I was a “too busy” mom. When I went into labor with Scott, my youngest, I spent my waiting time in the hospital proofreading galleys of the book my sister and I had written. I was always doing at least two things at once!
Scott was my “angel baby”as good-natured as a child could possibly be. Just watching the antics of his four brothers would keep him entertained for long periods of time. We all adored him and he was such a peacemaker that I knew the Lord had picked him out especially for us and sent him to our home.
All the years my five sons were small, I was insanely busy. I did not hold a “real job” until the children were all in schoolbut I held as many as three church jobs at a time, did most of the “Mollie Mormon” things, wrote a book and a newspaper column, and was on the speaking circuit. When money was tight I sold Brite Music; it suited my need to feel “anxiously engaged in a good cause” since it taught gospel values to children.
Scotts dad was a pilot of small aircraft and when he could get that kind of work he flew mineral and oil surveys or piloted executives around the country. He was often out of towneven out of the country, and for several years out of commission as he recovered from critical injuries from a plane crash, and later out of the house because we divorced. I was left with the multitude of responsibilities that come with raising children and running a household.
Scott was such an easy-going child, and when the other children were all in school I took him with me everywhere. He quietly colored or looked at books at stake primary meetings, visiting teaching visits, etc.as well as while I was writing or preparing talks and lessons at home. We were together most of the time and he was always well behaved. In my mind, my children were the very center of my life and I heaped affection and attention on them. But how different were their perceptions from mine? How different were the messages I was sending them from the messages my loving heart intended to send? I didnt have a clue until years later the underlying messages I was sending Scott.
At my request, Scott has written memories of some of his childhood experiences and how they affected him. I will intersperse them with my perspective with hopes that you might be spared some of the sadness that I feel now.
Scott: A common memory of my childhood is running errands with my Mom. It seemed she always had something to do or somewhere to be and it was far more practical to take me along than find someone to look after me. I really didnt mind. When I got big enough, I was glad to be of service when she needed a pack mule to help haul groceries or help in any way she needed me. When I wasnt needed for labor, I did my best not to be a bother. She had so much to worry about, the last thing I wanted to do was make things more stressful for her.
Now I realize that growing up as a fifth son to parents who were always struggling (financially, emotionally, and with their relationship) had a deep impact on me. I was in denial of this for quite some time because I didnt seem to exhibit the most discussed consequences that failed marriages can have on childrensuch as blaming myself or becoming a delinquent. (My parents divorced when I was ten.)
I eventually came to understand that my self-worth, like everyone elses, was largely determined at a young age when I was far less cynical and did not analyze the motivations of my parents actions; I interpreted their actions literally. My innocent conclusion was essentially that I didnt particularly matter.
Oh, I knew (and still know) that my parents loved me, but it was also very apparent that they were already stretched to the limit with other things and the best thing I could do for them was to stay out of the way. So Ive gone through life trying not to get in the way, never over or under achieving. Ive tried to remain useful, but not so much that people would depend on me. Ive tried to help others succeed while keeping my own success limited. Ive acted in such a way that people are neither irritated by my presence nor particularly remiss at my absence.
Darla: I adored Scott and loved having him with me wherever I went. We had three years together after all his brothers were in school, and I thought I was giving him lots of attention. However, now that he has been able to put words to his experience, Scott says, “We spent a lot of time together, but you were generally focused on something else. I was just along for the ride.” It is painful to have to admit how much of the time that was true. I was fragmented and pulled in many directionstrying to do too much, trying to be everything to everybody.
One example of my fragmented mind stands in infamy. One night I took my five sons and three neighbor boys to the library. We had an old Dodge maxi-van, so numbers were never a problem. Here is Scotts memory:
Scott: Perhaps I am exaggerating my feeling of invisibility a bit for the sake of clarity, but not that much. For example, when I was five years old my mom took a group of us to the library. While I was investigating a book, one of my brothers bumped me as he passed by and told me we were leaving. I decided to finish my book before rejoining the others. When I put the book down, I headed for the door and began to get nervous when I failed to see anyone I knew. I hurried out the front doors of the library just in time to see our family van leave the parking lot.
Everything turned out all right, of course. With tears in my eyes I gave my phone number to the nice librarians. They called home and notified my dad that I had been forgotten. Dad met Mom at the door with the news and she made a quick U-turn and retrieved me. She tells me I wasnt crying when she picked me up, and that I didnt seem upset.
Darla: You can imagine how humiliated I felt. But at the library I had made certain everyone was notified that it was time to leave; then I had headed out to the van, loaded the kids in, and said, “Have we got everybody?” When seven voices had yelled “Yes!” I simply believed them and didnt notice that there werent eight voices. That experience was typical of how over-programmed I was.
After Scott was in school, I co-founded Latter-day Woman magazine and acted as Managing Editorwhich turned out to be more than full-time work with very little remuneration. I did much of the work at home and was rarely gone when the children were home. The magazine was doing so much good that I felt justified to continue my efforts. I still took time to read to the kids. For instance, in addition to our daily scripture reading, I read them the whole “Little House” series during that time, but Scott remembers reading as a group activity, rarely one-on-one. When Scott was ten, I divorced and worked full time for the next eight years; I was busier than ever!
Scott: It was easiest not to get noticed at home. The circus my brothers put on always drew most of the attention. As we got bigger, I usually tagged along with them, but even then I was usually the youngest of the friends we associated with so I saw myself as the lowest in the pecking order. My brothers used to call me “the human remote control” because they could tell me to do most anything and I would do it for them.
I demonstrated my “invisible” mindset in other ways that werent nearly so dramatic as the library incident. I always got good grades at school, but was never involved in clubs or extracurricular activities. [He could have excelled at many things but chose not to.] I always preferred not to tell anyone at school or work when it was my birthday so that I wouldnt get any special attention. In the theater of life Ive always tried to be an extra or at most a supporting character.
Despite my feelings of invisibility I always knew my mother was trying. For example, she would read scriptures to us in the mornings. However, she readily admits that it didnt even occur to her to ask our opinions on what she read to us (or on any other subject that I can really remember) so the unspoken lesson was that our opinions didnt matter.
Of course, now that I have started to work through my “issues,” I dont blame my parents and I dont blame myself. We were all doing the best we knew how. Just as I inherited baggage from them, they inherited baggage from their parents. Several times in the scriptures we are warned of the lasting effects of false traditions on our posterity. In Exodus 20:5 (among other places) God states that he will visit “the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generations.” Even when we are receiving the truth it can take several generations to rid ourselves of the false traditions and behaviors of ancestors.
I Began to Understand
Darla: In my mind, Scott was (and is!) enormously important in our family, a source of constant joy to his dad and I. He has always been his brother Daves best friend, and all through his childhood continued to be the only one in the family that never caused contention, never made demands, never got into trouble. Yet during all those years I didnt have a clue that Scott was feeling insignificant. My life was a marathon. I was running from early morning until I dropped into bed exhausted each night. In the midst of all that, Im afraid I rarely landed long enough to assess what was going on with Scott. I was concerned that he wasnt “following in my footsteps” by wanting to be involved in a wide variety of activities, but I knew that each child has to choose for himself. In all honestly, I was so worn out with going to little league games, concerts, recitals, and scout and church activities for the other four that I was bit relieved that Scott didnt choose to be involved.
Scott was nineteen before the light began to dawn in my mind. I had recently quit work and come home to free-lance and care for my elderly mother. Scott had received a mission call and I was elated to have time to accompany him on shopping trips, pore over his mission instructions, and be involved in every detail of his preparation. (When two other sons previously left for missions, I hadnt had that luxury!)
Ill never forget the scene. Scott and I were standing in the kitchen and he said, “It seems so funny that now Im not a minor any more, Im suddenly getting OVER-mothered.” Something in his voice made me ask the question, “Scott, did you used to feel UNDER-mothered?” He paused, then looked me in the eyes and said, “Sometimes.” He spoke forthrightly, and his answer hit me hard.
There it was. Evidence I had resisted looking at for so long. In all my striving to do what was right, in all my “busyness” in the Kingdom, I had been unaware that I was neglecting my primary stewardship. How could I be so blind? I wore my busyness like a merit badge, thinking, “look at all the good Im doing. Look at all Im getting accomplished.” (In my growing-up home, I had learned that “keeping busy doing good things = righteousness.”) But what was I inadvertently saying to my children? Over the years Ive heard from my other sons what it felt like to be raised in an environment where Mom was always “too busy” and Dad wasnt there. The truth has been painful to hear, but being willing to hear it has helped us all heal.
Intentions So Different from Outcome
Not one day of my life as a mother with children in my home did I get up in the morning saying, “Today I am going to stay so busy that Im going to give my children the message that they are low on my list of priorities. I am going to convince them they dont matter much.” The intent of my heart was to do the very opposite. Yet, all the while I was saying that my children were most important to me, I gave much of my time to other things.
John Bradshaw, psychologist and author of the book Homecoming, said, “Every child needs desperately to know that:
1.) his parents are healthy and able to take care of him, and
2.) that he matters to his parents. Mattering means that the childs specialness is reflected in the eyes of his parents [which he isnt going to see if his parents eyes are looking elsewhere instead of at him!]. . . . Mattering is also indicated by the amount of time they spend with him. Children know intuitively that people give time to what they love. Parents shame their children by not having time for them.” (p. 40)
Assessing the Mothers Nurturing Role
In “The Family, a Proclamation to the World” (first presented by President Hinckley in the General Relief Society Meeting, September 23, 1995 and subsequently published in the Ensign, November 1995, 102), we read: “Husband and Wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children.
Children are an heritage of the Lord (Psalms 127:3). Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God, and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. . . . Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. . . .”
President Benson made it clear that these responsibilities cannot be achieved with part-time effort on the part of mothers. Neither is it enough for a mother to simply be physically “at home” but not spiritually or emotionally available. Even when I did not have a “real job” I found a hundred other “good” ways to use my time that took me away from my primary focus.
Moving Ahead with the Saviors Help
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) So, how I can I handle the truth now that I no longer “see through a glass darkly”? I still know only in part, but I know enough to see that my time priorities were often wrong. It broke my heart when I learned how Scott felt all those years.
My only salvation is that I know the Atonement is real. I believe we can repent of things we cant “fix.” I cannot go back to the days when my children were young and focus more of my time and attention on them. I cannot change the fact that I didnt know until my children were all grown that “telling is preaching; but teaching is asking.” I cannot make everything all better for my children. But the Saviors mission includes wiping away all our tears, healing our broken hearts, and helping us and our children in every way we will allow.
I admire Scott for his openness to recognize the problem and move ahead. How is he handling all of this now that he is an adult?
Scott: I have learned, as my testimony has grown, that even inherited challenges are for my own good (see D&C 122).They help me become “as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him (Mosiah 3:19), for “none shall be found blameless before God, except it be little children, only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:21).
One of the critical principles that was drilled in my head by the gospel and my parents was the law of progression. So despite my aversion to achievement, I have always sought after personal development; this has been the key to identifying and correcting my false conceptions. I hope that my faith in the Lord will help me to continue progressing that I may be worthy to receive my inheritance from Him.
Ed McCormack, a beloved and inspired counselor said to me, “I think the very best thing you can do for your sons is to continue developing the light within you. To continue to say, I choose the light, so that light can grow brighter and brighter within you until the perfect day. (D&C 50:23) What could have more effect on a child of any age than a mother in whom the Spirit of God dwells? And from whom that Spirit is radiating? I think this is true mothering (and fathering); and mothering that can be done married or divorced or widowed. To have a portion of that Spirit dwelling in you, such that you can be an instrument in the hands of the Lord to your own children; that is what mothering is all about. (Alma 17, 18, 26) And that is an opportunity much of which still lies in the future. So there is much to look forward to. As you know, a mother is just one piece of the program the Lord has for theman important one, but one. So the important thing is to fill your role as well as you can, and the Lord, who is doing the work, will use you along with all the others He has arranged for them. They are foreordained to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, and it is for them to follow it. We can presume that they will in due course.”
In “The Family, a Proclamation to the World” we read, “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” As a mother of grown children I can still strive to implement all those principles in every contact I have with my family. Fortunately, my children still love me in spite of it all. One son lives just three blocks from me and I see him and a houseful of adorable grandsons and their wonderful mother almost daily. The rest all live within a few miles and we get together often. My influence is not a thing of the past. I can try each time I see Scott to help him know how very much he mattersto all of us, and to the Lord.
Isaiah 54:13 says, “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.” I can still teach by my example. I can choose to let go of my fear and worry in regard to my children and grandchildren and trust the Lord to guide them to fill their own missions. Their missions are not my responsibility; I must focus on fulfilling my own and let my example shine before them. They need a happy and a whole mother who is not forever whining about the past or her own weaknesses.
They need a mother who is anxiously engaged in a good cause instead of prodding and pushing themand thus creating resistance. My children and grandchildren need an example of joy in the gospel way of life, and to trust in the Lord in the hard times. That is the gift I can give to them. I can pray daily for this blessing. I can choose to move ahead with confidence based on my ability to hear the Spirit. I want to straighten my shoulders, feel the joy of being alive, and, like Scott, to trust in the Lord and continue my efforts to progress in every area of my life.
Author note: Do you know someone whose life has been impacted by the suicide of a loved one? The common pattern is to avoid the subject and avoid processing the grief, but there is a better way. Help them find “the peace that surpasses understanding” by pointing them to one of the following: If they are LDS, direct them to After My Sons Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Faith to Go On.
If they are not LDS, direct them to: Finding Hope while Grieving Suicide: Opening Your Heart to the Healing Only God Can Give. For more information go to my website: www.darlaisackson.com.