how to win while losing at motherhood

“I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:14

She clung to my shoulders with her arms and knees, her neck wrapped on mine as the fountain misted our backs and absorbed our squeals. As soon as the wind changed, she anticipated the next mist and around the Bailey Fountain we went – a blurred, bouncing spectacle for the tourists posing in front of the mysterious, mythological scene. The sun beat down just as the mist dewed our faces and there are no photos of our delight. It lived so perfectly in that moment, just after 12 noon on a Tuesday.

Her little, tumbling giggle surprised us both. It was almost too generous – too full and wild. And, if I was guessing, I would say this is a little bit why little children can come to Jesus. 

This full and wild generosity of a child is unrestrained – like their Maker, ready to unleash lavish goodness in response to beauty and in the middle of delight.

There are many ways an adult can ‘become like a child’ and none of them are so easy. I have moments, like the fountain, where delight washes over and nothing ‘adult’ matters. But, most moments, I am aware of my unfortunate maturity. I squirm in skin that has worked hard to shake free of dependence – to get established and known and significant. But, the world is stingy with delight, starved of any true kind. All my slow (and unsteady) progress toward adulthood often feels like chasing after the wind. Meaningless. Culture doesn’t help me get past this curse – I’m constantly reminded that my life is supposed to be linear, that my work is supposed to build and progress and flourish into an evolving and important identity.

There is another baby bulging out of my belly, did I mention that? That’s very adult. The second time around is different for all the obvious reasons, but also because I am not in my first months of marriage and my brother did not just die. But my favorite part has been watching Zella’s sweet affection grow with the size of my belly. She leans in to sing her own made up songs. She tells the baby about all the excitement of this world (mostly noting the baby will get to drink milk). She perceives when the baby is awake and asleep. I’m glad she is paying attention; her wonder pulls me in.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;

I think about that stanza often. It plays in my head without invitation and all my neurons rush to find its melody. Maybe the elusive “winning” is the undercurrent of my everyday, the obvious wanting in every disrupted simple task. The edge of the full dustpan tips on the trashcan and empties on the floor. Not winning. The internet refreshes on days of blog rambles and doesn’t save a word. Not winning. The laundromat increases their prices 8 quarters more than all your cash and the nearest free ATM is 10 blocks away and your potty-trained lady just made a puddle by washer number 4. Not winning.

But God undoes win-lose scenarios – actually disappears them, and not because my daily losses are unimportant or irrelevant. But because he cares so intimately about the sweeping and the creating and the laundry, that He redeems and redefines winning completely. His measurement is an altogether different scale, interstellar dimension status. If not, the “right man on our side” would have been one big loser.

Were not the right man on our side,
a man of God’s own choosing

I get now why He let the little children come. They aren’t so wrapped up and weighted down with losses. Or, at least they aren’t keeping such close track. Or, they get His measurement system – where delight can disrupt the scales in the middle of a series of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad moments. If I’m honest, I need a million of those blurred, bouncing moments – chasing fountain mist with a giggling toddler. I need almost constant reminders of the different win-lose dimension scale.

In a recent talk (which, BTW is winning), Jen Wilkin said, “Human love is based on need. God’s love is not. His covenant stands because it is in no way dependent on me.”

Because God is altogether different, in being and knowing and doing, He is hope against wind chasing. Even as we become like little children – embracing their delight and dependence – we must be supremely aware of His absolute goodness and absolute other-ness. He is true and present in a windstorm and on a still day. In our struggle against a world of devils, it is His truth that triumphs through us – not because of all of our wind chasing, but because He is good. That is why He can be so generous, why His generosity never changes with temperaments or time.

His absolute goodness is in Him like our infinite humanity is in us.

invitations are about movement

I was on the couch, curled up in Sabbath bliss and rubbing the watermelon belly that has become a part of me. We saw the due date come and go last week and a little bit of me thought, “Well, I guess I’ll just be pregnant forever.”

Irrational, maybe. But these are things you think when 43 days have gone by and the wiggles are still on the inside. Things I think, anyway.

Patrick came over and snuggled in to ask, “What can I do to encourage you?”

And then he started reciting Scripture in my silence, while my cheeks burned hot tears.

Philippians 4:4-8
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Psalm 34
“I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together! Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.

He kept reciting the verses from the list my mom sent us in an email a couple weeks back. I asked her to send me verses for laboring to calm my delivery nerves, but he memorized them because he knows it’s good to have Scripture saved up in your soul.

I kept silent, blinking and battling and defending my stubbornness.

The hot tears came because, sure, all the baby emotions. But the Word of the Lord never returns void and the chord it hit yesterday in my spirit was one I’ve been trying to avoid.

I want Baby K to come now because my calendar says Michication (our annual family gathering in Michigan) starts with a flight on July 10th. I want to go to the beach with my niece and nephews and I want to come back with sand in my shoes. I want to sit around campfires and toast marshmallows and play board games late into the night. I want to do all the things we have been talking about since we last left each other in September after James and Carly’s wedding.

That’s what I want.  And just above the din of my own heart and schedule I could still hear him reciting –

Psalm 46:1-3
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”

God surely knows my need for fresh water and sibling laughter and firelight. He surely knows these are good things – things that soothe my heart and calm my spirit. He surely knows I need it just this way.

And still more verses cut through my innermost arguments –

Psalm 143:8
Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.

A couple weeks ago, we sang a familiar song after communion at church – it’s a song I have posted before and will probably post again. The song is a simple invitation to sit at a feast, but what I hear these days when I sing is an invitation to movement.

Come, Sinners Come
Come sinners, come for there is a spread
a table full and free
For all who thirst, for Christ has said
that all may come and eat

Come sinners, come
Come sinners, come
Oh, what a love is this
that bids sinners come.

All the way to a dinner party has felt too long to travel these past 10 months – from grief and worry and selfishness and fear. I know that celebration and belonging and courage and joy are just past that threshold, but sometimes I’m still holding the invitation on my doorstep – feeling the beauty and weight of the faith that hangs in the distance between.

I want to sit at the celebration, but I just don’t know if there are enough steps in my feet. And I guess that’s why I am realizing the invitation to “come” is all about movement. The “coming” might take awhile, but repenting is about direction as much as it is about destination.

Stubbornness and pride and fear and worry and anxiety will probably make part of the journey with me, but I guess you could say I’m slowly turning toward the Host.

Pat keeps on saying this whole pregnancy and delivery is a way the Lord is teaching us, speaking to us, and challenging us toward greater faith. I keep nodding that he is right while my feet are planted like cement on my doorstep, inwardly promising to move when I have less to give up.

It doesn’t work like that.

God’s invitation for sinners like me to “come” to the feast is not the reception after the main event I have planned. It is the main event. Movement toward that feast is a movement away from all the things I want instead – beach vacations and 7 pound babies and easy delivery. Every step believes that what is promised is the best there is, the absolute best.

There will probably be more Scripture quoted to a stubborn face hot with tears before Baby K arrives, but I’m praying that Truth will soften me to repentance and movement toward the absolute best.

she is not ours

I know I have not nested enough or planned enough or read enough or enoughed enough – with this whole parenting thing, I mean. I know this because it seems like all pregnant ladies have lists – to do, to buy, to think, to read, to reflect, to pray.

There are also the “don’t worry if you haven’t made a list – this is the one list you’ll need” lists.

I’m not as organized as I used to be (or maybe I am just more honest). I have no lists. [Actually, that’s not true – I am keeping a list of songs that pop into my head unannounced. So far I have: 21 Questions by 50 Cent, Away in a Manger, Video by India Arie, The Storm is Passing Over, We Like to Party, Easter Song by Keith Green, I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross. And those are just the songs that come when I’m near the pen and paper at work where I keep track.] 

do daydream about baby’s hair color and baby’s imagination and what kind of family we will be when baby turns five.
do have doubts about being a mom, though with every day my body confirms that I am created for it.
do imagine what Brooklyn will look like from new eyes as a stay-at-home mom.
do wonder about the privilege of welcoming a baby with special needs – if that is one of the surprises waiting on delivery day.

A few days ago I gave a strange, bullet pointed version of “my story” for our Brooklyn Fellows class. In the process of preparing, I remembered some precious words my mom said once on a terraza in Santa Lucia, Honduras. My parents were visiting from the States for a week and I had taken them to all my favorite spots – the garbage dump school, the feeding center, the orphanage, and the home for boys – before bringing them to my student’s home for a late lunch (except that, in typical ambiguous fashion, Alejandra and I had never communicated or confirmed this plan… so my dad ended up eating a LOT of pastel (cake) and coffee in the absence of meat).

When my dad was on his third slice and my mom had shared all of our galavanting stories, Alejandra’s mom asked, “Don’t you worry about Caroline being here?”

She answered it just like she would her age or her affinity for the country life, “Well, she’s not ours. She is the Lord’s.” So simply, so true.

I nodded with all my silly, missional enthusiasm. I had done a lot of things in that wonderful country – hitchhiked in El Salvador and La Tigra, been stranded overnight hiking a mountain, driven students through El Centro at night, been pulled over by fake cops, taken students with bodyguards on mission trips, rode in the back of pickup trucks, wandered up to houses that looked like mechanic shops, accepted invitations from neighbor-strangers, stayed up all night with students baking pumpkin muffins and making sushi at 2 am, argued with cops who pulled me over and wanted to take my car… the list is too long and too embarrassing to recount. Not all of it was wise or prayerful or good.

My parents prayed a lot. And they never told me to slow down or to move back home.

“She is the Lord’s.”

I don’t know yet the kind of courage it takes to believe that as a parent. I think it’s the way she said it – like I am first God’s family and I am on loan. It was a fact like the price of corn, but it came out like she was announcing I had royal relatives. It rippled across every belief in my heart that God is sovereign and a kind of kinship welled up as if to say, “I am the Lord’s!”

All of the Scripture I read as a child was not mumbo-jumbo. All those verses and sermons and conversations in the kitchen before dinner and talks before morning milking chores – those were about my Father. I belong to Him.

And He is a good keeper, the best.

I have thought about my mom’s words often, especially this past year when we have held so tightly to Will with possessive pronouns: my son, my brother, my husband, my friend, mine.

And even as we push against it, God is saying, “He is mine. He belongs to me. I am his keeper. And I do not fail.”

That’s hard to hear.

It was a strange time to get pregnant – in the first few months of marriage and in the first few months of grief. But God never stopped being faithful, never stopped keeping promises, never stopped claiming us as His. So, now I pray that when people ask, “Aren’t you afraid your baby will…” we will respond, “Oh, Baby K is not ours. Baby K is the Lord’s.”

It sounds crazy, but I can still hear it spoken over me, like last year’s corn prices and the announcement of royal heritage.


Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thank you for not claiming me as your own – for doing the harder thing in confessing that I am the Lord’s.

Love, Gram

I am sad you don’t get emails from my Gram.

I read this one over and over, and then several times out loud to different audiences because it is that good. I wish she would start a blog, so everyone could read about the musicians removing their caps because of unpredictable weather at a church service and because they were facing the east. I didn’t make any changes because I want you to read it exactly like I did (the first, second, and fifth times).

Caroline and Patrick, do we have a new address?  Since I don’t do a lot on Facebook of a personal nature, I would like to have an address! ! ! ! ! ! ! !   We had church in the park yesterday.  When they moved the music equipment to the stage the sun was shining and when we got there at 10; it was still shining, but when the service started at 10:15, the clouds had appeared and the musicians removed their caps as they were facing the east.  Service, grill meat, sit down to meat and salad and dessert lunch.  As we finished and were visiting, it began to sprinkle, the music equipment and table and chairs got moved back to the church very rapidly before it began to sprinkle in earnest.  Here in Griswold Iowa, we have had rain EVERY SINGLE DAY.  At least 6 inches for the week.  Good for some thingss, like the corn and beans, but hard on my dahlia flowers.  The Raspberries are BIG at the beginning of their fall season.    And we will have apples.  But the squirrels like the delicious ones, they nibble and they then fall to the ground and that’s it. Sounds like your apartment is just right according to what I heard from someone.  The right size for pancake mondays, right distance from the train, close to old pancake friends, etc. etc.  Got any pictures?  Patrick, one night the girls were fixing  supper while Cindy was on skype and they burned the bacon!  She couldn’t believe it and they were standing right there!  ! ! ! ! !    Love, Gram

You are welcome.

He will not stay hidden

I press my cheeks into the clouds covering the Nebraska sky, “Come out, come out wherever You are! You promised You could be found!”

He promised.

I keep coming back to Jeremiah 29. I memorized verse 11 in elementary and then rolled my eyes at the way it was thrown on calendars and desk organizers for high school graduation gifts, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Plans for prospering and for hope and a future. Plans the Lord declares over us, even as He knows the number of our days. Plans and true words and nothing to roll my eyes about.

The next verses seem to me an encouragement toward belief when those plans don’t make sense, “You will seek me and you will find me if you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord.”

That means sometimes He will be hidden. And sometimes He will even be so hidden that we will only find Him if we seek Him with all our hearts, like finding Him is the most important thing.

And now I’m on my way to California, with my grief cheeks in the middle of Midwest clouds. And I need for that promise to be true. I need for Him to not stay hidden. I need for Him to be found and for me to be found in Him.

This is the flip side of “dying is gain,” I guess. It’s the “to live is Christ” part that is so hard to swallow. Heaven I can handle. I can look forward to eternity with the One who would stop at nothing to have me in His presence forever. I can picture days emptied of pain and full to overflowing with the Creator of everything good. Heaven I can handle. But I am not in heaven, I am here.

And God said there is abundant life, here.

When Jesus came to bring life and life abundant (John 10:10), it was with all the authority of heaven and it was not a hidden operation. Everyone who sought Him out was found by Him; everyone seeking abundance found more than they could carry.

Believing God made abundance available in these moments is the hardest game of hide and seek. But I have noticed that we are all seeking. We are all turning over rocks and looking in closets. We are looking for answers and knowing no answer will make sense.

So, I pray I would seek the right thing. I pray for belief that joy is here, that abundance is here, that life is here… because God has promised to not stay hidden from those who seek Him with all their hearts.

And He has promised to be the strength for me to seek when “all my heart” is a scattered mess that can’t be made to wholly seek anything.


I wrote this on the plane to California yesterday. Less than 24 hours later and these thoughts feel so far away. But they are thoughts and I am typing them down because they are my grief notes and it might be helping. Find all our grief notes at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

the gravity of grief weight

He picked around the cashews on the table and instead chose the peanuts, pecans, and almonds. Cashews are my favorite and he was leaving them for me.

We had biked to our pastor’s apartment in a rush and I was flustered about our handfuls of changed Saturday plans. He let us sit there, my new husband and me, and think of things to say or not say. So, the stillness sunk in with the late morning sun streaming through all the circle windows. With sweat still on the backs of our shirts, we heard Vito say, “What do you want to talk about?”

We didn’t know, exactly. We just knew we should talk, so we shrugged into conversation about marriage and transition and new things and… well, and grief.

I didn’t think I could put fingers to keys again, at least for awhile. I had to let her words sit with me first. I had to let my shoulders in Brooklyn feel all the weight on hers in Davis. I had to try, anyway. I had to notice, slowly, all her torn apart-ness. All the ways they were one. I had to try, anyway. I had to try because I want to hurt the right way, with the right amount of hope and the right amount of grief and the right amount of tears. 

Of course there is no such thing, just the salt water crystallizing my eyelashes and the runny slobber wetting my keyboard. There are just the traffic signals on busy streets and the emotionless subway schedules and the memories unpacked from boxes in our new apartment. There are just the pictures in piles and the voicemail snippets and all the hot white silence in the air when my mind asks questions without permission. There are just those things.

Those things and the cashews stranded on the cutting board Saturday morning in the middle of our pastor’s dining room table, next to the little bowl of sweet honey and a few green apple slices. It felt good to be exposed. It felt good to sit in air that wasn’t figured out – to search for words and find nothing. It felt good to get unraveled and not fight for tidy endings.

Those cashews. My eyes kept drifting over the table and landing on those cashews.

It is strange that I am whole. It is strange that for almost exactly two months, I am one with someone I love more than anything on earth and that he knows cashews are my favorite. It is strange to feel this new one-ness when my sister Grace is torn apart. Weight on top of weight on top of the new gravity of grief weight. 

I filled a $95 prescription for eye drops today. No more contacts for awhile, until these drops clear away the grief stripes. But, they will stay there, behind all the white and behind all the ways the world is still striving to make sense.

And grief is okay because death is not normal.

Truth is like sandpaper sometimes and ocean waves and steep ravines and caves and breaking dawn of a new day. Sometimes the natural arc in the true story is carried on the back of an ant inside a grand canyon. And sometimes our hearts don’t make sense.

No matter how hard we try, but we try anyway. We try and we believe and then we pray for more belief.


Find all our writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

observing grief

One of these days, someone will tell me I need to take better care of my eyes. And I will listen because that person will be right.

It is probably irresponsible to wear my brother’s old contacts – the ones that arrived in the mail on Friday, hours before the accident. But I love that he sent them, because “our prescriptions are close enough” and he didn’t need them after lasik surgery. The conversation went something like this…

WN: Care! What’s your prescription?

CN: Uh, I don’t know… why?

WN: You can have my contacts!!

When we found out both Christina and I had equally similar prescriptions (and equally hazy memories about what those prescriptions were), he intended to divide the spoils fairly between his two sisters who do not have vision insurance. We love him for this… this being so typically “Will.”

I don’t know why I tossed that brown mailer package out, with his efficient and upside down scrawl on the label. He used to start his letters from the bottom because he didn’t like to waste pen strokes and now the last ones he wrote to me are on their way to a landfill in New Jersey. I don’t know if he was still starting all his l’s and i’s from the bottom… I’ll have to ask Grace, she would know.

I paid full price for a copy of “A Grief Observed” at a snobby bookstore in Grand Central Station after taking the train over my lunch hour to find out the largest used bookstore in the city didn’t have it. But my eyeballs were burning from these free contacts and I am observing grief. It felt urgent; I knew C.S. Lewis’s hazy combination of intellectual and emotional fog would make me more normal.

Pancake Mondays only gets better and the joy is almost painful. We moved around in that sliver of a kitchen, chef and sous chef-ing that packed out Monday night like the apartment restaurant owners we aren’t. Our MacGyvered cold brew coffee sat in the freezer and six batches of batter rested in the fridge while our test pancakes were devoured with plenty of time to cook the (coconut) bacon to perfection. The neighbors came and the friends came and the strangers came and they all came through that open door and my face got confused.

This is still joy and it feels both welcome and wrong. I push against it and every emotion that distracts from this new, awful reality. But I am drawn to it, because joy is the only emotion with any strength in it anymore. There are a lot of emotions, but just joy has strength in it. It is made of the same stuff that allowed Jesus to endure the terrible tragedy of the cross, scorning the shame that would be our salvation.

“For the joy set before him…” There is something very “set before us” about joy. It is something far off as much as it is something near, like muscles making our bones dance toward a sunset.

One night last week, Tam moved the furniture around my glazed-over figure in the dusk light of our common space. Chairs got pushed to the walls, the rug got adjusted to make more space, and the clutter got cleared enough away for our legs and arms to be free. And we danced in that summer dusk light. Each separately working out whatever it was we needed to work out on the poorly refinished wood floor – separately stretching misery and mercy with untrained movements and with (for me) little grace.

The “joy set before me…” had settled in to all my knotted muscle groups, its presence pushing like thunder against my ribs but escaping like mist with my breath. Joy.

I am pushing against it. How is there still joy and why is it the thing that is strong and brings strength? It seems best and most appropriate to step into sadness and lock the door. But even then it seems joy pursues me and lives inside locked rooms, too.

I got a card from my grandparents, with one of my Gram’s flowers printed on the front. A lily, I think. Will’s fingerprints are all over their house – the shingles, the support beams on the addition, the wood shop, the storage shed. There’s the smallest knick in their living room where he missed a beam with the nail gun. They are remembering.

For the joy set before us, camped around us, living in us… this, we endure. There is no sense-making of it. We are on this side and he is over there. And the joy set before us is the same.

All I know is, a small package arrived on Friday, August 2nd and now my eyes burn like the fireballs Dad used to hide under the seat of his Chevy pickup. And I’ll let them burn until someone tells me I need to take better care of my eyes. Meanwhile, I’ll be hitting the Visine good and hard.


Find all the writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.