Mother’s Day No. 13 is now part of my calendar archives. As I reflect on the gifts I was given by my children this year, I can’t help but make the association between the literal and the proverbial gifts we moms receive every day. Children are a blessing, and motherhood is hard. Terrifying and delightful at once, it is a gift you unwrap daily without knowing what you’ll get. My kids now span the ages of 5 to 13, and every day I face a gamut of emotions from relaxed and confident to humble and downright scared. As my kids grow older, I am increasingly aware of the fact that the “easy stuff” is behind us.
When my kids were tiny, veteran moms would encourage me with words like, “It gets easier.” And in some respects this was true. The middle-of-the-night feedings eventually stop. The 12-month-old teetering on wobbly legs from one household hazard to the next eventually learns her boundaries and requires less watchfulness on the part of her weary parents. That hard-to-potty-train toddler somehow gets to kindergarten with a mastery of the toilet. The veteran moms are right: eventually, it all works itself out. But if I’m being honest, parenting certainly hasn’t gotten easier as our kids have grown. We don’t have to get up in the night to feed a hungry infant or change diapers or drag a child out of the grocery store mid-tantrum, but it’s not easier.
With school-aged kids, the vigilance required to keep a toddler safe is replaced with vigilance of another kind. Every day, backpacks come home stuffed with colored papers reminding me of something I shouldn’t forget. In the younger grades, these papers remind me that Monday is Cat-in-the-Hat day and that my child should come to school in red and white (this usually involves a frantic raid of dirty laundry piles). Others are permission forms that need to be signed or requests for money for an upcoming field trip. Some ask for donations for the class library. Some request a class snack.
Kids in the older grades don’t bring home the same amount of paperwork. Their requests usually come right when it’s time to get in the car to leave for school. They suddenly remember they needed a clear plastic report cover for a report due that day or $5 for a locker rental fee. Or worse, your 13-year-old calls from school mid-morning, hoping you’ll run up and sign a permission form that was due that day in order to participate in a field trip. And a dejected teenager breaks your heart because you want nothing more than to run up to school and sign a form so your child can go, except for that deal you made that you wouldn’t bail her out anymore. Parenting requires that long view, that idea that you’re going to send an adult into the world who needs to be able to organize herself well enough to make it through college and keep a job. And sometimes that means you have to say no when it would be just as easy to bail a kid out. So in addition to these painful teaching moments, I’m not sure which is harder, the colored paper reminders or the explosive emergencies of various “needs” that got forgotten or lost in the organizational shipwreck of teenaged distractedness.
Colored papers and missing papers combine with sports and other extra curricular activities so that the parent’s job becomes more like an air traffic controller trying to land children like planes on runways of piano lessons, baseball fields, gymnastic centers or youth groups. Inevitably someone gets lost in that shuffle, and something gets double booked causing major crashes on the family landing strips. But these are details, and though they may not get managed perfectly, they aren’t the things that matter most. Although they are the things that could easily get in the way of what matters most.
Last week my husband and I spent considerable time talking with one of our children. Being the kid who rarely makes trouble or demands the attention that the younger siblings do, she is also the kid who easily fades into the background noise of our family without notice. That night was special, and as we talked about the nuances of school-aged girl social structures, I was reminded of the challenges my kids face every day in school. I was also reminded that it’s the relationships we build with our kids that matter more than the ability to juggle all their papers and activities or get them successfully through potty training. As they get older, it’s the spontaneous conversations that become the gift, sometimes disguised, our kids present us every day.
My mother’s heart is both burdened and amazed at the courage, self control and skill it takes for my kids to make it through a day in an environment where peers are beginning to gather into cliques and push out the misfits. For one daughter, who views herself as outside the crowd, there’s no design on fitting in, just a courage to like herself for who she is and stand up for herself when necessary. For another daughter, who fits in with just about any group, there’s the angst of defending friends who don’t fit in against friends who are beginning to draw the lines of who fits and who doesn’t. Her every-day is a dance in which she floats between imaginary lines of belonging and coolness and being a friend to the kid who doesn’t fit. I am awed at the burden of parenting my kids. It is a huge and terrifying task to guide them. I am humbled at how much I have to learn.
Every day with these children is a gift I unwrap. With every joy at some of the hilarious things they do or say or the achievements they make along the way is an abiding burden to help them navigate a world that isn’t always compassionate and gracious. Some days I open that gift, and I am terrified; and I have to fight to keep from parenting out of a place of fear and instead to keep my eyes on that long view. It isn’t getting easier, no, but I am recognizing the gift that’s presented me each morning. And I’m beginning to discern the difference between the noise of colored or missing papers and the golden moments when we sit on the couch and talk together about growing up and being gracious and compassionate in a world that isn’t always that.
Mothers Day was last Sunday, but for all the moms engaging the hard work of parenting each day, dancing the lines of protecting and pushing, I hope the gift we all unwrapped Sunday was, in part, a gift of gratitude. Though I never know quite what I’ll get, I remain thankful for the gifts I have every day, all 1-2-3-4 of them.