As I have mentioned here already, I am currently restricted from picking up my two children due to recovery from abdominal surgery. When I first received this mandate, my primary concern was logistical: how will we do meals and naps and how will we go outside to play? Those logistics remain challenging, but what has become increasingly painful are the emotional ramifications of a mommy who can’t lift up her kids. I am seeing in both children the effects of the parade of people coming in and out of the house to shuttle Aaron in and out of beds, baths and chairs; of days cooped up inside with no walks or car trips; and the hardest of them all, that gnawing sense of something being wrong when Mom refuses to do the most natural, instinctual act of scooping her children up into her arms.
I knew that all of us would feel the effects of this change, and I have been very intentional about sitting on the ground and holding the kids in my lap, and wrapping my arms around them as much as I possibly can. Or, when people are here I will ask them to lift Aaron up put him in my lap on the couch or in a chair. But it is not the same. We always joked in the early weeks and months after Mercy’s birth about the built-in infant altitude detector. We could be holding Mercy in our arms after having finally soothed her to sleep (after the hundredth or so lap of bouncing and shushing around the dining room table), and the moment a butt cheek would touch a chair or the couch, her eyes would fly open and she would look at us and cry. We would stand up again, restart the soothing process and she would go back to sleep. We marveled at her innate ability to detect any betrayal in altitude, and her fierce opposition to such a change!
I am realizing now that while I no longer have infants, even toddlers have some built in desire to be picked up and held. And as nice as an on-the-floor cuddle may be, it is just not the same.
This made me think about the different ways we welcome and receive one another. There are people who, the moment they walk in my door, cause me to feel completely encircled by acceptance, care, and love. There is no sense of reservation, of withholding with them, and that commitment to me in our relationship is palpable. There are others who, regardless of the duration of our friendship, feel in some sense a shade removed or withdrawn, like they are present to give and receive but always on their terms and within set limits of comfort and vulnerability. The first is like the mom who freely scoops her child up and holds him; the other, like the mom who controls and limits that intimacy.
At the center of my situation with my children right now is the need to self-protect. This is a good and necessary thing, and shows the most love to our family in the long run. However in thinking about other relationships, that propensity to guard and protect can easily overwhelm the desire to sacrifice and serve. While I am of course aware of the emotionally unhealthy ways that people can wholly abandon an appropriate sense of self in how they relate to others, I think that what is more often the case is that we miss out on who God is calling us to be in the lives of others because we are unable to let go of loving and protecting ourself first. And so we may find ourselves surrounded by relationships that lack intimacy and authenticity, and are filled with saying and doing “the right things”. That is the greatest complaint I hear from my suburban counterparts: an exhaustion at maintaining the facade.
I will not lift my kids right now for two reasons: fear and control. Fear of my hernia returning, and the desperate desire to control my health for the remainder of this pregnancy. I don’t think that either of those motivations are very far from why we fail to engage others authentically in relationships either, be they in our churches, our families, our schools or our workplaces: fear of what intimacy will cost us, and the desire to control our image, reputation, schedule, or whatever else defines us. Servanthood abdicates control, and faith abandons fear, yet we often live imprisoned by one or both of these things. Death to self is as brutal as it sounds, and yet it is the promise of life. I see it in my relationships, and this week my kids have reminded me that measured intimacy is never a substitute for the real thing.