Sunday, May 12, 2013

Emotions Have a Memory

It's Mother's Day in the United States for a couple of more hours. Mother's Day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate moms, but it can also be a source of great pain for many. For those who have lost or are estranged from a child or their mother, it is a reminder that they are no longer together. For those who long to be moms but aren't, it is a picture of what they do not have but desperately want.

For many years, Mother's Day was a day I celebrated my mom. We went to church, went out to eat, and went to do what she wanted to do. It was fun and it never occurred to me that anyone might find the day to be difficult. I was young, unmarried, and still had my mom. Then I got married and I had two moms to celebrate-still wonderful.

As we began to try, and then wait for a child, Mother's Day took on that dual-meaning that so many of us identify with. I wanted to celebrate my mom and my Mother in Law, but every well-meaning flower from a church or a restaurant was a pang in my heart. For years, I stopped going to church. Some years, depending on who was attending at the time, I was literally the only adult woman at my church who was not a mom. The only one who couldn't stand up when the moms were asked to stand and the one who shouldn't take a flower. I just couldn't bear the weight of my pain and the conspicuousness I felt in my difference. So we'd stay home. We'd meet one mom for lunch and the other for dinner and I'd hide the rest of the day.

I went to church the year I became pregnant with Matthew. We had the transfer a couple of days after Mother's Day so it wasn't a good time to travel. And I was full of hope. I went to church, and I felt like a fraud. I felt like I was being disloyal to IF women everywhere. Now that I might be a mom, it was ok to go to church?  I blamed it on the hormones from the impending transfer.

What's so funny is that my church is pretty low key about Mother's Day. The Pastor never preaches a sappy Mother's Day message. To my knowledge, they haven't done the everybody stand up thing in years. We have several non-moms in our membership now. And they certainly don't impose a mothers-only policy on the giving of the flowers.  They don't do anything to make anyone feel excluded.  So the source of my pain is nothing to do with *my* church in particular at all. But if you've been through IF, you  know the whole day feels exclusive by design, without anyone having to say or do anything. It's a mantra of Christianity in general that motherhood is God's highest calling for a woman (which is not true but that's another post) and so to be in God's house celebrating the fact that everyone around you can achieve "His highest calling" but you can't just feels absurd. I know if you've been through this, I don't have to explain this.

I've had 3 Mother's Days with Matthew in my arms. The first and second were both spent at my mom's house, and we attended her church, which somehow was different than attending my own church, probably because no one knew me. My first Mother's Day was lovely. Last year was marked by great pain and loss that I mentioned here previously so that day was lousy. That brings us to this year.

We were in Tucson with my mom for the last 3 days. DH wanted to come home yesterday so that he could rest in his own bed before returning back to work, and have time to celebrate with his mom, too. So we did Mother's Day with my mom yesterday, and arrived home last night.

I woke up this morning, had some quiet time, and then got ready for church. Nothing was amiss, I was physically feeling fine, and we headed off with no hesitation. I was actually a little excited to attend my first Mother's Day at my own church with my son in my arms.   We sang and then it was time for my Pastor to preach, I started weeping. And I couldn't figure out why. I wasn't feeling particularly sad. I hadn't been thinking about our losses or years of waiting. I hadn't even been thinking about how difficult Mother's Day once was. And yet, I wept.

I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I tried to sort through my feelings, angry that they had such power over me when I couldn't even identify them. I know that some of what I was experiencing were the hormones. I thought about the fact that we likely lost a baby this week, and I thought that was probably some of it. I thought about our loss from last Mother's Day. I thought about all of our losses. But still none of that really struck me as the source. As I thought, I felt fear closing in around my heart. Fear of loss. Fear of pain. And I began to pray, and read scripture. I didn't want to feel fear and I was angry that I did.

Around that time, a friend came in and saw me upset. She lost her first husband several years ago and has often counseled me through grief. I told her what I was feeling and that I couldn't figure out a trigger. She shared something with me that struck a chord. She said that she learned it as she went through grief counseling after the loss of her husband.

She said emotions have a memory.  The way I understand it, it's like a muscle memory. Exercise just conditions your muscles to react and do certain things. For so many years, Mother's Day was painful. It's almost like my emotions became conditioned to hurt that day. For whatever inexplicable reason, sitting in church was a trigger to past emotions and hurt, even though there was no new trigger today. And now I don't know how to mix the joy with the pain.  She said it will just take time to build new layers on top of the layers of grief.

I've been noodling on that a lot. Aurelius (I think?) wrote that we should not be enslaved to anything which we should rule over. I do not want to be enslaved to my emotions. The heart is deceitful and pain is wrapped in fear. I want my mind to rule my heart. More than that, I want the Holy Spirit to rule both. But I also recognize that God created our emotions too and I am often left trying to figure out how to balance those two things. Today was a reminder that I'm not there yet.

I don't want my emotional memory to be about the pain I felt. I want it to be about the God who lovingly collected each tear. I don't want to respond in fear, I want to remember the faithfulness He continued to show me as I wailed and screamed and cursed. I don't to think about what I've lost, but about all He has given me. I don't want to remember all my plans and dreams that went unaccomplished, but about all of His plans that He accomplished. I don't want to remember my waiting. I want to remember His timing. But I filled those years with a lot of indulgence in my feelings, and not enough in His word and His promises.

What I finally was drawn to think about was this question: How am I currently building what will become tomorrow's emotional and spiritual memory? In order for the things of God to be recalled in the future, I must dwell on them now, and not on my pain. Pain and heartache will come. But God's timing, God's will, God's compassion, God's providence, God's faithfulness, God's character, God's Word, and God's truth remain unchanged. God, help me cling to those things in both prosperity and adversity. I want tomorrow's emotional and spiritual memory to spring forth with confessions of trust in the midst of pain.


  1. Jen, this is so true. After that awful winter when Adam had melanoma and I was waiting in the hospital for weeks and weeks, wondering whether or not I'd come out of it with both of my new daughters or not . . . well, the next winter, when it approached that same time of year, I was so depressed. And when spring came round - the same time that I'd learned my husband was cancer-free and my daughters came home alive and healthy, I felt better. But it took going through that cycle two more times before I realized *why* I felt depressed and despairing every time December came around. It was because that was the time of year I spent 2-3 months wondering if half of my family was going to die.

    It took a long time to realize it, I think, because, well, they didn't die. There *wasn't* a disaster. I thought if there wasn't a disaster I shouldn't be feeling that way. I didn't realize that those 2-3 months of fearing for their lives every day was enough to make that deep of an impression . . . but it was.

    And you know, it's still hard for me that time of year, but it's so much easier now that I realize *why* those feelings come 'round every winter. I can say, "I see you, I know what you are, and I can handle you," you know? God's grace.

  2. Great post. I totally get that. I used to feel sad, etc... around the Fall time due to some things that had happened one Fall in college and always wondered why I felt this way. Emotions having a memory is a great answer. I don't feel that way at all anymore and have had lots of fabulous memories during the fall time now - getting married being one of them. So, here's to building new happy memories!!!