As a mother, the questions, "Am I doing enough? Am I doing it right?" are always at the forefront of my thoughts. I think it is for most, if not all, mothers.
And we judge ourselves by our children's behavior, both good and bad. They have a bad day and make bad choices; I am a bad mother. They have a great day and do something awesome; I'm humbled, knowing I'm doing at least a few things right. The thing is neither of these statements is true. Not entirely anyway.
Children have their own personalities, weaknesses, strengths, likes/dislikes, willpower, triggers, pleasures, pains. They are each so unique, how could we ever come up with a formula that measures our mothering skills based upon their behavior? Because, in reality, we have no control over their behavior. Can we influence it? Absolutely. Can we contribute to it? Definitely. But can we control it? Maybe, if we really want to, by coercion, fear, physical restraint. I don't see those things as part of the plan though. Do you? Ok, maybe when they are toddlers and run out into the road, I would physically restrain them, scoop them up and carry them to safety. I would swat a pudgy hand away from a hot stovetop. I would pry open a mouth to sweep it for unwanted objects like legos, pennies, and those little lemon balls that you use to clean the disposal. I might pin a squirming child down to change a diaper or wash a dirty face. But I wouldn't tie my child to a chair until his homework was done. I wouldn't swat an 11 year-old's hand away from the pantry. I wouldn't pry open my 9 year-old's mouth and shove in the vegetables I wish he would eat. I wouldn't pin down my 14 year-old to apply his deodorant for him. There comes a point where I hand over the reins and they become fully responsible for their own actions.
The trick is knowing when. When are they really ready for the next step on the independence ladder? I have yet to figure out a formula. In fact, I often err. Either placing too much expectation too soon, or holding them back afraid of letting them fall from the ladder and fail. It's kinda like Snakes and Ladders, sometimes you take a chance, roll the dice and let them move forward, holding your breath for them to get on a ladder, only to see them slide down the snakes back. And because of those times, you don't let them roll the dice later.
In fact, this last weekend I blundered. We were scheduled to help clean the chapel last Friday night along with a dozen other families. Unfortunately, one of my son's came down the stomach flu just before we were to head over there. Baby Girl, my dear seven-year-old daughter, pleaded with me, "Mom, please call the Long's (named changed to protect identity), I really want to go and help. I'm good at cleaning toilets and I can help clean the baptism font like we did last time. Please let me go with them." She is actually really helpful and loves to clean. We had a frank discussion about what helping would look like. It would not look like running through the halls playing tag, or hide and seek, or any other game. It would not involve large amounts of giggling or throwing soggy paper towels at our friends. She understood and was adamant that she get to go help. So I let her. Fail.
I also sent along Bruncle, fourteen-year-old and usually helpful, to do his duty and help clean. As soon as they walked in the front door I got a minute-by-minute report of how Baby Girl ran through the halls playing tag and having giggling fits while throwing soggy paper towels at her friends. My immediate reaction was anger and embarrassment. I could only imagine what the Long's, and the other dozen families there, must have thought. "Baby Girl," I half-yelled, "what did I tell you? I said you were to clean and not to play. You knew that! I am so disappointed."
Ouch. Can you feel that? That awful pain in your chest that is only present when mama yells at you and you know she's right; when your own guilt and self-disappointment runs parallel with mom's rage.
Baby Girl ducked her head, "I know. I'm a disappointment." And off she ran to her room. Epic Fail, Mama! Epic.
Immediately, my heart softened. I remembered a time when I was little and trying my best to do what was right, but struggling because I was little and didn't quite have the attention span or the patience or the know-how to do what was right. I remembered that feeling of disappointing myself and my mother. My heart hurt for Baby Girl. I hung my head in shame and made my way up the stairs to her room. I could hear her tears through the door. Her sobs wracked my soul. "Can I come in?" "No! Go away. Just leave me alone." Yeah. I kinda deserved that. But I persisted and finally made my way in. I gently settled down on her bed beside her and, rubbing her back, told her how sorry I was for getting angry and raising my voice to her. For allowing my embarrassment of what the other family might have thought about me as a mother because of her behavior get in my way. It was so wrong. Mama's not perfect either, she's learning too.
I asked her what happened, why hadn't she cleaned and helped like she should have. "Mom," she said, looking up at me for the first time since I entered her room, "there were so many people there and they were just zipping around me and I didn't know what to do or how to help. I didn't know who to ask what I should do. So I just played. I'm sorry. I know I should have helped, but I just didn't know what to do." And she began to cry again, sobbing into my lap.
"You know what," I asked as I stroked her hair away from her face, "some times we try new things and it just doesn't work out. It's scary and we don't know what to do and we make mistakes. And that's ok. No one is mad at you for not cleaning. I'm not. The Long's aren't mad either. We tried something new and it didn't work out quite how we wanted it to. And that's ok. That's how we learn. Now I know and you know that in situations like cleaning the church, you still need mom's help. And that's ok too. I know you want to be a big girl and do things on your own and I love that you want to be so helpful. But the reality is that you are seven and you still have lots of time for learning how to do things on your own. For now, we still get to be a team working together and I think that's awesome. I love being on a team with my Baby Girl." She smiled for the first time since she'd come home. She wrapped her little seven-year-old arms around my neck and whispered in my ear, "I love you, mom. I love being on your team too." And that is a beautiful thing.