Motherhood is such a beautiful ideal, and an extremely difficult truth. We have such difficult scales to balance - to nourish adequately, to help our children navigate their way out of their unkempt outpour of emotions. To teach them to be flexible and to share, to be kind and brave, and to steward their belongings with care. We feed and nap them, we give deliriously without asking for anything in return, except the hopeful anticipation that our children will be happy and love well in the end. We manage all of these aspects of their lives, while we, ourselves, are sleep-deprived, and have our very own emotional gardens that need tending.
In the midst of chaos - the no's and time-outs, the tantrums and upset, the whining and general non-cooperation - I can experience a lot of anxiety, especially when the delirium of sleep-deprivation sets in. Most days, I deal with the messes as they come. I can take one incident at a time, isolate it from the rest of the chaos, and move on with relative ease. But there are some days when my mind is overstimulated from multi-tasking, "exhausted" is an understatement, my fine motor skills are more like a joke, and my nerves are raw and exposed. I feel the anxiety creep through me like a sickness, and I internally implode over every rebuttal of my authority.
I don't check in with myself, I continue to justify every nuance of frustration until anger is born. I lose it in front of the very beings I am teaching to have self-control. I yell and I cry and I feel such an enormous amount of relief from unloading. I take all of the weight back when I realize the repercussions of what I've done.
I am guilt-ridden and overwrought with the fact that I am giving my kids life-tools. I am personally handing them mechanisms to deal with conflict and to navigate reconciliation and peace. I am the one that will set the standard for their lives. What I say and how I react in one moment, has the power and opportunity to settle into their personalities, and to become their inner dialogue.
So I take my children into my arms. I humbly ask them for forgiveness, and I vow not to behave so recklessly in the future, and a miracle happens, one that makes me realize that I'm doing alright at this parenting gig, despite my mishaps. My children embrace me right back, and through teary-eyes, they forgive me. They forgive me.
We can't be perfect, but we can be sorry. We need to sit with our children and let them see that humility and forgiveness have power. I realized in that moment that my children are understanding their role in conflict resolution - their very choice. Our home will never be completely conflict-free, but we can all make the individual choice to forgive. We love each other enough that we can make allowances for each other's mistakes because the safest place to practice...is at home.
So we move forward, safeguarding our hearts with practical ways we can diffuse our frustrations before they give birth to destruction. I promise to keep more careful track of my emotions, to keep better balance of chores and fun, to put down the dish towel or the laundry and to guard our relationships most carefully when the stress meter seems dangerously overworked. And above all, to have a little grace for each and every one of us.
I was able to teach my children a valuable lesson - albeit the wrong way - and they taught me one too: that love is messy and imperfect, and ALWAYS a choice. No matter what, we are there for each other, and that is what matters most. Love is a powerful motivator, and they are doing it right. It compels me to be a better person, to love harder, and to let go of the things in this life that pester and nag me into defeat.
(First published in The Village Magazine's blog in October 2017)
We took our pool down the other day. The cool breeze of autumn is forcing the leaves from their place in the Oaks that surround our home. The heat of the sun has dampened, and we no longer need the cool water to survive or pass the days. It was a horrid mess to drain the water into the yard - 2,000 gallons let loose into soil that tends to stay damp with even the slightest rain. To dry and fold the weight of the fetid vinyl was a feat of its own. Underneath the pool was a mess of molded, wet grass that smelled of manure and had birthed its own ecosystem. It only took a few days before the sun dried the dead grass and removed the stench, but now we're left with a large brown spot among the acres of green.
My children spent hours in the water when the sun was scorching. Into the pool we went when the energy level of five children grew too manic for the indoors. The fluidity of water, of life, was seamless - no edges to work around, no corners to place children in. Diving and laughing, the crack and hiss of a cold beer while floating on a raft - it was divine. Now, when I stand at the kitchen sink and scrape the remnants of dinner into the trash, soapy water to my wrists, I find myself staring out the window at that damn browned spot.
I never had a pool growing up, or much laughter for that matter. My life was a filter that caught all of the dead and dark matter, smudging my soul with the faint stink of manure. I've carried this propensity to take the good moments and feel emptier from the space they've left in their passing. Worse almost than if they'd never existed at all. I look at the ugly patch of our lawn and it seems like an appropriately large nothingness; the beautiful thing that was, and is no more. It's been home to me in this strange way. Nothing concrete - the tangible brick and drywall - but the negative spaces that look more like holes, moments you can never get back.
My children are helping me change this. They have become my hot sun, drying the stagnation of things passed, slowly, very slowly, helping me to shift my focus from the shadow of what was, to the substance of what is. They are handing my childhood back to me, calling me to a home I've never before known.
My sweet River plucked the perfect pink petal and ran to me. More than a gesture, he offered me a moment and gave me his heart. He's always looking for beauty. He's always thinking of me. I preserved this rhododendron between two pages of a heavy book. I waited patiently for it to settle, to dry. Since my nose is often in a book, I made a memento I would see all the time. As I was sealing this gift, something moved and shifted and came off center. The flower rose too high, visually setting everything off. As much as I wanted to be upset because I failed at this one chance I had to make it perfect, I realized that it's more special, more true in its imperfections. I'm pushing through the inflexibilities I carry with me and choosing to stay in the moment when a six-year-old boy gave me a flower.
Motherhood is tough, isn't it? It's like the most glorious experience on earth, mixed with a tinge of absolute hell. It grows you right out of your very own skin, which is mostly good, and always painful. The good times far outweigh the bad, but the bad somehow seem to stick in my conscience on repeat. I could do a million things right: I can kiss my children, I can balm their soul and speak gently, I can nurture them with all that is in me, and when I don't hold my tongue or lose my patience, that is precisely where I take harbor.
A friend recently said that we live too much in the shadow of Freud, and I totally feel that within my bones. With much anxiety, I lend a lot of weight to the things I do wrong. I can enlarge a single moment into the destruction of my child's very future because of how I think it is growing them internally. No doubt, there is pause to be had over the weight of our actions and words as parents, but the incessant dooming fear over wrongdoings is just silly. I cradle those bad moments in my arms and nurture them into a beast.
I have needs that require me to separate from the chaos of everyone's feelings. There is no defeat in requiring respite from time-to-time. I'm realizing that the weight of my children's future isn't solely in my palms. I want to give them a solid foundation to build upon, but the choice will ultimately be theirs alone. How I can walk in grace for them and myself is knowing that I will parent imperfectly, but with great love. I can't take harbor in the past - on the choppy waters of my emotions and fears or failures - but I CAN rest knowing that whether I do wrong or I do right, I don't have to fanatically obsess over it, I can simply move on to do the next right thing.
In a particular African tribe when someone goes spiritually astray, they form a circle around that person and tell them stories of their life and the good things they've done from their birth until present. Isn't that absolutely beautiful?! It is such an intentional act of connection and compassion. It is an act that refuses to leave the impoverished person to float in and out of their own false sense of self.
I have 5 children who are all at different developmental stages, and sometimes the weight of these differences drive me mad. They annoy each other, they fight, they behave like savages. It can become so easy to overlook who they really are, and just see what is. While my children aren't spiritually astray, it's true that they forget who they are, especially while wearing the degradations of their siblings, and the impatience of their mother.
What if instead of commanding the bickering to stop, we joined hands and spoke into each other's lives? It's not really the act of correction that creates receptivity in our heart. Correction merely calls for behavior to change without digging to see what the root of that behavior attaches to. What if instead of regurgitating some rote and meaningless regulations, we actually looked deep into each other's hearts and met each other there? In our humanness, with the understanding that we all behave worse when we feel bad about ourselves.
I need to dig deep and remind my children why they're loved and who they really are when they've forgotten the way. I need my children to tell me why I am a good mother in those moments when I've misplaced my patience. We all need to feel that powerful connection that comes when hearing "you're good."
It's my responsibility as their mother to be the softness that they can fall into after a hard day, To encourage them through the worst, their worst. The only way that I can do that is by consciously focusing on who they truly are, and keeping that before them (and myself) always. They must get to a point when they know their worth so deeply, that they wouldn't dare disturb another's.
I've accepted this challenge for my children, this daily habit of connection. I want to escape the negative cycles that can bleed us through the day. I want to engage with them in a way that will forcibly adjust what I focus on, encouraging us all into healthier behaviors. I believe that this practice, no, this art of seeing, will divine a powerful shift into my family dynamic, one that will align the heart AND the behavior, igniting both peace and truth into a deeper and more lovingly connected tribe.
Every day, in a million different ways, our children are asking if we really see and hear them. They want to know that they are loved unconditionally, that there is precious space for them, and that they matter. They don't care about the formalities and various methods of parenting, they just want love and affirmation.
As a mother of 5, I can attest to the diverse methods of attention-getting that children communicate. I have children that gently climb into my lap and hold my face between their palms and pour from their heart in mushy, poetic ways. I also have children who scream in random bouts and kick walls and push their siblings in an attempt for me to notice them.
Lately, I have overdone the mom-tone and the phrase because I said so, and I have been utterly impatient with the tantrums and the tension. I have begun to respond to their misbehaviors in damaging ways. It's easier to plant a child in time-out than taking them in my arms and working through the heart issue that brought them to those behaviors in the first place.
There's a Swedish proverb that says "Love me when I least deserve it, for that's when I need it most," and it is SO TRUE isn't it? That our misbehaving comes from some depth of our being that wants reassurance. Sometimes we even act up to see how we'll be met. There are times when we just need to hear that we aren't our behavior, and that we're loved in spite of how we handle ourselves. Sometimes, we need an outside source to help us navigate our emotions with care and resolve.
I don't have all of the answers, but I do know this one thing - that I desire to connect with my children more than I desire to correct their behavior. I always want them to feel accepted and loved regardless of how they act. When they know that they are loved beyond measure and that their behavior cannot break our connection to them, then they begin to outgrow the need for expressing such chaos.
One of my favorite parenting philosophies is in this statement by Alvin Price. "Parents need to fill a child's bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can't poke enough holes to drain it dry." Our children need to grow into healthy ways of dealing with the exhaustive array of emotions that they will encounter in this life. The best way to help in that process is to advocate for them. Sometimes, that means holding them when you really want to be as far from them as possible. Other times, it is boundaries, and most times, it is in validating their feelings and guiding them through to the other side. We need to stand up for our children in every opportunity, even when it is the more difficult, more time-consuming path.
Mere authoritative correction can demean all parties involved. It breaks connection, encourages blind obedience, and overlooks the heart of who we are and what we need. More than anything, I want to raise children who are compassionate and caring, children who will have patience with others and enough love to sit with them in their own disturbances, so that they can move forward in life too.
We all need to know that our well of love will never end, and although we are fallible humans giving imperfect love, we can still love well. It will be messy and imperfect and we will fail, but we can bridge those misgivings with humility and forgiveness. We can teach our children that loving well isn't loving perfectly, but being committed to the connection that we are all birthed and rooted in desiring.
Some rather encouraging and inspiring quotes for parenting:
"as it stands, motherhood is a sort of wilderness through which each woman hacks her way, part martyr, part pioneer; a turn of events from which some women derive feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew. -Rachel Cusk
"there's no way to be a perfect mother, but a million ways to be a good one." -Jill Churchill
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Jewish Proverb - A mother understands what a child does not say.
The process of shaping the child, shapes also the mother herself. Reverence for her sacred burden calls her to all that is pure and good, that she may teach primarily by her own humble, daily example.
“A wise mother knows: It is her state of consciousness that matters. Her gentleness and clarity command respect. Her love creates security.”
“Mother is the reflective principle, the balancing agent for the child. Like a guru, she allows the child to make mistakes and loves the child without condition. Like nature, she allows consequences to unfold and balance to be restored when it is lost."
I am worn to the bone - sleepless nights, exhaustive to-do lists during the day, and I am only one woman.
I've been fighting hard lately at this balance of work and play. When I take time to sit and be in the moment - to breathe life into my children and nurture the greatest relationships that I have to steward - I find myself needing to be somewhere else, checking something off of the list. Yet, those simple and sacred interactions of being present leave us all so very refreshed.
Then I look around at my neglected duties, and I add to the growing piles and unfinished chores. The chores that make the tomorrows that much harder because of the extras thrown on top of the already mountainous heap.
My children won't remember the house being messy, and I won't remember the sleep deprivation, but we WILL remember the times we had together, and I long for those times to be pleasant, nurturing, patient memories.
Indi won't always wake so often in the night, the little boys won't always be so destructively curious. Puberty will pass, the grunting demands of a toddler will turn to viable dialogue, and life will go on.
So, like autumn, I will let some things fall off of me, and in the appearance of barrenness, I will thank God that this nakedness is really just a time to refine my vision. Because it's when the leaves have fallen to the ground, that you can see the substance of what surrounds you a lot more clearly.
So I choose to remain grateful, I understand this is only a season, and I welcome and embrace this beautiful chaos of being stripped to bone.
Milk-crusted lips, feedings in the night. Me wanting sleep, them wanting me.
I feel myself emptying like my breasts in a midnight feeding.
The equation is always them over me, and sometimes that feels like death. Because I desire. I long.I take the rotten fruit, to give the unspoiled.
I embrace and I kiss in the very moments I want to crumple to the floor in a tantrum of my own.
Through the nighttime hauntings and pains of new teeth, I run to their side.
I am a l w a y s running.
I give and I give, and I break and I give.
With each wondrous miracle, the demand becomes greater, yet the supply magically refills.
As I give, I also replenish.
These years are tender and bruised and fleeting.
The demands and the work tear fiery at my skin, removing selfishness from the marrow. Ripping away everything that can be removed.
Naked, vulnerable, new.
Stripped to the bone, I am rebuilt.
More selfless. Submitting control. Losing the façade, yet never losing the real me.
The undoing hurts.
It's lonely to feel my world dismantling, but it all does come back together, and when it does, it is far more sacred.
For I am refined.
I am stronger.
I am more.
From the first fast beating breathy-cry, my life belonged to him. Seven pounds, a few odd ounces and almost 2 feet of pure, creamy-happy baby snores and accidental smiles. I had been the sun reveling in my own brilliance. And then my son came and I was his moon. I revolved around him. I nourished him with breast and heart and he sustained me with soft smile and finger touch and coo.
He was my everything. As little legs transformed from immobile to chubby-knee crawling, and quickly then to running, his curiosities grew and he left trails of his investigations throughout the house. Add two more little boys in the years to come and my life had flipped upside down. The cracks that used to be void of clutter were now littered with blocks and cars and the occasional dirty diaper that hadn’t yet made it to the trash.
I reminisced of the time when moments pulsed with magic. Each moment drawing its own breath and filling my lungs with poetry. When life seemed simpler. Less messy. About me. When I was the sun and everyone my moon. When impulse was unchallenged and creativity sparked me from sleep instead of the waking children with milk-crusted faces wanting more.
Now my hours were like walking a labyrinth. I was that little metal ball dodging walls and mounds of stuff that tripped me up and stood obnoxiously in my way. Between feedings and play, I was washing and folding, pureeing and pumping. My heart beat for my children. I loved each of them so, but felt the marrow of my motherhood sucking me dry. Where was I? How did I fit into this?
One early-summer evening when the crickets chirped and the moon shone bright though my window, I sat on the cold wood floor among the mounds of clean clothes, folding. I glimpsed at the empty toy box and dreaded the mess that plagued the floors and halls that I let disturb my peace. Left corner to right, halved and halved again, my attention a million miles from the clean blanket I just laid in the ever-evening “done” pile. My heart leapt as I found the corner by the front window. The one blocked in by couch. To perfectly hide mischievous boys hiding with a million bouncy balls, ambushing mom and dad until their laughter flooded the room. A sudden silence. Out-of-breath boys from those machine-gun laughs. All of those books in disarray. The ones that prove my boys intelligence and intrigue. The ones that have slobber-wrinkled pages and a worn number 5, because they want to know so badly how fireflies work.
“It’s magic,” I tell them. Because science is a very alive magic in its own rite. And sometimes I don’t want them to have an explanation for everything, I just want them to be mesmerized. Like I used to be. Like I have to choose to be.
The magic hasn’t left, I’ve just misplaced it among the piles of rubble I have mistook for mere work, but now see as redemptive. As I finish picking up overturned chairs and random boxes from their “city.” I choose to let the magic be what it is - messy, selfless, and very unaware of its own brilliance. All I have to do is lay myself aside and I can see it so clearly. The way my boys do every moment of every day. Tomorrow, I reassure myself, I will be in this magic with them. Making a glorious mess beside them. Redeeming the moments and making time stand still once again.