Motherhood Monday: An Introduction and Explanation
This intro should probably be a post in and of itself, but I want to put it here because I think Michelle should be on the cover of a magazine, as should so many other moms. As an alumna of Brigham Young University, a school which is sponsored by a church which teaches that a woman’s highest and holiest calling in life is to be a mother, I have struggled over the years to see alumni magazines that feature women like Stephenie Meyer and Jane Clayson Johnson — women who have accomplished extraordinary things and been celebrated for those extraordinary things. I don’t begrudge them their successes and accomplishments at all, nor do I bedgrudge them their recognition, but I wonder at the seeming incongruity, if not hypocrisy, of telling women the greatest thing they can do is be mothers while only publicly celebrating women for some other accomplishment. I know, I know. There are so many mothers . . . Writing a best selling series is extraordinary. A meteoric rise in a television journalism career is extraordinary. Walking away from “all that” to be a mother is extraordinary. But “just” being a mom? Meh. Why feature that on the cover of the alumni magazine? Moms are a dime a dozen, right?
I’m practical enough to know you can’t routinely be featuring moms just for being moms on the cover. There are too many of us, and it doesn’t do anything to extol the merits of the university, especially in the current political climate. But you know what? I think mothers are extraordinary. I think they deserve a little recognition for “just” being moms, regardless of whatever else they might be, because most moms don’t feel extraordinary for being moms. They don’t feel valued by society for being moms. They don’t feel appreciated for being moms. As Michelle said to me, it seems, “People see being just a mom as a wasted life.”
So I want to say to all the moms, all the people, out there, regardless of what else a woman is in her life, be it novelist, journalist, or whatever, her endeavors as “mom” are not a wasted life. Impractical though it may be, moms deserve to be on the cover of a magazine, because nine times out of 10 they are the hand that rocks the cradle, and, as William R. Wallace so eloquently wrote, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”
Now for the Actual Article
Michelle and I first “met” about a decade ago via the world of adoption blogging. I don’t know if that world even exists much anymore, but our friendship does, and I am so grateful for and blessed by it. We have had the chance to hang out in person a couple of times now, never for long enough and always with our kids in tow. She is a truly lovely person with a hysterical sense of humor. I keep waiting for her to write a book. I haven’t met all of her children, but the ones I have met are a testament to her love, dedication, and compassion as a mother. She teaches them both by word and by example as she mothers them and regularly enlists their help in serving the needy in their community.
With 10 kids ranging in ages from 38 to nine, it’s fair to say Michelle is an experienced mother, and with all that experience comes an abundance of the common sense and wisdom that are gained not through study and research, but through living and loving and, sometimes, wanting to tear your hair out. Like lots of moms, she’d be the first person to tell you she is not wise and the first to tell you she is a failure, but she is (wise), and she is not (a failure). She would also be the first to tell you that she is a joyful, hopeful person in spite of the shortcomings she fears she has; and I know from first-hand experience how her joy can brighten one’s day.
Her message to other mothers is invaluable, though it’s something we can believe in our heads but have a more difficult time taking into our hearts: Don’t be so hard on yourself, don’t expect yourself to be perfect, and extend the same level of grace to yourself as you extend to others.
After roughly three decades of mothering, Michelle thinks she is getting better at following her own advice, and it makes things less stressful for her and the kids who are still at home. “I feel like I’m becoming the mom I hoped I would be . . .” she said. “Now that I’m beginning to learn to allow myself to mess up, it’s much less stressful. The benefit of that is that my kids can feel that. It comes through in how I’m parenting them.”
There is great wisdom in that. We all go into motherhood with certain expectations of both ourselves and our children, only to discover that babies don’t conform to our fantasies (neither do toddlers, pre-schoolers, grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers, or high-schoolers), and we don’t even have ourselves figured out half as much as we thought we did. Becoming the moms we all hope we will be is a process that only begins when that first child is placed into our arms. Funny how we initially expect the process to end there, isn’t it?
“Here’s you’re baby, ma’am.”
“Woo hoo! I. AM. MOM!!!”
They really should put the baby in your arms and say something like, “Here’s you’re biggest growth opportunity ever. You are going to do some wonderful things, and you are going to screw up a lot. Best of luck!”
“I had this Ma Ingalls . . . just these ridiculous images in my head. I was going to do it all right . . . I tend to set my expectations for myself so much higher than they should be. My expectations as a mom were almost setting myself up to fail . . . I was expecting perfection,” Michelle explains.
Like so many new moms, she initially felt the heavy burden of “having” to do everything right. She expected to be one of those super fun moms, always down on the floor playing with the kids all the time, but she also had a fear of “screwing up,” and a feeling that she had to earn her kids and prove to God that she could be good enough as a mom (I think Michelle and I are soul sisters). Eventually she realized: a. playing with the kids on the floor all the time is simply not real life; and b. she had become “just the rule person.”
“My focus was wrong when they were young. It was all about behavior, and not about heart,” she says.
“Again, I just put too much emphasis on behavior . . . I think my goals changed because of the pressure I felt to be this perfect mom and turn out these perfect kids . . . I was so worried about what other people would think of me as a mother, that I wasn’t just mothering and loving my kids.”
It was interesting to hear her say these things, because I can relate. At the same time, I have, at various times and in various places, felt surrounded by mothers who are so busy “just mothering and loving” that they don’t focus on behavior enough, if at all. So I want to take a quick sentence or two right here and right now to give a shoutout to Michelle, sing her praises, and give her props for doing her best to teach at least a few of this world’s children appropriate behavior, even if she now feels it was too much and/or too motivated by the wrong thing.
One never knows what joys and what trials mothering will bring, and this is part of what makes each mother so extraordinary: her willingness to walk into the unknown and figure it out as she goes (even though maybe she walks into the unknown not knowing that is what she is doing). Everyone’s story is different. Every mom travels a similar but wildly different journey, and every mom, if she is paying attention, comes through that journey with a different store of lessons learned. One lesson Michelle shared with me is the importance of being real with your kids, of letting yourself be a real person with real feelings, and being able to tell them when you’re having a bad day rather than trying to protect them from it. As a younger mom, she had a particular and prolonged experience which left her sad and hurt. “I realize now, as an older mom, the best thing to do is talk to your kids when you are feeling that way . . . I didn’t talk to them about it, but I think I snapped at them more,” she says.
“I should have said, ‘Hey, I’m feeling sad today. I need you to pray for me today . . .’ I am a better mother when I am letting them see reality rather than trying to craft a better reality.”
At this stage in her mothering, with just three left at home, she sees areas where she feels like she failed as a mother, but she also sees areas where she has succeeded. One of her strengths is her eagerness and effort in keeping the lines of communication open with her daughters without pushing them to talk when they don’t want to, and, though some of her kids have turned from the faith she hoped they would embrace, which gives her a sense of mom failure, she knows she raised good men.
“They are hardworking, responsible, they are decent people . . . they’re good men. Anyone else that met them would be like, ‘You raised such great kids. They’re such great guys.’ In that aspect I was successful in turning out great human beings . . . There’s a lot to look at there and be proud of . . . But the voice in my head says, ‘No, you didn’t do a great job.'”
Later in the conversation, though, as we continue to talk about advice she would give younger moms and things she has learned, she says, “I’m finally [through life experience, not through our conversation] beginning to realize that that inner voice is not telling me the truth.”
“I am trying to start extending the same level of grace to myself as I do to others . . . I just hate hearing when other mammas are doing that to themselves . . . It’s very easy to look at your children and view them as gifts from God . . . but God also chose you for them. You know, you are the person He thinks your children needed. So instead of focusing on what you think you are doing wrong, why not focus on what God is doing right? He can redeem the mistakes that you’ve made and use them, still, to turn out good people.”
When she feels the creeping grip of worry and self-blame for troubles her kids may be experiencing, she finds comfort in The Old Testament in Isaiah 43:18-19
18 ¶ Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old.
19 Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
It reminds her of her own transformation and brings hope. “God completely changed who I was,” she says. “God can radically change any life. If He can do it for me, He can literally, honestly do it for anybody . . . that verse reignites my hope and refreshes my faith. That’s my go-to when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my mistakes.”
Obviously, Michelle’s life and mothering are greatly influenced and informed by her faith. She embraced Christianity as a young adult, doing a complete 180, and that faith, along with a sense of humor, has sustained her and given her strength during the difficult times. I think I mentioned at the beginning that she is hysterical and should write a book? So it’s no surprise that, when asked what her favorite part of motherhood has been, she responds, “Laughing with my kids/making them laugh is just the best- just hanging out with them and having fun, hearing them talk about spiritual things and knowing I had a tiny bit to do with instilling that love for God and spiritual wisdom, seeing them serve others or do/say kind things that show me they are growing up to be genuinely good, kind people.”
When I asked her what she thinks her greatest motherhood accomplishment is, she tells me, “I don’t think in those terms, which is ridiculous. Everybody has strengths, everybody has accomplishments, but I couldn’t think of a single thing.” As she and I talk, however, she tells me that sometimes she has conversations with some of the adult children in which they might not see eye to eye, but she doesn’t get pushy or preachy, because she realizes that trying to “cram things down their throats is pointless.” Hello??? That realization, in my book, is a big accomplishment. It’s hard to stop “mom-ing” the young adult “kids.”
But that is so often the essence of motherhood, I think. The big accomplishments seem so little to us compared to the so. many. other. things that are going on, so we don’t notice them and certainly don’t give ourselves credit for them. I wish I had the skill and the time to design a magazine cover to go with this post. The words, “Parenting Young Adults: Pushy and Preachy are Pointless. Pray!” would be somewhere on there. I would look at it every day to help me be a better mom to my own young adults. There would also be something about strangling the mean internal dialogue voice that so many of us seem to have, because you can’t chat with Michelle about motherhood issues without coming away with the perspective and strength needed to banish that voice for at least a little bit.
“Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself a break,” she says. “You will be a better mom, a more peaceful happy mom if you don’t expect perfection from yourself . . . my big thing is grace for yourself as a mom . . . You are so much more than the mistakes you feel you’ve made as a mother. You are more than anyone’s opinions of you. And God is so much bigger than we give Him credit for. He is more than able to take the job you’ve done- the good, the great, the bad, and the ugly, and bring beauty out of it.”
Michelle isn’t actively blogging right now (I hope she is secretly working on something bigger and will surprise us all one day with a book tour), but you can check out her writing and wit from years gone by here.