I received a gift on my Birthday
that I want to share with you, but first, I want to share a portion from the introduction of my book, Becoming a Present Parent, because it will help you appreciate the beauty and value of the gift.
“As a young woman growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I didn’t contemplate any other occupation than motherhood. It was so much a part of what I expected to do that I didn’t give it much thought. It was what everyone did. I looked forward to it. I expected to sail along, doing what was required in the best way possible because I was made for it. It never occurred to me I wouldn’t know what to do and how to manage.
Raising my family was “the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” These words from the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities describe my parenting experience rather perfectly.
Don and I didn’t talk much about family and parenting before we embarked on this grand adventure. He was the second child of two children, and I was the oldest of nine. He assumed I knew what I was doing, and I thought I knew what I was doing. We never discussed how we would discipline, how we would manage chores, meals, vacations, schooling, the budget, etc. Frankly, it didn’t occur to us we might not agree on everything, that we might not have all the information we needed. After all, we were in love, we shared the same faith, and parenting is what everyone did. It couldn’t be all that complicated.
But it was complicated!
Don and I had seven beautiful and amazing children, four girls and three boys. I recall with great fondness camping, fishing, sewing, cooking, crafts, Christmas, Thanksgiving, dance recitals, band concerts, baseball games, wrestling competitions, and speech contests.
I remember the fun we had: breakfast on the tailgate of our old pickup truck at the park, a block from our home one early Saturday morning; quiet conversations with whichever child’s turn it was to help me weed in the early dawn hours; canning while lots of kids snapped beans and peeled carrots; reading to our children; dinners together, a daily occurrence; bath time; night time cuddles; sitting together at church, filling a whole pew, while tickling backs and squeezing shoulders. These were memorable and satisfyingly ordinary days. These were the best of times.
I also have seared on my mind the struggles we shared as a family of nine—a husband who traveled for a living, drug abuse, premarital sex and a child born out of wedlock, thoughts of suicide, failure in school, smoking, alcoholism, lack of belief in one’s value as a person, quitting school, abandoning the church, a mother who raged and yelled, managing feelings of despair, and coming to terms with same-sex attraction. These were the worst of times.
When it’s all shaken together and poured out, how did we fare? Well, far better than we expected or than you might expect. Don and I had done just enough right, and with a full measure of the grace of God thrown in, we all survived and, strangely enough, thrived. We all live fully functional lives. We’re connected and bonded in unique ways. We look out for one another, and the kids support and lean on each other. We’re still a family!
The story of our family is the story of an imperfect family. You won’t and, frankly, can’t do everything right. Your children will struggle as they grow. You’ll work to do all that’s required in your chosen vocation of ‘parent.’ It’s part of the process of being human, of being in a family.”
This year, I received cards, letters, and a few videos from my children for my Birthday. Each one gave an example of something I had done that made a difference in their lives. I was surprised at some. I hadn’t realized that they were paying so much attention to my efforts to grow, change, and be better. But they were.
I want to share the contents of one gift I received, a video from my oldest daughter, Jodie.
“Mom, I am so happy to celebrate you. This morning, I was thinking about my mothering, the worries and challenges I face, and the potential regrets that I am thinking about already. Then I thought about where we are now, and I felt a deep sense of peacefulness that the story and the arc of family and parenting are long. I feel so grateful that you are our mom and that we get to celebrate you. I’m letting that gratitude steep in my heart today. Happy Birthday, mom.
Can you think of a more generous, more moving gift than words like these? As I have said many times, if we give it all we’ve got, learn a little here and a bit more there, and then implement, if we remain consistent and speak kindly to ourselves as we change and grow, then it will be enough. We will give our children the legacy of watching another human being engage in the process of becoming better. There isn’t much that we can provide them that is more powerful.
Here is something I do not share lightly.
During the years that our family struggled the most, I was despondent one day. As I washed dishes I thought about what a terrible job Don and I had done and were doing. Tears fell from my eyes. I looked heavenward and said out loud, “You should have sent these kids to another home. They would have done better.” Then clearly into my mind came these gentle and peace-giving words, “I knew how you would parent and that it would be enough.”
When you begin berating yourself for how imperfectly you are parenting, STOP—words matter. Your words to yourself matter the most. They will make it easier or harder for you to let go of old baggage, come up with solutions, find the resources you need to garner new information and get better at what you do. So, speak kindly. Be gentle. Give yourself charity, knowing that if you stay the course and keep learning, changing, and growing, it will be enough. It will! I know because in my family it has been enough!
Never quit. Never berate yourself. Keep working on you and loving your children, and it will be enough!