“I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty; I woke, and found that life was duty. Was thy dream then a shadowy lie? Toil on, sad heart, courageously, And thou shall find thy dream to be A noonday light and truth to thee.”
Louisa May Alcott
A mother’s life is duty. Young mothers often awake to this truth in sorrow, especially with our modern need for affirmation and praise. But as we toil on, we settle into our life of duty, duty motivated by love. We let go of our naive expectations. We become grateful for the purpose and direction our duties provide. Duty transforms a selfish life into one of service. We will find our dream of beauty fulfilled as we labor in love.
“In Giving, a man receives more than he gives; and the more is in proportion to the worth of the thing given.”
Here MacDonald uses the general pronoun “man” for mankind. But women are specifically called to give, and we, and the world at large, receive through the giving. In having a child we give that which is of much “worth”. Pregnancy is often difficult, birth painful, and rearing a child is all-consuming. We sacrifice our bodies, time, and comfort to bring new life into the world.
Mary, the mother of Christ, was visited by an angel to inform her that she would be the mother of the Messiah. She was an unwed woman and knew the judgment she would receive from her community. Before her lay a difficult road, perhaps more difficult than she could imagine- suffering on the road to Bethlehem, a traumatic birth in a stable, fleeing to Egypt, and the eventual crucifixion of her beloved son. Yet when the angel appeared to young Mary he said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” To which is replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”
Mary was not naive to the hardship she would face, but she was faithful. She trusted the words of the angel which told her she was “highly favored”. Later her cousin Elizabeth, who had Mary’s condition revealed to her through the Spirit, proclaimed to her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
The word “favored” is used again by Elizabeth. It signifies honor. Mary, a woman of no worldly significance or power, had the honor of carrying, delivering, and raising the Savior of the world, as His mother.
We, women, are highly favored in our opportunity to become mothers. Having a child is an immense blessing of eternal significance. Being a Mother is much more than the physical hardships or sacrifices – it is the spiritual blessing of raising a beloved son or daughter of God. This bond between Mother and Child is eternal. Christ’s thoughts turned to his mother in the moments before his death, his final words instructed his apostles to care for her.
Oftentimes we may not be able to discern how our sacrifice will return to us, but we trust that it will. With the birth of our own son or daughter, we renew humanity. Each child we give the world brings renewed compassion, intellect, insight, revelation, will, and beauty to humanity. When I look upon any of my own precious children I see a gift of great worth, a worth that far exceeds my giving.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” ― Aristotle
In parenting, we must be willing to step into the darkness of ignorance and learn through action. In order for this active-learning to make us good mothers and fathers, we should be humble enough to see what works, and what doesn’t – and adapt accordingly. Its a poor engineer that won’t admit when his bridge is starting to lean.
It can be a bit unsettling to consider that each new mother is handed a precious spirit and she really has no idea how to be a mother. Yet, we are compensated for lack of experience with love, with desire, with access to the wisdom and experience of others, and with many hours of practice before us. Our children will learn much more from a mother who courageously changes direction when things aren’t working than from a mother who stubbornly keeps her course when things go wrong.
I remember in high school my friend’s mother had an “epiphany” and threw his video game console out with the trash. He didn’t take it well, but his mother refused to get him another one. His anger slowly abated and by the end of the year he admitted that he was probably better off.
Start a new tradition, drop an old habit, shift your family culture in a new direction. We can keep learning through trial and error in the 18 years we have with our child, parenthood is a long apprenticeship. Being a “Master parent” is not defined by the same terms as a Master Tailor or Master Carpenter, we don’t have infinite power over parental outcomes, human souls are not as malleable as wood or fabric. However, if we are humble, it is never too late to repair and improve our parenting and our relationship with our children.
“The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.” — Carl Rogers
I was asked to do a series of articles on Jordan Peterson and Women. This week’s article for Public Square Magazine was published yesterday and is my personal story of finding a friend in Jordan Peterson when I desperately needed one. Over the next few weeks, the series will continue on Public Square.
“The function of ignoring, of inattention, is as vital a factor in mental progress as the function of attention itself.”
As mothers and wives, we are called to notice, discern and introspect. However, with every act of noticing, we must leave something unnoticed. And that’s okay; in fact, it may be beneficial. As William James points out, inattention can be a powerful tool in improving our mental health.
Perhaps we are guilty of noticing too much – of noticing what is best unnoticed. Are we overwhelmed by our own judgmentalness and sensitivity? So many offenses weigh us down – could we have let them fly by? Are we too quick to affix labels on others? Could we instead let them develop without the burden of our judgment? As we become aware of the benefit of inattention, of letting go of the ultimately unimportant, we may see an increase in our mental wellness and a strengthening of our relationships.
What we focus on becomes our reality. Technically that is true. Look at the view out your window. Now, look at any smudges you may have on the window. When you looked at the view, you didn’t really see the smudges. When you looked at the smudges, you couldn’t really see the view. You were in control of what you looked at. If today you went around and looked at smudges all day, you could get some cleaning done. But as you focus on the smudges – you won’t see the view. Reality is based on perception. So when things don’t seem to be going so well – one strategy is to shift our focus away from what we have been focusing on and attend to something else.
“Reality is created by the mind, we can change our reality by changing our mind.”
We hear a lot about the danger of “repression” – the bottling up of feelings or impulses. Repressed trauma, for example, may manifest in subconscious and distressing ways. But we mustn’t confuse repression with self-control. I have heard many claim that stifling a sexual impulse is repression. Not confronting that woman at the bank that cut you in line, that’s repression. It is not repression to make a conscious decision to let some emotions, grudges, thoughts, and desires pass away – that’s self-restraint. Not every thought requires rumination and not every impulse should be acted upon.
Moments Chosen for Joy
“Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along: and there is room for very little in each.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Let’s not hold onto things that are of no use to us – there is little room in our finite moments. Often we attend to trifles, misunderstandings, and offenses when we could be putting our attention on more important matters. It is certainly true that some details do matter and that continually sweeping things under the rug can lead to resentment. However, the alternative view seems to be neglected in our modern times – sometimes it’s okay to just let go of an offense, a grievance, and a judgment. This is particularly true in raising children – if we held onto every misdeed perpetrated by our children, there would be few moments left for joy.
Psychologist Philip Osborne writes of the benefits of having “No problem areas” with our children. “No problem areas ” are times when we can enjoy our child where there is no threat of “seeing the smudges”, and no problems are discussed.* Instituting these “no problem areas” with my children has helped me build relationships that are light-hearted and understanding. I get to take life less seriously, and they get to have a mom who will sometimes take a break from the difficult but necessary corrective duties of motherhood. We don’t want our children to think motherhood is all difficulty and no enjoyment, all judgment and no acceptance, all unselfishness and no love.
My eldest son is a wonderful kid who is generally low-maintenance but he likes nice shoes. I have been somewhat bothered by this emphasis on fashion. In my upbringing, we didn’t get brand-name shoes and so I tend to see such extravagances as excessive. He kept asking for Crocs, which you may have noticed is a new fad among the 12-16 year old demographic. I pushed him off for months. He only had enough to pay for half but was eager to get them. Every bone in my very-frugal body told me, “This is a rip-off and I don’t want him to follow fads!” Yet, I felt my spirit tell me something different, “He doesn’t ask for much, help him get the Crocs.” So one day I surprised him and we went out and got some- and I bit my tongue when I saw the price tag. He was so excited! Now every day at school when I pick him up, he tells me in excitement what gibbets (Croc accessories) he has traded, how valuable the basketball gibbet is, and his plans for future trades. It has become a point of bonding for us as I show genuine interest in this childhood adventure. As parents, we want to teach our children important lessons – lessons like not following fads, but we also need to sometimes ask, “Is this important enough to my child that perhaps I should seek joy rather than judgment?”
It feels nice to just enjoy the view and build some bonds with our child or spouse. To take a break from strife. When we return from our vacation from judgment, we may see that some of those smudges add character to the window. At the risk of taking this metaphor too far – too clean a window is a hazard for passing birds.
A Focus on Trash
Growing up, my father had one clear-cut household duty – taking out the garbage. I got married and in my mind, garbage was a man’s job. Within weeks of our marriage, we had what I feel is an important conversation for every new couple to have – the division of duties. My husband agreed to trash duty. But for years, he would chronically forget. When cleaning up the kitchen, I would often find an overflowing trash can. I started to see this as a sign of his lack of respect and consideration, and resentment started to grow. He will only do things when I ask. He isn’t keeping his promises. I saw a Facebook post where a woman decried her husband’s “toxic” inconsiderate behavior, her sentiment further cemented my own view. As women, we can let our thoughts get away from us. We argued about it. “You can be so inconsiderate!” I said. His response helped me adjust my perception. “You are right, I can be better – but when I give you a break and take the kids to the store, or shovel the walkway – why doesn’t that show you that I am considerate?”
I was putting my attention on one thing – the trash. I was letting that frame my perception. I was going down a dark road. His inconsistency with the trash was one reality, a true one. But it wasn’t the only truth. Sure, he was forgetful and didn’t always have my desire for empty trash cans forefront of his mind. But there was another much more important and profound truth – he is a good and loving man, and I am blessed he is my husband. With time, we have learned to communicate and negotiate over each other’s annoying trifles – while also putting them in their proper perspective.
“At every trifle take offense, that always shows great pride or little sense.”
The modern bandwagon says, “Cut toxic people out of your life!” Many now label others by their flaws rather than their positives or potential. Our definition of “toxic” is usually based solely on the perspective of the smudges. It is tragic to see people label family members who truly love them as “toxic” because of imperfections or disagreements. If I had let my mind run away with me, I could have created a world where I saw my husband as “toxic”. But when we realize, as William James did, that inattention is just as important as attention, we can create a different reality. We can clean the smudges that need cleaning, while not forgetting to also take a break and focus our eyes on the glorious view.
‘“Choice of attention–to pay attention to this and ignore that–is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”
From Guest-Author, Jana Squires Flake, Child Development Psychotherapist
As parents, we may struggle with our children. This struggle is real and often intense. It may become so intense that we begin to seriously question, “Is there something “wrong” with my child? “Is there something “wrong” with me, and my capacity to parent this child?” We don’t want to struggle, – we want peace and confidence. As a counselor focusing on brain development, I have worked with hundreds of struggling children and struggling parents. This work has led me to conclude that there are simple things we often “miss” as we seek solutions for our children. In this essay, I hope to highlight the questions we must ask – and answer before we can realistically address our child’s emotional or behavioral challenges. These foundational questions are both physical and environmental: “What is physically going on with this child?” “What is happening in their environment that could be underlying this problem?”
Maybe some examples will help me make my point.
* Little 5-year-old Emily is having a very difficult time controlling her emotions. She becomes unreasonable and difficult to handle. Talking to her just makes her more angry and she is demanding and moody. There are times, however, when Emily is pleasant and agreeable. Her parents wonder if she is bipolar because of what they have read and her mood fluctuations. They are concerned that she will have a difficult time when she starts school.
*Eric is ten years old and is easily overwhelmed. He is having trouble focusing in school and when asked to do tasks like clean his room, he just sits in the middle of the floor unable to begin the task. When he is trying to do his homework, it is very difficult for him to stay on task. His parents wonder if he needs medication to stay focused.
As parents struggle in their duties, they can fall into maladaptive behavior as well, so let’s use an example of a parent that needs to look at physical/environmental causes:
*Sarah, a mother of three, is serious about her mothering and has studied the influence a mother can have on the emotional intelligence of her children. She is concerned about her inability to remain calm when things are hectic around the house. She has a lot of guilt because she sees herself “losing it” and her children show some of these same high frustration levels when they are stressed. She observes her day and records when she is feeling calm and focused and when she is feeling anxious, irritable and manipulative. (It is very important that she records her specific behaviors and emotions during her times of high frustration. She will never know if she is making progress if she isn’t mindful of the specifics). She realizes that her worst times are whenever she is in a time crunch and specifically between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 pm. By the time her husband gets home from work, she is a basket case. She wonders if she may be depressed or have anxiety – should she go on medication?
All of these individuals need some intervention, but let’s start first with looking at their environment and how their body is functioning.
* Let’s look at Emily. Her mother tracks her mood swings/irritability and finds that they occur specifically when she first wakes up in the morning and in the early afternoon. She also gets angry and “controls with negative emotions” (meaning she uses her emotions to try and get the outcomes she wants). There is a history of insulin resistance in the family so we wonder if there is a blood sugar issue, it usually gets worse when she hasn’t eaten for a while. To test out our hypothesis, Mom goes in first thing in the morning, and gives her a little smoothie. Emily has been given lots of treats – sugar – as a reward for her “being good”. Instead, mom fills the house with healthy treats; she makes sure Emily doesn’t go too long without eating; and encourages Emily to notice when she first begins to get irritable. Mom teaches Emily to be self-aware – to notice when she is feeling frustrated. Mother and daughter then come up with a list of interventions that Emily can use to help her gain control like getting something to eat, taking deep breaths, physical exercise or listening to music. Mom also notices that Emily doesn’t drink water – she always wants juice. She refrains from buying juice and ensures that Emily has a drink of water when she feels stressed. Through tracking, Mom realizes that Emily’s mood swings and irritability are often worse after she has had a lot of screen time, his new awareness leads to environmental changes – less screen time and more physical movement. Emily has ownership in her solutions and feels empowered.. (The issue of emotional manipulation can be addressed with other interventions, I suggest the book Smart but Scattered” by Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare)
*Eric has another issue going on. He can’t stay focused in school and is overwhelmed by tasks that are beyond his ability to handle. Eric is a creative little boy, what some would call “right-brained”. He has lots of great qualities – he is intuitive, sensitive and can take things apart and put them back together. However, when he is stressed, he checks out into his imaginative brain. I was a school counselor and saw this play-out many times. For example, a teenage boy could take an engine apart and put it together in auto shop class, but sitting in a class with a teacher lecturing and having to memorize facts was very difficult for him. So why can he work so well with hands-on tasks and struggle in math class? It is likely due to his brain dominance. We all have a right and left hemisphere that work together. However, when one is under stress, we lean too far into our dominant hemisphere. Iain McGilchrist has brought the differing functions of the brain back into public awareness. Because of how Eric’s brain functions, being asked to clean a messy room is a lot for his brain to handle. He needs more structure. His mother decides to do some work to help him succeed. She organizes his room, ensuring there is a designated place for everything. Then she puts a chart on the wall which shows the four things he needs to do whenever she says, “Go clean your room”. She is acting as his left-brain (the detail-oriented side) until he can learn good habits and develop a more structured approach himself. ‘When you decide to help your child develop more effective skills, you should always begin by changing things outside the child before moving on to strategies that require the child to change.” (Smart but Scattered, p.73.) Remember Supernanny? Her first intervention was always making a schedule. In his difficult school subjects, Eric gets extra help to organize the ideas and use his creativity to make learning more active. As Eric is helped by his mother to succeed, he gains confidence that he is capable and intelligent. Dawson and Guare (Smart by Scattered) make a vital point in helping children be successful: intervene just enough for the child to be successful and then slowly back off so overwhelm and discouragement are minimized. Provide the structure the child lacks until he/she begins to develop it themselves. Be patient with your child, realize that their brain may not work in the same way yours does, and there are many advantages to their more creative view of the world. Right-brain learners* often struggle in our modern school system and may lose confidence in themselves. This is a tragedy because there is so much a parent can do to help a child like Eric succeed. Give them the tools they need to succeed, and their apparent weakness can become their strength. (See Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in Your Head,” Carla Hannadord, PhD.
*Sarah becomes mindful of her environment after she has identified the times of highest stress and resultant frustration as between 4 and 6pm. Her children come home from school and want to talk, she is trying to figure out dinner, homework needs to be done, the children fight…she unravels. But what are her key triggers at that time? The study of brain organization and sensory integration shows us that some people are more negatively-affected by noise than others. Excess noise can send them into stress mode as cortisol runs through their body. Their prefrontal cortex for observation and rational thinking diminishes. Sarah remembers as a student that if she had lots of noise around, she could not focus. For her, rest and relaxation always involve peace and quiet. Now that she has identified that noise is highly stressful for her. She begins to discover where the noise is coming from. During the day she has the dishwasher running, as well as the washing machine and dryer. She often listens to music with words as she works. Her children play and fight; they demand attention;they have many questions. All these noises, good or bad, build up in her brain. They cause Sarah to go into stress mode. When she is stressed, she raises her voice, her children raise theirs and she “loses it”. (Even the voice quality of a person who is yelling, harsh or demanding can cause people with this hearing issue to react negatively.) Sarah makes a plan, she prepares for those two “witching” hours, between 4 and 6, by making dinner early. (When she is in stress mode, she can’t even think about what to make for dinner). She explains to her children that she has a problem with noise, she wants to be a patient mother so she is going to make some changes. She buys noise canceling ear-plugs when machines are running (or runs them at night) and she cuts out any unnecessary noise. When she wants to listen to a child, she takes them into another room so she can focus exclusively on them. As Sarah accepts her physical limitations, she begins to find more peace in motherhood – she lets go of the unnecessary, and enjoys more peaceful moments with her children. When she is less able to control her environment, her knowledge of her limitations helps as she attempts to control her reactions.
In our fast-paced and impatient world we are often too eager to label, to medicate, to despair. But there is hope. So much of our anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, inattention, and emotionality may be helped when we take the time to examine our environmental and physical realities and work toward solutions. There is purpose in our struggle, if we seek the causes. As we come to understand our children and ourselves, we can find peace and joy in parenting.
*The phrase “Right-brain learners” is simplistic. We all use right and left brains, however some people do tend to rely more on their left brain (detail, logic) and other right brain (big-picture, creative) particularly under stress).
“The best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.”
Daniel J. Siegel
If you had a difficult childhood, you can overcome your experiences.
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
You can “make sense” of those experiences and become a deeper and more intentional parent in spite of, and even because of, difficulty in childhood. These hardships will not pass to our children through our DNA. If we refuse to continue bad traditions, they die.
“From the house of my childhood I have brought nothing but precious memories, for there are no memories more precious than those of early childhood in one’s first home. And that is almost always so if there is any love and harmony in the family at all. Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious.”
We all had a difficult childhood. This is not to discount the pain of childhood trauma – some of us have much more to overcome than others.* But we are not alone if we harbor pain from our earliest memories. We can find precious memories even in a “bad home”. We can turn pain into triumph. We should avoid catastrophizing the imperfections of our parents or allowing a difficult childhood to define us. Human history is full of suffering, full of parents who made a mess of things.
We have memories for a purpose. Painful memories are a tool, they can help us consciously determine how to move forward into the present.
“The purpose of memory is to extract out from the past the lessons to structure the future. If you have a traumatic memory, that is really obsessing you, if you analyze that memory to the point where you figured out how you may have put yourself at risk and you determine how you might avoid that in the future than the emotion associated with that goes away. So memory has a very pragmatic function.”
When bad things happen to a child, as they inevitably will, the parent must swiftly and intentionally act so their memory is not steeped in pain, but instead in a feeling of overcoming. Children must be left with a firm understanding of what happened and how it will be avoided or overcome should it arise again. When this does not happen in childhood- because of inattentive, ignorant, imperfect, or malevolent parents – we have painful childhood memories.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Traumatic events and abuse make for difficult memories, but even more subtle perceptions gained in childhood can become stumbling blocks to progress in adulthood. Parents’ actions and teachings may have turned some of our unconscious perceptions away from reality, away from an understanding of moral truth, and have inhibited us from knowing and feeling the true God. The way our parents related to us may skew our perception of our own worth.
Perhaps you had a mother that only showed love when you accomplished something. Now you have become a perfectionist, never feeling valuable in your inadequacy. There is a lie you believe. Your worth is not derived from your accomplishments.
Perhaps your father heaped excess praise and attention on you for your physical attractiveness. Now you believe that if you are not beautiful you are not lovable. This is a lie you believe. Your worth and value is not derived from physical beauty, which inevitably fades, your worth is as eternal as you are.
“We cannot change anything unless we accept it.”
Let’s analyze the lies we believe, the stumbling blocks of perception upon which we repeatedly fall. As we examine our childhood we can move forward with hope, knowing our own children will have parents that have sought to make sense of their own childhood and will be better parents as a result.
“Contrary to what many people believe, your early experiences do not have to determine your fate. If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to re-create the same negative interactions with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations.”
Daniel J. Siegel
*Some may read this and believe the horrific conditions of their childhood are too much to overcome. The road may not be an easy one. Only God knows what you have been through. Every suffering of every child is known to Him. Every child is loved by Him. He promises to make recompense. The lyrics to this song are a powerful reminder to me, when it seems we no one understands- God knows.
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”
“Hard work makes a mother. We like to think something magical happens at birth, and for some it does; but, the real magic is keeping on when all you want to do is run.”
— Call the Midwife (‘Nurse Phyllis Crane’)
The dust has settled, the smoke has cleared, and here I sit as a completely different person from who I once was. Anyone else out there with a difficult second born child? Based on the many conversations I’ve had with mothers, this seems to be the going trend. The experience I had with my second born son forever changed me for the better…eventually.
The default temperament of this baby was misery. Pure and sheer misery. The constant cries literally brought me to my knees most days, as overwhelming levels of anxiety washed over every bone in my body. I would have emotional breakdowns every couple of months while I waited out the chaos, hoping he would magically snap out of it once he could eat solids…or sit up…maybe when he could crawl…or when he could walk..or God forbid, would I have to wait until he could talk?? These milestones proved to show no sign of improvement to his miserable little self. The neediness and the constant cry for attention drove me to the ground. Survival mode was my closest friend for the first few years of this little boy’s existence.
“What we can’t handle or manage, we don’t like..”
— Stan Tatkin
During these initial years, I did not like my second born — and that was a hard pill to swallow. What made matters worse is my firstborn child had to witness the gradual decline of his once content, stable, and self-controlled mother. I sadly recall a very difficult day when I lost my temper and was yelling at the baby to stop crying (not my best mommy moment). I turned around to see my four year old son walk to his bedroom and close the door behind him. I proceeded to follow him, gently opened the door, and saw him lying on his bed with his fingers firmly shoved into his ears. To this day, this memory brings tears to my eyes. I swiftly came to his side and apologized for my emotional outburst. I told him I would do better. Going forward, I did my utmost best to venture off alone somewhere in the house when a private ‘freak out’ session was in order. Looking back, it was such an added blessing to have my firstborn child with me; it definitely helped keep me going, and gave me purpose outside of the universe of ‘cranky baby’.
“The purpose of life is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant.”
— Jordan Peterson
In the midst of this trying season, I managed to stumble upon Jordan Peterson, who is a well renowned clinical psychologist. I watched one of his many Youtube videos, and randomly found his talk about ‘The Big Five Personality Traits’ (one of them being agreeableness vs disagreeableness). This peaked my interest, as I am typically a less agreeable person by nature. I learned that the majority of agreeable people on the planet are indeed women. He stated, “..you’re wired to be exploited by infants”. I then began to laugh and thought to myself, “YES, that is exactly what my little ornery baby is doing…he is exploiting me!” Right then and there a revelation was born — I am not agreeable; therefore, I am not easily exploited; therefore, I am losing my mind because I have absolutely no control over my current situation. It was a ‘light bulb’ moment that greatly helped me understand myself in the context of motherhood. And I guess it’s no surprise that I gave birth to a child with a temperament very similar to my own (which my husband conveniently reminds me of every so often).
“‘Child’, said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story…I tell no one any story but his own.’”
— The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
Before this insightful self-awareness kicked in, I did experience pockets of wondering, “What is wrong with me?”…“Why can’t I adapt to this child’s temperament?”…“Why do I lose my cool so easily?” Now, it’s important to note that just because I am less agreeable, this obviously never excused bad behaviour. I never leveraged my temperament to promote a lack of self-control; instead, it meant I had to work very, very hard to try and maintain a healthy level of self-regulation, especially during the first few years of my second baby’s life.
“..give thanks in all circumstances..”
— 1 Thessalonians 5:18
I also wrestled with the comparison game. Some days I felt like a ‘lightweight’ mom. Here I had a healthy baby boy — what the heck was I complaining about? I initially dismissed my feelings of anxiety and stress, as there were mothers out there who were dealing with much more stressful situations than my own. I thought, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”…”I shouldn’t be struggling as much as I am”. Thankfully, throughout all of these moments of self-doubt, my older sister helped me understand that we cannot compare our suffering to others (and this was coming from a mother with a child who has Type 1 Diabetes). She knew a struggle far deeper than my own; yet, she helped me acknowledge and accept that just because my pain and suffering was not as severe as someone else’s, my feelings still mattered, and they needed to be expressed and worked through. How freeing this was for me! In fully embracing these negative emotions, I was able to mourn my own personal suffering, and then ultimately I was able to gain perspective and see the blessings that surrounded me each and every day. This was a wonderful balance that gave me a vast sense of self-acceptance, as well as a genuine heart of gratitude.
“You will come to know that what appears today to be a sacrifice will prove instead to be the greatest investment that you will ever make.”
— Gordon B. Hinckley
To my great and utter joy, this very difficult stage did not last forever. Eventually, my strong-willed boy reached an age where communication, consistency, and firm discipline helped restore most of the control I had originally lost. I vividly remember that beautiful spring day, walking with my two boys along a nearby scenic route. My second born was now three years old, and life was progressively getting easier (and more positive) in regards to my relationship with him — things were looking up!
As we were slowly meandering along, he stopped to look at some rocks along the path. I waited for him as he explored the environment, and then I noticed he picked something up. I walked over to him and asked him what he had found. He held up his prized possession and exclaimed, “A heart!” I stooped down and inspected the object in his hand. It was half an acorn, and the inside resembled just as he had described it — a heart. He then extended his little arm towards me and proceeded to give me his “heart”. I couldn’t help but see the metaphorical significance this precious moment had offered me. My boy was an acorn. The hard, rough exterior represented the extremely difficult stage of his infancy. But with time, the outer shell cracked, and deep within, the heart (at last) exposed itself. The clouds had separated, and I could finally see the light. A new chapter had begun.
While we journeyed back home that afternoon, the tears streamed down my face as I firmly held half of that little acorn in my hand. I had arrived. I had survived. Hallelujah, I had reached the depths of my little boy’s heart.
“If you make it a habit not to blame others, you will feel the growth of the ability to love in your soul, and you will see the growth of goodness in your life.”
The other day my little girl came crying to me, “Cameron yelled at me!” I went to Cameron to get the full story. Turns out, after an independent fact-check from my oldest daughter, that she had stolen a pink monster truck out of his hand. She declared, “It’s mine, it’s my favorite color!” Then, to prevent any such insolence in the future, she gave him a little push on the way out. He, in response, yelled, “You are so meeeeannn!”
As parents we see similar situations play out multiple times a day. What I have come to notice is that in all cases – the offended party sees themselves as completely guilt-less. They seem incapable of seeing their part in the matter. They don’t see their actions, only others’ reactions. I don’t think we ever fully outgrow this. Our tendency to see ourselves as the innocent party makes it difficult to discern the truth of a situation.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
We are all victims of circumstance, of others’ poor choices, and of society. This is part of the struggle of life. We should speak up when others’ actions harm us. I certainly want to know when my children hurt each other.
However, as Tolstoy expresses, when we are stuck in blame – when we seek someone to accuse for every difficulty of life – we start to see our fellow man as opponents, rather than fellow travelers in this difficult life. So often in our finger-pointing, we are blind to reality. We see malice where there was none. We see willful action where there was a simple misunderstanding. Our blame makes matters worse. My son just picked up a lonely-looking truck, look how it ended for him.
Thankfully we have more self-awareness than my 4-year-old. We can look to ourselves. So when we are seeking someone to blame, let’s first consider ourselves. We may find that rather than being burdened with the realization of our own folly, we will experience an increase in love for others and a corresponding strength to overcome our weakness.
“To recognize that we are to blame, is to say that we ought to be better, that we are able to do right if we will. We are able to turn our faces to the light and come out of the darkness.”
A scene in the TV series “The Last Kingdom” has stayed with me since I saw it. The series follows King Alfred, a medieval king of Wessex and a devout Christian who sought to convert his subjects to Christianity. He was forced into exile due to the advancement of the brutal pagan Danes. He was protected by the warrior Uhtred. King Alfred is standing alone in a flat featureless marsh where the protective Uhtred finds him and asks:
“Were you worried that I would lose my way?” asks the King.
Uhtred says, “One path looks like another.”
Alfred asks, “What do you notice about this place?”
Alfred says, “There are no horizons. No sense of something beyond. My priests have visited here once or twice to preach. The people are oblivious to God.”
I pondered that a bit – A simple yet profound exchange. Why would a horizonless landscape produce such a faithless mentality in its people?
An open and featureless plain does not give our eyes a place to rest; it provides no quest or goal to yearn for.
Featureless horizons do not direct our attention, call us to a destination, or produce a beckoning. Our soul looks for beauty; it longs for the hope found on a path leading towards a beautiful destination. The more worthy the destination, the more joy we can hope for in its attainment. Boundless potential and subjectivism produce oblivion. If we are capable of anything and everything, and all roads are of equal worth, we are easily lost in the marshes of life.
For all of human history, a woman’s purpose has been tied up in her biological capacity to have children. Now, she has more choices – limitless potential paths.
As King Alfred learned – with no sense of a horizon, it is easy to become lost – and not even know we are lost. Today women are lost. Women are less happy than their grandmothers, despite our freedom and opportunity.*
So how do we follow a path that leads towards something worthwhile when our culture is increasingly unwilling to point us towards such a purpose, and instead actively discourages us from looking to our female progenitors for guidance? Ironically it seems that our path is often found more easily in what we reject than what we choose.
“Creation means rejection…for a man cannot make statues without rejecting stone.” **
“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being.”
We all strive to create a beautiful life. And yet, we must understand that in every creation, we are rejecting another potential creation. I remember the difficulty of deciding whether I should attend a prestigious graduate program or work to help my husband finish his undergraduate degree. When I made my decision, mostly out of financial necessity, I pictured my future potential self, a graduate of Cambridge, blowing away in the wind, like a victim of Thanos.
The act of creation through rejection is evident in many aspects of a woman’s life, and it is a painful process. It is never easy to forgo a passion or to prioritize one thing over another. It is difficult to turn our backs on potential; we are often unsure if the path we have chosen will bear good fruit.
The archetypal feminine is often depicted as Mother Nature. She has the power to destroy and create. The death of plants in Winter will eventually give rise to Spring. Lighting strikes and burns down an old decaying forest – a new one grows in its place. There is suffering in those destructions and hope.
Women create – often through mysterious and chaotic ways. We create new life; we renew humanity; we produce beauty in the world around us – this is a terrible and beautiful thing.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
What Is Beauty?
“Beauty matters. It is not just a subjective thing but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.”
Sir Roger Scruton
We know beauty when we see it. Encountering a sculpture such as Michelangelo’s David is a truly spiritual experience. Beautiful art is truth revealed to an artist, and each artist produces unique work. We don’t judge Monet for not painting like Van Gogh – both their works are masterpieces.
As we look to our own horizon, we must decide what to discard to create our beautiful life. Some things that might be beautiful must be cut out to reveal what is more beautiful. Smaller truths must be overcome by ultimate truth. Worthy desires must be forgone for greater purposes. As the artist we are the ones with the chisel; we discard these lesser beauties to unveil our creation.
Some would say that art is simply in the eye of the beholder, there is no real beauty or true art. They say that any choice can lead to a beautiful life because all is subjective. These opinions come from those living in the featureless plains spoken of by King Alfred. Those who subscribe to this view of life will find it hard to find a horizon to fix their gaze upon. They will turn this way and that with the ever-changing winds of passion and emotion.
As C.S. Lewis explains in The Abolition of Man, there is objective beauty and truth and we know it when we see it (assuming this perception has not been brainwashed out of us). No one standing before the sublimity of a waterfall can question its awe-inspiring beauty.* No one walking under the dome of St. Peter’s can say it is equal to the local community center. No one seeing a devoted mother hold her precious newborn baby can doubt the goodness in their embrace. So there must be some creations more worthy than others.
A Rejection of Motherhood
Recently an actress was awarded a Golden Globe. She was emotional as she spoke of her gratitude for being able to make the choices necessary to receive such an award. She was referring to her choice to have an abortion. She felt having a child would have blocked her path to this “great” achievement. This is obviously a creative and talented woman. However, she allowed her drive to create and her ambition and desire for recognition to limit her potential. In her desire to be the author of her life, she aimed too low – she settled for less. She made many choices and those choices led to what seemed to her a necessity – if she were to have the life she wanted. She chose to reject the creation of life and instead received a lifeless golden substitute.
The actress wanted to, “Recognize my handwriting all over my life…A life I have carved with my own hands.” She declared, “We should make the world look more like (women) who are…seeking their own self-interest.”
She created and rejected what she desired so her life became what she wanted. This is the mantra of modern life, I want what I want in life, all else be damned. But is the art this produces beautiful? It seems unlikely when its creation is based on wandering desires and self-interest. Beauty comes from truth and virtue – not desires. Many now regret the choices they once yearned to make.
“The idea of beauty is the fundamental idea of everything. In the world we see only distortions of the fundamental idea, but art, by imagination, may lift itself to the height of this idea. Art is therefore akin to creation.”
A great artist attempts to create beauty that can lead to many and varied creations – but they will leave many lesser creations unmade. This actress left a greater beauty unborn.
Every statue Michelangelo chiseled meant another statue was never born. But what if instead of a beautiful statue, he could make a man? What if he could build up a real David, capable of conquering armies and raising a nation? Would that not be more glorious than the man made-substitute we must now be content with? But only Nitzevet, King David’s mother, had the power of bringing David into the world. When comparing the beauty of a statue versus the beauty of a human being, do we want to live in a world that would choose the former?
So when we embark on this journey to create a masterpiece – the carving of our own beautiful life – we should not carve out a statute as imperfect as our own desires, as weak as our own failings, as ugly as our own selfishness. Rather we should be true artists, seeking out beauty and truth to guide our sculpting. Otherwise, we produce narcissistic and disjointed art that is not a reflection of truth but an idol of self-worship.
“Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”
We are often told, as women, that we can have it all, and in the next moment we are shown we must choose between a child and success – and that the latter choice is the more worthy one. A beautiful life requires no victims to achieve, only the discarding of our own pride and weakness.
I want to make this clear – Not every woman can, wants to, or will have children – and they are no less of a woman and no less capable of creation than a mother of seven. Mother Teresa, John of Arc, Julian of Norwich- these and millions more women never had children and created lives worthy of admiration. They gave up their own “self-interest” and progressed toward a greater hope – one we can all look to. When I write of motherhood this is not limited to the act of raising biological children- all women become mothers of humanity as they create beauty in the world.
“It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict.”
Sir Roger Scruton
True femininity is not limiting but expansive. Yes, we must reject much, but we gain much. Women can’t do it all at the same time, we must put first things first, but life is long. We don’t have to drop passions- we can integrate them into what is most important. What version should we accept – the one that tells us we must end a life to live the one we want? Or the one that tells us that bringing life, bringing love, and sacrificing self for others supersedes any man-made glories?
Michelangelo carved an even greater statue than his David. This other masterpiece is his most acclaimed and admired. This statue has drawn millions of pilgrims to stand before its awesome beauty. It is not like David; it is not of a man that defeated giants or conquered nations. It has a much more remarkable subject – a mother and her child – a humble and poor woman, deemed inconsequential by most in her time. It is of a woman gloried not for her accomplishments but for her sacrifice – for her rejections: the rejection of her reputation as she carried her child; the rejection of comfort as she journeyed to Bethlehem; the rejection of a safe and simple life as she accepted her role as the Mother of God; the rejection of good for better, of pride for humility, of wickedness for righteousness. It represents the rejection of a “life of self-interest”, to make way for a creation that makes all rejections trivial – the Savior of Mankind. The beauty and majesty produced by these rejections are clear to any standing before this masterpiece – this horizon of stone.
**“Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses… Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing.”