It Takes a Village of Mothers to Raise a Mother


Photo credit: BXL ART


Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and I spent much of the day reflecting on how I came to be the mother that I am. As a mom of three sons, I frequently make some huge parenting mistakes, but I know I also get it right alot of the time, too.  While I take full responsibility for my shortcomings, occasional bad moods, and infrequent but insane tirades of “What the hell are you boys doing?!”, I know that so much of the good parenting that comes out of me comes from the mentoring, examples, and encouragement I’ve received from other mothers.

Looking back, my own biological mother was kind of a Wonder Woman. It took me until years into my own mothering that I actually realized this. She was a college physics professor, a profession she was absolutely called to and which she loved. We lived an hour away from town, so every morning she would diligently get up at 5 in the morning, get my brother and me ready for school, haul us to our school in the neighboring town from which she taught, go teach classes all day, grab us from school, run errands, take the long drive home to cook dinner and clean up the house, just to go to bed and do it all again the next day.  Every few months she would toss in some cross-country jaunt to a physics meeting somewhere that she would be actively involved in.

When I was young, I didn’t appreciate her as much, or her hard work, and could only see her faults. But now, after I’ve adulted for a while, I can see how very hard she worked and how much she sacrificed for my family and her students. She taught me about having a good work ethic, about being a perpetual learner, about not being afraid of science and mathematics, about working hard until the task is done. And, she did so much of all of this while struggling with cancer for the last ten years of her life. She was quite the example of fortitude, and I hope I can instill this same quality in my own boys.

My biological mother hasn’t been my only mother, though. I’m a firm believer that we can find family outside of our relatives and kin, and we’re missing out if we don’t search for those people. Or, in some cases, I firmly believe that God brings them directly to us when we need them. I’ve had women who were mothers to me for short periods of time, just for a season here and there. I’ve also had mothers who have stayed with me for the long haul, who have seen me through thick and through thin.

Some of the best mothers I’ve had were ones who didn’t know they were really mothering me.  I’ve done my own share of mother stalking…you know, where you find a person that resonates with you and you watch their every move, cling to every word they speak, because you know there’s wisdom coming at you from them. I’ve watched women as they interact with their children, and learned so much from them, even if I have never once spoken to them. I’ve learned from women who had completely different parenting philosophies from me, and from those who I knew were kindred spirits.  And even the mothers who may have really been dropping the ball or making huge life mistakes (or maybe just what the world perceives to be huge life mistakes)…they taught me – even if it was teaching me what doesn’t work as a parent.

I think I’ve read just about every parenting book out there, from various perspectives and philosophies. While they are good, they are usually only theory to a certain point, and this is where it is so helpful to be able to look to real mothers for help.  Some of my best parenting advice has come from what I once thought would be the least likely sources.  I keep pestering a friend of mine that she needs to write a book called The Alcoholic’s Guide to Parenting with some quippy subtitle along the lines of using AA’s 12 steps to joyfully and calmly raise children. My friend, who is a longtime sober alcoholic, says brilliant things about being a mom on a regular basis. I’m amazed watching her that someone can face some of the crazy stuff she does without completely freaking out or resorting to grasping her kids with a steel grip.  She freely admits she doesn’t have her life together, but the funny thing is, I trust her advice more than that of alot of people who do “have their lives together.”

Strangely enough, I’ve also been mothered by women younger than me, who have little ones. I see how courageously they guide their toddlers and preschoolers into the currents of a fast-changing world and I’m like, “Damn, why couldn’t I have been that cool and collected when my kids were that little?” But they inspire me to calm my own self, to remember to enjoy my boys because they won’t stay young long. When my boys are grown and think back to the days that I was chill, they have these mothers to thank.

And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how I’ve been mothered by those who weren’t ever biological mothers. Sometimes these are actually the best mothers because they have some objectivity,; they don’t miss the forest for the trees because they have a step back out of the messiness, and food splatters, and dirty diapers, and smart-ass backtalk that gets all of us moms riled up from time to time. Sometimes these mothers can see the big picture when we can’t and they help to show us the path forward.

So on Mother’s Day, I was grateful for the memories of a biological mother who brought me safely to adulthood and gave me so many good gifts. She has passed now and I no longer have her. But I am so very aware that I have not been left motherless; I have many mothers and am thankful for this village that has grown and is continuing to grow me into a better mother for my own children.


Disappointment in Parenting


Photo credit: Brit-knee


Being a parent is HARD, y’all.  You know, we often ask new parents of young babies how they are sleeping, and we set up meal trains to bring them food, and we offer to clean their houses and watch the infants so Mom and Dad can go on a date.

Can I just say, after having had three babies, that parents need way more help when the kids are older than when they’re fresh out of the toaster?  When your kids are tiny, parenting is really only about being able to stay awake and learning the technical aspects of keeping a little human alive and well. Parents end up exhausted and cranky, but usually, the true existential crises don’t come until those little humans start talking and showing their personalities and wills.

I tend to laugh at movies and other programs when teenagers are handed fake babies to care for as a method of birth control. This is so ineffective in my opinion.  They should hand the teenagers toddlers up through eleven-year-olds, and a house with laundry everywhere, a sink full of two-day old dishes, toothpaste all over the bathroom walls, and pee everywhere but the toilet.  I believe this would be a much more effective form of contraception.

Now, I should preface before I go much further that I’m totally riffing off Rob Bell’s latest podcast on disappointment.  And, I also know I’m setting myself up to be crucified by people who have their lives more pulled together than me.  But I suspect I”m not alone in what I’m going to write about here, and I also admit that I’m processing my own thoughts about parenting while I write this.

I’m so disappointed as a parent.  Remember that book from years ago, Disappointment with Godby Phillip Yancey, where he voices questions about God that you’re not really actually supposed to ask out loud?  I don’t remember much of the book, but the title stuck with me. Here, in this post, I’m just going to say the things that you’re not supposed to say out loud about parenting – because it’s true, and real, and sometimes you have to say hard things out loud to be able to move forward.

Parenting is not what it was supposed to be. My kids are not who they were supposed to be.   Furthermore, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and I have no certainty of the outcomes.  I really hate that – I want to have a foolproof plan for childrearing and I want to know that my plan will succeed with all of me still intact.

Disappointment, it seems, comes because the expectations we have about something aren’t met.  I had alot of expectations when I had my kids. First, I didn’t expect to become a parent when I did.  I had other plans in mind, another agenda in place, which was abruptly taken off the table. So, disappointed as I was at the time to have to suddenly change directions, I threw my shoulders back and took on the mantle of parenting. At the time, I saw my goal to be raising children for Jesus – get them on the straight and narrow from the get-go, and pave the path for them to cruise straight into heaven after they die, all the while growing up to be compassionate adults who engage in some meaningful work among non-Jesus-ified people before then. I would also homeschool them, push them to their limits academically, and mold them to be sweet, tactful, helpful little people. And all the while I would do it as a model parent, sure of myself and my role as their authority figure.

Yeah, well, those idealistic notions lasted about two seconds.  It took me only a couple of months with my first kid to realize I had no clue what the hell being a parent was all about.  And it didn’t take me very long to recognize that we tend to become parents for reasons and with expectations that will inevitably be tested.

Children, as it seems, have very little interest in helping us become fulfilled as humans. They aren’t concerned with how their personalities and temperaments trigger us. They refuse to stay cute, calm, cuddly, and docile. Now that all of my children are in elementary school, I have concluded that people should be warned against bringing these little creatures into the world unless they want all of their faults mirrored back to them on a regular basis, have every single decision they make questioned again and again, and be repeatedly brought to the brink of insanity.

I think my disappointment in parenting comes from the fact that I didn’t know, years ago, that raising children is nothing short of a spiritual practice.  We are not really our children’s teachers at a certain level; they are here to teach us about life and what matters. They are here to wear off our rough edges and make US fit for the Kingdom, (drawing from Christian language) not the other way around. They are here to pave THEIR own paths, not meet our emotional needs or help us feel successful.

I didn’t decide to be a parent so that I could be perpetually disappointed, but that’s where I am. I’m not a masochist; if I had known how hard it is to be a parent, I doubt I would have willingly signed up.  Now, before people start beating me up and saying I’m heartless and evil: me being disappointed has nothing to do with how much I love my boys or how I would die for them without thinking about it, or how they have brought with them so many unexpected gifts into my life.

Disappointment is not always a bad thing, I don’t think, even though it hurts.  It has made very clear to me so many of my attachments to things that aren’t healthy or helpful. It has shown me that my children do not belong to me; they are simply passing through my hands for a short time.  And most importantly, I think, my parenting disappointments have taught me to be much more gracious to other parents who may be doing this raising kids thing differently than me, because parenting is damn hard and we are all just fumbling and doing the best we can.

Richard Rohr frequently talks about how we must become disillusioned with our own personal salvation projects, realizing they don’t get us anywhere, for us to really move forward.  He’s primarily talking about how we relate to God, but I think it applies to things like parenting, too.  It’s only when we absolutely reach the ends of our ropes with our kids can we truly begin to parent out of grace, and maybe, out of our true selves and not our egos.

I think I’m edging to this point. I’ve read SO VERY MANY parenting books from people across various philosophies. I’ve taken parenting classes.  I’ve tried to be the authoritarian parent and the benevolent democratic parent. I’m tried behavior modification, begging, threats, and though I no longer use it because it has only made things worse-spanking.

What I’ve found is none of these is a silver bullet solution. There is no one-size fits all pattern to parenting.  And sometimes, even when you’ve done every single thing right, you’re kid, OR YOU, will still screw up tremendously.

One of my boys has really been struggling this year.  Behavior issue after behavior issue, hitting, tearing things apart, being steely in his obstinance.  I get call after call and email after email from his school.  He’s been in the office this many times today for such and such.  He’s going to have in school suspension tomorrow for such and such. He just got kicked out of his after-school program for such and such.

At a certain point, all I hear is the Charlie Brown wah, wah, wah, wah.  I hear it again when everyone in my life starts throwing out suggestions, trying to be helpful.  Maybe he has ADD. Well you know, Julie, divorce is hard on kids. Maybe you should get him tested for this, or that, or that. Julie, you need to institute some real structure and consistency in his life. Julie, you need to be less demanding. 

My kids tend to work in cycles, too, and sometimes they tag team against me.  As soon as I put out a fire with one kid, another one flares up with a different kid.  It is exhausting.  And SO disappointing.   Because I wanted to be the GOOD Mom. The one who is always emotionally available. The one who always knows the right thing to say. The one who is always fair and just. The one who never spoils but is never rigid.

I’m disappointed because I’m not the person I thought I should be and wanted to be, and I’m disappointed in my kids because they aren’t the people I wanted them to be or who they were supposed to be.

Back to the personal salvation project idea.  This is what I’m tentatively realizing: life seldom brings to us what we think we want, but rather, it serves up daily what we truly need. If there’s one thing I know for sure, life undoubtedly brought me the perfect kids to reveal every flaw, and every shred of greed and selfishness, and all the lazy bits hidden down deep within me. I thought my personal salvation project was supposed to be about rocking it as a parent and raising brilliant, charming kids, all the while, never repeating the mistakes my own parents made.  But I should have known, growing up with the words of Jesus ingrained in me…to find yourself, you must first lose yourself.  I’m disappointed because I was secretly hoping I could bypass this part – maybe I’d get lucky and it wouldn’t apply to me.

My final great disappointment in parenting is that you can’t just fix things by finding the right book or parenting technique or just working harder. Sometimes no matter what you aim for, things will be hard and you will do the wrong thing and you’ll feel like throttling both yourself and your kids. Don’t you just hate this? It’s so counterintuitive in today’s world – we believe that if we just apply the scientific method and a bit of logic -Voilà!- problem solved and we will all get along splendidly!

My one great consolation right now as a parent is this: since my children have done such a magnificent job of tearing apart my ego and my understanding of what things are “supposed” to be like, I’m starting to believe that maybe there isn’t a “supposed to” anywhere.  Is there one right way to parent?  I’m thinking not. Is there one particular way children are supposed to act and behave? Really, who are we to say?

Maybe the whole point, if there is a point, is not to try and make our lives “look” like anything.  Maybe we are just to accept what comes, deal with it the best we know how, and receive the results as gifts, even if at the moment they feel like anything but gifts.  Maybe our attachments to outcomes and our expectations are causing us all of our problems and disappointment in the first place?

Right now I’m trying to learn to just “sit” in my disappointment, to let go of my attachments to what “should be.”  And I’m grasping on for dear life to the words of people who have been frequently disappointed in life, yet have found it to be an avenue with which to truly find themselves.

““Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings…”          – Thomas Merton