There’s a rhododendron outside my window. I’m used to rhododendrons being part of the dense forests of my southern childhood—forests cut through with sparkling creeks, dripping hemlocks, and solid oaks. With their twisting branches and sheltering leaves, rhododendrons form the perfect hideaways for games by the creek. This one thrives right outside our suburban bedroom window and reaches its lush, leafy limbs toward our driveway.
The first year we moved in, we were in the middle of painting the bedroom a deep purple-gray when the rhododendron burst into huge, magenta, tissue-paper blooms. I snapped a picture of bright pink blooms framed in the white window and surrounded by the moody purple gray of our walls. That year I had to kick a paint can out of the way to take the picture. Since then, there’s occasionally been a nightstand, a laundry hamper, boxes of maternity clothes, or a changing table there. Every year, I end up taking the same picture because I’m always so startled by the beauty.
My rhododendron ends up blooming right around Mother’s Day. The first year it was ours, I clipped off some blossoms and stuck them in a glass bottle for my mom on her first Mother’s Day as a grandmother. The rhododendron has watched our family grow and change. It is in the photos we snapped as our first son took wobbly steps, pushing his wagon up and down the driveway. It stood there, silently gathering snow as we brought our second son home from the hospital. It has enchanted me with its whispery shadows on the wall as babies turned into toddlers, sleeping beside me in the afternoon light. It has become a favorite hiding spot for two little boys who like to wait in the dusk for their daddy to come home so they can jump out and scare him.
This past year I noticed something strange: some time between the blossoms of spring and the chilly days of autumn, the bush developed huge buds. I wondered if it might be gearing up for a second set of blossoms. But I learned that these buds are the ones the rhododendron will take with it into the winter. I wondered how buds—usually a sign of springtime—could survive the harshness of January. What about these buds makes them able to weather the winter?
As the days grow shorter, the plants prepare. Deciduous trees stop producing chlorophyll (which is why their leaves change colors and fall off). They stop lengthening their branches and producing leaves—anything that looks like life and productivity. They instead form resting buds, buds that won’t open for months.
Once trees fall into true dormancy, they have to collect enough hours of cold temperatures before they will wake up. True dormancy is what keeps a tree safe, making it resistant to damage from frost and cold. It’s a way to keep the tree from stress.
For the tree, the empty branches aren’t a sign of weakness but a sign of hidden growth and wise strength, strength to redirect energy and slow productivity. Those branches that seem barren are not barren at all; life is still pulsing beneath the surface.
A similar dormancy is what keeps us alive as mamas through the survival seasons. Motherhood seems to mean constantly dipping into and out of survival seasons from pregnancy to sleep deprivation to job stress to sickness. We don’t always know when these hard seasons will come. But when they do, it takes wisdom to channel our energy into what’s crucial and ignore the rest. Paring down our days and accepting our own limits is an integral part of the blooms that will eventually come. These blooms may be the ability to finally make dinner with no one crying. I’ve seen these blooms in the friendship my two sons have developed. I’ve seen them as we’ve found activities we enjoy as a family. I’ve seen them in the peaceful days that have followed weeks of patience-testing tantrums.
It was my rhododendron bush that allowed me to feel at peace with the uncertainty of another pregnancy. In thinking about a third pregnancy, I was terrified by the thought of the unknown and how to prepare for it; freezer meals don’t help when the smell of anything is revolting. We had discovered the joy of family bike rides and evening walks where no one needed to be carried. A new baby would effectively reset some of that. How could I parent my sons through their own difficult phases if I was exhausted? This doesn’t even scratch the surface of those deeper fears that come with pregnancy and birth.
I finally realized that hard seasons are a part of our ability to bring forth life. The appeal of the blooms—another soul to welcome into our family—pushed us on. We prepared to accept the survival seasons. And right in the middle of an especially cold winter, we found out our third child was growing inside me.
First trimester fatigue, cold weather, and repeated sickness meant we were cooped up for months. Some mornings I fought to throw off my fluffy, pink blanket while two little boys stood by the bed asking for breakfast. I prayed for strength while making coffee, only to lose my patience when our breakfast Bible reading didn’t happen because of a tantrum. I grew tired of seeing the pillow pile in our living room, a symbol of our meagre attempt to get out energy in the stuffy house. I felt a visceral longing for sunshine and some days, I felt that my only respite was a warm bath, a weak substitute for the feeling of the sun enveloping my body.
There wasn’t anything showy in this season, no gorgeous colors. We were surviving. This meant less playdates and more Daniel Tiger. It meant relying on my husband to get groceries and mustering up thankfulness for the copious amounts of veggie sticks and cereal bars my sons consumed. It meant yet another Instant pot full of black beans and a frequent, painful refrain of “No, Mommy is too tired.” It meant heavy eyes, a fuzzy brain, and a constant prayer for help.
But this time, I had learned from the trees. I stopped to see the beauty too, the resting buds. I tried not to see this time as missing out or failure on my part. Rather I reminded myself that it was an intentional redirection of energy. In the midst of these months of surviving, energy was flowing into buds that will bloom in the future, big and bold and beautiful.
As spring comes (and with it, a small dose of second trimester energy), I’m seeing the production that was going on under the surface. Spending so many days at home meant my sons bonded in a new way. My sons drank in the attention of a mom who sat more and cleaned less. I learned the joy of simple things like mornings spent playing with warm, homemade Play-doh that smelled of cherry Kool-aid. I learned that a four and two-year-old are capable of taking their plates and dusting the shelves. They learned to get their own snacks and cups of water. Instead of this time of survival robbing us of life, I see how it ended up growing us into a stronger, more resilient family.
In the same way, life is happening even in the brown, barren branches of the trees. Energy is channeled not into bright leaves and showy blossoms but somewhere else—somewhere natural and essential that will eventually result in breath-taking blooms. The leafless branches aren’t just barely hanging on. Rather, they are embracing a valuable, intentional part of production.
Even when I feel like it, I, too, am never just surviving. The harsh seasons in my life can be times of quiet growth through slowed production and energy channeled elsewhere. Though these seasons may be unpredictable and seem ugly, they are full of life. I’m still waiting for my rhododendron to bloom. Those buds sit there patiently, ever the same. But it won’t be long now. I’m sure I’ll take another photo to remind myself of those fleeting seasons when all the unseen grown gives way, for a short time, to glorious blooms.
Guest post written by Heather Tencza. Heather is married to her college sweetheart, and they live in Georgia with their three little boys. She writes because it keeps her from talking too much (sometimes). She has been featured on several sites including Mothers Always Write and blogs at www.heathertencza.com. You can also find her on Instagram.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.