I had a rare opportunity to spend some time with my mom and dad sans kids, and it turned out to be an early Christmas gift for me. I opened up to them about some of my struggles lately: A parenting challenge I’m facing with one child in particular, how I’m feeling discouraged and a little burned out with the whole mothering gig, how down I continue to be not being able to run or exercise much at all, how I am grappling once again with those “not good enough” feelings, and they listened without judgment and then encouraged.
I’ve made it my mission in life for other women to see themselves as God sees them. I look at my friends, and I recognize their beauty and see women who have so much to offer me, their families, and the world. Then I look in the mirror, and all I notice lately are the mistakes, the flaws, all the things I can’t do, all the things I can’t control, and I feel powerless, helpless, and sometimes just plain, old ugly spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I’m not a good enough mother. I can’t write anymore. I am homeschooling dropout. I can’t run. I ate too many cookies. I am selfish. I should pray more. I shouldn’t have said this or that to a friend. I should listen more. I should write more letters to loved ones and friends. I should volunteer more. I ought to forgive that person in my life who is desperately in need of mercy. I should worry less about the dirty dishes and play more games with my children. I suck at slowing down and being fully present. I don’t need anymore stinkin’ shoes. I commit the same transgressions over and over.
After my visit with my parents, my dad sent me an email. It served as Windex and helped to wipe away some of the grime I’d smeared upon the mirror. His email made me see past the messy reflection and see a woman who was giving her best. And that was enough for him and for most everyone else in my life except for myself. This email lifted me up so very much. I say the same words to others and believe them. It’s time I believe my dad’s words to me and for me.
To all the weary moms out there, to all the women who feel like they just don’t measure up. Maybe you feel like a lousy wife or employee. Maybe you’re lonely and are wondering if you’ll ever meet Mr. Right. Maybe you feel like your kids hate you or will soon enough. Maybe you’re questioning your blasted body because you can’t get pregnant or are fighting cancer or chronic pain. Maybe you’re just tired or sad, and you can’t even figure out why. Maybe you don’t feel thin enough or young enough or pretty enough. Perhaps you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see.
Well, here’s my prayer for you straight from Dad. This is what he wrote me. I told him it was the best early Christmas gift to me. I hope they might be a small gift for you as well.
“My prayer for you is that you can find it easier each day to see yourself through God’s eyes and mine. To clearly see the amazing Mom who gives it all for her kids. The Mom who laughs with them, cries with them, agonizes with them, grows tired and sick with them, learns with them, sacrifices for them and just plain loves them! There is no more important responsibility than being a Mom. All ‘jobs’ pale in comparison, when it comes to the impact on our spiritual and natural worlds. To clearly see the beauty of the woman who the rest of us see. The person who works so hard to push herself through frustration and pain even when others don’t get it. To clearly see the wife that is a real example of ‘the wind beneath his wings.’ The one who has graciously carried the heavy load of facilitating her spouse’s success through your own self sacrifice, patience, love, and hard work. To clearly see the daughter who has brought us so much pride and love and never anything to burden and worry us! To see the soldier of her faith that fights the battle alone, nurturing her little army of saints.
Life would be so much easier and happiness so much easier to come by if we could only be appreciated and loved by people as we are by God. I guess that’s why he’s perfect and we’re not.”
This morning my sweet 2-year-old boy delicately cupped my chin in his dimpled hands, widened his bright, brown eyes, and said to me, “Do laundry. Make dinner.”
I have to admit I was expecting him to profess his unfettered love to me, not give me a to-do list.
I laughed at this unexpected moment but if I’m completely honest, my heart felt an ounce heavier, too.
Lately I’ve felt like my life has been reduced to a list of menial tasks. Many of my friends have careers outside of the home or they at least work part-time. I’ve drastically cut back on the amount of freelance work I do. I have one chapter of the novel I say I’m writing, and it’s not a very good chapter either. When I homeschooled the older children, I at least felt like that was my job. I was a teacher. I was imparting great wisdom to these impressionable souls gifted to me. These days I feel like I am simply the person who cleans up spills, folds clothes, and makes sure permission slips are signed and returned to school.
I don’t write much. I blog sporadically and am always apologizing for my vapid posts. I don’t run (still resting…and hurting. Sigh). I don’t homeschool. Here’s what I do do: I clean. I nag. I wipe snotty noses. I schlep kids around. I worry that I’m doing it all wrong, that I am ruining my kids. I feel like no one notices all that I do. I feel taken for granted, used, and ignored. Wah, wah, wah. Please tell me you have felt this way before, too.
A friend of mine texted me a few weeks ago and asked me if I ever feel invisible. Um, yes. All of the time. I’ve wondered what would happen if I slipped quietly away. Of course, the world would still turn. But my household? It would be even more chaotic and discombobulated than it is now. I remember reading Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler before I had any children and being miffed with the heroine’s selfish behavior. In the novel, 40-year-old Delia Grinstead strolls down a shoreline and just keeps walking, abandoning her husband and three older children. The decision is not a premeditated one, and there was no big fight or breaking point that forced her to walk away from it all. She leaves more on an impulsive whim because she is tired of feeling like a “tiny gnat buzzing around her family’s edges.”
I didn’t get it then. I could not empathize with Delia. Today I have more insight. Today I sometimes feel like that gnat, too, that everyone is swatting away and doesn’t want around to bug them about picking up dirty laundry off the floor or being kind to their siblings.
I’ve taken two pregnancy tests recently (both were negative), not because I really thought I was pregnant (it would have been a miracle) and not even because I am desperately longing for another baby, although I would certainly embrace a new, little life if one was given to me. It was more out of a need to feel useful, to have a sense of purpose, and duty, to be more than a pesky gnat. I’ve written before that babies, while certainly physically exhausting, are beautifully simple to me. Their needs and wants are one in the same. I nurse them when they cry, and they are at least briefly satisfied. They want only mama. I have an excuse to “do nothing” except care for my baby. People allow you that when you have a newborn but when you have older kids, you need to be team manager for the soccer team and make homemade snacks. Or there’s the pressure – real or perhaps just perceived – because you’re “just” an at-home mom.
Lately I’ve found myself pining for those simple, early days of motherhood when it was just my baby and me in a cathedral sort of calm, cloistered off from the rest of the world and to-do lists. The miracle of what happened within my body – the laborious process of growing a human – was obvious as I held the baby in my arms. When I had that pregnancy bump, it was a visible sign of sacrificial love. Those first smiles were big returns for my investment. I felt needed. I had a great purpose. The babies needed my womb to house them. As newborns, they needed my milk and arms to comfort them. As my kids grow older, I feel more like a glorified waitress and maid. My job is to serve (and serve again) and pick up after them, and I’d better not forget to send water bottles with them to school or soccer practice. Sure, there are plenty of bigger teaching moments. I know mothers do far more than keep house, but I do struggle with this dying to self and all this quiet, unnoticed work. There has been a longing in my heart for little ones to nurture – as if I don’t still have young children underfoot (my oldest isn’t even 9 yet, but she’s getting very close!).
I could blame my internal struggle on society and the push for women to do it all. It’s easy to feel like a slacker when you only have four kids whom you no longer homeschool, and you don’t work outside of the home, and your husband even hired a house cleaning service to help you out for a bit. I mean, what exactly do I do all day?
I don’t watch TV. I don’t squander hours on Facebook. I do go to library story time with two littles. I read lots of books. I search for MIA shoes and socks. I bake muffins with sous chefs at my side. I make sure soccer cleats and shin guards are in their place for practice and that soccer balls are round with ample air. I meal plan. I wash dishes. I wipe counters. I kiss boo-boos. I encourage. I tickle. I wrestle wiggly toddlers into diapers.
But too often I am focused on all that I don’t do and on all that I lack. Or I look at my work and think it’s so mundane and useless. What’s the point? Many times I dwell on all that I do wrong: How I may have handled the emotional, raging child the wrong way, how I bark orders too much in the morning to ensure we make it to school on time, how I bite my nails, or ply my kids with Goldfish instead of making homemade crackers from the recipe I found when I was pregnant with my first. (I’m already forgetting about the homemade, healthy pumpkin muffins we made just this week.)
Then I discover notes like this: A “just because” note that should remind me that all this work I do – the routine stuff and the more important stuff too – has meaning that transcends hazardous waste removal.
Those little people do notice and they do love you even when their actions, their hurling of phrases like “I hate you” pierce your heart and cause you to collapse into a heap of self-doubt (or maybe that’s just me).
And you’re probably doing a better job than you think like this must-see video reveals. (Do watch it when you get a chance. My babysitter sent it to me recently, and it was just the pick-me-up I needed.)
I’m traveling through a rough patch right now. People said it would get easier as my kids grew older. I feel like it gets lonelier. I feel more powerless than ever before. There are all these unique people in my midst who have strong wills and their own ideas of how to live their lives. Pregnancy, nursing, babywearing – these were all more obvious signs of love. Now I am more hidden. And so is my work. Being a mom deals far more with that which is invisible. Love cannot be quantified, counted, or priced. It can only be given. Sometimes it’s given in more obvious ways like when you hold a tired child. Sometimes it’s doled out in meal after meal you serve day after day. Sometimes love is offered in a “no, you can’t have an iPod touch even if every other almost 9-year-old in the world has one.” When you give that love, you’re only given rejection and anger in return. Your work is hard. It’s tireless. It brings joy, but it hurts a lot, too. There’s nothing extravagant about it. I am not building skyscrapers. I am not piecing together perfect prose. I’m not saving lives as my husband does on an almost daily basis. There are occasional love notes and hand-picked flowers (thank God for those gifts of gratitude), but there are no raises, promotions, great accolades, and I’ll certainly never be up for a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, or even finish number one in a race. No podium climbing for me, but there’s another ascending, a drawing closer to Love itself. Motherhood is surely a path to sanctity, especially if we give our work – even the most tedious tasks a greater purpose.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wisely stated, “It is not the nature of our work, but its consecration that is the vital thing.”
All that I have and all that I do, the visible and the invisible – from the bum-wiping to the limit-setting – is not only for my family but for the greater glory as well.
The other day I had fall fever. Since I only have two little ones at home now I decided to go out to lunch and then run a few errands, including stopping by the local bookstore. (My first mistake was assuming that not having the two older children who are actually mostly helpful these days when we have stuff to get accomplished would somehow make it easier to take on the world.) I ordered roasted butternut squash soup. It was creamy and a beautiful orange. Its vibrant hue matched Thomas’s shirt. Mary Elizabeth indulged in a pumpkin sugar cookie to keep up with the orange-themed day.
Thomas screeched a few times during lunch, but he did quite well and more food ended up in his mouth than on his face and his belly. He did spill his cup of ice water, and the employee seemed mildly annoyed when I asked for help cleaning it up after I’d tried to soak up the lake with a generous stack of napkins. Whatever. Welcome to the restaurant industry. Spills happen.
The fall breeze outside, a perennially satisfying bowl of soup swimming in my tummy, and all that orange had me aglow with optimism, so I decided we definitely could handle a few more stops before heading home for quiet time.
Next up was the bookstore. I was looking for a birthday gift for an 8-year-old boy. Mary Elizabeth quietly perused a book while Thomas brought a menagerie of stuffed animals to my feet. “You’ll have to help me clean those up, okay?” I say.
“Kay!” he says agreeably.
But when it came time to return all of creation to its proper place, he shouted, “No!” and ran away on his quick, fat feet. I chased after him and when I scooped him up in my arms, I knew he had made me a wonderful, stinky present.
“Mary Elizabeth, it’s time to go,” I announce. Poop is always our cue to leave.
“One more book?”
I have trouble saying no to more book-perusing. “One more book. But that’s it.”
Of course, after that one more book was closed, there was the request for one more book. Fortunately, I didn’t have to squabble with her too much, and she got up from her cozy, reading spot to follow me. Thomas, on the other hand, shouted, “No!” once again when I approached him. I handed a book I was buying to the little stinker (in more ways than one) and made a game out of making it to the cash registers.
Tantrum number one averted. She scores! Go, Mommy!
Once at the cash register, I watch anxiously as a customer and the cashier debate about whether he should purchase the membership card. Enough with the chit-chat already, I thought. Thomas is pulling every single colorful gift bag from a display. “Put that back, Thomas, please.”
Now the the cashier and customer are bantering about his clever email address, which I didn’t catch. I honestly don’t care how clever his email address is. Just check out already. The ridiculously long transaction finally comes to a close, and the woman smiles and says, “Next.”
I scramble to clean up the gift bags. Thomas is on to a nearby display of bobble heads. Mary Elizabeth eyes the ugliest bobble head I’ve ever seen. The child is like a crow and typically drawn to pretty, shiny things, but she picks up the ugly bobble head, which I see now is marketed as a Despicable Me character. “I wish I could get this,” she says, which really is a nice way of saying, “Why can’t you be an awesome Mommy and buy me this random piece of junk?”
“Why?” I ask, not meaning to sound quite so disgusted.
She looks at the doll’s odd face. “Because I like its pointy nose.” Who doesn’t like pointy noses? And what house and family doesn’t need a bobble head with a really pointy nose?
“Please put it back,” I say. She stares at it longingly, but she does put it back. In the process, she knocks down a tower of bobble heads. Thomas picks one up and chucks it. The kid’s got quite the arm. I’ll give him that.
We finally make it to the smiling cashier who immediately begins trying to get me to sign up for the membership card thingy. “No, thank you.”
“I wish I could have a piece of chocolate,” Mary Elizabeth says as she eyes the delicious display of chocolate enclosed in glittery-gold wrappers.
“Chocolattteeeeee!” Thomas chimes in.
“You guys just had a cookie,” I say.
“Cookie, cookie,” Thomas says hopefully with his gloriously big, brown eyes shining at me, thinking that my saying the word “cookie” means he’s getting another one.
I resist his charms, although I’m starting to think binging on chocolate might be nice. “No. You already ate the cookie,” I say.
And now its gooey deliciousness is in your pants, I think.
I’m scrambling to find my wallet in the black hole I call my purse where diapers, wipes, enough snacks to fill a pantry, myriad treasures (AKA rocks, pieces of pinestraw, etc.) my kids have gifted me with, and water bottles call their home as the cashier, who seems impervious to the fact that I have two antsy kids in my wake, is asking me if I want to grab one more children’s book to get a $1 off the children’s book I’m already purchasing during their special fall promotion.
“I…” I stammer, considering if I should venture back to the kids’ section and grab another book for the sake of a buck.
Thomas makes the decision for us by picking up an audio book and hurling it, nearly missing another customer. I mumble an apology and watch as he then follows after it like a skilled Labrador retriever but before he can grab the box, I get to to it. I put it back, and he comes at me like I’ve just stolen a prize duck and barrels into me. I lift him and try to hold him in the way kind, patient mothers do, but his arms are flailing and he’s going for the hair now and climbing me like a crazed monkey. He is crying and screeching and shaking with a fierce anger. No diffusing this titanic tantrum.
“No, thank you,” I tell the cashier.
“Are you sure?”
“I think he’s reached his limit,” I say.
“I understand,” she says.
Do you? I wonder.
“Do you need gift receipts with either of these books?”
You don’t understand, you little liar. Just let me pay. Now.
“Oh, you smell,” I say to Thomas since I now have him in the football hold and my nose is closer to the offensive bum.
“He does,” the cashier says.
Well, I’ve been trying to hightail it out of here and would have been finished by now if you hadn’t told me about every single promotion in this store.
“I am sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be,” she says.
Oh, don’t worry, I’m not really.
Finally, she hands me my purchase and the receipt, and we flee for the door.
I stuff a stinky, squawking 2-year-old in to his carseat, and I realize that I had completely forgotten why moms of 2-year-olds stay holed up in their homes. We were supposed to stop by the grocery store to pick up a few items, but my momnesia – the amazing ability mothers have to forget about everything that’s less than desirable in the trenches of motherhood from labor pains to the bone-aching exhaustion of chasing after rogue littles day after day – was quickly fading, and I recalled our trip to Kroger last week and how Thomas threw every item I put in the cart on the ground and giggled at his hilariousness, watching Mommy bend over again and again to pick up whatever he’d tossed out of the cart. How he reached the items remains a mystery to me. He was buckled in the front part of the cart; yet, his arms somehow developed an elastic ability and reached the contents with ease.
The kids calmed down in the car. I savored the silence and took a few deep breaths and imagined myself eating all that chocolate. We made it home where after I tackled the atomic waste in my boy’s pants (I don’t attempt to change his diaper anywhere but home unless it is an absolute emergency because of the wrestling match that ensues and because poop always ends up somewhere on my body) we three snuggled together as I read a stack of books to them. In a mess of arms still glazed with cookie, we reclaimed our peace; the feudal lord called a toddler yielded and leaned into my body; the 4-year-old rested her head upon my shoulder. I closed the last book. We cuddled some more, and the momnesisa started again. Soon enough I would venture outside this lovely cloister where I’d risk my sanity again and try to do too much with a 2-year-old and 4-year-old in tow. But for now, I’ve forgotten the harrowing trip to the bookstore. Or maybe I just don’t care because in that moment, I am unabashedly happy and so are my children, and it is this brand of bliss that keeps me coming back for more.