A baby’s smile

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.

Seasons

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.

A baby’s cry

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.

Married with a newborn, Part II

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.

Married with a newborn: Part I

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?”

He shrugged.

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