I dangled my bare feet over the edge of the exam table and smoothed the strip of crinkly white paper that covered the vinyl cushion. As I watched my hands move back and forth I noticed that my skin was beginning to look more and more like the onion skin of an older woman. Still soft but much thinner with a few age spots soliciting their mellowed wares. When I tightened my hand into a fist I could see the blue veins swell between my knuckles and I recalled the first time I noticed the protruding lines on my own mother’s hands. I remembered thinking that she was beginning to look like my grandmother and it had startled me. Now here I was, just 40 years old, thinking the same thing about my own hands.
The doctor knocked on the door and walked in, head buried in her clipboard. It was just a standard yearly checkup and I expected to be in and out in 10 minutes.
“Hello, Jennifer,” she began with the perfunctory greeting. “How are you today?”
“Great,” I replied, meaning it for the first time in recent memory.
After a few moments of flipping through my records, she looked up and said, “Well, it looks like you’re due for your…..” and her voice trailed off.
I could see her eyebrows furrow slightly as she took a second, more serious look in my direction. After a pause, she asked, “Did you do something different to your hair?”
I laughed and admitted that yes, for the first time in 10 years I was back to nudging my brunette strands toward caramel.
“But it’s more than that. You look different overall. Are you exercising? Dieting?”
I laughed again. “Yes and definitely no! I’m tackling major life changes one by one.”
“Well, whatever you’re doing is working. You’re down 8 pounds from last year. Yoga? Running?” she queried.
“Nope. I actually started boxing.”
Her eyes appeared quickly over the rims of her glasses, this time like big black olives on milk glass plates. There were no furrows, but rather eyebrows raised up like steeples that met my sheepish smile.
“You said boxing?”
“Like Rocky boxing?”
“Why on earth would you do that?” she interrogated me as the furrowed brow reappeared and she scribbled some notes on her clipboard.
I paused among the myriad puzzle pieces of that answer, quite sure I couldn’t possibly put together a satisfactory response to her question in my allotted 10 minutes.
“It’s complicated,” I said with a sideways shrug of my shoulder. My hands with their seasoned skin were back to the smoothing of crinkled white paper. “Basically… I guess… something had to give.”
Rewind to 2 years earlier. I don’t remember the exact date when I first noticed the pain but I clearly remember what I was doing when it hit me out of the blue. Summer was in full swing as I flip-flopped through the backyard with a bowl of veggie scraps for the chickens. As I neared the back gate that led to the coop, I suddenly felt a sharp stab across the top of my right big toe. Every time I took a step, I winced in pain though I couldn’t see an injury of any kind.
A crazy thought ran through my head.
“It’s gout. Grandma always complained about pain in her feet. I must have gout.”
But I had no idea what caused gout and I certainly wasn’t old enough to be hobbled like a 90 year old. After all, I wasn’t even 40 yet.
Sure, I was the typical over-extended stay-at-home mom who wasn’t getting enough sleep and was basically subsisting on leftovers. But ever since the triplets were born, that had been the norm for us. We had adapted to life on the crazy train of multiples and were doing pretty well staying ahead of the chaos that our three little whirlwinds created on a daily basis. Heck, I had survived the hardest seasons of overnight feedings and potty training and buckling 3 thrashing bodies into 5-point harnesses.
“Surely a little pain in my toe isn’t going to knock me out,” I reasoned.
So I kept going about my day, determined to walk off whatever was causing the trouble.
But within a week, the pain began to spread. To both my feet, then random spots in my legs and forearms and hands. Other strange sensations followed. Tiny shocks would race across my face like someone was holding a sparkler too close to my skin. My calf muscles would suddenly cramp into twisted charley horses if I stretched them out too far. And deep, throbbing aches radiating from my bones kept me on a constant Advil treadmill. I found myself spending as much time sleeping on the couch as possible because it was the only way to find relief from the terrible symptoms I was experiencing. And when I was awake, fears of Lyme’s disease, Lupus, and Rheumatoid Arthritis took my thoughts hostage.
I finally made an appointment to see the doctor and he ordered a full workup to test for the big concerns. In the meantime, he gave me a script for a heavy duty anti-arthritic which I only took once because the side-effects left me just as useless as the pain.
Stumbling out of bed in the morning, I managed to accomplish the bare minimum that a mom feels beholden to. But more and more, Bob was picking up the slack because it hurt too much to push the vacuum or carry the laundry baskets upstairs. I cooked but I stopped cleaning up the kitchen afterward. I grocery shopped but I didn’t unpack the bags. Every movement was gauged against how much pain it would cause. And I became increasingly irritable, short-tempered, and distant…not much of a mother or partner in marriage.
When the test results came back, they were both relieving and perplexing. None of the worst case scenarios were found. I did, however, have very low Vitamin D levels which could explain some of the symptoms. Taking a supplement would help, but other than that, the doctor only recommended getting more sleep and exercise and committing to better eating habits. It was conflicting news and I felt both deep gratitude and deep frustration, thankful for all the paths I didn’t have to walk but unsure of what direction to take next. All I knew was that my health was crumbling around me like a sand dune giving way to the pounding waves. I was desperate for something to turn the tide in my favor again.
Something had to give…health back to me and me back to my family.
I can clearly remember the first time that pain seared through my foot. But how do you mark the day when your heart begins to lose its appetite? It’s a slow wither that deepens over many weeks, months, seasons until one day upon waking up, you realize there’s no desire to seize the sunrise.
As a first-born type A, I always relished the tangled parts of my day that begged for organization: the coat closet and laundry room shelves, the Christmas card list, the endless piles of blue-blue-pink laundry. I loved to turn mountains into molehills and thrived on the sense of satisfaction that came with each check off my to-do list.
But somewhere along the way my resolute bulldozing began to dredge dread. Laundry piles began to block the stairs. Overdue thank you notes twiddled their thumbs uncomfortably on my desk. The bag of chicken nuggets that I kept in the freezer for emergency meals started to make a regular appearance on the week’s menu. And my desire to do anything about any of it faded like the old pair of sweatpants I wore around the house most days.
I don’t think it’s a stay-at-home mom problem or a working-mom problem. I think it’s just a mom fact. The act of bringing a new life - or lives - into your own circle of life expands and contracts the way you do life instantly, wonderfully, madly, irreversibly. The moment you’re handed that bundle of furious love, a thousand things becoming suddenly essential. And another thousand things become suddenly dispensable. But delineating the essence from the au revoir is a daily conundrum that frays and fatigues a mother’s heart. It’s an ageless irony that the love for a child which floods her full can also siphon off love…the love she has for her own dreams, passions, and talents. No wonder so many mothers are like unwashed piles of wine-stained laundry at the end of the week. Motherhood is the hardest, most thankless job we’d never quit. And yet we so often do quit. On ourselves.
As I reflected back over the 9+ years of motherhood which had piled up at my feet, I realized that so much of who I was had been shedding slowly, imperceptibly, like a cat losing its winter fur. I didn’t feel it happening because the days were still so busy. Homework and piano lessons, sports schedules and youth group at church. I never made a conscious choice to shrug off an entire layer of myself, but there it was lying at the edges of my day along with the Cheerio crumbs that had been brushed off the kitchen table. The dreamer, the doer, the dare-me-not-to Jen. Where was she? Would I ever see her again?
One day, while hobbling down the hallway on graceless morning legs, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and couldn’t connect with the reflection. I stared back at the face of a woman more weathered and carved than I ever expected 39 years to appear. I felt a little anger and I felt a little grief as the realization sunk in of just how far the sacrifice of myself had pulled me under. And then, of course, I felt a lot of guilt that I would even entertain such thoughts. My children, not me, were the carvings. Hand sculpted by God himself and sent for Bob and me to cherish and wonder over and love. Of course, I wouldn’t trade a fresh face or springed step for those three treasures. I would do it all again if necessary. The long wishing years of waiting for babies to arrive. The heavy, dangerous months of carrying them in my overloaded belly. The interminable sleepless nights of feeding and changing and rocking only to greet the dawn with my feet back at square one.
Every sapping moment was worthy of them. I would absolutely leak life again if necessary. But 9 years out, as I looked at that stranger in the mirror, I worried not only for myself, but also over them. Perhaps I had allowed the drain to swirl too much of me away. Perhaps I should have clung more tenaciously to a corner of my own heart while I emptied it building theirs.
I began to worry in new ways. What kind of mom were my children coming to recognize when their eyes caught daily glimpses of me? Did they assume that sweatpants, old t-shirts, and a ball cap stuffed over unkept hair was my preferred attire? Did they realize that before the chronic pain overtook them, my hands used to fly across the piano keys? Or that behind my clouded mind was a flood of words waiting to spill onto the page? They had never seen me engaged in my passion for teaching Shakespeare nor had they traipsed with me through old cemeteries as I traced the immigrant roots of our family tree. They had never known me in my days of charging boldly toward whatever mountain had dared to raise itself against me.
Because of this, I worried how the boys would learn to appreciate all the giftings that a woman brings to the home when their primary example grew increasingly languid in her own. And what kind of expectations about womanhood was my daughter absorbing from my robotic, bounded pathway through each day? How could I legitimately encourage each of them on their own journeys toward discovering bent and forte and gift when I had all but abandoned my own? That glance in the mirror was a turning point. I knew I couldn’t ignore the hypocrisy any longer.
Something had to give… passion back to me and a mountain climbing mother back to her children.
Something had to give…me a reminder that God’s plan is unique and a light for the end of my dark tunnel.
Anyone who spends time with me realizes pretty quickly that faith plays a leading role in my life and that of our family. I’ve been wearing my love for Jesus on my sleeve since I was a young girl and He’s walked with me down some pretty rough roads over the last four decades. He’s always been my constant anchor in the midst of engulfing waves…when I feared to hope in the face of miscarriage…when I trembled at the medical bills in the mailbox…when I choked back my tears as the nurse read the biopsy report and confirmed thyroid cancer. Each time, He found footing for us again and each time I swore I’d remember His faithfulness and I wouldn’t doubt Him when the next wave came knocking round our feet.
But there I was, on the cusp of 40, sinking faster than a stone, doubting His good plan again. I don’t know if it was because I felt responsible for the disrepair of my body. After all, I could have eaten fewer of those chicken nuggets or been more dedicated to at least some moderate exercise. Maybe it was because my whole life I’d heard that 40 is when things start falling apart and that dreams begin to ebb along with the body’s strength. Whatever the reason, I found myself struggling to believe that God was guiding me to a light at the end of my very dark tunnel. I prayed often for courage to believe there was going to be a recovery, for wisdom to know what direction it would come from, for someone to cheer me toward the finish line.
While I battled to keep my life from withering into a faded remnant, the kids’ interests were blooming. Matt loved anything that let him handle a ball and we found ourselves often at the baseball fields and basketball courts. Lauren had taken up piano lessons with a side of soccer and Josh had found his niche in Brazilian jiu jitsu. I was pleased to see each of them developing unique talents and pursuits and although it meant less time together at home, I was happy to tote them to all their lessons and games.
Many nights, that meant watching Josh train with his teammates at Renzo Gracie, a local martial arts academy where he was enrolled. I always brought along a book or sometimes a needlepoint project to work on. I tried to look as ordinary as possible, hoping no one would notice my pained eyes or formless shape.
Month after month, Josh trained while I sat…reading, stitching, praying, hoping. But one day I looked over at the boxing class and thought, “I’d like to try that.” And just as quickly as the words formed in my mind, another voice hushed me. “You’re crazy. You can’t even walk up the hill from the bus stop without your legs hurting you. How could you ever last in a class that hard?”
Right. And I put my head back down.
Another month went by and the thought came again. “I’d really like to try boxing.” The hushing voice came again. “That’s insane! You’re about to turn 40. No one just decides to start boxing at this age.” But before I could put my head down Karen, one of the owners of the gym, told me I was welcome to walk on the treadmill while Josh trained if I wanted to. And so the next class I brought my sneakers and I walked. Just casually. No incline or clipping pace. But it was the first morsel of physical victory I’d had in years. I still hurt terribly. My hands and legs throbbed and nerve endings pulsed with rage. I still felt unbearably limited but the next time I brought a water bottle and set the pace the slightest bit quicker. And I watched the boxing class intently as I treaded a second victory lap.
I spent several months just walking, pushing through sore muscles on top of the deep aches that I had grown accustomed to. Stretching my lock-jawed mind as much as my doddering legs, I battled the “reasonable” voice that told me to accept that my best days were behind me. There were so many arguments to support it…the schedule that was too packed to add another activity, the budget that was too tight to add another bill, the window of adventure that was too far closed for something as ridiculous as a 40-year old thinking she could hop around like a spring chicken again.
I walked, thinking maybe relief would more reasonably come from just putting one foot in front of the other. But the tiniest flicker of my former stubborn self had been fanned alive.
One night, at the end of Josh’s class, I summoned the courage to tell Karen that I had my eye on the boxing class. It was a scary moment and like toothpaste out of the tube, I knew I couldn’t put it back. Her upbeat reply gave no indication that I was crazed and so I was encouraged. I didn’t know when I’d have the actual chutzpah to set foot in the class. But the preposterous thought had morphed to a preposterous goal and that was another morsel of victory.
As I continued walking during Josh’s jiu jitsu classes, I talked with God about my fears, about the laughable idea of me actually boxing and why the thought was persisting if it were so absurd. Could He really be guiding me toward something so towering? Could the sure footing I had been praying for be not a prudent stepping stone but rather a headlong gigantic leap off the edge of the acceptable? Fears of failure and starting something I couldn’t finish tripped me up spiritually and I had to fight hard to silence the enemy’s sneering voice.
“You’ll never be in good enough shape to try that” had to be rebuked with “I can do all things with God’s help.” *
“You’ll look like a fool in the middle of all those guys. You don’t belong there” had to be reproved with “God is doing a new thing. He’s making a way through the wasteland.” *
“Give up this crazy idea and accept that your best days are behind you” had to be countered with “No. YOU get behind ME, Devil. You do not have the last word in my life.” *
Spiritual battles are always intense, often far more harrowing and exhausting than physical and emotional ones. This one proved to be such a case and it dragged on for the longest time. I was scared to accept that the path to my restoration might include boxing. It was too extreme, too unlikely an answer. But deep down inside, I knew well that God often takes us on the road less traveled because that’s where we rely completely on Him and end up with the greatest stories to share with others who are in the battle to believe. The fork in my road was imminent.
God ultimately kept His promise to be with me through all valleys and I found myself at last standing in the middle of Coach Mike’s boxing class with jump rope in hand, a ball of nerves and excitement about the adventure I was about to begin.
It was hard. There’s no sense in sugarcoating those early classes. Years of putting my own wellness on the back burner made for a formidable opponent and I crawled out of bed many mornings with a grimace and a grin. Muscles were sore, stretched, asked to do things they had long forgotten were possible. But the pain was a good pain, an encouraging pain even, and it soon overpowered the joint and muscle aches that had been crushing me. The physical results weren’t immediate but I had long ago stopped caring about numbers and sizes. My personal motto became, “Anything I do at the gym is more than I’m doing on the couch.” I reveled in the victory I gained after completing each class, regardless of how I looked in the mirror.
Another great benefit came as the kids saw me taking on a new challenge. They really didn’t know me in any capacity apart from our home, so seeing me in hand wraps and sweaty workout clothes was novel and strange and halting at first. They questioned me, worried about me a bit, but ultimately cheered me on. And my heart felt ease in knowing that their perceptions of what moms can do were broadened by my newfound passion and resolve to tackle my fitness goals. Ever so slowly, the old dare-me-not-to Jen was being excavated and every aspect of our family life was improving as a result.
Perhaps most importantly, my walk with God was realigned as I followed His lead down an unfamiliar and unexpected path. A lot of people asked me if I were having a mid-life crisis and some days, I honestly wondered the same. But there was no denying the fact that I felt a deep sense of peace about pursuing boxing and for the first time in years, I felt directed on a path to health instead of flailing about after the latest diet fad or exercise craze. I remembered His faithfulness again and saw His perfect plan, His uniquely tailored plan for me unfolding.
October marks my first year anniversary of training at Renzo Gracie and I’m so very thankful for all the coaches and teammates I get to work with there. Owners Rich and Karen are so positive and welcoming in every sense. All of my coaches are pros and they keep the classes interesting and challenging while still letting me ramp up as a beginner. There’s a great mix of students as well, men and women, younger and a handful older than me, but we all support and encourage each other through each training and no one goes home feeling like an outsider.
Boxing hasn’t turned out to be a fad for me but rather an important part of my week. That’s because it turned out to be a remedy, a next rung on the ladder, a confirmation that the tunnel does end in light. Muscle and joint pain has given way to strength. Clouded thinking and thoughts of defeat have given way to confidence. The doubts about recovery have given way to expectations of restoration. You’ll hardly ever find me on the couch these days and the only Advil I take now is after Coach Rich’s killer leg workouts! I’m just too busy dreaming, tackling, immersing myself in all of the good that each day holds.
Some of the Scripture anchors I use during dark tunnel days
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
*Proverbs 16:1People do the planning, but the end result is from the Lord.