Mommy Boxes


We spend a great amount of our lives in boxes.  Sometimes they are boxes we construct, but often they are the boxes others build for us.  And although they are only the folded cardboard of words and ideas, those boxes feel constricting and hard to escape.  After high school, I opened some of my boxes.  I was determined to find myself (isn’t that cliche?). But it took me a long time to decide who I was going to be as an adult.  I changed my major three (3!!) times.  When I finally landed on a career path, and a style that worked for me, and a persona that reflected who I really am, I felt free.  I knew who I was and what I wanted, and I really didn’t think about the boxes I had escaped from since high school.  I married, earned a Master’s degree, fixed up a starter house, and I felt fairly free to be whatever I wanted in the moment.  Life was not easy, but I was content with who I was.  I had friends, family, coworkers, who mostly accepted me that way too.  

Then I became a Mommy.  I was excited, but like most new moms, I felt the nervousness of the unknown, the inadequacy of self facing a mountainous task of maintaining another life.  During my pregnancy, I read articles, I talked to Mommy friends, I asked my own mom and mother-in-law questions.  There were so many conflicting ideas of how to be a Mommy.  I wasn’t sure of my own Mommy identity, but I kept trying on ideas to see how they fit, like dresses in a changing room.  Then, in a moment, the time came.  I became a Mom.  Some things came quickly and naturally, like nursing.  Others took a while, like remembering extra baby clothes everywhere I went.

Every time I made a decision as a Mommy, I felt the familiar cardboard of the boxes being constructed.  I was a Nursing Mom, and although it was natural and easier for me than others, I felt the box.  If I was talking to a Formula Mom, there was a flimsy separation between us. I am a Working Mom.  But because I am a teacher, I am also sometimes a Stay-at-Home mom.  I waffle between those groups of Moms depending on the season. I have at times been a Crafty Mom, and other times been a Dance Mom.  I have yet to become much of a Sports Mom, so those boxes feel a little taller when I try to peek over into that life.  My kids are Public School Kids, but we are friends with Homeschool Kids and Christian School Kids and Private School Kids. Some parts of us defy definition, but for the most part, we stand in the correct boxes for us.  And while I don’t shun any of the labels I am given as a Mommy, I hate the boxes.  The boxes divide.  In conversations with other Mommies, the cardboard muffles our words.  We can’t truly hear each other because of our immediate bias of the box the other might be standing in at the moment.  At times, the boxes are hindering.  I want to consider other options.  Maybe I could be a Stay-at-Home mom, but the box keeps the other Stay-at-Home moms at arms’ length, and I can’t get an honest read on the situation.  I want to connect with the Homesteader Moms because I’d love to learn to can peaches and grow potatoes, but somehow when I approach the cluster of those Moms, I feel my box more clearly.  Maybe I don’t have time or talent for that. After all, I am a Working Mom as well.  At work, I don’t quite fit in either.  I work Part-Time, the only one in the building, so discussions that circle around me don’t always include me.

I am not naive enough to believe that I belong in every box, even though the perfectionist part of me whispers otherwise.  I am also not prideful enough to believe that the boxes constructed are the fault of any other Mommies.  I am honest enough to realize that I can build boxes just as well as anyone I know.  What I am sensitive enough to realize is that I don’t like these chafing boxes.  And it’s not because I want to be the Everything Mommy, it is because I want to connect to Every Mommy.  Motherhood is the hardest job I have ever accepted, and I’d love to have honest advice and real story-swapping with all the other women going through it.  But we are all so trapped by self-imposed ideas of what Motherhood looks like, and society’s expectations of what we will be, and the reality of just trying to survive it some days in one piece, that we end up isolated in our boxes.  

I suppose the old-school “KumBayah” campfire, “can’t we all just get along” ending here is less authoritarian and more inquisitive.  What would it look like if we took the boxes apart? What if we could each be singularly autonomous in every decision of Mothering, but equally supportive and curious of all the other decisions that Mothering provides. I have friends that have shown me that it is possible.  I have Activist Friends, Makeup Friends, Homeschool Friends, and Marathon Friends, and although I am none of those, those relationships are fulfilling because I learn so much from each of them.  What if we could leave the suffocating confines of our boxes behind?  We could accept that being a Mommy is a blurry, messy job, and we don’t have to belong in one box or another to define our style or our success.  Honestly, I am kind of a Messy Mom, so I like the blending of the colors of Motherhood into an Impressionist-style canvas.  Thank you to those Mommies who have broken down the boxes with me and helped make a mess. And to those Mommies who are feeling stuck in a box you’d like to be free from, remember it is just cardboard. Climb out.

Following the Plot

Endings to stories are the best part. You’ve been investing yourself for 200 pages, learning all about the characters’ emotions, relationships, and problems. You are flipping white pages in a blur to find out who dies, who marries, who accomplishes the unexpected.

I handle the endings to stories, including my own, in two distinctly different manners. Most of the time, I cheat. I peek. I flip to the end about halfway through just to check my predictions. I cannot possibly wait to know what plot twists and surprises the author has penned. I do this in my own life too. I want to know the ending before I invest too much in the middle. The middle is messy, and hard, and I don’t have the patience or faith to wait to see what happens to the character, particularly when the character is me.

I’m in the middle right now. Nick has begun a new partnership. The beginning was easy. There was a clear need, a clear vision, and even surprisingly quick contracts for work. Beginnings are exciting, full of the dreams of what is to come. But now, we are past the vision and in the reality. In reality, Nick has been in the Chicago area every week this month, and it is not over. The kids are sad, I have become an insomniac, and I haven’t learned to fix much on my own.  I would love to skip to the end, to see what financial gains this business might bring, to see Nick at home every day, to not feel the wondering of potential success or failure.

Still, life does not work that way. The wondering keeps us faithful to the task set before us. It commits us to stick with the plot line. It ensures that we invest it all in the hopes that the end will be an explosive surprise.

While I’m waiting for this ending, and all the other endings that come with a full life (whether my girls will mesh with their assigned teachers, whether my classes will be studious or unruly, whether….whether…whether…), I need to try to enjoy the middle. There have been day trips to the beach with my girls, quiet evenings to read, and special time with grandparents to help subdue the loneliness of missing daddy. Yes, the middle is hard. The Writer has to work to keep our interest, to move the plot, to avoid holes in the story. If the ending is the explosion, the middle is the wick. It must stay lit from the beginning spark all the way through.

Sometimes I read novels this way. I follow the spark. I invest in the mess of the middle. I wonder and I worry until I can see what is to come. And in doing so, I build my own curiosity. I find faith to believe that the ending, although potentially unexpected, will fulfill all the plot hopes I had along the way.  And almost every time the surprise is worth the wait. I close the book fulfilled. I admire the Writer’s insightful development all the way through to the last word.

I must remember the reward of the waiting when I want to skip to the end. I repeat an often recalled verse from Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  I settle into the plot, and when my impatience begins flipping faster than I can follow, I stop, hold back, and focus on the beautifully crafted details that the Author has penned for me in this moment.

I Lost my Cool…

Scrawny legs pumped wildly at the end of the bed, and I rolled heavily, sighing deeply and repeating Mr. Costanza’s “Serenity Now” inside my head as Anika shrieked ridiculously. It was hot, and the air was heavy with misbehavior. Today was going to be a long day, ending a long week, while Nick did his “work at home” gig we had so looked forward to on a roof in Chicago…work where? Home? Right…too good to be true.
The day went on, blistering hot, full of bickering, unnecessary messes, hurt feelings, all punctuated with a plastic Goody hairbrush being hurled at my temple and a pool of vomit the size of the Pacific two feet short of the toilet. I lost my cool a few (hundred) too many times.  I just needed something- some grace would be good. You know? Like when the person behind me at the light saw me batting wildly toward the back of my car, twisted unnaturally over the back of the seat (I hope he thought a wasp was in the car, but in reality, I was threatening the passengers)- he could have honked nicely to let me know the light had changed rather than race around me flashing the finger. Didn’t he understand I was alone with three kids in the midst of a Michigan heat wave and my kitchen had dishes piled to heaven and I couldn’t find one of my “good” pair of undies in the drawer? Come on, dude, show some empathy! Life is hard! Or when Nick texted me a picture of the friend’s yard where he is staying, with its serene deck overlooking a lake. I get it- he’s on an all-expense paid vacation, lounging by the pool and sitting at restaurants ordering for one. Nice. My pity party continued.
I’m going to admit this right now…I am a pretty big baby when things repeatedly don’t go my way. And when that happens, I want the world to bend to me- offer me to go ahead in line when you see me at Aldi’s with three necessary items and kids rolling on the floor under my feet; give me a sympathetic look rather than a glare when I show up eight minutes late for a dentist appointment; listen to my story while we sit at the playground so I can vent uninterrupted. Don’t you people know I’ve had a rough day/week/month?! See- I’m a whiny, weak baby sometimes. Maybe I don’t deserve to go first in line or to have an offer for some free childcare, but that grace sounds pretty nice in those moments.
The problem is this: I am not very quick to offer grace to others. Nick’s “vacation”? He has spent every day this week on a raging hot roof in a questionable part of Chicago working to fulfill a customer request that could change the course of his business, and I’m home jealous of the ten minute reprieve he had in the backyard while I lie on the couch choosing to ignore work to watch an obnoxious wedding show on TV. The secretary who was less than friendly? While I’m simmering about why she is being so unfriendly, she is trying to recover from an angry meeting with her boss. My own child who is having a full-fledged fit in the story over the unfairness of not buying a $50 Baby Alive (who created those, anyway?) is really missing her daddy and had trouble falling asleep last night. Fill in this blank with any of the people you have encountered this week who frustrated you. Now reimagine that situation with some grace sprinkled over it. I know that my week would look clearly different.
This is one of the problems with modern American Christians. We should have a better understanding of grace than anyone if we truly understand the character of Christ, but we don’t show it very well. We are impatient. We want our own way. We use our own preferences to control situations. We do not show grace. How often do I give up any of the following: my place in line, my worship preference, my schedule, even my attitude or agenda to show unmerited favor to someone who may or may not deserve it? Should it matter if they are whiny, jerky, bossy, misinformed? Nope- see my day above? Some people have worse days than that every single day. They are probably just barely hanging on; they’ve given up on grace, or worse, have never even seen it. I think I might have to bust out my dingy, purple 1990s WWJD bracelet here to remind myself that I know that I live daily covered in grace. I know I am and will be forgiven. I know that the problems of this world are temporary. And if I know all that, how can I let a hurled hairbrush take it all away? And if I know all that, why can’t I share it a little more freely with my family, my friends, even strangers?

Inhabiting the Hearts of Our Children

Maeve was standing at the side of the pool, her toes curled tightly over the blue tile edge. I could see the battle in her mind: it was the tug between the glory of pushing off headfirst into the water and the terror of plunging to an unexpected doom. She waited, uncertain. I treaded in the water yelling momish encouragement. I held my arm up against her calves to help her form just as someone had done for me when I learned to dive. The moment was small, but weighty. Then, with thunderous meaning, one tear dripped over her eyelashes, splashing to the ground and ending our lighthearted diving lesson. Had I pushed too hard? Did my love for the water cloud her discomfort? What just happened?

With Maeve, I have learned there is a balance between her carefree exuberance for experience and her desperate desire to suppress her nervous moments. I don’t always sense the change- she is like a spring storm rolling over the Gulf of Mexico, bright and sunny morphing into dark torrential rain in a second’s time.  I can’t keep up, and sometimes I feel like a swimmer flailing in the waves of her emotion. That day, she went from swimming gloriously with neighbor kids to sitting quietly on the edge. I tried to change the moment to wash the clouds away, but as we all redirected to a lively game of Marco Polo, I watched my eldest, lips pursed in determination driven by what? Perfection? Will to please? Embarrassment of failure? She stood alone at the edge of the deep and plunged, over and over, attempting the jelly bean dive technique I had given her as a precursor to real diving.

In that moment, I felt lost, heartbroken over the vastness of space between our fun family trip to the Y and the depth of a feeling in her that she could not voice and I could not capture. It swam there between us, its scales flashing my faults. I pushed her too hard. I said the wrong thing. I wanted her to be like me instead of like her. Whatever it was was not singular to that moment. I have seen it in other times. Maeve and I will be doing something and her frustration will be welling up. By the time I reach for her, the door is closing. I can see it in her eyes. In my faltering, I have missed the moment, and I am fumbling through a mess of borrowed keys to try to regain access to my precious girl.

I don’t know how to do this parenting gig yet. I’m eight years deep in it, and I have moments when I feel like I knew more holding a naked baby on my chest in the hospital than I know now. It is the paradox of parenting. But if there is one thing I do know, one expression I want recorded for endless time for my girls to know,it is this: I want to inhabit their hearts. I want to crawl inside the chambers and dwell there. I want to know their inmost thoughts and feelings.  At times, it might look to them that I am expecting their perfection, or that I am forcing their obedience. I worry that I come across as trying to make their voices just an echo of mine. Lord, don’t let that be true. Each of my girls is uniquely made. None is just like the other or their father, or me. Don’t let me fall into that expectation for them. I just want to know them as they are and hold their hearts in each moment.  And I don’t always know how. But give me intention. Give me patience to sit at the door and wait. Help me listen for the tiny voice rather than silence with my loud words. In the midst of my missteps, make this message clear to my daughters- I am here for you, and I want to know you. I want to nestle so near you that I know your heartbeat over the noise of the world. Because I love you for every part of you. And isn’t that the feeling God must have about each of us?