This time last year, I was beginning to fray at the edges.
Ok, I had started to fray a while back. The truth is, in recent months, I was finally beginning to admit to myself that I was fraying at the edges. I had a one year old daughter (who I will call “Burrito” for reasons I’ll explain in another post). My husband and I were serving as pastors of two churches in rural North Dakota. My father had just been placed on Hospice in Arizona, and I was trying to provide effective care for the wide-ranging needs of 600 or so members of our churches and attempting to still care well for my little family. And I had just begun to suffer from serious insomnia a few months before.
The lowest of the low point was the weekend of our biggest service at our northern congregation. The service was during the big town celebration in a predominantly Icelandic community. This little North Dakota town didn’t have a lot of notoriety throughout the rest of the year, but every August during the celebration of Icelandic independence from Denmark (the “Deuce of August”), large crowds gathered for the festival. Important people journeyed from the homeland, including the Prime Minister of Iceland on two of the four summers we were there. Each year, we conducted a worship service in the heart of the festival and it always turned out to be one of the best attended services of the year.
On this particular day in August, it was my turn to preach. I had not slept for four nights before this (seemingly out of nowhere) and as I stood up to give my message to the large crowd, I remember the room swaying around me. I remember a feeling of wispiness and unreality. It was all I could do to keep my focus on each sentence and try to read what I had written. My lips and whole body felt weighted down under each heavy word. When I finished, I collapsed, exhausted, into my chair and my husband led the rest of the service, as we had agreed.
For four nights, I had not slept. I was wrung out and exhausted and my bed at night became a torture chamber of fear. Watch the clock. Count the minutes. Mind wide-awake. Unable to shut it down. “If I go to sleep RIGHT NOW, I can have four hours of sleep. But I must go to sleep RIGHT NOW.” But of course, I couldn’t. It was like I had literally forgotten how to sleep.
Yes, that was the low point.
As you will come to see, I am a particularly stubborn individual. I was beginning to feel the pull of the exhaustion months and months before. Some of you might not know a pastor or a pastor’s life very well. But if you’ve been in any sort of leadership position, you might understand a bit of what I was going through.
I got into ministry because I loved God and His Word and I wanted to share it with others. I think I was more attached to this work of ministry than I was to the idea of being a mother, in fact. I had grown up dreaming about getting married and about doing an important work in the world (Writing a book? Being a missionary?), but not too much about having a baby. More about that later.
What I didn’t count on was the 24-7 nature of being a pastor. When you are a pastor, you can get called anytime of the day or night and there’s no telling what kind of situation you will face: someone’s drunken rantings, an expected death, a tragic death, someone’s anger due to your own fault or not due to anything you did at all. There are countless expectations put on you, some intended, some not. Everybody who sits in the pew has a different idea of what you should be doing with your time. Some are charitable, some are not. That’s human nature; that’s people. And that’s the burden of leadership. It goes with the territory, and it went ok for a while, I guess. Until I had a baby.
The most surprising thing that happened to me when my daughter was born and as I got to know her in the months that followed was the profound love that absolutely captured my heart for her. Suddenly, my new role as mother—previously not very interesting to me—became the dominant role of my life.
I know, I know. Everybody says this will happen to you when you have kids, but you see I really didn’t understand kids before Burrito was born. I had never babysat a child under the age of 5. I had never changed a diaper. I wondered if I had what it took to be a mother. I had always been much more attached to the idea of having a career or a ministry than the idea of being a mom. The idea of having a baby was to me something I wanted to be sure to do before I died. But it was also something I was frankly scared to death of. But I couldn’t have been more mistaken about how much I was going to love being a mother.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to tell you those first few months were easy. You watch these chick flick movies about having a baby and you think you are supposed to have these rapturous feelings about your screaming, diaper messing little one from day one…even though they are a bit of a stranger to you. I didn’t have those rapturous feelings all the time right away.
First of all, I got off to a rough start. I was going to have a home birth, and Burrito didn’t want to come and didn’t want to come. I was in pretty intense labor at home for two days before I decided, “Yep, I need to go to the hospital.” Like I said, I’m pretty stubborn. (And apparently, so is my daughter.)
So, I had a c-section, and I was absolutely exhausted after that. My maternity leave was spent trying to heal up from the trauma on my body and journeying through a painful start to nursing.
I remember that in the early days it was easy to resent the baby who never wanted to go to sleep and who woke up so often. I remember the despair and exhaustion and the physical pain from the c-section. I remember how I felt it physically when she cried.
Yes, those days were tough. We had family and friends come and help us the first couple of weeks but I was pretty stubborn there too. I could have gotten a little more help, I think, but somehow it was important to me to do things for myself, my way. I wanted to own those early days. But I was very, very tired.
But even in the most painful times, there was this strong attachment to my daughter. I have never before felt it physically in my body when another human being cried, but I felt it with her. I think we bonded early on over the trauma we had been through…me to bring her into the world, her to adjust to the world she had been brought into. I think we neither one like change too well at first.
I went back to work, and I was trying to work, care for the family, take care of the baby, nurse the baby every couple of hours, and somehow remember to eat. I felt like I was letting everybody down. I felt really, really empty. I remember one time agreeing to go to a meeting for a funeral when I should have been nursing and how crummy I felt and how I knew I shouldn’t have done that but how I felt I would let the grieving family down if I didn’t go.
A family friend cautioned me that if things didn’t start getting better for me soon, I might have to face that I was asking too much of myself and my health. She said I might need to think about making some major changes in my life. I shrugged her comments off. No way. I’m super woman. I can do this.
I did start going to counseling, and it was helpful, but that was before the onset of the insomnia. When it began, my counselor convinced me to go to the doctor. I finally went. I have battled anxiety and depression since at least my teen years, but I finally had to admit that this had gotten out of control. Medication slowly began to bring stability back to my life. I could handle the stress much better, but I still felt like I was letting people down: my husband, my baby, my churches. Honestly, I want to do things so whole-heartedly, so when I feel I am not giving something my all, it bothers me a lot. But I was doing better, so I slogged through. In the rural towns in North Dakota where we served, pastors come and go a lot. It’s pretty tough on people and I really wanted to not let them down, to give this thing a chance. In my head, I was committed to a ten year stint with them. I even told some people that that was what I hoped to do.
But then things began to turn. To add to the stress, my Dad died in February of 2010. I had barely had a chance to mourn his loss when some major church conflicts and threats on my job began in the summer. This time I didn’t stop sleeping, but it was awfully stressful. And I was willing to go through it, to not take the easy way out, but more factors circled around and without going into all the sad details, it became clear…it was time to go.
We were planning to join a different denomination (kinda like the “brand” of church) and since there were smaller numbers of churches and positions in this “brand” available, we decided my husband would be the one to look for a call. To our surprise, he quickly jumped to the top of the list at a church in Bigfork, MT. My first reaction was “Montana?!” As far as I knew, there was no state more isolated than North Dakota, except maybe Montana!
But when I started to look online and when we came to visit, all that changed. Here was a magical land of trees and mountains, of gourmet food and fine theatre, but the safety of a small town. I quickly became very excited about Montana.
But the biggest joy about Montana was that here I could do what my heart had been calling me to do for two years. Here I could be free to focus on my daughter and her care. Here I could stop missing out on her priceless moments. Here I could stop feeling so divided all the time. And what a surprise it has been that this was my heart’s desire! I thought I was just a career woman, but my daughter has completely changed my life. She has turned my desires into something completely different. She has awakened my heart. There is no place I’d rather be right now than home with her. And that is a blessing that this time last year I couldn’t have even predicted.
There’s so much more I want to share with you about my life and the journey of motherhood. So, stay tuned!