My mother’s prayer for me as I grew up was two-fold: She prayed I would be healthy, and she prayed I would be happy. As a girl, I tried hard to live up to those prayers. As a woman, however, I have discovered that life is not always so simple. We cannot always be healthy. We cannot always be happy. We do, however, have the power to always embrace joy.
When I first became a mother, I wanted the same things my mother wanted for me. I wanted my children to be happy and healthy. I wanted to be a healthy (read: capable) and happy (read: cheerful) mother. But time tells all, and what it has told me over eight years of parenting four precious small people is a truth I obviously needed to relearn. I cannot always be healthy. I cannot always be happy. I do, however, have the power to always, always, always embrace JOY.
When I first fell in love with Jesus as starry-eyed teen, I did so with the presumption that happiness and joy were the same thing. I thought now that I knew the joy of Christ’s love, I would always be cheerful, always be smiling. Basically, I thought life would be easy. It didn’t take long for me to realize that’s not how God works. Many of the Church’s most beloved saints experienced long periods of depression and spiritual dryness, which we sometimes eloquently call “dark nights of the soul.” Heck, even Jesus wept.
Even though I knew this, though, it was a hard thing to accept. I saw the Facebook feeds, the Instagram snapshots, and I was sure and certain: Mothers were happy. They had to be, because I was seeing it, day in and day out, faded to a timeless hue with the help of rose-colored filters.
Of course, what I’d conveniently forgotten is that Facebook has no live feed. And those Instagram portraits of maternal bliss? They were only snapshots. Moments. Tiny fragments of the day in, day out that we all experience as mothers. These were the highlights. And in between? The shadows. The secret sadnesses but more than that, the endless hours of sacred mundane that make up so many of our days.
I was scrambling, scraping, faking it hard, and crumbling broken at the end of each day into a weary heap of frustration.
Maybe I should quit homeschooling… At least if the kids were in school, their teacher would smile at them.
What sort of mother shouts at her children?
Maybe I should go back to work… Maybe then I’d be something more than a maid…Maybe then I wouldn’t feel worthless.
These are the thoughts that would eat away my heart in the shadows. In the patches of quiet darkness as I lay in bed, promising to try harder, praying to do better with the dawn.
If I pray harder, I will be happy.
If I plan better, I will be happy.
If I were only a better Christian, then maybe I would be happy.
It’s not that I was never happy, mind you. It’s just that, day in and day out, year in and year out, I was exhausted. I was worn. I was trying to make my every moment a Kodak moment. I hadn’t yet admitted to myself the impossibility of this, and every time I failed to do the impossible, I felt like a failure.
I was trying to squeeze my new identity into my old skin. I was trying to fit my old life into one that had expanded to include a crowd of other people, all of them utterly dependent on me. Me. Who would ever trust me with something this important? Who was I to deserve so much blessing? And why wasn’t I treasuring every fleeting moment like the kind old ladies in the Target checkout lines were always telling me to?
It was one day, scrounging for encouragement between dog-eared pages of Scripture that I stumbled suddenly on something.
“Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
This, I realized with a sudden, swelling soul was it. The secret. The something I’d been searching for in all my misguided chasing after rainbows. It wasn’t balance or “me time” or any of the other elusive fantasies I’d fought so hard for, only to be let down.
The secret to a joyful motherhood was never going to be found in something I could achieve. I’d been trying to do something, when what God was really asking of me was a change of heart. If I wanted to be the kind of mother I longed to be, I needed to surrender to the new way of being that came with it.
It turns out the secret to joyful motherhood was simply surrender.
I’m not suggesting we surrender to an image. There is no cookie cutter of motherhood. There’s nothing wrong with putting my kids in school or daycare or going back to the good ol’ dog days of paid employment. That’s where some women are called, but it’s not where God was calling me. And here’s the thing: those things aren’t my surrender. If I’d chosen to walk down those roads, I would have missed out–on hard things, yes, and sometimes boring…but they have all been necessary. I might have found fulfillment, for a time, in headstrong choices. But I would also have run away from what God had planned, and ultimately, I wouldn’t have been happy. If motherhood has taught me anything, it’s that we can never find happiness by running away from our hard.
You see motherhood is so much more than a choice. It’s more than a season.
Motherhood is my vocation.
The way we use that word now, though, it’s hard to see the truth–the beautiful, bigger-than-big behind the blasé. Motherhood is not merely a job. It’s not some chosen occupation to fill my hours. In and of themselves, the tasks that fit together like so many jumbled puzzle pieces to make up the most of my waking hours are not what I would choose. I find no inspiration in changing diapers, running errands, changing sheets, teaching fractions. And yet this life, this blessed, blessed life I lead inspires me.
See, God never meant for me to find my happiness in housework. He never created me to joy in doling discipline. He created me for Himself. He created me for Heaven, but heaven knows I’m no saint. It’s a darn good thing God’s got my back. He knew (even if I didn’t) that what I needed to transform me into heaven material was nothing more or less than my marriage–and all the messy, miraculous motherhood that’s come along with it!
This is why He called me. Not to make me happy (although, most days, I am). God made me a mother to make me holy.
I hadn’t always dreamed of having children. Quite the opposite. I took this gig dragging my heels a bit. But God knew. He knew I needed them. He knew that, once they were here, my heart would be cracked wide, and things would start to happen. I would start to happen–a better, brighter, broken down, and rebuilt me that I could never have imagined in the years when I thought that I knew best what I needed.
It took time, though. And so many setbacks. Time for me learn how to surrender.
When I became a mother, I didn’t just give birth. In a way, motherhood gave birth to me, as well. I had to get to know myself all over again. Who was this sleep-deprived, impatient, pessimistic person? I’d never have believed all the flaws lurking just under the surface. I’d never seen them, because I’d never been pressed. I’d never been tired enough, needed enough, challenged enough to push me over that precipice into the pit of all my petty faults.
Motherhood had put me in the dark, and there I was getting down and dirty with my own sin nature…and, boy, I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to admit that it had been there all along. It was easier to blame the kids, blame unemployment, blame the culture, blame my husband–anything but take responsibility for the reality that this was me, had always been me.
Oh, the stories I could tell you. The temper tantrums thrown, the backtalk, and the punched pillows. And I’m not talking about the kids. These were all mine. Mine to shamefacedly own and repent. Thankfully, God is a patient Father (far more patient than I am as a mother), and He was patient, oh so patient and gentle with me.
It took time, but slowly, I began to soften. I started to submit. Ever so slowly, I learned how to surrender to His way of cleaning house, the only way a heart can be cleansed, the hard way.
Unfortunately, like joy and happiness, I’d never really understood surrender. I’d always mistakenly equated it with inaction. It took me yet more time to learn that laziness and apathy were not to be my status quo. (Good thing, too, because the dirty dishes were driving this Type A gal bananas.) I needed balance, but not the kind I’d heard touted so often out in the world.
I needed to find the true balance of godly motherhood. How to be prudent…while acknowledging a Wisdom even higher. How to make plans…and accept that His were better. How to work hard…and give thanks for the work, even if I had nothing really to show for all the effort at day’s end. How to find joy in the journey…even when the road is rocky and the way is winding into nowhere and I cannot see the end.
But I have to be honest.
Surrender is scary.
Was I willing to invest in developing a new skill set? Could I accept that cooking and cleaning were worthy of being called “skills”–were worthy of my time and effort to learn well? Could I trust that decades of undivided devotion to my people would be worth it? Could I trust that God knew best how my family should grow? Would people say I was wasting my potential? Would I be wasting my potential? Or was I just beginning to discover the potential of me surrendered fully to God’s will?
It is so tempting to think we have all the answers. That if I do X, Y, and Z, I can craft a kid who’ll do me proud. It so tempting to follow the crowd, to do what everyone else is doing and hope it all turns out alright–even if I know He’s asking me to swim against the stream. It is so easy to get discouraged, to get angry, to turn to the world for just a little validation, a little direction. To play “if only” ad infinitem.
By contrast, it’s incredibly hard to welcome today just as it is, not laid back and lackadaisic but balanced on the knife’s blade between commitment and resignation. It is so, so hard to say YES to the crucible of everyday motherhood.
But this, this is our act of worship. Ours is a metamorphosis of the mundane. Our sanctification isn’t found on mountain summits but at the kitchen sink, the school pick-up line, the seventy-seventh swim meet.
Joyful, wholehearted surrender is our stairway to Heaven: through stomach flus and toddler tantrums and the sleepless nights submitted to the spine-tingling screams of teething babies. Through labors of love and labors of, well, labor. Through hard work and heartache, we learn to give thanks for the storms and still days alike. When it seems there is no wind moving us forward, no destination on the desolate horizon, we remember that we are being held up by an ocean. If we hold still, we can just hear Him whisper: the journey is the goal. Trust, trust and let me transform you.
I am still a work in progress. This side of heaven, I expect I always will be. The difference is, I’m no longer focused on that horizon or anxious when I do gaze out and realize it’s only an indistinctness shimmering far out to sea. I feel an ocean of love beneath me. I am upheld. I listen for the whisper of His voice, and I remember: the voyage isn’t a season. This journey isn’t a detour from more important things. Motherhood is not a sidetrack. It’s my one-track ticket to heaven, and if the way is long and winding, at least I’ve learned how to enjoy the ride.