Last Monday, I was at the children’s hospital. I’ve been there several times now, always feeling the same sense of dread and anxiety. But this time, I had a new thought. Ella was running in circles around the lobby’s main display, a Rube Goldberg machine, delighted and mesmerized by complicated journey of each little ball. I noticed a line forming at the receptionist desk and watched as the man and woman behind the desk calmly and casually handled each person asking for directions or signing in or whatever. Then I wondered, why would anyone want to be a receptionist at a children’s hospital? Is there any positive reason people go to there? I would imagine that that man and woman exclusively see parents living their worst nightmares; who would want any proximity to this? Of course, a job is a job and everyone needs to make a living and a hospital especially needs good people. But I thought about the peculiar circumstances of non-medical employees at a children’s hospital. They have stepped into this world where pain and fear are lurking in every corner. Where sickness is the price of entry. They know and have seen things no parent wants to know or see. They are behind a curtain so many parents don’t even know exist.
This is my fourth Mother’s Day and it’s my first one behind this curtain. But I’ve realized that there are a lot of curtains in motherhood, slowly lifting up and revealing new secrets to this life I’ve chosen. We all go behind them all the time. The first diaper change, the first latch, the first tantrum, and so on. You see how your child behaves and how you react, slowly creating a relationship and learning the ropes at the same time.
Becoming a mother is crazy for a lot of reasons but perhaps the one at the very top is that you enter this permanent position without really having any idea what it’s about. You know what it’s like to be a child, you’ve seen motherhood portrayed a million different ways, you can even read books claiming to tell you how to do it. But nothing, I’ve discovered, can truly prepare you for the emotional peaks and valleys of raising children.
I didn’t know that part of being a mother is confronting your own weaknesses. I didn’t know that I can’t do everything exactly the way my mom did it. I didn’t know that my plan to never let anything bad happen to my children isn’t possible. My parenting philosophy has always been to make my children feel loved beyond words and to perfectly protect them in a pretty little world of my own creation. To never let them know how bad that other world, the real one, can get. I can’t copy my mother perfectly but her fierce guardianship over her children is one thing I’m glad to have inherited. I didn’t know that part of being a guardian, a parent, a mother, is living with hard things happening anyways. I am a steward over these little souls, not the owner. We didn’t just create their bodies; these are lives that are now on earth and they must be lived within earth’s rules. Jack and Ella will have their own trials and struggles and pains and the most difficult curtain of my life so far: I cannot stop this from happening.
I never wanted Ella to have to be strong or to fight; I’ve been trying to parent her into invincibility. I never wanted her to feel any of the tough things I’ve felt in my life. I was so self-conscious and painfully insecure growing up; I thought I could mold Ella in such a way that she would never have to feel these things. And maybe she won’t, but Ella is separate from me and on her own path and I can’t just prepare her for my past.
I realize now that if I didn’t want her to be strong, the only alternative is for her to be weak and she could never be that. If I didn’t want her to fight, she would have to give up. If I didn’t want her to see how difficult life can be, she would never know she could rise to meet the challenge. Motherhood is a never ending chorus of I didn’t knows.
Parenthood is a risky business, maybe even the riskiest. I keep going behind more and more curtains I didn’t know were there. I thought I had a handle on this thing but I’ve discovered that I’m still trying to get to the heart of what motherhood truly is. I’m starting to think this series of curtains is endless; the scope of motherhood is endless. I’m grateful for my role in our family but there is weight to this blessing. The weight of responsibility, of course, but also the weight of knowledge. That’s all going behind curtains is; it’s learning more about yourself and unraveling the mysteries of this very important calling.
I love Mother’s Day. I love getting a chance to heap well deserved praise on my mom. I enjoy reflecting on the days my kids were born and all the milestones and precious moments I’ve gotten to experience with them. And I’ll be honest, it’s nice feeling like the world appreciates just how hard this job really is, even if it is just one day. Being a mom is the greatest thing I will ever do. I never used to know what people meant when they said that; the work of mothers can be pretty mundane and monotonous, after all. But if I can find a way to fine tune my instincts, to teach my kids to be strong and survive the falls and establish myself as their safe harbor, I know that I can be proud of that. This is a refiner’s fire and my only hope is that I can withstand the heat, harness it, and let it burn bright within me.
Happy Mother’s Day to you all.