I should have picked some other verse for 2023. Something that has to do with health and victory and success. Instead, I chose a Psalm about suffering and tribulation, and how I need to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
Be careful what you pray for. Because not two days into the first year, as I was setting down a bucket of rice, I felt something snap in my lower back and I fell down on my butt with a cry.
“Oh my God, are you OK?” my nanny exclaimed from the dining room. She had heard me crash onto the kitchen floor, and she came rushing over with Tov in her arms.
“I think I tweaked my back, is all!” I replied, getting up. I could feel the instability in my lower back, but I wasn’t in horrible pain.
“You’re doing too much. You need to sit down,” my nanny ordered.
I couldn’t sit. We had moved into an Airbnb while our house undergoes renovations, and I had just lugged two heavy bags of items from our freezer to the Airbnb that needed to be put away. The place was a mess and needed organization. Tov was running out of solid foods and I needed to make more. I haven’t had lunch yet, or even my first cup of coffee.
So I hoped and wished that it wasn’t that big a deal. I took a hot shower. I massaged my back muscles. But as the day went on, I knew I had done more to my back than a slight muscle strain. My torso was all wobbly on top of my hip, and I could feel a dull, throbbing pressure on my lower back.
The very thing I had been fearful of has happened, and all because of a bucket of rice that wasn’t even 10 pounds. The last time I hurt my back about three years ago, it had taken months to recover. But I had a baby. I didn’t have several months to lay off heavy lifting. Yet each time I picked Tov up or nursed him, I could feel the grinding pressure on my vertebrae.
I found a chiropractor, and she took some X-rays of my back. When she sensed some intense pressure on my neck, she took X-rays of my neck as well. She showed me models of vertebrae in various stages of degeneration. “If you’re here,” she said, pointing to the second vertebrae, “I can help you back to here,” she pointed at the healthy, normal vertebrae. “But if you’re here,” she pointed at the third vertebrae, “I can’t get you back to normal. By then we can only try to prevent you from getting here,” she said, pointing to the fourth vertebrae whose disc had degenerated so much that the bones were jiggedy-jaggedy from rubbing against each other.
Uh-huh. My stubbornly optimistic self immediately assumed I can’t possibly be the third or fourth vertebrae. I expected a full recovery after a few months of recuperation. Annoying, but not a big deal.
I got my test results two days later. The chiropractor marched into the office and once again explained the various stages of disc degeneration to me. I began feeling uneasy– why is she going through this again? And then she announced, pointing at the third vertebrae: “You are here.”
Oh no. Oh no.
I felt my belly sink. She began explaining to me what happens to the disc when it goes through constant wear and tear. How the disc is supposed to act as a jelly-like shock-absorber, and how when it degenerates or oozes out, it no longer protects the spine as well, and how that affects the nerve system, how that affects everything from my thyroids to my digestive system to my wrists. She held up charts in front of me like a lecturer, and I stared blankly at them, not hearing anything she’s saying.
All I could hear was, “If you’re here, I can’t get you back to normal”– and stare at that stupid, broken third vertebrae with the decayed disc.
Turns out, I have degenerative disc disease on my neck, upper back, and lower back. A couple dics on my neck had degenerated enough that the cervical spine was curving the opposite way it’s supposed to. That was triggering the nerves down my arms, which explains why I suddenly can no longer rotate my right wrist without sharp pain. My bad neck is why my back gave out– it was over-compensating from the misalignment in my neck, which then caused a misalignment in my back and hip. It’s not technically a “disease”– everyone has degenerative discs at some point due to aging– but mine is pretty early for a 35-year-old, possibly caused by my young gymnastics/Taekwondo days, two car accidents, the physically grueling task of childbearing and child-rearing, and me constantly cracking my neck and back several times a day for years.
“You probably want to kill me for this news,” my chiropractor said. “Maybe you want to toss me out the window.”
I think she might have said a “but” afterwards with some better news about treatment plans, but I didn’t hear it because all I could hear was a loud buzz of worry– what does this mean? Will I be able to wear and carry Tov like I did before? Will I be able to have a second kid? Will I be able to lift weights again? Run? Carry heavy groceries? Travel? Will I have chronic pain for the rest of my life? Become a hunchbacked cripple?
The chiropractor asked me what I wanted: Did I want to focus on pain relief? Or try a treatment plan to correct the misalignment, though the result is not guaranteed?
“I just want to be normal again,” I said, swallowing back my tears. “I want to be able to carry my baby.”
How strange, when at that moment, every day before the diagnosis suddenly felt like the golden happy days. Post-diagnosis, the future felt bleak and gray. The chiropractor put me on a six-month, 22-treatment plan, open to adjustment if my body doesn’t respond well to it. I hate such uncertainties. I wanted to hear a confident declaration that yes, the treatment will 100 percent work, and you’ll be back to running 4 miles and doing 150-pound leg presses in no time! But I returned home with no such promises and a disheartened heart.
That weekend, David fell sick. He mostly stayed supine in bed, groaning and moaning about his pain while I moved around the house with a back brace, a wrist guard, and ice packs on my neck. Add to that a pumping device and I felt like some kind of barn animal. I had been expecting him to help out more with Tov, but now I had two babies to take care of– one small and cute, the other big and not as cute. As much as I felt sorry for David, I also seethed. Where was help when I needed it? Who’s taking care of me?
That Sunday, we had planned to go out on our first date since Tov was born. David’s cousins had offered to babysit Tov while we went out. They were busy people so we had booked this date a month in advance. Now we had to cancel, and instead of a romantic dinner out, I spent that evening watching Tov while David passed out on the couch.
“Oooh I feel like I’m dying! This is the worst pain I’ve ever felt!” David moaned.
“You’re always saying it’s always the worst pain you ever felt,” I said suspiciously as I made him some hot mint tea, while wincing from the tension around my neck and back. I grumbled to myself that if the male species ever had to go through childbirth labor pains, all of them would probably die off from the pain and go extinct. Or maybe they’ll survive, just so they can live another day to complain, as they seem to enjoy complaining. (But then, if the male species died off, what would the female species have to grumble about? Because I think secretly we women also like to complain about our men.)
Two nights later, as David lay in pain on the couch again, after I had finally put Tov to bed, after I had finished up washing up the dishes, I finally reached my end. My back and neck were killing me. I still had work to do, but how is it already almost 9 pm already?! I felt overwhelmed thinking that this might be my future for God knows how long. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I just wanted to fling my braces into the garbage disposal and destroy things. All the helplessness and anger and frustration swooshed out into hot salty tears as I gingerly tried to stretch out the knots in my back, feeling like a broken, pathetic creature.
David saw my tears and sat up, alarmed. “You need help?”
Yes. Is there a magic pill to revert my body back to a 22-year-old’s? No? Then you’re useless too!
I swallowed my bitter words. “You could have helped wash the dishes.”
“Oh! Sorry, I didn’t know.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask.”
“Sorry, I thought you were done with the dishes when I was changing Tov’s diaper.”
“My back’s killing me and I don’t feel like it’s getting any better. I feel like it got worse.”
“I’m sorry. How can I help?”
“I actually dread taking care of Tov now. Just nursing him is so uncomfortable. I hate feeling this way.”
“I think you chose a good verse for this year: Be still.”
“Yeah? Be still? Well, I can’t be still when we have a baby!”
I felt this crushing, devastating longing for those childless days when I didn’t have to constantly pour out to someone. I wanted to run. I wanted to hide. I wanted my old life back.
But then I looked at our baby cam. Tov was sleeping on his belly in his crib. I always put him down on his back, but within a minute he always flips over to his stomach. I looked at the soft, fine hair on the back of his head. The tiny side profile of his face, the sliver of eyelashes. The little fists by his side. As much as I earnestly missed the old days, I can’t imagine life without him anymore.
It must be the grace of God for parents, that as exhausted and overwhelmed as we are, every time we look at our child, we get injected with a shot of happy endorphins that help us persist one more day. And that’s all I needed– one little shot of energy to survive this moment, just one more burst of strength to carry on another day, until a new morning.
Be still, and know that I am the Lord. Stop fighting, and know that I am God.
I was fighting, constantly fighting– for control, for production, for the self-rewarding sense of fulfillment of tasks completed and well done, for a lifestyle from the old days that is no longer realistic, for security and comfort. None of those are bad things to desire, but there are times when I’m grasping for too much, too fast, all at once, and I feel like I’m always rushing and huffing after something that’s dancing and skipping away from reach.
Breathe in, breathe out. It is 9:15 pm. Soon, the day will be over, never to come back. In several hours, I will greet another new day.
Breathe in. Be still. Stop fighting. And in the half-minute it takes to breathe out, meet God. That’s all it takes, just like seeing Tov sleep is all it takes to remind me of the joy of motherhood, when motherhood feels like an utter burden.
Lord, you are God. You are the God of the universe. You are my God. I see you. You see me. You made this body that I detest right now, but for all its wear and tear, it got me through this day: I woke up. I carried and nursed Tov. I did the dishes. I finished the day. And tomorrow, it’ll get me through another day. Thank you. Amen.
On New Year Day, the first day of 2023, David and I began our day with an argument.
It was Sunday, and our church had canceled church service for Christmas and New Year. David and I had found another nearby church that we could attend instead, and I had been excited to check out this church. Except we forgot something: We have a baby who scoffs at our plans.
Church service starts at 10:30. It was 10 am, and Tov decided it was nap time then. We shouldn’t have been surprised– that’s usually when he starts getting extremely fussy and tired. We put him down for a nap. And then came time to make a decision: Do we wake him up mid-nap and risk him being super loud and tired during church service? Or do we skip church and be bad Christians?
David didn’t want to risk it. The church we were visiting is a small church– maybe about 25 people. We are new, and it’s already 10:15, which means we will be late. It would be awkward, he said. What’s more, we had a full day ahead of us: We were renovating the kitchen and bathrooms, so we had to move out to an Airbnb that day, and we really needed Tov to be calm. Can’t we just worship and pray at home instead?
I wanted to go to church anyway. I didn’t care if people stared at us– we have a baby! People will understand. Who cares if we enter late with a screaming baby and people look at us? The point was to be at church. By then I had already missed several church services because of travel. I wanted– needed– spiritual fellowship.
We argued back and forth, and 10:15 became 10:20 and then 10:25. My frustration fizzled out like a shaken Coke bottle. By then, I lost all desire to attend church as well. I was feeling bitchy, being a bitch, and thinking really uncharitable things about my own husband. What’s the point in going to church now? I’ll be carrying into a sanctuary the worst attitude to worship God.
“Forget it,” I snapped. “Let’s just not do church.”
“We can pray,” David offered.
“And who’s going to pray? You?” I spat.
Then Tov woke up. He must have been stirred awake by my sharp, raised voice. And he was hungry.
I took Tov to our room to nurse him. He looked up and smiled at me, oblivious to the turmoil in my heart. I forced a smile on my face.
As I nursed him, I felt like a fraud. What a contradiction– here I was, nurturing and nourishing my child, while inside, the contents of my heart were toxic, chaotic, harsh. I was feeding my child while starving my own soul, and poisoning my husband, the father of my child. This wasn’t a one-time thing– for some time, I’ve noticed myself getting irritable over everything, and the target of my ire was often David.
Meanwhile, Tov looked up at me and smiled and smiled with such adoration.
“You have no idea who your mother is,” I whispered to Tov. He smiled, delighted that I was talking to him. Will he look at me with that same love, even when I inevitably also lose my temper with him one day? Is this the kind of mother I’m going to be to my child? Then I broke down, shaking with silent sobs, overwhelmed by the giant conflict in my soul.
Tov must have sensed something, because he was no longer smiling. He went still and nestled on my lap quietly while I hugged him and wept. “You poor thing,” I said, “You poor thing. You are innocent of all of this.”
We parents often obsess over creating a safe and secure environment for our kids. We have a baby camera. We got a baby-proof gate for the stairway. We will be getting rid of the sharp-edged coffee table once Tov becomes more mobile. Our strollers and car seats come with all these annoying but safety-minded straps and buckles. We even got a dechoker (out of a moment of weakness while watching an ad, in which crying parents thanked the dechoker for saving their baby’s life after he choked on dinner).
But if Tov grows up in a home in which his own parents don’t get along, all those physical safety measures won’t protect him from the trauma of emotional instability and unrest. David and I currently have a good marriage. We get along well and rarely argue. But I could see, if these little tiffs and irritations and flare-ups don’t get corrected along the way, we might end up in a counselor’s room five years down the road, when by then, Tov would have already sensed something is off.
All statistics say that the vast majority of couples report a steep decline in their marital relationship after the arrival of a new baby. Mothers are more likely to report dissatisfaction, often because women tend to become the “default parent.” I already feel like the default parent– and I don’t want to become part of that statistics. Marriage is meant to reflect the love of Christ and his church. I don’t want to model a skewed vision of that for Tov. I don’t want to introduce any impediments to his relationship with God.
As I held Tov and reflected on my own heart, I thought of the verse I had pinned for 2023: “Be still, and know that I am the Lord.” Well, if this isn’t confirmation that this was the right verse for me this year. I took a deep breath and tried to quiet my soul, and be still in the Lord. I kissed Tov’s forehead, and thought of God kissing my own forehead. I caressed Tov’s brow, and thought of how I used to caress David’s brow. I looked at Tov’s handsome face, and remembered how handsome I think my own husband is, how beautiful and perfect a creature we created together.
And then I got up and sat next to David on the couch.
While I had my moment with God, David had his, and his eyes were red and wet as well. He had just read Psalm 51. He turned on some soft instrumental worship music his mother used to love. He shared what he heard from God, and I shared mine. We apologized to each other, and then we hugged and kissed– a group hug between David, Tov, and me.
Tov, crushed between us, squealed and giggled. Even at 7 months old, I notice that Tov loves it when David and I are together, when we show affection to each other. It’s incredible and awe-striking, what an infant can sense at a time when he can barely express himself. Truly, God’s design for marriage and family is real and beautiful. And it’s amazing that He uses a little 7-month-old to remind me of that.
It’s Day 10 of my trip to Ukraine. Day 10 away from Tov. It’s the longest I’ve been away from him.
Every day has been busy. My mind has been busy. The stories I hear, the sights I see, the faces I’ve come to know– all of those things have kept my mind and heart full. And still– even in my busiest moments, with all that’s happening, with the constant booms of Russian artillery in the near distance, with my fingers as cold and stiff as frozen french fries, there was always a tugging on my heart.
One night, I had a terrible dream. I dreamed that I returned home from my trip, and I acted like I would normally do before I became a mother: I threw off my shoes, puttered around the kitchen, went grocery shopping for snacks, took a nice nap, made some milky coffee, read some books…and then I jolted upright with a start: “Oh shoot! Where’s Tov?” It was like my brain, in the subterranean dreamworld, so accustomed to 34 years of childlessness, had forgotten I had a son.
I remember in my dream running to Tov’s room. I found him lying alone on his crib, busy kicking his feet as he always does. “Hi Tov!” I exclaimed, reaching for him. “Omma’s back! I missed you!” All the while, I felt massive guilt for forgetting he even existed.
In my dream I picked him up and held him. I missed him and longed for him even as I held him. My new motherhood sentiments flooded in like a tsunami. I kissed and cuddled him. And then I looked at his eyes, and his big eyes looked up at me without recognition. My son stared at my face with interest, as though meeting me for the first time. He looked at me like he looked at a stranger, and at that moment I realized, with a dark, sinking feeling, He does not know me.
Oh Tov! Oh Tov, I am sorry. I am so sorry. I wept and wept and wept with inexpressible disappointment and sorrow. My heart felt hollow and rank, like a hole sinking into the deepest, dankest sewage tunnel. I cried so much I woke myself awake, and was surprised that I hadn’t drenched my pillow with real tears.
I awoke still feeling that sorrow that my seven-month-old son has forgotten his mother. And even now as I write this, my eyes sting with tears. It is strange, this feeling. Before I left for Ukraine, my abba told me to hurry back, because my son needs me. But my son seems fine. He has David, and my mother, and our nanny taking care of his every need. So it feels like rather than my son needing me, I’m the one who needs him.
Tov, if you ever one day read this, I hope you understand this heart. When I fail you, when I lose my temper with you, when I vex you, I hope you remember my heart. I don’t know what kind of mother I’ll be, but know that when I became a mother, I gained love as I’ve never had before, fears as I’ve never experienced before, and sorrows that I’ve never felt before. I will never be perfect for you. And you will never fully understand me, as all children never fully understand their parents.
But I hope you’ll at least understand that my heart is for you. That you have changed my world, and that that world belongs to you even when I’m halfway across the world. As it should be. Because that’s how God created it. He created a parent’s heart to reflect His heart for us. And if you don’t understand my heart, I hope you’ll at least understand His, this desire to be known by you.
Dear Tov. I’ll be back soon. Because this omma needs you.
I am currently in Warsaw, Poland, at a hotel as I type this. I had planned to wake up at 7 am so I can take advantage of their superb free breakfast, but I was so zonked out that I slept almost 10 hours and woke up right as the hotel breakfast time ended. It was the first time I got to sleep more than six hours straight since Tov was born.
I was in this same exact hotel nine months ago. It feels like a lifetime ago. How different life is now. How different I am now.
Nine months ago, I was six months pregnant. I woke up multiple times during the night because I either had to shuffle to the bathroom or had to shift positions due to a bulging belly. Last night, I woke up several times throughout the night not just because of physical discomfort (oh, the joys of breastfeeding), but because my subconsciousness woke me up to check the baby camera app, just to make sure Tov is sleeping through the night. I wasn’t worried about Tov. I was more worried that David would get no sleep.
He got no sleep. The baby cam app alerted me that Tov was crying in his crib at 2 in the morning. I watched as David lumbered into Tov’s room and stuck the pacifier into his mouth. An hour later, Tov wailed again. Again, the pacifier. Then he cried again. And again.
Poor David. Poor Tov.
There are times when I miss being a single, independent woman, because then, I was free of such relations, in which I am beholden to others and others are beholden to me. I could go on a two-month work trip without worrying about inconveniencing anyone except myself.
This time round, on my first international work trip since I became a mother, my travels affect not just me but my husband, my almost 7-month-old baby, my mother– who flew to LA to help take care of Tov– and my father, who lost his companion. I have new worries now: I have to make sure I keep my milk supply up while on long flights and train rides and drives; I have to hurry back home as soon as possible so I’m not gone too long from the family; I wonder how my long absence will affect Tov’s stability and happiness.
And also, how I miss that babe. On the plane, a couple in front of me had a baby about Tov’s age. Pre-Tov me would have inwardly groaned, dreading being stuck on a long flight with a crying baby. Post-Tov me smiled at the little round head of this baby and longed to stroke the back of Tov’s head. In Warsaw, as I walked the streets, all I saw were babies– babies sleeping on strollers, babies in their parents’ arms, toddlers wobbling on little feet– and each time, I missed Tov. I missed his stubborn tuft of hair. I missed his sweet milky scent. I missed his tiny fingers wrapped around my thumb. I missed his smiles and yawns and giggles and coos. Heck, I even missed his screams and cries.
The day I left the country, I wanted both David and Tov to drop me off at the Dulles airport, though my parents offered to watch Tov. I wanted to be with Tov till the last minute. He fell asleep while we drove to the airport, with his fingers clutching my finger. At the airport, I tried to say goodbye to Tov, but he had his eyes firmly closed, his mouth busy sucking at a pacifier.
“Tov, Tov. Open your eyes. Look at omma. Tov,” I begged, but he let out a cry of protest, eyes still closed. I kissed his head, kissed David goodbye, and walked into the airport with my luggage, heart full of thoughts and emotions.
This is my first time entering a country at war. Every news coming out of Ukraine was no good: Russian missiles are striking cities and villages, pummeling Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Last week, even Kyiv lost power for days, and millions in Ukraine still don’t have electricity or running water. Meanwhile, the weather is below freezing, and nighttime falls by 4 pm. I am most certainly going to freeze my ass off. I’m not even sure how I’ll get out of the country once I figure out my return date.
Of course, I didn’t have to go to Ukraine. But I am. Because pre-Tov me would have. Because there’s a war going on in Ukraine, and there are stories there that I want to cover. Because even as a new mother, I don’t want to lose certain parts of me, though I suppose that’s a very modern, individualistic sort of mindset that would be foreign to non-western women a hundred years ago.
But I did lose some things. I’ve lost hours of productivity at work that I now give to a very needy human being. I’ve lost the ability to be spontaneous and carefree. I’ve lost the liberated sense of being a rootless nomad, where home is where I hang my hat. I’ve lost the freedom of being able to travel without something tugging at my heart.
And you know, I am fine with it. Because that tugging of my heart means somebody is waiting for me. That I have a home now. That I now have a family– people who are beholden to me, and I to them; people who miss me, and I them. I miss, because I have. And for that, I am grateful.
I have a love/hate relationship with those developmental milestone charts.
On the one hand, they’re helpful in keeping track with your baby’s developmental progress. You know what to anticipate so you don’t get freaked out when the baby suddenly regresses on sleep, for example, or don’t think your baby’s hungry every time he sucks on his fingers. On the other hand, when your baby is developmentally behind, like mine is, those charts get rather annoying.
One milestone I had been eagerly awaiting, ever since we brought him home from the hospital, is Tov’s first genuine smile. He’s been “smiling” since he was a newborn, but those little smirks were not genuine smiles, but baby reflexes, almost always while he’s asleep, or when I touch his cheek. So as cute as those smirks were, they weren’t all that special. I couldn’t wait to see Tov smile for real– for him to look me in the eyes, and then intentionally stretch his mouth upwards into a smile, just for me.
According to those charts, a baby’s first social smile happens around eight weeks, or between six and 12 weeks. Well, six weeks passed. Then eight. Then 10. Twelve weeks. And Tov still wasn’t really smiling. There would be little flickers of sorta kinda smiles, but those smiles were gone in an instant, making me think they weren’t really smiles but random muscle reflexes. Plus, he wasn’t even looking at me when he “smiled.” So I continued to wait. And wait. And wait. Three months. 13 weeks. 14 weeks. No smile.
The pediatrician had told me that because Tov is a premie, he might be a little behind. He might take a year to catch up to the median weight. I was fine with him being a little small– I now understand why so many parents mourn that their kids are growing up too fast. I love Tov being small. It’s good for both my back and my soul that I can still cradle him in one arm. But damn it, I really wanted him to smile soon!
So I tried to hurry his progress along. I looked him in the eye and talked to him, in both Korean and English. He mostly looked away. Stared at the ceiling fan, the wall, the sofa, everything except my eyes. I sat him on his bouncer and read to him. I read him a children’s bible, but he yawned, that little heathen. So I read him a book about choo choo trains, using sound effects and everything, and he seemed a little bit more interested and looked at the book for a few seconds, but didn’t smile, didn’t last more than five seconds before reverting his gaze back to the ceiling fan.
Desperation calls for self-humiliation. I sang. I danced. I sang about hopping rabbits while hopping on all fours. I sang “Jesus loves me” and made hand motions by crossing my fingers and making finger hearts. I sang nonsense– “boop boop boop, la la la, kkaa reeee reeee reee!”– while swaying my hips and flapping my arms like a mad monkey.
All the while, my child looked bored and even…judgmental. This was his expression as his mother sang and danced and made a fool of herself just for the sake of a smile:
That little brat. That little judgy brat. Fine. You don’t want to smile? No smile for you!
But…I can’t help it. I look at that face and my mouth naturally smiles. My mouth naturally wants to kiss him all over. My adoration for him just burbles and froths like a soda fountain, and my child just sips at it, because he is saturated to the tip of his hair strands with his mother’s love, and he doesn’t even know what life is like without it.
Not even four months into motherhood, and I am taken for granted. Woe is me.
Then one evening, we went to a party. It was David’s cousin’s 50th birthday, and they invited us to their house for a birthday dinner. It was the first large gathering we attended altogether since Tov was born. I dressed him up in his cutest outfit, but he pooped all over it– twice– so I changed him into his second nicest outfit. No matter– at least in my eyes, he can wear a poop-stained farty sack and still be the most adorable living creature on earth. I was grateful that others also found him lovable, and Tov received so much love at the party. Aunts and cousins held him, cooed over him, bounced him, cuddled him.
And guess what. That boy SMILED. Not once, not twice, but many times! He smiled and smiled! At other people— while his mother, the woman who carried him in her womb for 35 weeks, who suffered all the aches and indignities and agony of pregnancy and labor, whose shirts are permanently stained with milk, who has aged 10 years and frightens herself every time she looks in the mirror– that mother who sacrificed so much for this child! She! That mother! She sat right next to him watching her baby smile at literally everyone except her.
Oh that little…
Then the next morning. Guess who he smiled at?
Oh no. Not me. Not his poor pitiful mother. He smiled at his father. David was sitting him on his lap, when Tov peered into his eyes and presented him with a wide smile.
“He’s smiling!” David exclaimed.
“What!” I yelped from the kitchen, and rushed over. Tov took one look at me and stopped smiling.
I went back to the kitchen.
“He’s smiling again!” David shouted.
“Oh my God!” I rushed back, and Tov stared at me with no smile.
I did finally see him smile for myself. Why? Because I hid behind the house plants while Tov smiled at my delighted husband. Why are babies such jerks?
I knew that to Tov, he and I are one. He spends more time skin-on-skin on me than with anyone else, and he’s still too young to separate his identity from mine. So I wasn’t hurt. Just majorly annoyed, that’s all. Just like I’ll be majorly annoyed if he says “abba” before “omma” and David is certain to gloat about it.
The next morning, I was nursing Tov while looking at his darling round-cheeked face, when I thought, “Why not pray about this?” It just seemed like such a trivial silly prayer request. But the Bible did say “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In every situation, the Bible says. Not just with serious critical situations, the Bible implies.
OK then. So that morning, I prayed, feeling a little silly, “God, let Tov give me one smile, just for me!”
Tov finished feeding. I burped him. Sat him on my lap facing me. Talked nonsense to him. He stared at me. Then, to my great amazement, he SMILED! Not just a little side smirk, but a full-on eye-crinkle smile!
I almost fell off my chair. “Oh my God! Tov! Did you just smile at omma?” I exclaimed.
And then…he smiled AGAIN! A wide mouth grin! A smile so pure, so guileless, so rich and sweet! All the while looking at ME! Not at the aunties, not at my husband, not the ceiling fan, but at ME! I was so thrilled I smothered him with kisses, to which he responded by turning his head with a grimace. We’ll work on that (or I should probably get used to it), but HALLELUJAH praise the Lord! My child smiled at me!
Since then, Tov has been smiling more and more, and although I’ve collected dozens of smiles by now, every smile is still a heavenly gift, like a kiss from an angel. I waited exactly 100 days for Tov’s smile, and the wait was worth every ridiculous dance, nerve-scratching baby voices, and reading the same boring choo-choo train book over and over.
It’s interesting, that a human being is born crying from the womb, but it takes weeks for the child to learn how to smile. Tov knew how to cry from the moment he arrived, but he needed another human being to learn how to smile, and even then, it can take some coaxing, with lots of eye-to-eye interaction and communication.
I think a lot about the Lord’s joy in us as I experience a parent’s joy over her child’s joy, and how that joy is so interpersonal and communal. I’ve always loved that verse in Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
What a tender, joyful way of expressing the Lord’s heart towards us! Just like I sit Tov on my lap and sing to him, joy burbling as I sense his own joy, smiling a hundred times more at the sight of his one smile, the Lord rejoices over us with gladness and loud singing. We need His joy to learn joy, we share that joy with one another, and we need each other to express that joy.
The first time I was hospitalized, I was 17, a soon-to-graduate high school senior. I was struggling with anorexia but refusing to admit it. I weighed barely a few pebbles above 60 pounds, and my parents and I had just signed the papers to discharge from the hospital against doctor’s orders.
My family and I walked out of the hospital that late afternoon to meet a golden sun, but inwardly, our souls were quivering under a hailstorm. It’s hard to imagine how my parents were feeling at the time. I know how I was feeling, though. I faced the situation with willfully blind eyes– pretending I didn’t really have a problem (“Oh well, I just need to eat a bit more, that’s all!”); pretending I wasn’t terrified of my future, which seemed so dark and exhausting; pretending I had more willpower and courage than I truly had. We left the hospital with forced smiles but dank eyes. And as we walked out of the hospital doors, my abba remarked, “The only people leaving this hospital happy are mothers with their newborn child.”
For some reason, that comment stayed with me all these years. Perhaps it was because I was so depressed that day, that I couldn’t fathom the joy of a mother bringing home a new baby, and the juxtaposition was so jarring, so unimaginable, that it stuck.
So the day I was discharged from the hospital holding Tov in my arms, as morbid as it sounds, I thought of abba’s remark, and thought of how the situation had flipped: Now I was the one leaving the hospital with joy, while in the same hospital, some other family was leaving it with dread and sorrow. How unpredictable life is– yet how seasonal it is as well. Like Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
I can currently in a season of mundaneness. Every day is the same– slow, boring, mind-numbing, yet gone in a blink. What day is it today again? Oh yes, Monday. Same as Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday. Each day I wake up to repeat the same manual labors of motherhood: make coffee while Tov cries for milk, feed him, change him, play with him, fruitlessly attempt to get him to nap in his crib; repeat. When friends ask me how I’m doing, I honestly don’t really know what to say. Fine? I am physically and mentally tired, but I’m not unhappy. Neither am I dancing with joy. I am alive, my husband is alive, my baby is alive. We live, therefore we are well.
Tov was particularly fussy today. He cried and yeowed and wailed and whined and really struggled to sleep. He cried on his play mat. He cried on the bouncer. He cried in my arms. I eventually managed to calm him down into a cat nap by wearing him and singing to him.
I don’t know why, but as I swayed him to sleep, I sang to him a song that I used to sing daily to myself when I was a single 29-year-old living alone in a studio apartment with a cat. It’s called “Satisfied in You” by The Sing Team, a hymn rendition of Psalm 42. Here’s the music video version of it:
I remember when I listened to this song on repeat each day, sometimes singing it to myself, sometimes humming it in my head. Here are the lyrics:
I have lost my appetite
And a flood is welling up behind my eyes
So I eat the tears I cry
And if that were not enough
They know just the words to cut and tear and prod
When they ask me “Where’s your God?”
Why are you downcast, oh my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
I can remember when you showed your face to me
As a deer pants for water, so my soul thirsts for you
And when I behold Your glory, You so faithfully renew
Like a bed of rest for my fainting flesh
I am satisfied in You
When I’m staring at the ground
It’s an inbred feedback loop that brings me down
So it’s time to lift my brow
And remember better days
When I loved to worship You and learn Your ways
With the sweetest songs of praise
Why are you downcast, oh my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
I can remember when you showed your grace to me
As a deer pants for water, so my soul thirsts for You
And when I survey Your splendor, You so faithfully renew
Like a bed of rest for my painting flesh
I am satisfied in You
Let my sighs give way to songs that sing about your faithfulness
Let my pain reveal your glory as my only real rest
Let my losses show me all I truly have is you
‘Cause all I truly have is You
So when I’m drowning out at sea
And Your breakers and Your waves crash down on me
I’ll recall Your safety scheme
You’re the one who made the waves
And Your Son went out to suffer in my place
And to tell me that I’m safe
So why am I down?
Why so disturbed?
I am satisfied in You
I am satisfied in You
I am satisfied in You
I am satisfied in You
I am satisfied in You
It’s a strange song to sing to a wailing child whose only real suffering is when his mother makes him wait while she makes coffee or cooks dinner. It’s also a strange song to sing when I am neither downcast nor disturbed. It made perfect sense when I was 29 though, when I woke up feeling downcast and went to bed feeling lonely. At that time, I sang it because I needed to sing out the things I believe in: That God is faithful, that I am satisfied in Him, that I can rest in Him, no matter how I feel.
But today, as a 34-year-old tired mother, I sang this song once again as though I was blowing the dust off an old photo album: “Why are you downcast, oh my soul?….I can remember when You showed Your face to me. So it’s time to lift my brow and remember better days when I loved to worship You and learn Your ways with the sweetest songs of praise… I am satisfied in You. I am satisfied in You.”
“I can remember when You showed Your face to me.” “I can remember when You showed Your grace to me.” I can remember…I can remember.
I can remember the seasons of winter when I clung onto God out of desperation– those days of struggling with anorexia; then the days when I was single and lonely and sleeping more hours than was healthy; and of course the day David’s mother died and the many tearful days after that. I can remember the seasons of spring when I sang exuberant praises to God– those hopeful, wonderful, anxious days of dating and romance; of being engaged and planning a wedding; the first morning making pancakes as newlyweds; the slow-bubbling excitement and anticipation of our firstborn.
And what season am I in now? I suppose it’s like the dog days of summer, when your brain is fried from the heat and the sun’s glare is dimming your senses into a daze, when the days are slow and long and sweaty. Such are the times when it’s most difficult to remember. It’s a time when your passion and zeal for God wilt like spring flowers under the summer sun. When the Bible sits unopened, when your prayers feel dry and sterile, when you’re just going through the motions of life and faith.
Of course, there are legit reasons for feeling that spiritual lethargy. Motherhood has its sweet blooms of joy, but it’s also– at least for me– like swaying through a fog. My mind has not felt clear and crisp since…I can’t remember. My body is not my own, my time is not my own, my attention is not my own. I am constantly distracted and scattered like Tov’s things all over the living room.
So it was a jarring memory to sing “Satisfied in You” while jiggling our fussy child in my bedroom. And I remembered. Every season, whether sunny or stormy, I can remember God was present. I can remember that He was faithful. I can remember that “God has made everything beautiful in its time” as Ecclesiastes declares, and as He has demonstrated to me, time and time again.
That season when I left the hospital as an anorexic high school senior was in its own way beautiful. It watered seeds with bitter tears that bore the sweetest fruits. That season when I left the hospital holding a sleepy, two-day-old Tov was beautiful. This new human life, even with a scrunchy frowny tantrummy face, is so beautiful beyond words.
And today, drab as it seems, mundane as the hours are, tired and numb as I am, is beautiful. Today, I remember all the other seasons God walked me through, and I remember His grace and His face. So today I rest. Today, I am satisfied in Him.
I was about six or seven years old. School had ended, and I was on the school bus, on my way back home. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking, but I remember I was quiet, withdrawn from the chatter in the bus. I had not been feeling well that day at all, but I didn’t really know that I was feeling sick, nor did I tell anyone that I felt unwell.
The school bus dropped me off. As I walked towards home, I spotted both my parents standing in front of the door, waiting for me. Their faces lit up when they saw me, and they opened their arms with bright smiles. I don’t remember what they said. All I remember is their smiles– the warmth, the love, the familiarity. I was home. I was safe. And all of a sudden, I burst into tears. And as my parents opened their mouths in alarm, as they ran forward to hug me and ask me what’s wrong, I realized then that I needed their presence to finally feel safe to cry, to express in my childlike way that I am not well.
For some reason, this memory came to me as I sat at the waiting room for my optometrist. I was running out of contact lenses and needed a new prescription to renew them. Before the appointment, I had managed to put Tov down for a nap, and I had expected to be back within an hour, but the optometrist was late for my appointment– very late. I had to wait 45 minutes to finally see the optometrist. While waiting, I checked the nursery camera on my iPhone– oh no. Tov is up! He’s wiggling and wailing in his crib!
So there I was, waiting for the optometrist, while David was downstairs in his office stuck in a meeting, and Tov was just crying and crying with nobody to respond to him. My gosh, how that wrung my heart! I wanted to scream at the optometrist for making me wait for that long, jump into my car, zoom back home, and scoop Tov into my arms.
I used to hate the sound of babies crying. I found them as annoying as the sound of forks scraping the surface of a dish. Whenever I heard a baby wailing at the store, or on the plane, I felt my ears bleeding from the noises raking at my eardrums. But something incredible happened when my own baby cried– my heart swelled. My love for him doubled, tripled whenever he cried. It’s not like my baby’s wails are any less loud or shrill than other babies’. It’s just that…he’s my baby, and he needs me.
Often Tov cries for no apparent reason at all, other than simply reminding us that he exists. He’s been fed, burped, changed, played with, cuddled with, and he will still let out a cry, just because he can…and just because he knows we will respond, even if it’s in the middle of the night. Because as young and helpless as he is, he knows the power of his cries in the ears of his parents. He knows. Just as the seven-year-old me subconsciously withheld my tears until I saw my parents, because I knew nobody would respond as warmly and lovingly as my own parents could, two-month-old Tov intuitively knows that when he cries, my heart instantly wrings and swells.
I think about how God called David a man after his own heart. That is one of the most tremendous statements in the Bible, that God, who hates unrighteousness and injustice, would call David– a murderer, an adulterer, a rapist, and a failed father– a man after his own heart. But as I read the songs that David composed in Psalms, I wonder…perhaps God calling David a man after his own heart isn’t based on David’s qualifications, but on David’s ability to cry and wail to God with full confidence and assurance that God listens and responds. God called David a man after his own heart because David understood the heart of God– that His is a heart that wrings and swells when we cry out to Him. Calling David a man after God’s own heart isn’t a testament to David– it’s a testament to God– to His goodness and compassion and steadfast love. It is a praise to God, not David.
Just read out Psalm 62, in which David wrote: “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”
And Psalm 42, one of my favorite passages: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
What I sense in these psalms is that David knew deep into his marrows that he is beloved by God. So when he is downcast, he pours out his soul to God. When he is happy, he pours out his soul to God. To pour out your soul is to be fully vulnerable and authentic, to reveal every part of yourself, to express every emotion and thoughts, to be boldly free and naked before someone without shame, regrets, or fear.
I love that. God, I love that. Even as an infant, we are born wailing needing so much love, more love than even our parents can ever satisfy, more love than we as parents can ever provide. We were born to be loved, because God created us out of love, and anyone who understands that is a person after his own heart.
I write this as my son is snug and secure in a wrap around me. These days, he refuses to nap unless he’s literally stuck skin-to-skin to me. I’ve tried multiple times to lay him in his crib, but each time, he spits out his pacifier, wiggles and squirms in his swaddle like a little Houdini, and yeowls like a wet cat until I pick him up and hold him close to me.
So I hold him tight. Even though it’s inconvenient, there’s also a part of me that delights that he cries for me, that he knows he’s safe with me. So I lay his little head on top of my beating heart, a heart that keeps growing in love for him by the day. He settles down, closes his teary eyes, and rests in peace. I kiss the top of his head, breathe in that newborn fragrance, and think, “If I can love my son this much, how much more my God, my creator?” And so my soul pours out to God– with praise, thanksgiving, joy, love– for I am beloved by the one who is love.
It’s interesting how we form a lot of our “truth.”
We like to think that we form thoughts and opinions based on facts, evidence, logic. Rather, it’s the opposite: We have a thought, and then we look for facts and evidences to reason that thought into “truth.”
I had such a thought one day. I thought, “I have a terrible husband.” And from then on, the evidences all fell swiftly and neatly into a report on why David is a terrible husband.
That is a very dangerous thought, because no spouse is perfect. We’re living with an imperfect human being, sharing so many intimate, unfiltered moments that a person’s every flaw pops out of the surface like pubescent pimples. And when you look at your spouse and decide that he is x or y or z, every incident– past and present and imagined future– reinforce that he is indeed x or y or z. Any evidence that points otherwise is ignored, dismissed, and reasoned away.
My thought– that David is a terrible husband– raked up old conflicts long resolved that date back to our dating days. They came back alive and groaning like a resurrected mummy. And once that thought clutched my mind, it held on with a death grip, killing all the joy and grace in my heart.
Obviously, there are genuinely terrible spouses out there. This is not the case here. David has always supported me and my career. He consistently provides for the family. He has never once raised his voice at me. He does all the cleaning in the house. He is a great father to Tov. He even takes better care of the cat.
But that’s how deceitful our thoughts can be. One morning, I woke up feeling grateful for my husband. I kissed him good morning and blessed him with all my heart. Then by evening, I was tallying up all the ways he had disappointed me. My eye sharpened, and my heart narrowed. All within the span of 12 hours.
What changed? Besides for being physically and mentally drained, I listened to my own thoughts, and only my own. It doesn’t mean that thinking is bad– I’m talking about the kind of self-focused, self-listening, self-advocating, self-accusing, self-reinforcing thoughts that dwell in my mind and heart and spirit, leaving no room for anyone else’s voice but my own. And I know myself. I can be selfish, mean, contradictory, exacting, ruthless, graceless, impatient, toxic– everything that the fruits of the Spirit are not.
That evening, on our usual evening walk, I lingered several steps behind my husband because I was crying, and I didn’t want him to see my tears– not out of consideration for him, but if I’m brutally frank, it was because I was content to just stew in my own thoughts. They were familiar, even comforting. Bringing him into my self-conversation would have added inconvenient and uncomfortable nuances to the picture.
It just so happened that that morning, I had begun reading a book called “Risen Motherhood” by Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler for a book club. I had recently joined this book club with other mothers from my church and just finished reading the first chapter, which ended with the book’s main point: “This book is for every mom who is asking, ‘Does the gospel matter to motherhood?’ Oh friend, the gospel changes everything.”
The gospel changes everything. I thought about that paragraph that evening. I remember thinking, as I walked behind my husband, wiping sour tears from my cheeks, “OK then. How does the gospel change this?”
Preach the gospel to yourself, the book says: “…we hope you’ll be encouraged and that you’ll gain a greater ability to see God in your own life through gospel lenses.”
All right then. Sounds good. Let’s try seeing this situation through gospel lenses. Well, let’s see…I am a sinner. Ha. I know that. I also know for certain that my husband is a sinner. We are all wretched creatures, I know, I know, OK, next.
Jesus died on the cross for my sins. Well, Jesus, thank you, that is wonderful, I am grateful, truly. But now what? How does his death more than 2,000 years ago change what I’m feeling right now?
The world is broken, but God redeems. Again. Wonderful, but what am I supposed to do about that now, as as a new mother and wife, when I can’t stop the tears from falling and it’s freaking embarrassing that I’m crying, when I feel unappreciated, ugly and old, tired as hell, and uncared for? Do I just wait around for God to magically redeem this broken situation? Do I count to three and hope for joy to magically infuse my heart?
This isn’t working. My heart is still as hard as popsicles. How? If the gospel changes everything, how does it change this specific situation in my life?
I should have read on. The second chapter of “Risen Motherhood” is titled, “What is the gospel?” And I have to admit, I rolled my eyes. I grew up in a preacher’s family. As a kid I attended church services three to four times a week. I’ve heard the gospel till I bleed in the ears. I don’t need yet another retelling of what the gospel is. I felt like I was reading a book explaining the alphabet to me.
But as I read that chapter the next day, I realized I had left out something: I have an enemy. He is a real being, and the Bible describes him as “a murderer from the beginning” who has “no truth in him,” “a father of lies.” (John 8:44)
I don’t know how that slipped my mind, but it jolted me. The fact that I have an enemy who’s a liar and a thief became so real to me. Then it clicked: There is someone who’s actively trying to destroy my marriage. There is someone who’s whispering falsehoods in my ear, and then sitting back watching and cackling while I take his lead and continue the work of self-destruction. There is someone who viciously hates me, because I am loved by God whom he hates, because I share the glory of God that he covets. This someone tells me that the gospel is irrelevant and boring; he blasts white noise in my head: blah blah blah, I know it all already.
But do I, really? Is the gospel a continuous reality for me? Why do I always forget? Why do I go through life with the gospel as a blur in the background, like coffeeshop music? Because in my worst moments, in the deepest, darkest caves of my thoughts, if the gospel doesn’t shine there, then is it true?
If the gospel is true, then I need to wake up and protect my marriage. And if the gospel is true, then when I’m hearing the lie that my husband is a terrible spouse, I can remember exactly who planted that lie in my head, and I fight back with victory, because Christ crushed that enemy’s head on the cross. If the gospel is true, then I need to pray– really pray, not just by myself, but with my husband, for my husband, for us.
David and I are both very independent beings. We even do our own laundry– which is fine, but we carry our independence into our spiritual walk too, which is not fine. Other than meal times, we rarely pray together. I guess I think of those picture-perfect Christian influencer couples kneeling and praying while holding hands (somehow they’re always young, blonde, and beautiful), and it feels so inauthentic, cheesy, performative. But since Tov’s birth, I’m feeling the urgent need for us to practice the habit of praying together for the sake of our household, for the sake of keeping the gospel active and true in our life.
Since then, David and I have talked more about our needs and expectations. He suggested doing a devotional together every evening during dinner. We’ve been doing that (not always consistently, because such is life) for about three weeks now. At times we get distracted, especially when Tov is being extra fussy, but that’s OK. There is grace for all of that. This is a season of grace. And thank God, the grace is all His.
David and I had our first conflict as parents when Tov was about 10 days old.
We thought we were ready for conflict. While I was pregnant with Tov, we heard a lot of advice and warnings from other parents: You’re going to be exhausted and frazzled. You’re going to lose your temper with your spouse. You’re going to resent him/her. You’re going to argue. So over-communicate, prioritize your spouse, go on date nights.
David and I talked about this before Tov was born. Let’s always have grace with each other, we promised: We’re going to help one another. We’re going to communicate. It’s all about teamwork. We got this, partner!
I wish life works out exactly as our promises. I wish I have more grace than my best intentions. But even if I’m the most even-tempered, sweetest person in the world, I still won’t have enough grace during those unexpected, out-of-control, aggravating, I-hit-my-limit moments that unleash the worst parts of me.
No, the grace manufactured out of my own willpower is never enough. I need the pure, limitless, naturally-flowing grace from a source who’s perfect, someone who has so much abundant grace that He willingly sacrificed Himself for sinners who rejected Him. I need Jesus.
If you’re a long-time Christian, how familiar does that sound? I knew that. I know that. This is basic Gospel 101 that my parents and church have hammered into me since I was a young girl. And yet…why, during the times when I need this gospel truth most, why does it suddenly seem so unnatural, foreign, and irrelevant?
It was dinner time. David and I were having takeout for dinner: pad see ew and green curry. David, as always, needed something sweet to finish off the meal, and he remembered there was a half-eaten Milk Bar corn cookie in the fridge. The cookie was tucked way back in the fridge, so he had to wiggle his arm in…and in the process, knocked over the plastic bottle filled with breastmilk. The bottle tumbled onto the floor, hitting at just such an angle that the lid popped off, splashing its content across the kitchen.
“Argh, damn it!” David exclaimed.
“What is it?” I asked. I was still finishing my curry and hadn’t seen what had happened.
“I spilled your milk,” David said, sighing and ripping out some kitchen paper towels to wipe up the mess.
“WHAT!” I shouted. “All of it?”
And then I lost it. “I HATE YOU!” I screamed.
David stared at me. “You hate me? Excuse me?”
We stared at each other for a couple seconds.
He wrung his hands. “I’m trying!”
For some reason, that irritated me even more. I felt like David was making the spilled milk all about him, and by then I was sick of hearing him talk about how exhausted he is. What about me? I’m the one who gave birth! So I silently watched David clean up the mess in burning-cold silence, my rage frothing. Then I said, my tone prickly with irritation, “Why couldn’t you have been more careful?”
David didn’t say anything, but he made a motion of pulling his hair in frustration, which further pissed me off.
I should explain myself. Often, men accuse women of flying off the handle for no reason. But such an incident never happens in isolation. That milk David spilled? It was only about 2 measly ounces– but it was 2 ounces that I had spent the past 16 hours collecting. That included an hour’s session of power pumping at a godawful time in the morning until my nipples were swollen and sore, only to collect a thumb’s worth of measly milk. Each nursing and pumping session was discouraging and defeating. Meanwhile, we were in the midst of a terrible formula shortage, and Tov was still below his birth weight.
So I was worried about Tov’s lack of weight gain, frustrated about my slow milk supply, incredibly tired from lack of sleep, and somewhat resentful of my sudden downfall from a free, independent woman to a walking, bleeding cow– all udders and leaking fluids and foggy brain, my days and nights filled with nothing but the mundane, mind-numbing tasks of keeping a newborn child alive. I missed my freedom, just the taken-for-granted joy of being able to brew a cup of coffee and drink it hot without being interrupted by a crying baby. I missed the freedom of reading late into the night and going to bed whenever I want, the basic freedom of functioning as an independent, well-rested, well-fed human being.
Then I looked at my husband, and his life didn’t seem to have changed that much. He’s still working; he took only two days off while I was at the hospital. He’s still going on two walks a day. He’s still working out every morning. He still eats three meals and three snacks a day, and is able to sleep through the night. In my mind, my husband got to keep his routine, while mine has been shredded like confetti. And before I realized it, resentment coiled around my heart.
So that 2 ounces of milk? I wasn’t crying over spilled milk. I was mad because I knew how much toil and loss went behind collecting that milk, which my husband spilled while reaching for a damn corn cookie– and he shrugged. And in that instant, I reached for the worst interpretation of that shrug: It wasn’t so much that I didn’t think he cared about the work I’ve put in– I decided he just didn’t even care to know about it. I was suddenly struck with an indignation that he never once asked, “And how are you doing?” So at that moment, the first sentence that shot out of my mouth was an explosive “I hate you.”
Did I really hate him? No. But in the thick of the moment, with so many unprocessed thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind, the first gush out was like projectile vomit– a chunky, sour, undigested mess. I just wanted to say something that slapped my husband in the face, something shocking and sticky and rude, to make him notice me.
You can tell there’s a conflict in our house not by loud volumes, but silence. We did not speak much for the rest of the night. David ate his cookie and went on his long evening walk. I fed Tov and changed his diaper. When David returned, I silently handed Tov to him and retreated into the dark corner of our bedroom. The next morning, things returned to “normal.” We didn’t talk about what happened the previous night. I didn’t explain why I reacted the way I did, and David didn’t tell me how my outburst made him feel. I watched Tov all day. David worked all day.
Having a newborn child changes your marriage. Because of the baby’s sleep pattern, we were no longer sharing the same bed. At times, I felt like we were more roommates than married couple. Nothing was really “wrong” with our marriage– but I could feel the first tugs of strain. I was easily irritated and short with my husband, especially when I felt my expectations and needs were not being met, yet I couldn’t and didn’t articulate what those needs are, because everything was just so new and unfamiliar.
Grief also changes marriage. David lost a mother. I lost a mother-in-law. That’s not even remotely the same grief. Life remains relatively the same for me, and other events– starting a new job, the birth of my son– took precedence. But for David, his life had cracked apart, and he was still holding onto those shattered pieces, unsure of what to do with them, cutting himself every time he tries to glue them back together. For him, every event– especially the birth of his son– reminds him of his mother. For example, Mother’s Day– my first Mother’s Day as a mother, his first Mother’s Day without his mother– made him sad, so we didn’t even acknowledge it.
Grief is a lonely road– nobody really understands this grief of losing a mother until they experience it themselves. People swarm around the grieving person for a week after the tragedy with casseroles and prayers and flowers, but one week, two week, one month later, everybody moves on with their busy lives, whereas the grieving one observes life through frosted glass. But as a wife, I too sometimes felt lonely. We were experiencing the greatest experience of our life as new parents together, but I couldn’t quite feel the togetherness in it, because while I wanted to cry tears of pure joy, David cried tears of loss, and my selfish, tired heart wanted a respite from all those heavy emotions, a break from nursing both a newborn baby and a husband’s broken heart.
At first, I felt guilty for feeling and thinking that way. I should be more understanding, more empathetic, more self-giving, I preached to myself. But then a voice interjected, “But why? You’ve done enough! Isn’t marriage a two-way covenant? What about your needs? Shouldn’t your needs be met, too? Who takes care of you?” So I cast the guilt aside, and instead took on the cross of a justified martyr. I swung between guilt and self-justification. Neither felt nice, but both felt right.
It was reasonable and natural to feel the way I did. I was “right” that a wife needs care, attention, and appreciation from her husband. I was also “right” to recognize that during some seasons, one partner might need more tender care than the other, and this was a season for me to practice self-sacrifice and selflessness. Everything I felt and thought were logical, understandable. But the problem was, it was too logical. My mind was a courtroom, and I was the defendant, the attorney, the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury. There is no room for grace in the courtroom.
I accused my husband of making things all about him. But I too made it all about me– and that much focus on self does not leave room for the Spirit to grow fruits– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control– all the qualities I desperately need for a thriving marriage.
I needed grace. I needed the gospel, a gospel not just stuck in my head as concepts but living and breathing truths in my daily life.
Continued in Part II…
My parents flew from Virginia to Los Angeles to meet Tov in late May.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m an extremely independent person. I think I wear my independence like an envelope– it’s how I present and package myself. I like being independent, and I like being known as independent. So I assumed a lot of things about what postpartum will be like for me– I assumed I wouldn’t want any visitors at the hospital, no visitors at home, no advice or gifts or meals, just everyone, please leave me alone to figure this parenting thing out on my own. That included my parents: I assumed I wouldn’t really need them that much.
I assumed wrong. The day we got discharged, as a hospital escort wheeled me out to the parking lot, she exclaimed, “You guys just seem so chill! Most of the other parents I’ve escorted always look so terrified and anxious. But you guys don’t look anxious at all!”
That wasn’t true. There were plenty to be anxious about; we just didn’t show it, because everything had happened so fast, so soon, that we were suffering from whiplash and had no mental space to even feel anxiety. Right before we were discharged, the pediatrician told us Tov showed concerningly elevated levels of jaundice, and recommended we take him to the ER the next morning for another blood test. That day, Tov was so drugged out from his circumcision that he could barely sip 10 ml of milk, even though it had been more than four hours since his last feeding, and the lactation consultant had told me he really should be drinking at least 40 ml every two to three hours. The kid was so tiny at less than 5 lbs, fresh out of the NICU, looking a little orangey-yellow in the face, and he was coming home alone with clueless parents who didn’t even know how to buckle him into the car seat, how to burp or swaddle him. I wanted to borrow a couple nurses and take them home with me, because I had questions about questions I didn’t know. When we got home and parked the car in the garage, David and I looked at Tov and then at each other: OK. What now?
That was when I really, really wanted my abba and omma. It wasn’t even about asking them for help with the baby. I just wanted their presence, to feel safe and secure at a time when I suddenly had to provide safety and security to a fragile child of my own.
My parents arrived late at night on a Monday, while Tov was sleeping soundly. David picked them up at the airport and brought them home to meet Tov. Concerned about bringing germs and viruses, parents had said they would keep their N-95 masks on and just look at the baby in the crib. But once they saw Tov sleeping, at times puckering his lips and wrinkling his little forehead, they simply couldn’t help themselves– they gasped; they laughed in wonder; their hands naturally reached out to stroke his cheeks, his hair, his little bundled body.
And I didn’t care at all. I wanted them to touch my son, to embrace and kiss him, because I wanted Tov to receive all the love I’ve always received from my parents from birth till now. Because Tov needs his grandparents’ love. And because a mother also needs her mother.
The next morning, my parents came to our house with three huge boxes full of ingredients they had bought from the Korean market. They bought so much stuff that my fridge could barely stay shut.
Only parents would eagerly fly across the country to physically labor in their grown-up children’s house. I may be almost 35, but in my parents’ eyes, I need as much care and nurturing as Tov. As soon as they walked into the house, my mother was already tying an apron around her waist. Every day, all day she pottered around the kitchen, soaking and stir-frying seaweed for seaweed soup, marinating sesame seed leaves and cucumbers for kimchi, brewing dates for date tea, stewing pork ribs with spices for bak kut teh– all “warm” foods that’s supposed to help me recover postpartum. My father helped mince onions and garlic, vacuumed the whole house, watered and pruned all the plants in the house. Every evening before dinner, he prepared a devotion and prayed earnestly for 15 minutes while the food my mother prepared turned cold.
My parents came to our home with hearts full of love and arms full of blessings. And yes, they also came with fistfuls of unsolicited advice. Like all Asian parents, they were obsessed with avoiding anything cold.
“Aigo! Aren’t your feet cold?” omma exclaimed when she saw my bare feet.
“I just showered and didn’t have time to put on socks,” I said.
“Aigo!” abba exclaimed when he saw my feet: “You should put on some socks!”
“I will, soon!”
A few minutes later, omma: “Ommoh, it’s so chilly in this house! Hurry. Better put on some socks!” (It was 72 degrees inside.)
A minute later, abba: “Are you going to put on socks?”
Me: “Oh my God! I already said I will!”
This obsession with keeping the body warm went on the entire time they were with us. Just as they worried about my cold feet, they worried about Tov being cold. They closed the window when we opened it. They closed it again when we opened it again. Any time there was a slight breeze wafting into the house, they slammed the windows shut. They insisted on wrapping Tov in a blanket, even though we told them he easily overheats. They snuck an extra blanket over him when we weren’t looking. They exclaimed, “Aigo, I think he’s cold!” every time Tov sneezed, or grunted, or wailed, or fidgeted. My mother herself wore two layers of pants and woolly socks all day. And they both completely freaked out when they found out we fed Tov breastmilk straight from the fridge.
“Shocking!” abba muttered, wrapping his arms extra-tight around his grandson as though to protect him from any future cold beverages: “Unthinkable! We could never imagine ever feeding a baby cold milk!”
I expected all this to happen. I expected myself to get annoyed, and I did. Yet I also enjoyed every moment with them, because even their unsolicited advice and nagging were, in a way, loud proclamations of their love.
Abba left earlier on Saturday to preach on Sunday, while omma stayed an extra week with us. Every single day, any time he could, abba held Tov in his arms. When Tov made a noise in his crib, abba would zoom right over and scoop him up. He’d plop Tov (bundled in extra blankets, of course) on his round belly and just stare at him for hours while munching on glutinous corn on a chopstick, praying silently, or sometimes dozing off himself. Tov never napped as well as he did in his grandpa’s arms. He just melted right into his grandpa’s warm embrace, sleeping without stirring for three hours.
My omma, too, loved watching Tov. When the boy was especially fussy during the evenings, omma would prop him on her lap and sing to him– fun, silly Korean lullabies about fat papa bears and playful mountain rabbits, and the classic “Jesus loves me” hymn. Sometimes, she sang her own prayers for Tov in Korean and Mandarin to the tune of “Jesus loves me.” As she sang, “God, raise this child to be like his name, that he would enjoy your tov, and be tov and blessing to all!” Tov stopped fussing and just stared at his grandma with wide, bright eyes.
Oh, how full my heart was during those moments! Tov felt like the biggest gift I could give my parents– the joy of holding and loving the child of their child, the fresh marvel and joy of being grandparents. How powerful is this parental love, that it keeps flowing down from generation to generation without losing its purity and radiance. I want Tov to soak up all his grandparents’ love, all the way to his marrows. I want my parents’ prayers for Tov to move the hearts of every angel in heaven to keep and protect him from evil and brokenness. I want Tov to remember the scent and warmth from his grandparents, even if he won’t yet remember their faces and snuggles and coos. Few other things warm a mother’s heart like seeing her child be loved by others.
The day I dropped omma off at the airport, I felt a deep loss. David too said he felt weirdly sad saying goodbye to my parents. It wasn’t just about the convenience of having two extra pair of hands in the house. It was the security and comfort of having our own parents with us, like the coziness of a weighted blanket on a cold winter night, because every parent needs their parents, whether they’re five weeks old or 50. While taking care of my child, I– this proud, stubbornly independent, grown-ass woman– ached to also be cared for by my own parents, to once again be somebody else’s baby.
When we become parents, we see our own parents with new eyes. While my parents were here, abba and I talked about the way my brother and I were raised. I have my own minor grievances about the way I was raised, and I shared some of the instances when I felt my parents had wronged me, or misunderstood me.
Before Tov, some of those grievances still felt a little sore. But I was surprised to discover that the rawness of those childhood memories had faded away. Instead, new healthy skin had formed over that wound– the skin of empathy and compassion for my parents who were once in the same position as me: clueless, fumbling, clumsy, and fallen, but doing the best they can with the best love I could ever receive from a flawed human here on earth. Nobody loved me as fiercely and brokenly as my parents– and nobody loved me as well as they did.
My parents were raised very differently in a very different culture, and that generational and cultural gap will always be there between us, but this new unity of parenthood has unfolded a bridge between our two worlds.
Tov is five weeks old today. He’s chubbier and slowly growing out of his hospital blanket. His needs are more urgent, at least from the way he expresses it. At times, when his needs are not immediately met– (really, because this boy cannot speak! He just scrunches his face and wails! How is a mother to know if he can’t speak his mind. Speak, boy, speak!)– he gets particularly agitated, his hands clenched into little golf ball-sized fists, his legs kicking, his face all wrinkly and red.
It doesn’t matter to him that I’m holding him in my arms, showering him with kisses, showing him in every way possible that I love him. It doesn’t matter to him that I’m exhausted, that I haven’t had more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep for five weeks, that I lost the thing that was most important to me– my freedom– to him. He doesn’t appreciate this love, not yet– he just takes and takes as though receiving love is the most natural and expected thing in the world. Right now, he’s still very young, but one day, I’ll disappoint him even more. I’ll snap at him, dismiss his feelings, misunderstand him, force things on him– all the things parents do when they’re busy or selfish or tired or anxious, or simply loving their kids as best as they can with all their shortcomings.
Perhaps, one clear indication of maturity is when the child can look at all the mistakes of her parents, and respond with compassion and empathy. I hope one day Tov will do that for me– and if I’m lucky, I won’t have to wait till he has a child of his own.