I’ve read that “it’s not the experience that brings transformation, it’s our reflection upon our experience,” and my thirty-six years on this earth have shown this to be true. The transformative power of rear-view-mirror introspection is why I’ve embraced a practice of reflecting on what I’ve learned at the end of every season (this past winter, spring, summer, and fall), and at the close of each year (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015).
This year, in typical 2020 fashion, the lessons I’ve learned (and am learning) have proven uncooperative, refusing to fit into tidy categories. I’ve unlearned more than I’ve learned this year as realities I’d taken for granted have fallen away, and assumed truths have proven fragile. But even as old understandings have unraveled, new grooves of knowledge and wisdom have begun to form. This was a year unlike any other, and while 2020’s lessons have been frustratingly cumbersome, they’ve also been abundant. I want—NEED—to document them, even if that documentation looks a little messy. After all, 2020 was The Year of the Pivot and Flexibility, so I suppose it’s fitting that my annual What I Learned post looks a little different this year; I’m learning (and trying to accept) that that’s okay.
This year, COVID and its aftermath taught me—taught ALL of us—that disaster can happen; that systems, institutions, business, social practices, and health are more precarious than we realized; and that these things can disintegrate in the blink of an eye. Since the start of the pandemic, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about how diseases spread; what it’s like to social distance and to view the world from beneath a cloth mask; the science of vaccines; and how polarizing and politicized a global pandemic can be. I’ve experienced the shock that comes with witnessing a grocery store’s barren shelves, and the panic that sets in when essential goods are difficult to come by. I came to appreciate toilet paper in a whole new way. From the center of the disaster, I learned to trust my husband’s survivalist instincts and to mistrust my own naïveté, and together we learned the difficulty of trying to explain new practices and policies to a 5-year-old when we are struggling to understand them ourselves. We learned how little control we have over our circumstances and how we are all at the mercy of unseen forces.
The pandemic unraveled our lives, and as days turned to weeks and then months, I learned that I enjoy following the news, and how I can do so in a way that keeps me informed but not overwhelmed, how to think critically about what I’m hearing, and the value of taking in news from a variety of sources. I saw how differently each of us was affected by this unprecedented unfolding of events (I learned how much we all would come to hate the word unprecedented), how we all may be in the same storm but we’re not all in the same boat, and through a series of painful lessons, I discovered the importance of showing empathy for those who were hurting while also acknowledging my own privileged circumstances. I learned how to hold contentment and grief in the same space, rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn (though I have yet to learn how to do this well), and I learned to assume good intentions in others, even as I watched them make decisions that were different from my own, for reasons I could not quite understand. I learned that it’s okay to not have all the answers or even an opinion, and I grew to recognize the value in keeping my ideas (about mask wearing and silver lining sightings and vaccines) to myself.
As we entered a life in quarantine, I experienced the relief of a lightened calendar (for once without an accompanying fear of missing out). I witnessed the creativity, flexibility, and resilience of individuals and businesses, and discovered these were qualities I, too, have within me, but that I could stand to cultivate further. I learned how to exercise without a gym; how to entertain my children without the benefit of outside resources; and that things like church and Bible study and art lessons and playdates can all happen from home—but that they aren’t quite the same when experienced through a screen. Our family learned that staying home is actually pretty fun at first (a little less fun as time wears on), and that we are able to continue loving each other without (too much) tension across weeks and months of never leaving our neighborhood. I learned that I really am the introvert I’ve always known myself to be, but that I do need occasional interaction with other adults in order to thrive. I learned that regular phone conversations with my parents are refreshing and life-giving and something that had been missing from our relationship for far too long.
In June, when Black Lives came to the forefront of all of our minds and our news feeds, I learned about the power of civil disobedience and how quickly a movement can sweep across a nation, and my eyes were opened to the manifold ways that power, privilege, and even victimization can be corrupted, manipulated, and misconstrued. I became aware of racial disunity in our nation and invested time and energy into learning about race and how to help bring about racial justice and healing. My study introduced me to new terms like intersectionality, anti-racism, white privilege, and Critical Race Theory, and I finally began to understand the difference between racism and prejudice (though I’m still working to understand how I can resist these problems in ways that are both loving and grounded in truth). I developed an awareness of the complexities of race and the importance of hearing from a variety of voices, because—I’ve learned—no single person can speak for an entire group. Sadly, I became aware of how politicized the issue of human value and worth has become.
My personal exploration of our fractured society continued into the fall, and in the midst of this year’s election season, I learned that we are a nation divided. While I came to see the merit of various perspectives and the good intentions in people from both sides of the aisle, I learned that few others are open to nuanced political discussion. My heart broke as I became aware of the realities of cancel culture; the harmful role that media plays in our experience and understanding of politics; the blindness and tone-deafness caused by refusing to exit our own echo chambers; and the hypocrisy that exists within Republicans, Democrats, and everyone in between. As I developed a renewed longing for integrity and truth, I learned that it was okay to forge my own path when forming political opinions, but also how difficult it can be to practice what I am learning about letting my faith drive my political decisions. With the elections behind us, I am now embarking on a journey to learn how to live out my political convictions beyond my biannual trips to the voting booth.
Taking this year’s learning from the universal(ish) contexts into life a little closer to home. . .
In this first full calendar year as a mom to three, I learned that I am an extremely different mom to three kids than I was to one. I have discovered new levels of patience, multitasking, flexibility, and a willingness to let things slide. . . and I’ve found that none of these new qualities and habits feels good (at least not yet). I’ve learned how to juggle the needs of three screaming kids (or at the very least, how to tune out the screams). And I learned that I don’t need to juggle my love for three kids, because that comes naturally. Much to my surprise and shame, I have learned that in spite of feeling entirely fulfilled and content in the size and shape of my family, I still carry scars from the pain of infertility, and watching other families grow remains oddly (embarrassingly) painful.
Being a mom to Charleston this year taught me how much I love parenting an older kid—maybe even more than parenting a baby, toddler, or preschooler. I discovered the freedom that comes with a child old enough to do things for himself (and also the frustration that comes with a child old enough to think for himself). I’ve learned how much I value curiosity in my child . . . but also that answering endless questions can be exhausting. I learn each day that it is difficult to tone down a five-year-old’s energy levels around his siblings, and how challenging it can be to keep them safe from his excessively tactile love. But his interactions with the twins have modeled a playfulness and genuine joy that I desire to emulate.
Through parenting Kali and Sully this year, I learned that every day and week and month is different; that childhood seasons pass by in a flash; and that parenting babies-turned-toddlers is NOT easier than parenting twin newborns (as was promised). In navigating these challenges, I learned A LOT of practical things that I didn’t need to learn as a first time mom: 1) sleep training is a necessary evil and 2) hearing your babies cry themselves to sleep is brutal BUT 3) not quite as brutal as the alternative of being a perpetual zombie; 4) a baby-monitoring camera is a parents’ best friend and 5) watching your kids in their crib is highly entertaining; 6) how to implement a combination of spoon-feeding, breastfeeding, and baby-led-weaning—and 6) that this style of feeding results in children with great appetites, receptive tastebuds, and an ability to self-regulate with food; and finally 7) I can’t (and don’t need to) entertain my children at all times—it’s okay to let my babies entertain each other or themselves without me present.
Over the past twelve months, I’ve observed the twins’ interactions with each other and with those around them, and they have shown me a great deal about the unique bond between siblings (which sometimes looks just as portrayed in media, and sometimes doesn’t). Witnessing their differences has taught me that nature plays a bigger role than I’d assumed in the Nature vs Nurture debate, and that boys and girls don’t always follow expected stereotypes. Beyond these casual observations, I have learned in my body, mind, and soul that having twins is harder than anyone says it will be, but also more empowering, more rewarding, and more miraculous than anyone could put into words.
I wish I had learned more this year about how to maintain a thriving marriage from the middle of chaos. Luke and I are still working out how to best divide parental responsibilities; how to navigate our differences in parenting philosophies; and how to love, support, and make time for each other while also taking care of three little loves. I’m in the process of learning how to graciously accept Luke’s help, and how to demonstrate my own support in ways that are gentle, respectful, and loving. Despite our challenges, I learned in this twelfth year of marriage that I am still deeply and passionately in love with the man I married and that I respect, admire, and appreciate him more today than I did on the day we said “I do.”
Our foray into homeschooling this fall showed us how to seek God in making big life choices, and that He will provide clearcut answers about which path to take. We discovered that we LOVE homeschooling and that it was absolutely the right decision for our family, but that the people around us might not understand our family’s alternative choices. (We’ve learned it’s best to respond to the skeptics’ questions and well-meaning concerns with grace and as few words as possible). Four months into being Charleston’s Kindergarten teacher, I’m still working out the right pace for our year and the appropriate rhythm for our days. I’m learning that every day will be different, that more time spent on fewer skills is best, and that we can never spend too much time with books. To my delight, I am discovering that teaching my child how to read is more amazing than I could have dreamed.
Over the past few months, I have discovered there was a limit on how long I could hold it together as Super Mom. My brain and my body decided to shut down, and I got schooled in the reality of panic attacks, mind-numbing depression, and debilitating anxiety. I learned how to begin letting things go, how to say no to opportunities, how to publicly admit I was struggling, how to accept help, and how to rest. I am learning that recovering from a nervous breakdown is not linear, but that there is hope on the other side. In the midst of the darkness, I’ve discovered God’s nearness and provision in a whole new way.
Ironically, or perhaps fortuitously, this year was the year when I chose to live a life of joy. God taught me that joy takes many shapes and forms, and that it is possible to find joy in ALL circumstances, from global pandemics and political turmoil to parenting trials and even in the center of depression. I learned how the world’s noise disrupts my experience of joy, and how joy can be rediscovered through mindfulness, gratitude, and actively abiding in the Lord through studying Scripture and through prayer.
I know I’m not alone in noticing the ways 2020 has left me somewhat battered and bruised. But rather than feeling burdened by the hardships of this year, I am bolstered by the lessons these hard times have taught me. The power of prayer; the freedom of relinquishing control; the importance of truth; the silver linings of a global crisis; the value of assuming the best in others; an ability to feel empathy; the beauty of messy parenthood; a renewed commitment to seeking and experiencing divinely appointed JOY! These are the things I learned over the past twelve months and that I will carry with me as we collectively limp into 2021. Thank you, Jesus, for this newfound wisdom, and for the gift of being transformed by reflection of my experience.
**Many thanks to my friend Shanyn of Shay Wills Photography for capturing the wonderful photos in this post.**