There’s a song that’s been running through my head the last couple of days: “Mr. Mom” by Lonestar. The song details what’s supposed to be a day-in-the-life of a mom, as felt by a newly unemployed-turned-stay-at-home-dad. He “rewinds Barney for the umpteenth time,” finds “sweet potatoes in my lazy chair” and a whole host of other supposedly ordinary, daily events that, over the course of, say, five years, slowly creates frazzled, exhausted, poop-avoiding machines out of previously beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent women. Now, the song is written as a tribute to mothers—stay-at-home mothers, in particular. Its message is “God bless you, dear heroic woman: you are WAY stronger than me!” Mothers all around the country undoubtedly felt just a little bit of a relief upon hearing that song. I remember the first time I heard it, I laughed when I heard the Barney reference. I really did “rewind” that lovable dinosaur what felt like thousands of times and having all the mundane, less than Facebook-glamorous chores you do recognized is a good feeling. There’s nothing wrong with the song…. and yet. It’s bugging me today.
The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, I suppose.
Both of my girls are fiercely strong-willed, independent girls. If they do not want to do something, they can put up a stronger fight than Superman. They’ve been known to find their way into some pretty devious schemes, like flooding my bathroom on purpose or locking us out of the house, on purpose. The other day, my youngest asked me the following question: “Can I have your hair? I need it for my baby” and when I responded: “My hair? What do you mean?” she answered, “Can I cut it? I’ll get the scissors.” Part of me was afraid to go to bed that night because I was afraid I’d wake up with no hair. They can get the giggles and be dowsed with “silly juice” at totally inappropriate times, like around midnight, when they should be sleeping. I homeschool and sometimes my oldest will simply refuse to listen to anything deemed even remotely challenging. Neither of them are particularly patient. The other day, I was talking to a friend at church when my daughter opened the door to the van, stuck her head out and promptly told me: “Get in here now!” One of my daughters will only eat about ten different items and those ten things have to be cooked exactly right or she will deliberately starve. My oldest broke her arm when she was five by jumping off the arm of the couch. Once, they called 9-11, which could have gotten me fined by the police. I have wondered on multiple occasions how they think of the stuff they come up with. So the chaos and everyday testing-of-patience described in songs such as “Mr. Mom” aren’t totally inaccurate.
Children do not think like adults and so their behaviors are also different: sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it makes you want to go to bed and hide. The antics of a healthy, normal child and the often bewildered, confused, frazzled reaction of parents isn’t really altogether a myth. Nor is the strength of a good mother. Let me be the first to promise you that the crash course in breastfeeding and pumping milk while your emotions and hormones are raging war against your newly alien-like body while simultaneously comforting, holding, changing, staring at, bathing and playing with a newborn on next to zero sleep takes bucket loads of strength. In the first week of giving birth, a mother learns things about herself she never dreamed were part of her. The first time your sweet toddler stares you down and shouts “NO!” with all the passion of her two or three year old being, or worse yet, hits you because you dared not to give her her way, and you react graciously, patiently and with love, an entirely new dimension of strength crashes over your body. The first time your child is seriously in danger thanks to asthma and you have to watch her lips turn blue while feeling absolutely helpless, but you still wrap that child in your arms, swearing she will be able to breathe normally again soon, you age in strength. Make no mistake: mothers are strong creatures. There is no myth about that.
I take exception to this caricature of a bedraggled, frantic looking mother whose talking on the phone, appreciating a drawing her child is trying to show her, helping another kid with homework, cooking dinner and nursing a newborn at the same time. I get the point: mothers multi-task. But so do CEOs. I get the point: mothers are often tired. But so are the waitresses who work for 12 hours on their feet serving other people. I get the point: motherhood is, at least in this day of liberalism, voluntary. But so is choosing going to med school full time while also holding down a forty-hour week job. What the song “Mr. Mom” fails to acknowledge is the joy.
When my oldest daughter was born, I made a very conscious, deliberate decision to teach her that her ideas are just as good as mine. Coloring books were banned from my house because I did not want her to ever subconsciously think that she had to color “inside the lines.” There is “no wrong way to do art.” To teach this, I called certain days “Picasso Day” and we would just go crazy with paint. I would spread butcher paper of the table and let her experiment with sponges, paintbrushes, the tops of cans, whatever. She would strip down to her underwear (or, these days, her bathing suit) and we paint ourselves from head to toe. Painting, after all, is about expression. It’s about creating and creativity. Not following the lines. Realizing that sometimes drawing at eye-level is easier for a very young child than trying to look down at paper, I taped paper to the walls at my daughters’ eye levels and let them go crazy. I had a mural on my wall and what they remember is that they were allowed to draw on the wall. Today, we drove forty-five minutes to Springfield, to Honeysuckle Hill Farm, and enjoyed a laid back kind of day. Corn mazes and all sorts of other adventures followed suit. And it was all kinds of fun. We picked out pumpkins, came home and rode the “chariot” (aka: van) to a Royal Dinner (aka: Fazolis). We talked about what had been our best part of the day and we came home and carved pumpkins, laughing about the gooey guts and how we should plant all the pumpkin seeds and have a “pumpkin supply” in our backyard.
I helped give baths and then won the argument over whether or not they needed their hair brushed. As I brushed each girl’s hair, I gave hugs. We then snuggled together and read storytime, sang a few songs and talked about tomorrow. We prayed. And, only after they were asleep, did I feel comfortable enough to flop down on my bed. When I did, I closed my eyes and felt each muscle slowly release its tension. I was tired. I am tired. I don’t remember not being tired. But what’s more important is the sense of joy I have when I play with my girls or teach them or take care of them. I’m more than tired—I’m excited because I have an opportunity those without children don’t have: I get to see life, every day, through the eyes of a child. I never appreciated dirt the way I do now until my oldest discovered, quite by accident, that making mud pies is fun. While digging in the dirt (the idea never would have crossed my mind), she proudly held up …. dirt…. and said, “Look! I found a real mud ball! I totally would have missed the coolness of making homemade slime. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have someone turn to me for comfort when lightening scares her. I wouldn’t have gotten to play at the zoo because I would have thought, “the zoo is for kids.” More importantly, I wouldn’t know the sweetness of a having a nine year old whose favorite game is This LIttle Piggy or a six-year-old who said her favorite part of the farm was “sitting on the tire watching people zipline.” I wouldn’t have known how warm my heart could feel by a child drawing squiggly green and blue lines on paper and saying, “This is for you Mama! It’s your favorite: mountains!” I wouldn’t know what a Monster Mash hug is or how beautiful mermaids are.
I read a blog post recently from a mother who said that, since giving birth, “all ambitions” had gotten lost in the “obsession” with her son. She didn’t care about “becoming” anything anymore; all she cared about was being in the presence of her son. It was “all-consuming” she wrote. She went on to “realize” that it was “bad” and that she needed “to change.” She talked about how she’d made the decision to have more personal time, time spent away from her son. For two hours every other day, her husband was put in charge of the son so that she could go to the gym or Starbucks. Like this mother, I sometimes wonder how I ever went to the bathroom without a kid coming in behind me. Like this mother, my entire world revolves around my children. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I am not in a relationship. I have no man. Adult conversation is extremely limited, almost to the point of non-existent. But, unlike this mother, I don’t see this as a handicap. I see it as a gift. The idea of caring for these two girls makes me happy. I don’t get upset about having to cook dinner after a busy day; cooking dinner is time for me to connect with them. I make it a point to “pick my battles.” In other words, unless it’s going to harm them or someone else or its in direct contradiction to the core family values I’ve established, I am slow to discipline. Not because I can’t but because I believe saying yes as often as possible is important and it’s important because I know that this time in my life will not last.
It’s true that I’m not the same as I was before becoming a mother. I’m not as pretty. You’re more likely to find me dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with a ponytail than you are “dressed to impress” these days. It’s hard to keep up on the monkey bars in a dress. Exhaustion has, I’m sure, weathered my skin. I’ve released dreams that were once precious to me because obtaining them required too much time distracted from my girls. But also…. somewhere in yesteryear, my priority was pain avoidance. Today, my priority is the creation of memories. Unlike the message in “Mr. Mom” suggests, I don’t deserve any special credit. There are doctors who, by the gift of God, save lives while sacrificing time with their families. There are incredible stories of selfless and devoted human beings that aren’t parents. A mother isn’t just the person who remembers your socks but forgets where the car keys are. A mother isn’t just chef who remembers to cut the sandwich into small squares but then forgets to make her own sandwich. A mother isn’t just the person who starts shopping for Christmas for you in August but then forgets to buy garbage bags. A mother isn’t just the person who helps you draw detailed maps of the grocery store, and ways to avoid the lobster tank, but then forgets to buy milk. A mother isn’t just tired. A mother is also the woman whose favorite gift is truthfully your baby doll that you wrapped in a blanket and put under the Christmas tree for her. A mother is the woman who never forgets the exact time you were born—not because she spent countless hours in labor only to be rushed to an emotionally heart-breaking C-Section but because that was the hour and minute of her life that she became whole. A mother is also the woman who, when asked to define the word joy sees only your face when you are genuinely happy. A mother is the woman who laughs more, who gets excited about seeing the stars with you and who would rather spend the afternoon hiding in the hamper for Hide-and-Seek than at Starbucks with a group of girlfriends. A mother is the woman who would never dream of not being a mother again after having experienced the fullness that accompanies holding your hand. The stereotypical mother is a myth. All of the stereotypes. She’s not Aunt Bee. She’s not Carol Brady. She’s not the heroic mom in “Mr. Mom.” The truth is that there is no “ideal” mother—-there can’t be when each child is unique. A mother is whatever she has to be to her individual child when she needs to be it. When my oldest daughter is grumpy, she needs space to be alone. When my youngest child is grumpy, she needs her photo blanket and a snuggle. When my oldest daughter is joyful, she needs a hug and the permission to throw her arms in the air, wherever she may be. When my youngest daughter is joyful, she needs the space to be active and a captive audience. And even though I wouldn’t know what the next woman’s child would need in order to go to sleep at night, I’m still a mother not because I birthed two human beings but because I know what they need to fall asleep.
Motherhood is far more than sleep deprivation. It’s far more than multi-tasking. It’s more than selflessness. It’s more than strength. It’s beauty found in bedtime whispers and giggles. It’s the peacefulness found in a circle of prayer. It’s the love that you cannot express with something as paltry as words but which is still so real it steals the breath. Motherhood isn’t a “job.” It’s a blessing, a gift, an honor, the highest and most important legacy one can leave. Motherhood isn’t a “loss of self” in which the woman “loses her identity”; rather, it’s a fullness in which the woman discovers that the key to true peace lies in something as simple as making pancakes with smiling faces. Motherhood isn’t about “spoiling” a child; motherhood is about embracing the child and cherishing time. Motherhood isn’t worried about criticizing other mothers or winning the “my kid is better than yours” award—that’s called pride and a waste of time. Instead, motherhood is a celebration of childhood. Motherhood is the acknowledgement that the good and the bad ultimately work together to create a harmony with the words “I love you, Mama” that is more lovely than the greatest symphonic masterpiece.
You see, I am proud to be a mother. I am excited to be a mother. Being a mother motivates me. Being a mother encourages my creativity: every night, I contrive new games to play, places to go, activities to attempt. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I succeed. But isn’t that the beauty of life in general? After all, in order to appreciate the view at the top of the mountain, you first must climb the mountain. Everyone has bad days. I’ve been battling a myriad of health issues that have landed me in the hospital on numerous operating tables and regular IV iron therapy for quite some time. It would be crazy easy for me to see the world as a challenge. But I don’t. Instead, even on my worst day, I consciously choose to remember that I am teaching my children: am I teaching them to smile or am I teaching them to merely endure? Exhaustion is a side effect of responsibility. Joy and peace, however, are a product of grace. And grace isn’t something we earn, it is something we accept. Ultimately, then, deciding to treat life as though it is a wonderful, beautiful gift rather than a wearisome, pessimistic burden to bear is the key to whether you’ll be an exhausted caricature or a happy mother.