I wanted to become a mother for 38 years before I actually became one. Really, when I was five years old my mother would tell me bedtime stories about “My Little Girl” and these stories were full of adventures I would have parenting my own daughter some day. I began babysitting and working in the church nursery when I was 11 years old, and it was my primary source of income (well, you know, besides my parents) until I was 15 and started working at McDonald’s and Kmart! Even then, I babysat often into my college years and beyond. I really enjoyed children and was sure I would be a good mother someday. Twenty-plus years of single adulthood gave me many opportunities to observe the parenting of others and determine just how I would do it if I ever had the chance. I somewhat unwittingly/somewhat intentionally developed an unscripted philosophy of parenting. I think it went something like this:
I would be always loving. I would be patient. Becoming a parent later than most would surely make me a more mature, sensible parent who knew something about life and children. (I majored in Family Studies/Human Development in college, after all!) As a committed Christian, I would take my children to church and teach them Bible Stories and have daily family devotional times. I would discipline my children consistently and lovingly and they would behave in public and in private because of the awesome parenting they were receiving. As a life-long book lover I would share classic children’s books with my children and we would read together daily, the children tucked sweetly next to me on the couch hanging on my every word, listening intently and developing their own love for reading. I would feed my children healthy foods – no sugar until they were five or six. I would make their baby food by grinding up our table food – just as my mother did for my little brother when we lived in East Africa (and had no grocery store – kinda forgot about that little detail). I would breast-feed until they were at least 12 months of age. This would build the strongest immune system and give them a good foundation nutritionally. I would home school my children because as their parent I would know their learning styles best and this would allow us to spend more time together in their important early learning years. I would love my children equally and treat them equally and discipline them the same way so they could never cry “favoritism!” I would carefully choose their toys so they would be adequately stimulated but not over-stimulated. We would not have crazy, battery-operated toys that made noise simply for the sake of making noise. My children would not have light-up shoes or velcro closures; they would learn to tie like everyone must. My children would not use pacifiers – they would learn to self soothe early on. My children would learn to sleep on their own in their own rooms and we would not co-sleep.
Let me tell you what sleep deprivation does for parenting philosophies – it changes them.
Let me tell you what special needs do for parenting philosophies – they change them.
Let me tell you what reality does for parenting philosophies – obliteration? I’ll be gracious – moderation, at least.
The no-pacifier rule went out the window after a week or so of being a round-the-clock human pacifier. New babies need to suck, and our new baby especially had weak mouth muscles that needed to be exercised. For the sake of our sleep and our sanity, our baby used a pacifier.
Breast feeding went out the window after seven weeks of trying our very best to feed our baby only breast milk. Pumping round-the-clock, watching other people feed my baby while I sat hooked up to a machine, was not a great breast-feeding scenario. Our baby struggled to eat more than a little at a time. We dribbled hard-earned breast milk into his mouth with a pipette early on. The emotional strain was incredible. Getting up at night to pump and to feed, especially since he couldn’t take more than a couple of ounces at a time, was really wearing. Someone finally convinced me that baby formula was not rat poison, and feeding my baby was more important than holding to a philosophy that proved to be detrimental to the family unit.
No battery operated toys? The first toy I bought for my baby, before he was born, was a battery operated music cube. It was played with for years. Within a few months, we were advised by an occupational therapist that our baby needed more stimulation and some appropriate toys were suggested, which we bought. We found out about hand-me-downs in a big way as many friends passed along toys and clothes their young children had outgrown. We soon had more toys than we knew what to do with. Soon enough we learned our child loved music and musical instruments – all of which made lots of noise! Happy noise, as it turned out.
Our child grew, and his needs became apparent. Our days became filled with appointments – therapy for this and that, routine check-ups, neurological exams. We were very busy, and very tired. No co-sleeping? When our son was around three years old, I calculated I had had roughly twelve full nights of sleep since his birth. This was not sustainable. He seemed to have some difficulty with body temperature regulation, and muscles tight with the spasticity of cerebral palsy would sometimes relax best when he could feel my body snuggled next to him. Sometimes it was best for us to sleep for a while next to each other.
I did try to make some baby food. I really didn’t have time to make baby food. Gerber was going to have to do. My kids loved, and still love, what we came to call “squeezie packs”. One day a grocery store check out clerk told me he would share with me an article he had read about how awful they were to feed to our children. Another time going through airport security our “squeezie packs” tested postive for TNT. I am not joking. We removed them from the children’s diet, but on occasion, they still will have a “squeezie pack” – organic, of course.
Consistent and loving discipline? Not always. One method of discipline seemed to work for one child, but had no effect on the other child. The same “infraction” might be treated harshly on one occasion and receive nary a glance on another occasion. Life, exhaustion, stress levels – oh, how I wish they didn’t impact my consistency and expressions of affection, but it turns out they do.
Treating them equally? Yeah, right. Turns out people, even little people, are different, and need to be treated differently. Do we hear “that’s not fair?!” Oh, yes, we do. And it is true. Fairness is not a goal here anymore. It can’t be. Is it fair that one child can walk and the other can’t? Is it fair that one child can hear well and the other can’t? Is it fair that one method of discipline works well for one child and a different method of discipline works well for the other child? No, the trite phrase “Life isn’t fair” is true on a profound level. The opposite of fairness isn’t abuse, it is diversity. At school my children have IEP’s – Individualized Education Plans – because their needs are different from those of typically developing children and the law requires that they be educated in a way that works for them. At home, they have ILP’s – individualized life plans – informal, unwritten and developed on the fly at times, but necessary because the natural laws of life require it.
Home schooling? I tried. It didn’t work for us for many reasons – some attributable to me, some to them, some to our complex reality.
Patience? I have learned I have a smaller and smaller vat of patience as time goes on. I currently have about a half-cup measure of patience daily, and it is often completely gone by 9:30 a.m.
No velcro shoes? HAHAHAHAHA! See comment above about patience. At least one of them being able to put on their own shoes extends my half-cup just another few minutes. And I’m still not crazy about the light up shoes, but when they were the only available shoes (that weren’t going to break the bank) that fit over the braces, we bought them. That’s life, folks.
Family devotional times? Well, I would still like to see that happen, but so far our children are getting much of their spiritual instruction from day to day experiences that lead to discussion about God’s love for us, his peace when we are afraid, his trustworthiness when things seem unsure, his comfort when we are sad, his strength when we are weak, his forgiveness when we sin. This isn’t a theoretical spirituality, it is a reality. I am encouraged when I hear them ask God for his help when they are trying to do something hard, or find something they have misplaced. They have heard us verbalize our need for God’s help at these times and they are learning of His dependability in real life. I am grateful for this, even if we don’t have a formal time of family worship. Speaking of worship – how about when my children just want a playlist of worship music on YouTube and play and sing along (loudly and out of tune)? That’s real worship. That’s joyful worship! That makes my heart sing.
So, I am not the mother I thought I would be. I am a more real, more honest, more ugly, more beautiful, and especially more blessed mother than I ever expected to be. I am ashamed of myself at times. I am amazed at myself at times. I am tired almost all the time. I appreciate rest in a way I could never have imagined before motherhood. I am stretched mentally and emotionally and physically beyond what I can bear. I am learning more about God’s grace and sustaining power available to me, an impatient, frustrated, irritated and harried mother, who wants to be more of a channel of His patience, grace, understanding and forbearance. Motherhood has exposed me as the incapable, needy, demanding person that I can be, but also as one learning to ask God and my children for forgiveness and grace and understanding. It’s a better balance than my uninformed parenting philosophy offered.
But, more than anything, I am more blessed than I ever knew I could be. I laugh more – turns out kids are hilarious. My heart gets all big and I feel the sides of my face stretching with the huge smile of pride as I watch my beautiful daughter stand with her preschool class and receive her certificate and sing all the songs they learned this year and pick her nose and her wedgie. It’s real life. Something a scripted philosophy doesn’t really accommodate. I have this incredible joy that bubbles over when my precious little family does something together, or when the kids are playing nicely together, or I hang up a piece of their sweet, imperfect art work. My life isn’t orderly. My house isn’t clean. Some days I’m not clean either. But I’m living the dream – the dream of real motherhood, with real issues, real mess, real blessing and real joy. I’m glad I’m not the mother I thought I would be.