We recently lost our goldfish, Dorothy. Yes, I know that goldfish aren’t meant to last long, but this wasn’t just an ordinary fish. About two weeks after I miscarried our fourth child, our family was in a bit of a slump. My youngest children constantly begged for a dog (since they couldn’t have a brother), and we were all feeling down about the loss of this little life that we thought was coming into our family.
One afternoon, while visiting a local carnival, my daughter Grace asked if she could try to win a goldfish. We consented, though the chances were slim that she’d get anything out of it other than the thrill of watching ping-pong balls bounce around a cluster of small water vases.
As Grace tossed ball after ball, you could feel the enthusiasm of her brother and sister mounting. “Go, Gracie, Go!!” they cheered. I ached as I watched her throw with such determination, and I remember closing my eyes and saying, “PLEASE let her get this fish.” Our family needed a victory…needed another life to replace the one we’d lost. Not more than three seconds later, one of the little white balls plopped into a narrow-necked vase, and Dorothy became a Perry.
We loved that fish like no fish has ever been loved. The children added her to each family portrait they colored, pet her each morning (I don’t know if she liked that so well), fed her as often as I’d let them, and told everyone at school about their great pet. Over the course of the two years Dorothy was with us, we did finally get to have a new baby, and with all the excitement that accompanied this new brother, Dorothy was still loved, but not quite as needed.
Still, when I found Dorothy floating one morning, I began to contemplate the time she had spent in our home, and I realized that sometimes the life of another comes to our lives to get us to where we need to be…and then it slowly fades away as we gain the strength to live without it.
This was true of the tree I befriended in first grade. As a student at a new school, I didn’t have anyone to play with at recess. I had come into the class mid-year, greeted by firmly-established cliques and a first/second grade combination class where half the students were older and everyone seemed smarter. Instead of playing handball or twirling on the bars during our breaks, I went and stood by a small tree near the jungle gym. I would talk to it, pretend I was a botanist giving its leaves and bark a good inspection, sing songs to it, and swing from the low branches until the bell rang to go inside.
This sorry situation fortunately only lasted a few weeks, and then I met some great girls who filled my recesses with happy memories. I would still give the tree a good pat each time I walked by, but the months passed, and soon that tree didn’t get a second glance. Eventually, a lightening storm destroyed the tree, and though I felt sick inside the day it got hauled away, I had grown into a confident, happy student, constantly surrounded by good friends. I will be forever grateful to that tree for helping me through those first stressful weeks.
So where am I going with all this talk of goldfish and trees? To me, my role as a mother is similar to that of Dorothy’s and the tree. It has been said that a mother’s purpose is to work herself out of a job, or as Dorothy Fisher said, “to make leaning unnecessary” (ironic how her name fits right in with this article!). I am a life, helping another life to get where it needs to be. My hope is that all this work I am investing into my children will one day pay off as they become independent, capable adults.
Sometimes we, as mothers, put pressure on ourselves to be everything for our children…for the rest of their lives. In circumstances where children have special needs that will require them to be under watchful care through adulthood, they are certainly lucky to have such dedicated women as their mothers. As I watch such precious families, it seems as though the child fills the role of Dorothy and the tree—helping his or her family to become what they need to be.
For other families, however, it is expected that the children won’t need adult supervision once they become adults, thanks to the many years of nurturing by their parents. As I pondered this aspect of my role, I decided that there are two ideas I need to fully understand and live by: First, mothers are valuable–even when the children leave, so I can stop trying to freeze time, and I can let my little ones grow up.
We hear (and say) this all the time. “They’re growing up too fast! I want them to stay little!” Part of the reason I say this is because I simply enjoy my babies. They are cute, snuggly, funny, and full of wonder. Another reason, however, is because I fear that once I become “the mom to call on Sundays,” as opposed to the mommy who is needed every waking moment, part of my value will diminish. Life is going to change, but a mother’s value will not.
Realizing this takes a weight off my shoulders. Someday my children will be totally independent in the bathroom. They’ll make their own play dates, safely use the oven, learn to drive, go to college, and build their own families. That isn’t sad…that’s exciting!
I don’t need to feel hurt when my children cheer at the arrival of a fun babysitter or push me aside so they can do something themselves. These are moves in the right direction. It doesn’t mean I am not important, it simply means I have done my job.
I just hope they will remember these years we did spend together—how crazy I am about them, how much I love their homemade circuses, how I treasure their kisses and look forward to giving them back tickles before they go to bed (on the nights when I’m not exhausted). I never want them to forget how we stayed up late talking about the funny things they did as toddlers or how close we felt after a good hour of singing around the piano. I will miss them, but I get little tingles down my spine as I imagine them repeating these events with their own families. That’s what this life is all about.
This brings me to the second thought I need to keep in mind. Assuming my children will leave someday, I need to develop the part of me that will remain. A friend of mine who studied sociology in college told me of a study that measured the spirituality of women over their lifetimes. They found that women maintained a relatively high level of spirituality when their children were in the home, but once they became empty-nesters, their spirituality plummeted. I can completely understand how this would happen, but I want to do all I can to keep that from happening to me.
I don’t want to be an old stump (like in The Giving Tree) in my later years. I want to be a sapling, ready to grow and discover, and planting the seeds for those years needs to start now.
One thing I can do is invest quality time in my marriage and put my husband first (because he and I will be together long after our children have left). It is far too easy to give my children all I’ve got and save the worst part of myself for my spouse, but he deserves better. Giving my very best to my husband is not robbing my children—it is strengthening the family as a whole and investing in my future with him.
Another thing I can do is begin stocking away ideas for hobbies, interests, areas of study, and new adventures to conquer in later years. Now is not the time for every activity I love because my children desperately need a mommy, but someday I will have the time, and I can prepare now to make my life continuously wonderful.
These are just a few thoughts I wanted to record, but I am sure there are many more ways to foster our children’s independence and live full, exciting lives. This time with my children is precious. Even though I feel like a perpetual counter-wiper on some days, a life that is dedicated to another life is useful and valuable—whether it belongs to a goldfish, a tree, or me.
QUESTION: Can you identify at least one way you can encourage independence in your children?
CHALLENGE: Decide how you are going to live your life now so your later years will be exciting and meaningful.
Image from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
#1 Julie Noteboom Said this on 12-11-2008 At 04:35 pm April – I truly love reading your articles and always shed a tear – okay many tears. You are such a wonderful person, writer, friend and Mother!!! I just wanted you to know that you are an inspiration and your articles put life into perspective in such a fun way!!! I have learned a lot from you and please keep inspiring us all!!!! Reply to this Comment
#2 diane chacon Said this on 12-11-2008 At 11:42 pm Thank you April! You are a fantastic writer. You are an inspiration to me. I look back on earlier motherhood and wished that I would have enjoyed it a bit more, like you so ofter convey in your letters and actions. I love all stages of motherhood, but I think the hardest years, are the ones you are in RIGHT NOW! It gets a bit easier as they become more independant. Thanks for your uplifting website. Love, Diane Reply to this Comment
#3 Susan Coram Said this on 12-12-2008 At 11:56 am I enjoy and learn from every article I read from you. You are amazing! Reply to this Comment
#4 Allyson Reynolds Said this on 5-6-2009 At 11:03 pm You are such a great writer. You can take any crazy little event in life and make it meaningul and inspiring! That is truly a gift that I hope you will keep sharing. (BTW – I am in total denial that my kids will grow up and go away someday . . .) Reply to this Comment
#5 Christina Bartholomew Said this on 6-19-2009 At 08:34 pm Beautiful story about the tree and Dorothy. Reply to this Comment
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