The other night I had the occasion to spend some time with a devoted mother. She was clearly very aware of every nuance of her child's life. As she asked me questions about my son, who is the same age as hers, it was clear that I... wasn't quite as aware. And I have to admit, there were a few minutes there that I felt like the bad mother, that little voice inside my head saying, "See? She knows these things. Why don't you?"
And so, though hopefully no one would realize, I had a little debate in my head between me and myself. And in the end, I realized that I wasn't being fair to myself. Yes this mother-- who has one child-- was far more in tune with her child's life than I-- who have six children-- was. That is a fact. But I was also having this conversation with this mother in order to help my child with something that was important to him. I took time to arrange a meeting and go to it; through my actions I said to my child You Matter. And while I haven't done everything there is to do for this child, I have done what I could.
This got me to thinking. When my children are all grown up and their raising is "in the books" so to speak (though I know that point never really gets reached) what do I want to be able to say to them? What can I say with confidence and certainty? And here's what I arrived at: I want to be able to say I gave all I could. But there's a flip side to that statement. I don't want to say I gave all I had.
To me one of those statements is reasonable. The other is exhausting. One is restorative. The other is depleting. One breeds goodwill. The other breeds resentment. I gave all I could means as a mother I took in my own personality, my own limits, my own interests, my own desires. I kept my marriage above my kids. I remembered I was a person before these little people came into my life and I will be a person after they wing their way into the future God has for them. I made sacrifices, yes. But I kept some things that were still just mine, just for me.
I gave all I had means as a mother I spent and spent and spent, sowing into my kids with no regard for me, leading to exhaustion, depletion and resentment. Giving all you have means you've somehow equated performance with worth, forgotten your own happiness in the name of theirs. And the danger there is that eventually all this martyr stuff will catch up with you. If not now, then later when they turn to teens who no longer think you hung the moon, or even later when they, according to plan, leave.
Of course there will be times-- seasons-- when you by necessity give all you have. Illness, newborns, special needs situations and other issues come to mind. That is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about the daily flux of motherhood. And the way that these people (kids) will take whatever we give them. And we get to decide just how much that is.
Here are some examples:
- Giving over control of the car radio to them. Listening to music you don't want to listen to in order to make them happy. Who's driving? Shouldn't the driver enjoy the ride more than anyone?
- Not going on dates because they don't want you to leave them.
- Participating in sports leagues and sacrificing entire weekends for the whole family in order to attend game after game. (If your child is a prodigy and this is a sincere investment in their future, go for it. But if they're mediocre and you're just out there because it's what everyone else does well...)
- Functioning as a short order cook in order to provide food everyone at the table likes.
- Scrambling around to provide something they need because they forgot to give you adequate warning.
- Forgetting that they won't remember every detail of their childhood, and that includes all those sacrifices and efforts you made. And making decisions accordingly. Sometimes good enough is just that.
- Not taking time to do the things we love(d) to do, invest in friendships, or just be alone for a bit. Without feeling guilty about it.
I'm not saying any one of these things from time to time is bad (Lord knows I've done them), but to ask yourself just how often you are doing these things and, more important, how you feel when you do? If you feel blessed and rewarded and called and validated, then keep doing what you're doing. But if you feel stressed and strung out and your blood is reaching a slow simmer, maybe rethink your approach. You might be giving all you have instead of all you can. (And if you need permission to stop the madness, consider this just that.)
And I'm also not writing this as an excuse to be neglectful and call it "taking care of you." Your kids need you. You. Not a sitter, not a chauffeur, not a cook. They need your eyes on them. They need your voice speaking to them. They need your arms around them. They need your applause, your affirmation, your validation. They need to hear You Matter from you. Your role is important and the balance must be struck. You still have to show up, put the time in, make the effort. You can't outsource parenting and you shouldn't.
But you can create boundaries that allow for both you and them.
Giving all you can is, to me, the healthy way to mother. Giving all you have is dangerous. Because the point of motherhood is to work your way out of a job. And if you've given all you have then that will mean there is no you left. Giving all you could means you preserved some bit of yourself, even if it's just the smallest fraction that you can build on as you have the space and time to do so. Recognize your limits. Regard your feelings. And go from there, in freedom. Give all you can. But beware of giving all you have. It's a subtle distinction, but an important one.