To Remember

Family in NICU

Read through the early books of the Bible and take note of every time God commands Israel to remember what he has done for it: he even goes so far as to establish holidays, laws, and physical markers to help His people remember what the Lord has done and how he provided for and protected his nation.

We, too, ought to remember and share what the Lord has done for us.

The purpose of this post is not so much to tell a narrative of how my son, Theodore, came into this world. Rather, it is to provide a list for me to remember – and for my readers to also remember – what the Lord has done for my family in the most difficult week of my life.

When I was 31 weeks and 2 days pregnant with our son, the first gift we received in this unexpected scenario was the gift of information: while undergoing a level two ultrasound for a kidney issue we had found with our unborn baby, we happen to discover that the baby was not growing well. He was measuring about three weeks behind where he should have been, and his estimated size was in the 5th percentile. We were diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction and I officially had a high-risk pregnancy. We found out about his diagnosis purely by God’s grace – we were not looking for it, and I do not believe we would have found it until he was  born or until there was an emergency had we not gone in for that ultrasound that day.

[Intrauterine growth restriction (“IUGR”, for short) is a very rare (about 3% of all pregnancies) and potentially very dangerous condition in which an unborn baby is not attaining its growth potential for some unknown reason. It is found when a baby is measuring less than 10th percentile for its gestational age. There are literally hundreds of possible causes, but a common cause is an issue with the placenta and how it is providing nutrients to the baby.]

With our gift of information, we also received the gift of preparedness – not that we could anticipate exactly what would happen, but we were given the gift of being told to expect the unexpected. For example, when we received the diagnosis, I asked the doctor if they were just being overly cautious, or if I needed to get the nursery ready early. She told me to get the nursery ready early; which was excellent advice because I literally finished it the day before going to the hospital. It was extremely stressful not knowing if, at any one of my twice weekly appointments, I would be sent to the hospital to deliver my baby immediately, but it did help me get ready for the day when I got sent to the hospital 24 hours before we expected, and when I did not have a chance to go back to the office to wrap anything up, but went straight to the hospital from the courthouse instead.

Similarly, although I doubt there is any such thing as a “normal” birth, Theodore’s unusual delivery was covered by the gift of safety. Induction was painful, labor was long and exhausting, the monitors were itchy and tight, and the c-section recovery was deliriously difficult. But those 22 hours from when the induction was started Monday night, to when we met our son safely Tuesday evening were filled with an incredible medical team who did everything they could to keep he and I from harm. When we started labor, the nurses and doctors asked us if had a birth plan. I told them all that my birth plan was to get my baby here safely, and to keep me safe as well. Maybe they wanted more direction than that, but it was how I had always imagined I would handle labor, and particularly after being branded with a “high-risk”label. We prayed our doctors would know what to do, and that we could trust them every step of the way. When we were told the baby would not handle labor going on much longer, and that he could face serious danger if I didn’t have a c-section, we knew we were in the best hands and that God would keep us safe. And that is exactly what he did.

When I learned that our baby would come early and be small, I was afraid at how he would look. I was afraid he would be so small and scrawny that I would not find him beautiful or lovable, and that I would be scared to touch or hold him. When he was born, at only 4 pounds, 10 ounces, I was given the gift of love. Although I look back now and see how thin and small he was, at the time I felt no fear, and instead was filled with love for what I saw as the most beautiful boy in the world. Holding him was not frightening (although difficult) – but lovely and warm. I loved him from the moment I saw him, and was shocked at how beautiful he was.

Upon his birth, we learned that Theodore was given the surprising gift of “the good IUGR.” At all our growth scans since being diagnosed, we were told he had symmetrical IUGR – that is, his head, torso, arms, and femurs were all measuring at roughly the same percentile. There are two kinds of IUGR: asymmetrical and symmetrical, each with their own typical causes. With symmetrical, it is more likely there is a chromosomal abnormality or infection; asymmetrical means it is more likely a placenta issue, and the fetus kicks into “survival mode”, and concentrates development and nutrients to the brain because that is most essential. Before he was born, although I knew it was unlikely, I feared that he would have a long-term disability from whatever was causing his growth restriction. I even feared we would lose him to a trisomy abnormality. I prayed he would not have any such complication. The doctors were prepared to test him for several viruses when he was born to try to determine what caused his growth restriction, but when they measured him they found he has asymmetrical IUGR instead! Although his length was only 15th percentile, and weight was only 3rd percentile, his head was measuring at 45th percentile, which means while his body was small, God had protected his brain and had developed it well. It also meant they did not even have to test for the viruses because they new it was probably a placenta issue.

During our week in the hospital, we were given the unexpected gift of togetherness. Even though Theodore had to stay in the special care nursery and could not stay in our room with us, I prayed to God before he was born that we would not have to leave him in the hospital while we were sent home. I could not stand the thought of being even a 15 minute drive from my son – I needed to be with him as much as I could and prayed that God would give us that mercy. Sure enough, to our surprise, the hospital let us stay as boarders in a room just next to the nursery after I was discharged. We got to stay there as long as Theodore was a patient, at no cost to us. We were given a place that we could sleep, and shower, and a mini fridge to keep our food. And we were given the opportunity to go and see our son for every feeding, and to give him my milk for every meal. I was most thankful that I did not have to go home to an empty bassinet.

Since coming home with our 4 pound, 6 ounce warrior, Theo has been given the gift of growth. We have prayed and prayed that he would grow and thrive outside the womb, where the environment meant to protect him and help him develop instead progressively failed him. In his first week home, he grew to an astonishing 5 pounds, 3 ounces. One more week home – where we challenged him further by transitioning him from bottle-feeding to nursing – and he grew another 11 ounces. At one day past his due date, he was nearly 6 pounds. The doctor was practically speechless, and what was going to be a stressful schedule of weekly weigh-ins and adjustments as we watched for every ounce of gain instantly turned into, “Forget all of that – just come for his regular appointments! He is thriving.”

As Theodore grows and Massimo and I tell him over and over the story of the miracle of his birth and homecoming, I want him to know that none of it would have been possible without our gracious community. From my and my husband’s bosses, who, as small business owners did not have to even give us time off to welcome our child, but instead gave us both paid time off to care for each other and focus on our family; to the best nurses in the world, who loved and cared for our baby tirelessly while we could not be with him, but also never let him forget who his parents were, and supported us like their own family by making two clueless, sleepless first-time parents feel like every decision they made was the perfect choice; to our friends from near and far, especially the other compassionate NICU moms and those from our churches and town, who answered our questions, prayed for us, cheered us on, provided meals and funds to fill our bellies so we could focus on filling Theo’s; to our parents and siblings, who cleaned and stocked our home, brought us food, washed our laundry, clothed and diapered our little man, and wrapped our family with loving, joyful arms.

I do not want to leave the impression that these weeks have been full of nothing but sunshine and roses – other details of becoming parents include plenty of tears, desperate prayers, and throwing our arms up in confusion and frustration. But what could have torn us apart, what could have broken us and beaten us down to have to be built back up has instead brought us one of the richest times in our marriage. I look back on what we have already been through, and I can’t believe what we have had to plow up to sow new seeds. Delirious, the one thing I know is that must have worked extremely hard – though often unconsciously so – because we three are stronger than ever, and overflowing with gratitude as we remember how God made us this way.

-D. E. Barbi Bee

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It’s complicated

Actually, the technical term is “High Risk,” as in this mom just joined the honorable ranks of having a high risk pregnancy. It’s a title I have no interest in earning.

I am the fourth of eight children, so I have spent a fair share on my life around pregnant women, and women sharing their epic tales of bringing these little miracles into the world. For my mother and the majority of her family (a large sample size, encompassing some thirty-odd grandchildren), babies came late and babies were hefty. “Bos babies” we called them – usually in the 9-10 pound range. And generally healthy, which we always acknowledged as a blessing from the Lord.

My pregnancy began very normal and very healthy. Baby has always been measuring well, and apart from a small concern over dilated kidneys, everything was going swimmingly. I felt amazing (still do), and wondered what all the fuss was about over how awful pregnancy can be. I never got sick my whole pregnancy, and sleep was harder for my husband than for me.

Given how things were going, and my family history, I fully expected a huge, late baby, just like my mom had. I was just shy of 10 pounds at birth, and my husband was just over 8. My biggest concern was whether or not the doctors would let me go beyond 41 weeks and wait for spontaneous labor. I registered for larger clothes, assuming the baby would never even squeeze in newborn clothes and would fly through to 3-month outfits. I completely ignored my due date and just assumed I would go well beyond, attempting to prepare myself for that “home stretch” I had always been warned about.

For that reason, when 31 weeks rolled around, I presumed I had ten weeks left – at least. I saved all the baby prepping for the very end, assuming I would have tons of time on my hands waiting around and would need something to occupy myself. I had no baby stuff, no baby furniture, the car isn’t ready, I’ve taken no classes, and the bag isn’t packed. I had time, and I was pacing myself. My baby shower was anticipated to be late in August, three weeks before my due date – later than usual, but August was a busy time for my family and it was most convenient.

Thursday, July 13, all that changed dramatically.

By the grace of God alone, we happened to schedule a Level II ultrasound for July 13. As I mentioned, the baby’s kidneys had been very *slightly* dilated consistently since our 19-week anatomy scan. At that time, the doctor said that dilation could have been a marker for down’s syndrome, but thought it was unlikely. After prayer and consideration, we decided the test for down’s syndrome was too risky, and it wouldn’t change anything for us. We decided to put off any special testing and just monitor it.

We had gotten a number of follow-up ultrasounds, and the dilation remained consistent. The doctor recommended at that point it was more likely to be a slight blockage, and suggested we simply take a closer to look to determine if we should consult with a pediatric urologist about care after birth. Worst case (and least likely) scenario, there was some kind of blockage and the baby would have to have surgery to relieve it.

At that point, we felt like we were not acting out of fear, and rather felt clear-headed going in to get the Level II ultrasound. We felt that it would be wise to meet the specialist now, so we could see if we are comfortable with him or her in the event the baby needed treatment.

The truth is, God had been guiding us and leading us ever since the 19 week scan to get to this appointment, because what we learned there was a total coincidence and we would not have found it if we got the Level II after the initial 19 week scan, or if we had taken any different course of action.

On July 13, we sat down and the doctor took all her measurements: kidneys, heart, spine, umbilical chord, blood flow, amniotic fluid levels, head, torso, femur, arms – everything. We came into her office and sat down for her report.

The good news is, the kidneys are very very slightly dilated, and it is something she is not worried about. It is a very common occurrence, and will simply be checked on again once the baby is born; they usually clear themselves up. She didn’t even find it necessary to refer to us a specialist because she found the possibility of requiring surgery was so remote. We were relieved, and it was what we expected. We we still relieved.

But then the meeting wasn’t over. She informed us the baby was measuring smaller than she would like. She double-checked that I had my due date correct: September 12. She informed us that the head, femur, and torso size were all measuring in the 5th percentile for its gestational age (I was 31 weeks, 2 days; baby was measuring at about 29 weeks, 4 days). She advised us that any time the baby measures less than the 10th percentile, that’s a red flag. And this is a problem.

It could indicate the baby is not getting sufficient nutrients from the placenta, so the baby needs to be watched very closely from here on out because a placenta problem increases the risk of stillbirth. Her recommendation is daily fetal kick monitoring, and twice-weekly nonstress tests, along with weekly ultrasounds.

Needless to say, we were overwhelmed.

I had my regular doctor’s appointment scheduled for the very next afternoon, and wanted to make sure she got the report in time to discuss this all with me then. When I went in to meet with her, I was very much hoping for advise along the lines of “This is a precaution/ it’s very common/we could be wrong/we are just being careful.” That is not what happened.

She told me my baby has been diagnosed with symmetrical intrauterine growth restriction: in layman’s terms, the baby is not growing well and they don’t know why. (My cousin Hannah – RN extraordinaire – says, “You have a crappy placenta and a small baby.”) It’s very rare and very serious.

I asked my questions and got my answers:

  1. Why is this happening? What can I do to help? Answer: We don’t know and there is nothing you can do because you didn’t do anything wrong. You eat right, moderately exercise, don’t smoke or do drugs. Not even bedrest or changing your diet would do anything. You have gained 30 pounds already this pregnancy – you are not malnourished! It’s just not getting where it needs to go.
  2. Could you just have my due date wrong? Answer: I’m confident with the due date. The first two measurements at 10 weeks and 19 weeks are the most accurate calculation of that due date, and the baby was measuring within just a few days of what we set then based on your last cycle. The due date is not off, and certainly not by this much. Similarly, although there is always a margin of error in ultrasounds, a margin this significant is not the culprit. There is something going on.
  3. Are we just being careful here, or do I need to make sure the nursery is ready early? Answer: You need to make sure the nursery is ready early. And you should move up that baby shower.

That afternoon, we decided to start steroid injections to encourage lung development in the event I would have to deliver early. I walked across the street to the hospital and monitored the baby with a nonstress test and took my first shot. The next shot was administered 24 hours later. I got my aggressive schedule of appointments, scheduled all the way through September 8, but my being pregnant still on September 8 was a long shot at best.

In a matter of 24 hours, my whole life had gotten turned upside-down. I hardly knew how to feel, but I felt everything. I still do.

I went from fully expecting a late, fat baby to hoping I get a live baby. The doctor set a target date for me to keep the baby inside until I can hit 37 weeks – August 22. The first milestone before that is 34 weeks – the date at which I can still deliver at my local hospital instead of UCONN. But even before that, every day, and every hour, the baby is inside, presumably growing but certainly moving – is a miracle and I am grateful for every one. Every kick, I tell the baby it’s doing a great job and encourage it. I have no idea if this is sane or not but it’s all I have.

In a matter of a couple of days, my family has already come together with helping hands to prepare for this baby which apparently could make an appearance at any time. My mother and sister-in-law – a new mother herself – cleaned and prepared the dresser for the baby and gathered up the smallest clothes they have (my niece Luciana – a little miracle, too – has already outgrown some things!). My father and brother worked on my new car to get it ready. My other sisters took me out to dinner, and then went and bought newborn clothes for our little miracle. I had nothing small enough for an early, small baby.

My boss has also been insanely supportive. Word-for-word his email to me after I gave him latest update was “You and the baby come first, no exceptions.” I have friends and family praying for us and offering us any support we need. Can God bless us anymore?

My goals at this point are to focus on gratitude, balance, and taking things one day at a time. Every day the baby is in there, we are doing better. I am two days shy of 32 weeks. We are already SO much farther than SO many premature babies who end up doing SO well. We live in an area with some of the best medical facilities in the world, and in a time when babies born well before this point are brought up healthy and well. We have amazing doctors in whom I have great confidence; the OB who discovered the problem and my regular OB were calling and texting each other all day to make a plan for me and discuss my test results. It is very reassuring to have a team on my side.

Then there is the miracle and God’s timing in all of this, and the fact we discovered it at all. Normally, we would not have had a growth ultrasound at this point. The only reason we were there that day is because of what turned out to be an inconsequential kidney question, which we did not address earlier. If we hadn’t learned about this problem now, we would not have nearly as many options as we do at this point and who knows what emergencies we would find ourselves in. God has already been guiding us and leading us to this place, and he is still in control now. We get to check the baby all the time, and get to hopefully see problems before they get out of hand.

The other good news is that I am perfectly healthy. I have no signs of pre-eclampsia (something that could accompany or cause IUGR), and no diabetes. There is no immediate risk to me, and that means time is on our side. Until the baby starts showing signs of distress, or the growth drops off, the baby is safe in there and I am in no danger. That is fantastic.

I woke up at 3:00 am this morning and couldn’t sleep until after 4:30. I wait to feel every kick and every squirm. I had heartburn and was grateful for it: hopefully it means the baby is growing enough to interfere with my digestion! I am probably one of the few pregnant women who wishes she had more stretch marks, and longs for the scale to rise. The irony is, whenever I told people my September due date,  they would always sigh and say, “Oh you have to make it through the SUMMER! That’s rough.” Now, I wish I had it rough. I am completely serious. This pregnancy has been so easy on me and I am so small; I am not swollen or uncomfortable. Other than the anxiety this is causing me, sleep is not a problem at all. At first I thought everyone was just being very negative and it bothered me; now I find myself hoping they are right.

It is very strange what a few hours and a few doctors appointments do to your perspective.

The last piece of my mental strategy is balance. It is very easy to go to extremes with a “high risk” label and news such as this. On the one hand, I could be cavalier and just deny there is anything to be worried about. But every medical professional I have consulted with advises me I am not going to carry to m, and the steps we are taking are responsible and reasonable and the best things to do. I don’t want to take the shots, turn my house and my job upside down to try to get ready for this baby early, and spend hours upon hours in doctors appointments. I don’t want an early induction or c-section. I wanted a totally different situation, but that will not be best for the baby and there are reasonable things to do in response to this news.

On the other hand, I could become obsessed. I find myself already shutting down the search browsers to hunt for more information. I cannot dwell. It does no good and I need balance. It is no good for my marriage and it is no good for my health. I want to maintain – for now – as much normalcy as possible. I asked Massimo that we not give up the other hobbies, appointments, and events we have already scheduled, out of a hyper-focus on the “what if” in our heads all the time. We are going to go to work Monday morning, and leave in the evening. He is at a hunting course today to work towards getting certification for his first bow hunting season this fall. He finished his guitar Friday. I am going to plan on going to my friend’s bridal shower next weekend. I am going to make grocery shopping lists and go on dates and try to maintain my sanity as long as I can. The unknown is the hardest part, but clearing my schedule won’t change that.

At this point, I am emotional and worried. But trying to stick with my plan: gratitude, balance, taking things step by step. I appreciate prayers, and offering this little one to God is all I have. The more I consider the miracles of his timing, and his creation inside me, the more my heart is overwhelmed by his mercy. I am mostly telling this story to ask for prayer, and to explain if I seem out of it. Also, to explain why I might suddenly drop off the face of the planet. It is not personal, and the network of prayer and love the Internet provides will be greatly appreciated every step of this journey.

Keep Baby Barbi in prayer. Thank you.

How I Built a Professional Maternity Wardrobe Without Breaking the Bank

In the first several weeks and months of my pregnancy, I was so anxious to know the baby was growing well, that any weight gain and hint of a baby belly was a welcome discovery. Sure, my clothes fit a little tighter and my key professional pieces got less comfortable every time I wore them, but that was exactly what was supposed to happen.

Now in my sixth month, there are only a few non-maternity articles still in rotation (including my suit I bought when I first became an attorney, and before I lost twenty pounds of “Bar Exam Weight”; it is 2017: what’s old is new again!). Every day, getting dressed is a new challenge; it is hardly even useful to lay out an outfit the night before, because if baby decides to flip overnight, it may not fit any more!

Desperately searching the great Internet Library for wardrobe ideas, I was disappointed that most maternity wardrobe advice fell into two categories: (1) Wear leggings, t-shirts,a and elastics on your jeans all the time; or (2) Spend all your money on a completely new wardrobe you will use for the next ten months!

We all want to look like Amal Clooney, but what is a young professional to do? I have to look grown-up and put together, but I am not interested in investing hundreds or even thousands into clothes I will only wear for the next six months! Couple my budget constraints with the fact that many clothing lines simply do not offer enough options for female attorneys in general, let alone specific maternity wear, I had to get creative. Although I still have a lot of growing to do, I have already learned a few tips and tricks you might find helpful when building your professional maternity wardrobe, while staying within a reasonable budget.

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You can be surprised by the versatility of some non-maternity items in your closet – or someone else’s! This open blazer looks sharp without putting pressure on your ever-growing torso by foregoing a button closure. Via Kohl’s.

1. Accept hand-me-downs with gratitude.

I have the joy and pleasure of having a close friend who’s pregnancy slightly overlapped with my own. She just had her baby girl two weeks ago, and has been graciously sharing her maternity clothes with me as she outgrows them or simply doesn’t have a use for them any more. She was especially helpful because she worked in an office during her first pregnancy, so she supplied my first pairs of dress pants and blouses for the office. Even though some pieces I may not find useful because of fit, style, or the particular season, many of her hand-me-downs have helped fill critical gaps in my wardrobe and saved the day when I was waiting for purchased clothes to arrive in the mail! I have been so blessed by her generosity and look forward to the day when I will get to pay it forward by sharing my clothes with someone else.

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2. Shop at home first, and then slowly.

In my experience it is a good idea to wait and see what you will need as you go along, rather than filling the online (or real) shopping cart as soon as the test turns blue. In fact, when I looked in my own closet first, I found at least a half-dozen shirts that will work well during every month of pregnancy, two skirts that will probably fit up until the end, and a couple of pairs of leggings that will be well-worn during this period. After I bought my first round of maternity clothes and wore them for a couple of months, I began to notice where there were gaps in my collection. In my first maternity haul, I focused on dresses, thinking they would be a versatile all-in-one outfits. However, after a few weeks of, “Getting dressed would be so much easier if I just had a pencil skirt,” I knew buying that one piece would go far! I realized that although my work dresses were helpful, I needed a few more bottoms so I could mix and match for even more outfits. If I bought too many dresses at first, I would have wasted money on things that did not turn out to be as useful as I thought.

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Stores like Target and Old Navy update their collections often with each season, so check back frequently for styles that go on sale. This slightly less summary top may not be what you want at a barbecue, but it is perfectly work appropriate in your air conditioned office! Via Target.

3. Sales Sales Sales – have I mentioned Sales?

I am not one to pay full price for anything, anyway, but that is especially true when shopping for what will turn out to be – let’s face it – a temporary wardrobe. I know I will continue to wear these after the baby comes for several months, but ultimately I will look funny in pleated shirts and ruched dresses. My go-to place has been Old Navy, but I have also gotten a few pieces from H&M. Old Navy has insane sales and you can practically steal clothes with the deals and discounts they always send to your inbox. I don’t usually like Old Navy for key articles because they are not known to endure for the long-haul, but that is perfect when I am only looking for clothes to last me six months or so! So far, I have spent about two hundred dollars in total on maternity clothes, which has gotten me:

  • two court-appropriate work dresses
  • three slightly less dressy but work-appropriate dresses
  • black dress pants
  • black pencil skirt
  • floral printed t-shirt
  • maternity tankini top
  • sleeveless plain top
  • sleeveless patterned top
  • wireless bra

Twelve items for two hundred dollars means each item cost an average of sixteen dollars. Am I a genius, or what?

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You cannot go wrong with a little black dress – especially this one, which has a button opening to assist in nursing. Via Old Navy.

4. Get the most wear out of every purchase. 

For professional women like me, our “around the house/running errands/weekend” clothes are the exception, not the rule. Maternity jeans, leggings, and flowy sweaters are not going to cut it in court, closings, and client meetings – as comfortable as they may be! It is a challenge, but I have to resist the comfy, casual maternity clothes that are so easy to find. Instead, when at home and on the weekend, I have opted to wear the things I already have (even though they might not fit the best), hand-me-downs, and the few articles I bought that work well for both the office and home.

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This is exactly the kind of dress that is casual enough for a throw-on and go Saturday, but I can also wear with the right accessories and cardigan at the office. Via Old Navy.

A couple of dresses I bought are casual enough that they can be worn to my sister’s birthday party, and then dressed up with accessories and a blazer for the office. It is worth it to me to spend money on the pieces I will wear from 9-5 every day, and then hack it for the rest of the time.

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The mandarin collar on this top is just enough to make it interesting, and the bright color exudes confidence and sophistication. Via H&M

5. Style is in the details: collar, color, and cut.

The most polished look one can wear is a tailored suit, but there is no way I am spending hundreds on a dry-clean only suit, which – if tailored properly – will not even last me through my pregnancy! I needed to switch to stretchier fabrics, but remain polished. How does one fake the tailored look? The details: collars, colors, and cut. A collar or bow on even the loosest-fitting shirt looks instantly more groomed. You will be surprised by the casual brands that still carry shirts with a mandarin collar, a lower-maintenance version of the traditional. If your tops don’t have a collar, add the structure with an open blazer (even a non-maternity one without buttons will provide the collar effect with comfort).

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A shirt like this will take you far, with it’s classic look and color, even without a blazer. This is all-cotton, although it is a denim weave, providing additional structure. Via Target.

As for colors, I like to stick with solid black on the bottom and a bold shirt. This not only makes the shirt more memorable (making it easier to re-wear the bottom even the next day), but the contrast adds a bold confidence. I like sophisticated patterns like stripes or large floral. Otherwise, I tend towards colors that are timeless and serious: maroon, white, and light blue are appropriate for every season.

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This bold print makes the outfit interesting, even without heavy jewelry. A solid pant or skirt and white or light blue cardigan complete the look. Via Old Navy.

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Just like your non-maternity wardrobe, you will need basics to mix and match. I prefer a boot-cut to the slim ankle, because my ankles already tended to be too large for them before pregnancy. Via Gap.

Finally, cut. It is shocking to me that anyone would design a short maternity dress. As if I want one more thing to worry about while navigating pregnancy, let’s add, “Don’t flash everyone!” to the mix. This is something to be particularly aware of when buying from budget brands: they tend to take short-cuts (literally) on length. I do not buy dresses that are described as hitting “above the knee.” I similarly do no buy maxi-style dresses online, because if they are not quite long enough, they look too juvenile.

As for body-con versus empire waist, it depends on how loose the particular dress or shirt is made. I cannot wear a spandex bandage to court, but a billowy sack would also not send the right message. My favorite professional look has been somewhere in-between: an empire waist, but a slightly more fitted skirt. It provides a nod to my pre-maternity favorite (pencil skirt), without being too stuffy or tight. The fabric is key here: a jersey cotton is not going to give you the structure that a polyester blend can.

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This is a fantastically bold color and the cut is perfect: just long enough. The detail at the waist makes it slightly more fitted, without being shockingly tight. Via Old Navy.

“More” is not always “Better”

In a culture where everything is disposable, the latest is a necessity, and bigger is better, it can be difficult to explain why you may find your self valuing “less” over “more.” It is counter-intuitive, but the effort of consciously rejecting the “more” mentality has advantages.

This exact challenge has presented itself in at least four different circumstances in the last week alone. Each time, it was absolutely true that “more” was not “better,” but this seeming contradiction had to be explained nonetheless. As much as we like to think we are logical beings, the most certain truths can seem upside-down at first. It is worth the fight to flip our heads over again.

When requesting additional time to file a court brief.

I am involved in a proceeding at the moment in which we find ourselves in the briefing phase. We submitted our brief, and the other side submitted their’s, and now our brief in response thereto is coming due soon.

Under ordinary rules, our brief is due twenty days after the other side filed its brief. However, because it was filed on a Thursday, we did not receive our copy until the following Monday, essentially robbing us of four days of precious time. We requested an additional ten days from the Court in which to file our reply brief, and after notifying the client, he asked (justifiably), “Why so little time? I want more. We gave them two extensions!”

He was correct: when the other side was filing its brief, we consented to two extensions of time for them to finish. We consented for two reasons: first, not consenting was pointless because they would probably get the time anyway, and it is not the sort of thing to make an argument over because we will want them to return the favor some day (like right now, for example). Second, we were in no rush: they needed the time to get it done and we had no deadlines in which to get this case resolved. Why press them if there is no reason? Save the fight for a day that matters.

But my client was not correct that more time is better. Just because they had more time, does not mean we needed it. Sometimes, especially when assembling a reply brief, you can end up damaging your argument by re-writing and pouring over the document too many times. The longer you have to wrestle with it, the further you stray from the key points. The judge can get lost in your rabbit trail, and you become less effective. Plus, more time puts the pressure on us to finish it. If we have two months to finish, other pressing matters will probably require us to let it sit for six weeks before we start work. By closing the window of working time, we make this a priority and we are forced to get it done.

When looking at houses to buy.

We are in the early/potential house-buying phase, and are having trouble finding a house that is the right size for us. While we have a baby on the way, and plan to have ??? more baby/ies, under no circumstances are we interested in a 2,000 square foot plus house.

We saw one house that had 2,500 square feet of living space, and we would still have to add on to build Massimo’s workshop. Although the house was brand new and well-made, we could not get over how huge it was. We simply could not justify it.

People kept telling us, “Well, you will have more kids, and they will grow and need more space,” or, “You will be shocked how quickly the space fills up! You will need it!” And while that could very well be the case some day, for now, the cost was too great and we could not justify the expense of all that space: buying all that square footage, heating/cooling all that square footage, paying taxes on all that square footage, cleaning all that square footage.

Then there is the mentality of having a large home. I tend to think that stuff is like goldfish: that is, it will fill the space of the home in which it lives. When I was younger, I could fit everything I needed in my Corolla and brought it back and forth to college twice a year. Of course, marriage, parenting, and home ownership will bring additional necessities, but I believe there is still virtue in limiting the accumulation of things. And the more space you have for things, the more things you will have, in my experience.

When my sister is making her wedding registry.

My beautiful, brave sister is getting married in August, and will promptly be moving to Germany to join her new husband at his Air Force Base. This makes the concept of a wedding registry particularly challenging. The big and little things one would typically request seem silly. “Why would I pay to ship that over to Germany?” she rightfully asks. She is one hundred percent correct: shipping a bath mat and soap dishes would be ridiculous. So she had to get creative.

First, she had to decide whether or not she even wanted a registry. What she really needs is money, to buy the things a registry would ordinarily supply once she lands in Europe. But people don’t really like wrapping cash, so there is something to be said for providing at least options to those inclined to shop, so she does not end up with a dozen crystal bowls for which she has no purpose.

Second, she had to decide what was worth it enough for her to request. While dozens of hand towels may not be worth it, this might be her only chance to ask for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, which she will have to patiently wait to use when she comes back state-side.

Ultimately, she started to get creative with it: she will have a different life in Germany, hopefully filled with once-in-a lifetime opportunities to travel and experience unique places. She decided to include AirBnB vouchers and travel gear on her registry: items she would actually get use out of. Sure, she can also include dish sets and sheets, some of which will stay here for her when she returns, but there is virtue in curating a wishlist that – though not traditional – will provide her much more joy than ordinary “stuff” might.

When collecting baby gear.

Babies are small, but grow fast. Nothing grows faster, however, than baby stuff. At the moment, I have not an atom of baby gear in my home (it is all at my parents’ and in-laws), but this little person will make an appearance in just four short months, and so will its gear.

I have gotten in more than one debate with other parents over what gear is “absolutely essential.” For some reason, like all baby advice, opinions and facts often confuse each other. (We often laugh about how similar pregnancy is to engagement, when marriage advice was dealt with the same resolution. But that is for another post.) The facts are that everyone is different, every baby is different, and what you loved or hated, our family could have the opposite reaction to. But thank you for the input, we will take it under advisement.

As of this moment, I have no idea where we will be living when we have this baby, but I have come around to the reality that we could be living in our one-bedroom apartment for at least some time. With that reality, I have attempted to whittle down our “necessities” list, which has been met with criticism. But we are trying to stand our ground, because our reasons for not wanting to live in a crowded Babies “R” Us store are many fold.

First, we value space and time over comfort. While many items are cute, clever, and maybe even extremely helpful, we have to balance those virtues against the space and time they will consume. Space is easily determined, but time is more abstract. Time is consumed when selecting or collecting the item, setting it up, cleaning it, repairing it, moving and storing it when it gets in the way, and eventually determining where it will go once the baby (inevitably and quickly) grows out of it. With both parents working full-time, there are some things that are just not worth that time.

[As a note on this, the “cleaning” part deserves a moment of attention. Many of us don’t think about the time spent maintaining our stuff. This is a consideration I came across in reading about minimalism that resonated with me, and is especially true since we have no dishwasher or washing machine. Everything we clean is cleaned by hand, which takes a lot longer. Appliances and gear which pride themselves on being “dishwasher safe” are not in the slightest attractive, especially when I see its odd nooks and crannies I will have to clean by hand! Laundry takes three times as long as someone with a washer in her house, because we have to sort it, pack it in the car, drive it to my parents’ house, binge through as many loads as possible in an afternoon, load it up, drive it back, fold it, and put it away. And all that while not being able to simultaneously sleep or do other chores, as those who do laundry in their own home can. The less high chair covers, changing table pads, and play mats are in that laundry, the better!]

Second, babies grow so fast. Like seriously, so fast. Some “essential” items are literally only in use for a month or so before they are useless! This pregnancy has already gone by so fast, I cannot imagine how quickly that first year will fly. I would so rather spend my time with my baby playing and learning, than constantly switching out baby gear he or she has outgrown. Since we don’t have space for all the first year stuff, our home will feel like a rotating storehouse of equipment if we collect items for every stage. Instead, we try to focus on things the baby will need for several months, and which can grow with the baby for years!

Third, a lot of “stuff” comes with other “stuff,” and so the cycle continues. Some baby gear is not just the gear itself, but the covers, mattresses, sheets, decorations, extensions, extra parts, etc. etc. etc. All that stuff really adds up! And again, all that stuff will also need to consume time and space, and need to be cleaned. We are not interested. Instead, we like to focus on items that are already complete, and don’t require add-ons to be truly useful. By eliminating one item that comes with add-ons, you actually eliminate a dozen items!

Sometimes, more is just more.

15 answers for 15 weeks

  1. I am due in September.
  2. I am actually seeing it as a positive that I will “have to make it through the summer.” I have fewer pregnancy clothes to buy, won’t have to lace shoes or even put on socks. I will wear dresses and flats, and live in either air conditioning or the pool. #winningallday
  3. I am now in my second trimester, but had an extremely easy first. I never got sick, dealt with a few weeks of exhaustion and mild nausea if I didn’t put some food in my mouth every couple of hours, and that was it. I got my energy back well before my second trimester started and had such an easy pregnancy, and I was pretty shocked when the doctor actually found a kid in my belly!
  4. I feel amazing. Every once in a while, I get worried or anxious. I had bad heartburn for a few days that is now under control. I literally cannot tell you how easy this has been so far and how insanely thankful we are for that. No trips to the emergency room, no special instructions. Just a boring,  easy pregnancy. Thank you, Lord!
  5. It doesn’t matter if it was “planned,” does it?
  6. We don’t know the baby’s sex.
  7. We won’t find out until it is born.
  8. We don’t think we are stronger or better or have more will power than those that do find out. We want to be surprised for ourselves.
  9. The nursery does not have a color because there is no nursery. We do not know where we will be living when the baby arrives, and if it is our current home the bassinet will hopefully fit in the corner.
  10. We will both return to work outside the home after the baby is born.
  11. We are extremely grateful to be surrounded by supportive family, all of whom are fighting over how much free babysitting they will be allowed to provide. We are overwhelmed by love and support!
  12. We do have names picked out. Ask next time I see you and I will be happy to share.
  13. I do not know how this baby will be fed, but it will be fed.
  14. We accept all offers of free baby supplies. Between my brother’s baby, our home, my parents’, and my in-laws, I can almost guarantee every item will be well-used and appreciated! And we promise to pass along any extras to others in need.
  15. We are super excited and blessed. Massimo is already an amazing father and takes care of me and loves us like crazy. We are enjoying every day left before we have a child to tote around, but also greatly looking forward to meeting this little person. #humblebragpro

-D. E. Barbi Bee

Letters Sent to My Congressional Representatives

The following represents the text of a letter I sent today to Senators Blumenthal and Murphy, as well as Representative Courtney. It remains to be seen if this idea gains any traction as a result of my contact, but if they do respond I will be sure to update.

Health care is a disaster, at least insurance is for my family. I have lost too much sleep over this crisis and there is too much wrong to fix in one letter. This is one small, but significant way to at least start and fix the mess the Affordable Care Act has made for my family.

Dear [Legislator]:

My name is Deborah Barbi. I live in your district with my husband, Massimiliano. I am twenty-six years old and work as an attorney, while my twenty-five year old husband works for a luthier. We have bought our health insurance through Access Health CT for several years, and have used advanced premium tax credits to help afford our high-deductible plans.

When I graduated from law school, I faced approximately $67,000.00 in government-subsidized student loans. My husband and I made a commitment to pay these back as quickly as possible, even though it would be a significant financial burden and would delay our being able to buy a house. We have made every payment, and then some, so far in our ten-year payback plan. We would have faced significant consequences if we did not make our payments, and we are glad we are aggressively repaying our debt.

Nevertheless, when I prepared to file our income taxes for 2016, we felt we were being punished by the tax code for paying our student loans while we save up for our home. We have been hit with a tax bill of over $3,000.00, nearly $2,000.00 of which is to repay advanced premium tax credits. The problem, for us, lies in the student loan interest deduction.

The student loan interest deduction is significantly different than the mortgage interest deduction in small but significant ways. And while I appreciate the tax code has recognized a benefit for those young working adults like me for paying off our debts, it would be much more impactful and more equitable if the deduction was treated just as the mortgage interest deduction.

There are two key differences between these deductions, which worked to create a monumental tax liability for my family this year. The student loan interest deduction is an above the line deduction, which tax payers can claim whether they itemize other deductions or not. While this sounds good in theory (especially compared to the mortgage interest deduction which must be itemized to be claimed) it does not compensate for the cap put on the benefit. While homeowners can claim every dollar they spent on their mortgage interest paid last year, students can only claim up to $2,500.00 in interest.

I paid nearly $7,000.00 in student loan interest last year. Again, that is money I was obligated to pay, and was willing to pay to get out of debt. It is money I no longer have, and yet the majority of it is still considered income I have lying around for health insurance premiums and taxes. For most young adults, the student loan payments function like a mortgage, and most of us have to choose between making those payments and buying a house. So why did I pay $4,500.00 in interest for which I received no tax benefit? The government gives great aid to both students and homeowners. The two debts – and consequently the two tax deductions – function almost the same in our society. If they are so similar, why have I been penalized for paying one, while I would be rewarded for paying the other?

The other way these two deductions should be identical but end up being drastically different is their role in calculating our family’s modified adjusted gross income. As you know, one’s MAGI determines whether one qualifies for Medicaid, and how much one may receive in tax credits to help pay for private insurance on the health care exchange. There are only a few deductions which help reduce one’s overall income to determine her MAGI; the mortgage interest deduction and student loan interest deduction are two such figures.

Once again, though, homeowners are at a significant advantage over students when it comes to affording health insurance. My MAGI would have been lowered by $4,500.00 last year if I was able to claim all of the student loan interest paid, rather than the arbitrary cap of $2,500.00. Significantly, I would be able to reduce my MAGI by every dollar I spent on mortgage interest, but not on my student loan interest. As a result, I have an artificially inflated MAGI, have had to pay back advanced premium tax credits, and may not qualify for HUSKY this year.

This year we are expecting our first child. Connecticut, thankfully, has a great Medicaid program for pregnant women. Unfortunately, I may not qualify for Husky A for pregnant woman because of just a few thousand dollars – a difference that would be eliminated if I were able to deduct all of the student loan interest I actually pay, rather than just the first third.

I know it is not a particularly glamorous of flashy issue; it is a minute, intellectual accounting difference that happens to have wide-spread and magnificent impacts on the life and health of my family.

If at all possible, please consider working to make the student loan interest deduction treated the same as the mortgage interest deduction. It would literally change our lives

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your efforts to help our family.

Sincerely,

Deborah L. Barbi, Esq.

5 Reasons Young Attorneys Are Better

I get it, I am young. I have reached the end of many meetings and consultations to be asked on the way out, “So, how old are you?” And when the room is full of people bonding over the challenges of calculating Medicare benefits, they do not always find my presence as obviously ridiculous as I do. They usually get snarky about my age.

But it is not all bad. This kid, the fresh meat that is advising You: a business owner three times her age, on tax and liability matters may not be your favorite experience, or one you ever imagined as the ideal. But I believe there are several distinct advantages to having a young attorney that I urge you should consider. I have made it easy for you and listed them below.

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Stock photos are going to make this post funnier, I promise. He looks scared, but you should not be scared of young attorneys.

1. We start everything from scratch.

You may be confused as to why it is better to start something from scratch, when a well-seasoned counselor can re-use her prior work for your case. Yes, it will take them less time and they will be less stressed about it. But here is the advantage of staring over: things change, procedures get updated, laws are removed and re-written, and forms are created. When a new lawyer gets a problem they have never seen, they start from the beginning: we check the latest statutes and cases, and then find out what, if there is, a form we need to use. When we start over from the beginning, we create the most up-to-date product and arguments. It takes more time, but it feels good to know something the older attorneys don’t. And the Court’s don’t care how much experience you have; they want accuracy and they want things done their way. I have gotten complimented by the Chief Clerk of the Middletown Superior Court that he had never seen anyone put as much careful effort into drafting a judgement file as I had!

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Look how fun we are! We get along with everybody!

2. We don’t have bad blood with anyone.

Although the Connecticut Bar is a professional, courteous institution, there are occasional tiffs that arise between colleagues. It is not uncommon for a new attorney to take the place that would typically be occupied by her superior because the attorney on the other side does not get along with said superior. We are still meeting everyone, so we have no reputation to precede us. When we introduce ourselves to a judge or work with another lawyer, their opinions are blank slates. Most often, that works in our favor. And you never have to worry about someone taking out a past beef on you and your case.

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See how we can creepily stare you down? It is one of our gifts. We are trying to hypnotize you.

3. We are careful as ever.

This goes along with the “starting from scratch,” but also includes the fact that we are not prone to taking big risks because of over confidence. We are cautious, and careful. We try to be courteous and considerate. It usually makes people like us more, which helps us get away with things a jerk might not. Judges tend to like us because we treat every case with extreme importance because every one is our “first [situation]”, and are usually over-prepared. While other attorneys can do “small stuff” in their sleep, we lose sleep over the most inconsequential details. It helps us make fewer mistakes and makes us the most alert person in the courtroom.

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Staring into the future – our future.

4. We are up to date on the latest trends.

We are the most recent graduates from law school, where we learned the latest trends and developments in all areas of the law. While the more experience members of the Bar have the history and the, “When I was starting out, it was like this…” (which are great and interesting stories, don’t get me wrong!), but we have the now, which is what matters to you now. We know what has been happening and where it is headed. Law doesn’t change overnight, developments usually start on one of the coasts, jump to the other, and then start popping up in places like Ohio and Texas, before trickling down to others. We learned and continue to read up about what is coming around the corner, and may even be able to use changes in other jurisdictions to your advantage. We are still the babies of the field, so we work hard to keep up.

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Yes, Chris, the words you are writing here can be typed directly into your laptop. And then you can change them without white-out. Isn’t that amazing?

5. We just get technology.

Look, it is not a universal truth that older people and”varsity” attorneys are technologically challenged. All I am saying is that young people see technology as a tool that is makes things easier and can adapt to new technology faster. It is intuitive for us. We are less scared of it, and understand the options out there. We have grown up with the stuff, so if there is someone who needs to know how to open an email attachment or submit paperwork online, it is more likely to be the freshly-minted attorney. Why is this better for you? Technology makes things faster and makes us more responsive and approachable. Time saved equals money saved. We also understand the real risks out there – including the ever-growing threats of cyber crime against law firms and you. We tend to better understand the tools, so we understand the holes.

-D. E. Barbi Bee

Social Media Shade

SPOTTED: Tina and Joe are on the razor-edge of a break up and I have all the scoop. What happened, you ask? How do I know, you ask? Because of Social Media Shade. Her passive-aggressive posts and his social media purge reveal everything they are trying not to look like they are trying to reveal. It is going DOWN. It used to be that if you wanted to shade someone, you had to show up at the soda shoppe with their best friend or a Letterman jacket. Not today: you can do it with the click of button! Here’s how I (and, let’s face it, everyone) can tell:

1. Shady quote posts about how love will let you rise again after you heal.

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Guys, this isn’t about me, you know, this is just, a general inspirational quote that I happened to find (wasn’t searching for) and is applicable at any time, and not just after a break-up/getting fired/getting in a fight with ANYONE.

2. Low-ball “My life is complete” photos, usually captioned about all the wonderful people in your life (and definitely NOT captioned: “Not pictured: A Snake.”).

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See?! See how freaking totally happy I am and how I have to many friends and go out all the time? See? Also, I am hot…. so….

3. Just clearing your social media of the person.

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This one takes so much time and work (scrolling through Insta? Hello!) but some people have the motivation.

4. The subtle details.

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Changes in: relationship status (it disappears entirely, usually), profile picture, removing all personal details (even job/school/location) so as to disguise removing the relationship status. It takes more detective work, but it can be spotted.

5. Dramatic shift in tone and interests.

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Another sly one. See, you can’t just stop posting on social media – people would think you died! Instead, you attempt to drown out your prior posts about the person or job you are breaking up with and flood your accounts with new content: I’m journaling/hiking/biking/wine tasting, and now you forgot all about that thing I’m no longer mentioning. Also usually included: posts about self-reflection and becoming a new person, doing new things.

Financial Goals for 2017

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Like any game plan, financial goals will have to adjusted in response to bumps along the way. It is better to start with a plan that just needs changes, than to be struck with a crisis and have no clue at all where to start!

With 2017 just days away, how are you getting yourself or your family off with the right financial game plan? These are a few of our financial goals for the next year. I hope they help inspire you to make small changes with big impact!

1. Update our budget.

I am a zero-based budget girl, which means that when incomes change and expenses change, so does our budget. A couple of years ago I updated our budget every month – but it became impossible to keep up with! Now, I’m making a general plan for the year, and I can update it when significant things happen. If we make a little extra or lose income, we adjust our expenses to get back to zero! (Okay, in our case I think we have ten dollars at the end, but that’s “wiggle room.”)

Bonus! You can look at my own zero-based budget template by following this link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1E4MWBflO6FqEigl6c0QbH7i7VNEJA8ejtZLWELlj0XA/edit?usp=sharing

Once you view the budget, copy and paste it to edit and make it your own!

2. Save at least $15,000.00 for a down payment on a house.

We really, really, really want a house. We like to set ambitious goals, so we have to work at them, you know? But first, we had to build up our emergency savings.  This year, we established our emergency savings, and are on our way – thanks to an automatic savings plan and our increased budget – to making this home-ownership goal a reality. It will be a sacrifice, but we can do it!

If a house seems like a far-off dream to you, start with the basics from my post “3 Steps to Being Good With Money.”

3. Make regular contributions to our HSA.

We have had an HSA for the past couple of years, and I basically use it as a tax-deduction “funnel” for health care expenses. We don’t go to the doctor regularly enough to keep money sitting in there. I would rather keep our savings in a place I can use for any needs that arise – health care, fixing our existing cars, new car, etc. What I do is when I have a health care expense, I deposit enough money in the HSA to cover that expense, use it to pay the bill or reimburse myself for paying the bill, and voila it is paid and I get the tax deduction. This year, I carved out the tiniest piece I could in our budget and will make twenty-five dollar monthly deposits into our HSA. I know it’s comically small, but I figured that over time, we will eventually have an emergency health care expense, and I will feel really good knowing he have at least a couple of hundred dollars stashed away to help pay the bill. Also, I learned that money in an HSA doesn’t go away – even if you change health insurance plans! You can still use it, you just can’t make additional deposits to the HSA.

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I married younger, but look at how cute he is? Age is just a number, after all….

4. Establish an IRA for my husband, and make regular contributions.

I began my IRA through my employer when I started my job last year. I was, coincidentally, twenty-five years old. Since then, I have made regular contributions, and my employer has matched them. My balance is only a couple of thousand dollars at the moment, but it will make a big difference down the road. My husband turned twenty-five this year, and has no such plan through his job. He also anticipates being self-employed some day, so retirement is his responsibility alone. Accordingly, in January of 2017, we will establish his IRA and make regular contributions – roughly what I am contributing. To start us off on a positive foot, we will cash in a small federal savings bond I happen to have and use the proceeds as a foundation. By the end of his first year, he and I will be on roughly the same track and on our way to a financially stable future.

5. Stick to our budget.

What good is a budget if you don’t stick to it? After some tough conversations, we believe we have pin-pointed our problem with sticking strictly with the budget: extras! Extra needs or extra incomes don’t fit in the budget and we never know what to do with them. For example, what if we have used up our eating out budget for the month, and a friend we really want to spend time with asks to go out to eat? Or what if one of us gets a bonus, and one of us wants to use it to catch up on the budget we’re breaking, while the other one wants to use it to buy things which are really needed? See what I mean? Extras. To solve – at least hopefully – this issue, we have included a “slush fund” in our budget. This small, cash-only cushion will be used for the extras that inevitably arise. We have also agreed to treat bonuses like bonuses, which will happen when we truly stick to our budget. *fingers crossed*

6. Pay off two more student loans.

This year, I paid off one student loan and I’m half-way through another! I’ve thrown bonuses, tax refunds, and cash found on the street at these loans and can’t wait to slaughter them. I anticipate that our tax refund will pay off the one I am attacking now, so that leaves eight months to hit another one. By the end of the year, if we accomplish this goal, we will reduce our monthly payments by almost fifty dollars and save hundreds in interest! Motivation!!

What are your financial goals for 2017? What is in your family playbook for the next six months or year?

-D. E. Barbi Bee

The Reason for the Season

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It’s not about what you get, it’s about what you give.

We say that to kids all the time, don’t we? I know I heard it many times over the years, when circling ideal spoils from Toys R Us catalogs and American Girl magazines.

I assumed, of course, that it meant not to focus on what I wanted, but on the gifts I would buy for my brothers and sisters. So I would go out to the Christmas fair at school or the dollar store and buy erasers and mini screwdriver kits and chocolate bars, to distract myself from the fact that I would get way better stuff on December 25.

As I grew a little older, I learned that not everyone has so much joy at this time of year. There are many who have explained how depressed they get in December, thanks often to both cold weather and a family that they wish was very different. Sometimes they are missing someone they lost, or sometimes they take note that they never even got the family they had always longed for. It is, surely, a season of shadows for many.

But this year, I am learning even more about not just giving, but gratitude.

In my job, I often see people in very low points in their lives. Occasionally my clients are in a great and exciting point in life, other times they made a big mistake they have to try to clean up; but other times, they are simply doing the best they can and still can’t catch a break.

Just yesterday, I attended a foreclosure mediation with a couple who worked hard and lived within their means their entire lives. But a family crisis left them jobless, and – perhaps soon – now homeless. Later in the evening I visited the home of a woman who was wheelchair-bound and was being sued for the loan balance owed on a car that had long been repossessed. As she told us her story in her freezing cold, dank, cheerless home, I became overwhelmed.

Her story cannot be shared here, but when I went back to my warm, seasonally-decorated home, where my husband was cooking us dinner to enjoy together, I was filled with the sense that I was a very small person in the face of the needs of this world.

I could  not shake the idea that I had to do something – I took this job to help people, after all. Both my boss and I will do something to help these neighbors, but even that will not repair all their on-going physical and emotional needs.

To compare, my issues at this moment are being frustrated by the clutter of my closet, my lack of a washing machine, and my procrastination in signing up for health insurance. My needs are so small, that when my husband was blessed with a gracious bonus this week, we actually have no idea what to do with it!

[See what I mean? Big issues, right?]

So this year, take the idiom we repeat so often to children to heart. And don’t use it as a distraction for thinking about what you want, truly practice a heart of gratitude. Give what you can. Give all day and whenever you see a need – give to charities and the food bank and the fuel bank and the homeless shelter and anyone who has a need you can see. (I can’t tell you how much less stressful it is grocery shopping to someone in need – it’s a pleasure, not a chore, I promise!)

My grandmother always used to love saying that Jesus is the reason for the season. And He is – Christmas, despite its many secular garments, is at its heart a celebration of the birth of our God on this planet. It was and is a gift, and calls for our giving to others in the small – but meaningful – ways that we can, without any expectation of something in return.

-D. E. Barbi Bee