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Dear Mariah,

I wasn’t there for the birth of your Benjamin, who came barreling into the world, after 52 hours of early labor, when sharp pains came 6 minutes apart, but not regularly enough to dislodge a nine-pound baby. Still his luscious locks, dimpled cheek and helpless eyes have already won you, and you are, as you have said, “totally smitten.” You have found him more delicious to stare at than a fire, watch him as he sleeps, and wonder that someone so astonishing could come into your life. When you tell me these things, I can only answer, I know. I know. I looked at you just the same way.

I tried to tell you what it would be to be a mother, but one generation’s language will always fail in trying to explain the enormity and nuance of their experience, so there are some things you have to learn that we cannot say. It is not that we will not say, but cannot. We cannot take you where we have been. You must come and learn for yourself on a trail you have never blazed before.

You did something that I thought was so bold and inventive for your baby’s nursery. You have never painted a mural before. You have actually painted very little in your busy life, but for a long time you had envisioned some kind of mural in the nursery, and so you painted one. You went to Home Depot to what you called their “oops pile”, the paint returned by people because it was wrong for their project, you chose a few cans at a highly reduced cost, and you went for it.

The day came that you woke up, mixed paint, took a brush and decidedly began making strokes on the wall that was already nicely painted, just as if you were sure of yourself. The video you have made of the experience delighted me, and so I have posted it below, but what really struck me was your last statement. You said you painted the mural because you wanted your baby to have a brave Mama.

I liked that you did that mural because you must teach him not to fear—and that cannot come from a lecture or a sermon or a smart phrase on a refrigerator magnet. He will learn what it means to be human from you. He will see how to relate to the world and how to regard it from you. If you are afraid to try new things because of failure or to preserve your dignity or some winning view of yourself, he will learn fear. He will be afraid to strike out and try something that he may not be good at. He will cringe from circumstances he hasn’t tried before. He has to be willing to be really flawed at something before he can learn to be good at it. None of us ever knew anything that we didn’t have to learn. You cannot suggest to him that he is only lovable if he performs.

You teach him to see the world as a place to be brave because you are brave, because you are comfortable enough in your own skin to explore, to stand for something, to get out into the fray of life and fill the measure of your creation without always calculating the cost and finding yourself shrinking with timidity because you can’t guarantee outcomes. Mothers so deeply influence their children, so you are right. You must be who you hope he will be, embrace the world with a delicious sense of wholeness. Your quest to be whole begins in even more earnest when you have a baby, because you have two vulnerable eyes looking at you.

You will have to show him that he can stretch and reach and try new things. Teach him that it is ok to not know, to experiment, to forge where he hasn’t gone, to be willing to learn. Teach him that to have a capacity, we have to start by not having one and take it step by step. Teach him not be afraid of that first step. He is not someone you can pigeon hole. He can do this, but not that. Inside that baby body is a universe, with whirling stars and expanding galaxies and a spirit that was born in light with God. Teach him to try. Teach him that there is no such thing as failure. Help him believe in his divine source, by believing in yours.

It will not be enough to nurture him, to supply his nutrition and shelter. It is who you are, more than anything else that will impact how he relates to his world, his breath and his God. You cannot think that motherhood is an invitation to fill a conventional role in predictable ways. No, now you have an invitation from your child to be more than you are or even dreamed to be.

Forget any idea that motherhood is an invitation to be somebody else besides who you are and that your highest goal is to completely erase yourself in sacrifice. Now you have even more reason and opportunity to “come to yourself.” You will find that in caring so passionately for someone else’s well-being, you find places in yourself you never knew existed.

Your soul will be reshaped with new wings and stairs thrown up and spires reaching to heaven from the snug cottage you were before motherhood.

More Brave Than You Know

It was already a brave thing for you to have a baby, but you don’t know how brave.  We think of bravery as battlefield bravery—the rushing into the unknown with courage because you are fighting for a higher cause, a willingness to lay your life on the line for something really worth living for.

Everyday bravery as a mother is more.

You don’t know what will be asked of you by this new stranger who is also so familiar after riding under your heart for nine months. He kicked you vigorously, already with a life and will of his own. Your small picture of a successful life or a perfect child, will explode. To invest in someone else means that you come to realize that you were a small package before, because suddenly you are extended into every sinew, nerve ending and sensibility of this new person. When he is bitterly disappointed, frustrated or fearful, you will feel it. You will sense his every hurt. You will bleed with him, cheer for him, cry with him, explode in laughter, and have to reconcile yourself to the reality that the person you have given your whole soul to will one day walk out the door because he inevitably has to grow up.

You will wish for the impossible, that you could smooth his path, give him confidence, expand his horizons, and never have him taste the bitterness of disappointment. Even now you rush to him when he cries, hoping to immediately assuage his discomfort. It will become your habit, but it is an impossible expectation. Because his Heavenly Father loves Benjamin, He will get the full scale life experience, which means his road purposely won’t be smooth, no matter how hard you try. You can’t take it personally when this happens, that somehow you failed to protect him. You have to know that this was the deal from the beginning. He was meant to taste the bitter and the sweet. Then when he stumbles on a path you can’t make smooth, you have to still find peace and know that God is in His heaven and can do His own work.

Never did I anticipate that as a mother I would sometimes sit through embarrassing parent-teacher conferences. “Your child is so bright but he never turns in his homework.” I didn’t suppose that one of my children would develop a drug addiction. I wasn’t prepared for a child to have chronic illness or to get the call one night that a daughter had fallen and had a traumatic brain injury. I especially never dreamed that my oldest daughter whose honey hair I braided every day between my fingers when she was young, would die and that I would spend the rest of my life missing her.

This is not to worry or scare you, because you already know these things about my life as a mother. It is to say that there were a hundred, hundred times I had to be brave and bravery for me meant trusting in the Lord, when it would have been easier to panic. That work to trust in the Lord has nearly become reflex for me, and it was the legacy that came with fighting the good fight to love and support my children through all things.

I can’t tell you the level of investment, that will break the small bounds of self, that will expose you to joy, but also hurt and pain because you don’t know what he will choose. The road you will walk is an unknown, and that is why you will have to be brave. In becoming a mother, you have chosen to be someone’s rock, as sure as Gibraltar, when they have taken you on a path you didn’t know and didn’t choose.

You have to be brave to have someone so vulnerable need you so much. Something inside says, “I can’t be that important to someone else. I can’t be needed this much. I’m just so small myself.” But there your boy will be looking at you as if you have all the answers and as if your way of seeing things is the truth. He will pick up unconsciously your way of relating to life, your way of doing, even your sense of humor.

I remember when your brother was only two or three, still in his crib, and crying for me in the night. He was agonized with an ear infection and he called until I heard him and came. “Kiss it better,” he begged. “Kiss it better.” He really thought I could, that as a mother I had some magic healing touch. That is such a powerful person to be in someone’s life and takes courage I can’t fully describe.

At the same time, you will have to accept that he is not you. He is not exactly you or your husband. He is his own eternal self on a journey that was set for him long ago. He is well formed, ancient, powerful, talented. You are not writing on a blank board when he comes to you. You are not the potter and he the clay. You cannot make him exactly what you wish—nor would you want to. He is more than you can imagine. I have been astonished and bowled over by my children’s talents that are not like mine. I admire the boldness of one, the cleverness of another, the humor of a third, the talents I couldn’t dream to have of a fourth. I could go on and on about these wonderful people who came to be my best friends.

But you have to be brave to have this little stranger enter your home. You don’t know exactly who you’ve just invited to be your best friend, life’s investment, traveler on your hip and in your heart, and in your family.

He may not share your interests or passions. He may not have your inclinations. He may struggle with the things that are easy for you. He may be mad at you when you try to teach him. He may take the treasures you hope to give him and throw them aside. Most painful of all would be if he tossed away your gospel teachings as you spend your whole life telling him about Jesus.

You will have to love him even when he doesn’t love you, when he resists your teaching or tosses your treasures or thinks you aren’t as cool as his friends. He will never completely understand that you were so young once, that you spent and wore out your life, and gave away your childhood to have a child.

You will have to have courage to see him clearly when he cannot see himself, to believe in him when he stumbles and errs, to look at all his flaws—and there will be many—and teach him better. You will have to see beyond sometimes grimy surfaces to who he really is. It is the favor God does for us. It is the blessing we give our children. Because we met them first as ancient spirits tucked into baby bodies without any earthstains yet, we sense something great about our children’s soul that they must see reflected in our eyes.

I like Teddy Roosevelt’s quote about bravery which I think applies to motherhood. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

You will also find out the truth of another of Roosevelt’s quotes in mothering, “Courage is not having the strength to go on. It is going on when you don’t have the strength.”

Since your baby has his days and nights turned around, you are already learning about that.

You will have to be brave to teach him when he doesn’t want to learn. Stand firm when he doesn’t want to work. Stand against things that would corrode him or distract him or hurt him, even if at times it makes you very unpopular with this boy you hope will adore you.  It is not as easy as you might think to stand firm for what’s right, when your child wheedles you for instant gratification, resents you for enforcing firm boundaries, or finds it easier to be less than he is. To stand firm against the darts of the adversary in his life, may mean you get a few darts of resentment thrown at you. So be it.

Finally, he has to have a brave Mama in her commitment to Jesus Christ so he can be a brave son in coming to know Him. He is growing up in a world where religion is being marginalized, where viewpoints are policed, where truth is discarded, and standards are trampled. To stand for the gospel in this world will demand more courage than a soldier.

He cannot grow up thinking that his highest good is to fit in, to be regarded as a success by the world’s standards, to be a social media hero with thousands of followers. The gospel will be practiced by the men and women who will dare to stand, sometimes alone, against the bellowing crowd. We have seen it exemplified in every time period.  It is Abinadi in the court of King Noah, Alma returning to Ammonihah after having been spit on and ridden out on a rail, Paul arrested, beaten with “many stripes” for his testimony “and at midnight Paul…prayed and sang praises unto God and the prisoners heard them” (Acts 16:24). It is the sons of Helaman marching to war with utter faith. “They never had fought, yet they did not fear death; they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt God would deliver them” Alma 56:47

This is the generation, who will have to stand for truth with courage and boldness, that your baby will grow up in—and for this Benjamin must have a brave mother, who exemplified for him courage and strength as the way to relate to life every day of his life.

Yes, my sweet daughter, you have started on a journey where you cannot be daunted, but strength will be poured into you because, like all mothers, you are being asked to do such a big thing.

Love this boy with all your soul. He will shape you as much as you shape him. I hope that he will be to you what you have been to me—a source of joy and refreshment and surprise, a friend who is loyal. In having this son, you are just beginning to glimpse a portion of how I love you—because I have loved you longer. The road you travel together will be sweet and real and stretching and nothing will ever compare to its magnitude in your life. I am so glad you want to be a brave Mama.