Doing

14358915_618953765392_1589227780450859615_nMaggie will turn four in November. I watched her sleeping tonight (since I couldn’t seem to fall asleep myself). She was wrapped up in my fluffy gray throw blanket, her golden auburn hair almost glowing against the darkness.

I wanted to keep her this way forever—peaceful, still, and breathtakingly beautiful. And tiny.

But of course I can’t. Maggie is moving, growing, learning, and thriving—and I’m grateful. She fluctuates between telling me she wants a big girl cup and asking for milk in a baby bottle at bedtime. Even though she’s been potty-trained for almost one year, she still requests a “Celly-grelly diaper” (that’s Cinderella pull-ups) when she wants to pretend she’s still a baby. She knows all her numbers and loves practicing counting, and she loves reading even though she resists learning about letters.

I could go on and on. I’m in love.

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Maggie, August 2013

When I was pregnant with Maggie, I quit working as an academic advisor due to pregnancy complications. I didn’t return to work until Maggie was about 14 months old, and then I only worked part-time as an adjunct English instructor for one year before accepting a full-time faculty position.

During my stay-at-home mom days, I will be honest—I struggled. It was the hardest job I’d ever done; the work never ended, and the client was often unsatisfied with my performance even though I did my darndest to please her. I felt insecure about my lack of financial contribution to our household even though my husband gently reassured me that staying home with Maggie was much more significant and helpful than any salary I’d ever earned.

It was tough to be where my hands were. I’m all about productivity; I like to make things happen. Being a mama is not about making things happen; it’s about letting things happen. Sigh.

Sometimes I found myself daydreaming about more enjoyable things to do while changing diapers or nursing Maggie. Even though I often wished for Calgon to take me away, I felt fulfilled knowing I was with the most important people doing the most important things on my to-do list every single day. When I had the opportunity to teach full-time, though, and to put my degree to use, I couldn’t resist.

The day I drove away from my house to teach full-time for the first time, I had a sinking feeling in my chest.

“You’re going to regret this someday.”

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One of the rare afternoons we spent together during my first semester of teaching full-time

That inner voice was partly correct. Although I thrive in the classroom and felt I’d found my niche teaching English to college students whom I still adore, I have many regrets about that time during our lives. My first semester of teaching full-time was like running the gauntlet. I taught too many courses—my fault for agreeing to do so—and too many writing courses which required countless hours of grading (not my fault since I didn’t select my own courses that semester). In the fall of 2014, I rarely arrived home in time to spend more than 15 minutes with Maggie and James before the sun set. I don’t recall cooking dinner once, but I’m sure I did… didn’t I? During the peak of my daughter’s cuteness, I slaved away to prove myself in academia.

But I found this to be true: if I’m excelling at work, I’m probably sucking at home, or at best, barely holding the pieces together while gritting my teeth and smiling, pretending to have it all figured out.

At the time, my remedy to missing Maggie’s life was to spend more money on her. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Maggie, Mama will bring you something cool today, okay?” She loved getting a fun gift—maybe a new rubber duck or a balloon—but sometimes she had tears in her eyes when I left for work.

I regret that.

I can’t change the past—not even God can change the past.

If anything has proven true in my life, it’s that God always gives me second chances and redeems the worst decisions I’ve made. He redeems outcomes.

I left teaching in December 2015 to accept a position as content manager of a small business I’d admired for over a decade. Two months later, I felt incomplete even though I was certainly making things happen and doing a great job. I missed my students; I missed teaching and applied for my old job. But I didn’t get the job, and even though my student evaluations as an instructor demonstrated 99% positive feedback, and my faculty evaluations boasted almost all 5’s, I wasn’t even granted the opportunity to interview for the position. Just a few months before, when leaving the college, I’d received an email from my boss stating that, “People talk about the ‘five percenters,’ but that category is not fitting for you – you are a ‘one percenter.’”

This 1%’er felt baffled, disappointed, and hurt.

I got over it.

I got over it because God gave me a new dream—to launch my own career coaching business and to harness my passions for career development, serving others, and mentoring. And thanks to my long-time mentor, my spiritual mentor, and professional friends and colleagues, I received ample encouragement and reassurance that I was more than qualified to help job seekers find their dream jobs. When I questioned whether I had enough experience to be considered an expert, and wondered if I should wait another five years before launching my business, my friend Dr. Steve Lindner said, “No, you’re ready now.”

I got over it because I found that since I have always believed in the power of networking, I’d made great alliances with various friends connected to other colleges and universities; these connections came through for me, and I was able to secure the chance to teach college part-time while growing my career coaching business.

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Maggie, spring 2016

And I got over it because while working as a content manager, I fell more deeply in love with my daughter. Each time our babysitter sent me photos of Maggie finger painting, hunting for armadillos in the woods behind our house, or eating Cheerios, I longed to be the one taking the pictures. I missed her.

And so I made right my wrong. I leaned out.

While listening to Natalie Merchant’s “Giving Up Everything” one day while driving home from work (in the dark, of course), I exhaled and made the decision to do just that.

I came home.

Today, I don’t earn enough money to spend extravagantly. I certainly don’t earn enough to buy myself an extensive fun wardrobe (complete with fabulous dresses with pockets) or trendy nail polish each season. Maggie rarely hears me say, “Mama will bring you something home.”

I’m already home, and I wouldn’t exchange time with my one precious girl for anything right now.

Instead of buying Maggie gifts, I’m giving myself to her.

When she wakes up in a few hours, I’ll say to her, “Mama has something fun for us to do today.”

Today we’re doing. We’re not buying.

And I’m feeling rich.

Leaning

Our voices reverberated off the cold concrete walls of the isolation room. I held my favorite patient’s trembling hand, his wrists shackled to the hard restraint bed. He swallowed tears while he choked out the lyrics to his favorite song.

Lean on me when you’re not strong. And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on . . .”

His deep chocolate-brown eyes welled up again as he glanced over at me. He gazed at the ceiling and wept without making a sound.

It was my first real job after graduating from a small, private liberal arts college. I’m sure no one deliberately saddled me with delusions of grandeur, but I somehow came to believe that I’d enter the world of work like a boss (literally), wear a suit every day, stomp around in fierce heels, and edit interesting novels while sipping gourmet coffee and eating fluffy muffins every morning. Think Anne Hathaway post-promotion in The Devil Wears Prada.

The site of my first real job :)

The site of my first real job 🙂

As is the case with almost all new college graduates, reality steamrolled me into submission rather abruptly. After applying for countless jobs and receiving not a single phone call or interview, my friend Mike told me about a treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenagers. Sure enough, the facility was hiring behavioral staff. At first, I shunned the notion. I’d just spent four years studying English literature and creative writing. Babysitting bad kids could not be God’s will for me. However, after three weeks of relying on my graduation gift money to provide groceries, I desperately drove out to the campus for my interview, the winding, quiet road a reprieve from the busy interstate.

“Now this job’s not for everybody,” Don Ray, the supervisor, mumbled through his thick beard. “You just follow me around for an hour, and you’ll know if you can take it or not.”

He fumbled with a monstrous set of keys as we approached one of the houses where 10 female patients resided. As he turned the knob, incessant shrieks and a cacophony of curse words assaulted my ears.

“What in the world is that?” I gasped, turning to Don.

He half-smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“Your job.”

The door opened, and one of the female staff members greeted us, her legs propped up on a metal folding chair, arms crossed as she faced a closed door with Plexiglas separating us from the screams, insults, and punches of a wild-haired 13 year-old girl.

I couldn’t help but stare. This was the stuff of Girl, Interrupted.

A week later, I tried on a straight jacket for the first time during training. It was not exactly the type of suit I’d envisioned myself wearing at work.

I’m not sure if it was due to my petite 120 pound frame, Don Ray’s infinite wisdom, or God’s intervention, but I luckily landed my first stint at the facility in a boy’s house working alongside a slew of former football players and one woman, a middle-aged mother figure beloved by all the patients. I watched those former football players mentoring the male patients in every arena of life. They epitomized the father figures and role models the boys had missed before developing severe behavioral and emotional problems. They taught the boys to play basketball and Spades, to fold their laundry and dust the tops of shelves, and to treat others with the same respect they desired. They also didn’t hesitate to dish out serious consequences for undesirable behavior.

One of the male patients quickly became my all-time favorite. His cheerful smile, polite words, and hopeful attitude melted my somewhat Stoic—but ultimately fearful–exterior. “The Reverend,” as he liked to call himself, dreamed of becoming a preacher someday or a modern Martin Luther King, Jr. He inhaled history books and recanted stories of heroic men like Abraham Lincoln. He kept his room tidy and prided himself on his neat, well-groomed appearance. If I’d met him on the street, I would have assumed he had been blessed with a loving family who had taught him how to live the life of a model citizen and future change maker.

But he had no father, and his mother had abandoned him. Aside from his pastor and church family, whom he occasionally visited on outings, he was alone in the world.

And though he did his best to avoid dwelling on the truth of his situation, it occasionally got the better of him.

And so we found ourselves in that concrete room the week after his birthday. Six days in a row, after several apologetic conversations with his mom over the phone, he waited and watched for her face to appear through the tiny pane of the locked metal door to the house. But it never did. So for six days in a row, the two other staff and I winced as we watched the anger, hurt, and loneliness work its way out.

Even though singing with patients was unorthodox at best, I couldn’t help myself that day. I had to reach out to him with a thin thread of hope, just enough for him to grab hold of for a few moments. I wanted him to remember the people who were there with him and to help him forget about the faces that never materialized outside the door.

That day we developed a closer bond than before, and after that, he always held the door for me and went out of his way to make me laugh. He was different from the other boys.

One afternoon, while walking back to the house after playing cards in the gymnasium on campus, I heard him whispering to another male patient in a stern voice. I almost corrected him for reprimanding his peer, but when I heard the words, I paused.

“Look at that ass. Dang.” The other male patient snickered.

“Stop that. That’s Miss Bethany you’re talking about. She’s a lady.”

I smiled and kept walking.

At my 30th birthday party, a fundraiser in memory of my favorite patient

At my 30th birthday party in 2009, a fundraiser in memory of my favorite patient

That boy, that abandoned boy who loved God and held out hope in the midst of his messed up life, was special to me. So special that I once tried to find a way to bring him home with me for Thanksgiving or Christmas break. I guessed that the facility’s rules wouldn’t allow it, and that the red tape of the government agencies responsible for his care wouldn’t even consider it, but I asked anyway.

When that boy died a year later, I was glad I’d tried. Seeing his dignified, lifeless body lying in a casket broke my heart. I held his hand again one last time. This time, it was my tears that spilled over, leaving dark stains on the satin lining surrounding his still frame.

I stood there for a long time, just leaning on him.

Impeccable

As many times as I’ve doubted the impeccable quality of God’s timing (and trust me, folks, I’ve doubted it plenty of times . . .  Thomas might as well be my middle name), there have been as many times (or more) during the past few months when God has dispelled my misgivings.

With my tiny package, May 2012

This might surprise some of you, particularly those of you who are secretly judgmental but outwardly loving and supportive (as we all tend to be), who are wondering how someone who got married two months AFTER getting pregnant could possibly claim that God’s timing is impeccable.

Nevertheless, it’s true.

First of all, I decided to go back to school to pursue my Master’s degree in October 2011, on somewhat of a whim, I might add. After mentioning the idea in passing, flippantly at best, I found that I had strong support emotionally and practically from my partner in life to pursue this dream. Pleasantly surprised, I decided to go with the notion that I’d keep walking through open doors until they closed in front of me. I prayed continually as each one swung open without any resistance.

I’m so grateful I decided to go back to school. When I found out I was pregnant at the end of March, I had moments of this-was-not-planned-and-I-am-a-planner panic attacks, but ultimately, I realized that I’d be able to very easily complete my Master’s degree within 18 months, despite the arrival of our bundle of joy this coming November. I know myself, and I know that if I’d hemmed and hawed any longer before going back to school, I would have managed to rationalize my way out of it. God knows this about me, and He hewed together the perfect combination of inspiration, confirmation, and support to nudge me in the direction of “DO IT!”

The beauty of completing my degree before my child is a year old is that it will allow me much more flexibility in career options, allowing me to teach as an adjunct and stay at home to raise my child, which has always been my Plan A if possible.

With my friend Nancy at Weaver Family Medicine, February 2011

Secondly, after relocating to my hometown in December 2010 in order to be with the love of my life and my family, I felt God discouraging me from accepting a follow-up interview for a grant-writing/fundraising position with a great local organization. Anyone who knows me knows that this is precisely the kind of position suited for me. However, something didn’t feel right, and I declined going any further in the process. I’d spent the past 10 years pursuing higher paying, more impressive jobs (which resulted in higher stress and a diminished ability to enjoy life). I knew it wasn’t right for me. Instead, I accepted a lower-paying but much more flexible and fun position at a friend’s medical practice. After less than a year, a part-time position opened up at the community college where I’m now employed. This was a no-brainer, and again, after praying for God to open the right doors and close the wrong ones, He guided me into the place I currently reside. Had I taken the grant-writing position or kept applying for similar jobs, I’d be tied to working full-time, relying on my job for its salary and benefits, and afraid to take the plunge into full-time motherhood this fall.

Lastly, those who’ve known me for years may recall countless times when I scoffed at the idea of having children, or at best, questioned the logic of doing so. While I have been cursed with a healthy dose of tokophobia, the true root of this fear of having children stemmed from two places deep inside of me: the lack of a strong, healthy, and supportive partner, and the untended weeds of grief choking out my inner joy and contentment, subconsciously and quietly. This grief grew from unbearable sorrow inside of me, a sorrow unto death, that I’d buried within me after being raped at 16 the first time I had sex. The grief continued to rear its ugly head in all sorts of sad ways throughout my life for 16 more years until finally, after hearing God very clearly urging me to uproot it, I sought counseling. I finally told my mom, which was honestly harder for me than any counseling session I’ve ever experienced. I made peace with the rapist in an odd turn of events, thanks to someone very brave who knows him well. God effectively excavated the grave I’d dug inside myself years ago and cleared away the debris, making room for new life.

Photo courtesy of Phoopla Photography, April 2012

Finally, going through two divorces didn’t entirely fix my partner-picking problem. I also benefited from a few years of intense soul-searching and behavior-modifying in a twelve-step program and am eternally grateful to the people who repeatedly assured me that if I took the actions, the feelings would follow. I did, and with the help of the program (and God, who worked seamlessly through it), I found myself making better choices. A few years later, I’m married to the man of my dreams. By writing that, I’m not exaggerating or throwing in a cliché in order to avoid searching for a more accurate description. He is literally who I have always hoped for and never believed God would provide me with; I didn’t even believe men like my husband existed. A month after we started dating, I tentatively showed him my “list” of qualities I preferred and needed in a man, which I’d worked on for months after getting divorced in 2009. He met all 32 of my criteria, even the silly ones.

I would never wish to erase my past experiences because they taught me invaluable lessons about myself which I desperately needed to learn. I also gained the love of a 16 year-old girl, formerly my stepdaughter, who I will always consider my first child, who I will always support and never abandon.

But I do believe there’s a reason I never conceived a baby until now, and part of that is because I believe God was watching over me and doing for me what I could not do for myself. He miraculously fit the pieces of this complicated life puzzle together so that when He began knitting together the priceless creature in my womb, there would be no need for a plan. And no unrequited dreams.  And no room for fear.