In my single and then newlywed years, I’m not sure who I imagined myself to be as a parent. I know I was scared and delayed starting a family because of what I thought to be legitimate excuses reasons, but ultimately it came down to fear of everything – how much I would have to give up, how my life and relationships and body would change, whether or not I would be a failure at it all. I didn’t have a clear vision of what kind of mother I would be. Five and a half years and 2 kids into motherhood, I’m still finding my way, learning them, learning me, learning God.
The thing that’s so hard to explain to people who have yet to experience parenthood without sounding like an ungrateful jerk, particularly when children are in their little years (in my case, ages 3 and 5), is the daily dying to self that is involved. I am an introvert who cherishes quiet and alone time; I now have very little of either. I was efficient and now I’m not (hello 36 steps, 2 meltdowns, and minimum 4 arguments to get into the car). I was neat and organized and now I’m not. I slept well and now I don’t. I felt safe(r) and now I feel vulnerable. I thrived on conversations about deep and heart-level things; now my adult conversations are limited and interrupted, and most of my everyday conversations are make-believe and weirdly perpetually argumentative and usually illogical. Even with the awareness that life would primarily become focused on raising my children after that first moment we beheld the positive pregnancy test, I still remain someone with my own passions, goals, and interests that are very much alive. I think it’s this aspect of the daily dying of self that hits me the hardest; not that I’m completely unable to pursue my dreams but I’m certainly much more constrained. Up until I became a parent, what I typically heard was loud, enthusiastic, pervasive urging to go hard after my dreams. “Don’t let anything get in your way!” I’d never been taught what it looks like to gracefully and humbly constrain my dreams for certain seasons, particularly in a way that retains deep hope and joy.
So much of this is about this death-defying fight to preserve the old me, who I was (and who I idolized, quite frankly) before becoming a parent. See, I didn’t just enjoy being an efficient, organized, deep-thinking, dream-pursuing introvert. Fundamentally, I also thought I was really patient, decently generous, good at caring about others and meeting them where they are at. I loved that version of me in my mind. Parenthood not only challenged and/or undid the former things, which were hugely precious to me; it revealed significant deficiencies in the latter that rattled my happiness with myself, my character, to the core. Who knew that I could speak so sharply to a child who, with no ill intent, accidentally soiled her bedsheets at an inconvenient time for me? Who knew I could be so ungrateful for our food, our home, our material goods, an education, that I could become embittered about the daily process of trying to get my kids fed, dressed, and off to school each morning? Who knew that I could possess such lack of empathy as I demanded that my 3 year-old negotiate life with me at my maturity level (and p.s., turns out I am sometimes the less mature between us). Apparently, God knew, and now I know, and it’s a bit appalling. Looking into the mirror my children hold up to me is like looking into the mirror without makeup, without outward adornment, without a chance to fix my face and smile for the camera. I much prefer the face with makeup, a prepared smile highlighted just right by a groomed outfit. How do I learn to love and accept the unadorned, and then embrace the revealing and refining of it?
A common response is, “Every parent struggles, and it’s ok! You’re ok and you’re not alone!” While it helps to know that other mothers struggle in similar ways as I do, at the end of the day this is no relief for the guilt I still feel for hurting my sweet children’s feelings, nor is it any source of empowerment for me to change. No, actually, it’s not ok that I yell at my kids just because I’m grouchy and don’t want to be inconvenienced any more for the day. It’s not ok for me to trudge through their little years with a chip on my shoulder, always slightly looking past them and looking ahead to the days when I hopefully get more of my independence back. It’s not ok that I miss so much of who they are because I’m still too stuck on me. Yes, these are all common struggles among parents, but that doesn’t make it ok.
I’m realizing that loving my kids starts not first and foremost with loving God (because I fall short there as well), but knowing from my rattled core what it is to be loved by Him. Not a surface, sweet, “Oh I love you, you’re fine, it’s gonna be ok!” kind of love. But a gritty oh man He sees my crap and calls it for what it is, but He remains deeply passionate about the well-being of my soul and is committed to being with me, in my worst, for my best. He loves the unadorned face staring back at me in the mirror. And then He does what I really need Him to do: He turns my gaze off myself before I can heap any more self-condemnation, before I can offer any more self-pity, before I can work to muster any more unconvinced self-cheer. He turns my gaze to Him, the One who covers my shame with grace and forgiveness, the One who fills my daily mundane moments in motherhood with significance, the One who empowers me to serve and grow because He Himself laid down His rights and glory and life to serve and sacrifice for us. He gives me Himself as my Good and Loving Heavenly Father who wants my best in motherhood, and so He uses motherhood itself to reveal in me my worst. In that place, He is unflinching in His love for me. From that place, I can but love Him, love my unadorned self, and love these children He has so graciously entrusted to me.