Saving daylight — with him

Sunset photo by Hoang Loc
Photo by Hoang Loc

Whenever I replay it in my mind, the scene starts here: Me at the rear car door, hovering. Him with his head craned back, stalling.

“Mommy,” he starts.

“What Jack?” My words are staccato. My toes aren’t tapping, but they might as well be. I’m sandwiched between my three-year-old and the daycare parking lot, the end of one workday and the start of another (Evening Mommy). What I want from him is complete compliance. What he wants, I think, is the same thing he’s wanted since day one of daycare when he rejected all of his bottles — to act in complete defiance.

“I see the moooon!” 

“Where, honey?” my voice softens. 

His pointer finger shoots up, his voice rises, “There! There!” and I follow his gaze to the crescent moon, barely a fingernail clipping, hanging low in the cerulean sky.

“It’s so shiny,” he remarks. And he’s right — it is. We linger, eyes up, heads tipped back, suspended in time. When I finally buckle Jack into his carseat, I thank him for making me notice the beautiful moon. He beams proudly. 

Now in the driver’s seat, I press the ignition button and notice the dashboard clock reads 5:55 p.m. Classical music floods the speakers. I punch the radio off. I can’t shake the feeling I’m doing this wrong — motherhood. That I’m missing out on most of it, the wonder and joy of my son being three, because I work. This hunger for what I can’t have — a different life — wakes with a grumble.

What if all I’m getting is just a measly sliver of the moon? What if all I’m giving is waning light?

“Mah-AhhM! Why are you not moving?”

“Sorry honey,” I say, my voice faltering. I don’t turn around to face him. Careful as ever I check the backup cam, reverse, signal and merge onto Pulaski. Pulaski divides a crowded, crumbling cemetery; tonight the western sky above the gravestones blazes with magenta and persimmon fading into blue. I want to slow the car to a crawl and gape, maybe turn into the cemetery lot to take in the horizon.

Eyes back on the road, I exclaim, “Look honey! Look to your right!”

“What, Mommy?” 

“Honey, there’s a sunset,” I say, motioning toward his window.

“It’s a rainbow!” Jack shouts with glee. Jack loves rainbows, and I hold this fact tenderly, knowing there may come a day when someone tells him it’s not acceptable for a boy to love rainbows. I hope he keeps loving them all the same.  

“Sort of,” I chuckle. “The sky lights up with all kinds of colors when the sun goes down. What colors do you see?”

“I see orange … and pink… and blue…” he trails off.

I glance back at Jack, eyes wide and smiling. I will tell him this, I resolve, that boys shouldn’t be ashamed to love this beautiful world with an open heart.

At Foster, I turn right and drive straight toward the sunset. The skyscape shifts to peach and lavender; the fading light silhouettes a crop of trees in shade. I recall a stanza from John Mayer’s song, “3×5”:

Didn’t have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world with both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it when
I’m in the mood to lose my way
But let me say
You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life

“What do you see, Mommy?” Jack’s view is a bit obscured now, and I have the better vantage of the sunset. 

“Hmmm… I see new colors — peach and lavender and blue darkening above us.”

I hear him sigh and add, “Almost home, buddy.”

Pulling onto our street I realize Jack and I only have a few more sunsets to watch on our commute home before the light patterns shift. Daylight Saving Time is coming.

For the next three days, Jack will ask me about the sunset. Together, we’ll delight in bright hues painted across each evening sky.

A week after Daylight Saving Time, everything will be different. Daycare will be closed. I’ll receive a mandate to work remote — effective immediately. The social distancing and lockdowns will begin. The grocery store shelves will be picked over. I’ll call my elderly neighbor, my grandmothers and my parents, ending each conversation close to tears. I’ll cling to my husband’s frame in bed, mind churning over the COVID-19 pandemic, body starved for sleep. I’ll hold my head in my hands, stomach knotted with worry, and pray. My son will watch and mimic my motions.

I’ve read that three is when memory begins to form in children. Later, I’ll wonder if Jack will remember any of this — the food rationing, the “staycation with Mommy and Daddy,” the world as we used to know it turning. I hope he’ll remember learning to play Go Fish on the living room carpet, games of tag in the backyard, homemade bread, long baths and daily FaceTime with his grandparents. I hope he’ll remember relishing those sunsets from the car, a fleeting ritual, but one that brought us so much joy.

Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to lose my way with words

For the time being, I park the car in our garage, blissfully unaware of the changes to come. Hands busy fixing supper, I wonder:

Am I missing out on moments with Jack because I work too much?

Yes.

Can I still teach him how to savor the light?

Also yes.

Much later, when the pain overwhelms, I’ll return to that night and embrace its delicious normalcy. Old, insignificant worries. A new resolve. My son forever pointing me to beauty — light.

And here, maybe I can save this sunset for us, and maybe my son will read about it someday, when he’s in the mood to find himself in words.

Image by Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

I wrote this part as part of a blog hop with Exhale, an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. To read the next post in this series, click here.

My hopes for you

Today is my son’s third birthday. We started our morning with pancakes and raspberries for breakfast, and he got to open a few presents. At school today he’ll wear a birthday hat and pass out goodies bags to his friends. When our son comes home, we’ll celebrate with tacos and cake, then surprise him with his first “big boy” bed.

Although this milestone is certainly bittersweet, the feeling I want to savor most right now is hopefulness. I’m proud of the person Jack is, and I’m excited to nurture him and watch him grow in the year ahead. This year I’m starting a new tradition of writing my son a birthday love note. I’m posting it here to share a snapshot of his life at three, and because I thought you might enjoy it.

Dear Jack,

Today you turn three! This is what Daddy and I love about you:

You are creative. You are an expert play-doh mixer and sculptor. You add depth to bedtime stories, suggesting appearances from Superman or the Paw Patrol. Your make-believe world — of pirate and rocket ships, rescue missions and birthday parties — amazes me.

You are playful. You giggle at Goofy and Olaf the snowman. You cry, “Tickle me! Tickle me!” laughing without abandon. You’ll flop into fresh snow, crunchy leaves or grainy sand, flap your arms and make an angel.

You are strong-willed. You throw tantrums when you don’t get your way. Most days, you refuse to jump in the pool and put on socks. As for mealtime, you stick to a strict rotation of your favorites — like tacos, nuggets and pizza — rather than try new foods.

You are loving. You crave our touch and attention. You call, “Play with me!” when you need a playmate and “Uppy!” when you’re “too tired” to walk. At dinner, you slip out of your chair to finish your veggie burger in my lap. At bedtime, you sit in Daddy’s lap to read stories, head snuggled close against his chest. You give the best kisses.

You are generous. You share your Hershey’s kisses and your strawberry smoothie with ease. You loved handing out goodie bags at your last birthday party. You like to “help” with the dishes.

You are thoughtful. You ask, “Who is Jesus?” and “Where is God?” You notice when I’m feeling sad and when Daddy and I are mad. You suggest hugs and time outs when you notice we’re overwhelmed.

You are sweet. You love our dog Gus, rainbows and your grandparents. Some nights you sing yourself to sleep. You like to hold our hands.

You are a wonder. You are all this and more than we can possibly imagine. You are learning and growing daily. You are our teacher.

Sweet boy, these are my hopes for you:

I hope you hold on to your sweetness. That you’ll keep feeling your big feelings — and that you’ll be unafraid to tell us about them. That, when faced with a difficult decision, you’ll choose to be brave and kind. That you’ll remember to include others.

I hope you fail. I hope you’ll make mistakes, get rejected or cut from the team. It’s an odd hope isn’t it? But leaning into discomfort is how we develop grit. When you, inevitably, get knocked down, I hope you’ll rise up, keep going or change course.

I hope you never doubt the power of your voice. Today you boldly declare your needs and wants. I admire that about you. I hope you’ll continue to speak up, both for yourself and for the common good, and that you learn it’s equally important to listen.

Most of all, I hope you know how deeply you are loved — by us and by your Creator. 

Happy third birthday, Jack. You light up our lives with love, joy and wonder. We are so, so grateful for you.

P.S. Those hopes for Jack are my hopes for us, too.

Lessons from 2019

The Cut recently informed me that although some people don’t keep a diary, most of us have inboxes that serve as a “fossil record of our lives.” In other words, ancient emails are a window into our stories. Reading this, a small chuckle escaped my lips. I’d been sifting through emails the day prior for evidence to corroborate dates for an essay I was revising. What struck me most about my old messages was their tone. My voice seemed strange yet familiar, young but not naive, kind yet scared. Who was this woman? Me but different.

On this 20th day of December in 2019, 48 hours from my 34th birthday and 12 days until New Year’s, I wonder: Who was I on the cusp of 2019? And who will I become in 2020? The whole truth lies not in emails but stories —  lessons — from the time between. 

One: Why does it ache?

Trapped with my mouth wide open and torso at a 45 degree decline, I examined vintage Chicago posters while the dentist finished cleaning my teeth.

“Well, that’s it,” he said, putting down the floss. 

“So, you’re sure there’s nothing wrong?” I asked him, craning my neck to the side.

“Your teeth look great, though you’ll probably want to start flossing more — the gaps between them grow wider with age.” With the flick of his switch, my chair whirred to eye level.

I repositioned myself and tried again: “It’s just my teeth, they were so achy.” 

For weeks they’d ached, pain fading in and out. They hurt first thing in the morning and at bedtime. They occasionally woke me up at night. They hurt whenever I switched from one activity to the next, almost as if my teeth were petulant children demanding my attention. I brushed, flossed and went back to work, ignoring them. 

Little mouths needed brushing, dishes of every size kept piling up in the sink and deadlines too were stacking up in my planner. Visiting the dentist never made it on my lengthy to-do list; it got lodged in my brain someplace between almost out of dish soap and don’t forget to file your check requests before sabbatical. 

“Right.” The dentist nodded.

I licked my teeth and tasted fluoride. “And now they’re fine,” I said. Coincidentally, the week I made the appointment, my pain disappeared.

The dentist shrugged his shoulders and stood to leave. We’d already gone over this — no evidence of grinding or gum disease. No cavities.

“Sometimes these things have a way of sorting themselves out.” He smiled and moved to the door. Conversation closed.

It bothered me that the dentist didn’t have an answer. What caused the pain? I wondered, picking up my complimentary toothbrush and toothpaste and summoning my driver. I zipped up my jacket and waved goodbye to the receptionist. Moreover, how did it heal?

Outside crisp leaves tumbled across the street and wind cut through my jacket. Fall in Chicago is a short, poignant season one must be careful not to miss. The neighborhood trees were showing off gold, crimson and burnt orange and I realized I had the entire afternoon free before my son returned from school. I could go for a run in the woods or cozy up with a good book. Maybe I’d start a chili.

Waiting for my ride it struck me: I was no longer in a hurry.

I’d replaced piles of dishes and deadlines with extra playtime and travel. After months of making appointments for my son but not myself, I had an eye exam, annual check-up and this dentist visit. I was officially on leave from work and yes, life was slow.

For now.

Eventually sabbatical would end and working motherhood would sink its claws back into me. I smiled up at the gray sky. I wanted to hold onto this feeling — hope — and carry it with me to the next season. I wanted to start paying attention to pain, and to its release.

Two: A messy dilemma

I hold two passions in my heart: one is my family, the other, my career. I’m lucky I landed my dream job as a magazine editor. I’m doubly blessed I realized my dream of becoming a wife and mother. I’m living the dream.

Yet these two dreams often seem at odds with one another, and though I believe that’s a false dichotomy, there are days I curse motherhood for crippling my career and days I blame work for my lack of presence with my family. Both are lies. Both are true.

When my son’s weeklong spring break from school approached,  I submitted my vacation days and cleared my calendar just for him. In my planner, I sketched out daily agendas: on Monday, we’d go to Cafe Little Beans, on Tuesday, we’d stay home and watch Disney movies, on Wednesday, we’d take a nature walk, and so forth.

Wednesday arrived and I loaded up my son Jack and our dog Gus into the car and drove to the forest preserve for our walk. The sky was clear and blue, pale green buds sprinkled trees, and when we approached a clearing, I let Gus off leash for a romp in the grass. Jack pointed and giggled as Gus sprinted out into the empty field. “Go on buddy,” I said, gently pushing him forward. The ground was moist and smelled of yesterday’s rain. With a little coaxing, Jack made a beeline for Gus, who appeared to be drinking out of giant mud puddle. 

“Oh no! Wait. Honey, don’t go in there,” I yelled out, waving him back. 

“Mommy! A mud puddle!” He said, stomping his feet with glee. 

Too late. In an instant, Jack’s shoes were caked with black-brown mud. Then he plopped on his bottom and the mud speckled our dog’s white fur. Safely positioned on the edge of the puddle, I sighed, thinking of the bath they would need later. This was not on my agenda.

“Mommy!” Jack cried, pushing himself back up. “Come splash with me!” 

I didn’t want to go in, but in that moment I knew I could either be the mom who played in the mud or killed the fun. I had only 10 minutes left for this walk and zero supplies for clean up. This would surely dirty my car, delay our daily agenda and screw up Jack’s nap schedule. Plus I was wearing white-soled shoes. No matter what, this was going to be a mess.

“Mommy! Mommy!” my son called again, grinning. Gus let out a little bark.

This time, I didn’t hesitate. I stepped out into the mud to play.

Three: Brave

What I remember most about our conversation was his attitude. Leaning over his scotch at the bar top, my friend was the definition of casual. This was the same carefree guy I knew from college and also someone entirely different. He was a pastor, after all.

So when I confessed to him over drinks I still had doubts about my faith, I couldn’t have predicted what he said next. 

“Imagine how it feels when you’re the pastor,” he said throwing back a swig of scotch.

My mouth dropped. I stirred my seltzer water and searched for the right response. “You too?”

“I mean, who hasn’t?”

What I’d wanted from him was theology. Wisdom. A Bible verse to help me grapple with why my husband got sick and my dad got sick and why people kept getting shot by angry white men with assault rifles. I wanted an antidote to doubt.

Instead of that, he offered, “Me too.” My pastor friend understood the doubts and the questions and the creeping worry that death was just the end. What I wanted wasn’t what I actually needed. What I needed was a companion in doubt.

This conversation wasn’t an anomaly. I talked to many other pastors this year who echoed similar sentiments.

On a walk in the woods, I got to know a pastor who admitted she didn’t have the best answers to age-old faith questions related to suffering. At coffee, my pastor listened to my frustrations at length and nodded with understanding, quietly holding space for me.

Over pancakes, one very important pastor I admired told me he hoped I’d write about it — my doubts. I wanted to tell him I’d been trying to write about doubt and pain all year. Instead I sat and sipped my coffee.

I often wrote in the literal darkness. Early in the morning before my family woke. Late at night when they were asleep.

Entering the darkness in words doesn’t necessarily stump me, it’s the getting out that does.

Another pastor whose writing I adore wrote this of darkness: “Those of us who should follow Christ, therefore, should expect a lot of darkness. That is where God finds us and also sends us.”

Later, when it was time to make edits to a story I wrote that seemed too sad and irreverent, I discovered a shred of Hope threaded through my prose. I set down my red editing pen.

Perhaps exploring doubt is a sign of evolving faith. I’m finding there’s beauty in the darkness. I’m learning to pay attention to my pain — and joy. I believe I’m entering 2020 a little braver than before.

I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “2019.”

A prayer of thanksgiving

For a little boy who celebrates fresh flakes with spontaneous snow angels,

For his bear hugs & sloppy kisses,

For the sweet taste of his remaining Halloween candy, freely given (seems like all our talk of generosity is sinking in, eh?),

For building towers & bedtime stories, 

For every blessed time he utters, “I love you too, Mommy!”

Thank you, Jesus.

Also. Help me remember this feeling when this same child throws a tantrum after I cut his hot dog the “wrong way” & myriad other sins that shall go unnamed. 

Help me, Jesus.

And so, Amen. 

The dance

They call it the longest, shortest time for a reason, yet every time I glimpse you teetering between boyhood and babyhood, I’m startled.

Like at baby Chloe’s birthday party, while she investigated her first cupcake from her high chair, you begged for a slice of watermelon cake. You licked up the green icing and tore away into the prairie grass faster than I could holler, “Where are you going, buddy?” Light rain streaked down from the gray sky as I watched you from the gazebo thinking surely he’ll stop soon.

But you didn’t.

You just kept running farther and farther into the wild and when you wouldn’t respond to my calls I knew what had to be done, I couldn’t let you keep going so I chased after you myself.

Caught at the edge of the trail, you collapsed into my embrace, eyes shining, mouth stained with frosting, bubbling over with laughter.

(A few days ago, we fell asleep on the bed in the afternoon, your tired toddler body curving into mine. At two and a half years old, you rarely nap with me, not the way you used to when you were so small and sweet. Beforehand you’d refused to go potty, spit out your carrots, threw a tantrum. I woke trapped under the weight of your head in my right armpit, eager to wriggle free. Then I noticed your softened face and the heaviness of your eyelids. You looked angelic. We stayed that way for a while until I slipped out of the bed and let you dream alone.)

In that open field, I’d held you and pleaded, “Jack-Jack, please don’t run away from me like that again. You made Mommy very scared!” Your eyes widened and you nodded your head gravely, like maybe you understood. And we walked hand in hand back through the tall grass back to the gazebo.

Growing up, it seems, is a dance of going out on our own and coming home to rest. We are in the dance right now, you and me, and I’m trying hard to give you the space you need and trust that you’ll know when you need to run back to me. Honestly, on the long, hard days I want to run away from it all. But the truth is, my big-little boy, I need you too. More than you know.

So how about this? We keep up this holy dance, growing apart and together. Two souls in the world — bonded by love.

Banana bread, gun violence and facing the daylight

He just wanted banana bread. Eager to please and to get us out of the house, I obliged. 

We sat side by side in a bustling Starbucks, stealing a moment together before work and school. My son slurped apple juice and nibbled at his bread. I sipped my coffee, barely tasting it. Eyes glued to my phone, I scrolled and scrolled for answers I knew I wouldn’t find. 

Irritated, I looked up. That’s when I noticed my son staring down every visitor walking in the door. Morning sunlight framed his sweet face and curious blue-green eyes.

Before I could smile, the door swung closed and I took a breath. What was I thinking bringing him here? It’s not safe here. It’s not safe anywhere anymore. 

Last Saturday somebody strode through the doors of a Walmart, gun loaded with hate. A Mommy and Daddy died shielding their baby from his bullets. 

A day later, news broke of a second shooting closer to home, then word of more violence in our city. Blood-soaked, lifeless bodies on linoleum tiles and hot pavement. Lives cut short. Hundreds of families shattered forever. With trembling hands, I balled up our trash and swiftly rose.

“Jack, we’re leaving now,” I announced.

“Uppy, uppy!” he pleaded. And even though he’s perfectly old enough to walk himself to the car, I didn’t hesitate. I hoisted him in my arms, busting outside.

I punched the start button on the car. Elmo’s upbeat alphabet rap blared through the car stereo, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Brian Bilston’s poem “America is a Gun”:

England is a cup of tea. 

France, a wheel of ripened brie.

Greece, a short, squat olive tree.

America is a gun.

I gripped the wheel hard. I don’t know how to tell him why we rushed out or why, a week later I won’t bat an eyelash when I bring him with me to get groceries. 

America is a gun. The sentence tumbled around my head as I turned into the Montessori parking lot. The need to offer my son an explanation pressed on me and I took my time unloading him from the car.

More than anything, I want us to live in a place that reflects the values he’s learning in school and at home: That there is more than enough for us all, if we share. That everyone deserves to be treated with love and kindness. That we all have a right to live — without fear. How can I tell my son those ideals have been compromised by our nation’s leaders? And fellow citizens? 

I don’t want to shield him from the violence of the world, but the need to shield him from crippling worry feels more right. 

After lacing up his shoes, this is what I did: I bent over and kissed my son’s cheek, twice. Then I repeated our weekday morning benediction, “I love you buddy! Have a good day!” before he entered his classroom. And, with a prayer for peace pounding in my tender heart, I opened the door and stepped out into the daylight.

Let it be love

“Wait, you still have to stay in his room at bedtime?” she asked, a hint of pity in her voice. We sharing stories and dinner in my home and my least favorite parenting topic had arisen.

“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “With all his ear infections and our failed attempts at sleep training, he just never got the hang of falling asleep on his own.” I looked down and cut at my lasagna. “Honestly, it’s easier this way.” 

“Oh honey, that’s so hard,” she said. It was definitely pity. “It sounds like you need some time for you.”

There was so much more to the story – how much better his sleep was compared to year one, how most nights I dreaded our exhaustive routine but occasionally I savored it — but I couldn’t bring myself to tell it. I took a bite and nodded, searching for how to change the subject.

“So, tell me about your new project…?” And with that, I steered our conversation forward.

// 

There’s something I need to tell you: I’m a bit of an overachiever. I took honors classes from grade school through college. I racked up extracurriculars — choir, cross country, steel drum band, student council — like girl scout badges. For the majority of my short life, I measured my life in grade point averages and activities mastered. The higher, the better. 

Naturally, when I achieved my goal of getting pregnant, I began to research every aspect of motherhood. I dove into Expecting Better and my app from The Bump, then lost myself in the mesmerizing world of Mom Influencers. Square after Insta-square they lined up proof of motherly excellence: heart-melting images of swaddled newborns, perfectly styled nurseries and stunning family photo sessions caught at the golden hour. 

I wanted that shiny life. Honestly, I still want it, even though I now know those images don’t tell the whole story. Not the back-breaking pain of labor and sleep deprivation or the piercing fear of your child dying. Nor can they fully convey the heart-bursting joy of seeing your child’s first radiant smile or lulling him to sleep with your favorite lullaby, the one dad used to sing at bedtime until you outgrew it. 

In 2019, it’s easy to engage in performative parenting — documenting our children’s wins online in exchange for “likes” and a little boost of satisfaction. Raising kids can be so thankless sometimes, and it feels good to be validated. But motherhood is not a race to be won or a course to be aced or a song to be mastered. Motherhood, I’m finding, is terribly difficult to measure. Deep down I know this, but I go ahead and try anyway.

//

“Please eat your peas,” I said, pointing to my son’s plate.

“I don’t want to!” he responded, edging his plate toward mine.

“Please honey,” I pleaded, nudging it back. I could have written this scene a plethora of ways, all varieties of vegetables and moods and tactics, all leading to the same, stubborn answer:

“No!” he shouted, crossing his arms. We sat at the table in silence, glaring at one another. In his eyes I saw his characteristic spark of defiance. Oh please not another tantrum…

“Fine,” I said icily, yanking the plate away. “Let’s get you cleaned up to play.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tried to push healthy food, how many times I’ve thrown up my hands and accepted my son will eat a medley of snacks for dinner. 

At the next meal, I’d try again, hoping this time the broccoli or fish or whatever I was pushing would stick. Some days it worked; most days it didn’t. I didn’t think I was doing such a bad job because I’d heard from moms in my circle that I’m not alone in this struggle. Then I got this text from my husband.

Him: Jack’s underweight

Me: Wait…what

Me: By how much?

Me: What did the doctor say

Him: I don’t know but he is in like the 16th percentile or something

Me: Oh God

Him: She kept drilling me about what he eats and drinks

The revelation brought me to my knees — I wasn’t feeding our son the right food. I wasn’t feeding him enough. I wasn’t . . . enough.

This wasn’t the first time I’d felt like I was falling behind as a mama. 

Once my son’s teacher reported that he’d been tripping and falling down too much at his Montessori school and maybe he should get involved in some sort of physical activity? That made me feel physically ill. Or there was the time our expensive sleep consultant told me I’d nursed my son for too long, implying that I’d “ruined” his ability to soothe himself to sleep. Gut punch. And, yes, there was that dinner table conversation about bedtime that left me swimming in a sea of self-doubt.

//

Her voice is sharp and judgy; she’s constantly criticizing me:

You shouldn’t have yelled at him that way.

You should have faxed in that medical form last week.

You shouldn’t be on your phone right now — play with him.

You should have been there for his big milestone, instead of at work.

More than any other marker, not the shiny moms on the internet or the ones I know IRL, my inner critic likes to remind me of all the ways I’m not measuring up as a mama. Ever the overachiever, she grades me against her great expectations.

My mom stayed home with my brother and me when we were little. I don’t remember the years well, but I do know she was an excellent mother — kind, patient, generous, slow to anger. Still is. I wish I could give my son what I had growing up, not what I’m actually giving him. Fits and spurts of weekday parenting plus long weekends doesn’t feel like enough to me. Often I feel I cannot keep up with motherhood and my career — the pace, the demands of each is too intense to do either very well.

So how do I address this nagging feeling I’m not measuring up? One option might be to ignore or reject it. Good in theory, but harder to execute. Another option might be to make peace with my inner critic, and maybe even give her a little compassion. It’s only human nature to compare yourselves to others, so why not just accept it? Plus swapping stories with fellow mamas has lent me some fantastic tools and tricks for navigating the grueling early years.

An additional way might be to consider what I’m measuring when it comes to motherhood. Yes, the importance of nutrition and sleep and education cannot be downplayed. (If you’re wondering: My husband and I did make a plan for our son to get his weight back on track. And bedtime’s been getting better.) But what if there was something else I could use as a benchmark?

In my work as a freelance parenting writer, I’ve found one theory of child development that keeps turning up, no matter if my story is about teaching your child to tidy up or to inherit your values. That common thread is: What we model, our children inherit. Children soak up the words we speak and the actions we take and reflect them back to us like a mirror.

Could it really be quite that hard and that simple? On the one hand, this is great news. I hope my son mirrors my commitment to relationships and health and creativity. On the other, I don’t know if I can live up to that sort of pressure. My flaws — my pride, my people-pleasing, my workaholism, my perfectionism, to name a few — are not what I want to pass on to him.

Thankfully, to borrow from a Lutheran pastor I heard preach last summer, “There’s grace for that.

There’s grace for the mom who yells. For the striving mom who always feels like she’s failing. For the mom who’s angry and overwhelmed and in need of a little validation. For the mom who invests so much in her children she forgets herself. For the mom who misses her freedom and wishes she could be more present. (I’ve been all these moms and more.) The good news?

Graces lift us up when we inevitably stumble.

//

Last week my son and I were in his playroom, sitting thigh to thigh in his mini Pottery Barn chair, chewing on a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Summer sunlight was streaming through the windows, and, as we chomped away, I relished the cookie’s sweetness. Out of the blue he remarked, “Mommy, sometimes I get mad.”

The simple expression stopped me mid-chew. Minutes ago he’d thrown not one but two tantrums when I explained that we could not have a popsicle and a cookie right now, we had to choose just one for dessert. This unexpected utterance made me think maybe all those episodes of Daniel Tiger and conversations about forgiveness were starting to sink in.

“I know buddy,” I answered, rubbing his back with one arm. “That’s normal.”

“Sorry Mommy,” he said, rising to wrap his arms around me, crumbs tumbling off his lips and fingers. “I love you Mommy!”

My eyes smarted with tears. I sure know I stumble often as a mama, but if my son can hold onto this sweetness, I will consider my work excellent.

“Oh honey, I understand,” I said, kissing his cheek and pulling him in tighter. “I love you too.”

If I’m going to measure anything, God, let it be love.

I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale — an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood led by the women of Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Measuring Up.” Image credit: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

Snapshot of a summer afternoon

She clicks her laptop shut and announces, “Well, that’s enough for today.” She considers her son’s laundry basket, the dirty dishes, scattered hot wheels in the playroom. Working is her default mode; she finds it hard to relax. But the sun is shining through the blinds, and there’s a kiddie pool filled to the brim waiting in the backyard. Finally a dry, hot day after weeks of rain. She will not waste this afternoon checking off to-dos.

“Honey, we have a surprise for you,” she says, rousing her son from his nap. “We got you a little pool.”
“Mama! We’re going swimming?” he says, eyes widening.
“Yes, we are — in our backyard.”
He squeals with delight.

They slap on swimsuits, tank tops, sunscreen. He races into the yard, and spies the pool. She watches him dip his toes, one at a time. Then: splash! He plops in the pool and stomps his feet in the water. She sighs and leans back in her lawn chair. Thwack! He throws a soccer ball into the water, mischief in his eyes — a flash of the future. She wants to freeze time, or at least make it slow down.

Now the sprinkler’s running, and he’s chasing after their neighbor. They zip and zag through matted grass. They spin and twirl under an arch of droplets, little bodies shaking with laughter. It seems deliciously sinful to be sitting here under the sun, with no agenda whatsoever. When was the last time she felt this way? A giggle rises in her belly. She cannot remember.

Last night she dreamed she was floating in the ocean, arms spread wide, rocking among the waves. What a gift to be freed from deadlines and bedtimes and appointments to make, from time marching on. What a gift to float — untethered.

”It’s after 5,” her husband remarks, breaking her thoughts. “Guess we better start grilling, huh?” She nods reluctantly, then calls out to their son, “Buddy, five more minutes!”

Later, she crouches in a tiny toddler chair across from her son, who’s lapping at a popsicle — a bribe to come inside for dinner. Ice cream drips down his chin and he closes his eyes, smiling. She pops her popsicle in her mouth. (She needed a bribe too.) A burst of strawberry, tangy and cold, sweetens her tongue. Together they linger, savoring the taste of summer.

A mother’s worry

“Jack got in a fight at school today,” she reports, pushing an accident slip toward me.

I take the slip and crouch down to examine a fingernail-shaped scratch on my son’s head. “Poor buddy,” I say, pulling him into a hug. I look up and ask, “What happened?” “He and another boy wanted the same toy,” his teacher answers. I pepper her with more questions — does this happen often, is Jack getting along with the others, is the other boy hurt — while Jack wriggles in my arms, eager to escape.

Later, as I slip Jack’s red Velcro shoes on his little feet, our eyes meet. “Honey, I’m sorry about your fight. Are you OK?” “Uh-huh,” he nods his head and looks away. I am not convinced. “Fights are gonna happen,” I go on. “We need to play nice with our friends. We say ‘I’m sorry’ when we mess up. And we forgive others when they hurt us.” The words hang in the air and I realize this is only the beginning. In three years, Jack will start kindergarten. Then he’ll face schoolyard squabbles and bullies and even lockdown drills. This thought hits me squarely in the gut.

One of the most painful truths of motherhood is that the more my son grows, the less I can protect him from getting hurt. I blink back tears. I take my son’s hand in mine and we walk out to the car in silence.

Later, at bedtime, Jack rests his head in the crook of my arms as I rock him back and forth. At two years old, his lanky legs spill over the side of the rocking chair. Together, we sing the ABCs, the rainbow color song and happy birthday (his current favorite). Someday he’ll outgrow this ritual, I think.

Despite Jack’s protests, I lift him out of my arms and gently place him in his crib. I kiss his head and whisper, “I love you buddy.” Jack stops whining for a moment. “I love you too, Mommy,” he sighs.

The world is harsh, but it is also beautiful. Although I cannot keep my son from experiencing pain, I can carry him with my love. And though I’ll never escape my unspeakable worries, I can hold onto this moment and let it carry me through the night.

Two

StrybisTwo years ago, I gave birth to you, little one. You burst into our lives in the most dramatic fashion and left us breathless, in awe of your tenacity.

Two years of singing lullabies, tickling your belly, making you pancakes. Two years of pediatrician visits, sleep deprivation, gnawing worry. Two years of surrender. Two years of joy. 

These days you’re wearing bigger jeans and bigger feelings — on your sleeve.

Suddenly your legs look longer; your grasp of language is stronger.

You run-jump-tumble-flip in the span of a blink.

Wasn’t it just yesterday I had you snuggled in the crook of my arm, smelling sweet and fresh?

Yet here you are, my not-so-baby boy. You are SO alive.

Lately you’ve been taking my hand and pulling me into your imaginary kingdom where Elmo, Mickey and Snoopy play together. You’re singing your ABCs and “Jingle Bells” at random and you’re obsessed with playdough. You have strong opinions about fruit snacks (love them) and socks (you prefer mismatched). You love to read. You hate bedtime. You chatter constantly. You notice everything. You still need us to help you get ready, but daily you’re becoming more independent. And strong-willed. 

Sometimes, raising you pushes me past my limit. For all the times I’ve let you down–and those to come–please forgive me. Hands down: being your mama is the hardest job I’ve ever had.

It’s also the greatest privilege.

The ache, the bliss of watching you grow heightens the tenor of ordinary days, blessing my life with meaning.

Two years of loving you deeply. The toughest two years of my life. The most beautiful too. 

Happy birthday, son. May your year ahead be filled with delight and discovery.