When our kids were younger, I was often told how quickly they’d grow up. There were times when it was comforting, I guess, to know that the sleep deprived fog I was living in was temporary. And there were times when the thought that I couldn’t squish my little muncher’s chubby legs whenever I wanted was sort of terrifying. But neither joy nor despair lasted long, because frankly, I didn’t really believe it. I didn’t think these wise mothers were lying to me exactly, but I did not see how this–this day-to-day-everyday-every-waking-moment-and-even-when-I’m-supposed-to-be-sleeping experience–could go by quickly.
It was impossible to imagine.
Around that time, my smart and charming friend Ally Condie invited me to contribute an essay on motherhood to a book she was putting together. And I thought and drafted and wrote and polished and scrapped it and returned to it and finally put something together that I was quite happy with. And it was my first time being published (The Mom’s Club Diaries).
This past summer, at the opening of Justin’s 30 Strangers Exhibit, I dusted off the essay again and read it, along with four other writers who shared brief essays about motherhood. I was in such good company, with the likes of Stephanie Nielson, Molly Jackson, Carina Hoskisson , and Brooke Benton.
Thanks to Ashley Thalman for these images.
And the life I’d written about, when my children were younger, the life that had seemed so consuming at the time, suddenly seemed so distant. Here’s what I read that night, what I was thinking a few years ago, when those well-meaning mothers told me it would go by so fast. Turns out they were right.
My small town eyes were always wide open in London during the semester I spent there as a student. For me, the best part was meeting strangers. I started conversations in the park and interrupted reading commuters on the train to hear a British accent and hopefully a story. What I liked even better was when someone started a conversation with me.
On Easter Sunday I walked a flower-lined path in Kensington Gardens when an older man approached me. He wore a plaid cap over scruffy gray hair, and I remember his steel blue eyes. The collar of his oxford shirt showed beneath a scarf, and he wore layers of cardigans under his coat. “Are you a traveler?” he asked. I liked the philosophical implications of the question—not just that I was away from home, but that I was the sort to seek adventure and explore. .
“I am traveling,” I answered, and we talked about the value of seeing new things.
“So many people walk around blind,” he said. He swept his arm toward a gigantic tree, and asked, “What is that object?”
“A tree.” I smiled, waiting for the lesson I sensed he was about to share.
He began grandly, “Ah, yes, a tree. You see a tree and then walk past, ignoring its remarkable details. The minute you call it a tree, you lose its shape, its forms. You name it and forget about it,” he accused. “Look at the majestic trunk, those gnarled branches, the detail. It’s a masterpiece. But you call it a tree, and keep walking.”
Years later I travel a decidedly different path. After breakfast one morning I realized we were out of the ingredients I needed for the lunch I had planned for guests that day. I glanced at the clock and realized if I went shopping now, in this window of time after the baby had eaten, but before he was due for his first nap, there was still hope for my recipe. A quick trip to the store. Because we live less than a mile from a grocery store and I only needed a few things, I was optimistic. A quick trip seemed so simple.
But I was tired before we’d even gotten out the door… My first task: shoes and socks. I started with myself, because I’m the most cooperative. Then our baby Miles was next. I put on his socks and then his coat. He pulled off his right sock. While I put it on again, he pulled off the left sock. I stretched a knit hat on his head, replaced the socks and, thankful for the snaps on his coat, left him sitting in the hall. Then I convinced Eli, my preschooler, that it was time to go now and that to color and play trains when we get back from the store, which (if we could just go already) would be before he knows it. Persuading him to get dressed became easier when I agreed that he could bring two coloring books in the car: one coloring book for each minute. No problem. Once he was dressed and wearing shoes, I returned to the hall to find Miles eating one sock and the other lying on the floor next to his hat. I had hoped—unrealistically, but still—that we’d be checking out by now, but we were just leaving the house.
The trip to the grocery store unfolded similarly. There was the unwieldy cart, the kind with the giant truck on the front, the plastic car my son was sure Justin would love for his birthday, the bag of chocolate chips that were not on the list but somehow made it into the cart. At the checkout there was a detour at the mesmerizing rows of DVDs, the dollar toys, the mints.
And then Miles yawned, and I knew we’d reached a critical stage. If we got home too late, he wouldn’t go down for his morning nap and the effects of a too-tired baby would domino through our day.
I assumed a classic maternal stance. With one hand on the shopping cart, I was committed to moving forward, no surrender. I looked back to our preschooler, one arm outstretched to take his hand, willing him to me like a mother magnet. “Not today,” I said. “Let’s go.” He paused, then gave in and took my hand. By the time we’d slowly made our way across the parking lot, unloaded the cart, buckled the baby in, waited for Eli to climb in the car and buckled him, I was in need of a deep breath. I had forgotten that there really is no such thing as a quick trip to the store.
The trip was not the simple outing I had planned, and neither is motherhood. When I was younger, I imagined motherhood as doing art projects and making cookies with little people who could reason and always obeyed. These wise little children would certainly bless my life, but not change it that much.
In reality, though, our family began with a newborn, tiny and helpless. His inherent sweetness was countered by his mysterious cries and unpredictable sleeping habits. He was more interested in grabbing my hair than making cookies. And he did not reason.
Still, my baby amazed me. His big newborn eyes gazed at me with a mysterious depth and understanding. I marveled at those adorable fingers balled in a fist and the graceful curve of his ears. I loved him more than I could have imagined. When I sang to him, I could barely finish, “I am a Child of God” without crying. I knew he had been sent from his loving Heavenly Father to my earthly home. Humbled and awed, I felt over and over the miracle of this gift, God’s own wonderful spirit in a tiny little body.
Over time, though, and sleepless nights and countless diapers, that sense of wonder faded. The roles of motherhood became routine. There is little to marvel over when peas are splattered across the kitchen floor–again, or you’re up with a baby for the third time in one night. At times, the beautiful moments seemed lost, and motherhood can feel like exhausting, thankless work.
But I woke up one morning thinking of the philosopher in Kensington Gardens. A gift of memory, I remembered the tragedy of naming a beautiful thing and then dismissing it. Trying to find the puzzle pieces that best matched my expectations of motherhood, in the name of diaper changing and sleepless nights, I was missing something essential—appreciating each moment, no matter how it measured up to my ideal.
Focusing on what I thought motherhood should look like, and then feeling disappointed when it didn’t measure up, I was missing the beautiful reality of life with my children.
My first gift from our oldest son was a small rock from our yard that he dropped into my hand with chubby little fingers, gesturing that it was for me. When they nursed, sometimes our babies would look up at me and giggle, then go back to their lunch. Our then two-and-half-year-old once wrapped his arms tightly around my neck and said, “Oh, Mommy, you’re so cute.” Now, after years of parenting, I could fill a book with these sweet moment from our boys. They’re the small details of ordinary or even exasperating days. Yet, if I’ll look, these are doses of undeniable joy, when I feel God’s love for me and the wonderful little boys I care for. To miss these beautiful moments because I’m looking for something else would be like calling it motherhood, and walking by.