Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Gift of Motherhood

Tomorrow is a day I look forward to every year--Mother's Day! I didn't always feel this way, though. In fact, there was a season of time when this day was one marked with sadness and disappointment. Mother's Day of 2008 is one that I especially remember in this regard. Shawn and I had been trying unsuccessfully for a couple of years to conceive our first child. I LONGED to have a baby, and Mother's Day was a pointed reminder of my seemingly barren womb. We were currently employed at The Salvation Army, and the night before my husband received a call from his supervisor that they would be leaving first thing in the morning for disaster relief services in a tornado-ravaged town a few hours away. It was a sudden and unexpected departure with no time table for how long he would be away.

After an early morning goodbye, I got myself ready and headed to church on my own, feeling especially lonely and depressed. During the Mother's Day service, they had all of the mothers stand in recognition. My heart ached that I could not stand myself. As if on cue, a young girl in our small congregation blurted out, "Dana, you should stand up. You're Oreo and Gizmo's mom!" (We owned two little Shih tzus at the time). I can definitely laugh at her innocent comment now, but in the moment I was anything but amused!

However, by Mother's Day the next year, our prayers had been answered, and I was blooming with our first child. I received flowers from my husband and from the church, and I rejoiced in the reality that I carried little Benjamin Lee in my womb. We had no idea at that point that he would make an emergency arrival within the next few weeks, nor that our little warrior would be born with an extra chromosome, fighting for his life. Nonetheless, our miracle boy launched me into the wonderful and frightening world of motherhood. I can hardly believe we will be celebrating his 9th birthday in less than two weeks! 

Since then, we have been blessed with our daughter Joelle Malise (2013), our son Josiah Gage (2015), and I am once again in full bloom with child. We will welcome our daughter Ava Rose on May 24 via repeat c-section (though I won't be at all surprised if she chooses to grace us with her presence sooner)! These little treasures light up my life every day, and I feel so privileged to be their Mommy!

Earlier this week I posted a picture on Facebook of my basketball (or perhaps watermelon?) size belly with the statement, "Growing a tiny human being is incredibly rewarding and extremely exhausting!" However,  the truth of this statement is not limited to pregnancy alone; it's true of motherhood in general! Raising a child with special needs only amplifies this reality. The exhaustion can often run deeper, but I believe the rewards are less likely to be taken for granted. In many ways, having a firstborn with special needs has offered an amazing gift of perspective. We have learned to celebrate each little breakthrough because each one truly is a big deal! At the same time, I've been more in awe watching the natural development of my younger children. I so cherish each one!

This morning I was reading in a devotional book called 100 Days of Blessings: Devotions for Wives and Mothers by Nancy Campbell. It seemed fitting that the title of today's reading was "The Nurturing Anointing." Mrs. Campbell writes,

The "nurturing anointing" is not only relegated to mothers with children. It is God's intention for all women. If we were to ask who was the greatest mother of the last century, there would be a unanimous reply. Mother Theresa. Was she married? No. Did she bear her own children? No. But she was a great nurturer. She fed the poor. She loved the unlovely. She poured out her life to the needy. She sacrificed her own goals to bless others.

The world waits to feel the anointing of God's nurturing heart. And it starts with us. It starts in our homes. It starts with pouring out our lives to nurture our own children and then flowing over to meet the needs of the needy around us.

Motherhood is an incredible gift and calling. I am so thankful that God fulfilled my desire to have children, and I do not want to take lightly the important job I've been giving of nurturing them and raising them physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. However, I am reminded today that motherhood is not limited to those who have borne natural children. There are many women who give of their hearts and their lives each and every day in loving and serving those around them who may have never had children of their own. They are just as deserving of honor and recognition. As we celebrate Mother's Day tomorrow may we rejoice in our own children and honor those "mothers" in our lives who have given of themselves, enriching our lives in the process!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Immeasurable Value

What is the value of a life? How is it determined? Success? Accomplishment? Quality of life? Relationships? I believe the true answer is not and never has been contingent on any of these things or any other elements of which the world may try to convince us. Sadly, we live in a culture that has often devalued life. From our heart-breaking history of slavery, to the devastating loss of over 60 million babies murdered in the womb since the passage of Roe vs. Wade, to the more recent rise of school shootings and violent crime, we see the lack of respect and value for human life. This sentiment has deep inroads in our entertainment industries as well where violence and loss of life are glorified on the big screen, the T.V. screen, and behind the video game controllers. If we consider the nations around the world we see darker and darker examples of terrorism, tyranny, and the world-wide atrocities of the sex slave trade. For children such as my precious Benjamin with an extra chromosome, the womb has become one of the most dangerous places to be. We even have nations celebrating the "eradication" of individuals with Down syndrome. Their lives are not valued but proudly "terminated." (Now, this post is not meant to be political, nor is it meant to be depressing. I am simply trying to paint the backdrop to magnify the truth and hope from which I write).

So how do we determine the value of a life? I believe that the answer is loudly and eternally  proclaimed in the reality of the day countless millions will be celebrating tomorrow--Resurrection Sunday! The value of a life--of every life--is found in the passion of Jesus Christ. The perfect, sinless, all powerful Son of God left His glory and entered the world as human embryo in the womb of a poor Jewish girl. He lived a life of simplicity, compassion, and suffering as He proclaimed and demonstrated the heart of His Father in Heaven and destroyed the works of the devil. He willingly laid down His own life in unspeakable torture and agony on the cross, taking on the penalty of our sin, so that we could be forgiven and receive His righteousness. He was laid in a tomb and three days later defeated sin and death forever through His resurrection and his ascension back into glory. With unrelenting love and unspeakable value for human life, the Father willingly sacrificed His Son, and the Son willingly became the sacrifice.

He did this for you, and He did this for me. His love and mercy are beyond measure. The value of a life is not found in anything we can do or be. The value of a life is measured by the price that was paid for it, and the life of Jesus Christ is immeasurable in worth and value! We were worth it to Him!

God teaches me so much through my sweet, little Benjamin. He was born with a genetic imperfection. He has a disability which he is powerless in himself to overcome. Yet his chromosomal count, his weaknesses, and his inabilities have never caused my love for him to waver. He is my son, and I value him because he is mine. The truth is that we were all born with imperfection. We are all disabled by the curse of sin, and we are powerless in ourselves to overcome our weaknesses and failures. Yet God looks down on us with a heart of unconditional love and says, "I love you because you are Mine. Receive My love. Receive My forgiveness. Receive My very life within yourself. You are worth it all to Me." Our response is simply one of acceptance and surrender, but He will never force us to do so. We each have a choice on how we will respond to cross of Jesus Christ, and this response is the MOST IMPORTANT DECISION we will ever make. Our eternal destiny hinges on our "yes" or our "no."

My prayer is that this Resurrection Sunday, you will experience the power of God's love, grace, and forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ. Whether it is a deeper revelation of His heart or a first time surrender to His Lordship, He is calling, "Come, beloved one. You are valuable to Me!" 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Unlocking Potential

Over the years since Benjamin's birth there are moments when he blows past my expectations (which admittedly are sometimes too limited), and he displays a new level of comprehension and understanding of which I was not aware. It was present all along, but he simply needed the right outlet to unlock the potential within. When these moments arrive I am reminded to not underestimate his ability, and I'm given renewed hope for future breakthroughs. This past week held one of these moments...

I arrived at Benjamin's school to pick him up in the afternoon and was greeted by his teacher with a glowing report from the day. They have been utilizing an iPad speech app with him that gives him simple word buttons to choose for various activities. While working with the speech therapist he had formed a COMPLETE SENTENCE all by himself! "I want more Wheels on the Bus." (This has been his all-time favorite song since he was a toddler). Now I would have anticipated him hitting the button, "Wheels on the Bus," but he blew my expectation when he showed the unprompted understanding a simple sentence structure!

As a reward for his hard work he earned some time with his beloved See-n-Say! I've expressed this is previous posts, but I am so very thankful that Benjamin has the opportunity to attend a school that is tailored to his needs. They are helping to unlock the potential he holds inside, and I am continually encouraged to keep on dreaming for his future. I am so proud of this boy!

If you would like to learn more about Benjamin's remarkable, early journey, check out my book Reflections from Holland: A New Mother's Journey with Down Syndrome

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Some Days Are Harder Than Others

It was a typical Monday morning. I was scurrying around, trying to get myself and three children ready and out the door in time to drop Benjamin off at school by 9:00. As is our routine, I popped in a short DVD for them while I focused on getting cleaned up myself. Their movie ended about 15 minutes before we needed to be out the door, and I did not see any point in giving them another one. There were shoes to put on, teeth to brush, and coats to round up. Benjamin, however, was of an entirely different opinion. When it became apparent to him that his movie-viewing time was indeed over, the meltdown ensued,...and IT DIDN'T STOP! For the next 15 minutes my indignant eight-year-old cried and wailed with all his might, smearing snot and tears all over himself as he very vocally let me know just how mad I had made him.

By the time we shuffled out the door, he was still at it. Getting all three rounded up and into the van always feels like herding cats anyway, and this morning my nerves were already raw. As I buckled everyone in as quickly as I could, my son's protests continued. "Benjamin, that's enough!" I snapped as I slid my tired, pregnant body into the driver's seat and started the engine. Of course, responding in anger NEVER improves the situation, and his cries continued for the next few minutes.

As I pulled out the driveway, I began to pray, as I always do on our way to school. This morning, however, burning tears were welling up and stinging my eyes as I was honest with the Lord about my weariness and frustration. Sometimes a simple incident like the morning's meltdown is all it takes for an unexpected layer of grief to be peeled back. My heart was aching over my son's delays. My heart was aching over the many barriers to communication. My emotions were raw and my body weary from the demands and challenges of raising three small children, one of whom operates as a 50 lb toddler. I was TIRED.

As I prayed, I was reminded of the simple strategy of speaking aloud what I know to be true in the midst of pain and disappointment. "Benjamin, Mommy loves you so much. Benjamin, I'm happy you're my son. Benjamin, Mommy is proud of you." As I spoke these words of affirmation over my child, his demeanor calmed, and he began to smile. As I listened to my own words, my heart calmed too, and the proper perspective returned. No matter how difficult certain days may be, these truths will never change.

I was reminded once more how desperately I need God's grace at work in my life to be the mother He has called me to be. My natural, human love and good intentions are not enough. I need His life flowing in me and through me to truly be able to nurture life in my children--in their spirits, souls, and bodies.  I was reminded too that, just as I need grace, I must extend grace to these little ones, especially in the hard moments. My responses and behaviors towards them are teaching them, whether right or wrong, about the heart of God. Benjamin needs my grace as we navigate day-to-day life with his disabilities. He needs my patience and understanding, my affirmation and tangible demonstrations of love. Finally, I was reminded that I must also give myself grace. It's okay to admit when it's hard. It's okay admit when I'm hurting. It's okay for me to take time for myself to recharge and refresh. As I type this I am enjoying my weekly, Saturday morning, "mommy break." I swung by an estate sale, did some shopping at the mall, and now I'm sitting in my favorite coffee shop, taking the time to reflect and decompress from the daily demands of homemaking and motherhood. I am so incredibly thankful to my husband for insisting that I take this time on a regular basis. He knows how much I need it!

It's true that some days are harder than others, but it's also true that grace is always available to me in abundance. "...My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness..." (2 Corinthians 12:9). May every day be filled with grace!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Made to Excel

This morning I sat in the living room with coffee in hand, enjoying the early morning quiet before the busyness of the day began. I opened up a devotional book I have been reading by Nancy Campbell entitled 100 Days of Blessing: Devotions for Wives and Mothers-Volume Two. One little nugget of wisdom from this morning's reading was as follows:

"Raise your children to excel in the gift that God has given them. Of course they don't have to excel in everything. Go has made each one totally different. We must encourage them to be the very best in that which God has given them to do."

A little while later, after the breakfast dishes were cleared, and the kids were playing in the living room still clad in their PJ's, I happened upon a treasure in the hall closet. The large, black binder I uncovered is filled with things I wrote from 8th grade through high school. As I began to flip through the various folders, some pieces were familiar while others were completely forgotten. There were school essays, writing contest submissions, and old copies of Brio magazine from the late 90's when I was thrilled to place in the top 8 semi-finalists for their Brio Girl contest. There were short stories, small devotionals, and my graduation speech. As I flipped through the old folders, waves of nostalgia swept over me. A few of the pieces I read aloud to Shawn. As a special education language arts teacher, he really enjoyed hearing some of my writing history, especially from my early adolescence. 

Soon after I made the comment to him, "I was one of the rare kids who loved to write. While other classmates moaned over writing assignments, I got excited and poured everything into them!" What was true in my youth is still true today, over twenty years later. As I compose this blog I am seated at my favorite local coffee shop for my weekly "mommy break." The process of crafting words and sentences to share a story refreshes and energizes me. That which may seem as drudgery to another provides nourishment for my soul. 

As I shared with my husband this morning, I was reminded of the truth I had read in my devotional a few hours prior. While there are many things I do not excel in, writing is one thing that has always flowed naturally. I'm thankful that I've had opportunities and encouragement over the years to develop this gift. In the same way, I am praying that Shawn and I will have clear discernment to recognize the gifts and callings in each of our children while they are still young. I want to encourage them and give each one ample opportunity to excel in the things they love and are gifted in. I realize that their pursuits, passions, and gifts may vary greatly, and what motivates one may not motivate another. I am excited to see their unique personalities unfold! 

In light of all of these things, I am also reminding myself that the definition of "excelling" in something is broad and vast and cannot be place in a box. Benjamin is called to excel in the gifts that God has given him just as much as his siblings who do not carry an extra chromosome, though the expression may look very different. His disability in no way detracts from the truth that God has a plan and a purpose for his life that is beautiful in its simplicity and eternal in its significance. To quote from Nancy Campbell's book once more: 

"God has a destiny planned for each one of your children and whether this task is large or small, it is great in the eyes of God. God has given you the awesome task of preparing each child for this purpose."

I am deeply humbled and extraordinarily grateful for the high calling of motherhood. It is not a job for the faint of heart, but it is a job that carries rewards without measure and purpose that reaches into eternity. By God's grace I will excel in this mighty task as I teach my children to be all they were created to be! 

As one who loves to write, a life-long dream of mine since childhood was to write books. My dream stepped in reality in 2014 with the release of Reflections from Holland: A New Mother's Journey with Down Syndrome. You can find it in paperback or on Kindle here.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Day Two Little Syllables Changed My Life

It has been eight years of waiting, eight years of wanting, eight years of wondering if the longed for day would ever come. I was waiting for two little syllables that contain a world of meaning; two little syllables that reflect an incredible depth of love, nurture, security, and comfort; two little syllables that speak to such a privileged purpose that I call my own. What were these two little syllables you ask? They were none other than the beautiful simplicity of "Mama."

Benjamin is my first born. He is the one who made me a mother. I have always enjoyed his joyful affection and obvious expressions of love, but I have ached to hear him speak my name.

I remember when I was pregnant with our daughter. Benjamin was three years old, and I wondered if I would hear "Mama" from this baby growing inside before I would hear it from my son. The thought was surreal, but I knew it was a definite possibility. Sure enough, one beautiful day 8-month-old Joelle was sitting in her highchair at meal time. Suddenly she reached for me and distinctly cooed "Mama!" My heart felt as though it would burst! I scooped her into my arms and cuddled her with delight as my husband, my mom (who happened to be visiting at the time), and I celebrated. At this point I had been a parent for over four years. I was finally hearing "Mama" spoken to me for the first time!

Joelle ended up being our very early talker, and her language quickly took off. In fact, it is very rare that she is not talking! With her fifth birthday quickly approaching, she loves to give us a running commentary on life through her eyes. Sometimes she has me laughing to the point of tears with the things she comes up with! I'm so thankful that Benjamin is able to hear so much speech while he's at home, not just from Mom and Dad, but from siblings as well.

When Joelle was a talkative little toddler, we discovered that I was pregnant with Josiah. Once again the question surfaced in my heart. Will I hear "Mama" first from this child as well? Sure enough, it has happened. Josiah's language is developing much slower than his sister's, but he definitely has his own little vocabulary that includes "Mama." However, he finds it very amusing to call me "Daddy" instead! Did I mention he has an ornery streak?

While Benjamin remains mostly non-verbal at this point, he does have an array of sounds and syllables he likes to make, including "Ba-ba" and "Da-da." In fact, one of his favorite games is for me to look at him and say with exaggerated pronunciation "Ba-Ba Benjamin, Da-Da Daddy, Ma-Ma Mommy." He smiles with delight, studies my mouth from different angles, and sometimes puts his hand under my chin to feel the sounds. He wants to speak, but his language still needs to be unlocked somehow. 

That brings me to November 16 of this year. Our family was sitting around the table at supper time as we do every day. My husband sits next to Benjamin and helps to monitor how fast he eats. Our son has a tendency to keep shoveling food in his mouth. Often, Shawn will take his spoon away and remind him to finish chewing before taking another bite. Once the food is down Shawn returns the spoon to Benjamin's hand to continue. It can feel rather tedious, but we're not sure how else to keep him from getting too much food in at a time. Benjamin does NOT appreciate this process at all. On this particular evening he was extra cranky about the whole thing. Suddenly in his frustration he blurted out "mama!" Shawn and I looked at each other, surprised and unsure what think. A moment later it happened again. At this point my husband was sure that he was referencing me, but I still wasn't so sure. Was he really, or was he just making a new sound? After hoping for so many years, I was skeptical that the wait was finally over. 

The next afternoon when I picked up Benjamin from school his teacher told me that he said "mama" three times that day. Each time, though, it was when he was frustrated about something. I was becoming more hopeful, but I still wasn't convinced. However, that evening changed everything. My super sensitive boy had become very upset about something close to his bedtime. I was sitting on the couch in the living room at the time. He came to me sobbing and wrapped his arms around my neck wanting me to hold him. Through his tears he kept saying, "Mama! Mama!" I was in shock. This was the real deal. I held him for a few moments, soaking it all in as I comforted my son. I then asked, "Benjamin, would you like some milk?" Immediately his tears stopped and he led me to the kitchen. I poured his milk and stood behind him with my hands on his shoulders as he drank. Between sips he continued to say, "Mama." I thought my heart would burst! Shortly after getting him to bed I looked at my husband. Still in a state of shock, I kept repeating, "It really happened. He really called me 'Mama.' After all these years of waiting it actually happened!" That's when the tears of joy began to fall. 

One thing I've learned ever since Benjamin's birth is to never take things for granted. Every little milestone is a cause for big celebration! I remember watching other children with awe when our son was still an only child. I was amazed at the ease with which they mastered gross and fine motor skills--skills that their parents often didn't think twice about. However, those same skills were ones that had taken months or years of therapy, intervention, hard work, and often tears for Benjamin to accomplish. Some were milestones still on a distant horizon. When Joelle was born we were fascinated watching her natural development progress at what seemed to us as a rapid speed. It was beautiful and painful all at the same time, but it was always full of wonder. 

I have waited 8 YEARS to hear my firstborn call me "Mama!" But I must say that I don't think those two little syllables have ever meant as much as they did on the day that the prayers were finally answered, and the wait was finally over. I have much to celebrate!

If you want to read more about our amazing journey with Benjamin, check out my book Reflections from Holland: A New Mother's Journey with Down Syndrome

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Quiver Full

As I was growing up, I often dreamed of becoming a mother someday. I was naturally drawn to babies and children. I loved to nurture, and the thought of having my own little ones in the future filled my heart with such joy. At the beginning of my senior year of college I met my best friend and future husband. Two years later we were married, and within the first year we were eager to begin our family. However, weeks, months, and then years began to slip by, and we were still waiting. The ache of desire during that season was nearly unbearable at times as we continued to pray for a baby. We had a sense all along that our first born would be a boy. Shawn had known he wanted to name his first son Benjamin ever since he was in high school. The night before I finally had a positive pregnancy test, the Lord clearly spoke to my heart, "Read Psalm 68." When I reached verse 27 the words jumped off the page, "There is little Benjamin their leader." Sure enough, the next morning my pregnancy was confirmed, and Benjamin was indeed growing inside my womb! You can read that story here.

Overjoyed that we had begun our journey into parenthood, we never could have fathomed what was in store for us within the near future. We never could have imagined the challenges we would face upon the arrival of our sweet son. We had no idea we were about to land in "Holland." Since that day in May of 2009, we have been on an incredible journey of learning and growth. We have experienced great heartache, we have been filled with overwhelming joy, we have faced daunting challenges, and we have witnessed genuine miracles. The first four years of this amazing journey is recorded in my book Reflections from Holland: A New Mother's Journey with Down Syndrome.

A few years after Benjamin was born, we felt ready to add to our family. Once again the wait was longer than anticipated. However, a few months before our son celebrated his fourth birthday, we welcomed our beautiful daughter Joelle into the world, and took our first trip to "Italy." Holding my healthy newborn against my chest on the day of her birth was an incredibly healing experience as I took in the wonder of her tiny features and drank in her sweet newborn scent. She has been an incredible source of joy in our lives. She is lively, inquisitive, full of imagination, and will be celebrating her fifth birthday in a matter of months.

The conception of our sweet son Josiah was a thrilling surprise. He made his debut on the same day Joelle turned exactly two-and-a-half years old. His arrival was filled with it's own scary challenges, though. I was required to have a repeat c-section, and in the process he inhaled amniotic fluid into his lungs and began to drown. For several scary minutes he was very critical, but God's hand of protection was upon him. After nearly twenty minutes the medical staff was able to suction his lungs and get him stabilized. Unfortunately, however, he was taken to a NICU an hour away. My husband went to stay with him while I recovered in the hospital and cried for my baby. My mom and family friends cared for our other two children during these shaky couple of days. Three days after Josiah's birth I was released from the hospital and eagerly went to see and hold my newborn for the first time. Those three days were painfully long, but not so long as the nine days I had waited to hold Benjamin. Thankfully, Josiah was discharged shortly after we arrived, and he is now a spunky two year old, who is very much a Mommy's boy!

This fall we were once again thrilled to learn that another little blessing is on the way! I am currently three months pregnant with number four, and we couldn't be happier! One thing that has really marked this pregnancy so far is the strong sense of peace that has covered my heart. After our experience with Benjamin, I really wrestled with fear when I conceived the second time. I had some placenta complications early on and had a few frightening months of bleeding with Joelle. The fear continued into my third pregnancy as a result, though it was not quite as intense. However, I can look back and see the Lord's hand of faithfulness over each pregnancy and each child's life. My due date this time is the same week as my 36th birthday--an age where many women have decided to stop bearing children. However, I have such a calmness in my soul, and I am so grateful! I am praying to be able to fully enjoy the entire process this time. I am praying for the gift of a complication free pregnancy and delivery, but ultimately I know that the baby and I are in the Lord's hands. He is faithful.

This week I had a sweet video come up on my Facebook memory feed back from the time Benjamin was an only child. I was holding him and kissing him as he belly-laughed with a face full of glee. I watched it over and over, enjoying the precious memories of the time he had me all to himself. Even though beginning parenthood with a child with special needs was very difficult, I am so thankful that he was our first born and he had the experience of our undivided attention for nearly four years. The Lord knew he needed that time, and we did too. I am equally grateful, though, that he is growing up with siblings who will love him, teach him, and ultimately be a vital part of his life. They are all a gift to each other.

 Children are such an incredible blessing, and I am so thankful that God has entrusted these little treasures to us. Parenting is definitely hard work as well, but the rewards far outweigh the challenges. Psalm 127:3-5a reads...

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them...

Our quiver is getting full!