"Mommy, this is YOUR FAULT! You made this the WORST DAY IN THE WHOLE WORLD! You make EVERY day the worst day in the whole world!"
No sooner were the words out of Daniel's mouth than I saw his eyes fill with tears. Not the screaming tears he had been crying for the past ten minutes about having to put his (*gasp*) PAJAMAS ON and finish his laundry, but soft, remorseful tears, pooling up in the corners of his eyes. His legs stopped kicking me. He was almost breathless. Motionless. He look at me intently, searching my face for a reaction, hoping perhaps I hadn't heard it or maybe he could just suck the words right back in to his mouth.
Now, almost eight years into this gig, I'm no stranger to a tantrum. I feel like I can handle one with the best. I just try to hug my way right through them. I let the words roll off. But at this point it was 8 p.m., the end of a long day of being Mommy. It was a typical day- started about 5:30, grocery shopping at two stores, paying bills, cleaning, cooking, cleaning some more, laundry, wiped tears, wiped noses, wiped hands and faces, more cleaning and attempted positive redirection of about a million little boy activities. It's my usual Monday and I normally embrace it, but yesterday each child was in rare form and testing me in a different way. A way that alone would not have done much to ruffle my feathers but times four had me feeling simply defeated. One wild student is manageable, but this teacher felt like her whole class was out of control which is kind of the stuff of endless teacher nightmares! The first major discipline of the day took place with Josh before 8 am, so 12 hours later my resilience was gone.
Daniel's words hurt. I looked away. I stood up without a word. I went to my room and pulled the covers over my head, where I softly cried into my pillow until I fell asleep. Paul woke me up around nine after finishing the kitchen and putting all of the kids to bed to give me a hug.
"Daniel is really sorry"
"I know." I said.
"I'm not sure what happened, but he was really sad."
"I know, it was just a long day."
"Tomorrow will be a better day, OK?"
"I know, honey. Thanks."
And I did know. There is always tomorrow. Like Glennon from Momastery says: Forever tries. And I can't even blame Daniel for saying what he said. . .he is, after all, six. I'm his mom, still pretty much the center of his world, of course it would feel like I was to blame. And, gosh, don't we all know that feeling? Sometimes the cloudy things we don't like. . .which for a six year old are things like homework, showers, fish sticks and putting away laundry. . .block out the sun and become all we can see. Had he forgotten his joy when his long awaited Boba Fett minifig arrived in the mail? The way we held hands in the Meijer parking lot and spent a solid ten minutes admiring the lobsters? The half hour we spent cuddled on the couch reading his Lego magazine? The way we played catch in the backyard and battled with light sabers? Laying in bed last night, I am sure he might have recalled some of those things. Just like as I was hiding in my personal cocoon of tears I remembered all of the other things my little Daniel had to deal with that day. Like being up through the night with a cough. And how I let him have 50 cents for the stuffed animal machine at the grocery store but he learned they basically just steal your money with that lame-o floppy claw. And how he had to deal with his tired little brother when he got home from preschool, and tired Josh cries irrationally and frequently, but I STILL make the boys play with him. And that his new Boba Fett figure lost a part when he dropped it on the floor. And how he had to miss ice cream for dessert because he was too silly at the dinner table and miss a walk with his Daddy because he had to finish homework. AND THEN- the icing on the cake- the fish sticks, the shower and the laundry. WOW. I guess I could see why those clouds moved into his six-year-old sky.
But, it's my job, as mama, to teach him to look for the rainbow behind the clouds. To show him the grace that I would want to receive. We all have bad days (for Daniel, that's preeeeetty much always laundry day. And fish stick day. Note to self- don't put those on the same day), and sometimes there's not enough time in the day (for us grownups, that feels like pretty much every day. Note to self: don't always go to bed at eight, OK, Jen?) BUT. That's why there's tomorrow. And tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that. Until someday there won't be any more tomorrows on earth, but we can hope that the choices we made each day have left behind a legacy of love. I needed Daniel to know that as much as I needed to know myself. It is humbling to know that we don't know when the end of our time with these precious people will be, and that just makes me want to choose love. Every day.
Daniel came into my room this morning just as I was putting on some sparkly earrings to motivate me for my Tuesday. I caught a glimpse of him over my shoulder in the mirror, his eyes puffy, his lip quivering. I turned around and got down on my knees before my little boy.
He could hardly look at me, but he din't have to.
He wanted to apologize, but he didn't have to do that, either.
I took him in my arms and said, "Daniel, I love you. Every day is a great day when I get to spend it with you, OK?" And I meant that. With Every. Single. Cell. Of. My. Being. Even the kicking and screaming days. All of them.
"I love you, too, Mommy. I really, really do."
I bit my lip. He started to cry a little bit, but we dusted his tears and went downstairs. The kettle was whistling and there was a new Mister Rogers mug to fill with hot water and see his magical jacket change into a sweater. It was going to be a Snappy New Day for sure. Forever tries.
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