Someone has to plant the big tree

January 29, 2020

We were at our friends’ house this last weekend, and they were telling the story of two trees they planted — one in the back yard and one in the front. They agree that they chose well for one of the trees and chose poorly for the other, but they disagree on which is which.

The one in the back yard has grown quickly; it’s tall and leafy and pretty to look at. The one in the front yard more or less looks like a stick in the ground. Both trees have been there for the same amount of time. But in a few decades, that front yard tree will be a massive fixture — the kind of tree that people buy a house for — whereas the back yard tree will still be tall and leafy and pretty but, it seems, mostly the same as it is now.

I was still thinking about this a couple days later while I was praying, and I felt like God imprinted a phrase on my mind: Someone has to plant the big tree.

Right now, my life has a lot more of those front-yard trees. I want some tall, leafy, pretty trees for everyone to see, but mine look like sticks in the ground. They’re slow and they look small. And I don’t do slow (or small) well.

But in the end, slow doesn’t mean small. And someone has to plant the big tree.

This must be greater than that

January 1, 2020

Today, we were supposed to go to the Rose Parade. To get our kids up at 4:30 in the morning to drive to the train station to take an hour-plus train ride to stand in a massive throng of people to watch a two-hour parade to do the whole thing again in reverse to get back to load up our car to start our 15-hour drive home.

Today was also day 13 of our very own Christmas Vacation. For two weeks, we’ve been Cousin Eddie, but without the decency to bring our own housing. In those two weeks, my 5-year-old had the flu, slept in 5 different beds, saw 50ish friends and family members, and subsisted on little more than applesauce pouches, shredded cheese, candy canes, and Hawaiian rolls.

When we sat down to make our plan for New Years, I knew we shouldn’t go. We wouldn’t survive it. And I realized that this was one of several times this year that I opted out of something that checks all the boxes for me: somewhat significant, opportunity to make memories, with people I enjoy.

This is, historically, very off-brand for me. My personal brand is definitely about doing things — hard things, important things, all the things, all the time, for all the people, with flawless execution and only positive emotions.

For most of my 20s, every year on my birthday I made a list of things I wanted to do that year that was the same number as my age — so, for example, on my 24th birthday, I made a list of 24 things I wanted to do before I turned 25.

I did my last one when I turned 30. It felt forced, but of course I powered through because We Do Things Around Here. What I didn’t know then was that I had transitioned to a new stage of spiritual life. To use Janet Hagberg’s language, I was moving from the Productive Life to the Journey Inward.

Almost five years later, and now the call is to the Journey Outward — to surrender to God in wildly uncomfortable ways. The Productive Life was comfortable. The Journey Inward may not have always been comfortable but it still felt very natural. The Wall — what Hagberg describes as the time when your will faces God’s will, the time that stands between the Journey Inward and the Journey Outward — was disorienting and painful but mercifully temporary. But this feels like somewhere I’ll be for awhile. Settling in, inhabiting, being at rest in this discomfort. (Nuach seems to be a theme for me these days.)

I can’t say I’m doing well at this. Even now, when all is said and done and it was so clearly the right decision, I still feel the shame and failure inexorably gnawing at the peace and conviction.

But more than anything, I feel like — finally, maybe — I’m ready to acknowledge that my gift of limits must be greater than my fear of being disappointing. I’m praying that 2020 proves that to be true. And whatever your “this must be greater than that” is for this year, I’d love to be praying it for you too.

Nature or nurture?

December 5, 2019

I used to think that our formation as humans was maybe 20% nature and 80% nurture. Then I had kids. And now I think I had it backward, or close to it. Nature has the majority share.

That isn’t to say that our roles as parents or mentors or family members or friends isn’t important. But we’re influencing within a more narrow spectrum.

Most enneagram experts agree that your number is set very early in life — that you’re born with a predisposition toward your number and the experiences of your early life serve as confirmation bias of that number. What changes over time is where you find yourself on the spectrum of your number — in healthy, average, unhealthy, or pathological space — and which subtype you identify with most strongly.

This makes sense when you look at families where all the children have different numbers. But when you have a family where multiple children identify as the same number — or numbers that are connected to each other — it makes me wonder.

Did that family have some kind of genetic mojo that predisposed all the kids to the same number? Or is our predisposition less exact?

Maybe we’re predisposed to a stance, but our triad is learned. We’re born with a reference point (oriented to the past, present, or future; withdrawing, dependent, or aggressive stance), but we practiced different ways to respond (with thinking, feeling, or doing) around our family of origin and, within a few months or a few years, settled into one of those as our chosen method of survival.

That could be why it’s usually easier to identify your stance even if it’s tricky to nail down your number. It feels instinctive, obvious, simply the way you move in the world. Our thinking and feeling and doing sometimes feel like coping mechanisms — and maybe sometimes they are.

You don’t have to be the product

November 12, 2019

There’s a lot of conversation right now — in both spiritual and secular circles — about the impact of digital devices on our emotional and mental (and spiritual) health.

And I believe strongly in what the church calls “disciplines of abstinence,” such as silence, solitude, and sabbath, and their value in helping us reorient our lives toward what we value most deeply. But I also work in tech — for a software company, no less — and have made a 15-year career on the web. So it’s safe to say that I have a lot of feelings about all of this.

Our digital devices can absolutely be where consumer culture meets the digital age. Our appetites are endless and now so is the supply. Whether we’re compelled to consume news or porn or Instagram likes or Amazon items — or even good podcasts or great books or other quality content — there’s a limit to how much consumption is healthy. Some of these things have a greater potential for destruction than others, but too much of any of it can be bad for our souls.

But at the same time, not all the things we do on our devices are created equal. Consumption isn’t the sole function of your iPhone. Your digital devices can be spaces where you primarily create rather than consume.

You don’t have to be the product. You don’t have to be a slave to digital capitalism. You don’t have to distract yourself to death.

And you don’t necessarily have to turn off all your devices to do it.

That isn’t to say that a full-blown digital sabbath or digital detox or digital sabbatical is never beneficial. Sometimes addiction requires abstinence.

But I find it interesting that, in the biblical text, there are two Hebrew words that have to do with rest. The one we’re more familiar with is shabath, which literally means to cease. On the sabbath, we rest by ceasing to work. But the other is nuach, which is this idea of settling in, inhabiting, being at rest. We need to be both-and people. The kind of people who can live a life of nuach and the kind of people who, on a regular basis, also shabath.

Big Tech isn’t going anywhere. Unless you plan to join an Amish community, your life will be increasingly permeated by technology. We need to learn how to engage with technology in meaningful, healthy ways. Creation over consumption. Production over being the product. Intentionality over distraction.

What this looks like for you will vary wildly depending on your stage of life, line of work, and relationship to technology. But a few ideas for how you can practice digital rest:

  • Ruthlessly kill off notifications — especially home screen notifications. A more passive device is a less distracting device.
  • Rearrange your apps so that time-wasters are a page or two deep. This is a subtle barrier but it means having to intentionally reach for that social media or news app instead of tapping it by default when you unlock your phone.
  • Try using your lock screen and voice commands to do things. You can return a quick text, play music, call a friend, take pictures, set reminders, use alarms and timers, and more without going deeper than your lock screen. If you don’t unlock your device, you’re less likely to get sucked in to something you didn’t intend to spend time on.
  • Use both scheduled and spontaneous do not disturb. When this is on, your notifications will be completely silenced — no vibrating, no lighting up your home screen, no alerts to your watch. The only exception is phone calls from people on your favorites list (so, for example, your spouse could still reach you). If you schedule it for, say, 8pm-8am every night, you’ll be interruption-free 12 hours a day.
  • Use the scheduled downtime feature on your iPhone. You decide which apps are available during downtime; everything except the phone is unavailable by default, so you have to opt in to anything you want to use.
  • Similarly, use app limits. Set a maximum amount of time you’re comfortable spending on a given app per day. You can do this per app or for an entire category — for example, 60 minutes max on all social media, or 30 minutes on Instagram. (These limits are cumulative and reset at midnight.)
  • Turn on airplane mode. You can still listen to music that’s on your device, write notes, update your task list, read your Bible, access timers and alarms, and even read books you downloaded. No google, no social media, no news (all the praise hands).

The relentlessness of balance

November 6, 2019

We talk a lot about keeping our lives in balance. Whether that’s balancing work and non-work, or carbs and cardio, or self-care and others-care, we carry around an invisible balance sheet that’s always in danger of going into the red (or, if you spend any time in enneagram 1 space, it’s just red all the time).

This drive for balance is unrelenting. We’re Goldilocks, but instead of there being a just-right bed to lay down on, it’s a tightrope. On moving cantilevers. Over a giant chasm of failure.

For most of my 20s, I pursued balance through systems. Time management systems, task management systems, stuff management systems. And it appeared to work, more or less. But then I had a baby, and then another baby, and all of a sudden systems weren’t leading to balance.

Balance requires a degree of compartmentalization. I’ve never been good at compartmentalizing. I see connections, not dispensations. But I had feigned balance through a combination of margin and baseline capacity. I could hold a lot of things at once, and when I couldn’t there was margin in which to recover. 

And then I was a full-time working mom of two with little capacity and even less margin.

I still believe in systems. Systems create rhythms, and rhythms provide a framework for my life. But over the last 5 years, I’ve reworked my rhythms once a quarter (or more) and have yet to find a system that produces balance.

I’ve started to wonder: What if the fundamental assumption — that balance is the goal — is wrong?

I don’t want a balanced life. I want fullness of life.

I want these juxtaposed parts of my life to all feel abundant. When I pray for my kids when I’m at work, or jot down an idea for work when I’m with my kids, I don’t want to see that as an indicator of unhealth. When one week has me in spin class four times but the next week has me taking my kids out for ice cream instead, I don’t want to see that as the death of my health goals.

A relentless pursuit of balance might help me achieve more, or be more fit, or squeeze more in — but is that what I’m after? Should it be?

Streams flowing together

October 23, 2019

I was listening to an episode of This Cultural Moment in the car this morning. Near the end, Jon Tyson was talking about the current state of the evangelical church, and he said:

It’s an urgent moment. It isn’t the moment for safe, normal stuff that always worked.

A few minutes later, Pete Hughes shared how his church has responded to this urgency:

The streams are beginning to flow together… [We have] a deep hunger to learn from the best of each tradition.

I immediately thought about how grateful I am to be a part of a church that is also doing this.

And I almost as immediately thought about a renowned (female) Bible teacher who just this week was told, by another renowned (male) Bible teacher, to “go home,” while other leaders cheered and laughed and publicly defamed her character.

Obviously, this is wildly unacceptable on a number of levels (and I’m using all my restraint to not get into them right now); to quote Sarah Bessey, “This guy needs to publicly apologise and then go sit quietly in a room with Beth Moore teaching tapes on repeat at full volume until he can properly repent.” But most disturbing to me is the complete blindness to (or, at best, utter lack of understanding of) our current moment in the capital-C Church.

Churches across the world are looking outside their tradition to find wisdom. They recognize that what got us here can’t get us there, and they have the God-given humility and perspective to go looking for it.

And then you have these guys — bestselling authors, megachurch pastors, internationally known for their teaching and leadership — and here’s someone in front of them who has had an arguably greater impact on Christian women in the West than any female Bible teacher in history, and she’s not only in their tradition but in their denomination, and yet because she isn’t in their gender they can’t even demonstrate baseline respect and kindness, let alone seek wisdom or be the tiniest bit open, curious, or thoughtful.

There were some other people in antiquity who sat around debating the letter of the law while missing the heart of it. They were in an urgent moment, and they too didn’t know it. They wanted the safe, normal stuff.

But that wasn’t the time. And this isn’t either. 

When the thing isn’t about the thing

October 2, 2019

A few weeks ago, we spent the weekend camping at the coast. The first full day we were there, it was overcast and not warm, but because we live in the PNW we went to the beach anyway. We figured the kids could climb on the shipwreck and our friends’ dog could run and we could all put our toes in the surf. 

Within 20 minutes my kids were soaked through their clothes and I was carrying their dripping jeans down the beach while they jumped in waves up to their thighs and I just prayed I wouldn’t run into That Mom who thinks it’s inappropriate for my 5 year old who’s the size of an 8 year old to run down the beach in her underwear. 

The tide was low and these giant pieces of seaweed had gotten stranded on the beach. They were easily six feet long, complete from root to leaf, and Eva quickly befriended one and named it SeaSea and asked for pictures with it and dragged it all the way up the beach and back. When it was time to go, she was devastated that I wouldn’t put SeaSea in the car. We found a nice, safe spot for SeaSea on top of a sand dune and gave her hugs and cried all the way back to camp. 

We thought that would be our only trip to the beach. But the next afternoon the sun was out and it was warm and we spontaneously decided that a pre-dinner trip to the beach would be lovely. Just a 30 minute visit before sunset. 

The minute we pulled into the parking lot I knew we had made a mistake. “Let’s go find SeaSea!” But of course she wasn’t where we left her, or anywhere else we looked, and now I’m climbing sand dunes with an inconsolable, sobbing 5 year old and a 2 year old who‘s staging a sit-in while she yells at me that she’s tired of climbing (the implication that this outing is ridiculous is not lost in translation, nor can I disagree). Between sobs, Eva is telling me that SeaSea was her bestie and why would anyone take her and where do I think she is and do I think SeaSea is going to remember her and know she loved her and of course she won’t and she will forget her completely because she has a new friend now and she never loved Eva the way she loved her and no one will ever be as special as SeaSea. 

And I’m kneeling there on the sand asking Eva if maybe, just maybe, this is about something else. 

Because sometimes you’re 5 and you’re starting kindergarten at a new school and you’ll have new friends and a new teacher and you’ve spent weeks talking about how excited you are but you haven’t looked your fear and grief in the eye and now you’ve projected all of your feelings, both known and unknown, onto something that isn’t the thing but feels like the thing. 

And sometimes you’re 34 and still do that sometimes and you know what it looks like when the thing isn’t about the thing. 

So we sat on the beach and cried for awhile. And then we found another SeaSea and played with her and chased her and took photos with her and drew pictures of her back at camp. And for those next few days I carried Eva’s heart in a different way. 

There are a million moments in motherhood when you don’t know what to do and you’re pretty sure you’re blowing it 80% of those times and you pray for your child’s future therapist because God knows what that person will have to help your child work through. But once in awhile you hear that quiet whisper that this moment matters even though on the surface it seems absurd and impossible and even a little silly and you slow down and you listen. Because sometimes you need someone to be there for the thing that isn’t the thing, so you know they’ll still be there when it is. 

My dad would have been 65 today

September 21, 2019

Two days after my dad died, a friend gave me a piece of advice that became an anchor. Do something new. It doesn’t matter what it is, but do something you’ve never done before. My friend was well-acquainted with grief — the kind that’s not only about what you lost but about what you won’t ever get to have and (the biggest grief of all) what you never had in the first place — and as she went on to tell me about teaching herself to knit and starting musical theater and the first time she dyed her hair an outrageous color, all of these fragmented pieces of our adolescence came abruptly, viscerally into focus and I was able to see: all of this was her living her grief right in front of us without any of us knowing it.

The following year, I trained for and completed my first triathlon. Then I had a baby. The next year we bought a house, and the year after that I had another baby. In 2017 I changed jobs, and last year I changed careers. I wouldn’t say that this has all been borne out of grief. But I also wouldn’t say that I would be where I am — spiritually, emotionally, practically — without it. All these new things helped me live through the grief of what I lost.

It was last year on the anniversary of his death that I realized the accumulation of things that carried me through loss had yielded a new grief, the grief of what I would never have. I’m now living a life that’s wholly unfamiliar to him. I’m raising children he never met in a house he never saw while working for a company he never heard of with a job title he never knew. These are things I will never get to share with him. Twenty-seven years with him and yet these seven years without him feel like a chasm.

And yet. When I look back on what we had I am humbled not by my grief but by gratitude. In writing to a friend who lost his mother, Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Real grief is not healed by time… If time does anything, it deepens our grief. The longer we live, the more fully we become aware of who she was for us, and the more intimately we experience what her love meant for us.”

If it’s likely that I wouldn’t be where I am without grief, I most certainly wouldn’t be here without his love. He believed things about me that I will spend the balance of my life living up to. By the time I’m 58 — or, God willing, 65, or 75, or 85 — I hope to have become all the things he spent 27 years telling me I was.

Suffering, heavy hearts, and Oregon

October 11, 2014

As an Oregonian, as a fellow 29 year old woman, as a girl who watched her dad die from cancer on November 1, 2012 — two years to the day before Brittany Maynard will end her life — I’ve been having a lot of feelings this week.

Every day, I find two or three (or more) new bloggers who have written counterpoints to Brittany’s story — and every day, I find myself a bit more disappointed with the blogging community as a whole, and the Christian community in particular, for its response.

I have just a few of my own thoughts to share — on suffering, on heavy hearts, and on Oregon.

On suffering

It has been said that, if Brittany chooses when and how to end her life, she won’t suffer. That her dying won’t be hard. That she’s missing an opportunity to show others what it is to suffer well. That she’s robbing her loved ones of the chance to walk this road with her.

These are all different ways of saying the same thing: that Brittany is selfish. And I simply don’t see it.

I can’t imagine that she isn’t suffering as we speak. Her dying will be hard no matter when or how it happens; that’s how death is. And I bet if you asked the people closest to her, they would tell you that she has walked this road with beauty and grace — and that they have been privileged to walk it with her.

This is also an occasion when people like to parade out the Christianese paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:13: God will never give you more than you can bear. But let’s look at what that verse really says:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

First of all, this verse is talking about temptation — not suffering. And furthermore, it doesn’t say that you won’t be overwhelmed; the promise is that God will be faithful to provide a way out.*

On heavy hearts

The phrase that keeps showing up — on blogs, in comment streams, across Facebook feeds — is my heart is so heavy for her. And that’s not wrong, because this is heavy, this tragedy, and your heart should bear that weight. Like when I was browsing a moms’ Facebook group this week and saw a post from a fellow mom about her son who was stillborn six days ago, when she was little more than a month from her due date. I sat and wept for this woman, a stranger. A heavy heart — appropriate indeed.

These heavy hearts should elicit a response. They should compel us to pray for her and her family, to talk to each other about tough issues, even to grieve for her.

What doesn’t strike me as an appropriate response are all of these blog posts written as open letters to Brittany. Bloggers writing as if they know her (which, to my knowledge, none of them do) because they read 1,500 words about her in the Washington Post.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be writing about these topics; to the contrary, I believe this is an important conversation and one that the faith community should be wrestling through on a regular basis (and not just when a beautiful twentysomething gets a national headline). Stories like Brittany’s should remind and inspire us to press in and unpack all that is messy and hard and incomprehensible about the human experience.

But we should be writing about what we know: our experience and our research. We don’t know her, even if it feels otherwise, and that’s what gives all of these articles a decidedly condescending, sanctimonious, presumptuous air.

If reading about Brittany inspires you to tell the story of how you made a different choice, that’s wonderful and beautiful and the world needs to hear your voice. Many of the stories I’ve read this week are compelling and powerful — or at least would’ve been had they not been cheapened by using a salacious literary device.

Some will say that, by telling her story, she was inviting criticism and judgment and commentary — that she should have expected it. And for all I know, she was, and she did. But that argument is akin to the one that Jennifer Lawrence has no right to privacy because of her celebrity. Very different stories, obviously, but they share an undertone: If you put yourself out into the world, you are responsible for how people treat you.**

On Oregon

When I originally read Brittany’s story, my first thought was that I was proud to be an Oregonian. I know that I stand in the margin on this issue: a Jesus-follower who advocates for such legislation. But I’m proud to live in a state that (at least some of the time) supports personal liberties.

My stance on physician-assisted suicide legislation has nothing to do with my own convictions or ethics. What it does have to do with are my beliefs about the role of the state in governing morality.

The government should legislate morality when it comes to someone having their rights violated by someone else — rape, murder, and theft all being obvious examples. But the government has no business legislating what you do with your own body. Because here’s the thing: Letting the government enforce personal morality seems like a great idea until their ideologies no longer align with yours. Then you’ve given them power that you can’t ever take back.

My husband put it best: When the state legislates how and when you can end your life, it’s the ultimate expression that you no longer own your body.***

Should we, as caring, compassionate, grace-filled people, put our time and resources toward helping people who we believe are choosing poorly? Of course. Should we provide things like hospice care as an alternative to euthanasia, or rehab for addiction, or support groups for sex workers? Definitely. But should we criminalize these people? Absolutely not.

A final thought

I haven’t read anything about Brittany’s faith, and that makes me hesitant to talk to her as one who is inside the church (which is what most Christian bloggers are doing, in my view). But for whatever reason, Zephaniah 3 was on my heart as I finished writing this post, so I’ll simply end there.

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”

* On a personal note, I absolutely believe that times of suffering and struggle are times to press into God and seek his face. And this is exactly what many people mean when they say that God won’t give you more than you can bear; what they really mean is God is with you, and for you, and his indwelling Spirit will enable you to persevere when your flesh cannot. But maybe we should say just that instead of offering platitudes and Christian catchphrases.

** Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, there’s an article going around claiming that a man looking at her nude photos and a man looking at pornography is the same thing. But it’s very, very different. A woman who models for Playboy gives permission for her nude body to be seen by anyone who so desires. Jennifer Lawrence did not. It’s the act of theft that makes one a crime, and the other not.

*** As Jesus followers, we voluntarily surrender our rights to our bodies to Christ. But that’s completely different and separate from surrendering one’s rights to government.

The care and feeding of your new-mom friend

September 5, 2014

Over the last 12 weeks, I’ve learned what a terrible job I did of caring for my friends who entered motherhood before me. I’ve learned this by going through my own postpartum period, which I will forever refer to as the period when I was a bottomless pit of need. I’ve also learned this by seeing the disparity between how I cared for others and how others have cared for me.

To those who, in their wisdom, generously poured out incredible care that I couldn’t begin to deserve: thank you.

To those who, in their misfortune, suffered graciously through my misguided, rather useless attempts to care for them: I’m sorry.

I’m writing this to myself circa 2008, telling myself all the things I wish I would’ve known six years ago. Dear Allie, here are four ways to love your friends well in their early days of motherhood.

(This list turned out much longer and more verbose than I planned. I’m sorry for that too.)

Ask good questions.

If you ask vague, overly open-ended questions (“How’s motherhood going?”), expect equally vague, non-specific answers (“It’s challenging, but we’re figuring it out!”). I have a couple of friends who always ask insightful questions when we get together, and it makes me feel deeply cared for.

If you don’t have children yet, your friend is probably worried about boring you or oversharing; if you do have young kids of your own, your friend is probably worried about being judged by you; and if you have grown kids, your friend is probably worried that what she’s going through will seem insignificant to you. If she’s anything like me, she lives in fear of sentences that start with “just you wait until…” or “I thought that was hard until…”

Ask good questions, really listen to the answers, and validate the heck out of her. If you aren’t sure what to ask, some ideas to get you started…

Thoughtful questions:

  • What has been the most surprising thing — good or bad — about motherhood so far?
  • What is your biggest challenge right now? How can I support you in that?
  • What’s one thing that you’ve learned about the character of God through being a mom?

Follow-up questions:

  • When you were pregnant, you said that you were [scared/nervous/excited] about [specific aspect of motherhood]. What has that been like?
  • How have your expectations of motherhood compared to your experience so far?
  • I saw your [Facebook post/Instagram/Tweet/Vine] about [topic]. How is that going?

Questions with a specific timeframe:

  • What did the baby do this week that’s new or different?
  • What are you most looking forward to about your baby being [one month/three months/six months/etc.] old?
  • What was your favorite thing that happened this week?

(P.S. Her answer to your question is almost definitely not an invitation for advice, a chance for you to give her some perspective, or an opportunity for you to talk about when you had a similar but more difficult/profound/impressive experience. It is an invitation for encouragement, a chance for you to tell her what a good job she’s doing, and an opportunity to validate how difficult/profound/impressive her experience is.)

Shift from “what” to “when.”

Whenever you have a friend who’s going through a big life change — moving, getting married, having a baby, grieving the loss of a loved one — you want to rally around her. But 90% of the time, you have no idea how to do that. So you ask what you can do. And 90% of the time, you get a really unhelpful answer.

That happens for any number of reasons. In the case of your new-mom friend, she’s spending her every waking moment (and, let’s be honest, most of her precious sleeping moments) trying to figure out what her new tiny human needs. She has no idea what she needs anymore because she hasn’t thought about it in weeks. Or, if she does know what she needs, she’s afraid to tell you because she doesn’t want to inconvenience you. Her whole life right now is inconvenient, so the last thing she wants to do is inflict inconvenience on anyone else because she knows (oh, how she knows) how it feels.

Or maybe she’s not used to needing to ask for things and has no idea how — even when someone invites her to ask. Or perhaps she secretly thinks you don’t really want to help and that you’re asking just to be nice.

Instead of asking what you can do, pick something that you want to do for her and ask when you can do it.

Picking something to do is simpler than you think. Because here’s the thing: your friend is still your friend. Yes, she’s a mom now, and that has added a whole new dimension to her person. But chances are, she still likes the same things she liked a year ago. And in fact, she’s even easier to please now, because what was once a basic everyday affair is now an indulgent luxury.

Let your experience and observation guide you. If you’re still stumped, there are some things that I can almost guarantee every new mom would enjoy:

Uninterrupted sleep. More specifically, a time when she doesn’t have to sleep with one ear open.

  • Good: Take the baby on a long (90 minutes-plus) stroller ride while mom stays home.
  • Better: While mom’s feeding the baby and getting him ready for your outing, make sure that the dishes are done, the living room is tidy, and the laundry is switched.
  • Best: If she’s pumping or bottle feeding, take care of the baby overnight. Bring an air mattress and your pillow, and spend the night in the nursery. (It’s one night of limited sleep for you, but you can catch up the next night, and you’ll feel so good in the morning when your friend can’t stop hugging you.)

Her favorite coffee, sandwich, cookie, etc. You’ve probably brought her one (or more) of these things before, and it’s even more appreciated now.

  • Good: Text her and ask her what time you can bring her lunch tomorrow. If she’s busy tomorrow, keep suggesting dates until she accepts.
  • Better: When you show up with lunch, also bring two treats: one for a mid-afternoon snack, the other for when she’s feeding the baby at 2 a.m. that night.
  • Best: Put a book or magazine and $10 in her hand, and send her to the coffee shop/deli/bakery by herself while you watch the baby. Her life is filled with can you hold the baby while I [fill in the blank: go to the bathroom, wash the changing pad cover, restock the wipes container]. An hour of can you hold the baby while I do something nice for myself is a true gift.

A long shower or bath. You know, the kind where you get to wash your hair and shave your legs. (This is one of the easiest and most rewarding things you can do for your friend. You get to sit and hold a baby for 45 minutes, and she gets to become a new woman. Win-win.)

Dinner that requires zero effort and zero clean-up. Don’t get me wrong — I loved the homemade meals that were so graciously brought to our door and that arrived in lovely ceramic dishes for baking and that provided leftovers I could stow away for lunch the following day. But I have to admit a certain fondness for the night that we were brought tacos from a nearby taqueria, or the night that someone brought us pizza and beer. The pizza box went in the compost, the beer bottles went in the recycling, and I went to bed.

A date with her husband. Your friend is now a mom all day, every day — and it’s an unfathomable blessing, but that role has (for now) eclipsed all others. She desperately needs to feel like a wife and a woman again — even if it’s only for an hour while she walks to Chipotle and shares a meal with this man she really likes but hasn’t seen much lately.

A room in her house that is both clean and tidy. If you’re already a mom of multiple kids, you might think this is just silly. Your house is a mess? Welcome to parenthood, you say. But think back to before you had a kid and how neat your house was. And then remember what the loss of that orderliness felt like. Right now, everything in your friend’s life is changing, and she’s desperately trying to hang on to some semblance of her former life. A clean house is proof positive that her world hasn’t spun completely off its axis (or at least hasn’t yet).

Anything and everything in this blog post. (This should be required reading for anyone who has friends who are having babies.)

There are exactly two things that a new mom wants to hear about her appearance.

They are:

  1. Wow — you look unbelievably well rested!
  2. Wow — you’re so thin!

That’s it. That’s the end of the list. If your friend looks exhausted and fat, you have exactly two options: lie or choose something else to compliment. (Baby flattery is acceptable. Approved remarks include: Wow — how do you have the time to have such gorgeous hair? Wow — how are your clothes always so clean? Wow — the pictures you’ve been posting of your baby look like they were taken by a professional photographer! Wow — your baby has the most stylish wardrobe ever!)

This is especially true if you see your friend at a social gathering of some kind. Let’s say that your friend had her baby four weeks ago, and you see her at a birthday party after work. You had to rush home at 5 o’clock, touch up your hair, throw on some heels and extra jewelry, and dab on some lip gloss at a stoplight on your way over. Your friend, on the other hand, used every single minute of baby nap time that day to shower, blow-dry her hair, find an outfit that doesn’t make her hate her body, and put on enough concealer and mascara to compensate for third trimester insomnia plus the all-night labor that preceded her 3 a.m. delivery plus the month since then of sleeping no more than 90 minutes at a time.

She walks into the party half an hour late but feeling pretty dang good. Look at me, going out on the town!

And then some very well-meaning person tells her how exhausted she looks and not only is she now incredibly self-conscious but, to add insult to injury, she feels like she just wasted an entire day of hard work.

Also: The longer it’s been since she had the baby, the more she needs to hear nice things. Deep down, she expected to be out of the fog of exhaustion and into her skinny jeans at six weeks. Actually, that was her worst case scenario; she really thought she’d be there at four. Now, she’s five months postpartum, has one pair of pants that fit, and her baby slept through the night for exactly three nights before hitting a sleep regression and now she’s back to nursing twice each night.

Check in with her.

Consistently. Often. And over the long haul.

This is a profoundly lonely, isolating, and depleting season for your friend. If she’s an extrovert, she’s missing the social interactions that breathe life into her spirit. If she’s an introvert, she’s both missing the connections she enjoys and she is never, ever alone — which, somehow, makes her feel isolated from herself.

She may not want to tell you that she cried more this week than in her nine months of pregnancy combined. She might not want to describe what it’s like to wonder how one distinguishes the line between stress/exhaustion/this is really hard and postpartum depression — or admit that, some days, she thinks she might’ve drifted over it. She may think it’ll sound too ridiculous if she admits she’s scared that her friends have forgotten about her — or that she’ll lose their friendship because she’s not able to be the caregiver/check-er-in-er that she’s accustomed to being.

Output may be heavy for your friend right now. Even the output of words might be too much. Because right now, every bit of output she can muster is poured out in love for this tiny person in her arms. This post (another must-read) puts it so beautifully:

The love you will feel is nothing like you have felt before. It will be foreign and familiar all at once. It will fill you to the very top of your heart, nearly spilling over. The thing about this kind of love, though, is that it can feel heavy. Disproportional. You may feel like you will nearly break in half from the top-heaviness… This love will crush your ego. It will destroy your capability to trust yourself. The fear that creeps in the shadows of this love will paralyze you… You may never feel like you will get the hang of carrying this love.

You can’t help your friend carry this love or trust herself — but you can make sure she knows, day in and day out, that she is loved and that your love for her can be trusted. It may sound backward, but when output is heavy, your input — those text messages and emails and notes that demonstrate your deep affection for her — lightens, and gives light, and is light.

Ultimately, that’s what caring for your friend is — no matter what that care looks like. Bringing lightness to her life. Making her feel seen, and known, and valued. Loving her well at a time when she finds it hard to love herself.