Mother's Day this year was unexpectedly emotional for me. Brent was working and it was Ayden's birthday, making it busy in a good way. I wrestled three resistant boys into clean church clothes and herded them and the baby into the van. Amarys comes into the sanctuary with me and we wound up in the front row. Our church arranges the seating in a semi round seating plan, which means almost everyone in the room can see those sitting in the front.
For me, Mother's Day is a giant bag of emotional memories. My own mom gave me so much growing up, and still does, supporting me as a parent, student, professional, and everything in between. She's wonderfully funny, smart intense, and energetic. Like us all, she has faults but honestly I feel so much gratitude and admiration for her, for who she is outside of me, for all she has lived through, and for all she is to me. I miss her because she lives a five hour drive away from me.
Add to that the fact that Ayden's birthday is always near or on Mother's Day and I'm a blubbery mess every year. I look back at myself eight years ago and I feel like five hundred years have passed. Simultaneously I cannot believe I'm a parent, and I cannot conceive of what life was like with no Ayden in it. When he was born I recognized quickly how significant being a parent really is, and how every action has meaning that passes beyond us and far into the future. I felt successful. I felt like I was good at mothering, and that I made good choices. I breastfed, I carried my baby everywhere, I washed his diapers, I talked him through life transitions, I loved him deeply and expressed it well.
I made some mistakes. I never felt good about sleep training him when he was six months old. I didn't fight for his birth to be better or more natural. I was too strict with him too young. But overall I was proud of my parenting. Ah, pride. You know what they say about pride and falling...
When Matthew came along, I fell long and hard.
Nothing felt natural, or came easily, and Matthew often didn't respond well to parenting techniques I liked or believed were essential for a child's emotional health. Nothing I learned with Ayden worked with Matthew, and I fell into a deep mire of anxiety, anger, guilt, self hatred, and terrible parenting. I shouted, screamed, grabbed, hit, and cried. I fed them, bathed them, took them for walks and playdates and baby gymnastics, and hated every minute of it. I would put Raffi on the CD player and dance around with them and think, "Every other mother loves doing this. I hate it. What's wrong with me?" I wished every day to escape my kids, and my life. I took pictures to document their cute faces and antics, and felt like a hypocrite when I looked at them because I didn't feel what I was supposed to feel, and I'd sink deeper in the shouting and stomping and self hatred. It was one long epic eighteen month parenting fail.
I know now that my anxiety disorder was unleashed in its fullest out of control fury, and my parenting failures were simply an outer reflection of an inner emotional and psychological misery I couldn't name. I begged God for help constantly.
I need to stop! I need to be patient! I need to enjoy this! I need to feel love! Small hearts are at stake, I need help QUICKLY!!
The consequences of my parenting, good or bad, were so huge and important that God's famously slow timing seemed ludicrous. I mentally gave up everything, everything, bargaining for Him just to heal me and help me get better for the sake of my sanity and my kids' well being.
I reached out at first. Many of my friends simply couldn't relate. I got a lot of stunned looks. My mom was a solid rock of support and understanding, and never wavered in assuring me I was normal and that parenting is hard. My cousin Sara was also reassuring and supportive, careful to build me up and ensure I didn't feel alone. I had one friend in the exact same place as me, and honesty without her I may have come completely unhinged. I respected and loved her and knew she was a good person. If she could still be a good person, there had to be hope for me. My best friend was my phone-in-a-panic, talk-me-down-from-self-hatred person. And just my 'person.'
God healed me and my parenting in small, agonizing pieces. I coped the best I could in the meantime. A million times I wanted to simply leave. Pack a suitcase, get on a plane, move away. Or leave emotionally. Shut down, lock the door, not look my kids in the eye, withdraw inside. The hardest part of every hour was choosing to face the next hour. The hardest part of every day was picking myself up off the floor, wiping away my tears, apologizing (or sometimes not), and continuing on, hoping that things would someday get better. It took a lot of courage to get up off the floor. It took a lot of courage to hope.
Eventually God put a book in my hands about building emotionally healthy families, and one chapter was about the inner monologue of a parent. It was this that made me tune into my own inner monologue and realize that my thoughts about myself, my parenting, and Matthew were virtually all negative. Destructive thoughts, like
I'm the worst parent I know. If people knew how bad I was, everyone would hate me.
Matthew will grow up to be a rapist because of my parenting.
He hates me. It's justified. I'm a horrible person.
Multiply by approximately 30,000 thoughts per day, and you have a miserable mom. That realization was enormous for me, and the key to me turning my epic failure back around again. I replaced my negative thoughts with better ones.
I try hard.
I'm courageous for continuing to try.
I love fiercely.
No one is perfect.
My kids are joyful, authentic kids. Look at their faces! They are happy. I must be doing something right!
And when I slipped backwards, God would help me step forward again, with more hope. I was climbing a steep, treacherous mountain pass and it hurt and it was so hard, but God was climbing right behind me, taller and broader than I was and ready to steady me as I climbed. God healed me, and redeemed me as a parent.
For a long time afterwards, though, I dragged around a heavy load of guilt. Everyone knows those first years of a child's life are critical in forming who they are. Everyone knows adopted kids are especially vulnerable to emotional upheaval. Everyone knows eighteen months of poor parenting is enough to cause lasting effects on an adopted toddler.
I started to feel uncomfortable with these kinds of thoughts. I really felt strongly that God spoke to me about them
Who are you, to condemn where I have forgiven?
I am enough to fill the void.
I am enough to fill up Matthew.
I am powerful to heal.
I can redeem even you. And especially Matthew.
In church last sunday one of our musicians sang a song she wrote for her mother, and I started to cry. It was beautiful and simple, about everyday things like protection and constancy, and how much she loved her mom. I started to cry, remembering it all.
When I got pregnant with Riley, the worst was behind us, and I felt so much better. When Riley was born, it dramatically changed my relationship with Matthew in a positive way. I liked parenting again. When Matthew met Riley, he looked from Riley's face to mine, and I knew he was checking to see if this changed my feelings for him. Knowing Matthew, I didn't say anything~I simply stuck out my tongue at him and crossed my eyes. He laughed and stuck out his tongue back, and his body relaxed into the knowledge that he was still loved. And he ruffled Riley's sparse hair with affection. For the first time, I felt the same deep love for him as I did for all my kids, and it helped me put down the heavy guilt I had carried for years.
Riley's birth also flung me deep into post partum anxiety in a way that finally helped me recognize my anxiety disorder and get treatment for it! So because of Riley, I encountered healing from guilt, deeper love for my child, healing for my anxiety, deeper redemption of my ability to parent, and a second chance. An opportunity to start again. Enough milk for two. A VBAC to help me believe in my body. And a new understanding that God is enough to redeem everything, everyONE, every day.
At the beginning of his sermon, our pastor had all the mothers in the room stand up and had everyone else call out characteristics they appreciate about moms. A few people said the standard words.
Then someone said
and my face crumpled up so tightly it wasn't possible to hide my tears from the entire church, given that I was in the front row. I buried my face in Amarys' hair and wept. I cried with gratitude. I cried with relief. I cried because God took me from prideful, to broken, to healed and whole. I'm so far from the failing, flailing, angry mother I was and it is every bit because of Jesus. I'm so grateful. Never, ever again will I feel proud. Instead, always, I will feel gratitude and love. Gratitude and love. Thank you, thank you, thank you.