My Dad is a devoted reader of the Sunday funnies. One day he handed me a Baby Blues cartoon that showed a brother and sister fighting loudly over the same toy. Mom appears on the scene and in big, bold letters yells, “THERE WILL BE NO MORE YELLING IN THIS HOUSE!” Immediately she turns from her children and says, “I just yelled that. I broke my own rule. I’m putting myself in time-out.” She grabs hold of her own arm and marches herself out of the room, still talking. “Yep. No more parenting for me for one hour.” Her absence leaves the kids silent until one says, “For a mom she can be pretty creative.” Then the other replies, “Do I hear snoring?”
I love this cartoon because it captures the stress and exhaustion of motherhood, as well as the desire we have to be good, to improve, to be an example to our children.
A couple weeks ago, I sat down on the floor of my twin boys’ bedroom, switched off the lights, and began to sing a few bedtime songs. It had been a hard week. I was pretty much running on empty. I won’t share all the sordid details, but I will tell you a few. This particular day had involved chasing my three-year-old boys all over the neighborhood, one of them almost getting hit by a car, my girls sawing apart the basketball hoop downstairs with butter knives and using the bars for canes, which they decorated with stickers and popsicle sticks. I found four of my children in a neighbor’s yard where my boys had dug up the flowerpots and dumped them onto the neighbor’s patio. My boys had also wet their pants so they had to waddle home where we walked into the kitchen, past the breakfast and lunch dishes still sitting on the counter, I changed my boys, then sat down on the couch to lecture my girls, only to discover I had just trekked all over the house with dog poo on the bottom of my shoe.
Do you ever have days like this? When you want to shout, “Really? This is my life?”
That night, after singing a couple songs, my little Gordon, age three, climbed out of bed with his blanket, walked over to me and slipped his arms around my neck. I leaned back and fit him into that perfect spot where baby heads nestle onto shoulders. I twirled his yellow curls, brushed my fingers across his forehead, and we stayed like that a long time, the two of us holding onto each other, needing each other. I wanted to burn that feeling into my skin, hold him forever.
Children have a wisdom about them. They seem to know what we need. They bring us back to ourselves.
For many years, my husband and I longed for children. Eventually, with the help of good doctors and In-Vitro Fertilization, we were blessed with our first daughter. Knowing the window in which we could have children was small, we moved quickly. 19 months later, our twin girls were born – two months early in a crash c-section that saved both their lives. A year and a half later, hoping for one more child, we did a final round of IVF, in which we implanted one embryo. At our doctor’s advice, we implanted only one to prevent the eclamptic seizure I had suffered with our twin girls. At 16 weeks gestation, however, we learned that that single embryo had split. We were having identical twin boys. And one week after our oldest daughter turned four, our boys were born. Five children in four years was not what I had planned for, nor expected.
Nothing quite prepared me for four children in diapers, two babies crying tag-team style for an entire 24 hours, library books torn out to the binding, Barbie dolls beheaded with scissors, or swimming on the living room table (this is a true story – my girls poured water all over the table, got in their swimsuits and slid like penguins across the top). No one told me the laundry would never, ever end, that I would crawl into bed some nights only to realize I hadn’t showered, looked in a mirror, or brushed my teeth that day, or (my personal favorite) that I would find a home-made sign on our front lawn that read, “Mom for Sale.”
The poet, Mary Oliver, wrote,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Many times I have looked at my kids and thought, “What could be more wild? What could be more precious?” With so much waiting and wanting, there was only one way to consider our situation. It was a gift. A glorious, extravagant gift, and I was going to give my all to these five miracle-babies.
This summer, our boys will turn four. As exasperating and challenging as it has been, I have had the impression on many occasions that these days with small children are holy. Children are sacred to the Lord. They are pure. And this is a sacred space, to be enjoyed as best we can.
A friend of mine once described her gratitude for Jesus with these words,
“Every day I come sighing – and sometimes singing – to him” (Lisa Garfield, Blog Segullah, April 2013).
To me, these two words define perfectly the polarity of the motherhood experience.
So I would like to share with you three things I have learned about coming to the Lord. Sometimes we come sighing. Sometimes we come singing. But to paraphrase Peter, “Where else would we go? Only Jesus has the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
1 – Remember You are Building
Last summer a friend called to say she was driving through Salt Lake and wondered if she could stop by for a quick visit. Of course, I said yes. But we live in an old house. It looks old. And I was a little worried. There was no time to pick-up toys, finish dishes, fix hair or wipe faces. Just like that, she was there.
As she came in, I began to apologize about the house, the mess, the disasters in play. She stopped me immediately and said, “Catherine, don’t worry about it. Think of a building going up. The scaffolding, the boards lying around, the workers, the dust.
This is exactly how your house should look. You are building a family.”
Every day since then I have thought of her words. As I watch my girls pull out the craft bin, wade through a sea of toys in the playroom, scrape a raisin from the sole of my shoe, or wash dishes after 10PM, I see my friend April in our front yard, saying, “Let it go. You are under construction.” (April Perry, Have You Ever Put the House Before the Children, Power of Moms, July 2012.)
We are not just building a home and a life for our children; we are building souls. And building is a messy process. We can’t expect our homes or families to look like a finished product, put together all the time. We need to lower our expectations, be okay with the mess, the disorder, the effort without visible results. We need to let our children explore their worlds. This is not easy for those of us who feel happier in a clean home – who like to check things off our list, see the results of what we are doing.
But I love this photo of the Salt Lake temple that hangs in my parents’ home. It was taken in 1892, the day the capstone was laid. I find it telling, that even as the capstone was being put in place, scaffolding still wreathed the spires of the building.
Results will come over time. And the results will be beautiful if we are careful not to look sideways to determine the design, height, or color of our building. We cannot compare ourselves to anyone, or take counsel from those around us. We must look up and seek the Lord’s insight as to how we should build our own family.
The psalmist wrote,
“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1, New International Version).
At times, the building process will be messy temporally. At others it will feel messy emotionally, or spiritually. But whatever the circumstances, it is okay at the end of the day to come sighing to the Lord. If anyone knows the strain of building something, it is God.
We are His work. And sometimes I forget, that in all this building, He is also building me.
2 – Live with Gratitude
Ann Voskamp, a Christian writer and mother of six wrote,
“How long do I really have to figure out how to live full of grace, full of joy – before these…six beautiful children fly the coop and my mothering days fold up quiet? How do you open the eyes to see how to take the daily domestic, workday vortex and invert it into the dome of an everyday cathedral?” (Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, pg. 121)
Maybe you have asked this same question. How do we take a domestic life that often feels like unrewarding drudgery and make it sacred? The answer, I have found, is gratitude.
There is a reason God taught his people to “stand every morning,” as Ezra wrote, “to thank and praise the Lord” (1 Chronicles 23:30). He knows if we live grateful, we live happy.
Gratitude dismantles frustration. It slows us down, helps us step out of the mundane. It can transform the most simple task into something meaningful. It can make us laugh, refrain from judgment, reach out instead of reprimand. Gratitude creates opportunity.
This doesn’t happen every night, but often, when my Ali helps me with dinner, something golden takes place. Side by side we snap beans, dump spices into a bowl, dredge chicken. Slowly, she opens up, begins to share, tell me about her day – what interests her, what made her laugh. And suddenly, what is happening between us has become more important than the food we are putting on the table.
How often do we let the task at hand become more important than the child?
Daryl Smith, editor of Seeing the Everyday magazine, prints this paragraph in each edition:
“Life’s most essential possibilities are realized at home. Where we… give our best without praise or fanfare. Because every effort, every moment matters in the development of a person. Nothing is really routine. To those who see the every day.”
Our daily interactions and tasks might seem inconsequential, but they are perhaps the most critical and influential in personal development.
When my boys were two years old, I started counting gifts. Just jotting them down during the day. Small joys that helped me see the beauty of caring physically and spiritually for my children. Things like a forgotten sprig of flowers Sami tucked into my ponytail; Spencer and Gordon bounding through the sprinklers in their church clothes; a long hug from my husband by the kitchen sink.
Gratitude dissolves discontent, helps us live in the now. And there is never another now. Each time we acknowledge God and his goodness we come singing to him. A song of thanksgiving, a song born of seeing, a song that opens us to His love.
3 – Receive His Grace
I think Motherhood is most difficult when we feel we are going it alone. When we feel like no one understands, like we are doing our best and giving it our all, but our all isn’t enough.
My husband works long hours – a situation I would guess is not unfamiliar to most of you. During much of the year, his profession requires him to work late into the evening and on Saturdays. It is hard to finish day after day with adequate patience, love, and energy. Most nights I sigh heavy as I kiss my children goodnight, trudge upstairs to a sink full of dishes, a floor that needs vacuuming, and a living room littered with toys.
Occasionally I have noticed behaviors in my children that have worried me. I’ve sunk into a kitchen chair by myself and cried over a stressful exchange with my oldest daughter when I wasn’t at my best. I’ve been so frustrated I’ve buckled all my kids into the car then returned to the kitchen so I could yell as loudly as I could, without anyone hearing me.
I have made mistakes. I have knelt by my bed and cried in prayer for forgiveness.
I have put my all on the altar, and still it has felt insufficient.
During one especially exhausting season, I began a study of the word grace. What I read in the Bible Dictionary changed how I understood the Atonement. It defines grace as,
“Divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ. [This] grace… allows individuals to receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means.”
I understood the cleansing power of the Atonement, but I had yet to understand its strengthening and enabling power.
Elder Bednar taught that, “The Lord desires…not only to direct us but also to empower us” (David. A. Bednar, The Atonement and the Journey of Mortality, April Ensign 2012).
So I began to pray for grace, for that enabling power. And I can testify the Lord comes when we call for him. I have felt him accept my meager offering and make it more.
His suffering gave him knowledge of our sorrows and pain, but it also gave him an understanding of our limitations so he can fill in where we fall short. So he can care for our children in ways we can’t. Protect them, whisper in their ears. Forgive and mend.
Once, while trying to teach my daughters the importance of getting along, I gathered them together to read from King Benjamin’s sermon, about not having a mind to injure one another. Having read only a few phrases, I had to leave the room to tend to my baby boys who were crying. When I returned, I found Sami ripping my scriptures apart. Her fingers were flying, shredding pages out of frustration. I sat her down hard. I yelled. I was not kind. That night, while we were sleeping, I heard her whimpering. I hurried to her bed, pulled her into my lap and held her. Finally, she said to me in broken sobs, “Mommy, I was worried about you.”
Despite my harsh reaction, she was offering me grace, merciful and pure. I hardly knew what to do with her tender, forgiving words.
In that moment I realized this is the kind of grace we want from God. But it is also the kind of grace our children want from us. Next to all the principles and parameters, our children need to feel the embrace of mercy, of love given liberally and without price.
“Let us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy… in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
And from Jacob,
“It is by [The Lord’s] grace… that we have power to do these things” (Jacob 4:7).
I know you have hard things to do. Hard circumstances. Children smooshed together, children spread across a wide span, children that have been taken from you, children that didn’t come to you. And some of you are doing it alone.
I promise you, you can do whatever God has asked you to do. You are building your own beautiful life. Come sighing to him when you need comfort. Sing to him in gratitude so you can feel His love. And most importantly, come to him open-handed, and receive His grace. For He is mighty to save, to hold up, to fill in and make whole.