How to Let Go

“You have to trust me, Ellie.”

We are in the pool at swimming lessons. Next month my daughter will turn 3, which means this is our last round of parent/child classes; in the next session, Ellie will move up to swimming alone while I watch through the windows of the lobby. I’m secretly relieved—the pool water is not warm, and changing us both into dry clothes in the locker room afterward always ends as a bit of a wrestling match. I’m ready, and so is she … although she might disagree at the moment. She’s comfortable going underwater, floating on her back and climbing out of the pool. There’s just one last skill to work on—her “tall reachers,” as her teacher calls them. Ellie needs to learn how to extend her arms in front of her and, one at a time, pull them back through the water to propel herself forward.

This is proving to be the hardest lesson yet. Ellie is used to swimming with me standing in front of her, holding her firmly with her hands wrapped around mine. To work on her reachers though, I have to move to her side, where she can’t hold onto me anymore. She has no interest in letting go; at the moment, her hands are fisted around my fingers. She’s trying to compensate by kicking furiously with her strong legs, but it isn’t enough. Without using her arms, she’s not making much headway in the water. I flex my hands slightly in an effort to loosen her hold, but she only grips me more tightly in response.

It’s time for a pep talk. I lower my body so that my head is hovering just above the surface of the water. I brush her dripping hair back from where it sticks to her forehead and look into her eyes.

“Remember, Ellie. You have to trust me. You have to let go of me to swim. I’ll still be right here, even though you won’t feel me.”

She doesn’t say anything and her expression doesn’t change, but I can tell she’s considering my words. Is she remembering that every time she’s jumped in the pool, I’ve caught her? Or maybe she’s recalling the feel of my hands cradling her head as she floats on her back, while I whisper the count to 10 in her ear. I’ve been showing up for her each week; my arms have never failed her. Will it matter? I flex my fingers again, and this time she lets me loosen my hold. She tenses slightly as I move from in front of her to beside her; I’m just beyond her peripheral vision, and she fights to see me.

“Remember; trust me,” I murmur, and she relaxes once more.

One, two, three. She takes a deep breath and puts her face in the water as I gently propel her forward. This time, her arms and legs work together as she reaches for the wall. When her fingertips graze the concrete, she reaches up and pulls her weight out of the water. Gripping the lip of the wall, she turns her head and grins at me.

“You did it! Way to go Els!” I cheer.

“I did it!” At first, I think she is just proud of reaching the wall, and rightly so. But then she says it again.

“I did it! I trusted!

Something within me cracks wide open. I feel the prick of hot tears against my eyelids and I wipe them away fiercely, hoping everyone will just think I got splashed in the face.

She trusted. She let go. And only then did she get to where she wanted to be.

***

My own hands are full right now, desperately clutching the life I think I want, the life I insist I deserve. I have refused to let go of the dreams I believe will keep me afloat. The ones with another child, a successful writing career, a beautiful home. Where I always get what I want, conveniently overlooking the fact that when I always win, it means everyone else loses. There’s a whole lot of “me” in this dream life of mine. I can’t hold anyone else’s hand, when mine are already full. It’s lonely work, this burden-bearing, and I’m so very tired.

Trust Me. Let go.

I miss a lot, when my hands are full. I’m a clumsy person, you see, so I keep my attention on what I’m holding. I miss the beauty and wonder around me because I’m focused on my hands. I can’t throw them up in celebration when my husband lands the perfect job, and I can’t hold my friend’s hand in grief. There’s no room to add anything, and I’m afraid to let go of something, because what if it upsets the balance and I drop it all? I cannot risk dropping it all.

Loosen your grip. I’m still here.

I’ve tried valiantly to do things my way. I’ve been stubborn; I’ve been angry. I tried to medicate my way out of it, and that worked for a little while, but I didn’t follow the rules. The medicine was supposed to give me time to build my own safety nets. I was supposed to grow stronger, to connect with others. I didn’t. Now it’s time to stand on my own two feet, and I’m not sure I can.

I feel strong fingers coaxing mine to release all that I am holding onto—all that is holding me down. But I only tighten my grip. The irony, of course, is that what I’m holding onto was never mine to begin with. I can’t see the big picture yet, but I doubt it was painted by God based on what I hold in my hands. I am a child with a fistful of trinkets that are “treasure” today, but will be collecting dust in a corner tomorrow. I have lived for myself. I have lived small. I want more.

Remember, you have to trust Me. Let go.

I look up from my hands and, for the first time, I hear You. I remember: the people you’ve placed in my life at the right time, with the right words; the closed doors that You opened a window right next to; the truth that You have never, ever failed me.

I take a deep breath, and I let go.

The scariest part of letting go is the split-second after release. My hands are empty and, for the briefest of moments, it feels like I’m falling.

***

Hey love, I’ve been thinking. I always like to talk through the hard stuff in the darkness of our bedroom at night; he can’t see if my eyes well with tears, and whispering covers any voice cracks. I’m okay with shelving the talk of another baby. Will you pray for me though? Pray that I can really let this go and embrace our life as it is.

Of course, comes his reply. I hope you know how much I love you.

I do. That’s why I’m letting go. I trust him. I trust You. I trust us.

***

You were right, you know. It’s easier to move when my hands aren’t full, and swimming sure beats treading water. Now, I’m free to let the water slip through my fingers and I can reach for the solid wall when my arms are tired. It's scary to trust what I can't see—that part hasn't changed—but I remind myself that when I'm still, I can feel Your presence. Just because I can't see You doesn't mean You're not there. You might let me fight or struggle, but You won't let me sink.

I could learn many things from my wild-at-heart, fiercely independent daughter: how to climb, with sure-footed confidence; how to feel the rhythm hidden in the music and effortlessly dance without a care for who’s watching; how to pick out perfectly stylish shoes.

Today’s lesson was in letting go, learning to trust, and reaching for a Rock that’s sturdier than I.


Photo by Jon Batchelor.

Skillet-Baked Eggs with Sweet Potatoes + Bacon

I grew up eating around the table almost every night. At about 6:30 p.m., we’d hear the familiar dinnertime call and yes, sometimes even the ringing of an actual dinner bell. Teenage footsteps bounded down the stairs, faucets ran in the bathroom as we washed our hands, and dishes clattered as we set the table. With six kids and two adults, eating together was no small feat.

The oval table in the eat-in kitchen was fully extended, and if my oldest siblings were home from college or guests came over, we squeezed in a few extra chairs from the dining room. I still remember where everyone sat. My parents at each end of the table, my brothers on either side of my mom, me just to the left of my dad. Dinner guests complicated things, though, because that usually meant someone had to change seats—an inconvenience we did not suffer well.

We sat around that oval kitchen table sometimes for hours. Dinners seemed to last forever, but not because we were slow eaters. When there were eight people around the table, if you didn’t eat fast you didn’t eat (a lesson my husband learned the hard way after a few meals with my family). We practically inhaled plates of rice topped with pineapple chicken, or epic portions of pasta with Mom’s homemade sauce.

But the meal wasn’t over when our plates were empty. We prayed, then ate, then we talked. Conversations ranged from meaningful to mundane to, well, let’s just say my mom often had to pull the reins in on the sibling teasing or discussions of bodily functions. We piled on second helpings (or snatched a few bites right from the serving bowl, much to the annoyance of my mom), read a devotional book or Bible story, talked a little more, shared prayer requests, and my dad closed in what seemed as a kid to be the world’s longest prayer. Occasionally, we’d time him, and it wasn’t uncommon for that post-dinner prayer to take upwards of 20 minutes. Once in high school, I fell asleep with my forehead on the table, and my mom nudged me awake when it was over.

Sometimes we complained, arguments broke out, and no part of me felt like sitting still a minute longer in that dining chair. It didn’t hit me until adulthood that my one brother and I likely sat on opposite sides of the table in an effort to keep the peace. There were meals my immature palate didn’t appreciate, and often the task of cleaning up felt like a cruel punishment.

As we grew up, basketball games, piano lessons, and late work nights competed with dinner times, but over the course of those 18 years I lived at home, family dinners remained the norm and those other activities the exception. Even after all five of my siblings moved out of the house and I was the last one left, I still sat at that table with my parents.

As a mother now, I look back at the habit we had as a family, of sitting around the table, and I realize what a rare gift it was. Our rituals may have felt forced at times and shamelessly quirky at others. But we enjoyed good food together, laughed together, prayed together, read the Bible together. We got to know each other around that table.

It was just over two years since my mom’s cancer diagnosis, and the end was nearing. Out of town family flew home that week to spend those final days with her and with each other. The night before she died, I tossed and turned, feeling restless and burdened with the weight her impending death.

In the morning, I shuffled downstairs to her room and sat there without any words to say. Only my mom’s gasps and our own sobs broke the silence. I could feel the grief so deeply in my gut that it felt like I had the wind knocked out of me, like I was gasping for emotional breath. Yet at the same time the ordinariness of the moment seemed crude. She was there; then she wasn’t. That was it. I felt a surprising mix of confusion, relief, sadness, heartache, and peace all at once. What do we do now?

I knew more waves of grief would come. I knew discussions of funeral plans, airport pickups, and other logistics would eventually happen. I knew my own bouts of sobbing were bound to hit me when I least expected - in the middle of the produce section at the grocery store or when I wanted to ask my mom a cooking question. I knew there was a long road ahead to healing. Yet in those moments after her death, when we no longer waited to see if today would be a good day or a bad day for her, when we didn’t have to coax her to eat spoonfuls of pureed fruit or organize her weekly pill boxes, there was an surprising and almost awkward stillness.

So we did what we knew to do, what we had grown up doing, what was familiar and comfortable in the midst of a loss so unfamiliar and uncomfortable. With tears still on our cheeks and eyes puffy, my siblings and I shuffled into the kitchen.

My brother took out the oversized cast iron skillet from the drawer underneath the oven and started heating it up. Someone else began cracking eggs into a bowl. Another cut slices of cheese off the huge block stored in the refrigerator drawer. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure there was bacon being fried, too. We refilled mugs of coffee. Plates clattered around as we set the table, and we poured big glasses of orange juice. (There was always orange juice in that fridge growing up. We had even had a system to tell which cartons had been opened and which hadn’t—every unopened carton faced forward, while the opened one was turned 90 degrees.)

I can’t remember what was said, if anything, but nothing needed to be said. In those moments after my mom’s death, when we didn’t have the words and our eyes needed respite from tears, we ate. Together.

So much was different. We were adults. All of us had long moved out of that house, some of us hundreds of miles away. My mom wasn’t there to call us when it was time to eat. There was no childish bickering as we found our seats, and the usual rush to devour our food was replaced by slow and quiet bites.

But so much remained the same.

In the midst of devastating change, we were still a family. I don’t remember if we sat in our childhood “assigned” seats that morning at the table. It didn’t seem as important anymore, since Mom wasn’t in her usual spot on the end. Despite our grief over her empty chair, the familiarity of gathering for a meal brought unique comfort. There was joy and solace, tears and even laughter that morning around the table—just as there had been for so many years before.

Skillet-Baked Eggs with Sweet Potatoes + Bacon

Yields 4 servings

Adapted from Food Network

8 ounces thick-cut bacon, diced

1 pound sweet potatoes, diced into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus extra for garnish

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 large eggs

1 cup shredded Asiago cheese*

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Heat a cast-iron skillet (about 10-inch sized) over medium-high heat. Cook the bacon until it’s almost crisp all over. Drain off all but about 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat (just eyeball it). Return the skillet to the stove (with the bacon and some fat still in the skillet), and turn the heat to medium.

Add the sweet potatoes and cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender. Add the parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper, and stir for about one more minute. Turn off the heat.

Make four little wells in the sweet potato mixture, and crack two eggs into each well. Put the skillet in the preheated oven. Cook for about 10-12 minutes, until the egg whites are cooked through but the yolks are still slightly runny. Sprinkle on the cheese and bake for another minute until the cheese is melted. Garnish with a chopped fresh parsley. Serve immediately and enjoy!

*You can really use any cheese you typically enjoy with eggs. Try white cheddar, fontina, or Gouda. Or, skip the cheese entirely to keep this recipe dairy-free.

The Invisible Boy

I’m standing at the edge of the playground making small talk with another mom as we watch our kids on the play structure. I point out which children are mine.

“Three girls, huh? Are you going to try for a boy?”

The question is innocuous enough. A half joke with a smile. But inside my stomach twists a little. A tiny arrow of pain stabs me.

I take a breath.

Do I go there? I quickly decide, No.

I’m not up for that conversation this morning. Nor the feeling that I’ve revealed too much and am standing naked next to a complete stranger.

Instead, I take a sip of my coffee and sigh with a smile, “Oh we’re done having children.”

The truth is, I did have a boy.

Five years ago, I gave birth to a stillborn baby we named Bode. Although his life was brief, his death plunged me into the somber world of lost babies and powerful grief. A place where people speak in hushed voices. A place where my husband and I grieved a child no one else met—the invisible boy we didn't bring home from the hospital.

At nearly six months pregnant my water broke. I spent four anguish-filled days in the hospital feeling my son’s somersaults and hiccups while willing my body not to go into labor.

On day four, I awoke to stillness.

Our baby had died in utero, succumbing to an infection his tiny body could not fight. After twelve mentally grueling hours of labor, our son came into the world: tiny, perfect, and quiet. My husband and I rocked him in a hospital baby blanket, marveled at his golden eyelashes, his wide feet like his daddy and his piano-long fingers like mine. His small body was flawless. We kissed his head and said goodbye as the nurse wheeled him away along with the broken fragments of my heart.

Later that day, I exited the hospital empty-handed with a soft belly, bleary eyes, and a body stiff with shock. I thought the worst was over. However, nothing could prepare me for the tumultuous road of grief ahead.

Enduring a late-term loss brings with it the same things that new mothers experience: breast milk comes in (but there’s no baby to relieve your swollen breasts), healing from delivery, the six-week postpartum check-up (where you quietly suffer in your doctor’s office with a group of women and their gorgeous round bellies) and raging hormones coursing through your body. While the physical healing was challenging, it was the emotional aftermath that left its indelible mark on me.

Miscarriage and stillbirth are touchy subjects most people avoid. Pregnancy loss is abstract. It’s invisible. The theoretical child. There isn’t a baby that everyone knew to mourn. Our friends and loved ones didn’t know what to say or how to help us. It was easier to say nothing than bring up the awkward subject. In many ways, we were left to grieve alone.

***

Grief is a complicated thing. A quick look at the definition states:

Grief (n.): a deep sadness.

My definition would be more like: a multi-faceted, unpredictable emotional roller coaster that includes shock, anger, jealousy, sorrow, anxiety, hopelessness, loneliness, and acute sensitivity.

Grief is complicated. All those ugly feelings you know you have, but mostly keep at bay? Well, they came roaring to the forefront for me. I became a person who hated pregnant women and new babies. I avoided baby showers and pregnant friends and even “trying to get pregnant” friends. I would steer clear of potentially emotional situations for fear of unleashing the unpleasant emotions I was trying to bury.

I was afraid the “old me” was gone. I wanted to find joy again. To fast-forward through all the pain and get to the other side quickly. I was afraid to fully immerse myself in my grief for fear that I wouldn’t be able to come out of it.

Yet the emotional wall I put up didn’t make me feel any better. I fooled people into thinking I was doing okay so they left me alone. I made every effort to keep my emotions in check and appear that I was strong and resilient. Instead of protecting myself, I ended up feeling isolated and depressed, a shell of the person I had once been.

I was home alone one afternoon feeling particularly sorry for myself and I remembered something I had read years ago in one of my favorite books, Tuesdays with Morrie. Mitch Albom quoted his wise and dying friend, Morrie Schwartz:

“If you hold back on the emotions—if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them—you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid.”

I allowed myself to have an incredibly powerful cry. I let go of my fear and allowed the grief to permeate me. I wailed. I pounded on the ground. I prayed to God to help me because I couldn't help myself. Depleted, I laid down on the floor and stared at the ceiling. To my great surprise, I felt better. It was as if the heavy burden of grief had lightened a bit.

Through my period of grieving, I learned that you must allow yourself to go into the darkness to find the light again. You must move through the muddy water, slog through the deep, ugly muck in order to find air. It was painful and exhausting. I often felt like giving up. There were times I'm sure I made people uncomfortable with my honest emotions. Still, I learned that it was important to acknowledge my sadness and dwell in that shadowy place as long as I promised myself that I wouldn’t stay too long.

As time passed, I found I spent less time in the darkness. Instead of being paralyzed by my grief and living in limbo, I was able to let go of a lot of the negative feelings and move forward. 

***

So, no, we’re not going to “try for a boy.” We have a boy.

He may not be physically here, but his brief existence has had a pronounced impact on who I am now. Because of him, I know what it truly means to love, to lose and to survive. Because of him, I have been able to connect with others who have suffered loss and hold their hands as they bravely walk the crooked path of grief. I understand that grief is messy and lonely and exhausting. I also know it does not need to swallow you whole. You must allow yourself to move through it in order to let it go.

This isn’t to say the heartache and pain of loss goes away. Like a tapestry, my loss is one of the many threads that makes up who I am. Sometimes it is bold and glaring but nowadays, it mostly blends in.

There’s no timeline for healing and the grief can reappear when it’s least expected. Even after six years, three healthy children and joy now dominating my life, I can still get teary-eyed thinking about my baby boy.

Most days, I feel brave enough to talk about him, even to strangers.

This morning at the park, I didn’t. That’s ok too. Loss is heavy and some days I simply don’t want to dip back into it. I’m at peace with needing to guard myself as well. I’ve done a lot of hard work to get here.

Yet when I do open up and revisit those feelings of grief, I am less afraid. Because I know there’s light waiting on the other side.


Guest post written by Nicole Fisher. Nicole is married to a real-life MacGyver and lives in Salt Lake City. Between parenting three spirited girls and juggling a job in the adventure travel industry, she daydreams about finding stolen moments to write. She believes in God, the runner’s high and the health benefits of coffee and chocolate. You can find her on Instagram.

Photo by Emily Gnetz.

I'm Still a Good Mom

I am a categorizer. As hard as I try to look for vibrancy, I see the world around me in black and white. I know the color exists, but it’s easier to just put everything, everyone, into a box that has reasons for all that they are, to separate them into groups. I place them into the two different lobes that dwell in the front of my brain. Negative or positive. Good or bad.

My firstborn, Anabel, is by definition, easy. Patient. Obedient. Good. To this day, she has never thrown a public tantrum. She is kind and compassionate, and carries an intelligence that far surpasses my own. She taught herself the entire alphabet by the time she was 16 months old. By 18 months she was fluent in sign language and potty trained, and by three years old she was reading. Quick as a whip, that one. She loves green vegetables and books. Of course, not every day has been perfect (she is the one who taught me that Love was Heavy, after all), but even when she struggled, I found a way to help her. I knew what I was doing. And I constantly applauded my own efforts and was sure that all that she was (and is) was because of how I mothered her.

For a long time, we fit in the boxes. Good kid, good mom.

But your methods can be a screaming success with one child and then completely crash and burn when applied to a different child. Motherhood has a way of proving that sometimes nature is much stronger than nurture.

Olive, my 20 month-old, is aggressive and strong-willed. She is independent and fearless and funny. She doesn’t sleep well at night. She likes to make messes and color on the couch and break things that can be broken. She has no interest in toilet training or the alphabet. She likes foods filled with sugar, and will throw asparagus and green beans on the floor.

My daughters were born on the same day separated by two years. According to astrology, they share a lot of the same truths, but they are two uniquely crafted individuals. They are beautiful in their own right. They are good at different things, struggle with different things, and balance the scale out in all of the best ways—but different, so very different. If they were to exist in boxes, they would not reside in the same one. I have a hard time not putting my daughters into categories that define them, and labels that give me reasons for why they do what they do.

***

It is 1:26 in the morning. Olive is awake for her midnight tantrum (not to be mistaken with her 6 a.m., noon, or bedtime meltdowns). This has been happening regularly, for weeks. I don’t think her eyes are open, but her muscles are more than awake. I don’t know if I am just tired, or if I am wrestling a wild animal, but her flailing in my arms demands my attention in a way I cannot ignore. She’s arching her back violently, angry that I am holding her, but angry if I put her down. She is mad that my breasts have run dry. She is mad that she’s tired. And she is mad that she is awake ... but she won’t go to sleep. This is how Olive communicates. To her, everything is an emergency. She grunts, growls, screams. Her emotions sit on both ends of extreme, whatever she is feeling her voice is loud when expressing it.

This middle of the night fight brings me back to this evening in the supermarket. I had to use a force I am not proud of to prevent her from back flipping out of the cart. She is yelling so loud and moving so fast, there are alligator tears and so many strangers’ eyes on us. A man even stops to say “wow” out loud. It is both humorous and humiliating. I am afraid of my own baby. I am afraid of who I can become because of my own baby.

After wrestling with each other for almost an hour, trying to calm her with energy I cannot muster, she collapses in my arms. Her sleeping face has a street lamp glow next to the window. Almost instantly, I am overcome with the love I feel for her. Even after all of the frustration, everything else fades into the dark, and the love is what I feel. I rub the back of my hand slowly across her cheek. It is not often that I get to marvel over her still body, and in these moments all I can think is, what a miracle, I am so lucky.

My dear Olive. She is a lot more work than Anabel ever has been, but she is also so normal.

Sometimes, normal feels synonymous with bad. Sometimes, I feel like normal is breaking me. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I can be a good mom to normal. Lately, my good efforts are not enough, and my children can be difficult.

For once in motherhood, I don’t know what box I belong in.

But, hell, I am still a good mom.

Even if my attempts at feeding them food filled with plants are punctuated with frozen meals being cooked in a metal box with radio waves. Even when they use a pacifier long enough for their teeth to grow funny. Even if they are in diapers longer than their peers, or not talking as soon as them either. Even if they take their first steps in daycare.

I am still a good mom if there are hours of crying or hard diagnoses. Even when I lose it and I yell. Even when my house is a wreck. I am still a good mom if my marriage ends or my kids grow up and make mistakes. I am still a good mom, even if no one is clapping for me, and even if I do not fit in a box.

I’m still a good mom. They are still good kids. And we are all just trying our best to figure this out together. We are beautiful and broken and so terribly loved. We are made up of the little bits of joy that are in between all of the hard and heavy moments.

I am not the sum total of their milestones or their tantrums or their sleeping habits or their good manners—and neither are they. My success as a mother is not determined by the amount of control I have over my children’s behavior or volume. I was called to guide their development, not to dictate it.

They are not my mistakes, and I am not their meltdowns.

I am defined by the love I feel for them, and that love for who they are, exactly as they are, is as colorful as a kaleidoscope and will never, ever fit inside of a stupid box.


Words and photo by N'tima Preusser.