A few weeks ago, my toddler threw a bowl of soggy, milky granola on the English Springer Spaniel. You need to know the dog's breed to adequately picture the small bits of granola adhering to his long, soft, wavy fur. I could NOT get it out. Picture the bowl ricocheting off the dog, spinning through the air, and hitting the nicest piece of furniture I own- a restored, original mid-century rosewood credenza (with the record player on top of it). The milk and cereal spun off of the little, yellow Ikea bowl as it flew and bounced. It had been quite full. The big kids (ages 5 to almost 9) all looked up nervously, not so much from the sound of a flying bowl because that's not unusual, but because of the completely bizarre, guttural, squawking scream that escaped my gaping mouth, pressed tightly under the hands I slapped down onto my face. "This is not what I wanted!" came lurching, crying out. It's the kind of thing you sometimes think; it might even be the kind of thing you say in desperation to a confidante; it's the kind of thing you, hopefully, quickly follow with caveats of gratitude and oh-I-don't-really-mean-it-like-that-I'm-just-having-a-hard-day-type comments. It's not what you want to uncontrollably drop to the floor and repeat, repeat, repeat as you begin to sob and wipe up the floor, as you give up on cleaning the dog. I began interspersing other phrases. "Why are you all so mean? I just want us to be a place where we can all be ok!"
The bowl of granola was clearly not the only thing that went spinning out of control that day. Yes. Of course. There were a hundred other things, 2 or 3 in particular. You will just have to take my word for it that they were unusually painful and hard. My children reacted to my strange song and dance of distress each in his or her own way. The toddler, trapped in his highchair until I had cleaned things up, kept saying, "Mama, no do that! Mama, stop that!" My most empathetic child quietly went away to his room to cry. My daughter ran over to try to take over the clean-up, and, friend, I'm ashamed to say that I said, "I don't want you to help me with this! You will just step all through it and make it worse! The thing you could do to be helpful would be to just do what I tell you for once!" Then she ran away crying and came back with a purse to give me. I could see she was doing everything she could think of to connect with me, to help. My other son said, "If this isn't what you want and we are so awful, why don't you just leave? Just get out of here. People do it all the time." It was that, actually, that helped me to begin recovering my senses because I was able to say to him with complete sincerity, "I will NEVER leave you. It's ok for me to break down and cry sometimes. It's normal for people to fall apart a bit on a stressful day. It's ok for me to be frustrated when our family isn't working in a way that helps us all to feel love. It would not be OK for me to leave you. Ever."
After I reassured everyone, apologized as needed, and got them settled doing activities (YOU KNOW I mean watching a movie), I went up to my bedroom and laid on the floor to feel terrible about myself, to feel desperate, to wonder how I will ever survive motherhood, and, the worst part, to seriously question God's wisdom in giving ME these children to raise. They are all so incredible! Really! Creative, brave, bold, smart, clever, funny, risk-taking, insightful, curious- they are intense! They inspire me, and sometimes scare me to death as I mentally drop to my knees and scream, "God, I hope you have a use for that!" That time spent on my back, feeling hot, achey tears run into my ears, texting my friend as my eyes blurred: "I am cracking under the weight of my children today. Seriously. This is some super-human crap, and I can't do it anymore."
If you have never had a day like that, then just stop reading now. But if any of that rang some bells, let's keep going...
Certainly, these are very tender, personal glimpses into my family and my heart. I share it, though, to prove that I'm not perfect. I lose perspective. I get stomped down. I get embarrassed. I feel ashamed. I've contributed to pain and bad behaviors in my children's lives. I wish I could go show myself some grace, have some compassion (and BELIEVE ME I'm working over-time to get there. It's an essential ingredient for the home and family I want to live in and give to my precious, valuable children), but mostly I judge myself harshly for these things. I expect myself to keep these plates (full of spaghetti and meatballs) spinning with nary a splat or anxious waver in sight. Can you believe it? I cannot meet that expectation. NONE OF US CAN, so there must be another way. There must be another way to run a family in which messed up people can be valued, embraced, and loved unconditionally while ALSO being guided and trained to be the best versions of ourselves.
I'm a Christian. One of the phrases of Jesus' that I come back to most often is this: "Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (from one of the books in the Bible that gives a narrative of Jesus' life, Matthew) A yoke is a piece of farming equipment that goes across the necks of animals to connect them to each other and to the plow- to get the job done. Isn't it kind of weird that he tells tired, stressed-out people they should let Him put a YOKE on them? He doesn't say "come lie on my couch and watch Netflix. You can even get potato chip crumbs everywhere" which is, frankly, what I probably would prefer to a yoke analogy. Here's the thing, though, there is work to be done. Getting through this life, no matter WHO you are, WHERE you are, or WHAT you got in front of you is work. We all, if we take a minute to really look inside, are stinkin' weary and heavy-laden. We carry around all kinds of guilt, shame, and expectations. Jesus' point (if I may be so bold as to assert an understanding of him) is that bringing all of that to him, letting him be the guide and connector (to each other, to God, to ourselves, to the lives set before us) will be a relief to us. The rest of the quote says: "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." SIGN. ME. UP. "Easy" and "light" sound like just what the doctor ordered.
So, back to my bedroom floor. It ain't feeling easy. It ain't feeling light! A few years ago, studying those words from Matthew, I thought, "Huh. So if my life is feeling scary and hard, weary and heavy laden, I need to just go to him and rest. I better check to make sure that his yoke is secured and that I'm not back in the barn trying to put the torture-device-style yoke of my own (and the world's) making back on myself. Rest for my weary soul. I need it. Learning to exchange my expectations for myself and my pain and shame over continually failing to meet them for the completely free, life-giving expectations that Jesus has (which are, by the way, that you admit you need help and that He is the one who can do it) is a continually challenging but LIFE-GIVING process.
I'm working, as you may know from blog posts of the past, on being ok with being a mess, whatever "mess" looks like on a particular day: tired, sick, sad, angry, confused, uninformed, misunderstood, hurt, lonely, and on and on. I am trying to believe (because I'm told it's true) that all these feelings are NORMAL. They are hard, but normal (really, that's what wise people say), and they do not mean that you suck at life and must be doing it wrong (I'm telling you: this is what the smart, kind people insist).
So, back to my bedroom floor, but on a different day. I, once again, was feeling overwhelmed by parenting (and by my expectations for myself- but I could not see that right then) and I tried to be a mess in front of my husband. (Ready for some more intimate details?..) I prefaced my verbal vomit and emotions with "Now, I know I'm going to sound extreme. I know I'm probably saying a lot of stuff that I know I shouldn't say. I'm not even going to be theologically accurate!" Then I proceeded to, filter off, really tell my husband how I was feeling. And he then explained to me how I was wrong to feel that way. And it sucked. And we had to talk about how he had responded... a lot. Again, I share because I care. This is not an unusual problem: for two partners to not know how to communicate their needs or their love effectively. AMIRITE?
If you are a partner reading this who is prone to try to solve or explain away your partner's very big, overwhelming feelings and responses, keep reading. If you are the partner who has trouble explaining exactly how overwhelming your life as a parent (particularly as a mother, but I know that not all relationships look the same) can be, keep reading.
"Look," I said to Brendan. "We have two problems now. 1) you don't understand how hard my job really is, and 2) you don't seem to be able to respond in way that considers my needs because you are too quick to judge whether my needs are legitimate.
"Here's what it's like for me. Everything that happens with the kids, from small to big, has an effect on my emotional health and stability. The effect is cumulative. Imagine I have a big, fat nail file. Imagine that every time a kid is rude or hurtful, or is disobedient, or is just being a normal, wild, loud, irresponsible, messy kid that nail file scraped across my forearm. On most days, by the end of the day, I would have a gaping, bleeding, serious wound that needed immediate medical attention. That is what happens to my heart every day! By the end of most days, I feel beat up! And it's not always that the kids were being terrible or something; it's just a lot to continually need to show restraint, wisdom, grace, etc to 4 crazy children!"
Now, I thought that was ingenious. "Surely," I thought, "he can't possibly misunderstand that. I've finally found the way to illustrate the emotional cost (and physical too, really! The body has to process all that stress...)." Would you like to know what he said??
"So just quit rubbing the nail file on yourself!"
"SWEETIE! I'm not doing the rubbing! It just happens! I'm not saying the kids are aggressively, emotionally abusing me, but it sure isn't that I'm just doing it to myself all day!" Now, I've thought about this a LOT since this conversation took place, and here's what I can see better now. I think that sometimes I am the one with the nail file. Sometimes, I take things harder than I need to or my expectations are causing trouble again. But, I'm only human (as the sweet, intelligent, grown people keep reminding me).
Just know that Brendan and I proceeded to have a pretty healthy, good discussion for the days following, and I love him now even more as we try to figure out this sticky, tricky part of relating to each other. My point in sharing all this is to say: this job IS hard. It does cost me a lot to do it. I cannot do it without feeling very strong, "dramatic" (though I'm beginning to really take issue with that word) emotions, frequent inadequacies, and regular confusion. I'm going to keep practicing being a "mess," and I'm trying to replace "mess" with "normal, mortal human." Being a person comes with woundings- self and other-inflicted. We all know that berating oneself for being hurt will never get one closer to healed. I'm hoping to just remember, to see that my emotional exhaustion is real! And what does emotional exhaustion require?
"Rest for your soul."