Almost nine years ago, I was walking in the woods behind my house in Tallahassee. The afternoon sun was waning and my infant son was sleeping in his wrap against my chest.
I was walking with Him, too—praying, listening. Suddenly, I felt a presence to my right. With my hand on my baby’s head, I turned my glance and there, in the grey, lifeless setting of the still-wintery woods was one solitary cardinal with his remarkable red feathers standing in stark contrast to the sullen branches that surrounded him.
Before I explain the significance of that cardinal, I need to first describe the many dark weeks that led up to that moment.
A THORNY START TO MOTHERHOOD
In my first pregnancy, I wanted to get everything right—perhaps obsessively so. I read everything I could get my hands on. I went to childbirth classes. I scrutinized every baby item that came into the nursery for appropriate toxicity levels. I felt fully responsible for this baby’s wellness, and I was not going to be caught off guard.
Little Henry was placed on my chest at 1:00 in the morning in a dark hospital room with just one lamp near the delivery table and a small handful of people. He remained in the same spot on my bare chest, precisely where the midwife placed him, for what seemed like twenty minutes. He seemed impossibly delicate, so I hesitated to maneuver his tiny form. In fact, I had to ask my husband to tell me what his little face looked like since I was not ready to move him. All I could do was nervously kiss the top of his gauzy, warm head.
The Lord had sewn a seed in my life—the seed of motherhood. But like the parable of sower who sows the truth of God’s word, Jesus warns us that if the seed is sewn among thorns, what he calls “the cares of this world,” the thorns “choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4: 18-19, ESV).
As someone prone to anxiety, I found myself wrought with fears as I held this fresh life in my hands and was being trusted with it; these fears were the thorns threatening to choke out a blooming, thriving motherhood.
FIGHTING MY OWN WAY OUT
In those early weeks at home, there were times that I felt safe and calm in my role as a mother, particularly when my baby and I were lying together in bed as he nursed.
But for a good portion of the day, intrusive thoughts about my baby getting hurt would flood my mind. I would try to fight these thoughts with all of my own reasoning and logic, but the darkness would whisper back still, it could happen.
As a result, I began putting irrational behaviors in place. For instance, we lived in a house with a fair amount of ceramic tile, and I would do my best to avoid carrying him over the tile. On walks, I would take his stroller the long way around our local lake instead of crossing over the wooden bridge. And at church, I avoided taking him up to the second balcony of our church, opting for the ground level.
Writing about these behaviors, nine years removed, the irrationality of these fears and behaviors are painfully clear to me. Unfortunately, when powerful fear is paired with the shifting chemicals in the brain after birth, it can be difficult to look at things rationally.
All the while, I felt so downhearted— this was not what my first weeks of motherhood were supposed to look like. God had put the desire for motherhood in my heart and here I was, blessed with the gift of a baby, unable to enjoy any of his newborn days due to the dark fears swarming my mind. Inevitably, I blamed myself for this brokenness: I concluded that I must not be worthy of a peaceful motherhood.
During this time, the extent of my prayer life was a series of laments and desperate demands: Why, God? Why is this happening? Make it stop.
THE FAÇADE OF PEACE
I struggled through probably three full months in this unbearable state while presenting a façade of being well-adjusted to friends and family. But as everyone knows, pretending has a threshold—one can only do it for so long before truth begins to crack its pristine exterior.
Pretending has a threshold
I began to open up to my loved ones about the fears that had overtaken my mind, and I reached out to my doula for a referral to a mental health specialist. She knew of a well-reputed Christian counselor.
I made the appointment. I showed up. I sat waiting in the counselor’s office which was situated underground beneath the public health clinic. I remember being fidgety—scared of what she would say when I told her of my obsessive thoughts about my baby being harmed. Would she find me unfit to be his mother? Would she take him away from me?
Regardless of these concerns, I knew something had to change, so I went into the meeting ready to tell her everything in the hopes of a solution.
The first activity she guided me to complete was to take a piece of paper and in several free-floating circles, I was to write out all of the fears that were consuming me. Shakily, I wrote each one out, even “I’m afraid of my baby being harmed and that it will be my fault.” I held the breath in my chest as her eyes scanned my answers. I braced for her response.
“All of this…” she traced my written fears with her forefinger, “all of these are good.”
Good? Did she not read them closely? How could thoughts like these be good?
“All of these are good because you are a human having human thoughts.”
I wish I could adequately express in words what it feels like for months of utter anguish to dissolve—in the mind, in the body, in the soul. She spoke these words to me: I was still good even if dark and scary thoughts broke through. Suddenly, I felt worthy of healing.
Of course, you and I know that we are always worthy. From the instance God creates us to our final breath, we are worthy because we are His.
We are worthy because we are His
Why had I forgotten that? How had I gotten so off-course? Why had I allowed the evil one destroy the beautiful gift God had given me?
I left that appointment feeling a bit like the invalid near Bethseda before Jesus heals him. Jesus finds the man bemoaning his condition, and asks him a simple question, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5: 6, ESV). I never actually asked for healing. I complained. I blamed. I demanded it stopped. I took matters into my own hands. But I never trusted He who created me to heal me.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF PRAYER
Newly reminded of my worth as His child, I began to open up a true dialogue with God again. I abandoned the bitter, desperate laments I had previously been hurling at God, and replaced them with space to listen for his guidance.
I stopped asking Why, Lord? And began asking, What now? What do I do next?
He led me to acupuncture and a supplement plan. He led me to journaling and long prayer walks in the woods behind our house.
With my son wrapped tightly against me, I would walk into those woods with my boots pressing onto fallen leaves and my heart pressing into Him. I would ask Him questions and listen for answers.
THE AFTERNOON HE MET ME
This brings us to the cardinal.
I don’t think I can adequately describe the feeling that overcame me when I saw that cardinal looking directly my way in the barren woods.
It stood with such stillness—such steadfastness—and yet such presence, and I knew it was sent for me. I felt God in that moment. It was as if the cardinal was sent to remind me of the nearness and constancy of our God even when our surroundings appear bleak. The message I got was that He had always been with me and that He would always be with me. Don’t forget me in your trials, He seemed to say; I am here. I always will be near you.
Eyes full of tears—absolutely overwhelmed by this visceral message, I kissed my sleeping son’s head just like when I first met him, except this type of kiss was not as a frantic substitute in the midst of fear. The kisses on that afternoon meant we’re going to be okay.
ROOM TO BLOOM
The thorny fears that I had been unintentionally feeding began to dry up and fall away. The seed of motherhood that God had planted finally had room to bloom.
I began seeing cardinals everywhere: several in the trees that arched above my head while I pushed the stroller down our street; one perched on the wooden cross that stood outside of our neighborhood church; and one—as unlikely as it sounds–on the cover of the bible study packet that I gripped in disbelief when I joined a local young parents’ group.
Each scarlet-clothed visitor acted as a reminder to let the fears pass through and to hold fast to His promise that He was by my side. His plans are to give me “a future and a hope…not for evil” (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV).
I always loved my son, but now I was able to enjoy him and embrace motherhood in the way God intended.
A SEASON REDEEMED
It did not take long for God to use my incredibly difficult season to bear fruit for others. Having gone through such a difficult transition into motherhood myself, I began to notice the signs of new mothers who were quietly struggling. One of the telltale signs is when an active participant on social media suddenly drops off her handle in radio silence. True, new mothers are busy and tired. But I knew from experience that one who finds herself pretending is often too exhausted for online presence.
In those cases, I would send the new mother a message—not a prying message, but one of confession: “I know the newborn days can be tough and I had some dark ones. Want to talk on the phone?” I would detail the hardest parts of that season, and inevitably, the mother in question would respond that yes, she was struggling, too.
My season of suffering suddenly had purpose.
God was able to use me and my broken experience to begin the healing of other moms in distress. I remember hearing their sobs of confusion, which rang so familiar, and would stay on the phone with each one until she found her way to the moment of relief–it’s not only me. And I will get through it.
I now have three sons whom I am able to love without shaky hands or nervous kisses. All of the new mothers with whom I shared my confession now have multiple children of their own and are thriving in their roles.
And the greatest outcome of all? I learned to turn my face toward Him in difficult times. I still have seasons of anxiety, but I listen to His directions, and He guides me out.
In 1 Peter, we learn that the testing of our faith is like gold being refined in fire— the act itself is not pleasant, but we emerge shiny, new entities—ones that reflect the image of our Refiner all the more.
Whenever I fly back to Florida and visit those woods, I walk through its quiet paths and feel its sacredness as a place of rebirth for me. There He met me and has sustained me since.
with His love,
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P.S. I never really do this, but I am going to share a slew of photos of Henry (and me) over the years. In them is proof that God truly redeems even the darkest of seasons.