This morning, I was given the honor of speaking at the MOPs (Moms of Preschoolers) group at First Presbyterian Church. I thought I would share my speech here as well.
I started young; I got married when I was 22 after graduating from college, and got pregnant 3 months later. I was in the middle of ultrasound school, and had no idea about parenting. But being me, I hunkered down and focused on what was truly important: school. Then on July 10, with my due date being July 17, it occurred to me that I was having a baby next week and should possibly get a clue about babies. So I attended one MOPs meeting and then went into labor.
I had a very difficult, even traumatic, delivery. For the first time in my life, I experienced depression and really struggled in the early months of Stephen’s life. MOPs was critical for me in that time; I sorely needed the support, companionship, and advice of other moms.
At my first meeting, after finally dropping Stephen off at the nursery (and you all know how hard it is to drop your baby off that first time…both emotionally and physically…is his diaper changed? Did I nurse him enough? Is his bag packed with the extra clothes, pacifier, bottle, diapers, desitin, hat, wipes, swaddle blanket, extra swaddle blanket just in case, and the socks he needs to survive 90 minutes without me??) but after a successful dropoff, I ran into another mom who greeted me warmly. I looked down only to find my black shirt smeared with what appeared to be either snot or spit up. I sighed. “Well,” I said, “I’m here. But I don’t know the last time I showered or brushed my hair. And now I just realized I have something gross on my shirt!” My eyes began to well with tears. But she just laughed, hugged me, and said, “You and everybody else! You’re in exactly the right place!” And I was.
So usually at this point, when I’ve talked about “my first son” and my “other son” and my “youngest sons,” I see people’s faces squinching up trying to do the mental math. “Um…how many sons do you actually have?” Someone once asked me. So here’s the rundown: I have four sons, they are 8, 5, 2 ½ and 2 ½. Squinchy faces again. Yes, 2 2 ½ year olds, yes twins. I know, crazy, but that wasn’t my idea, trust me. So now it’s funny to look back and think about how hard it was getting to MOPs with one baby. Now if I only have to take one baby it’s a cake walk!
As I’ve gotten better at packing 4 boys into a van, usually most of them have shoes on, we are lucky to get 50% on coats, I’ve also gotten more perspective on parenting. As my sons grow older, I have realized that my role as a parent really changes from taking care of them to shepherding them. I think this can be a difficult transition for moms to realize when to start letting go, and how early that needs to happen.
When our babies are truly babies, our job is to meet their needs. They are totally helpless, and do need mom to do everything. We have to feed them, change their diapers, and help them sleep. When they cry, we jump to meet their need. And that is how it should be. But somewhere around two, we have to start moving away from doing everything to enabling them to do things for themselves. I’ve noticed this is harder for people who have fewer children, and they have to make more of a conscious effort to let their kids do things.
But when I had 4 kids aged 5 and under, this was not optional. I literally couldn’t do everything for everyone. Everyone had to do what they could to their ability, and wait their turn if they needed help. 2 weeks after the twins were born, I had an epiphany about this.
Stephen was halfway through Kindergarten, and as a good mama with her firstborn just starting school, I dutifully packed his lunch, checked his backpack, and packed his books. I made sure he had tennis shoes for gym day and his book for library day. I made sure his homework was in his red folder on Fridays. Then a week after the twins were born…lo and behold….I forgot his library book. When he came home from school, he chastised me for it. “Mommy!” He said, “You forgot to put my library book in my bag! I couldn’t check out a new book! Don’t do that again!” Of course, I was initially offended. He’s the one who forgot, after all! It’s his book!
But then I realized: really, it was my fault. I hadn’t taught him it was his job. I had taught him it was mine by taking it on all year. I apologized, and told him that I wouldn’t be remembering his library book again. I told him I should never have been putting it in his backpack in the first place. He would have to remember library day, and everything else for that matter, himself. Now although Stephen is a very smart boy, I fear he will become the absent minded professor. He whizzes through math, reads easily, and helps me through the high levels of Candy Crush. But when it comes to finding his shoes, or his coat, or his homework, he has no idea. Completing a task efficiently? Seemingly beyond him. It literally takes him 20 minutes to brush his teeth because he gets so distracted singing to himself in the mirror.
But between tandem nursing twins and potty training Adrian, I didn’t have the time or energy to micromanage Stephen any more. And I realized it wasn’t good for him anyway. Remembering is one thing that doesn’t come easily to Stephen. Since I quit reminding him, he’s missed recess because he has to spend it doing the homework he forgot, he’s walked to school after missing the bus, and he’s been hungry after forgetting his lunch.
But then at the end of last semester, Stephen came home with a past-due library slip. He couldn’t check out any books because he didn’t return the last book he got. I said, “Bummer. I guess if you can’t find it you’ll have to pay for it.” He couldn’t find the book and kept returning home with past-due notices. I said nothing about it.
Then one morning, he came up the stairs wearing a new vest.
“That vest looks good on you, Stephen!” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m wearing it because I needed something with pockets.”
“Why do you need pockets today?” I asked.
“I have to bring my wallet to school, because I saved my allowance. It’s library day and I want to check out a book, so I have to bring my money and pay for the book I lost.” He put his jacket on, grabbed his bag, and opened the door. “See ya!” He said, leaving with Adrian for the bus.
I watched him walk down the driveway, realizing the difference between this library day and that library day 2 years ago. It took a lot of tongue-biting to let him forget things and miss the bus, but now I am seeing the long-term results. Every day, I see how Stephen is becoming a young man.
Stephen realizes this also. He brought home had a reading sheet last year that told a story about a little eagle who learned to fly. Then she told her mother she was hungry and asked for help getting food. The mother said, “No, I won’t help you. You have to hunt on your own now,” and flew away. I asked Stephen if he thought the mommy eagle was being mean, and why he thought she said “no” to her hungry baby.
“She wasn’t being mean,” Stephen said. “She just had to learn it for herself.”
Now that I am experiencing the toddler years for the third time as the twins quickly approach 3, I say ‘no’ a lot more to them than I would have to Stephen. I’m sure these phrases are familiar to you: “Get my cup!” “I need that over there!” “Get my shoes!” “help me now!” To all of these, I say no. If he is capable of performing the task, I expect him to do it. If he is barely capable, I allow him to struggle before I step in.
And yet even as I was editing this talk, I violated my own principles!
Adrian and Stephen get dressed, breakfasted, and ready for school by themselves. Liking to “sleep in” (until 6:50), I usually wake up a few minutes before they go to the bus and say goodbye. But when I emerged from my room, 3 minutes before they needed to leave for the bus, they were in the basement glued to the Kindles they got for Christmas.
Being the kind, thoughtful, loving mother that I am, I decided to harass them.
“Stephen! Adrian! You’re going to be late! Hurry up! Turn off your game! Let’s go! Hurry up!” I said (very lovingly).
And my wonderful children, knowing that I do it all for love, shouted, “We know mom! We just have to finish this first!”
“No! I said put it away! Now! Hurry up! You’re going to be late!”
“Just a minute! We don’t want to turn off our game!”
Then I seized the Kindles forcibly, to protesting: “Mooom! I wasn’t done yet! Geez!”
*Kids stomp angrily out the door while I lecture, “You aren’t going to be allowed to play games before school if this is how you act! You need to be able to turn it off when it’s time! Oh….and I love you and have a good day….” *door slams*
After the door slams, I sigh angrily, feeling frustrated, the weight of the confiscated kindles in my hand. Then I wonder, “why did I just do that? I know better than that! Making the bus is their problem!” And I resolved yet again not to do such a thing.
But fortunately, they gave me opportunity to try again just the next day! The next day, Tuesday, I emerge from my room 3 minutes before they need to leave for the bus. They are in the basement, glued to their Kindles. And I do not go downstairs. I go to the kitchen to make my coffee and watch the clock tick.
Oooh, they’re going to miss the bus. They’re going to miss it this time. I really want to say something…I should just say one little thing…no no no….it’s their problem, it’s their problem, they can read a clock….but they’re going to miss it….but it’s their problem….they can walk….make my coffee…..6:59 clicks on the clock…..7:00….
Then I hear footsteps on the stairs. And two little heads pop out of the stairwell. They hug and kiss me as they run by….”Bye mom, love you!”
“Bye,” I call, “Have a great day!”
And as the door closed, I felt happy and pleased with my sons. We all learned today that they are capable of managing themselves; another step was made on their path to independence. Yesterday, they were belittled and reminded that mom is grumpy and doesn’t believe in them. Which message do I want my sons taking to school in the morning?
Refraining from rescuing my children presents itself uniquely with each of them. My second son, Adrian, has a congenital eye disorder that affects his sight. It would require eye muscle surgery to correct, and the doctor said they don’t recommend the surgery except in extreme cases. Adrian may need surgery eventually. But I have decided not to worry about it. Adrian has to learn to operate in the world of his peers with whatever vision he has. This story has been a particular inspiration to me:
“Nor have I seen anyone quite as remarkable as Ben’s mom. I think that’s a lot of the secret to Ben’s amazing talents.” Said the dr.
If you watch the entire documentary, here, his mom talks about when he woke up at 3 years old after eye-removal surgery and cried because he couldn’t see. She told, “Baby, yes you can see. You can see with your hands, and you can see me with your nose, and you can see with your ears. You can’t use your eyes any more, but you can still see.” She cried in her room alone, but in front of Ben, she maintained confidence in him and told him he was ok. Imagine sitting at your son’s bedside after having his eyes removed and telling him it’s all going to be ok. But she believed in him, she taught him a reality that he could see. She allowed him to do what all the other kids were doing despite his disability, and he rose to the challenge, exceeding all expectations for his abilities. As a teenager in that clip, he said, “I don’t consider myself blind. Ain’t nothing wrong with me.” His mother is the one who taught him that; she gave him sight. That is the power of a mother.
Whenever I wonder, “Is this too hard for Adrian?” Or my mom says, “Maybe Adrian can’t see well enough to do that…” I say, “if the blind kid can do it, Adrian can do it.” I am trying to be a brave and good enough mom to let my eagles test their wings. I want to give my sons vision, a vision for who they could be that is greater than what the world ever expected.
Our children thrive when we believe in them, and when we allow them to develop their skills, not when we shelter them or solve all their problems.
As I was preparing for this talk, I realized how this thinking about parenting is truly a Christian perspective. God the father did not shelter his Son from suffering. God came alongside his son, and loved his son, but he did not save him from pain.
As I raise boys in an increasingly violent and sexual culture, I see my job as their mother becoming ever more important. Accepting the phrase “boys will be boys” or accepting that something like pornography is “normal” will not happen. I am holding my sons to high standards. Even though I want to protect them, I know that I can’t. And even more than that, I know that I shouldn’t. Because I’m not raising boys; I’m raising men.