I am, without a doubt, one of the world's worst gardeners. I am the biology major with no green thumb whatsoever, but nevertheless Paul built me a garden in our new home in the hopes that I would grow some delicious tomatoes and herbs to incorporate into my recipes and wow him in the kitchen. I am sure that as he built it he had visions of me out there every day tending it and harvesting its bounty, in all my summery glory. . .
A few years ago, the entire bounty of my garden was this.
Yep, one (really tiny) pepper.
Paul and I laughed and took this picture of it, then we chopped it up and put it in a salad to eat VERY CEREMONIOUSLY. At least it was good?!
Gardening, not my special talent. Paul finally took over the garden last year, and he does way better. I'm in the season of growing little boys right now, and nurturing the little gardens of their minds is just about the best I can do.
Truth is, I used to get very frustrated with myself for the (many) things that I couldn't do in this season of life. When I went back to teaching, newly pregnant and with an infant to care for, I expected myself to continue my same level of professional involvement: sponsoring clubs, serving on committees, designing curriculum. My passion for teaching was still so strong (and still is) that I poured it all out to my students and made my commute home from work with literally nothing left. I would change out of my heels, put Phil in his Johnny Jump Up and doze off on the floor next to him while we waited for Paul to get home from work. I would disguise my growing baby bump with control top hose and my under-eye circles with concealer, I didn't want anyone to think that I had changed. I couldn't let myself slow down, and I definitely couldn't say no for fear of letting anyone down. I still wanted to be everything to everyone. When I went on my second maternity leave, I then struggled with the loss of the trappings of my previous season. I couldn't even figure out what to wear for this new life! I had a closet full of outfits requiring dry cleaning and people who liked to wipe their nose on me! I had no idea that it was possible to feel lonely and be surrounded by people, but when I was at home a baby and a toddler I knew it to be true. And it was hard for me to slow down to tiny people speed. I was used to a pile of papers to whiz through, a lab to set up, a lunch to scarf down, and always hurrying click-clack in high heels down the hall to my mailbox or a meeting or practice. There were bells and starts and finishes and lists and rosters and structure and hierarchy and curriculum and challenges and rewards and people who spoke in complete sentences to talk to all of the time. I found myself in a new territory, where everything that I was doing promptly got undone and there were no clear starts or finishes. Even the day didn't have a finish as it blurred into the next through the hazy lens of sleep deprivation. Wash the same dishes, fold the same laundry (didn't I just put that away?), read the same board books, sing the same songs, feed the same cereal, stumble out of bed and put in the same pacifier. . .repeat. Not to mention the expectations I put on myself to work 20 hours a week from home and maintain the same level of personal hygiene, house cleanliness, culinary variety, volunteerism and social interaction that I had achieved pre-kids. Lord, I was sweating it. It was like wearing my winter coat, hat, gloves, boots, thermal underwear and wool socks. . .in May.
That's a recipe for a hot mess! I needed to shed! Maybe not some clothes, but definitely time to shed some expectations. It was time for me to accept the forecast and to stop dressing for the wrong season. To use the words of the wise Garth Algar, Motherhood: It's kind of like a new pair of underwear. At first, it's constrictive. But after awhile, it becomes a part of you. It's so hard to get that at first, because society sends the message: "Hold on to YOU! Buy the gadget and it will be easy. Read this book and it will be clear. Do the 10 things in this blog post and you will be perfect. Don't let parenthood change you. You can manage it all. Don't miss a chance to do something. Hurry up, it will pass you by!"
But, baby Noah has shown me the deeper truth. Slow down, or you will pass it by. I needed to let motherhood change me. To bless and release the things of faster times and embrace the things of now. And as I look at my Noah getting ready to turn two, I can already feel the summer days shortening. Like the song of the crickets or the crunch of the river birch leaves in the drying grass. . .little milestones like two year molars and gap-toothed grins and tucking themselves under the covers let me know that this beautiful season of tiny little boys will end before I know it. Today, as Noah and I walked hand in hand with nowhere in particular to go but wherever he wanted to toddle, I felt the warm sun and the deep joy of knowing I was right where I was supposed to be. Right at that moment. In Noah's presence, in God's presence. . .the fullness of joy.
He wants His joy for each of us, so I believe that truly, we can have it all. . .if "it all" means the things that are important to us in the deepest parts of our hearts. We can have friends, a family, meaningful work, heck, even a garden if that's our thing. Don't let anyone tell you differently. I trust our God will provide us everything we need to do our life's work if we keep our eyes on Him. And those things might look different for each of us, and look different in each season, but they will be ever-present.
This. This is our season of planting. Tending. Watering. Waiting.
The winter is over. The harvest is later.
This is the season of shedding the layers, because, y'all, we can't garden in Uggs. The season of saying "no" so we can say "yes", the season of meaning a lot to a little, the season of asking for help. To do the things we can the best we can, slow down when we can, to let go of the layers of perfection and expectation, to let Grace cover the rest.
Every season, with a purpose, under Heaven.
Let's put our toes in the warm grass together and soak it in.
One morning last year, I was gathering bottles and getting ready to feed a hungry little Noah while herding kids out the door. . .and my helpful little Phil chimed in, "Hey, Mommy!! Why don't you just give Noah some of that milk you, like, make with your BODY?"
"Well, Philly, some mommies are really good at that, but let's just say it's not one of YOUR mommy's, uhhhh, "Special Talents."
"Oh. Well, I would be glad to help you if you need it, Mommy!" said my little Phil in his chipper and cheerful voice.
I giggled to myself as I watched my little kindergarten lactation consultant run to the bus stop, but I couldn't help but think- "UM, BUDDY!! Where was your lactation support at when we were trying to do this thang six years ago?"
I am, in fact, a horrible breastfeeder. I have tried each and every time to breastfeed my boys, but each and every time my body has failed to produce the right quality of milk for my children to gain weight. Now, the first time breastfeeding failed, I thought to myself, "I am a failure." I fed Philip that first bottle with tears in my eyes and a pain in my heart like I was feeding him rat poison and signing him up for certain death because of my inability to effectively lactate. "FAIL!! MOM FAIL!!!" I mean, I had decided that I was going to breastfeed in COLLEGE, when my sophomore roommate did a paper on it and came back to our room at the sorority house and told all of us girls about the benefits. This was pretty mind-blowing information to us back in 1998! I remember thinking, "Wow!! I need to do that!! That's amazing!" So, when I was pregnant there was no doubt in my mind I would nurse my baby. Paul and I took the breastfeeding class and I read the Dr. Sears and borrowed a pump and bought the nursing pads and I just felt so self-assured.
When Phil was still below his birth weight at one month and I started to supplement, however, I felt nothing but ashamed. I felt there was something that I was missing, something I had done so terribly wrong. Other girls can do it? Why can't I do it? I am a woman, am I not SUPPOSED to be able to do these things? I was a Biology major. . .wasn't this Biology 101? And then there's a girl with a cute chubby baby that she had BREASTFED. . .like all of that chub came from her MAGICAL MILK TALENTS and I looked at my scrawny, hungry little baby like. . .what am I doing wrong? But in the past few years I have come to discover this truth. . .I am perfectly made exactly the way I am supposed to be. I tried my best, but dragging myself through guilt about it would be some major arrogance on my part. So, I have let it go as not one of my "special talents" because I am pretty experienced with a lack of those!
Flashback 1985: My mom spent hours and hours trying to teach me to do a cartwheel when I was a little girl. I tried so, so hard but I could just not get my legs to go over my head just right! I saw all of the other little girls happily turning across the fields and felt like I should be able to do that, too. But, eventually, even my mom THE MOST PATIENT TEACHER IN THE WORLD gave up. I shed a few tears as the six-year-old who couldn't do cartwheels, but I shifted my attention to regular wheels and I turned out to be a pretty good roller skater! And back in the 90's when everyone could see those magic eye pictures and I would just stare at the thing in the mall and pretend I could see the dolphins or unicorns or whatever like everyone else but my ears would be burning with embarrassment because I had to read the caption on the picture to know what it was? Yeah, that was a bummer. But, I turned out to be a great baby sitter! The 90's was totally my decade for awesome babysitting, I always had a full calendar, moms and kids loved me! Oh, yeah, and when all of the girls could do their bangs in cute styles and braid each other's hair and curl it and look simply adorable? I can still barely do a ponytail. And I have 80 cowlicks. No one has ever asked me to braid their hair, ever. Even my son has told me it is a good thing God didn't give me any girls. But, I am pretty good at doing makeup! I've even done a few girlfriends up for their weddings, which felt pretty special.
So, you see, it was just me needing to make peace with the things I physically can do and the things I physically can't. The peace came slowly the first time, but it came. And I tried again to breastfeed each and every time. (I still look at those magic eye pics and try a cartwheel, too. . .just in case!) But all the pumping and the reading and the lactation consultants in the world four times over just couldn't make it work just right. By the fourth time around, I still shed a tear when I placed Noah on the scale but I came to a peace much more quickly. That peace came with the humility of knowing that I can't do everything perfectly just the way I imagine. Can I do it all? No. Can I do some things? Yes. OH YES! There are things as a mom that I can do really well. Like cuddling and dancing and singing songs and going off on crazy creative tangents with my kids and patiently answering thousands of questions a day, baking yummy muffins and reheating frozen food to crispy, delicious perfection. I will choose to celebrate those things in honor of the God who made me just the way I am.
I also know that the harm I inflicted on my children by not being able to breastfeed was a matter of projected fears more than reality. My happy, bright seven-year-old is still just as cuddly and lovey as he was when so many of us cuddled him and loved him and gave him his bottles- his daddy, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, great grandma, loving babysitters and neighbors. . .everyone loves feeding a happy baby. Seeing how loved each of my boys has been and how lovely it was for everyone to have that chance to feed them was pretty special. And I can't even be jealous of women who breastfeed, because A. I don't get jealous, TOTAL waste of energy. and B. I know firsthand how hard they are working and the sacrifices they are making. We all know breastmilk isn't truly free, it's a labor of love by you. You go, mamas. I feel blessed to be living in a country where it was a reality for me to have a readily available alternative, as so many of our sisters throughout history and still around the globe have not shared that luxury of choice if their child is hungry.
Parenting makes me more humble every day. There is so much I don't know. There is so much I can't do. However, I trust in the God who made me. He knit me together in my mother's womb and made me just right. . .all 5 feet 6-and-a-half-inches of non-cartwheeling, non-lactating me. I think it all boils down to this. . .we have to choose love and hope over fear. If we do things in love, we are doing OK. Everything on Earth could disappear tomorrow, but Love will remain. We do the things we can do with love, and trust that God will use our "special talents" to enrich our children's lives. If ANYONE loves them more than we do, it's the Big Guy! He's got them in the palm of His hand, and us mamas, too. So if you've got 99 talents and breastfeeding ain't one. . .that's OK! You're just the way you're supposed to be, too.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. Psalm 139:13
"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
After a few years of being a homemaker, I came to a frustrating realization. . .I was ruining ALL OF MY CLOTHES! Basically every top in my wardrobe had some sort of stain on it from cooking, washing dishes, putting lotion on squirmy kids, or from my primary role as "human Kleenex." Also, I was pregnant and my maternity clothes had a frustrating lack of genuine pockets. Why do they think storing a baby in your belly automatically negates your need to store other things. . .like, say, in YOUR POCKET? One day, after finding a Hot Wheel in my bra I realized it was time to do something real to solve this problem. So, off to Target I went (the solution to every problem seems to start at Target, right?) and grabbed the first apron I saw- white canvas with bright red apples, a nice full skirt and TWO pockets! Problem solved! I started to wear my apron every day, and stopped finding puzzle pieces in my undergarments and giant grease stains on by belly. It was lovely. After about a year, the apron started to look a little beat up and used. . .as it should! I wore it most of the day, every day, doing my "mom stuff". So, as husbands do, Paul insisted that he buy me an even NICER apron from a fancy website, with cute ruffles and even a diamondy-looking thing set in a bow on the front. It swooned over it that Mother's Day. I put it on and felt like the cutest mom of a two year old, three year old and almost one year old on earth. So long, old worn apron! New Jen is here and she is FANCY!
The next day was a pretty epic (and by epic, I mean standard) day of parenting three little kids. At 5:30 p.m. it culminated in a completely trashed house, a ruined batch of muffins that I forgot to add the sugar to and a three year old tantrum that ended in a mommy COMPLETELY covered in vomit (right in the middle of a visit from Paul's parents.) Oh, I was so upset, embarrassed, and discouraged, not to mention my new fancy apron was drenched in puke. And when it came out of the dryer it was completely ruined. . .wrinkly, floppy, sad and now a light gray as opposed to a vibrant black with polka dots.
I shoved the "new" apron in a drawer. If you can't handle a little vomit, you can't hang with me, cute apron. Back to the old apple apron I went. That was almost four years ago, and despite multiple offers from Paul to get me a "new apron", I now have a greater appreciation for the old model.
It may not be pretty anymore, but my kids know me in this one. One pocket may be falling off, but the other holds Lego minifigs like a champ. It makes a phenomenal Kleenex for thigh-high kids. I am pretty sure ingrained in my kids' childhood memories will be my apron, up close, because it is just the right height to be the recipient of a face-plant in every hug. I have grown to appreciate my ratty old apron for what it does, not for what it looks like these days.
Today as I hung the trusty little apple apron on its familiar hook, I came to a powerful realization. I need to extend the same grace I give to my apron to myself. I have been struggling a little lately with the changes in my body that I see in the mirror. My belly is, if I am being completely honest, COVERED with about a hundred stretch marks and wrinkles and floppy skin from the four pregnancies. In addition to that, I still have about 8 extra layers besides the ones my hairstylist adds from the waves of postpartum hair loss. Not to mention the wrinkles around my eyes and on my hands. When my husband looks at me, he says, "You are so beautiful! I have the most beautiful wife in the whole world!" But, sometimes, when I look at me, I just see someone who looks used up. Kind of like my apron.
But, just like that apron, this body right here is how my kids know me. They don't see any of my perceived flaws, they see me with their hearts. And when they do, they just see "Mommy". . .my squinty smile, my really loud laugh, my big old hugs. My belly may be permanently squishy, but it makes an awesome lap for cuddling. My eyes may be crinkly, but that's because I get to smile and laugh ALL of the time, and smiling's my favorite. ;) My hair might be eight lengths, but at least I don't have to wash it every day anymore (hello, dry shampoo!?) and my hands have aged about 20 years in the past 7, but that means they have been working hard to take care of a little family that I love. My body has worked hard for me. What a gift. I need to take care of it, because it is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that's my responsibility, but I need to stop criticizing the natural changes I see as I go about living my earthly life in it. I wouldn't trade the changes in my heart in the last seven years for anything, so if the changes in my body come with that I need to humbly accept them as the privilege they are. I'm working on that humility and peace within myself. Everything doesn't have to be perfect to be lovely. I'm getting there. Articles like this help. And my desire to walk the talk- if I tell my kids I love them as they are, I need to show them that I treat myself the same way.
And when my kids look back on their childhood, I want them to remember ME: a happy mommy, who kept their treasures in the pockets of her apron, read them stories in her squishy lap and loved them with her whole heart, JUST THE WAY they are.
One day when I was a new stay-at-home mama to baby Daniel and baby Philip, I found myself in a pickle. I had a sorority alumni function and was scrambling to look pin-worthy when I realized. . .every. single. pair. of pantyhose I owned had a run. ARGH! Since I am the whitiest white person on earth and it was early spring, I dared not leave my home with exposed legs lest I blind unsuspecting passers-by. So, I had no choice. The kids and I had to go to the corner CVS and get some nylons.
As you probably know, it takes a unique amount of effort to get two littles to the store, but I was fiercely determined and propelled to CVS by my vanity. I popped the kids in the tiny cart and headed to the legwear section to grab some Sheer Energy. Queen. Nude. Control top. Sheer toe. CHECK. "But wait!" My queenly self thought. "We're almost out of beer! I went to all this trouble to get here, so I had better grab some." Over to the liquor section we went and I plopped a 30-pack of Busch Light into the cart with 20-month-old Philip. Daniel, in his typical sunny 8-month-old fashion, was giggling and babbling in the top of the cart as we made our way to the register. The cashier didn't even blink an eye at my juxtaposition of selections and we smiled at each other. Then, as I turned to walk out the door I stopped dead in my tracks.
"There is no way I can get this cart out the door!" I thought as I began to sweat a little bit. At the intersection of 10th and Arlington, shopping cart stealing was apparently an issue so each cart had a giant pole attached to it to prohibit it from going out the door. DARN DARN DARN DARNY DARN DARN! I cast a glance at the cashier, and we both glanced at the pole. And the full cart. And back at the pole. I had my purse, my beer, my pantyhose, my toddler, my infant. . . and only two arms.
This, friends, was my defining moment.
A fierce determination washed over me. I was not leaving ANY of these essentials behind. OH NO-OH-OH. I made it this far. Now, since the baby and the beer couldn't walk and it was a busy corner of Indy for a wobbly toddler who could barely hold a hand, there was no way I was putting any of them down. So, I took a deep breath. Purse on shoulder. One baby on each hip. Bag over wrist. 30-pack of domestic goodness in hand. BAM. I was off.
The cashier looked at me in my heavily laden state and laughed. "WOW!!" She said with astonishment in her voice. "You are SUPERMOM!!!"
I grinned. HELLS to the YES. I AM Supermom!!!! I could have been flying through the parking lot that early spring evening. Her compliment had me feeling even more golden and effervescent than that Busch Light in my hand. Nothing felt heavy anymore. Not the kids, not the beer, not the whiteness of my legs or the urgency of getting ready for this function. I was Supermom. So what if the criteria for that title was my ability to juggle two babies and a case??!!!
I like the sound of that.
(And the cashier at my corner CVS said it so it must be true.)
Although that day was years ago, I still reflect on it often. It can be easy through the lens of social media to get so caught up in our perception of what other people are doing that we lose sight of the Supermoms we all are in our own homes. Truth of the matter is, God has mindfully gifted us with the particular children and circumstances that we have, and a unique set of gifts that will make the best and bring out the best in each of those. We need to reject the idea that we have to be good at EVERYTHING. We need to put our energy where our interests, talents and passions lie. We just have to be good at OUR things, whatever those things are. We have no reason to doubt that we are THE SUPER MOMS that God intended for the kiddos we love.
Of course, the temptation is always there when we look at another woman and think she is Supermom to believe that there can only be ONE. She's super. I'm inadequate.
Not true. Reject the lie. There's plenty of Super to go around, and we are all owning it in our own way. In fact, the more we recognize the Supermom in others, the more we can see it in ourselves. So, the next time we see a mom doing something AMAZING to us. . .whether it is homeschooling or teaching all of her kids to ride bikes or rocking her career or managing her child's illness or having 9 kids or planning a month's worth of freezer meals or being a single mom or doing Pinterest crafts or getting up at 5 am to work out or breastfeeding multiples or dressing her kids in coordinating outfits or looking stylish or whatever other rockstar stuff she's doing, we can take a moment to think about how awesome she is. We can honor that and wonder how she does it. . .and we should! In fact, we should probably go ahead and tell her that we think she's great, too. But, we are dishonoring ourselves if we don't stop to take a moment to think about how awesome we are, too. Let's find what we are good at and embrace it. Work it. Own it. Enjoy it. Thank God for our unique gifts. Let go of the things that aren't ours. No more negative self-talk. If we can look at the things that other women are doing and call them Supermom without a hint of shame at our own set of interests and abilities, we have surely found the key to a happy and contented life.
So, since it takes one to know one (and I learned this at CVS), let me say it to you. . .
Now. . .
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone."
But for me, along with the "Come, O Long Expected Jesus" variety of expectation, comes the (EEEK!) do-everything-just-right kind of expectation.
It is hard for me to release the need to be all the things to all the people. It is also hard to reconcile the pressure of hungry bellies/ laundry mountain/ pile of dishes with the desperate sense that time is fleeting. How can I do all of the things I have to do and also do all of the things I want to do? How can I always feel so unprepared for the season of preparation?!!!???? I have no idea, but I feel like it sneaks up on me every year. I want to make this season magical for the children while the magic is still fresh and young and sparkling in their little eyes. But the first Sunday of Advent comes whether I am ready or not, and life with these four boys rushes by in a whirlwind of meals and baths and diapers and homework faster than the Polar Express. I know my time as "Mommy" is so short, but how do I stop and savor it? How can I do it all? And can I do it all just right? Jen, you only have one chance. . .you can't miss it. They are so sweet and little and they are growing right before your eyes. . .
See how the expectations keep mounting?
See why I was crying in my minivan the other day on the way to preschool pickup?
FOR NO GOOD REASON except that I love my kids and I want to be a good mom?
And I love the world and want to be a good person?
What can I DO?
However. . .
Jesus gave us one big commandment.
It was not give our kids the perfect childhood, bake the most delicious cookies, wrap the presents impeccably, send the most amazing cards, get the just right picture with Santa and trim the tree to look like a magazine.
It was just love God. Heart, soul and mind.
We can ALL DO that, amiright?
Now, all of those other external things are SUPER. Santa is the man, cards are lovely and cookies are just about the best thing ever. And for heaven's sake, no one should make anyone feel bad if they like to do those things. If baking magically delicious cookies is how someone expresses love, then they should DO IT! But, we also shouldn't feel ashamed if we see our friends doing that and that's not our thing. It takes all kinds. That's why Archway makes those Bells and Stars every year, people! And no matter WHAT we choose to do or like to do or want to do, we will never be able to give our kids a Sears-Roebuck-catalog-perfect childhood Christmas.
So. . .
I'm going to be honest that the mountain I need to level during Advent is the mountain of expectations I put on myself. What can I do during the season of expectation that adds to our collective joy? What can we do in this home to truly ready the way of the Lord? My guide for myself is that if I can't do it in love, I probably shouldn't do it. We can't expect more of ourselves than God does.
So, let's release the expectation of external perfection on ourselves.
So we can receive the gift.
God came to us as a gift in human form. A tiny baby. Born in a dirty room, to a humble woman, into a messy, broken, IMPERFECT world.
He can be born, too, into our imperfect hearts. Our messy homes. Our dirty kitchen. Our hectic lives.
That's what Jesus is FOR.
That's why He came.
That's why He's here now, and comes again.
Once He's in, everything is perfect.
His grace makes it so.
Christmas will come whether we are "ready" or not.
(The Whos down in Whoville taught us that.)
Let the un-done be a symbol of all that we wait for.
The half-trimmed tree.
The messy-haired kids.
The pile of unwrapped presents.
The yet unopened Christmas cards.
The imagined and unbaked batches of cookies.
Because Jesus will arrive whether we get these things "right" or not.
This life is not meant to be perfect.
Only Heaven is.
God has given us the gift of grace.
Now, our task is to give it to ourselves.
To release the expectations, and expect only Love.
About four years ago, I was struggling. I had two-year-old, three-year-old and 8-month-old baby at home. In the middle of the winter. In INDIANA. I was feeling a bit a bit desperate in general, particularly for any sort of validation that I was worthwhile. The tiny people around me seemed to be crying most of the time, everything I did got undone, and the house, the kids and I looked mostly like a hot mess, soooooooo, yeah. I wasn't getting any cues there. Although the feelings I had certainly weren't ones that I was proud of, I thought maybe by sharing them it could help encourage someone else.
So, one day I pounded this out on my keyboard and sent this to a friend who has a blog and he posted it for me. He called it, "Cold coffee. . .and Mister Rogers." I liked that. I am going to share it again now in case anyone else is out there and needs this message, too. I have always loved our favorite "neighbor", ever since I was a little preschooler, and it's incredible to me how many messages Mister Rogers has for me as a grown-up. I am so far from being perfect, but he always reminds us that people can love us just the way we are and to keep on growing. Sometimes I feel like I have needed his show even more than my boys, and if you read below you'll see one of the many reasons why.
January 5, 2011
I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about what my vocation is in life. I mean, I guess I know what it is now. . .if it isn't being a wife and mother I am not sure what it is! I guess Facebook is something that really gets you thinking. . .you see all these people you went to high school and college with and they seem so. . .successful. Wow- they are doctors, lawyers, professors, ministers, politicians, artists. . .these are the people you sat next to in class (or maybe skipped class with to go to a bar. . .not that I would ever do that!), clowned around with, went to parties with. You took the same tests, competed or performed side by side, worked on teams together, and you always felt like equals. But, all of the sudden (or maybe not so sudden. . .it has been a while, right?) you look around and realize that everyone has become their grown-up selves with all sorts of grown up accomplishments. I am pretty confident that I have friends are going to cure diseases, write bestselling books, compose great music, make amazing contributions to the world and be remembered for a long, long time. It's not that I'm jealous, it just makes me wonder what I'm doing for the good of the cause, or what potential I may have inside me. I look down at MY grown-up self. . .a cushy mom/human kleenex wearing a purple sweatshirt and leggings, hair in a ponytail, baby formula all over my collar and smudgy mascara. No awards on my wall or accolades, no advanced degrees, no need for pantyhose or manicures, no time for social activism, never mind time to finish my coffee before it gets cold. As I am sure every mother does, I have puzzled over this a lot. When you stay at home with your children, it is easy to feel like you don't get anything done. There is no satisfaction of a straight A report card, pile of freshly graded papers or a completed project to turn in. The dish mountain in the sink diminishes only to reappear again within hours, the laundry is folded and barely put away before the baskets are full again, meals are prepared and eaten and the refrigerator is bare before you even had time to recover from the last adventure at the grocery store with tiny helpers in tow. A mother's work never ends. No one has been banging down my door to give me awards, and my kids haven't given me a performance evaluation lately, let alone a raise! If it doesn't make you act like a bit of a martyr every once in a while, you are probably a saint.
So, what's a person to do? I'm a big believer in being content with what you have and making the most of every circumstance in life so I wanted to reconcile all of these thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, my good friend Mister Rogers came just in time with the answer my heart needed. My boys and I watch the Neighborhood together as a special ritual almost every day. I try not to do anything else as we watch. . .just be fully present with my children in the moment and enjoy watching them be nurtured and educated by the show I grew up loving. We were watching the Neighborhood Opera "A Star for Kitty" when my answer came from the musical puppets and friends. The Kitty wants to learn to twinkle like the stars in the sky, and tries to twinkle by thinking happy thoughts. You have to be able to suspend reality for a bit to accept a tiger puppet dressed like a star hidden in a toothpaste tube and a trumpet playing half-moon as completely natural. I won't even go into why the cat is in the sky in the first place taking a twinkling class, but she tries in vain to twinkle, until she does a selfless act only to realize she has started sparkling without trying to at all. As I watched, I thought. . .wait. . .that's me! I'm Lady Aberlin dressed like a cat! Nah, not really, but that's how I sparkle! By putting others first. I may not be shining bright, making contributions (or making much money for that matter), being successful, winning awards or changing the world.
But my boys. . .they are my work. They are my legacy. They are my sparkle. If I put their little hearts and feelings first and nurture their spirits, they could grow to be kind loving, people who make the world a better place. Maybe they could grow into someone as great as Fred Rogers! That seems pretty important to me.
In our world of instant gratification, sometimes it is hard to remember the things that are eternal. Leave it to Mister Rogers to still remind me over 25 years after I was one of his little viewers that it is the things on the inside that count after all.
After I wrote that, I felt better. The thought that my life's work could not be to do something measurable, but just to love people, was pretty mind-blowing to four-years-ago-Jen. It's something I have worked on every day since, moving from the uncomfortable feeling in my heart to the peaceful internal knowing that my value is not to be measured by external factors. I can use all of my gifts. . . my humor, my mind, my compassion. . .right here with my little circle of people. I may never even see the fruit of my work in my lifetime, but someone will. . .someday. . .I'm sure of it. And, yes, no one ever is going to knock on my door with a major award. (But one time the TV repairman said I was a good mom, so that's, like, pretty close!) As one of my favorite authors, Glennon Melton, says, "Most people who have a deep desire for lives of meaning and purpose and love are the kind of people who already have lives of meaning and purpose and love." It's all right here.
So, I will keep washing the dishes and doing the laundry and waiting at the bus stop and kissing the boo-boo's and singing the lullabies and listening to highly detailed accounts of imaginary things. I'll do the hundredth tuck-in and pick up the thousandth toy and wipe the millionth tear.
I can say I do it more gently now, and more purposefully than I did four years ago, because now I know that THAT is the work.
Not the thing that needs to be done before I can go off and do some more important world-changing work, but that is the work I am supposed to be doing. Hugs and lullabies and stories and diapers and cleaning the pee ring around the toilet is "the work." Everyone's vocation is different, but I am sure that this is mine, all wrapped up in these four little boys. It's nothing to be ashamed of or to brag about or anything in-between, because we are all called to do different things. . .and we need those friends of mine who are doctors and lawyers and surgeons and nurses and teachers and athletes and clerks and tellers and musicians and activists and all of those other important people doing their thing to make people's lives better.
But this little calling is just mine, and it fits me now.
Just like your calling is yours.
It's kind of a radical thought, to imagine that you are just who you are supposed to be, and you are just WHERE you are supposed to be, when it seems that the world is always telling you to be more and do more be better and do it, like, NOW. Nope. Not accepting that any more. "You're just the way you're supposed to be," says Mister Rogers, "you're growing just right."
From Life's Journeys According to Mister Rogers
Thank you, television neighbor. That's just what I needed. :)
Yesterday at 7:15 a.m. on my 35th birthday, my four excited, exuberant, hyper little boys were bouncing balloons around the kitchen. It was all giggles and elbows and static crazy hair when Phil stopped and said, "Mommy, I still need to make you a birthday present!"
I said, "Kids, you know what would be the beeeeeeest birthday present? Can you be perfect little angels all day?"
I was half-kidding (but also half-TOTALLY SERIOUS) They sort of laughed, and went back to balloon bouncing trying to be like "perfect angels" bouncing the balloons. It didn't take long before someone was knocked over, something got spilled, someone was in tears, and the balloons had to take a little break in the garage for everyone's sanity (mostly mine). I was like, "Hey, guys, perfect little angels, right??" and they giggled and came in the kitchen to help me get ready for breakfast. Again, it wasn't long before someone forgot they were setting the table and wandered off, looked at someone funny and made them cry, spilled something, had to run from the table to use the restroom. . .you get the picture.
The rest of the day progressed like that- kiddos trying to be "perfect little angels" and mostly just being typical little kids. . .falling, squabbling, whining, needed noses wiped, etc. In the late afternoon, in the spirit of Birthday we decided to ditch the rest of homework and head to the park and meet some friends.
Along our walk, the air was crisp and the sun was slanting behind us in that perfect evening glow. It was a mix of "perfect angel kiddos" holding my hands bringing me special leaves as birthday presents and asking me super cute science questions and telling me stories and singing songs. Also, about 50% tripping, falling, crying to get out of the stroller, lagging behind, etc.
Then we get to the park and rising behind us were two hot air balloons.
So, of course, I get all giddy.
"HOT AIR BALLOONS!!! I LOVE HOT AIR BALLOONS!! It's a BIRTHDAY MIRACLE!"
The boys flip out, too. . .
"Mommy, LOOK! Hot air balloons are your favorite!"
"Mommy, they came to wish you a Happy Birthday!"
"Mommy, I will take your picture with the Birthday Hot Air Balloons!!!"
Phil took my picture.
And as the balloons rose over us and started to fly over the park, my heart was pretty full. I realized in that moment that they ARE ALWAYS and ARE ALREADY "perfect little angels." Maybe in their minds and in their bodies they are clumsy and growing and learning and perpetually "messing up", but mistakes are how we perpetually learn and grow, right!?
On the outside, they may look less than perfect. Their hair might be messed, pockets may be pulled inside out and boogers might be crusted on their noses. They might make excessive poop jokes, be too wiggly in church, whine about their homework, or even punch a bro in the nose in a heated moment.
But in their hearts, where it really matters, they are just so, so good.
So, I will pause.
Look at the boys on the floor wrestling on the unstuffed couch cushions.
Look beyond my need for external, unattainable "perfection".
And see those sweet little hearts. . .lighter and brighter than hot air balloons in the November sky.