Faith Gong: How to Thrive
I have never been a big New Year’s person. As an introvert, I’d rather be curled up at home in pajamas with a book than at a late-night party. The transition from one calendar year to the next doesn’t excite me much, and resolutions have always struck me as futile attempts to delude ourselves that a new year will bring automatic personal renewal.
But this year, as 2019 becomes 2020, I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m choosing a word to focus on for the new year. The word is THRIVE.
My word for the new year is a rebellion against the diagnosis handed down to our infant son, but it’s also a resolution for our entire family.
Just before Christmas this year, our seven-week-old son spent five days as an inpatient at the University of Vermont Medical Center under a diagnosis of “failure to thrive.” It feels unfair to saddle a seven-week-old person with a label of “failure,” especially when this baby is actually working so hard to thrive; if it were up to me, I’d revise the term: “Challenged to thrive,” maybe, or “struggling to thrive.”
Our baby was born small, as were all his sisters. But whereas our daughters gained weight quickly and attached themselves firmly to the 5th percentile of the growth curve, our son has always hung out beneath the 1st percentile. That would be OK, as long as his growth continued parallel to the normal, upward curve. But when our son’s growth trajectory started to flatline and head off into growth curve wilderness, his doctor admitted him to the hospital for testing and observation.
It turns out that our son’s particular challenge, his struggle, is severe gastroesophageal reflux. He is working hard to eat and grow, but he spits up a good deal of what he eats and can’t keep enough calories in to put on adequate weight. In other words, he is not thriving.
The word “thrive” means, “to grow vigorously, to flourish, to prosper, to progress toward or realize a goal despite or because of circumstances.” It has its origins in the Old Norse word “thrifa,” which means, “grasp, get hold of.” Thriving is a verb, it is active: Our son needs to grow vigorously by grasping those calories.
So we looked for active solutions. Once testing had ruled out all of the really scary scenarios, we worked with the doctors to adjust the volume and calories of his food, and the frequency of his feedings. I measured out our days in the hospital by milliliters, ounces, and pounds. At times, it felt a little like we were turning our son into an impersonal eating apparatus.
But our hospital stay also provided me with time to observe. In doing so, I zeroed in on something that my husband and I had noticed at home: Our son never spit up as badly at night as he did during the day. We’d commented on this, but hadn’t had time to consider how it might be a crucial piece of the puzzle. In the hospital, I had nothing but time. After our third night there, I started to wonder: What was different about nighttime feedings, and how could we treat his daytime feedings similarly?
The answer, of course, is that at night our son is swaddled, relaxed, and completely removed from external stimuli. We started trying to replicate those conditions around the clock, and his spitting up decreased dramatically.
Isn’t that amazing? We assumed that thriving was active, so it would require us and our son to put forth extra effort. But it turned out that the key to thriving was to remain passive, to get very still and quiet and just be. Sometimes the only way up is down. This makes sense, I suppose, if you consider how a seed must rest in the ground before it sprouts, how an egg needs to be incubated for weeks until it can hatch, or how land should lie fallow for a season in order to be most fertile. A certain amount of passivity is built into nature, but we humans often seem to be trying our best to squeeze it out of ourselves.
Of course, it’s easy to feed a baby in stillness and quiet when you’re alone in a hospital room; it’s quite another thing when you’re trying to manage a household with four older siblings (who are homeschooled and therefore almost always around) and numerous animals. And this is why THRIVE has to be the word of the year not just for my baby or me, but for our entire family.
If we are going to thrive in 2020, our family is going to need to slow down. We are going to say “no” to everything but the most important things and say “yes” to rest. We are going to try to lower our voices and our expectations. We are going to circle our wagons a bit, with the understanding that this is a temporary situation -- a bit of a hibernation or incubation. We will fight against guilt and remind ourselves that this is not selfish or lazy. Come 2021, we will likely turn outward again. But this is the year to thrive, and sometimes thriving requires an active effort to be passive.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.