During this lockdown time I have been spending a lot of time with my kids. A LOT. Schools closed in South Africa in late March, and since then my kids have only left the house for walks and hikes and the rare drive. Schools re-opened, but we decided to homeschool for the time being as the shuffling and juggling and necessary changing of plans and approaches by the school was too much for me. But because of this I have been the main adult my kids have seen, and huge majority of their non-sibling interactions each day are with me.
Since my oldest was born I’ve been a full time mom. So in many ways this isn’t a new level of involvement. But this time has opened my eyes to so many new things about what it means to be a mom, and what my role is in the lives of these developing humans.
Under normal circumstances there are many people they encounter and interact with who fill up their sense of self. Excitement to share their ideas and experiences can normally be spread out to many and new people, rather than just recounted back to the people who were there when it happened. Their ideas about what is fun to do, talk about, new inspiration for what to play with and how – all of that has been limited to our immediate family for 6 months. And it has made me confront the ways that I speak to them, what I feedback to them about what they say to me, and the ways I respond particularly to their struggles and upset.
I used to think that my role as a parent was to correct. If they said something mean, if they made a mess on purpose (e.g. dumping a cup of water), if they whined non-stop when they were hungry – it was my job to tell them that wasn’t how they were “supposed” to behave. What ended up was a feeling for them of being constantly told what not to do. Not a very cheerful atmosphere. Not enough loving interactions.
Practically I was also missing the appropriate mental boundaries. I felt that if they were upset because they were hungry, it was clearly my fault and failure, and I took their whining then as a personal attack, which needed defending against. I WISHED I could have managed every person’s every need and met them all perfectly, thus any comment on their part highlighting my failure drew up a defensive and hard response in me.
But through therapy, reading, learning, and conversations with other wise women my reactions and defences have shifted. It’s been a process of years – I’m sure partially because what it looks like changes constantly as my kids get older. It has become much clearer that my role as a warm, soft mother is not to discipline their whining out of them; it is NOT to be the “perfect” mother who puts aside all my needs in order to perfectly meet everyone else’s every need first; and it isn’t to get defensive when my kids are having a hard time. My role CAN be to reach out and hold my kids, to love them and pour warmth and grace over them. So often their behaviour, and realistically even all us adults’ behaviour, is not about intentionally making things hard for someone else, it’s about the fact that they cannot cope in that moment. “My daughter is not giving me a hard time, she is having a hard time.” I came across this quote years ago, and it is such a centring mantra at times. This article I think may be the source of the quote and expresses the ideas around it beautifully.
These wells of warmth and love can seem to run out. I can be on my last bits of energy and care and self composure (especially given the isolation we’re dealing with now!) and lose it with my kids and again be stuck feeling like a failure. I read an article a few weeks ago – and I feel like it deserves it’s own whole response article, but for today this part stands out:
“Think about the feeding of the five thousand when the disciples went out and rounded up the food that was available. It wasn’t much. Some loaves. Some fish. Think of some woman pulling her fish out and handing it to one of the disciples. That had to have felt like a small offering. But the important thing about those loaves and those fish was not how big they were when they were given; it was about whose hands they were given into. In the hands of the Lord, that offering was sufficient. It was more than sufficient. There were leftovers. Given in faith, even a small offering becomes great.” (Rachel Jankovic “Motherhood as a Mission Field”)
God can take the little everyday efforts to change how I respond to my kids in their meanest, most selfish and whiney moments, and make it sufficient to change the day and our family culture, little by little. My small offerings can be made into enough. I can turn to prayer, to Bible quotes that reassure me, to deep meaningful concepts about what a mother can be that I feel because of my religion, to the many times that Jesus took the high road and offered love and care in response to selfishness and ugliness. And that can fill me up to be able to turn back to my kids warmly pouring out that same grace back to them.
They can hand (or throw at) me a big whiney pile of upset impatience, and I can say, here, let me help you hold that. It’s looking too big and too hard for you right now.
But it doesn’t have to make me hard and defensive. This article also well describes my similar experience and progression of understanding.
I can keep my boundaries up in the right places as I help them figure out their own better, softer, more loving ways to respond when they are feeling terrible.
In this time of isolation and mostly online interactions I’ve been thinking a lot about community. I’ve been pondering often about the role of the church community, and what it is to be “the mother” on a church level. If we, the church, are supposed to mother the world around us, what are the ways we can reach out to the people we see and say, “It looks like you’re carrying a lot, how can I help you hold that?”
5 thoughts on “Mothering Given in Faith”
These are beautiful hard-won thoughts about what it really means to be a mother, to let the job stretch you and grow you. Very interesting and helpful thoughts about boundaries. Think what you are REALLY teaching your kids (as you go about also teaching ABCs) with what you have discovered here! Now that’s exciting to me.
I do feel sort of replenished at times by hoping that this is building some of these skills for my kids already now rather than them having to learn them as an adult! It helps the layers of learning and work on my part feel more worth it. Amazing what the Lord can do with our sometimes meagre offerings!
Abby, although I do not have children, I do work with the elderly and most return to “childlike” behaviors and also just want attention to help cope with their fears or anxiety as part of growing older, left alone or can’t manage. So, thank you for your article as it helps even if not having children. Also, it helps me better understand the thread of boundaries no matter what relationships we are dealing with and yes, being a person who likes order and control 😉 to also learn not to be so defensive or a failure…managing that a lot better, but still having to work on trying to fix everything when people are in need. I tend to jump all in and actually end up not helping or worse, dis-empowering them to do and think things for themselves. In my helpfulness and wanting to do good and ‘love thy neighbour, being charitable, I also get caught in ‘child tantrums or whining’ which I have come to realise in adults is more manipulation when they see how much I jump all in. So, boundaries are very important no matter what age 🙂
I have also thought about the ways that this applies in any relationship! I love what you said about jumping in and the dis-empowering that can happen. I definitely see that in myself, and have to constantly work to find the balance of how to find a way to engage with someone and support without accidentally taking over sort of. Finding those boundaries is a long but useful process for me.
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