. I'm really working on training myself to care for my sons with no feelings of being put out or like I'm not getting paid enough (hahaaaaa) OR (and this is a mega biggie) resentment over division of labor between Jonas and I. I'm joking about this because I know you guys know that I truly love all my guys, but somehow the soft, cuddly, selfless me makes herself pretty scarce.

I beat myself up for being a "stone cold fox" as my sister Annelise says. Out of desperation, I googled "INTJ parenting" tonight. I know that Meyers-Briggs isn't the end-all-be-all by any means, but sometimes I just need to hear someone else describe exactly what I'm feeling to make me feel less like a floundering failure, and this google search provided it for me. I won't bore you with the whole assessment (I know you're just going to look up your own type, anyway), but it includes phrases like, "will likely never be able to deliver the sort of warmth and coddling that stereotypes say they should", "will take a clear and conscious effort on their part to curb and adapt these qualities to their children's needs, especially in the younger years", "heavily invested in rational thought, logic, and analyzing cause and effect...often unprepared for dealing with someone who hasn't developed these same abilities who they can't simply walk away from" (I said almost those exact words in a previous post!), "struggle to manage their own emotions in a healthy way, let alone others'", "tend to avoid 'unproductive' emotional support, instead taking a solutions-based approach to resolving issues".

There's a good side to this too, but I quake at the image of myself as this dictator, and my boys unable to feel warmth or approval from me, especially since I'm the stay-at-home-parent at this point. It's an encouraging assessment in that there's not something wrong with me for how I see the world or how difficult it is for me to connect with children, but I worry that I'm seriously handicapped when it comes to classic motherliness and I don't want to crush their spirits with my inability to communicate raw emotion and my frustration for childishness, even in children. I'm very much still learning what parenting is going to look like for me, but I can already tell that it's pretty different than what a lot of people think parenting should look like, and the weight of that criticism is no small thing for me. (here's another visual reward/representation of my psyche for you. Cheery, isn't it?)

One of our dear friends is a social worker. His main job is to teach parents how to play with their kids. Everyone who hears him say this thinks that's the saddest thing in the world, but I find myself really in need of that because it certainly doesn't come naturally to me. I watched my sister playing with Ira when she was home from school and she stood him on her knees and used his hands to mimic dancing to some music that was playing. He LOVED it, and I've since done it with him myself, and he continues to love it. This thrills me, and although so simple, it is something I probably never would have come to on my own.

In the last few years, I've been really proud of myself for becoming a happy person, which I really would never have guessed I would be - not because I've had a dreadful life, but because I fixate on heavy things. I've been spending a lot of time being miserable lately, and I'm determined not to lose happiness because I'm in a stage of life that is extremely challenging for me. I am trying to deal with the fact that the next few years might be consistently challenging for me as I try and shape myself into a woman who is not only less self-focused, but one who is focused on something (children, parenting, etc.) that is so irrational. I think this is an excellent goal, but it is really beating the tar out of me.

In the name of trying to preserve happiness (or grow into new kinds of happiness), I'm getting better at playing with my kids and seeking after endeavors that help me move forward in some direction, though I'm not sure what that direction is. It's taken 3 years, but I've finally succumbed to listening to children's music, despite the questionable theology of some children's praise songs and gender stereotypes in regular children rhymes, or downright bad advice. "Miss Lucy put the baby in the bathtub to see if he could swim?" Really? Miss Lucy is fired.

There's this one tape (yes, cassette tapes, people) that I have on heavy rotation (because it's the most tolerable and interesting) called Wee Sing Around the World. You can listen to a sampling here. I remember most of these songs word for word from when I was growing up, although somehow over the past 20 years, "mi burro, mi burro has a headache" became "mi burro, mi burro, mi rockin' rockin' burro." I'm finally realizing that listening to children's music is not about me liking or not liking it, but for the sake of doing something that my sons like. I really didn't believe that they would enjoy it so much more than regular music, but somehow they do, and an added bonus is that they enjoy our new morning playtime so much that I can almost accomplish half-a-thing while they play. Unless I get sucked in to creating the tower of Babel out of duplos (admittedly entertaining) or keeping Ishmael from pushing Ira over for fun or poking his cheeks or sitting on his lap. Ai, mi burros!

Childhood is so foreign to me, as children are little blizzards of being, encompassing contradictions, continuously changing, enjoying or hating things for no rational reason, saying and doing things I have absolutely no way of interpreting. I was never very good at being a child, even when I was one. Beyond the human-to-human aspect, I am the equivalent of a luddite for children's... things. I find myself at other people's houses or around other children and thinking, "if only I had gotten one of those baby round play walkers, if only I had known about hands-free pumping bras, if only....".

Before having Ishmael, I just thought, "what more do you need beside food and clothing and mud to play in?", and while I still hold that to be fundamentally true, it turns out that I am not a great playmate or storyteller or any of that, and so it could behoove me to take advantage of all the inventions for making children happy. It's pretty much out there if you can imagine it, you just have to ask Google where to find it (hellooooo, bra extensions!). Even proofreading this paragraph though, I realize that it's not about finding the right set of children's toys or activities that will make my relationship with my boys - or parenting in general - wrapped up in a box. This business does not fit into any boxes, and I have to come to terms with that.

I think I seriously am burnt out on my life. I just ignore phone calls and bills and stuff because I #canteven. I dread everything because I can't accomplish anything satisfactorily. I do pay the bills eventually, but I work several small jobs from home and sometimes I just let those go for a few days while I get a grip on things and have some more energy or even a shred of will to devote to them. I can't give up, but I also can't win. I will never have less to do in my life, I will never become organized enough that everything is accomplished satisfactorily. I will never find every answer, and I will never survive if I make that my aim. 

I was recently reading this excellent blog, Not Without Salt, whose writer published a cookbook of date-night-in recipes. You should watch the short book trailer (oh 21st century, you!), because her reasons for the book are SPOT ON and will resonate with so many of you who are parents, as it did for me. In a recent post on her blog, she talked about being exhausted from all the work with the book and having to let herself be the one coming to the table and needing to be fed, rather than the one always doing the feeding. Yes. Yes. Yes, on every level. Yes to needing to be filled back up again while things are constantly being asked of you. Yes to the love of cooking being the love of bringing others simple joy. Yes to the fear of losing that joy or that special time creating in the kitchen (ahem, past tense - lost) because it's all I can do to shovel microwaved hot dogs into their mouths. Yes to feeling like my husband is more of a room mate than a lover, thanks to life with little children, and just, life. Yes to that needing to change. Yes to that process feeling overwhelming and like one more thing that I won't be able to accomplish properly.

I have built part of my identity around the love of good food - making is, sharing it, searching for it - and I've had to abandon that to a degree since going from 1 to 2 children. Everyone says that going from 1 to 2 is the hardest jump of all (even more than from 2 to 3, and on up), and I don't know why, but I think everyone might be right. Dan Savage mentioned on the podcast that having two kids is not twice as hard as having one, it's 10 times as hard. The fact that both of my children are napping at the same time right now makes me an jedi master. You parents know what I'm talking about.

Maybe I'm just alarmed at how many bad days there are now. In between the extreme highs of parenting, which do happen occasionally, there's a lot of, "this is the worst day" and the next day,"no, THIS is the worst day!" My friend Heather assures me there will come a time again when things are less extreme, and I have the opportunity to do anything, and am not just be running around, crazy eyed, pj bottoms inside out, yanking drum sticks out of kids throats. I will again be able to wear headphones without taking them off every 10 seconds because I'm worried that one of the boys is suffocating in bed and I can't hear their squeaks for help. Someday, I might go somewhere by myself again (although this seems cosmically unlikely). Someday I might open the door to the JW ladies and not look like this. All the JW ladies want to tell me is about how the end of the world is eminent, and I think they're pretty sure the state of my life is the cause of this. Someday, I will get back in the kitchen and create again, perhaps even with two little sous chefs along side of me.

Heather assures me of these things, but I think she might be lying so keep me alive. 

I hear myself saying over and over as I write this, "I can't do this!". And the truth is, I can not do this. As a person of faith in Jesus Christ, I believe that I need his help, but I don't know how to accept it most of the time. I treat this relationship as a transaction: If I surrender, everything will turn out like I want it to. Even I know that that's not what surrendering control truly means. I'm not quite sure how things will get done if I can't do them and God isn't going to literally accomplish my daily to-do list either. There have got to be some in between options, but I have difficultly thinking in those terms.

One of my favorite songs we sing at Element from time to time has this line, "where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Chains are broken, eyes are opened." Last time I heard it, I kept repeating, "where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom," all week to myself, because I feel so very confined. Aaron (our pastor) recently did a few sermons on the prodigal son, and put the story in a completely different light for me. The older I get, the more I realize that I don't have everything worked out as well as I thought I did, which is both a sign of growth (I hope), and somewhat discouraging. I realize that although I know what grace is, I do not know how to receive it, and I think I can not have a meaningful relationship with Christ if I can not grow past trying to work my way to him.

I don't question my salvation, but I question whether I know at all what it means to truly follow Christ. Aaron used an analogy for grace that really struck me - he told the story of having had someone pay his bill at a restaurant once (which has happened to me before too), and how helpless it made him feel. It is useless to try and argue with the waitress that your debt is not paid or to try and pay it again a second time, and you have no way to thank or repay the person who paid for you.

I am well aware that trying to be good enough (aka "works") as a person to achieve what I want is a task that I can never do well enough. My natural desire is to try and pay my own way and rely on my own strength, but I am more and more sure that I can never be good enough. What is both amazing and frustrating is learning that trying to live in grace is even harder than trying to be good enough through works. The urge to take control of my own destiny is so powerful that I constantly fail to truly grasp the grace that is given to me. Never, before this past week, had it occurred to me that I might owe my God an apology for even trying to repay him for salvation. The concept of repaying is not only futile, but a slap in the face for someone who is simply giving you something out of love.

I love free stuff, but even when it's a transaction between me and another human, I don't consider anything to be truly free. If its a friend who has given me something for free, I remember it and want to return the favor at some point. If I get something for free from a stranger or a business, or even if I find money on the sidewalk, I feel [happily] like I got the longer end of the stick than someone else did. Being an INTJ is totally exhausting.

This is going to sound silly, but just as I had this post mostly written, I watched an episode (season 3, episode 2, in case you're wondering ;)) of Call the Midwife with my mom and sister Julia, and the in one scene, Jenny runs through the symptoms of postpartum depression and mentions that it can last for a year after having a baby. I have battled depression at various times in my life, which leads me to think that depression is not out of the question as a component of why I'm struggling so much, but I'm so wary of calling myself depressed because I feel it could be an excuse to wallow in a situation that every parent faces. Maybe we just need a cat?

They say the darkest hour is always right before the dawn. That's all well and good, as long as you believe the dawn will come. Sometimes I fear it won't. For my own sake, I can't help but try and rend on a faintly hopeful note, and all I can muster sometimes is the remembrance of one of my favorite promises, "His mercies are new every morning". I need em all, every one. every day.


  1. Great post! I gather you will, like I have, really love the elementary school years (not that you don't love the toddler ones... But those toddlers just make no flipping sense)... I find myself so much happier when I'm able to communicate with mostly rational thought patterns in my kids, well... Cormac at least. And I flippin' love Mother's Day too. Amen to that holiday.

  2. From Carolyn Broughton:
    I love your honesty, Karissa. As an ENTJ mom of three, I resonate with practically every word in this post, just in case you thought you were all alone out there. And even though I'm supposed to be an extrovert, I'm finding myself questioning that more and more as my craving for time to myself, ALONE, reaches epic proportions some days (I'm guilty of locking myself in our tiny toilet with my phone for long stretches just so I can check fb in peace)... And yes, by far the hardest year for me was after we had Ben (our boys are 23 mos apart), so I feel you there too in a major way. The grunt work side of parenting does ease off a bit when they can dress, feed and poop by themselves, but what doesn't change is the sheer unmeasurable, unquantifiable nature of soul-shaping. It's crazy God entrusts it to human beings! Even if we kill ourselves for these tiny people, we have no guarantee they're going to turn out "right", whatever that means. (Sorry - this was meant to be encouraging!) Here's what I'm hanging on to these days: that I have no hope of happiness or contentment with my "lot" however cute they might be, unless the sweetness of my life is Jesus Himself. And that I have no hope of ever truly "finishing" or "accomplishing" this parenting,, homemaking thing to my satisfaction, so I have got to choose to rest in Jesus before, during and after each task, so the real worth of it comes in spending time with Him (even if I'm with my kids too). And...date nights at home are a sanity-and-marriage saver, but if I want the kind of romance that really feeds my soul I have to look for it in a sunrise, a single candle flame, a herd of horses going past, the sparkle of sun on snow. He's there - just listen, and you'll find Him. Love you, Karissa- hang in there!!


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