Keep Me Awake: Prayer as a Mother
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed”
— Mary Oliver, from “The Summer Day”
I stand in an open field, watching for signs of rain. An hour ago, I hollered to my family, “I’ll be back later!” and strode toward the woods outside our neighborhood. I walked and walked until my legs ached and landed here—in the company of fading wildflowers.
Gray clouds coat the sky. Somewhere not far from here, leaves are burning. Their scent twists and lingers in the air like incense.
Walking usually soothes my nerves, but today my whole body feels restless. It’s been half a year since my husband and I pulled our son Jack out of preschool due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Months without childcare support have left me utterly exhausted, but I can’t go home. Not yet. A friend once told me she finds peace by grounding herself. I take her advice and collapse into a cross-legged position. Then, instinctively, I fold my hands to pray.
Images clip through my mind’s eye. Another negative pregnancy test in the garbage. My son playing alone in our backyard. Another period come and gone. Why can’t I get pregnant again?
The calendar turning—my 35th birthday marching closer. When Jack asked, “Mom, can we get a baby?” Another pregnancy announcement. Please help me.
A breeze rustles through my coat, and I blink my eyes open, watching it wave through straw-colored prairie grass. I splay out my legs, roll onto my back, and shift my gaze toward the hazy heavens.
God, I think, twitching at a hair that blows across my forehead, are you out there?
After the epidural, labor with my first baby goes like this: a spotlight burning down, distorting my sight. Contractions coming in waves, dulled by medicine. My heart hammering against my chest. My hand intertwining with my husband’s.
“Deep breath, hold it and PUSH!” the nurse says, assuming the stance of a personal trainer. I seal my lips, shut my eyes, and bear down with all my might.
“10-9-8-” She’s counting backward when pressure snakes through my throat. I swallow, stifling it.
“7-6-” The pressure returns, building against my teeth. Please not again, I beg. I plead. I pray. I counter the pain with more pushing but this time it’s not enough. Coughs explode from my lips.
“I’m sorry,” I moan, staring at the ceiling. Labor is so natural; your body will go into autopilot, the birth instructor said. I turn my head toward the nurse, eyes glossy. “I don’t understand why I can’t do this.”
She’s whispering with my doctor, and they keep glancing at the clock. They’re saying something about my baby’s heartbeat. Jay’s grip tightens.
My doctor steps forward, blocking out the spotlight. “Erin, the baby isn’t making as much progress as we’d like,” she says, eyeing me carefully. “It’s been two and a half hours. Do you feel like you could keep going?”
“I want to keep pushing,” I tell her, voice trembling.
“Alright, I think we can give it a little more time,” she responds, glancing from me to Jay. “If we don’t make progress in the next half hour, we’re gonna have to operate.”
Hot light illuminates everything. I push and cough and start to feel a spreading piercing sensation. My doctor stands before me again, but this time she’s telling me I’m going to the OR for surgery. A curtain of tears distorts my vision, and I can’t pinpoint why I’m sobbing.
Is it because I never pictured this? Is it because I failed? Is it because I’m afraid?
The operating table feels like ice. A shot of anesthesia pulls me out of consciousness while my doctor performs a C-section. I’m woken up to receive the good news: my baby’s here. I listen greedily for his first cries.
The room is profoundly still. “We need some help here!” someone yells. Goosebumps race up my spine. A chatter of activity can be heard, but all I can think about is how quiet it sounds, how we should be hearing my newborn’s crying.
I picture our empty nursery. God, please help him. I imagine my empty arms. God, please help him. I want to rush up from the table and resuscitate my son myself, but my legs are numbed. God, please help us.
My mouth is so dry it clamps shut, stifling a scream. The fabric between heaven and earth seems thinner than ever. My fingers grip Jay’s, an anchor.
A soft neh, neh, neh quiets the commotion. The medical team cheers. “He’s okay, babe,” Jay exhales, smiling. “He’s okay.” Hot tears cascade down my cheeks. Jack is alive and breathing.
Thank you, Jesus.
On nights when my boys drift to sleep easily, I like to sip a warm cup of chamomile tea with honey and write in my journal. My practice, which I call “evening pages,” is a spin on author Julia Cameron’s morning pages—three long-hand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.1 I do my pages at night as a way to unwind.
I try to keep my hand moving across the blank lines of my journal and don’t stop until I hit three pages, maybe more. Often as I write I find myself listing moments of delight: our sing-song rendition of “Goodnight my someone;” the sweet sound of toddler giggles; eggshell white flower buds dotting the front yard; a shared laugh with my husband via text message; the tingly sensation in my limbs after a challenging yoga class.
Moving my hand across the page, I believe, is another means of praying. The more I write, the more gratitude I feel for the Author of all goodness.
Even on dark days, there’s a spark of light to discover.
Nestled against a swell of pillows, I notice I’m falling in love all over again. My newborn Adam sleeps against my chest, with one cheek pressed to my skin. His hot little body warms mine. The lights are low. My husband snores loudly from the maternity suite couch. I breathe in the sweet scent of Adam’s head and sigh contentedly. I could fall asleep right here, but I know I shouldn’t. Adam’s due to wake any minute and I’ll need to feed him again.
Keep me awake, I pray silently. Keep me awake.
Two rosy lips begin to flutter against my chest. I shift my weight ever-so-slightly to move into a nursing position. I cradle my arms around Adam’s body and use one to guide his rooting mouth toward my nipple. When he begins to suckle, I feel a pinprick of pain and nothing more. Tears build anyway: happy tears, astonished tears, oh-my-God-here-we-go-again-what-did-I-get-myself-into? tears.
Five years have passed since I last gave birth. After the struggles to conceive and a miscarriage, I wasn’t sure I’d ever have another baby. Yet here he is, with two blue eyes, wrinkly skin and a crown of golden-brown hair, snug in my arms.
God, I pray again, Are you here?
Keep me awake.
In our house, we eat pancakes on Saturday mornings.
Weekdays are for yogurt and toast or Eggo waffles tossed in the toaster. On weekdays my coffee goes cold on the counter while I pack Jack’s lunch for kindergarten and serve bites of mango to Adam in his high chair.
Adam, the baby I prayed for in the field, is here.
Weekday breakfast with our family is fast, exciting and to be consumed quickly before racing off to other adventures. But Saturdays are slow. Saturdays are for pancakes, hot off the frying pan.
Step one: Measure out the pancake mix. Kodiak Cake is the only one that will do here, and the ratio is one cup mix to 3/4 cup water, give or take extra water. By the time I’ve dumped the two together, Adam will be tugging at my leg. This tug is exactly what I wanted, even when it’s messy.
Step two: Whisk the batter to a consistency that’s midway between thick and gloppy. At this point, Jack will enter the scene and request chocolate chips in his pancakes; I’ll set aside a handful to add when they’re on the frying pan. Mothering requires multi-tasking. I have to spread my attention everywhere, but this means deeper prayer, too.
Step three: Set the heat to low and pour a swig of oil in the ceramic pan. While the oil warms I putter around the kitchen with Adam in one arm, pulling out plates, forks and napkins with my free hand. Holding him close, I swirl around the room and remember the One who holds us throughout our days.
Step four: Once a drop of water sizzles from the pan, it’s time to start. With an ice cream scooper, dole out pancake batter. The heat stays low, and I talk with Adam while we wait for the batter to bubble. Then, I grab my pancake flipper and go to work. This work takes patience, but every step is worthwhile. We are here together.
Final step: Turn on Taylor Swift’s latest album, Midnights, and dance in the kitchen with the children while flipping pancakes. Sway. Laugh. Give thanks for each other. Slowly the serving plate fills with light, golden pancakes. Soon it will be time to serve them, with squares of butter and swirls of real maple syrup.
In a moment, I’ll bring the pancakes to the dining room table. We’ll pray “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest.” Forks will clink. Adam will babble, and Jack will chatter nonstop between bites of his chocolate chip pancakes.
But before all this, before the praying and the savoring, comes the preparation.
Mixing. Flipping. Steam rising off the pan. Bread forming in the heat. A dance in the kitchen. Each step intentional, restful.
With my hands moving, creating food to nourish my children, I can be fully present. Feeding them is the simplest form of hospitality I know.
I can’t help but think this service for them is prayer.
- See Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way for more about morning pages.
Erin Strybis is a Chicago-based writer, mama of two and coauthor of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years. Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post, Coffee + Crumbs, Living Lutheran, The Everymom and elsewhere. She also writes Nourish, a monthly newsletter to help you be kinder to yourself and others. When she’s not chasing her kids or writing, Erin enjoys practicing yoga, singing at church or curling up with a good book. Connect with her on Instagram (@erinstrybis) and at erinstrybis.com, where you can subscribe to Nourish and order The Beauty of Motherhood.
This week’s sponsors of Mothering Spirit are the authors of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years. This new book from Kimberly Knowle-Zeller and Erin Strybis is a collection of devotions for moms inspired by our children’s milestones and development. Each narrative reflection opens with scripture and concludes with a practice or questions to ponder, followed by a prayer. Spanning infancy to early childhood, The Beauty of Motherhood encourages mothers and caregivers to take a deep breath and find the holy in those everyday moments that inspire laughter, frustration, and awe.
So beautiful, Erin. I always love your perspective. <3
Thank you so much, Megan!