This morning, as I unrolled my pilates mat across the living room floor, I looked at the ever-changing trees outside the window–almost bare now, with only a scattering of marigold leaves still twisting in the wind–and was suddenly seized with fear that I have a small life. I walk through these rooms, looking out as trees change colors, cars pass, people walk by, and seasons fade. And I go on doing the same things: making meals and cleaning up from meals; washing clothes and folding them and putting them away, and then getting them out again to wrangle three sets of small arms and legs into them. I crawl around on my hands and knees looking for pacifiers; I wreak havoc on the schedule so that we can at least squeeze a little outdoor playtime between schoolwork and naps. I take my little ducklings for walks around the neighborhood, pausing several times each block to collect a straggler and retrieve a hat, and re-instructing about handholding at every corner. This comes after what feels like a herculean (and not always successful) struggle to be patient while we get everyone’s shoes and coats and hats on. Someday, I tell myself every day, they will be able to zip up their own coats and tie their own shoes.
And sometimes I feel as though the world is moving and I am still, motionless, caught like a leaf between the steps and the house. I am doing what I always, always wanted to do. With all my being, I believe that there is no more significant and world-altering work than raising children. But in my dreams it looked more glamorous. The house was clean and I was caught up on all my decorating projects. I practiced my instruments every day. I always had time for a five-mile run in the morning. We took our children on exotic travels and spoke German to them in the highchair. None of my children ever had trouble learning anything I tried to teach them.
I never imagined that the spectre of failure would haunt my days. It never occurred to me that I could be so daunted, by my children’s life-threatening food allergies and by the constantly escaping schedule and by the sheer enormity of getting three small people out the door and buckled into their carseats, that I would often give up and just stay home. I must have pictured myself as a cosmopolitan mother, showing my children the world–and instead we move from the family room to the basement to the backyard to the neighbor’s house and occasionally to church and the doctor. And I fear that we are missing out, all of us. I take refuge in the memories of trips to the zoo with Daddy and to see Thomas the Train with Oma and Opa–and then I think: but we should do those things more.
Today, as I carried a pile of clean clothes down the hall, I realized: I define accomplishments as all those things that I am not doing. I would feel better about my life if the flannel that has been sitting in the basement for a year, cut and ready, had been made into little boys’ pajama pants by now. I would feel some measure of success if the stairway was painted and if I could say that I took my children on a new, exciting adventure every week. Finding pacifiers, kissing hurt fingers, mediating nuclear disputes, snuggling for a story, making bunny ears with shoelaces, shaping a small hand around a pencil–I do not class these as accomplishments. They just seem like life to me, and not like things done.
But these are things that are being done. Today my daughter asked me to read her favorite book, Museum ABC, while I was still cleaning the kitchen. I said yes. It’s a small thing, but a good one–because when her oldest brother was her age, I’m sure I would have said, no, that’s not on the schedule; we do laundry next and we can read later. When I said yes, she promptly made it clear that we were actually going to read all four of the books in the series. We did. She sat on my lap, and B squeezed in next to us, and C brought over the child’s rocking chair and kept rocking himself back into the corner so that we had to stop and pull him out once or twice during each book.
The smell of their clean hair, soft under my cheek. Their uproarious laughter over the simplest jokes. Small voices saying “I’m sorry I pushed her.” Their delight over a trip to the library yesterday (yes: we went somewhere!). Their earnest prayer requests, which are almost always the same. B having his post-nap meltdown, wailing, “I need a snuggle!” C’s confidence with numbers, even as I’m starting to think kindergarten math might be beyond my teaching abilities. My daughter’s multiple trips up and down stairs to “change” her baby doll: one trip for a wipe, one for lotion, one for another bottle of lotion; then she holds the doll up by its feet and wipes it with decision and thoroughness. The way their endless needs buffet me with the truth that I am weak, and needy, and do not have the strength to live even one of these days on my own. The times I pray what I should always be praying: Help me. Help me lay down my life. Help me to be patient this time. These are the things I want to remember when I wonder where all the weeks and months are going. I think they are more important than stamps in our passports and finished projects. I hope so. I hope those other things come, someday, and a vista on the wider world. But I will take this small good life today.
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.
May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace…
Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
Blessed are the people whose God is the LORD!
-Psalm 144: 12 & 15