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On Gratefulness and Motherhood

Gratitude has to be, however honorable, one of the greatest elusive qualities of mankind. Unless practiced, it becomes the weakened muscle that atrophies until nothing but but a limp life is left in its wake. The very act of graciousness implies that a person who is grateful is happy. I don't think that's actually true. Even in the worst of circumstances one can be gracious, but it comes with a forced hand. It's uncomfortable and prickly and, quite frankly, if I've been grateful when times are tough it's been through gritted teeth with a thin layer of surly just beneath my skin. It's the great paradox of parenting: it is hard even while enjoying children to feel a sense of gratitude.

I am terribly grateful for the wicked sense of humor in my children.

I am grateful for motherhood, too, but lately when I have thought much about it I feel far more confident that ever before. The fallacy is that I'm getting better at motherhood, but the truth is that I'm just changing. Not once have I thought my brand of parenting was better than anyone else's. Even when I read about the Tiger Moms or the free-spirited parents who let their kids take the subway by themselves, I never assumed that I was superior or even inferior to them. Sure, it was interesting to learn about them and what truths they discovered along the way, but nothing they did made me second guess my own parenting decisions. That, it seems, is always left to self-imposed doubt, but never in comparison to another mother or even a father.

My friend, Ozma, begged the question, but she really just teased it out of me as it just seems to keep coming up in my personal life. "Aren't there any other parents who feel like everything they do is wrong but if they did the other thing, that probably would be wrong, too?"

God, yes, Ozma. I do it spectacularly wrong. I've not been that certain parent who is sure, so very sure, that I have the answer for you if you tell me what your kids are doing. While I am also spectacularly opinionated, it just doesn't come across as unwavering certainty in the way I mother. Do you know the times I've apologized to my children? Too many to count. It's a humility that I'm comfortable with and I've been parenting for nearly 26 years. Picture perfect parenting is not my thing.

I'm just too busy being a mother to my own children to wonder what it is people think of my parenting or, worse, to offer my comprehensive knowledge. Mothering is ubiquitous. Being a know-it-all is not at all helpful in this instance. Constant judging leaves no room for compassion.

That is my greatest truth at the moment. I'm not great at this, I second guess. Quite often I might add. Did I make them stay in sports long enough while growing up? Should my son have quit piano and karate? Should the other one have stopped playing his trumpet after 9 years? Does one of them have aspergers? Because I'm certain, after researching the DSM-IV, that he is on the spectrum. What difference would it make to get a diagnosis now if I'm doing the kind of behavioral treatment as a parent? Should I force all of them to get a college degree? Do I take them back to church? What about my potty mouth in front of them? Am I too hard on them? Do we watch too much television? Did I yell at them too much?

This could go on forever. But I'm not interested in getting anyone's answers to them in this venue. I've never been comfortable with that kind of questioning. A better question to raise is how much better we'd be as a society if more parents showed humility in the nurturing of their children and how much leniency and grace could be granted them.

Who is doing it all right all the time? Who has achieved this perfection and made a plan to be a parent that worked out for them entirely?

Years ago when my youngest was just a toddler in the 2-year old Sunday school class at church they taught him a song. "If you feel happy...if you feel happy...if you feel happy...then clap your hands!" and then all the little ones would clap furiously to show they were happy. They replaced happy with other words like loving and joyful. The one word they didn't teach them was one that he tried out on me at home after church one day. While I was trying to get our post-church dinner fixed everyone seemed to congregate in the kitchen and manage to get underfoot. It was the tiniest kitchen with no room for three little ones and I frequently yelled at them to leave me alone while I prepared food and cut up apple slices and fix plates and cut their meat for them. It made me irritated when they couldn't find something else to do and clamored for my attention during a time when I was extremely focused and busy. Morgan heard me yelling at the other two kids in the kitchen at the time and he was peering over the counter from the opposite side. Even on his tiptoes, I could only see his eyes peeking over at me, but then he started singing.

"If you feel grumpy...if you feel grumpy...if you feel grumpy...then clap your hands!"

What a moment in parenting for me. The shame and guilt of being grumpy enough for my 2-year old to recognize and sing was too much. Yet, I am and was grateful in that moment for seeing myself through my toddler's eyes for even a moment even as shaming as it felt.

I'll admit that most of that doubt came from being such a young mother to all of my children. I finished having children by age 23 so I have become accustomed to meeting the stares and hearing the whispers from people, mostly other moms, who must have been doing it completely and 100% right and felt so good about it that they didn't hesitate to judge. If I weren't so busy trying to corral my babies and wiping the spit-up out of my hair and smoothing out my clothes I probably would have told them right off, but all I could manage was an eye-roll. My attention had to be on them at all times. How could I scream at a complete stranger without teaching my children that that was okay? Of course I couldn't. But they saw it and sometimes they asked why I was sad. There's no explanation good enough for a child so I didn't even try. There would be no point in it.

I'm still not doing it right. I have no idea what I'm doing or what the long-lasting effects will be on them as they continue to grow. My boys still punch each other, they leave dirty dishes in the sink, and they cannot pick up clothes off the floor to save their lives. But they also kiss me goodbye even in front of their friends and they sit at the table for a family meal every night while we talk about their day and they hold open the door for ladies like I taught them. At times, people have witnessed their manners in public and told me how lucky I am to have such nice children. It's not luck and there's no magic potion to get them to do that - it was hard work, it's imperfect work, and it's ongoing work. There's no luck to it. I erroneously believed that once the diapers and potty-training and learning to color within the lines and knowing their alphabet was done, then so was I. When the physical work slowed down, the emotional effort began and it's been far more grueling and strenuous and dubious than I ever imagined.

Motherhood offers no badges or stripes save for the stretch marks or the haggard looks we wear. Babies don't thank you for catching their puke. Teenagers don't appreciate you for putting clean sheets on their beds. But in that instant when they willingly share their own truths with you there is a sliver of gratitude. There is something loving and joyous that sneaks up on you and, for inexplicable reasons, it covers a multitude of sins they've committed against you. It's hard not to be grateful and indebted in that split-second.

That bright, fast-burning slippery moment when it feels like you know everything about motherhood and have a sense of doing it all right. That right there is the only advice I have to give on mothering: Be very careful and humble with that moment and give it the proper respect it deserves.

Not much else in life will ever come very close.
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Reader Comments (16)

Beautifully said, from one imperfect, struggling to get it not so wrong mom to another.

January 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMommela

I'm getting teary at this:

"Motherhood offers no badges or stripes save for the stretch marks or the haggard looks we wear. Babies don’t thank you for catching their puke. Teenagers don’t appreciate you for putting clean sheets on their beds. But in that instant when they willingly share their own truths with you there is a sliver of gratitude. There is something loving and joyous that sneaks up on you and, for inexplicable reasons, it covers a multitude of sins they’ve committed against you. It’s hard not to be grateful and indebted in that split-second."

This is so beautiful. It's all so indescribable, this mothering gig. You do a great job describing it, maybe the best I've read in some time.

I'm so grateful. That is something I want to explain someday--that sheer joy. It's the paradox of parenting. Some creature can be spewing barf all over you and you can actually feel joy. That's not the usual scenario of course, but it can happen. Isn't that such a miracle?

And I love that you put it together with gratitude. It's massively humbling to be the lighthouse to some human being as they make their way. It boggles the mind--so common, so ordinary, so monumental and almost godlike. And how can we not be grateful when it is the most profound and deeply satisfying thing on some level that we can never, ever explain.

This post really is a balm to me because I haven't done anything terrible--but I love my child with such enormity and I'm so human and flawed and clueless and life is hard. How do you give them the tools they need? You never know for sure if you are doing that. And if you are someone, like me, who is a bit mixed up yourself and maybe didn't get the tools...well...All I can do is pray.

January 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersnozma

Goddamn. That was marvelous.

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTina Rowley

" . . . it was hard work, it’s imperfect work, and it’s ongoing work."

Well, there you go.

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Perfection. "Constant judging leaves no room for compassion." Indeed.

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMir

Just a perfect post! How gracious you are. You lead by example, my dear

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

This is it-- What I've mulled over in my mind so many times, without ever being able to put it so eloquently.

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Lovely. A perfect read on a Sunday morning (while I wonder if I should make the littles turn off the TV!).

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranymommy


January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

"I erroneously believed that once the diapers and potty-training and learning to color within the lines and knowing their alphabet was done, then so was I. When the physical work slowed down, the emotional effort began and it’s been far more grueling and strenuous and dubious than I ever imagined."

I'm at a transition moment, when my younger kids (4yo and 6yo, and to a lesser extent the 8yo) are still so physically dependent, and yet the older children (10yo twins and almost -12yo) are so completely emotionally and mentally draining. The angst! The drama! The bickering!--and yet I see moments of grace in the midst of it all.

Your post touched me. Thank you.

January 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Moore

Somehow you've managed to come closer to describing my experience of motherhood than anyone else I've seen - that intersection of humility and fear and fierce ownership and pride.

I have tried to explain how unsure of myself I often feel as a mother and desperate for information - but at the same time I don't want anyone else to look down on me or tell me I'm doing it wrong. I try to follow my heart and the best information I have. I will always question myself, but that doesn't mean I think somebody else is right either.

Thank you.

January 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA Place of Greater Safety

I don't know if you're familiar with this poem by Khalil Gibran, but it seemed quite appropriate to share.
"You may give them your love, but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts..."

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterClaire J

I love Gibran and today, more than anything, needed this. Thank you so very much. It fit this post perfectly.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMocha Momma

This... is perfection. It is just so eloquently written.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColleen - @amadisonmom

No words could live up to this beautiful post, so I will just thank you for sharing. You put eloquence to the thoughts that so many of us have.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

As a young mother of two who solo-parents, this touched my soul.

Thank you for writing/expressing this; I've bookmarked it for future rereads.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteramira

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