February 21, 2014

Take a [ski] trip. Help your marriage.

Big changes tend to trigger an incredibly deep insecurity in me. So far, they have all been the sign of a new cycle of personal development. But coping with and overcoming my insecurities, adapting to another version of me, is a frustrating, anger-filled, confusing road. I tend to argue with people more often, I bitterly complain about the state of the world, I feel hopeless in my own efforts and values. In sum--I feel purposeless. I used to blame my extreme moodiness on my inability to cope with change: "Change is really hard for me, so it's expected that I'm just going to be miserable, panicky, and at times depressed. Guess I just need to learn how to live with that." Last spring, as you might already know, I faced the biggest change, the most extreme change I hope to ever encounter. Becoming a mom and losing my son. Such an extreme situation, yet I didn't undergo the expected relapse of insecurity. Instead, I felt stronger, more convicted in the person God created me to be. That's odd...if my life-long pattern was to hold true I should fall into some kind of deep depression, what with the grief, the postpartum hormones, the changes. For the past ten months, I've been anticipating these feelings and worked to have a different, more positive experience. I set positive, realistic, expectations.

I expected to be once again pregnant shortly after we lost Samuel. I had expected to find purpose, fulfillment, joy in supporting my husband, my family full-time. I had expected to thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to be SAHM even without my baby; suddenly I could focus 100% on all the house projects, family projects, personal projects I had stacked up. I had freedom of schedule, freedom from any real obligation. Oh, what bliss that would be! Surprisingly--sadly--these expectations were not met. I was not expecting the slow, silent affects of being a child-less mother. That over time I would grow lonely. Bored. Hopeless that I wouldn't have a child to mother any time soon, if ever. That I would grow bitter as a result of the loneliness, boredom, and hopelessness. How that bitterness could seep into my marriage, my sense of self, and slowly but surely eat away at any joy, peace or love I had so confidently established before. 

I had expected to experience insecurity in how I coped with, how I grieved the loss of Samuel. Instead, I grew insecure in my purpose in life, in my marriage.

Last weekend David and I took our annual Presidents Day trip to McCall, ID where we ski Brundage Mountain. It was in this town, on this hill, that David taught me to ski eight years ago. While I was never athletic as a child, I am absolutely 100% certain I would have been if I had learned to ski. My body feels powerful, confident as I float down the hill, flying away from all things stressful. Just me, snow-covered trees, cold, dry air and an ever-changing terrain. When I feel lost, skiing helps me to find my center. I see God so very present as I immerse myself in the absolute beauty of His creation. Skiing is freedom. Skiing is clarity.

Three days of spirit-lifting tree skiing through several inches of fresh powder finally gave me a sense of clarity. I could finally think. I'd been stuck for so. darn. long. Exhausted and frustrated, I couldn't seem to sort through the mess that was my mind. Now, finally, FINALLY, I felt free again. The drive home--the loooooong drive home (10+ hours with mountain pass closures that fortunately ended up working in our favor)--provided me the chance to gently sort through my scrambled thoughts and emotions. I thought a great deal about who I was becoming, about who I wanted to be for my husband, for my kids. I was supposed to be tending to a 10 month old in the back seat of our Rav4. But no. Once again, just David and me. Eight years later, just the two of us driving several hundred miles after burning our legs into the hill. Just us, day dreaming about how to discipline our future kids, where we'd like to take them, how soon we get them on skiis...and how our marriage still is in need of some serious hard work. Apparently much of my mental clutter--as Jen over at Conversion Diary puts it--was concerning my marriage, specifically how it had been going since Samuel had passed.

It's common knowledge that couples can really struggle after the loss of a child. In fact, couples who undergo such tragedy, 75% (or more) will divorce. The specific reasons for divorce after child loss vary, but generally can be categorized in two ways: inability to or difficulty with emotional processing for one or both partners and financial distress as a result of (or even prior to) the loss. Not once in the last ten month have David and I considered divorce. But there have been a couple of phases when I had seriously questioned our ability to maintain a close, deeply loving relationship. June was tough, a month after Samuel had been gone. August really sucked since I suddenly had nothing to distract me. And the most recent phase--the longest phase--started a month after we moved into our new home. For whatever reason, David and I struggled to connect in our usual M.O.

Typically, we would spend the majority of our free time together, share our hobbies, and offer our thoughts, feelings and opinions freely in order to stay connected. While this MO worked really well for us, I struggled with the timing and attitude of how I shared my thoughts, etc. David struggled with offering content. These little hiccups would cause many of our conflicts before Samuel was born, so it was important to us to work hard on improving these tendencies. Over our three years of marriage before Samuel we managed to build a strong, trusting, actively loving relationship. Samuel's death then presented a whole new set of challenges. Being able to connect didn't come naturally even though logic suggested it would. After all, we had experienced the exact same event, side by side, hand in hand. Yet, our emotional responses and how we handled those emotional responses were completely different. As David and I learned to grieve independently--a very valuable process in our marriage--connecting become more and more challenging. How could we be both connected and independent? We both hurt in ways we had never hurt before. We are sensitive. Unsure. We experience bitterness, anger, confusion, frustration, hopelessness, fear, sadness, longing. All these emotions, all of this hurt, can overwhelm one's ability to choose to love openly, unconditionally. So how?

The straightforward answer: Both of us work with a grief and loss therapist, who has provided us with a source of understanding and stability when our emotions are overwhelmingly confusing. Both of us have found great comfort in prayer. We have developed an even stronger understanding of how we encounter both God and Satan, which helps us to clearly see when to accept both our pain and our grace (that is to say accept our faith, hope and love), as well as when to reject certain fear-based thoughts.

The abstract answer: Above all, we come back to the table each and every day challenging each other to be open. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. We want to be connected, even though we fear the other may trigger something painful. We want to love each other unconditionally, even though the other could possibly be closed to that offering of love in any given moment. We want to be with each other until the very end, even though we very well may experience more hurt, more sadness, more frustration together. Why, despite all the possible hurt, do we want all of this? Because at the end of the day, when David and I can be open and can accept the other person's love we find peace. We have purpose. We see God. 

The primary source of conflict in the last ten months has been rooted in our individual insecurities, trying to understand how to connect, to openly love again.

In fact, the source of conflict throughout our relationship has stemmed from insecurity within ourselves. Why this notion is such an ah-ha this week, why it took three hard days of skiing with the love of the my life to remember such a simple fact is beyond me. It is difficult to identify insecurity as the source of conflict because the conflict usually stems from some behavior and words spoken or unspoken. After taking a  step back--that is, spending some quality time away from daily life--I could see how my frustration with the way life was going was merely a reflection of my insecurity. Taking a step back allowed me to truly identify where I am in life--yep, a lonely, bored housewife. I have been rejecting that notion consciously for the past two months because I believed being lonely and bored was shameful. After all, my mom always told me, "If you're bored I can give you something to do."

Not being happy with my current identity, my current situation can really affect how I love myself, and therefore my ability to love and be loved. Of course I am going to experience conflict in my marriage if I don't love myself because I couldn't possibly believe that anyone else could love me. When David says or shows me he loves me, and I'm feeling unsure of myself I may not accept his love. Wow. Not cool. And from the other side, if I offer David my encouragement, joy, support--all that is love--and he cannot accept, it because he is unsure of himself. Well then, we've got a real conflict on our hands. 

So where does insecurity come from? In this unique case, for me (and everyone is different), I think my insecurity started from not accepting, not allowing myself to be someone other than the mom and housewife I expected to be with Samuel. My expectation was that Samuel would be born. I would stay at home and care for him, the house and David. Well, Samuel isn't here so the expectation evolved. I would still stay home and care for only the house and David. ... that's all fine and dandy if I could have foreseen other aspects of my identity. I need to be connected to my family. I need social interaction. I need to contribute to the community. I need to challenge my brain. I need a full schedule. 

Most of those needs I have been rejecting, refusing to allow as part of me because it would somehow imply that I am no longer a mom. If I were gallivanting around town helping the community, giving my time here and there, challenging my brain, making new connections, I would somehow by defying all the things I could hold on to as "Mom." I was going to be a Stay At Home Mom. Not a Gallivanting Around Mom. Furthermore, I want people to know that I am a mom. It is so much of who I am. But there is no way for a stranger to know I'm a mom without me telling them the story of Samuel. Which, quite frankly, can really dampen  the mood. 

*On her first day of tutoring, she introduces herself to the math teacher, "Hi, I'm Elizabeth. I am so excited to help the kids learn! They are just like sponges, ready to soak up information. I had a child once. He wasn't around long enough to soak up information. He died..."* 

Yeah. Just a little awkward.

I still struggle to talk about Samuel without a specific prompt, especially since the subject isn't always contextually appropriate. Strangers don't ask (usually!), "So, do you have any kids?" 

Nevertheless, something about skiing last weekend, fitting into my old ski clothes, feeling my body move so confidently, and seeing God's presence in the mountains...I think I can accept the "anonymous mom" identity now. I think I can expand that to "Strong-willed, life-giving, creative, BUSY, gallivanting Mom." I am blessed to have the availability to give back to the community right now. To positively affect the lives of others. Two families are really benefiting from that, as I care for their little ones Monday thru Wednesday. We play, tell stories, explore and learn the usual toddler and preschool life skills. I will benefit from interacting with others, challenging my brain, and giving my heart. On Thursdays, I'll be mentoring, helping fifth graders really solidify their understanding of math. There will still be plenty of time to work on house chores and projects, to cook dinner, do the obligatory laundry and...to spend quality time with David. The worst that could happen? I might have a sense of self again.


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