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.
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.
In 2019, I was constantly in motion. Rising early to beat the call of “Mommy!”; gulping down hot coffee; speeding to school pickup; racing through bedtime stories only to crash into bed, exhausted.
My planner — bursting with appointments, birthdays, tasks and deadlines — was my compass. I scrawled my dreams in the margins.
I poured myself into motherhood and writing. Scrimped on sleep, self-care. I wanted to do it all and do it well. I couldn’t let anyone down. At this I did not succeed, yet I kept moving.
Somewhere in the middle of all this chasing, I lost my footing. I forgot why I was running. Did I really need to run?
Weary, I slowed my pace to walk.
One day, I found myself child-free in the wilderness. Into the woods I walked. Over the mountains. Into a clearing.
Violet and indigo mountains scraped the sky and my feet kissed the edge of a frozen lake. All was quiet, save for my heart’s heavy beating. The alpine air smelled brand new.
I looked down and my feet, my tired feet and nearly jumped. Tiny cracks etched in ice echoed modern art.
How had I missed this?
I wonder what else we miss by failing to shift our perspective. By forgetting to stand still.
Hiking boots rooted to the earth, I thought of poet Mary Oliver, who urged us to
Tell about it.”
This year, I want to notice the beauty lingering at my feet. Matchbox cars and Legos, but also holy play and happy chaos. Tiny toes and big feelings? The gift of good health and togetherness. Cookie crumbs as sweet memories. Spilled milk as Grace abundant.
I won’t forget that moment in the wilderness. Filling up. Seeing. Letting go.
In 2020, my intention is to stop and pay attention. To the ones I love. To the world around me. To small steps on the greater journey. To the beating of my heart.
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.
The blare of my alarm snaps me out of a dream. Eyes half-shut, I roll over to silence it, then consider my options. If I get up now, I can write. Maybe. There’s always a chance I could wake my son, a light sleeper, and lose the gift of time. Or I can sink back under the covers and steal another hour of delicious rest. The rhythmic drone of my husband’s snore propels me out of bed. Today I rise.
Step one: Shower. I creep across our creaky floorboards, steal into the bathroom and twist on the squeaky faucet. “Shit,” I mutter, then mouth a prayer: please please please don’t let him wake up, God, just let me have this morning for myself. I’ll be extra good today, I promise. I step in the shower. Scalding water washes over me and baptizes me with possibility. Next: Soap. Rinse. Dry. Dress.
Step two: Coffee, mixed with a dash of cream. I tip-toe into the kitchen, retrieve my mug, the one with a pug on it, then pour the time-brewed coffee into my cup. The aroma of blonde roast fills my lungs and rouses my sleepy mind. I take a sip and savor the just-right temperature. Pure delight.
Step three: Write. I sit at a spare desk in our family’s dining room, coffee on my left and a ticking clock to the right. The time reads 6:20 a.m. I glance at my son’s door. If I’m lucky, I can eke out 40 minutes of writing before he wakes up. I flip open my laptop and begin.
When I became a mother, I needed writing because it allowed to grapple with the giant identity shift happening inside of me. My too-big emotions and broken, achy body overwhelmed me. Psychiatrists call this matrescence, a period in a woman’s life when her body and mind transition to a new role — caretaker. In those early days, I hard and fast, scrawling out ideas before my son summoned me for another feeding.
Bleary-eyed and tired, I wrote sporadically. Yet I kept returning to my journal because it both grounded me and brought me back to life. Etching out my story helped me stitch together the woman I was before giving birth with the woman I was becoming. Sharing it online with others — on my blog and eventually in other publications helped me feel less alone.
Two and a half years later, I sit at my desk, clicking letters and letting my thoughts play out on the screen.
What’s different is that the season of motherhood allows me the semblance of a writing routine. A few days a week, whenever everyone is healthy, I rise early to brainstorm, blog or tackle freelance assignments.
The fact remains: I still need writing like I need water. If I go too long without it, I feel parched.
On the page I belong to no one but myself. There’s no crying to comfort, no milk to fetch, no bottoms to wipe. No texts to return, emails to answer, calls to make. Here I am nothing and I am everything. Line by line, I uncover my identities — wife, mother, sister, daughter, employee, neighbor, friend, believer.
This month I published an essay that brought me to head to head with the crushing weight of my motherly worry. In the midst of a story swimming in fear, my editor noticed a different narrative. She pushed me to resurrect the carefree girl inside of me, the girl I was before I became mother. So I wrote a new scene, and in doing so I discovered this:
“There’s a girl inside of me who loves roller coasters and waterparks and white water rafting, who dreams of visiting Sweden and the Grand Canyon, who’s always up for a little mischief. She runs simply to feel the power of her legs and the wind in her hair. She isn’t plagued by the past or preoccupied with the future. She sees every day as a grand adventure.
She’s brave and afraid. She’s rooted and restless. She boldly pursues what sets her heart on fire. And she’s still here now, aching for a chance to shine. All this time I spent consumed with caring for my son made me forget.”
I stop typing for a moment and sip my coffee. Writing that scene brought me to tears. It reminded me that my identity isn’t just wrapped up in protecting my son. I realized something so important: I need to teach him to live too.
These days, with my son, I’m all in and hands-off. We do more exploring together — last weekend he biked a new path at the forest preserve as my husband and I walked alongside him — and I encourage him to explore on his own. (He’s older and stronger than when I first drafted that essay, so I’ve taken a considerable step back at the playground.) What I’m most grateful for is that writing gifted me with a breakthrough off the page. My prayer for whatever I publish is that my story might someone else with a breakthrough or moment of recognition too.
Fingers to keyboard, pen to paper, I record, reflect, discover. Motherhood unearthed in me a desire to share my stories, but writing, in turn, helps me be a more thoughtful mother.
I hear my son rustling so I only have a moment left at my desk. I save my work and shut my laptop. Tomorrow I will rise again and write — like a mother.
“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: 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.
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
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.
I don’t think anyone can fully prepare you for how pivotal it is to become a mother. It’s not that they don’t try. In fact, when you’re expecting, you may find everyone from your great aunt to your coworkers to well-meaning strangers dole out parenting advice. Whether they’re parents or not, many know the searing ache, the bliss of parenthood from their own lives and feel the significance of this new chapter of life of which you’re on the brink.
The journey to parenthood is in and of itself a new chapter, one that for many women and men is full of hopes and heartache. I remember this pain well. Several summers ago, while vacationing with dear friends from college and their families, I stood sobbing in a bathroom stall, wracked with envy. The only childless couple on the trip, my husband and I watched as their beautiful children shared hugs, spread joy and spilled Cheerios.
At the time, we were months into trying for our first child, and it wasn’t going great. For one, after months off birth control, my hormones were all out of wack. Getting pregnant was supposed to be easy, I thought. But now, at 30, it had become clear conceiving a child was much more calculated than others let on. I worried that my body was failing me. I worried we’d waited too long. I worried that my deepest fear — that we wouldn’t be able to have a child — might be true. Over that long weekend, while I observed my friends love on their littles, the thought that dominated my consciousness was, “I want that. Badly.”
Little did I know, I had that. I was actually pregnant with my son, and the hormones were making me tired beyond belief and weepy. The next chapter of my life was already underway.
Flash forward to today. Today is Mother’s Day, and I am actually spending part of it alone in a Starbucks writing. Time alone is a true gift for mothers of small children like myself. It’s what I asked my husband for this holiday, and he graciously granted my request.
Now I am two years and counting into motherhood and feel like an old veteran. I know this sense of security is sketchy at best. Like the time after my son began sleeping through the night consistently, but then began to act — as toddlers often do — in new, headstrong ways. Because I’ve been there before, I know I’ll forever be encountering new challenges and delights. Or, as my coworker and friend Karen says, “Bigger kids, bigger problems.” The constant change of motherhood is exhilarating and unnerving.
But going from expecting to birthing a baby, that change, that new chapter of life is monumental. And not just because your baby is changing. You are too. Those early, grueling months of learning to change diapers and feed a baby on demand are a time of becoming.
In her piece, “The Birth of A Mother,” reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks says it’s “an identity shift, and one of the most significant psychical and psychological changes a woman will ever experience.” I read this piece weeks into new motherhood, and it brought me so much peace and clarity, I teared up. This year I even had the privilege to interview Sacks for an article I wrote for The Everymom. When we spoke, Sacks said it’s time for us to shed light on this major life transition so that new moms know they’re not alone in their mixed feelings.
I only need look back on my posts from the early days of my son’s life — when caring for a newborn was all consuming, when sleep was a battle, when I felt a love so strong it scared me (still does) — to know the weight of learning to mother.
One of my favorite writers, Shauna Niequist, begins her book, Present Over Perfect naming a period in her adulthood in which she experienced dramatic change as a “sea-change, the journey from one way of living to another.”
And that’s exactly what happens when you become a mother. With a newborn in your arms you toss all your old habits and ways of living out the window and learn to live with and care for another person. Your person. You are no longer alone. You trade freedom for a new way of living. You are a mom! Niequist goes on to say this about her major life transition:
“This is a love story, like all my favorite stories. It’s a story about letting yourself be loved, in all your imperfect, scarred, non-spectacular glory. And it’s about the single most profound life change I’ve yet encountered.”
I could say the same about my motherhood journey. And I’ll add this: loving my son was the most profound life change I’ve yet encountered. Being his mom is one of my life’s greatest love stories, and it’s still unfolding.
About a month before I gave birth to my son, I started this blog. Since 2008, after I graduated from college and became enamored with blogs, I wanted to have my own. I made a few feeble attempts at blogging over the years but in December 2016 I finally committed. In committing to this blog, I not only committed to writing, I committed to myself, to my story. I was beginning to believe that my words might matter to others.
Then, in January 2017, Jack was born and writing our story has been a tool for me to process, heal, share and reflect on all the highs and lows I’ve encountered throughout motherhood. What a gift to be a mother-writer, what an incredible gift. I look back and see my journey of becoming is written in my heart and on the page — of this blog, my journal, other publications.
In writing through motherhood and sharing it with others, I’ve connected with many other parents — a great blessing. Parents of older children often respond to my stories with comments such as, “Savor it!” and “This time goes so fast.” God, if they only knew just how much I agreed with them.
I’m doing everything in my power to savor this time, even when it’s boring (ever watched three episodes of Umizoomi in a row or cluster-fed a hangry newborn?) or hard to be present (when you have a million deadlines to worry about at work and dirty dishes piled up in the sink). That’s exactly why I’m writing through motherhood — so I can remember it. And give thanks for it. Also: I want others to remember too. Ultimately, when I give birth to a story and offer it up to others, I want it to be a gift that they might use to claim their stories as well.
My friend and writing mentor, author Callie Feyen wrote this about her daughter, “I am a writer because of her not in spite of her.” This resonated deeply with me. When I finally took ownership of my identity as a writer — when I realized I wasn’t just a journalist, I had my own stories to tell — was, consequently, when I became a mother. For that, I am deeply grateful.
“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.
In the two plus years since we’ve lived in our new home, I’ve had a lot of design flops. There was the time we tried an online design service that suggested we order a rustic café table for our bay window. Once unboxed and assembled, the table was noticeably too tall for the space—a big disappointment. (It has since been relegated to the basement.) Or the time I hired a talented interior designer for a three-hour consult session to help us pick out furniture. She came and left in one swooping whirlwind of measuring tape and Pinterest boards. Afterwards, I sat alone at our dining room table, staring at her hastily assembled email of suggestions, overwhelmed at the tasks ahead and by the sense I wasn’t really heard.
Our living room’s been a thorn in my side since we moved in, mainly because in my eyes, it’s still “unfinished.” Anyone who knows me well knows I hate a job undone, a task uncrossed off the to-do list, and perhaps that’s what bothers me most of all – not the stuff in the room itself, just the fact we haven’t gotten the mix of items in it right. For a while, I even let this hold me back from inviting over guests.
Despite the fact that I know I should feel differently, I cannot seem to shrug these insecurities about our home. Though I love guests, I’m often afraid to host them.
I would venture to guess I am not alone in this feeling. There is something about opening up our homes that makes us vulnerable. When we host a visitor, we expose our dusty corners, unfinished window treatments, the bin of wrinkled laundry waiting to be folded. We show off the beautiful parts too. Our guests take in our taste in furniture, books, art. They taste our food, see our family photos. Oh, and our peeling baseboards. Our homes have a way of outing us. And what I mean is simply our homes show we are flawed. Our homes show we’re human. This is really hard and good for a recovering perfectionist like me.
But I realized by inviting neighbors into my home — for a planned gathering or, better yet, an impromptu cup of coffee — I practice bravery. Anyway, is a home really a summation of fancy, good-looking stuff that gets posted to Instagram or is it about the people inside of it?
When I think back on all the times I’ve been invited into others’ homes, I rarely recall if they had a fabulous rug or an unfinished kitchen. I think most about the way being in their home made me feel and how I was so grateful to be invited in.
My friend Megan has this thing with inviting people over — for dinner, snacks, Bible study. All in all, she is an excellent hostess. That’s actually how we met. We were strangers and she invited us into her home for a church barbecue. What I love most about Megan’s hospitality is that it feels effortless. When she hosted us at her old apartment in Chicago, her home looked as though real humans lived in it, not like an HGTV space. The food wasn’t always ready, which was good, because I could help cook or while she cooked, we could sit and talk. Whenever I was at her place, I felt so comfortable and loved.
Like Megan, I love making others feel comfortable, but I’ve struggled with this worry that my home wasn’t good enough for them, for one reason or another. But what I found recently when I invited friends over for a book chat is that none of them were worried about my chipped baseboard or retro light fixture. They were interested in my art and the food and sharing stories. As we sipped Pinot Grigio on that rainy, spring afternoon, I realized how silly it was to fixate on all the unfinished stuff when there was so much to be grateful for. For one, I did have a perfectly imperfect, beautiful home. Furthermore, here was this new group of women who were smart, kind and funny. Making friends in your thirties is hard and I’m glad to have met other women in my neighborhood who are eager for connection.
One of my favorite authors, Shauna Niequist, has an incredible book of stories and recipes, Bread and Wine. She recounts well-loved family recipes — her mom’s blueberry crisp, which I make often — and tales of sisterhood built through a monthly cooking club. I devoured the book when I was in my twenties and thought, Gosh, one day when I grow up and move out of the city, I want to have a cooking club like her. I want to have a community like her. Now I’m in my thirties, I live on the city’s edge and I want this more than ever. Who among us doesn’t ache for sacred community?
In Bread and Wine, Shauna talks about the need for tables, gathering people around them, for ditching our worries about appearance and focusing in on what matters — the brave act of opening up to others. She writes that hospitality “is about what happens when we come together, slow down, open our homes, look into one another’s faces, listen to one another’s stories.”
And sure enough, what happened at my recent book chat is what always happens when you put a table between women and when you’re brave enough to slow down, ask hard questions and really listen. We cracked open a book briefly. We sipped wine. We broke bread. And we talked about work and motherhood and infertility and hope and purpose and it was indeed sacred.
Gosh, I couldn’t have been more wrong worrying about the window treatments in my home. All that really mattered was that my neighbors felt at home enough to share their hearts.
Two 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.