Sixteen years ago I was beginning the third trimester of my first pregnancy. I’d just quit working (Tony wanted me to enjoy the last few months on my own terms.) We’d just moved into a brand new house that we’d spent the winter having built and I was nesting fiercely. We were painting a nursery and devouring every book on babies and parenting that we could lay our hands on. I even went so far as to invite friends we admired much to dinner so that we could ask them how they made their family so perfect. With great kindness and much grace, Judy didn’t laugh me out of my own kitchen.
Last week when we piled out of the van at a rest stop somewhere in Ohio and I followed my herd as they chattered and jostled each other toward the building, laughing ahead of me I had the realization that my kids are bigger than the Staley kids were when I nervously prepared dinner for the “perfect family” and settled in to take notes from their “perfect Mama.”
The memory made me smile. Having dinner with their oldest son, Sean, who we crossed paths with in Germany a few years ago and who’s now back in the states, made me smile even more. He was Hannah’s first babysitter. Tony babysat for him. He’s an outstanding man, a definite tribute to his mother’s passion and dedication
I’m far from a perfect mother. I still think of Judy often and aspire to her example and that of a couple of other excellent moms that I’ve had the privilege of knowing over the years. We’ve been so blessed to find ourselves in communities of wonderful parents who strive together for the best of our children, collectively. I’m grateful for that.
I have been reflecting, of late, on what I’ve learned so far, 16 years into my motherhood, and what I wish I could go back and tell myself in the weeks before my first daughter was born. Perhaps some of it will resonate with you, or with a young mother you know:
Motherhood. It’s not a contest. It’s not about who can do the most things from scratch, whether or not you co-sleep with your baby and nurse them until they’re ten, or not. It’s not about who can keep the house the cleanest, return to her pre-baby figure fastest, or have the most kids in a ten year span. It’s not. It also is not about measuring up to your mother (in-law’s?) standard of perfection, or getting your baby to sleep through the night fastest, or having your child reading Faust by the time she turns five. It’s not about whether you stay home, or work, or whether you homeschool or not. It’s not a contest. Motherhood is NOT A CONTEST.
It’s about doing the best you can with what you have this day, in your children, in yourself, in the life you’ve been dealt and the life you’ve crafted for yourself. Your best will be defined differently in different seasons. That’s okay. Just do your best. YOURS, not someone else’s.
This would have been good information to have upfront, when I was so bent on doing everything “right.” Which, by the way, is impossible.
Marathon runners talk about that point in the painfully long race where they hit the wall, their bodies want to die, their minds are mush and it takes all of the effort they can muster, physically and mentally, to push through and finish. It’s painful. It hurts. They want to give up. They wonder what they were thinking, getting themselves into this. Every mother I know, who’s been at this thing longer than five minutes, can relate to that feeling. Motherhood is not the 400 yard dash, which you can passionately pour your energy into and emerge victorious moments later. Nope. It’s a 216 month epic endeavor in which the finish line is a mirage; it’s not like it’s over when they turn eighteen.
Run hard. Run as hard as you can, but remember to pace yourself. Remember to take the cold drinks offered by those cheering on the sidelines. Remember to keep your body moving with your mind and keep your mind moving with your body. And keep training. Nobody finishes a marathon well without lots and lots of training.
You know the crazy thing about marathoners? They sign up for that bone crushing punishment again and again, because they love it, because the reward is worth it. The same is true with mothers.
This is really the only piece of advice worth giving. It covers so many things, from whether or not to make that midnight run to the hospital, to whether or not little league is a good idea for your family, to whether or not your kid has a food allergy.
We’re hardwired to our kids in a way that’s hard to explain and no one knows better than an invested mom what’s right for a particular little person. Voices are going to shout about what’s right, what’s best, what you’re doing wrong, what you could be doing better, what your kid needs, what your kid deserves and how to fix everything from teething pain to temper tantrums to rebellious teens. Advice is good. Seek it out. But at the end of the day, if you’ve got a gut feeling about something, it’s probably right.
Trust your Mama gut.
One of my best Mama friends is Lois, remember her? She and I drove across the country with our combined herd of 11 kids this past fall. She has a great piece of advice that she gives young mamas:
“People are going to give you all sorts of advice, most of it unsolicited. When they do, step back and take a long hard look at their kids. If you like what you see in their family, listen, if you don’t, just nod and smile.”
That is such great advice, and so freeing.
No need to listen to every well meaning grandmother in the grocery who is appalled that your child is missing her shoes, or wearing a super hero cape and mask to the store. No need to listen to the mom of teens who is angry and resentful of her rebellious teens. No need to justify your choices to the judgement of others.
You’re free to take advice… or leave it. This is your life, your family, your kid.
Just nod and smile and move on with your day.
Parenting is intensely personal. As Mamas we pour our hearts and souls into our children. It’s easy to live vicariously through their successes and just as easy to feel personally affronted by their failures. It’s even easier to take words to heart that we shouldn’t. Not every less than positive comment about your child has to do with you. Their failure in a particular arena is not due to your bad mothering.
Sometimes, criticism will be valid, or someone will speak something into your life that’s hard to hear. I remember one older mom saying to me once, “You really need to think hard about that… do you see where that is leading ten years from now?” It was regarding a behaviour I was allowing in my three year olds. My first response was to be offended, but she was right. She wasn’t criticizing me as a mother, she was trying to help me see long term. I’m so thankful for her courage in pointing out what she could see clearly but I could not.
Don’t take everything so personally.
I had lunch last week with a new friend. Her kids are all tiny and ever so sweet. It was fun to watch their delight at a butterfly they’d hatched and to see them climb all over my big kids. It reminded me of so many of the precious memories we have of mud pies, hatching our own butterflies, finger painting and tea parties on the living room carpet.
I also remember being tired. Very, very tired. I remember getting through the mornings on the hope of nap time and through some afternoons on the hope of bedtime. I remember “arsenic hour,” you know, that late afternoon hour in which everyone is needy and you’re trying to get dinner on the table and arsenic seems tempting… you’d either give some, or take some, either way.
Some days with toddlers are an eternity. And then, you blink, and they’ve got one foot out the door. People told me that, “Oh Honey, enjoy every minute, it passes so fast.” I’d wipe the spit up out of my hair, thank them with a tight smile and think, “Awesome, so come help me with THIS minute, will ya? Because I’m dying in an endless pit of diapers and sing-songs over here!!”
Nonetheless… they are right. It passes in an instant. You don’t have to enjoy every minute, you won’t, so don’t feel guilty about that… but everything is a season and it will pass, and there will be other incarnations of you, and your children.
You know what drives me absolutely insane as a mother of four children? Parenting books written by parents of only one or two kids.
You know what makes me NUTS as the mother of boys? Parenting books that go absolutely viral and are elevated to the status of the bible that are written by people who raised just two pink little girls.
You know what else drives me over the edge? Books with judgemetal titles like “Non-Violent Communication” and “Attachement Parenting” which send the underlying message that if you aren’t doing it their way you’re somehow violent and unattached with your children. Seriously? Because I don’t co-sleep I’m not attached to my kids? Because I believe that there is a point at which it’s okay to bodily remove a child from a situation against his will I’m violent? Please.
Here’s a newsflash for you: There are no parenting experts. There are people who are experts at their OWN kids who happen to have some good advice to share, but they don’t live in your house, they don’t have your kids, or your family situation, or your particular blend of lifestyle. They don’t know what’s best for your kids. You do.
I’ll bet you’re smart enough to seek the help you need and know when you’ve found the right thing. Just because someone wrote a book and your best friend thinks the sun rises and sets on the advice in it does NOT mean you have to buy in.
Do it your way
This is very hard to do when you’ve been sleep deprived for six years and your kids are puking all over the inside of the van. It’s hard to do when you’re drowning in toddlers and what you really, really want is just a break for five seconds, or to go to the bathroom by yourself for goodness sake.
My parents were awesome at thinking long term. They parented us as little kids with an eye toward the adults we would be. I try to do that with my kids. I’m not raising children. At the end of the day, I’m raising adults.
One observation I’ve made is that so much of what we have in our teenagers is developed in our preschoolers. Habits of patience, cheerfulness, attention, self-motivation, love of learning, respectfulness… or the opposite have their roots in the under five crowd.
Find yourself a mentor Mama who is five or ten years further on than you are and pay attention to what she gets right, what she messes up and what she tells you she wishes she’d known when her kids were tiny. These women are hard to find, but worth their weight in gold.
Try to see the teenager in your toddler, and the adult in your teenager. They’re in there, I promise.
If you want emotional fulfillment, warm fuzzy cuddles and eternal happiness at your very presence, get a pet, don’t have a kid. Kids are not pets. They don’t exist to bring you some sort of completeness (although that is sometimes a byproduct). They exist to grow up and out and become dreamers and doers and livers of epic lives that change the world in spectacular ways.
Don’t live through your kids. Don’t buy them cute leashes and sweaters and parade them around so people will notice how much time and money you’re spending on them. Treat them like the fabulous humans they are. Give them space. Water them so they grow. You don’t want to keep them fenced in your back yard forever, you want them out there living and doing… without you, eventually.
Encourage them to live their own lives and get out of your house.
How do you answer when someone asks you what you do? Why is it that we feel the need to answer with something other than, something more than, mother?
There are other worthwhile things to do with life, but none more important than raising children who will change the world.
It’s easy to refer to what we used to be or do before we had kids when we identify ourselves, or to discuss our plans for “when the kids are gone.” It’s harder to let those things go and simply be the Mom. Living in the moment is hard as a mom. There is so much to do, so many who need, and so little left of ourselves at the end of some very long days. But this is your life.
THIS is your life. This is my life.
Muddy kids, loud kids, kids with intestinal issues on chicken busses in god forsaken corners of the world, kids who make me laugh, kids who make me want to scream, kids who wake me up with cups of tea and pick me flowers on long walks, this is my life. Washing clothes, cooking endlessly, cleaning bathrooms, finding lost socks, teaching math lessons, listening to squeaky instrument practice, refereeing sibling squabbles, this is my life.
I’m a teacher, I’m a writer, I wear a lot of hats, I “do” a lot of things, but none of them matter as much as being a mother. All of the other things I do will fade and pass away. My kids will be charging into a future I’ll never see. How cool is that?
This Mother’s Day we celebrated with four generations of the Miller family in Wisconsin. Grandma Parker had all of her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren in one room. I love moments like that. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to see your life’s work in the bright eyes of a dozen people that would never have existed without your choice to mother. I can’t wait for that moment. It’s what gets me through the long days, the hard days and the days that make me wonder what I was thinking.
My own life, I owe to my mother, who is sold out to being a mom in ways I can only aspire to. These Ten Things I Learned From My Mom are my little tribute to her.
The happiest of Mother’s Days to you all.