Today didn’t go as I had envisioned. Big brother was spending the afternoon with his teenaged pals, so I decided to do something special just for the littlies. I envisioned a wonderful trip to our local wildlife sanctuary (The Lindsay Wildlife Museum) where my three youngest children and I would enjoy learning about the hospital’s newest patients and how they ended up at the sanctuary, observing the foxes, owls, and mountain lions being fed and bathed by the hospital staff, and even sitting on the bench outside the sanctuary in front of a giant cage housing a very, very ugly turkey vulture.
Instead, at no point did all three of them want to be in the same place in the sanctuary at the same time. Claire and Dominic wanted to watch the live presentation and lecture about the golden eagle, featuring the gorgeous rescued eagle Topaz. Lydia wasn’t interested. The entire time she complained and wanted to leave. Then we went downstairs to a large room with giant animal puzzles, art, and chalkboards because Lydia wanted to be there. Now Dominic complained. “How much longer?” “Can’t I go upstairs by myself?” “I don’t want to do this.” In both these situations, I tried to handle the divided interests of my kids the best I could, explaining that we had to consider the interests of others and that we would all have a turn to explore our favorite exhibits.
But the entire afternoon was one struggle after the next, one complaint after the next, one grumble after the next. I was exhausted and crabby by the time we arrived at our van to go home, not only because of the constant negotiating and cheerleading required of me all day, but I somehow ended up holding a bag of STUFF from the museum gift shop. How did this happen? I am currently attempting to clear out piles and piles of stuff from our house, because we’re bursting at the seams with too many Lego, stuffed animals, torns books, cheap toys from the dollar store, and balls that have been partly chewed up by our dog. Stuff, stuff, stuff.
How did this happen, then? Because they all seemed happy together in the darned gift shop. Can we have just one little thing?, I heard. They smiled so sweetly, especially Dominic with his front teeth missing. They looked around and were showing me small “treasures” that caught their eye. A $3 necklace. A 99 cent board book. A $2 frog. A Magic School Bus bug video on clearance for $5. Now this stuff wasn’t expensive and as the gimmes go, it could be worse. I mean, they wanted a video about bugs, not Sponge Bob, right? I bought them these items, along with some pretty lollies, and everyone was happy.
But we didn’t need more stuff. I wanted the treat this afternoon to be witnessing the beauty and power of the golden eagle, not the glitz and packaging of the gift shop. I wanted the children to bond and connect over their passion for creatures, over the stories of rescue, recovery, and survival of these creatures against all odds, not over which video in the clearance rack was the coolest.
On the drive home I felt like a failure. The voice of darkness crept in. The kids are materialistic. I have no backbone. Why can’t I say no to the kids? I’m not a strong leader. I need to be more firm. Then I remembered how we had left the house in complete shambles and I was even more down. My inability to say no to my kids and my inability to follow through on chore assignments are two of my biggest parenting struggles. It’s the underside of my real desire to make my babies happy. But it’s the underside, because in the long run I’m doing them no favors by not setting firmer limits, by not following through on expectations.
Now, this essay isn’t about how I should set those limits. Maybe I’ll write that down in the future. You probably know the drill anyway. What I want to leave you with is the story of how the rest of our day went.
When we arrived home I was so tuckered out I fell asleep on the couch practically sitting up. The three rascals put on the bug video and watched it while I slept. I woke up to my three year old kissing me with her tiny puckered mouth and saying, “ . . . but I love you Mommy.” I’m not sure what preceded these words, but how wonderful to be awoken by them, especially when they are spoken in a tiny, exuberant preschooler’s voice. For the rest of the day, we tidied the family room, then went out to our pool where the kids played and cooled off while I considered All These Things.
Satan would love for me to remain stuck, to accuse myself of being a failure, to feel so disheartened that I give up. Alone I would have to give up. But we are never alone in our parenting. Not only is God right there parenting with us, but God parents us through our children. I continue to consider All These Things which unfolded today, but tonight I reflect on these lessons:
- I am not called to create perfect experiences for my children. I am not called to create a perfectly tidy house for my children. I am called to lead my children to heaven, even when it’s messy, inconvenient, and downright infuriating.
- I am not called to be perfectly, blissfully happy every moment of my mothering. My feelings of frustration are not a failure. They are merely a human response to stress, a sign that I was headed for my “yelling mommy” voice, but in the end I did not yell, I did not threaten as I have done in the past. I endured the imperfect connection we had this afternoon and helped my kids navigate it. In fact, that my children wanted to experience different things at the museum is quite normal. I see how in the future I can set expectations in the beginning of these visits so things will go more smoothly, but even though we were not in perfect synch this afternoon, we were together, we struggled through our human weakness, and at the end of the day, we played and splashed together, laughing as the sun went down.
- I am not called to rely on my own strength in my parenting. Alone, I would surely fail, but if I align my intentions as a parent with those of God, then he will always lead my family forward, always bring us healing, always draw us to the cool refreshing waters of joy and hope after a time of disconnection and struggle.
One of the most beautiful blessings of gentle, empathic parenting is that temporary disconnects are not a disaster. We love generously, occasionally lose touch, but we find our way back again to one another’s love. Tonight as children are winding down for bed, I am teary with gratitude and praise for my heavenly Father, who still loves me in my weakness, who calls me forward, who lets me rest on his lap when I’m weary. I close with this passage from Isaiah:
Do you not know or have you not heard? The Lord is the eternal God, creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint nor grow weary, and his knowledge is beyond scrutiny. He gives strength to the fainting; for the weak he makes vigor abound . . . They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, the will soar as with eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint. Isaiah 41: 28, 29, and 31.