Several times a year my husband works three 15-hour shifts in a row starting on a Friday. After working the amount that most people work in an entire week in just three days, he then works from 5 pm to midnight for several days in a row. I feel badly for him because I know it’s tough, exhausting work, but if I’m truthful, I feel really badly for myself, too, because during these interminable shifts, I feel like my work is just as exhausting. Only I’m not saving lives; I’m just keeping four people alive and on a bad day, I fear I am destroying their lives and one day they will end up horizontal on a couch talking to some stranger about how their mom went a little crazy sometimes.
When I had babies back in residency (my husband is a doctor and he really does save lives and do little things like catch cancer), he frequently worked long hours and although it was never fun, I didn’t mind it so much. I’d fall asleep with the babies early, or I’d miraculously get them to sleep on their own and then curl up with a good book. Or, back when I actually could have called myself a blogger, I’d write up a post or two to share on my website.
But now when he’s gone for these long stretches, I barely just survive. And that is no hyperbole. There have been several times this weekend when I felt like I wanted to run away or in the very least, cry my little, crazy heart out.
I foolishly thought being a mom would get easier, but I’m finding every day that it’s just getting more complicated – and a lot more noisy and busy, too.
Maybe it’s just because of the kind of children I have or how I’ve (failed to) raised them. A friend recently sent me a link to an article called “Strong-Willed Children are a Blessing, Not a Curse.” I needed the article, but I wondered why my friend thought I needed it. Oh wait. She’s seen the tenacity, the colorful, noisy, passionate characters that are my children. My children are very sweet, but they are most definitely more of the spicy variety. Or as another friend put it once, “I have one sparkly child, but you have four.” She said this as my children – who weren’t even disobeying or being overly wild – were circling around me more animated than a Pixar movie.
I had the pleasure of watching my one-year-old niece recently, and we had a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. The sweet girl had only slept for 45 minutes the entire day, and she’s a long napper when at home so I was prepared for a tantrum or two. But nada. Little Ellyn walked around happily taking in all the flashing lights and beeping and buzzing. At one point a toy helicopter that was circling around in a game’s plastic bubble case caught her attention. We watched it for a bit, but then I had to keep Thomas from scaling the prize counter so I scooped Ellyn up in my arms, and I vindictively started gloating. Here it comes. She’s gonna blow. I feel a tantrum coming on.
But nope. She waved “bye-bye” to the helicopter all on her own and looked at me with her bright, blue eyes and smiled. She freakin’ smiled as I forced her to go with me away from the current object of her affection. Huh?
When my brother came to get her, I told him she didn’t sleep much and thinking back to my babies, I said, “She probably won’t sleep too much tonight now will she?”
“Oh she almost always sleeps from 8 to 8 or so whether she naps or not.”
Later I was texting my mom, the grandmother of both Ellyn and my four lively, little beasties, and I wrote, “Ellyn is so easy. None of my kids were like that.”
Ding. New message from Gaba: “I love how different and unique all of my grandchildren are!”
As in easy-going and not-so-easy-going.
I don’t mean to throw my children under the bus or come off as thinking I am the only mother in the world with challenging children. I know that’s not true. I also know that different children are difficult at different stages in their lives. My Thomas was a very easy baby and very laid-back when he was immobile (oh that glorious, golden baby stage when they sit like happy Buddhas and just babble at the beautiful world around them!). Now he screams and rams into unsuspecting sisters all day long. He throws books when he’s angry, but he also gives big bear hugs all throughout the day and says the sweetest things to me like, “You are a beautiful mommy.” Still, I would describe him as “affectionate,” “active,” “animated,” and “expressive,” but I wouldn’t ever use the word “easy” except maybe when he’s asleep.
I suppose what is tough right now is that usually I’ve had one child in a more challenging phase, but the rest have been more straightforward to parent. But right now everything seems a little complicated. My oldest is a relatively easy “tween,” but it’s new to me so that can make it more daunting. And a 3-year-old boy, well, after three girls, I’m just not used to that either. And I have other children who are just prone to passionate outbursts because they are, ahem, the daughters of a very passionate mama.
So life is crazy, and even though I love my kids like crazy, they sometimes drive me crazy, too, especially when there’s no one on deck to help me out and my only alone time is at 5 am in the morning or after 10 pm when my nocturnal child finally slips into Slumberland.
My kids are full of life, and a lot of times I love the beautiful chaos or I at least tolerate it pretty well. But not so much today. Today I found myself wishing the Wicker clan consisted of a bunch of boring, (quietly) moaning zombies.
After Mass today, an older woman told me I had a beautiful family, and I wanted to burst into tears at what felt like a ridiculous comment or maybe I wanted to cry out of pure gratitude for her kindness because at that moment I felt like my family was anything but beautiful. My 6-year-old has an annoying habit of desperately needing to empty her bladder in the middle of each and every Mass, but I told her no today because I knew Thomas would want to go and I was just barely keeping him from becoming completely unhinged as it was. This caused her to ask every five minutes if she could go to the bathroom yet. She also kept whispering that she was still holding it in. “I’m still holding it in, Mommy.”
“Offer it up,” I hissed.
Thomas was flipping through a book of saints, and every picture he saw he pointed to the halo-adorned person and asked in a quasi-whisper (AKA a loud, raspy voice), “Is he a saint? Is she a saint?” And if I didn’t say “yes,” he would emphatically ask again if this clearly pious person was a saint or not. Clearly, I need to work on catechizing the 3-year-old in the family.
Then Thomas cuddled up beside me where Mary Elizabeth had been sitting and holding in her pee, and she looked at him and told him to move and that she had been sitting there next to Mommy. An older child valiantly moved over (not without a dramatic sigh), so prime-next-to-Mommy-real-estate would open up, but, of course, Thomas and Mary didn’t want to sit there. The left side of Mommy is clearly a more desirable spot. So they proceeded in poking each other while an older child sighed (loudly) at their distracting behavior and then proceeded to say, “Shhhh…” in anything but a hushed whisper. I shot daggers at all my kids. I whispered “motorcyle” to Thomas because I had told him good behavior in Mass would result in him picking out an el cheapo plastic motorcycle out of our toy grab bag at home. Enticing him with the motorcycle started out as a reward for good behavior, but now I have no shame in admitting I was using it as a full-out bribe.
Worst of all the priest mentioned at the end of Mass that this was the second Sunday that an altar server had not shown up for his/her scheduled assignment. My Madeline was up there now, but she had been late because clueless Mom had it in her head that Mass was over at the gym today because of our parish’s air conditioning issues. I apologized to Father after Mass and explained my mental gaffe, and he was so kind and charitable that I nearly broke down crying again.
Thomas asked me what the Eucharist tasted like and without even considering my answer, I said, “Love.”
And I told myself the rest of the day – which had started out with yelling and screeching from both the children and me – would be calm and would convey nothing but love.
We returned home and I was supposed to make my signature scones for a special back-to-school breakfast for tomorrow. Only the chocolate chips were MIA. I called my husband at work – because interrupting a man who is saving lives for the sake of chocolate scones is totally reasonable – and he promised he’d only eaten a few and had put them back where I keep our chocolate baking stash. Eventually, a contrite child admitted she had eaten a bunch. We found what was left (in a bag on the basement floor of all places) and tossed in a few token chocolate chunks into the batter.
Then it was time to share the inspiring signs my older girls had made for the year with encouraging phrases like “If you can be anything, be kind,” and “Give your best.”
The favorite one of all was the one that read: “You’re one smart cookie” because it came along with chocolate chip cookies my oldest had baked in honor of my youngest daughter ending her homeschool career (for now at least) and entering a brick and mortar school. We nibbled on the cookies and then talked about what patron saint each child was going to choose for the school year.
Madeline wanted St. Sebastian since she has a big soccer and basketball season ahead of her and also St. Madeleine because this saint apparently encouraged school girls and is Madeline’s namesake. Rachel chose St. Cecilia. Mary asked about this saint’s story. I made the mistake of mentioning how she kept singing even as she was dying. Thomas asked how she died.
“She was beheaded,” an older daughter said.
“What does that mean?” a younger, uncorrupted child asked.
“Her head got chopped off,” said older-but-not-always-so-wise child.
So then Thomas kept asking about why her head got chopped off and who was the person who chopped off her head.
“Was he a bad guy?” Thomas asked.
Well, what do you think, kiddo?
Then Madeline showed him a picture of St. Sebastian alive with arrows in his body.
Just what we needed: More gore for the 3-year-old BOY!
“What happened?” Thomas asked.
“Well, don’t be afraid because this won’t happen to you, but this is called torture,” Madeline gently tried to explain.
Great. Up next: Waterboarding!
I snapped the book shut. “Thomas, this is all you need to know. These people loved Jesus so very much that they were willing to die for him.”
Then I quickly changed subjects and started reading about St. Faustina thinking this might be a good fit for Mary’s patron saint and knowing she died because of poor health not in some gruesome manner that would attract the attention of our warrior boy. As I read about mercy, the kids started bickering (again). I switched to my theatre voice and projected above the cacophony, but they continued fighting. I forgot all about how our home would be nothing but a place of love that afternoon, and I yelled.
Then I locked myself in my room. Every two minutes someone knocked and gave me an important update.
“_______ just whipped us with a blanket.”
“__________ is going crazy. He/she needs a nap.”
“___________ won’t help clean up.”
“Mommy? Where are you?”
“Let me in, Mommy! I want to be with you!”
“Mommy, can I come in there with you because __________ is being so mean and won’t leave me alone.”
“Mommy, we finished cleaning up.”
“Mommy, are you there?”
And I started to cry. And I wrote an email to our priest (and he’s going to probably think I am a wacko). And I Googled that article about strong-willed children and read these words from it over and over:
One Sunday, I was out in the hallway at church with a particularly fussy Andrew, who was about 3 years old at the time. While he was screaming, a sweet elderly woman came up to me and said, “Your kids are so cute.”
I glanced down at my screaming toddler, and wondered if she was talking to the right person.
“They have some spunk,” she went on, “which means that they will accomplish great things.”
I told her that I hoped she was right, and she confidently assured me that she was. Quite honestly, I was a little stunned at her timing. She had seen me come to church week after week, and watched me struggle with my rambunctious children. She knew that I spent more time walking the halls while trying to keep them quiet than actually sitting in the meetings. I did not understand why she had picked that particular moment, when my patience was shot and my child was screaming, to tell me that my kids were full of potential.
As I walked away and pondered her words, my heart filled with hope. Although I was struggling, I had to believe that she knew something that I didn’t know. I think she knew MANY things that I didn’t know. And, maybe… just maybe… she was the answer to my prayers — a sweet assurance that this stage would not last forever, and that my seemingly impossible children had come to me with strong wills because they would NEED them to accomplish great things later in life. I found comfort in that.
I have looked back on this experience many times since then. I have thought about her words as I have struggled through countless difficult stages with my kids. I have thought about them as I have watched difficult stages fade into sweet stages of understanding and growth. I have thought about them as I have witnessed unreasonable children grow into thoughtful and self-motivated teenagers, whose strong wills are now ingrained into their characters in a way that strengthens them and others. There is now no doubt in my mind that this sweet woman knew what she was talking about that day so many years ago. She knew, as I am now learning, that strong will in a child is nothing to fear. It is a BLESSING.
Of course, those children require guidance. They require extra patience. They require strong leaders (parents) who gently, but firmly, remind them that they still have much to learn — that their way is not always the best way. They require parents who can teach them how to channel that strong will into useful pursuits, which sometimes seems daunting in and of itself.
There have been times in the midst of teaching such a child when I have felt like I was teaching a brick wall. There have been times when I have felt like I was going backwards instead of forwards. There have been times when I have desperately wanted to throw my hands in the air and scream, and times when I have done just that. But there have also been moments when I have felt like I was the student instead of the teacher. There have been moments when I have sat back and watched, in awe of the drive and conviction that is coming from that same child. In those moments, I have seen small glimpses of the greatness that is within them — the greatness that is still in the process of emerging from its cocoon.
And I knew that there’s a lot of defiance and stubbornness and tenacity and animation in my children, but there’s spunk and greatness, too, that’s going to emerge one day.
It’s true I haven’t had four babies who blissfully slept through the night at six weeks or even six months. I have kids who think they know more than I do (and sometimes, maddeningly, they do). I have children who brim with passion that sometimes comes out as joy and empathy, but it can come out as anger at times, too. I have children who question my every command. I have children who cleverly redirect the lessons I try to teach. Case in point: I once told them a story of two boys playing by a tree in Africa. One always obeyed his father without question. The other was more defiant and was always asking why this and why that. His name was Wicker. Wink, wink. Well, their father told them on this particular day to immediately come away from the tree and to run away from its branches toward him. The obedient one did as he was told and fell safely into his father’s arms. The defiant one asked why he needed to do that, and before his father could respond a poisonous snake that had been wrapped around one of the tree’s branches struck him.
“The boys were in Africa?” one of my children asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, good thing black mambas don’t live in Georgia,” the same child quipped.
At that moment, I did not appreciate her insight or the fact that she knew black mambas were venomous snakes indigenous to Africa. I only saw defiance in her response.
Too often I am too focused on the bad, on what is driving me absolutely crazy.
Sometimes all I see is a lack of respect in my children when they don’t listen right away instead of recognizing their creative minds are going a million miles a minute. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only mom with children who sass off at times or who fight with each other.
A lot of times I fail to see the silver lining in their tenacity, their passion, their vivacity, and energy. I’ve had coaches say things about how smart and passionate one of my children plays. I’ve had a speech therapist tell me one of my kids has an extraordinary mind. I’ve had a homeschooling friend who taught one of my daughters in a co-op talk about what a passionate, focused artist my child is. I’ve had people comment on Thomas’s big and loud guffaws – as well as his big and loud screams. I’ve had several teachers comment on my children’s kindness or leadership skills.
My children sometimes drive me crazy. Their obstinate natures drive me crazy. Of course, they need to be taught and guided, but I don’t need to break their spirits in the process. I wouldn’t want to because as much as I get exhausted and overwhelmed and wish mothering was easier for me, I know in my heart that defiance can plant the seeds for strength and encourage. It can later manifest in the young adult who isn’t afraid to stand up for her pro-life views. It can blossom in the girl who says no to the boy pushing her past her comfort zone in the trenches of dating. It can surface in the athlete who gives her best on the playing field – and in life. It can come alive in the child who kisses her mom’s tears away and says, “I’m sorry, Mommy. Today has been a tough day. We can all try harder.”
I also know that someone else’s child who might seem easy to me might push her poor mom’s buttons. The grass is always greener…yada, yada, yada. Motherhood isn’t supposed to be easy for any of us. On the contrary, it’s supposed to be anything but. What motherhood is doing for me is liberating me from a life that surely would have been more about Me, Myself, and I rather than the Holy Trinity.
Sacrificial love doesn’t come easy for me. God knew I’d need something to humble me.
First, God gave me marriage. It was so much easier for me to be selfish when I was single. Now I’m not suggesting single people are more selfish than married folks; I just personally needed an extra push in the direction of holiness.
When I was on my own, my priorities were more worldly: Get a good job. Buy those chic, chunky espadrilles. As a spouse, my priorities have changed (although I still have a penchant for a cute pair of shoes). I’m living more for eternity. I frequently find real happiness when I look beyond myself and what the world has to offer and fix my gaze on making my husband happy.
I thought I was getting the whole holy thing down pat – respecting and loving my husband and biting my tongue when he left dirty laundry on the bathroom floor. Saintdom, lookout. Here I come!
Then I became a mom, and I realized there was a lot more to learn about giving until it hurts. And lately, there have been more difficult lessons in this constant emptying of self. With my husband working long hours and my kids getting antsy and being overtired from soaking up the last drops of summer before school’s back in, they have been, at times, driving me to the brink of absolute desperation.
I can’t do this, I think. But I can and I have…over and over. And I will do it again. Over and over.
My kids also are driving me toward something else besides a non compos mentis state. They are pushing me toward the recognition that yes, truly the very traits that make me want to poke my eyes out such as their indefatigable strong-wills, passion, and sensitivity are the very things that will, as the wise woman in the article above recognized, give my children spunk – but also towards the realization that “easy” kids wouldn’t have softened my hard edges. “Easy” kids wouldn’t have forced me to let go of my perfectionism, my ideals, my own wants and desires. “Easy” kids would have been, well, too easy for someone like me – a person who struggles with pride and wanting everyone to see me as having it all together when I clearly don’t.
I have an aunt who is one of the most faithful women I know. I’d assumed she’d always been like this until we started talking one day and she admitted she’d turned away from her faith for a long time.
“What caused you to change?” I asked.
“Being a mom to four kids under 5,” she said. “It brought me to my knees.”
This is what motherhood has done for me as well. It has brought me to my knees. It has become a very real way of me expressing God’s love. It has given me never-ending opportunities to grow in holiness. It has led to a life of authenticity – where I live a very real, messy, and life in front of others in my imperfect humanity but reclaimed through Jesus. It has handed me a “get out of jail” card and a life that is helping – tantrum-by-tantrum, defiant child by defiant child – to free me from my self-seeking, shackled ways.