On faith, motherhood, and overwhelm

When I was 21, I had a ‘Damascus Road’ moment during which I became a Christian during my year abroad. I was so enthused by the freedom I had found in Christ that I shouted it loud to anyone who would stop to listen for a good few years after. I stood up in front of hundreds of students and shared how God had called me home at a Christian Union mission event in 2009, and sang a version of Amazing Grace with a friend that my brother had arranged (he even accompanied us on the piano). In 2010 I was asked to share my story with dozens of teenagers at a CYFA youth venture. More recently I filmed my testimony a few years ago for the youth group I helped to lead, and shared that video on Facebook, and I re-share it every so often when it comes up in my Facebook memories. I have always sought to be real and honest when people ask me about my faith, even when that exposes less than favourable aspects of my character and is frankly embarrassing. But over the last few years I have realized that the story of my faith did not ‘end’ with that sudden realization that knowing Jesus had always been my deepest need and desire, amazing though that period in my life was when he removed the burden of sin from my shoulders. When people have asked me why I am a Christian, I have found it hard to talk about the ‘life after’, because I am still in it, and still making sense of it.

Five and a half years ago, I became a mother. This is a time of inordinate change for any person. While it is undoubtedly a blessing, it causes you to re-examine everything you had ever held to be true as you discern how you wish to raise your child in the world we live in. It can lead to a re-emergence of past hurts from your own upbringing and childhood, isolation and loneliness as you adjust to a new life where you have zero autonomy, and a readjustment of close relationships that had settled in recent years. For me, it also coincided with a period in time when many millennials were waking up to the realization that we had taken prosperity, democracy and peace for granted. Our parents had lived through the Cold War, but the privileged and educated members of my generation emerged into consciousness as the world seemed to settle down, at least in Europe. The great Enlightenment dream of an inevitable march towards utopia seemed to have come true, and I think most of us fell for it hook, line and sinker. The rise of global right wing populism has put a stop to that for many of us, and we find ourselves in crisis. How has this happened so quickly? How were we so blind to all the issues that caused it? Brexit is symptomatic of this trend, and has hit me personally very hard for all sorts of reasons. But it is the way we are trashing the planet that has been an accompanying undercurrent of my depression over the last few years. In 2014, the same year my daughter was born, I read a Tearfund special report which set out in no uncertain terms how drastically awful the situation was. I burned with shame that I hadn’t taken it seriously prior to then. I vowed to do everything in my power to be a good steward over God’s creation.

But motherhood didn’t afford me much time or headspace to do that, despite my best efforts at using cloth nappies and switching to reusable menstrual products and so on. With my new little person had come an inability to find joy in anything, not because she wasn’t joyful or things weren’t still good in some aspects of my life, but because everything just hurt more. Life matters so much more when you are responsible for someone. I became aware of the manifold ways we – especially Christians! – hurt each other even when we have no intention of causing hurt. I was grateful for my healthy, happy (though very intense) baby, but how could I be happy when so many other people lost babies or had babies who had life threatening illnesses? I was grateful that we lived in comfort and peace, but I knew that millions didn’t, and I felt helpless to do anything about it. We went on a cruise holiday and all I could think of was the fact that people were drowning in the Mediterranean while we were sailing around in luxury. Through the ‘natural parenting’ movement I understood the damage of cultural appropriation, and I became very conscious of my own role in upholding the systematic oppression of marginalized people, and felt constantly that I wasn’t doing enough to counter it with the privilege I had. I learnt that these ‘white tears’ (Google the term if you don’t know it) are very common for people when they are woken up to their own privilege, and felt guilty given that I enjoyed innumerable advantages in life based on my skin colour, my education, my religion and so on, but I couldn’t stop centring myself and my own experience and felt so powerless to facilitate change in myself, let alone challenge and call out others.

I was also completely exhausted and constantly sleep deprived. It didn’t help that I received so much unsolicited advice from all sorts of people, Christians included, about what I was doing wrong. (I know now that I was doing nothing wrong, but it took me a long time and many years to gain the confidence to know that, when it comes to children’s sleep, I have not made my own mess. Some kids just wake frequently and need lots of night time reassurance. The end.) It hurt somehow that Christians could come to such different conclusions about how best to parent, based on the same belief in the character of God. In spite of a number of supportive friends (thank you!), I grew tired of being told by the great majority that I needed to abandon my daughter to scream herself to sleep if I wanted to be less exhausted, a mantra which was by no means limited to fellow Christians, and alas is pretty pervasive in our culture. Despite the supportive voices I surrounded myself with, it resulted in me not feeling able to tell people how I really was, firstly because it was such old news, and secondly because on very low days I couldn’t face the possibility of a flippant comment about what I needed to do to fix my daughter’s sleep.

Anyone who has experienced chronic sleep deprivation will know that it can drive you to the brink of insanity. I went to dark places that I really don’t feel the need to share here. My anxiety skyrocketed, particularly with regards to my health, which was consistently compromised by poor sleep. I also struggled hugely with trying to fit a PhD into the mess of it all. It is extremely hard to bully your brain into any kind of academic work off apocalyptically awful sleep. At the time, I worked at weekends while my husband looked after our daughter, though she often couldn’t cope with the separation from me when she was under 2 and I frequently had to abandon my work. We could have just about afforded to send her to (part time) childcare, but she was the kind of small child who never stopped crying when I left. It felt deeply wrong to push her into something that she was too small to cope with, given that we didn’t have to, and it was hard to trust my gut despite almost the entirety of the world telling me she would be fine. So we bumbled on as a small family, not really having any time together, and feeling stretched and pressured from all sides. Although I struggled, I felt mostly carried by God and despite not understanding why I seemed to cope so much less well with the journey through motherhood than others around me, I trusted him enough that this was a season and it would pass.

When I fell pregnant with my son in 2016, things reached a new low. In conjunction with my daughter’s night time wakefulness, I also had terrible pregnancy insomnia. I lived off a few hours’ interrupted sleep every night for months. I sobbed into my pillow without fail for hours. My daughter, a highly articulate and intense child who is always ‘on’, found the pregnancy very hard. Although she can hardly believe it now, at the time she frequently became violent towards me. I found it very hard to control my emotions, particularly at bed time, as she always took hours of intensive parenting to fall asleep (she still does, but she reads to herself for an hour or so now before she needs us). The Brexit referendum fell into this turbulent period. I abandoned the NHS mental health support I was offered after I was told simply to practise mindfulness and keep a mood diary (it didn’t help, and in any case I found mindfulness to be problematic on all sorts of levels). I knew I would benefit from therapy but did not have the time or funds to facilitate it at that stage. I had been depressed in my previous pregnancy and expected it second time round, which helped, but the difference was that this time I felt very distant from God. I would try to focus on the sacramental aspect of pregnancy and motherhood: this, for me, was the way of the cross – this is my body, broken for you – and it helped make sense of it all somewhat. But I was feeling increasingly like God wasn’t listening. And I was pretty rageful at him. For a start, he had NO idea what motherhood was like, having come as a man! People bleated on about how Jesus knew our suffering, but it seemed to me that he suffered for about one day, not the years and years I had been through. And, while I was at it, I raged about how the whole bloody Bible was written by a load of old men who really (it seemed to me) had no idea about women’s issues. You see, I am not one of those Christians who thinks that my ‘role’ should (necessarily) be in the home, and yet I had no idea what path I was supposed to take in life when it came to juggling motherhood with paid employment. I would frequently scream ‘f*ck the patriarchy!’ into my pillow at the injustice that no one tells men that they ‘can’t have it all’, there is next to no culture of men working part time to take on unpaid caring roles in the home which would vastly ameliorate the pressures on women, and no one asks or cares even how many children men have (Boris Johnson anyone? No one actually knows…)

I had a dose of happy hormones when my son was born that made me hope that things would improve. Alas, his sleep was as poor as his sister’s, though in a different way. He woke every hour for four months, and every couple of hours till he was about 2. My daughter still didn’t sleep through and found his arrival troubling and perplexing, which is common, but as she is ‘more’ she reacted in ways which were, well, ‘more’. My husband was packed off to the spare room and I ‘slept’ (haha!) for the best part of the first year of my son’s life with one either side of me in our big bed. The biggest challenge with my son, who was a calm and relatively straightforward baby, given that I could put him down without him screaming, and he only nursed for five minutes every hour or so, was that he was (still is!) an early riser. My daughter is a night owl and would command every iota of my attention and existence 24/7. She would finally fall asleep by 9.30pm or so, and then they would both wake me up all night until my son woke for the day at 5am. Not being pregnant meant I had some physical energy back, but with one either side of me in the bed, the chronic sleep deprivation, and associated dark places, continued.

Life since my son’s birth passed by in even more of a blur than it did before he was born. I recognized dully that some people seem to enjoy parenting tinies immensely, and I, alas, was not one of them. But I started to lose hope that I would ever enjoy motherhood or see it as anything other than an immovable chain around my neck, and I couldn’t stop myself from focusing on all the ways in which motherhood constrained my life, rather than seeing the many benefits and joys. Despite having agreed with my husband that we were a team and would split family life with me primarily caring and him primarily earning, I felt a lot of stigma being ‘just a mum’, particularly around the time I was finishing my PhD and I was trying to work out what I could ‘do next’, even though I knew I couldn’t possibly add another string to my already breaking bow. I felt (and I still feel) that I have other areas of my life apart from childrearing that I would like to prioritize, but my husband’s well paid but very busy and intense job meant that anything I did employment-wise would have to fit in around the children. Rather than focusing on the amazing privilege I had of not having to earn money and having the option of being available for my children all the time, I felt resentful that financially it didn’t work in our set up to split the child care and employment between us more equally. And then I felt guilty for not being grateful for what we had. Even though I recognized I was doing it, I couldn’t stop myself building my identity into my place in society, and felt shunned from all sides – a common feeling for women. And, as we grew more despairing of the Brexit chaos, my husband and I looked seriously at relocating to Germany, a long-held dream of mine that pre-dated the Brexit referendum. He took a German course with the hope of brushing up on his old skills and I tried to find a route that would enable us to earn enough over there to support our growing family. It came as a major setback when we realized that – for various reasons – it wasn’t going to work.

God was depressingly absent. There would be days when my mood was fine, and days when the darkness would consume me, often tied in to my exhaustion levels and overwhelm about the world around me. When God had called me home when I was 21, I had been mired in I think now typical coming-of-age issues at a very formative time in my life. That’s not to play down what happened, because those issues were very real to me then. But they were totally individualistic. God saved me from my own sin and my own despair at the state of my sorry self. But now – now the stakes were so much higher. This was not really about me anymore. All of this was so much bigger. It was about our children’s future. It was about society. It was about the manifold ways sin is entrenched in every aspect of life. And, when I read a report about how unlikely it is that we will survive as a species beyond 2050 unless we reduce climate change to safe levels in the next ten years (which means putting things in place by the end of 2020), I realized it is about our very existence.

Where was God? Here I was, a professing Christian who knew very well from an academic perspective that we have an eternal hope and blah blah blah. But I didn’t feel any of it. I was despairing, even though (I thought) Christians should never despair. I would read Psalm 23 and throw the Bible across the room. During those sleepless nights when I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death and sobbing into my pillow, I definitely did fear evil, and his fecking rod and staff most certainly did not comfort me. Was any of it true at all? I would think of other moments when the psalmist invoked the history of the exodus to remind the reader that our God is one that acts. God had acted in my life in a massively transformative way when I came to faith. I couldn’t deny that. And I remained as convinced as ever that the arguments for God’s existence and the historical evidence of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gave meaning to life in a way that atheism and agnosticism just didn’t. I still believed God existed, but I was sadder than ever that I couldn’t feel that peace that passes all understanding that we are promised. In fact, I didn’t feel God’s presence at all, and our relationship felt very one-sided. Only once in recent years could I recall an event that I had felt was unambiguously God. It was in the depths of my pregnancy insomnia in 2016. We were in a Manchester travelodge and while the others slept I kept watch and prayed and I felt him telling me he would not abandon me to the grave during the many years of sleep deprivation.

I held on to this revelation like my life depended on it for two years, because there have been many times when death felt like it would be kinder than living through the exhausted haze I was in. And in my head I knew that ‘dry patches’ and not feeling God’s presence are all very normal experiences in the Christian life. I would dwell on the words of a very dear fellow Christian student who counselled me when I first came to faith, telling me that we believe in a faith that is grounded in what he has done, not in our feelings, because they come and go. But it didn’t stop the pain of feeling abandoned, and knowing that I could have got through the hard times a lot better if I had felt ‘held’ by God.

There were a couple of crumbs of comfort. I was in good company. For example, I happened to read one day (coincidence? Or God?) that Mother Theresa didn’t feel God’s presence for decades but tirelessly continued her work, trusting anyway. Whenever you mention hardship in Christian circles, well-meaning believers often try to help by glibly asking you if you’ve read the book of Job. So I actually read it, cover to cover, in two sittings (it would have been one but I was required by a child). It is the most frightfully depressing book but I thanked God all the same that it was in the Bible, because Job gets no answers, just like me. And, I recalled, Jesus himself had yelled out ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ on the cross. I could not bend my head around why we might feel God-abandoned, but at least I wasn’t alone.

Thinking it would be helpful, I tried to bury myself in lots of Christian literature on suffering and God’s silence. It didn’t help much, not least because I didn’t really have any time to read around the children and my other commitments, but also because it focused me on all the ways God is silent and actually, on reflection, I needed to focus on the opposite. I had asked a few people to pray for me, which they dutifully did, but I had basically decided that their prayers were almost certainly worthless. I believed it all with my head, but my heart couldn’t keep up. On Easter day 2018, I stumbled into church with my daughter, late, and the only space left was right at the front. We very obviously shuffled past everyone to find the seats. My husband and son had stayed at home, because it had been one of the most dreadful nights in the whole of my parenting-small-children career and my son had been awake for most of it and so needed a nap. For my part, I felt, misery guts though I was, like I should really turn up to church on Easter Day. It was awful. We normally go to our church’s quiet, liturgical service (for various reasons, not least because my husband plays the organ twice a month at it), but we’d slept through that, so we arrived for the extrovert-heavy bouncy welcoming service. The band struck up with some happy Jesus-is-so-amazing-life-is-great song, and I lasted two lines before collapsing in tears. I felt empty, stuck in the disciples’ collective grief and confusion of Easter Saturday, and the dissonance with happy praise music was not something I could cope with. A kind friend happened to be sitting next to me and I was grateful for her. I took my (somewhat perplexed but very comforting) daughter off to crèche and emailed my friend later to explain.

I can’t recall when exactly things began to change. Certainly not until well into this year (2019). We had been trying to sell our house and, having shelved the Germany plans, move to a bigger place in our village. After having had a stressful 9 months during which we had a potential buyer drop out before finding another, the house that we wanted to buy, which is truly a delightful property, had stayed on the market and not been snapped up by anyone else. It seemed to be a nudge from God that he wanted us to stay in this part of the world, and I was grateful for it. Our daughter had settled pretty well into her school and it made sense with the upcoming uncertain political times to stay put, especially with regards to my husband’s job, and ride out the bumpy future from a place we know well.

There were a few nudges elsewhere, too. During one church service, as my son had been knocking down all my daughter’s brick towers that she had made at the back of church, I began to herd my gang towards crèche as quietly as possible so that everyone else could listen to the epistle being read (my husband was at the organ bench). I caught a sentence of it as I marched them past the lectern on the way up the north aisle. It was from Philippians, and Paul was talking about finding contentment in times of trial as well as in times of joy. I was immediately convicted that I had been building up happiness, mental wellness and indeed good sleep into idols. I was clearly taking aim at the sun and getting upset when my arrows got nowhere near. I knew that what I needed to seek was contentment, which I realized at this point must theoretically be possible at the same time as being overwhelmed, exhausted and depressed.

My mum and I share an appreciation of Paula Gooder’s books and, when it got to Easter, she leant me her book on the resurrection. I don’t think I even managed to read all of it, but what I did read did me the world of good. Rather than focusing on what God was or wasn’t saying to me, I dwelt on the meaning of the resurrection, and I came away not being able to explain God’s absence any better, but more convinced than ever in the power of him rising from the dead. I began to feel what I dully recognized as Easter joy, and, though it felt far away, I was finding that sense of hope that God really will make all things new under Christ in the new creation. Gooder had also written something in another book that had resonated powerfully with me: having a living faith in Jesus doesn’t make our trials any easier, but it does perhaps give us the strength to keep going. I felt a huge amount of relief when I read that, and I realized that I had been struggling with the fact that I had expected my faith to make my trials easier, when, actually, there was no biblical mandate for that at all.

Then, during one particularly sad and tear-filled night when I was lamenting all the friendships motherhood had prevented me from investing in over the last few years, a sentence arrived in my head out of nowhere: I will rejoice over you with singing. I stopped in my tracks, because although I didn’t hear God, those words were not mine, and I knew they came from God. I vaguely thought they sounded like they were from a Bible verse, but I was so exhausted and emotional that I fell asleep without looking it up. In the morning I whacked them into Bible Gateway online and lo, Zepheniah 3:17 popped up:

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

I cried. The image of the creator of the universe thinking that I am worthy of rejoicing over with singing – particularly as he knows how important singing is to me – and that he had chosen this way, in the midst of my distress, to show me how much he cares for me, floored me. I had not read Zepheniah in a decade. I don’t recall having heard it read in church recently. It’s not a verse (or a book) I know well, and in any case, the words that he planted in my mind were in the first person, and the Bible verse is in the third person. God wanted me to know in that moment that he meant those words about me. It meant that he had a plan for me, and that I will survive this (it’s in the future tense!)

Since then, through wrestling in prayer, and a lot of soul searching, God has graciously made me aware of several personal shortcomings that were causing a lot of my overwhelm. In a bid to understand my own upbringing, I have been delving into my family history a lot in recent years, and I have been determined to learn from the experiences that my German family lived through in particular. It has meant that I often think of my descendants looking back over my life and scrutinizing my efforts in using my privilege for good. Recently, God has patiently showed me that I need fear no one’s judgment now or posthumously other than his, and he has declared me free from sin because of the death and resurrection of his son. The feeling of not being able to do enough to bring about change and call others out should have sent alarm bells ringing that I was in some respects trying to earn my salvation through my deeds. But it is only when we have freedom in Christ that those deeds flow freely from our faith.

He has also recently convicted me that he is, actually, bigger than church scandals, bigger than the rise of right wing populism, bigger than the systematic oppression of minorities and the refusal of the vast majority of privileged people to engage with this, bigger than Brexit, and bigger even than the climate crisis. He is bigger than the overwhelm that has threatened to swallow me all these years. He’s got this, and for the first time in my life I believe him. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is true, it changes *everything*, and one day Jesus will return to judge the nations. The deceivers and the charlatans of the world that are steering the poorest people into ever deeper despair are the ones who should fear, not me, for my hope is in Christ, and he has defeated sin and death.

So, why the silence from God for years? I don’t have any answers, but I can now look back and see growth. I have learnt that life is messy and complicated in a way that my 21 year old newly Jesus-enthused self could not understand. Back then, if I had met my 32 year old self I would probably have thought ‘wow she really needs the Lord.’ I now realize that you can, actually, have the Lord, and still not be coping. I am grateful to God for having prevented me from stuffing up innumerable friendships and acquaintances by teaching me this, even if it came at personal cost.

I can also resonate a lot more with people who don’t believe in God. I am in a better place to understand their reasons, and while I never think I really thought of non-believers as projects to convert (Lord have mercy on those that do), I now totally recognize my fellow sojourners along the road of life as people to love in all their complexities.

I also suspect very strongly that the devil had a hand to play in it all. Some people will have reached this far and decide on reading this that yep, the woman’s totally crackers. But others will know the darkness and know that spiritual forces are real and dangerous. In my past, the devil used to make himself very known to me in his taunts, but I think his best weapon is when he convinces us that it’s not actually him that’s causing the pain. I think he’s been trying the stealth approach with me over the last six years or so. Admittedly, sometimes it is very hard to discern what is your sin talking and what is the devil. But I have got better at recognizing that he is almost certainly behind destructive thought processes. Just on a whim one night when I found myself falling into a spiral of low self-esteem thoughts, I yelled out (in my head, didn’t want to wake the children who were – uncharacteristically – asleep at the time) ‘Get behind me Satan!’ I felt a stillness after a couple of minutes which made me think, aha. Another time I tried ‘in the name of Jesus Christ, clear off!’ (well actually I used a much worse word but you get the idea) to similar effect. God’s name is powerful. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you’, I found myself musing. Never had it felt so true.

While my coming to faith a decade or more ago was sudden and glorious, this return into the fold has been gradual and without fanfare. It’s not to say I’m fine (I still need therapy, don’t we all?) but I feel like I am starting to find that contentment in times of trial and of joy that St Paul wrote about in Philippians. And my faith is deeper and more nuanced than it was. I am grateful. I recognize that my life is full of privilege, and I acknowledge that the hardships I have written about here are nothing in comparison with what people of colour and other marginalized people go through. I do not wish to pretend they are. But feeling guilty about it gets me nowhere. It is God who gives me the grace and sets me free to effect change in myself and those around me, including in dismantling the systematic oppression that I’m a part of.

This week my daughter has been attending a holiday club run by the churches in our village. It has been wonderful to witness it as a parent (we are invited to attend the last twenty minutes to see what they’ve been up to), and I have seen the very best in how Christians can work together for the gospel. Most of the children that go come from families that rarely go to church. Having done some children’s work myself in the past, I know how easy it is to get wrong, how cringeworthy it can be to sing songs about fuzzy wuzzy bears and how patronizing Christians can seem to outsiders when they do it by dancing around the issue and then whacking in a ‘God slot’ at the end. But this holiday club was anything but. It was plainly and unashamedly, yet also sensitively, Christian, and was so refreshing in its honesty about what the church holds to be true about God. Heaven only knows that our kids need this honesty in the world we’re raising them in. My two (who I love so desperately and who are such wonderful people) have come home singing along to all the songs, and today, we danced wildly together in the kitchen to this one. If someone had played me this song a year ago, I would either have wanted to vomit into a bucket, or run away in tears. But you see the thing is, when you have been mired in the darkness for such a long time, and the light bursts in, it shines brighter and longer than it ever has before. And I can now once more sing, and mean: there’s so much more to this life, our freedom is, our freedom is in Christ!


Reflections on motherhood #4: the horrors of sleep deprivation

This post is the fourth in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

It has taken me a long time to get round to writing this post. Why? Because this one is the hardest to write about. Because sleep deprivation feels like the lens through which I view the rest of parenting and indeed life. I was waiting because I was hoping I could write the post from the position of being in a better place sleep-wise, but I now realize this is one area where I am going to have to accept the way things are and adjust my expectations once more. And I want other people to know they are not alone. People often expect a baby under one to sleep poorly, or if they don’t expect it, they know that it is true of some babies. Yes, it was sometimes tiresome to explain to people when they asked back then that I was chronically sleep deprived, and it was hard work to deflect their often well-meaning but unhelpful parenting advice, but now, well into my daughter’s second year, no one asks about sleep any more. Everyone assumes you’ve got it sussed. Well I haven’t, and this is me ‘fessing up.

Shortly after my daughter was born, we bought this book called ‘The Wonder Weeks’, which usefully explains the developmental leaps that babies go through at key stages of their development (and provides parents with an explanation for why their baby is going through a particularly difficult phase). I remember being stunned by how many times I came across a little box in which something along the lines of ‘Remember: never shake your baby!’ was written followed by a description of how much damage shaking a baby can do to them. My husband and I wondered who on earth would ever want to shake their baby and why this advice was included so frequently throughout the book. Well, I can now understand why people feel so desperate that they might feel they want to shake their baby. Because sleep deprivation can be that bad.

My daughter’s sleep seems to have got progressively worse as she has got older, but I think, on reflection, it’s always been this hard, it’s just that it has been such a long old slog now, and I am weary of it. On a ‘normal’ night, she wakes 4-6 times over a 12 hour period. By ‘normal’, I mean there is no other external factor bothering her, like teething, a cold, a developmental leap, bad reflux, a food she’s disagreed with, or hot weather. It might sound crazy, but I can usually totally deal with 4-6 wakings and get enough sleep, because we bed-share, and once she wakes up, she nurses for about 10 minutes and then goes back to sleep (on a ‘normal’ night, of course). Often our sleep cycles are in sync, and so I’m not woken from a deep sleep. I don’t have to move. I wake up, but stay dozy. Once she’s dozed back off, so do I. On a ‘normal’ night.

The problem is, it feels like there are so few ‘normal’ nights. There always seems to be something that makes her more needy of me than normal, but the truth is (and this is the especially hard truth), she is only half the problem. The other problem is … me. Since being pregnant I have had bouts of terrible insomnia, partly to do with anxiety, and partly (I have discovered) because I sleep less well when I am fighting off an infection. I know how horrendous it is when your child is awake in the middle of the night and you are also awake attending to their needs. But believe me, it is far, far worse, when your child is sleeping peacefully and you are lying awake next to them unable to sleep. It generally comes in bouts, and improved a lot when we started bed-sharing (it seems I unconsciously needed to know she was ok and have her right next to me), but I still have really bad patches, and when one of them coincides with a toddler needy patch, the result is awful.

My insomnia and the build up of the year and a half of being needed 24/7 means that I spend most of my days feeling like a wreck. It’s true, sometimes there are a couple of weeks here and there where we have predominantly ‘normal’ nights, I don’t lie awake for whatever reason, and I feel like a new woman. But most of the time, I feel like I am limping from one day to the next. I never had any antibiotics before I had my daughter. Since then, it has felt like I have been on and off them constantly as my immune system is so low because I’m so run down. It got so bad before we started bed-sharing that I ended up in hospital having emergency surgery under general anaesthetic for a tooth infection that no dentist had managed to identify. Lack of sleep and illness lead me to feelings of depression and anxiety, which lead to insomnia … and so the cycle goes round and round.

It is not all doom and gloom. The bad patches are so terribly hard when you’re in the thick of it, but they do pass. It hasn’t ever got a lot better, but it always eases. You get a string of maybe five ‘normal’ nights on the trot. It’s a weekend, so you can have a lie in. Your parents are coming to visit that day. A church friend offers to take your toddler away for a couple of hours. All these things allow you some respite, and I am so grateful for them.

To help to cope with it all, I hang out with other sleep deprived mothers at various gentle-parenting groups. My daughter, who is now very nearly 18 months, is normal. Knowing this helps a lot. If you don’t believe me, have a look here, an evidence-based infant sleep resource run by the University of Durham, and you’ll see what is ‘normal’ for infant sleep. Sure, there are babies and toddlers who are less needy at night by her age, but that doesn’t mean she has a sleep problem. Fine, you say, but you’re chronically sleep deprived, so why don’t you try to ‘do’ something about it?

My answer to that is: I do. I bed-share and breastfeed. What else allows you to simultaneously comfort, entertain and provide nutrition for your infant while lying down? Some find that night-weaning and/or stopping bed-sharing reduces the amount of night wakings of their nursling. I have toyed with this idea for a while, but have decided against it for now, for a few reasons. Firstly, getting my daughter to sleep ‘better’ does not necessarily mean I will sleep better, and I know that my insomnia was much worse when we weren’t bed-sharing. Secondly, I know that I find it hard to get back to sleep if I know I will need to physically get up to attend to a child, and even if her night wakings reduce to once or twice I will still have to get up. Thirdly, nursing her releases sleepy hormones in me, too, and that often helps me go back to sleep (it’s designed that way, you see, clever, huh?) And fourthly (most importantly?), it’s what she needs. She will rarely settle for her Dad. Most of the time, she needs milk. Why? This is also something I have wondered often. Why does my daughter wake up so often? And why does she still need milk?

There are so many possible reasons babies and toddlers wake at night, and I can’t speak for others’ experiences, but I know I am an expert on my own child and I have managed to narrow down the reasons for her night-waking a little. I know from the way she wakes up (crying, as if in pain, thrashing around), that she does not want to wake up. I know that she is not craving proximity to me or her father because she wakes just as many times when sleeping in bed with us as she does when sleeping in her own cot. I know it is often reflux-related, because I can hear her gulping and swallowing and see her arching her back (she used to have terrible reflux until 12 months or so. It is a lot better in the day now, but about the same at night). I suspect she also has some teething pain. I can anticipate your next question. It is so kind and well-meaning when people suggest things that they think we might not have thought of because they want to help. But the truth is, we have thought of it all. Have we tried medicating it? Gaviscon? Teething gel? Ranitidine? Paracetamol? Giving lots of solid food? No fruit before bed time? All these and more we have considered, tried, and found more taxing and stressful than just dealing with the night-wakings and breastfeeding back to sleep. Milk seems to sort her reflux out in the short term and comfort her from the distress. It works for us, and I’m not keen to lose that. Meanwhile, we are wondering whether there are food intolerances that could be contributing to her reflux and/or night waking. It’s just another idea, so we’re going through a list of food groups to avoid. We’re currently cutting out dairy, though we keep having set backs when we forget (or when well-meaning people give her a biscuit, like happened the other day at church *rage*). I’m not holding out for a miracle, but I think it would be wise to rule something like this out. By the time we’ve sussed it out, she’ll have probably grown out of whatever it was anyway.

The hardest suggestion to respond to is the most pervasive one once your child reaches the 12 month mark, and it comes in various guises:

‘You’ll have to leave her to cry, she’ll never learn otherwise.’

‘You need to put your needs first, and you desperately need sleep, so try some sleep-training.’

‘You’ll be a better parent if you had a decent break from her, just leave her in her cot at bed time, it only takes a few days, she’ll get the hang of it.’

‘She’ll be in your bed till she’s 6 years old if you’re not careful!’

‘She doesn’t need milk at night, she’s just using you because it’s there.’

‘Sleep training’ appears to me to be a massive euphemism for what is essentially leaving your child to cry themselves to sleep. Every Christian fibre in my body recoils at the idea and no matter how it is dressed up or down, I find it abhorrent. As Christians we are called to stand up for the weak and vulnerable, and deliberately leaving a distressed child to teach them a lesson is exactly the opposite of that to my mind, regardless of the circumstance (indeed it is a great source of sadness to me that many Christians seem to advocate leaving your child to cry as a viable ‘parenting choice’). In the psychological literature it is covered by the term extinction techniques, but it goes by various names in common parlance, such as Cry it out or the milder form Controlled Crying, Self-Soothing, and so on. But just because it is given a fancy name and books have been written about it by impressive sounding people, indeed just because it seems like everybody does it, doesn’t mean it is a good thing, especially when there are gentle alternatives to coping with disruptive nights. It strikes me as odd that if a child were left in a room by themselves in a daycare setting and left to cry to teach them a lesson, we would call it neglect, and yet it is apparently not neglectful (in fact many ‘sleep experts’ would tell you it is necessary) to do this at night time at home in order to teach a child to sleep. The sad thing is, it doesn’t teach a child to sleep, it just breaks the bond between carer and infant and teaches them that their cries for comfort are not answered. Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone that a child reaches when she is ready (or indeed, not at all. After all, I have never slept through the whole night without waking. Have you?) If you don’t believe me, see here and here. Several experts of different scientific backgrounds came together in this article to encourage parents not to engage in extinction technique type sleep training. We do not live in a perfect world, however, and we are all learning and make decisions we regret. This is a useful article for moving on from extinction technique sleep training if you have done it and regret it.

No, I am unwilling to leave my child to cry alone in order to get an undisturbed night’s rest, yes, even if it ‘only’ takes fifteen minutes, and it’s not because I’m a super-mummy or a martyr or whatever. Believe me, I can see why it seems like a potential option at times, and it is particularly hard if close family members are putting pressure on you to do it (fortunately mine do not). Something of course has to give when you reach rock bottom, but while I of course can never know everyone’s individual circumstances, I find it unlikely that ‘sleep training’ is ever the only option left. But it is a lonely old world out there when your child is over one and you won’t entertain the idea of sleep training, because sadly most people seem to have done some version of it. People (usually people who are no longer parenting young children) often make off-hand comments like the above (which can shatter confidence when your mental health is fragile anyway) and then basically act like it’s your own doing that you are sleep-deprived. Not going to lie, it’s tough. I just don’t tell many people day-to-day how I really am, unless they genuinely seem to care.

The last few nights have been bad ones, and I’m writing this in a tough patch. I know things will seem less bleak when I’ve had a few nights’ ‘normal’ sleep, but I wanted to write this in a bad patch because I want other mothers who wish to be responsive to their child(ren) to know they are not alone, and that the dark thoughts can be terribly overpowering. When I lie awake unable to get to sleep, usually after my daughter has woken me up and long since dozed off again, the same old thoughts go swirling round my mind: It’s just a bad night. Perhaps tomorrow will be better. But I could take a bad night like this one if I hadn’t had a string of bad nights recently. And I could take a string of bad nights if I hadn’t had a month of Phoebe having a cold and me fighting off various infections. And I could probably take a bad month of illnesses if I hadn’t had 18 months of broken sleep and being needed 24/7. At some point I usually try to calculate how many hours’ sleep I’ve had – always a danger, because it often just makes me feel worse. And I know deep down that quality of sleep is so much more important than quantity. But I look at the clock nonetheless. Maybe other mothers are superhuman, I wonder? I only have *one* child, some people have five! Or maybe I am just rubbish at dealing with life. How do I get through the day? Should I try to go back to sleep now, or will I just waste life and drive myself crazy by lying awake and running over all my anxieties? How will I get my brain in gear to be able to attempt some PhD work today? Do I go to church/toddler group/town tomorrow, or can I not face telling people how I really am because I will collapse in tears at their reaction? Because I know that this lack of sleep and the intense neediness of having a child has pushed me to my limits and that I spend at least a third of my existence hovering perilously close to the edge of a massive pit that I risk falling into if I’m not careful.

I know there are many mums who feel the same: I can see it in their eyes at toddler groups. It helps to know I’m not alone. And I am painfully aware that there are many mothers going through what I am going through but who are also fleeing violence, or war, or famine, or battling illness, and I am overwhelmed with gratefulness that my child has shelter and is safe and healthy. Sometimes it is hard to find God in it all, I stare at the ceiling and ask him whether he really cares about my sleep deprivation and the fact that I feel I have almost nothing left of myself to give to my daughter, let alone my husband, family or friends, whether he cares that it is often a battle just to fill the day until my husband comes home from work. And yet I know he does. When I feel I have nothing left and want to give up, I remember that my father in Heaven did not abandon me to the grave, but sent me a Saviour. And recalling his sacrifice, I somehow find a scrap of energy to attend to whatever my daughter needs. When I feel like Phoebe’s demands are too much and too frequent of me, I remember that I am never forsaken. And so I will never abandon my child. When I feel that I have no life of my own, I recall that he lay down his life so that I might live. So I must lay down my life for another. Having my daughter has taught me much about unconditional love, but having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ has taught me more.

A few nights ago I was reading Psalm 32, and I stumbled at verse 7. I am so tired that reading is hard work at the moment, and the summation of my Bible reading is a verse here and a verse there. And this one stuck with me, and I turned it over again and again in my mind.

You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

This image of being hidden by God and surrounded with songs of deliverance resonates so deeply with me and keeps me going. My yoke is easy and my burden is light… Surely I am with you, until the very end of the age… The old order of things will pass away… And the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings …

And he surrounds me with songs of a different nature too: The older lady who noticed I wasn’t in church yesterday and telephoned to see if I was ok. The local mum acquaintance who shared with me that she, too, ‘still’ nursed and bed-shared with her 18 month old. La Leche League leaders who lend a listening ear and an open heart. Committed family members who never stop caring. A dear friend who suffers from awful depression but prays for me every day and with whom I laugh, share and cry about the wonderful and dreadful world we live in. A husband who calls at lunch time just to make sure I’m coping. A darling daughter who I love so very much and who plants a kiss on my lips first thing in the morning when she wakes up.

Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who housed Jews during the Second World War, called her most famous book The Hiding Place. It is a book full of suffering and loss, yet underpinned by the joy and hope of trusting in God for deliverance. An extract from the book is written in the front of my diary, and it goes like this:

“Today I know that memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work he will give us to do.”

Somehow, God will use these horrendous few years of sleep deprivation for good. I know not how. But I trust that he will. He doesn’t promise that life won’t be hard. But he does promise that he will be with us, and that it will pass. And I know that this, too, shall pass.

John Lennox at The Oxford Union’s God debate

Many of you will know of John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. He is interested in and writes a lot about the interface of science, philosophy and religion, and has debated noted atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchins. Recently he was one of the speakers at the Oxford Union debate ‘This house believes in God’. He is a fabulous speaker and this is definitely worth watching as it’s only short. He makes a strong rational case for God, but what I thought was particularly powerful is how he shows that ultimately believing in God is about knowing a person and restoring a broken relationship – it’s quite remarkable.

Amanda Thatcher reading Ephesians 6:10-18

I didn’t watch the whole of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, but I’ve seen this clip of the Ephesians reading by the former Prime Minister’s granddaughter, Amanda Thatcher, going round Twitter and the blogosphere. I was amazed by her composure and resolute assuredness in her delivery of this. I read here that she is a committed Christian. You can tell, can’t you?

The Heart in Waiting: Commotio records Bob Chilcott carols


Bob relaxes in his ‘composer’s chair’!

Well, the weather was certainly appropriate for a recording of Christmas carols! Over the weekend the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio, in which I have had the pleasure to sing for 5 years, recorded a disc of carols by Bob Chilcott in Keble Chapel, due for release in November 2013 on the Naxos label, under the direction of the mighty Matthew Berry. For those of you unfamiliar with the choir, it was founded in 1999 to provide a ‘refreshing alternative’ to the usual choral repertoire by focusing on little known works of the 20th and 21st centuries. For anyone who has been through the mill of Evensong repertoire for years (i.e. me), such a choir provides a wonderful opportunity to discover new music (especially by working with composers of new works), be challenged musically, and, well, have a good time with other like-minded individuals. The choir is that rare thing: amateur in the best sense of it being our hobby, while capable of negotiating difficult music. We get a fair bit of air-time on ClassicFM and Radio 3, and for a discussion on Radio 3 of the music on our last disc, the choral music of Francis Pott, see here: Caroline Gill of Gramophone Magazine calls the choir ‘uniquely good’!

With this in mind, you might ask why we were recording a disc of Bob Chilcott’s carols, some of whose works, unlike most of the repertoire we sing, are very well known in choral circles, and whose music isn’t (at least at first blush) as challenging a sing as Commotio’s usual staple diet. I’ve found that some can be quite snobby about his music, brushing it aside as ‘cheesey’, often lumping it together with the music of John Rutter. If you think there is nothing more to Chilcott’s music than An Irish Blessing, can I invite you to think again. I first realised there was more to his music than my school-girl choral experiences had led me to believe when I sang his Advent Antiphons in 2007. These are anything other than cheesey. Bob is a hugely experienced choral composer who writes in many different styles, but what I find underpins his music is the fact that it is so singable. You can really tell he’s a singer and I never feel vocally tired after singing his music, even for 12 hours a day during a recording! He also manages to compose music which is both musically interesting and accessible for a wider audience: no mean feat!

Inside Keble chapel

Inside Keble chapel

We recorded something like 24 individual movements/pieces, including the more well-known Shepherd’s carol. Many of the pieces were for unaccompanied choir, but we also recorded some with organ, harp, flute and oboe, and worked with a lovely soprano soloist, Laurie Ashworth. It was quite an experience getting used to singing with instrumentalists in the boomy acoustic of Keble chapel, but it was a lot of fun. Many of the pieces are absolute gems. Bob explained that he likes to set music to texts by modern poets such as Kevin Crossley-Holland and Helen Dunmore, and I found that these texts so wonderfully explore the mystery of the incarnation, which, given that this is a Christmas disc, is the central theme. Crossley-Holland’s poem The Heart in Waiting is particularly brilliant, and I think the title so amazingly captures both the about-to-be-ness and the eternity of God’s plan to become man: Jesus has been there since the beginning, a ‘heart in waiting’.

And Bob’s settings of these texts are sublime. He writes like a French composer in Les Anges de nos Compagnes, and his double-choir setting of Before the ice/O Magnum Mysterium is weighty and full of awe as the narrator contemplates the implications of the incarnation. But it was his setting of On Christmas Night that I loved the most. It is a collection of eight movements for choir, harp, organ, oboe and flute based on familiar texts such as Once in Royal David’s City, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (translated) and O little town of Bethlehem. For each text he has written a new tune, but then introduces the traditional tune later on into the texture, i.e. over the top of the new tune, and all this without the new tune sounding like it’s been written to ‘fit’ the old one – amazing! I can never understand how composers write new tunes to texts which have such well-established choral arrangements already. But Bob’s setting of This is the truth sent from above far outdoes the traditional Vaughan Williams arrangement in its simplicity and mystery, really bringing out how contrary the incarnation is to the world’s expectations.

Commotio recordings are never stressful, and it was an enjoyable weekend. There is a real spirit of ‘togetherness’ in the choir and it means that we always have a lot of fun making music without it ever being cliquey or diva-ish. And the tenors are always making us laugh: check out their Christmas jumpers!

Christmas jumpers at the ready!

Christmas jumpers at the ready!

I’ll probably blog again about this once the disc is out (we’ll be having a launch concert in London in November). Watch this space! And if you can’t wait till then, here’s King’s College Cambridge’s offering of The Shepherd’s Carol in 2011.

Easter Homily by Sarah Coakley at Salisbury Cathedral

I came across this excellent homily on Fulcrum‘s website, and I urge you to read it: it is full of Easter joy and explains why the resurrection matters! I particularly like how the speaker talked about the modern idea of the individual and how it does not want to submit to and ‘die with’ Christ. This is very much something I resonate with!

So here is the great truth at the heart of Christian faith:  resurrection. Stake your life on it, struggle with it, and everything will change. Die, turn, see … and live in this mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, who, in its Salisbury manifestation, has turned out here this morning in the cold and dark to start you on this great adventure of the Christian life of redemption, joy and fulfilment, and will hold you in it in all your frailty and glory, unto your life’s end. For Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.’

Holy Week and J.S. Bach

Did you know that J.S. Bach is this week’s composer of the week on Radio 3? Every year I think to myself that Holy Week is the best time to engage with the works of Bach. This is primarily because it is usually during this week, the week where Christians follow Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Palm Sunday) to the cross (Good Friday) and subsequent resurrection (Easter Sunday), that Bach’s two great ‘Passions’, those of St Matthew and St John, are performed across the country. While I have to admit (and most of you know anyway) I am a totally committed fan of pretty much anything Bach composed, the passions are singular, as far as I am concerned, in their emotional depth. For those who know nothing about passions or the Bible or Bach, these great works were intended to be performed on Good Friday in church, and take the form of a gospel text (St Matthew’s in one instance and St John’s in the other), which charts the last few days of Jesus’ life in recitative form, interpolated with arias and chorales in which deeper themes within the biblical text are explored.

Now I happen to think that the works of J.S. Bach will enrich anyone’s life, regardless of whether you are a Christian, a musician, a Germanist, or none of the above. Hence this is my attempt to gently encourage you all to engage with a little bit of Bach this week, regardless of your background. I think Bach has something to offer everyone.

For Christians who are not musical, these passions offer an alternative style of devotion (that’s what they were intended for!) They take us through the last moments of Jesus’ life and give us space to reflect on and respond to his great sacrifice for the sins of mankind. The scores are unparalleled in the musical world in their treatment of this topic. You might come away feeling like you’ve run a marathon, but sitting down with the words and a CD and listening along certainly adds a new dimension to my devotions every year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Since the passions deal with questions of cosmic significance, they are relevant and accessible to non-believers as well as Christians, especially to people who like music! As a wannabe musician, I sometimes find myself guilty of not really paying attention to what I’m singing about. However, my understanding and appreciation of Bach’s passions increased exponentially (as did an outpouring of my faith, as it happens: ask me about it sometime) as a result of engaging with the text and Christian claims of these great works. I urge you whatever your faith not just to sing or play, but to engage!

As for Germanists who might or might not be familiar with classical music and/or Christendom, Bach counts among the best of Germany’s exemplary cultural output, so he’s definitely worth getting to know!

The best way to get into a passion is to sit down with a libretto, a translation and a recording. Happily, you can do all this online! (Isn’t technology wonderful!) For example, you can watch a live recording of the whole Matthew Passion, directed by the brilliant Philipp Herreweghe, here. You can follow the German here, and read a translation here.

Since most people will find the idea of listening to 2 hours 45 minutes of Bach daunting, I thought I’d help you find a ‘way in’, one from the Matthew Passion and one from the John.

St Matthew Passion: This aria is called So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (‘My Jesus has now been captured’), and features just after Jesus has been identified by Judas in the garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. A duet allows us space to reflect on the unjust arrest of Jesus, before a fabulously exhilarating section helps us to recognise the cosmic significance of the moment (and call for judgment on Judas, which you may or may not like, but is a great vehicle for some truly terrific German: Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle – try getting your mouth round that lot in a hurry). It’s quite brilliant – do have a listen, and enjoy how Bach uses the ‘chorus’ to interject with lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht! (‘Leave him, stop, bind him not!’) The words are below with a translation (from the same source as above).

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Mond und Licht
Ist vor Schmerzen untergangen,
Weil mein Jesus ist gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Sie führen ihn, er ist gebunden.

Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?
Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle,
Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle
Mit plötzlicher Wut
Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!

Thus hath my Jesus now been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
Moon and light
Are in sorrow set and hidden,
For my Jesus hath been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
They lead him off, he is in fetters.

Hath lightning, hath thunder in clouds fully vanished?
Lay open thy fire’s raging chasm, O hell, then,
Now ruin, demolish, devour, now shatter
With suddenmost wrath
The lying betrayer, that murderous blood!

St John Passion: Here I have gone for the final chorale of the piece. Recall that Jesus’ resurrection is not depicted in the passion accounts (in the Lutheran church this would have been celebrated with much gusto on Easter Day with an Easter cantata) It is a prayer which looks forward with great faith and hope to the resurrection at the last day, and I never fail to be inspired by the boldness of the words Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich! Ich will dich preisen ewiglich! (something like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, listen to me! I’m going to praise you for ever and ever!’)

Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Am letzten End die Seele mein
In Abrahams Schoß tragen,
Den Leib in seim Schlafkämmerlein
Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein
Ruhn bis am jüngsten Tage!
Alsdenn vom Tod erwecke mich,
Dass meine Augen sehen dich
In aller Freud, o Gottes Sohn,
Mein Heiland und Genadenthron!
Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich,
Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!

Ah Lord, let thine own angels dear
At my last hour my spirit bear
To Abraham’s own bosom,
My body in its simple bed
In peace without distress and dread
Rest till the day of judgment!
And then from death awaken me,
That with mine eyes I may see thee
In fullest joy, O God’s own Son,
My Savior and my gracious throne!
Lord Jesus Christ, give ear to me,
I would thee praise eternally!

Words; Translation


Many of you will have seen the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables. I originally saw the stage show about ten years ago in the West End and it’s definitely one of my all time favourite musicals (back in the day I was a bit of a musical theatre connaiseuse…)

When watching the film at the cinema last month, I noticed a song, ‘Suddenly’, which seemed unfamiliar to me. Given that it sounds so much like it belongs to the rest of the Les Mis score, I assumed it was just one of those songs that I had somehow forgotten in the years since I used to sing ‘I dreamed a dream’ practically every day, accompanying myself at the piano (it must be a stage all 15-year-olds go through…) A little bit of research has shown me that actually, ‘Suddenly’ does not feature in the original production, but was written specially for the film by composer Claude Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, who had penned the original. Since the film is two and a half hours long, you’d be forgiven for wondering why an extra song was written for the big screen: Tom Hooper, the director, explains here how he wanted to show how central falling in love with little Cosette was to Jean Valjean’s life, something which is difficult to capture in theatre. The writers clearly agreed with him, because in the same extract Schönberg says ‘There is a chapter in the book I think that only a camera can catch’.

For those unaware of the plot or who haven’t seen the musical, Jean Valjean is an escaped convict who has never been shown love before, and he takes in Cosette, the daughter of a disgraced prostitute who has died, and brings her up as his own daughter. There is much I could write about this story and this film, given its strong Christian overtones, as although much of the plot is harrowing, it is ultimately a tale of grace. However, I draw your attention to this song because it is rare, I think, that intimate but non-sexual relationships of this type get explored in popular film. Jean Valjean is a single grown man, Cosette is an abused little girl. It seems an unlikely friendship, but it is a beautiful one. Have you ever had an unlikely friendship, where you have learnt to see the world in a new way because of someone else, someone who you would never have thought would touch you in the way they did, because they are so different from you in terms of background, age and so on? I know I have. I love the fact that the unlikeliest of relationships are often the ones that stay with us long after our paths have crossed. This song beautifully sums up this sentiment. Have a listen.

Respite from Facebook

A number of you have asked me why I have given up Facebook for 2013, so here are a few brief thoughts.

1. It’s addictive

I began to realise I was regularly spending more time checking Facebook per day than I did i) spending time with my husband, ii) working on my PhD and iii) praying. Because technology is such a huge part of all our lives now, it’s so easy to leave Facebook open hovering in the background. It had started to accompany my life in almost everything I did. I figured this could mean I was on the road to addiction, so decided to take a break.

2. It had become a medium between me and reality

What I mean by this is that I started to think in terms of status updates and photos to upload. Things almost only seemed ‘real’ if they had been uploaded to Facebook. I didn’t like that. I want life to be ‘real’ without being virtual!

3. It encourages us to post short, immediate responses to events or feelings without reflection

While this was all ok back in the day when status updates used to be about going to the shops, I’ve increasingly found this to be the most frustrating thing about the site. Most topics, particularly of a political or theological nature, deserve more than a quick ranty status update (I count myself among the guilty here). In addition, commenting on someone’s wall can turn into a 150-comment-long thread where multiple people misunderstand each other and the nature of the discussion. This doesn’t seem like constructive debate to me. Unlike on blogs dedicated to particular topics, people don’t come to Facebook with debate in mind. Often (though by no means always) this means comments do not engage with the topic in hand in a constructive way. I always find myself wanting to contribute, which inevitably leads to more confusion and misunderstanding and the need to clarify things.

4. It clutters my brain

I’ve found that I go to sleep whizzing and whirring with everyone’s views on every topic under the sun, and I can’t think straight. Life seems hectic, fast and cluttered when I use Facebook every day. I long to slow down.

5. It can be a superficial way of keeping in contact

It’s nice to have updates from friends and family, but I find that, if one of my friends is active publicly on Facebook (i.e. not via a private message), I don’t bother getting in touch with them personally.

However, I am aware that there are many positive aspects about Facebook. I miss people posting articles which I find interesting, hilarious status updates, and so on. So I’m reluctant to give it up for good. I just want to experience again what it was like pre-2005 before everyone’s lives were recorded on their ‘timelines’.

Things I do more of while having a Facebook break: writing letters, sending texts to friends, reading novels, spending more time with God, cleaning (yes, really!), writing in my diary, thinking, noticing the beauty of nature …

For a much more lucid post on the problems of Facebook, see Jonathan Lipps’ excellent summary here. See you in 2014!

(If you’re reading this via Facebook, it’s because my blog automatically updates my profile. You can link anything to Facebook these days.)