On Friday, I posted some thoughts about the pain and joy of the Mother’s Day holiday, and it got me thinking about motherhood and its daily ups and downs. In that earlier post I referred to the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. This post kind of continues with that same thread of thought. Disclosure: I have never actually read A Tale of Two Cities, but in checking details to make sure that I didn’t write something dumb, I ended up learning a little more about it, and it just fell into place as the perfect framework for me to write about what was on my mind. This post is lengthy, but if you stick with me, I think you will laugh and maybe cry, and if you have been a mom, I hope you will find something to relate to and some encouragement.
I think many of us are familiar with the opening words of A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) even if we have not read the book. Charles Dickens is writing about the time leading up to and after the French Revolution, but as I looked at the rest of the novel’s opening, it struck me that he has given a perfect description for motherhood too, at least as I have experienced it. The next words in the opening are “…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”: This has certainly been true of my parenting journey. I was really wise, even knew it all…… BEFORE I had any actual kids or had experienced parenting for real. I had been a high school teacher, and I had seen what so many other people were ‘doing wrong’ with their children. Just ‘read to them,’ ‘spend time with them,’ and ‘teach them manners and respect’ and ‘to follow the rules.’ I had all kinds of judgmental ideas such as ‘I would never let my kid do/be/wear/say/act ____________.’
Hmmm… I think we can all guess where the “foolishness” part of the quote fits in, can’t we? I did not have a freaking clue. Did you know that kids, real ones—not the Cabbage Patch ones, actually have their own personalities and wills? They do. And I think some of them thrive on doing the EXACT OPPOSITE of what the parent wants and tries to teach. For example, I try to teach manners—I really do, but I swear that every single time we are at the table for a meal, at least one and sometimes all three of my kids will pass gas, burp, chew with their mouth open, or all of the above. And then they laugh! And the disgusted look they get from me does nothing to deter them. They seem to enjoy seeing how many times they can get me to make “that face” during a meal. And yes, I have tried more than dirty looks to curb this behavior. Sending them away from the table backfires when they don’t want what’s at the table in the first place. The promise of being sent away from the table can actually be an incentive to be rude or disgusting. Maybe I need to start charging them money? $1 per fart at the table. I bet they will have fun talking about that in therapy in twenty years. “We had to pay to fart.”
What about homework? As a high school teacher I thought, ‘How hard can it be? I am only giving them a half-hour’s worth of work to do. Certainly a parent could take a few minutes to go over it with them if they have any trouble.’ Ha. Ha. Ha. HA. I have a preschooler, a second grader, and a third grader. How hard can homework be? Well. The first thing to tackle is when to do homework. Originally I thought, ‘they have been working hard all day; they need a little break and some time to play before getting homework done.’ Nope. That did not work. By the time they played, ate supper, took baths, read bedtime stories, and said prayers, it was already a half-hour past bedtime. No one wanted to do homework later.
We now do homework within a few minutes of getting home after school. Easy peasy, right? Um, no. After school is approximately 4:00 which is only one hour before we try to eat supper. I normally make supper every night, and depending on what is going on during the day, I may or may not have had time to prepare it earlier. Many refer to the 4:00-5:00 time frame as “the witching hour” for good reason. Moms across America lose it a little during this time. (Or maybe it is only I.) Kids are home from school and hangry. Rather than being tired from a long day of school, the kids seem to be super-charged and their volume is on high. The phone is ringing. The youngest is begging, “Read me a book, Mama.” The pasta just boiled over on the stove. And one kid is chant/whining “I don’t get this” during her math homework like a meditation mantra, although it is more like the polar opposite of meditation. It is a screaming madhouse! When I do pull myself together long enough to sit down with one of the darlings to help him or her with homework—after all, “I was a teacher myself”—it is so rewarding. Have you ever tried to convince a 7-year-old that he may have copied a word down wrong on his spelling list? Me: “Friend is not spelled like that. It is F-R-I-E-N-D.” Kid: “But this is how my teacher wrote it. I did NOT copy it down wrong. I even sounded it out, see, ‘fir-end.’” He does not even care about my resume—my degree, my years of experience. There is no way in his mind that I might know something, especially after he sounded it out for me and everything. No, Webster’s doesn’t know anything either, not more than his teacher anyway. I tried. He says we can still be firends.
And when you have a distractible kid, “thirty minutes of homework” is more like FOUR HOURS of ____. My daughter seems to believe that her life is a musical. When your life is a musical, of course it is necessary to sing an entire song, and maybe even dance a little, after each math problem—“Let it Go,” “Jingle Bells,” “The Wheels on the Bus”—it’s an eclectic musical. You might guess that this makes math take longer than it should. Shiny reflections on the ceiling are her undoing until she can pinpoint the source. (I’m not even joking. She was obsessed with a shiny pink reflection on the dining room ceiling for about 15 minutes just yesterday.) And Lord help us all if she gets a paper cut or some other similar life-threatening injury during the process. (It’s also a very dramatic musical.) Having to call the paramedics really does make the homework take more than thirty minutes. All of this does not even take into consideration eating, bathing, bickering, story time, Boy Scouts on Monday night and Girl Scouts and church on Wednesday night. What teacher in her right mind thinks we have thirty minutes to do homework every night? Don’t even mention the cute hands-on projects that come along periodically. It’s a totally unreasonable expectation.
I take it ALL back. I AM SORRY for every judgy thing I ever thought as a teacher. I clearly knew nothing then, and I know even less now. I am losing brain cells every day.
“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity”: These are somewhat uncommon words, so just for clarity, I will make sure we are all on the same page. “Epoch” is pronounced the same as “epic,” and it means a distinctive era or time period in history or in a person’s life. All of these phrases in the opening lines are set up as opposites, so “incredulity” is the opposite of belief. An era of belief and an era of unbelief.
I believed answering the call to take custody of my children was absolutely the thing I was meant to do, and at the same time, I couldn’t believe God would choose someone as broken as I to take on this kind of precious responsibility.
So very many times I believed I was doing everything wrong, and I couldn’t believe that things, that I, would ever get better.
I believed all the other moms had it together, and I couldn’t believe anyone else had as many struggles as I did.
I believed I was losing my mind.
I believed I was solely responsible for my children—how they felt, acted, and behaved, and ultimately, how they would turn out, and I couldn’t believe how much pressure that was.
I couldn’t believe that I actually had to explain to one of the children why eating sand or licking the bottom of a shoe was not a great idea.
I couldn’t believe that the kids would fight over which chair they sat in at the table, which cup they drank out of, who got the most cereal in their bowl, which movie we should watch, which princess costume each would wear, who could burp the loudest, who finished their meal the fastest, who got the toy first, and every blessed thing you could imagine. (But, I believe my brother, sister, and I did the same thing. It’s a kid thing.)
I believed I owed my parents an apology and some grace. This parenting thing was a lot harder than I thought.
“It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”: In the beginning of my parenting journey, I struggled. A lot. I had gone into it with such hope and high expectations (total perfection is all I expected of myself), but I can easily recall spiraling into that season of Darkness and the winter of despair when I didn’t meet those expectations. I was utterly disappointed in myself and my performance as a parent and devastated by what I saw as my weakness and selfishness. Becoming a parent brought up a lot of emotional baggage from the past. At times, I absolutely loathed myself and my inability to be who I imagined I would and should be. I didn’t recognize myself—I was angry and yelling, impatient and cruel, selfish and exacting. Ugly. I often asked myself inside my own head, “What kind of monster would…act like me?” Why couldn’t I be the kind, compassionate, caring mother? Why couldn’t I be gentle and soft? For goodness sake, why couldn’t I handle letting the kids play with play-doh like all the normal moms without losing my mind over the mess? Over and over again I would question my purpose and God’s wisdom in choosing me for this job. I was not enough.
And yet, there was Light and hope. Though it was a trying time, Terry remained steadfast and continued to love me in spite of my strong case for why he shouldn’t. I had friends who offered me grace and encouragement and assured me that they struggled too and that I was still valuable in spite of my many flaws and failures. They persisted in telling me that I was far too hard on myself and that my perceptions of how things were going were grossly distorted. I joined a MOPS group and began to recognize that other moms did struggle too.
It was at this time that I really became aware of the confession portion of our church service every Sunday. The pastor offers up a corporate confession of how all of us fail or fall short in the things we say, do, think, etc. AND in the things we fail to say, do, think, etc. and then assures us of our forgiveness and our value to God in spite of this. It was a bit of light and hope in the darkness. I didn’t need to go to church and have a pastor say these things for it to be real, but there was something very encouraging about being in a sanctuary full of people who were all agreeing that this confession was true for them too. It was not just me. Other people were struggling to be all that they expected themselves to be, and the pastor was reminding us that we were still worthy and lovable. Wow. Grace.
It was also during this time that I slowly began to understand and accept that I could not do this parenting thing or rid myself of all of my emotional baggage on my own. What had always worked for me before didn’t work now–I couldn’t work harder or read more books about it or, my personal favorite, just avoid the problem. These three children that had been entrusted to me were too important. I felt like their lives and their well-being depended on me. I had to do better—if not for my own happiness, then for them. Up to this point in my life, asking for help was not my strong point. I was of the “I can do it myself” and the “If I want it done right, I better do it myself” and the “You are weak if you can’t do it yourself” school of thought. I had reached a point, though, where I had to pray to God for help and rely on His grace to get us through. I had to let other people help me too. When I stopped trying so hard to do it myself, and when I gave up illusions of control, transformation and redemption began to happen. I was learning about God’s grace and was finally able to begin giving myself some grace. Flawed people and things do have beauty and worth. Nobody gets it right all the time, and maybe this is a justification on my part, but I think oftentimes getting it wrong has the more valuable outcome. It provides more of an opportunity to learn and grow and forgive.
One November I was reading the Jesus Calling daily devotional, and I came across this entry that seemed like the perfect description of what had been happening to me through my parenting journey. It assured me of what I had begun to suspect on my own:
“In this age of independence, people find it hard to acknowledge their neediness. However, I have taken you along a path that has highlighted your need for Me, placing you in situations where your strengths were irrelevant and your weaknesses were glaringly evident. Through the aridity of those desert marches, I have drawn you closer and closer to Myself. You have discovered flowers of peace blossoming in the most desolate places. You have learned to thank Me for hard times and difficult journeys, trusting that through them I accomplish My best work. You have realized that needing Me is the key to knowing Me intimately, which is the gift above all gifts.”
Through the process of becoming a parent, I finally recognized and admitted my neediness. My strengths were useless and my weaknesses were glaringly evident. Yet, God was accomplishing something beautiful. He was making me a mom and us a family. I had thought God’s plan was for me to be there for these children, to help them and to give them a better future, but I began to believe that they were sent to help me, to change me, to make me more the person I was meant to be. It has been a season of Light and a spring of hope.
“We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”: Five years ago, we had nothing before us—blank pages waiting to be filled with our story—and we had everything before us—everything of life and family to learn and experience. Of course, I have already indicated that at times, I felt that I was “going direct the other way,” but at times it was Heaven too. I remember taking the kids to a zoo in Minnesota early on, and they were so delighted at every sight and experience. We went to the farm part of the zoo, and they would scream, “Look! A cow! Wow, there is a cow!” They were just thrilled over something so simple. It struck me that I had lost my excitement over little things. I wasn’t amazed by much of anything anymore. It was a little bit of Heaven to experience their childish wonder and excitement. They have taught me to have more joy and gratitude for the little things. Christmas, the first sprouts in the garden, reading books and praying together, dressing up, ice cream cones, chocolate chip cookies, snow days, “Jesus Loves Me,” the tooth fairy, unknown pink reflections on the ceiling, rainbows, the smell of lilacs. Most of life, the things that matter the most, are “the little things.” It turns out that the “nothing” is “everything,” and I had almost missed it.
Motherhood is complicated. It is the best and worst and a bit of hell and a bit of heaven. It is full of foolishness and wisdom, believing and not believing. It is hope and despair. As hard as it can be, I have been blessed to have the name “mom” bestowed on me.