The summer of 2016 will go down in our family’s shared history as “epic.” Camping and fireflies and family and adventures. Books and bonfires and conversations that went soul deep. For this mama’s heart, the summer was bliss.
But it was also the end of an era. After 13 years of being a full-time, stay-at-home mom, the end of August marked the first time that I would officially be home alone. An empty-nester of sorts. And because I knew this milestone was ticking ever closer, one morning, a week before school was set to start, I told my kids over breakfast that we were going to make a bucket list. A final To-Do that included one inexpensive experience to make our near-perfect summer complete. They were all quick to answer, each special request inadvertently containing the key to my kids’ hearts. My eldest wanted an afternoon at a local swimming hole, friends invited. My baby wished for ice cream at an old-fashioned parlor. My daughter: a simple picnic with “just us.” And my tender, imaginative middle son asked for a Harry Potter party.
We’ve done this before. A Harry Potter party. And though I’m no Pinterest mom, I am an avid Harry Potter fan and have encouraged my kids’ love for the series, too. So we gather sticks in the backyard and paint them to look like wands. We spend an inordinate amount of time deciding which house each family member belongs in (we’ve come to the conclusion we’re all Gryffindors at heart). And then I make shepherd’s pie, popovers (my stab at Yorkshire pudding), and butterbeer from a homemade recipe that’s a tooth-achingly sweet concoction of cream soda, butterscotch, and whipped cream. There’s candy all over the table and little fruit pies that we pass around and eat a spoonful at a time. We’re Muggles all the way, but it’s a pretty magical experience. Usually.
This year, we had barely made it through the almost ceremonial wand hunt before things started to fall apart. The kids were bickering and overheated, and I was tired and feeling unappreciated. We soldiered through, setting an elaborate table, chopping veggies for the shepherd’s pie, and trying desperately to cling to a party atmosphere. It wasn’t working. I finally lost it and banned them all from the kitchen. “I need half an hour of silence,” I said (okay, shouted) as potatoes boiled over on the stove behind me. “Go play somewhere. Be kind to each other. Leave me alone.” They were gone less than five minutes before two of them were in tears and a toy was irreparably broken.
I was broken. And not just because my kitchen looked like a war zone and my kids were fighting again.
I’ve been at this parenting thing for almost 13 years. And you would think I’ve learned a thing or two about being a mom. But here’s the truth: most days I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.
My husband and I have a little inside joke that we employ when we’re trying to infuse a bit of humor into a less than ideal parenting situation: “Well, that’ll come up in therapy someday.” We wink, but deep down, we worry. Will it? Are we screwing them up? Are we the worst parents in the world? We yell at them and say things we regret. We wrestle with finding balance between parenting a kid in junior high and another who just started kindergarten. All four of our children were born in different countries, and two came into our family through adoption. We face medical needs and emotional turmoil, insomnia and a speech impediment. One of our boys is the life of the party, a perpetual clown who turns everything into a joke, while another is deeply sensitive, wounded at the cavalier way his brother often treats him. My heart rate rises and my palms get sweaty just cataloging all our various issues and needs. How can we possibly hold this crazy mishmash together?
There’s a saying I’ve loved for years and trotted out whenever a situation is both out of my control and not my problem: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” But this is my circus and these are my little monkeys. Pretending their problems aren’t my own is simply not an option. So what happens when you can’t solve every problem? don’t know the answer? are too exhausted and weary to care?
You fix a feast and lay the table before your children. And then you tell them, “Mommy needs to be alone.”
I retreated to my bedroom while my kids dug into the lavish spread I had prepared. I sat on the bed and cried because I felt like such an utter failure. Maybe if I was a better mom, my kids would be able to exist in the same room for more than five minutes without deteriorating into chaos. Maybe they would be more soft-spoken, quicker to help. More compassionate and understanding and hardworking. In those moments on the bed I believed that maybe I was not cut out for the whole motherhood thing at all. If the Facebook posts and happy Instagram selfies I regularly saw were to be believed, my poor kids were scraping the bottom of the barrel when they got stuck with me. Because, let’s face it: the summer wasn’t as blissful as I’d like to remember it. Memories are often rose-colored, but if I was honest with myself I had to admit we faced some really hard things this past summer, too. Boredom. Disobedience. Fighting. Tears. Lying. Disagreements that tore at the very fabric of our family. Big questions about who we are and where we’re going.
That afternoon in my bedroom I took a few deep breaths, dried my cheeks, and forced myself to go back into the kitchen. But before I could round the corner, I heard my kids talking. All four of them at the table, sharing a meal together. There was conversation and laughter. They even used their manners. “This is so good, mom,” my eldest said when he realized I was there. “Thank you.”
Maybe something is getting through after all.
I don’t have it all figured out and I certainly won’t be teaching parenting classes anytime soon. But I’ve come to the conclusion that if we’re following the model of our Father God, or at least trying to, we’re moving in the right direction. Parenting is less about a list of how-to’s and more about a posture of grace. It’s about humility. Service. Discipleship. And, most importantly, love. Humility is knowing when to admit I don’t know. I messed up. I’m sorry. Service is putting their needs before my own time and time again. It’s trying to figure out who they are and what makes them tick so that I can meet them at the point of their need and provide a safe haven to explore and learn and spread their wings. Discipleship is often the hard part in our family, the place where their wills come head to head with our instruction. And yet, training them up in the way they should go is not something we can leave to the school or church. It’s on our shoulders and always has been.
As for love? This is where we draw from the well of extravagance that has been so freely offered to us. Willful, disobedient, ungrateful children? We might as well be looking in the mirror. Still, our Father comes for us, relentlessly and passionately, a good, good Father who loves to give good gifts to his children. (“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:9-11) God’s love is downright illogical—for we do not deserve it. And we do not deserve each other in the midst of our failures. But we can’t dwell there, can we? We pick ourselves up and try again. We are family because we choose this love over and over, we fight for it and for each other. Always.
It helps to believe that each moment, each day is an offering. From folding small socks to having the hard conversations about sex and life and calling; from apologizing to loving hard through tantrums and disobedience and doubt, may we know that it is all an act of worship, of sacrifice. Beautiful and messy and uniquely ours—no matter what it looks like. And maybe, just maybe, our kids will remember the times we turned sticks into wands and stones into bread, and know without a doubt that they were (are) deeply loved.