(Guest post by author Jena Morrow)
All my life I had dreamt of becoming a mommy. It wasn’t my only dream, but it was certainly the most important dream in my little girl heart. I was the child who never went anywhere without a baby doll tucked under my arm — and I wasn’t the type to toss my baby doll aside when the ice cream man came down the street or when my favorite TV show came on. No, Annie came along with me, and I included her in every detail. It mattered to me what Annie wanted from the ice cream man (snow cones were her favorite) and if she understood the jokes in that week’s episode of Punky Brewster (and as I recall, I often had to explain them to her).
Some women come into motherhood by accident, and others are ambivalent throughout their young adult lives about whether or not they want children. And both of these types of women can become amazing mothers despite how they come into the role. But for me, as sappy as it may sound, I had always believed I was born to be a wife and a mom, and I had it penned into my life checklist early on: Finish undergrad (majoring in Music Education) by 22, by which time I would have met Mr. Right (who would also be an education major so we could teach in the same school district, which would be adorable); get married by 23, take two years for grad school, and be blissfully pregnant by age 25 with my MA on the wall and my hunky husband at my side. Then we’d have our second child two years later, and if we had the finances and the energy, a third two years after that. Voila: two degrees, a fulfilling career, a healthy marriage, and three kiddos — and all in time for my 30th birthday. Nothin’ to it.
I once read a bumper sticker that said “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” And while I don’t believe for a minute that our compassionate, perfect Father laughs at our dreams and plans, He certainly doesn’t seem to hesitate to rearrange them for our good.
My carefully calculated life plan had derailed before I was even to have completed step one. There was no undergrad degree by age 22, because the anorexia that had chased me all my adolescent life had caught up to me by age 18 and nearly killed me. Instead, I found myself hospitalized for most of 1996, with a tube in my nose and a weight on my heart far heavier than the sad, sickly weight on the scale. I left the hospital the day before my 19th birthday, owing around four hundred thousand dollars in treatment costs. There would be no college — and worse, within six weeks of my discharge from treatment, I had lost thirty of the forty pounds that had been put on me. I had gained the necessary weight, but I had not learned to feed myself — because I had not learned to love myself.
Fast forward just a few years, to age 24. Steps one and two of my checklist had not come to pass, and as I approached 25 — the age by which I HAD to be married and pregnant — I panicked. I met a guy at church, and figured that since my pastor approved of him and we quickly became the iconic church couple, mascots almost, surely God would bless our union despite the fact that we were completely wrong for one another and both brought unresolved emotional baggage into the marriage. I mean, we met at church; if it didn’t work out, that would make God look bad.
For a few months, the courtship was exciting. Even though I wasn’t in love with my fiancé, I was madly in love with the idea of marriage and family. My dream was coming true — even if I had to force it. And since I wanted children and felt I was running out of time (according to my checklist), I began eating healthily and increased my food intake enough to restore myself to a healthy weight. A grown-up weight. A mommy weight. I absolutely hated my body during this time –but I believed this was the one thing that meant more to me than the sense of control I felt from starving myself. In exchange for the fulfilled dream of marriage and family, I would surrender.
The naive little girl inside of me, still clutching her original childhood dream for dear life, cried tears of grief and confusion when the honeymoon ended before it had ever begun, and the marriage became unsafe. This was not the plan. What had I done wrong? But in the midst of my darkest hour, I was to meet my greatest joy. A month into our marriage, we were expecting a baby.
Those around me were unsure how pregnancy would effect me, having never made peace with my body image before the pregnancy began. But to their surprise and my delight, I loved every minute. As I wrote years later in my memoir, Hollow, “This expanding, itching, stretching, round, swollen body of mine was suddenly a great pleasure to me. The same body I hated and despaired of and punished and starved and cut and cursed for years was now doing me the ultimate favor, by fostering life and turned me into something I had always wanted to be: someone’s mom.”
The challenge to love the mom in the mirror came after my son was born. By the time my son was eight months old, his father and I had separated. And while we worked to reconcile through marital counseling, it was becoming progressively clear to me that I was going to be a divorced woman.
A divorced woman. A single mother. A divorced single mother who never went to college. The checklist had been abandoned. And in my rigid perfectionist mind, the same mind that had driven me to starve myself for so many years, I was a failure. It was then that it became especially hard to look at myself in the mirror.
But the story gets brighter. It always does, at some point, friends — because we have a God whose love pursues us tenaciously and tirelessly.
In the darkest time of despair, when I was hardest on myself for having seemingly ruined everything, God provided me with moments of peace that were as overwhelming as they were fleeting. They usually occurred in the quiet moments of nursing my baby boy. Nursing infants have a way of communicating love to their mothers in such a way that even I could not argue with the force of that love. My baby needed me — but beyond that, he longed for me. He was jealous for me. He wanted to be near to me, to feel my heart beat next to his.
Credit the hormones if you must, but those moments became spiritual experiences for me. They reminded me that God Himself is jealous for me. Longs for me. Wants to be near enough that my heart can begin to beat in sync with His. I could not love “the mom in the mirror” on my own; I needed to borrow from the love that God had for me. I had made terrible, life-altering mistakes — and none of them had shaken or even touched His love for me. My checklist had never mattered to Him, in that He had never had such rigid standards for me as I had had for myself.
My baby boy, Jaden, didn’t care that his mommy only had a high school education. He didn’t care that his mommy was carrying a little post-baby weight; in fact, if anything, he rather enjoyed it because those were the pounds of selfless love which allowed him to be fed and nurtured. When Jaden looked at me, both then and now, he didn’t see an imperfect body to be tweaked and sculpted or a failure at life in general. He sees his mom. He looks at me through love.
When God looked at me, both then and now and forever and always, he sees His daughter. He looks at me through love and through the blood of Jesus, which has erased the sin of those life-altering mistakes of mine.
My son is eleven years old now. I never had another child, never remarried. I still get angry at the mom in the mirror sometimes — and it is in those moments that I know what has happened: I’ve moved away from God, and I need to scoot back over to where I can hear His heart beat.
His heartbeat always sounds the same: You. Are. Loved. You. Are. Mine.
My part is simply to take His word for it.
Jena Morrow’s debut book, “Hollow”, chronicles her nearly three-decade-long battle with eating and body image issues. In her second book, “Hope for the Hollow”, Jena takes readers on a thirty-day devotional journey to challenge eating disordered thoughts and beliefs in light of God’s Word. In addition to being a writer, speaker, and activist for eating disorder awareness and prevention, Jena works as the Alumnae Coordinator at Timberline Knolls in Lemont, IL, a premiere residential treatment center for women and girls battling eating disorders, substance abuse, mood disorders, self-injury, and PTSD. Jena makes her home in a suburb of Chicago with her son, Jaden, his pet snake Stephanie, and a mischievous cat named Prim.
Pre-order Emily’s new book, Mom in the Mirror, for 42% off, here.