I had the great privilege last week of sharing a bit of my faith story and mom journey with the table I’m currently leading at MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers). How great is MOPS, by the way?! Hot coffee, cool moms, great speakers and five-diamond childcare. Sign me up every time. And I love this day every year, when the table leaders have the chance to step out, be vulnerable and talk about how we know Jesus. Where we’ve been, where we are, maybe also where we are headed. I improvised from this written version a little when I actually spoke it, but this is generally what poured out. From my heart to yours, you loves! Thank you so much for reading!
The theme of the testimony I want to share with you today is: “Who am I? An OC housewife’s search for identity.” While I’m not sure I have the answer nailed 100%, I’m going to try and tell you, in my best words, just who I am. And I’ve heard it said that the beginning is a very good place to start.
I was born to a family that showed me unconditional love from the moment I crashed into earth. I can still hear my mom’s tender voice as she cradled me to sleep in that antique rocker, singing the words that mean everything: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I remember asking Jesus into my heart during Sunday school when I was five, standing, head bowed, so earnestly next to the flannelgraph board in my black velvet dress and side ponytail. My parents adored me and my three siblings; our childhood was full of family dinners, vacations, pets, church services, extravagant Christmases, and just generally the most comforting love. Certifiably magical. I can’t remember a time not being cared for and known.
But, of course, life happens, and hurts you, and grows you, and surprises you, in many ways, lovely and hard. I can now look back on a faith journey of more than 25 years and see the broken and beautiful places where God chose to meet me most intimately:
- A serious eating disorder in high school, a raging battle over my mind, body and soul. But ultimately, victory.
- The older boyfriend with his leather jacket, guitar and undeniable charm, newly in the U.S. from England, making him totally something straight from an Olsen twins adventure movie circa the early 2000s. Not surprisingly, he broke my heart, lurching me into an unexpected season of anguish and some time as a teen in a therapy office. But ultimately, healing and growth.
- Attending USC for college, which was utter dreamsville but also felt like debauchery city, a shock to my system after 12 years of Christian school. The instant need for a choice became both clear and stressful: Stick to the deepest convictions forged in my upbringing, or bad choices, bad boys, and booze? But ultimately, keeping the faith, leading a Bible study in my sorority, loving the beautiful girls all around me as the Sober Sister they needed. Also meeting the love of my life, Douglas, the kindest, funniest, most pure-hearted (super-hot) human I’ve ever known.
- Following the urge to get my Master’s Degree in Professional Writing when we were two little broke newlyweds, even though it meant late nights working a restaurant job and minimal time with my new husband and friends. Not to mention, um, more school, in a field not known for its dollar signs. But ultimately, God’s vocational calling for me and so many jobs of my dreams.
These are highlights, moments I look back on, from a distance now, and see God’s divine hand working. Carrying me when I needed His strength, healing me when I needed a healer, holding me when I needed a friend. Some of those times were so deeply hard.
But none of these trials has come close to challenging me, breaking me, molding me, pointing me to Jesus in the way a fresh, recent season has proven to do. The past four years of my life.
The season of becoming a mom.
It is the past four years of my life that have forced me to dig deep and ponder the question, more fiercely than ever, “No, really, who in the world am I?”
And it’s this season I’m going to deep dive into right now, so join me as we put on the scuba gear.
I made up a little quote. It says:
“Motherhood is identity theft, in the best way possible.” – Me
Motherhood has challenged and grown me in about a zillion ways. But when I stop to consider the one aspect in which it has refined me the most, I can boil it down to that one word: Identity.
In the years after grad school, immediately before becoming a mom, I worked full-time as a business writer for the world’s largest commercial real estate company. I loved my job—really, truly loved making a living with the magic of words. I assumed I would ease into motherhood ready to balance a baby seamlessly with a career I cherished so much.
OBVIOUSLY this journey sprinkled with baby powder and unicorn sparkles would begin with me loving pregnancy! Nausea wouldn’t touch me, and of course I’d be blessed with the tiny little bowling ball baby bump I’d always dreamed of, eating salad and doing prenatal yoga and glowing effervescently until the blessed day I gave birth.
HA! Of course, none of that happened. I was plagued with extreme nausea for the duration of both my pregnancies; never have I been so physically miserable, so uncomfortable in my own skin. I threw up most days and felt just as awful on the days that I didn’t. And, since carbohydrates offered me the only hope of survival (though even that was usually false hope **insert eyeroll Emoji**)—countless bagels, pizza slices and boxes of Saltines later, I gained an average of 50 pounds in both of my pregnancies. I carried those beautiful babies in every inch of my body. Even my earlobes looked pregnant.
Anyway. Back to my meticulously planned, sure-to-be-fabulous career path as an ambitious young writer, also soon in for a shock. I planned to be a working mom and hardly thought twice about it. I enjoyed what I did, and we needed my income. It was as simple as that.
But then, about halfway through my first pregnancy, something unexpected and wonderful happened. My husband got a raise that changed our financial situation dramatically. Suddenly, I was faced with an option I never dreamed I would have: I didn’t have to work. I prepped for maternity leave with this reality in the back of my brain.
Delivery day arrived! March 15, 2013. What God had tortured me with via weight gain and puke, He made up for in the absolute glory of a near-painless birth. The labor was efficient and the epidural, perfection. Emerson changed everything in an instant. Pink, screaming, delicious and totally mine. My daughter. My dream. My mom’s dimples already showing. From that very first moment, I knew: Nothing else would ever be more important than her, ever again.
Maternity leave commenced. During those months, while challenging, humbling, and hugely devoid of sleep, my heart continued transforming. I began to fall less and less in love with my job—and more and more in love with the tiny baby girl in my arms. When it came time for me, personally, to make the choice, given that I had one now, after endless conversations in circles with my ever-so-patient husband, pro-con lists up the yin-yang, and meticulous analyses of our financial status… I did it. I decided to become a stay-at-home mom.
Nothing had ever sounded so completely wonderful and totally terrifying.
From the instant I quit my job, God began doing a radical work in my life—mostly involving the continued process of humbling me like crazy. In so many ways, motherhood quickly brought me to my knees in terms of feeling I had a purpose, a position, a place in the world. Despite the overwhelming love I felt for my daughter, everything I once knew about myself and my day-to-day life had suddenly fallen away. In addition, I quickly saw my own limitations in all their glaring severity, and at the time, it felt a lot like staring plain failure right in the face. Everything felt so hard, and I didn’t feel like enough. I recalled those previous seasons of life when I had felt lost, and confused, and a little bit scared.
Morning, noon and night, I’d look at my little baby: Oh, just me and her again! All alone. With the soundtrack of her colicky screams. Isolation. Depression. Indescribable joy. Oh, and of course my breast milk-covered sweatpants, un-showered body and remaining 20 pounds of baby weight! Loss. Insecurity. Total reverent awe at what my body had done and could do. The emotions were wildly mixed, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
But deep in my soul reverberated that same question: “WHO. AM. I?!”
And another, usually right behind it: “Why is this so hard for me?”
Then inevitably: “Is it this hard for everyone?”
I’m so grateful that motherhood caused me to pause and really ponder those questions at age 27, those deep-seated inquiries of self-doubt and human capacity. Because before that point, I didn’t recognize all of the things I was so desperately pasting my identity onto without even realizing it. Accomplishments, accolades and achievements. Things that were never going to last for eternity or deeply fulfill me, regardless of having a child. Things like:
- My career and work ethic
- My bachelor’s and master’s degrees
- My friends
- My cute clothes
- My like totally smoking hot bod (or at least being in shape)
None of those things are bad, of course—but they are dangerous when you hang your whole world and sense of worth on them, as I’d slowly, unconsciously started to do. Somewhere between the wide-eyed flannel-graph five-year-old and the full-throttle grown-woman, my soul had lost grasp of its center. Through motherhood, though, God broke me down significantly, and began to build me back up.
For miles and miles, I’d walk my new baby alone, in our essential UPPABaby Vista, worship music or Mumford & Sons blaring on high. I’d talk to God like a friend. Tears often streamed down my cheeks. Throughout those long days, I turned to His word and began praying more than ever before, fervently seeking the future and “self” He had for me. If I wasn’t those things anymore, well then, who was I? Help me, Lord, was my prayer.
I turned to the Bible for answers and found some great news. I learned I was:
- Fearfully and wonderfully made
- More than a conqueror
- An heir to His throne
And that was just the beginning. I learned that who I “was” would never be “what I did all day” or “what I accomplished” or “who I hung out with.” I was God’s child, and that’s all that mattered. Everything else would flow out from that.
In my earnest quest for meaning as a new mom, I can honestly say that I encountered the face of Jesus. If anyone knew isolation and loss, it was Him, after all. He tangibly loved me through friendships, kind strangers, my family, hot meals, holy music and crashing waves. Great books. Random texts. Always my drive-thru Starbucks. Often through the clear, bright eyes of my loving husband or soft, sleeping lids of my babe.
The comfort was real. The healing, miraculous.
The new life ahead: incredible.
My second daughter, Hadley, came along. May 26, 2015. But only after a miscarriage and months of struggling through that loss—and my postpartum days after her birth brought on a new round of darkness. I endured another expanse of difficult days, strung together like a half-eaten candy necklace. Sweet, hard, seemingly eternal and certainly sticky. And I guess they really still make them like this. But light prevailed. Jesus crashed in. He is the King of my first and second and all of the rodeos. Once again, He did not let me down, as everything else I’ve ever clung to has done, eventually.
I absolutely love this quote: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion.” – Brennan Manning
And this Bible verse: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39
Motherhood has cracked me open in the most beautiful and meaningful ways. In some ways, for a while, it felt like I had lost everything. But today, I know that I have gained more than I ever could have imagined. I see now that the woman beneath the split-open cracks has been made stronger, wiser, gentler and truer by the tangible love of Jesus, poured into my deepest deficiencies through the journey of becoming mom. He has met me in my most broken places. I’m so thankful to say that I’m not the same girl as the wide-eyed 26-year-old envisioning herself baby bumping in a bikini and posting those snaps on Instagram. If I could go back and tell her anything, it would be this:
“You are in for it, sister—really in for it. But you are so much stronger than you even know. No, you aren’t enough. For any of it. But God, your endlessly loving Father and faithful best friend, is more than enough. And He will carry you. Just like He always has. His grace is sufficient for you. His power is made perfect in all of your weakness. Also, enjoy those bagels, girl!!!! The gym isn’t going anywhere.”
I feel so indescribably joyful and grateful when I think back to the chains God has broken for me in the past four years, the ways he has set me free. Without a doubt, I think one of the most powerful things He has done in reshaping my identity as simply a daughter of Christ, has been enabling me to get outside of other people’s minds, and free myself form how they define me. My dad has always said, “It’s a small place to live, in other people’s minds.” And he is so right! I used to care so much that people would think I was wasting my expensive college degrees by staying at home with my kids. That I was “just” a stay-at-home mom. That I was no longer interesting or worthy or fun.
Also, after once overcoming anorexia—even though it was 16 years ago—gaining and losing 100 pounds in the past four years did trigger some of my fiercest past demons. And frankly, it could have been catastrophic for me. And you know? It was really, really hard. But it did not break me. Because that is another chain that no longer holds me. In so many ways, God has released me from caring how anyone else in the world might judge my body, my career, my life… Because I know I am right in His will. And perhaps most significantly of all, God has freed me from judging myself.
There’s a quote I love that says, “She believed she could, so she did.”
But there’s one I love even more. It says: “She believed she couldn’t. So He did.”*
These days, I wouldn’t change my life for anything in the world. I genuinely love being home with my kids. I mean, of course it’s hard, and some days feel more like impossible like I’m just about ready to go bury my messy-bun head in that playground sand. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. God has provided me with the two most beautiful daughters; so many new, wonderful mom friends and soul-filling experiences; increasing clarity of mind, body and spirit. So much new love. Joy. Peace.
God also has brought writing work back to me! Flexible, part-time opportunities for companies I adore and respect. Freelance life is my jam. Sometimes I think God calls us to lay something down, even makes us bury it deep, that thing we think we can’t live without, so that later He can loop it back to us, awash in new light, and we’ll know it has to be Him. He has a way of showing His glory through resurrections we never could have conceived.
And today, it feels so freeing not to attach my identity to anything in my life—not even to being a mom.
Because nothing is eternal except for my value in Christ.
I look back now and I think of how those trials, pre-kids, were preparing me for a future in motherhood, though I could not have seen it then:
My issues with body image and all I’ve learned about being a woman and the essence of true, lasting beauty, preparing me to raise up two girls in this present world.
That old boyfriend, giving me my first taste of heartbreak and loss, teaching me the invaluable lesson that our resilient hearts always heal, if we only reach out our hands—and that something more, something right, something breathtaking, is almost always on the other side of the pain.
That staying true to your deepest self and your faith, is always the right decision.
And that taking a risk for a scary new thing might seem totally crazy—but that crazy is some of the best stuff there is.
I’m a huge work in progress daily, and God keeps refining me by the moment. My testimony will keep evolving until my time on this earth is done. But I’m so grateful for the new life and sense of identity He has given to me—the new adventure, new perspective, new peace, new passion, new purpose—by affording me the unspeakable honor of becoming a mom.
So, who am I?
I guess I’m Stephanie, and I really love Jesus.
And He really loves me, too.
For my own mom. Thank you for everything. Thank you for singing those words.
*This quote is from incredible, awe-inspiring writer and woman of God, Lara Casey. I came across her on Instagram about a year ago. ADORE!!!