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The other night, while fighting back insomnia, I read an online article about parenting.  The article was one of several I’ve read that pointed out how difficult motherhood is,  how physically, emotionally and spiritually draining it is.  That article, and nearly all the others I’ve read regarding parenting, were written to pay homage to mothers,  to give credit to brave women working diligently,  selflessly and passionately behind-the-scenes.  These articles are written to try and boost the self-confidence of a mom who feels like the weight of the entire world is on her shoulders.   The articles are saying,  “HEY!  You!  The one with the messy house, the one who thinks her kids are going to be serial killers because she lets them watch TV!   What you’re doing is HARD and you should cut yourself some slack!”

….

I am a single mom of two little girls whose father and I never married and did not live together even when we became engaged or when our daughters were born.  Long before we separated for good,  I was, in essence,  a single mother, doing her best to raise happy, confident, safe girls without an instruction booklet to tell me what to do when life didn’t go as I wanted it to.  Just like every other mom on the planet,  I’ve questioned whether the decisions I make on any given day are the right ones.  I’ve felt woefully inadequate when I’ve taken the kids to a museum or a park and surreptitiously surveyed the other,  “cooler” moms.   Just deciding what they are going to eat for dinner has, more than once, been more than enough to make me break down in tears.

So I understand why the articles are written.   Parenting is 24/7  and having support can be really, really important in order to safeguard your sanity.   In absolutely no shape, fashion or form do I mean to imply that those articles shouldn’t be written because encouraging one another,  using our lives to uplift each other,  is one of the best gifts we can offer.   And there are million of mothers who do not have the luxury of peeking into other women’s lives via social media or articles about parenting;  they might truly not know that other moms go through the exact same things they are going through.   That mom would need an encouraging post about how it doesn’t really matter if your kid doesn’t get to go to the $500 a week Summer camp.  So I am not trying to demean or undermine the importance of sharing the trials and tribulations of parenthood.

But.

When my oldest daughter was a couple of months old,  I remember looking at her one day and thinking to myself,  I thought this was supposed to be hard.  And then I thought,  give it time.  When she’s old enough to crawl, it will get hard.  Then she started crawling and walking and talking.  And I thought the same thing  “They said this would be hard.”  Except it wasn’t.  Even when one child became two children,  my life didn’t become harder.   My life became fuller.   Changing diapers and breastfeeding and soothing crying babies wasn’t hard to me,  it gave my life definition and meaning.  It gave me direction and a purpose.  But it did more than that.   As they grew and we began playing games like hide-and-seek and chase and then sleepovers,  I started to understand what the word fun really meant.  I started to understand what the word treasure meant.   My vision expanded beyond myself.  Suddenly, the world was about so much more than writing books or listening to country music.   The world was about experiencing just how wonder-filled life is.  It was about learning to cherish every moment of every hour.  I learned what it meant to revel in watching the clouds float by.  I found indescribable freedom in flour fights and piggy-back rides and painting outside the lines.   A lethal combination of peace and tenderness filled my core every night as I watched them sleep.  And every day—every, single day—I found myself laughing.   Every day — every, single day — I learned something more about life, too.

For example…

Not too long ago,  my daughter and I were talking about beauty.   I was telling her that we are made, each of us, in the image of God.  The Bible says so,  so it is so.   We don’t know what it is about ourselves that reflects Him—but something does.  Maybe it’s our smile,  maybe it’s our eyes,  maybe it’s our height or our form.   Maybe it’s our hair.  Maybe it’s our ears.  Whatever it is, it’s there.  Be that as it may, though,  the world seems to have forgotten this and instead has created a “perfect” version of a woman.  Magazines and movies and TV commercials all jumped aboard the band wagon and, now,  our culture thinks that that brand of woman is what every girl should look like.  Blonde, blue eyed and thin.  I then went on to say how that’s a lie;  I told her how people use computers to alter photographs so that they look more like the “perfect” version.  At the end of the conversation,  she seemed to feel better about her own reflection in the mirror and I felt good about my explanation.   We then got into the car to go somewhere,  somewhere where there would be people,  grown-ups, who might judge me.  We’d pulled out of the driveway and made it out of the subdivision before it dawned on me that I did not have my make-up with me.

“Shoot!”  I said,  “I left my make-up at home.”

I was ready to turn the car around and go back to the house to retrieve my make-up but then my daughter,  the one with whom I’d just had a conversation about how we are all beautiful, said,  “Why do you need makeup?  You’re pretty just the way you are, right?”

It was one of those moments I was talking about earlier,  one of those moments where I remembered that life isn’t about covering up my blemishes because life isn’t about being beautiful.  Life is about teaching my daughter to believe she’s beautiful with or without make-up.  So even though I wanted my blemishes covered, even though I wanted to return home to get that cover-up,  I left it at home instead.

Parenting isn’t just about what I can teach them,  it’s about what they can teach me.   It’s not just about watching them grow and change and chase their dreams,  it’s about growing and changing and chasing my dreams right alongside of them.   We celebrated Thanksgiving a few days ago.  The only place we went all day was going to see the lights just before bedtime.  We lit a fire and roasted marsh mellows over it,  we took turns telling each why we are thankful for one another,  we cooked,  ate and painted.  At the end of what was really a simple day,  my daughter said,  “This has been the best Thanksgiving.”    And, despite the mess in the kitchen to clean or the toys on the floor to put away or the laundry to finish,  she was right.  It was the best and it was the best because we were surrounded by love.

I’m not known for staying still.  Even when I probably shouldn’t,  even when I’m tired,  even when I don’t feel well,  we get out and go somewhere a lot.  Nigh daily.   We’ve spent time at every museum and park within a thirty mile radius.  Discovery  Center,  Science Center,  Cheekwood,  Frist Center,  the  Zoo,   the Hermitage,  Centennial Park,  Long Hunter Park,  the Greenway.   We seek out adventures because creating meaningful memories by which they can remember their childhoods is critical for me.  They will know and remember I love them because they will remember I took time to play.  And I sincerely enjoy running around and chasing them down slides and doing a million other activities with them.  But yet… my most valuable memories haven’t happened in a museum.  My most valuable memories are of games we invented ourselves:  the Knot Not jokes, catching Pooh Bear as he fell from a tree in our backyard,  acting as a jungle gym for them to climb on,  tickling feasts,  This Little Piggy,  Hush Little Baby,  Chatter Chats and Imagine.

Do I ever get tired?  Do I ever just want to break down in tears for no apparent reason?  Do I ever feel like I am failing the most important test of my life?   Sometimes,  yes.   Because I’m human.  But if I weren’t a mother,  I’d get tired and want to break down for no apparent reason because of some other reason.  Difficulties are not unique to mothers or fathers;  challenges exist on a daily basis for every person alive on the planet.  Gigantic life-sucking monsters like Self-Doubt,  Fear,  Fatigue, Shame and Anxiety are not unique to parents,  they are part of life.  Massive life allies like Bravery,  Loyalty,  Self-Sacrifice,  Dedication and Strength are not reserved for parents alone:  they are attainable character traits for anyone willing to take them.   Parents are not the only ones working overtime: each of us has a sphere of influence,  people who are watching and emulating us, whether we know who those people are or not.   Being a mother isn’t about having advantages or disadvantages over non-parents.  Being a mother is about so much more.   It’s about feeling your entire core, every ounce of who you are,  hum with a love more intense,  more enduring,  more real than anything else I’ve ever felt.   It’s about learning to look at the world through a child’s eye thereby remembering just how small you are and how majestic life is.   It’s a little like standing at the edge of the ocean.   The endlessness of the sea can be a little intimidating and frightening but when you look down at your toes,  you find sand dollars and star fish;  the treasures make your heart light.  Soon, building sand castles and writing your name in a heart on the sand drowns out the rest of the noisy,  messy,  stressful,  worry-laden world.  Being a parent is kind of like that.   Just when I start to feel claustrophobic from health, financial, relationship or other grown-up concerns,  my daughters find a worm they want to name or draw me a squiggly lined picture that screams “I love you, Mama.”

Being in a committed relationship with another adult isn’t easy (I can say this because I have yet to succeed in this arena!).  People are stubborn,  people are selfish,  people break hearts every day.  And yet no one ever says,  “It’s okay,  you’re very brave for laying your heart on your sleeve.   It’s okay if you don’t want to clean your house today because you had to deal with him all afternoon.”  Instead,  people strive toward, race toward,  finding someone who will leave the toilet seat up or wash whites with coloreds or pick their noses or otherwise drive them nuts half the time.  No one ever compares being married to having a job.  Instead,  being married is a privilege, even when it gets rough, because it means someone wants you, someone loves you.   Similarly,  being a mother is not a job for me, it is an honor, a tremendous gift,  a privilege.  Being a mother isn’t an added weight,  it is the relief from the weariness of everyday life.   When one of my daughters laughs a “heart-happy” laugh,  when her eyes light up,  my entire world dissolves into a puddle of happiness.  When she is sad,  or hurt, no other pain on earth compares to what I feel.  When we sleep on the trampoline and wonder if there are astronauts on the moon right this second,  I’m reminded of how fleeting life is.  When she draws me a picture,  I understand that a real gift does not come from the store but from the heart’s desire to bring joy to someone else’s face, even if just for a moment.  I constantly find myself in awe of them—and they are only ten and seven years old–of how smart they are, of how thoughtful and of how innocent.  I can’t count the lessons I have learned but I can see how I have grown as a person,  I can feel the difference in my the well-being of my heart.

A big reason I’m not married and will likely never marry is because I have walls the size of Texas around my heart.  I find trust really hard.  No one goes through heartbreak without swearing they won’t go through it again and, like everyone else,  I emerged from a shattered heart “wiser,”  determined not to repeat “mistakes.”  The result were the walls very, very few people can crack.  Only in the safety of a blog viewed by readers whose names I will never know do I feel safe enough to admit pictures of beautiful weddings make my heart ache because I know throwing pennies into wishing wells doesn’t really work.  The real secret, though, is that I don’t think knowing that makes me smarter than my youngest who still won’t tell me what she wishes on stars for out of fear telling will make it not happen. The 7 year old is smarter than me because she’s the one who truly believes in dreams and in people treating others with respect and kindness.  She’s the one whose heart is malleable and tender,  who doesn’t view a request for friendship with skepticism.  The children are the ones giving and teaching me what it means to really live a happy, full life.   They are the ones who have to put up with me and all my “grown-up” knowledge.

The sweetest way I can think to encourage other moms who may be overwhelmed at life is to remind them to breathe,  to put the bills down and just watch their children playing.  Listen to the conversations they have with themselves, with each other or with their imaginary friends. Soak in the moment,  recognize the privilege of sharing your life with little people who adore you.

And then smile.

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