While I was expecting my first child, I studied up on parenting like a college student cramming for the exam of her life. I poured over advice on how to wash new baby clothes, how to give baby a bath, how to get my newborn to sleep through the night, and, just for good measure, how to discipline a toddler and raise a respectful teenager.
Then I had the baby and pretty much just zeroed in on that sleep thing.
Over the course of the 16 years since the birth of my eldest (who is, as it turns out, a respectful teenager, thanks for asking!), I kept up my on-the-job training in the school of motherhood. I learned how to get permanent marker off the walls, how to hem a dance costume at the eleventh hour, and what in the world “box multiplication” is. But along the way, I also learned a few lessons that spill over onto the rest of my life—lessons I suspect only motherhood could have taught me.
1. Not every decision comes down to one “right” choice and one “wrong” choice.
When my older daughter was in preschool, my husband and I started thinking about when to send her to kindergarten. Our firstborn’s late fall birthday put her on the fence in our school district, so the choice of whether to send her as a young five-year-old or wait a year was left to us. We (okay, I) agonized over this decision. I questioned other parents, teachers at our church, the UPS guy…anyone who would give me their opinion on the subject. We were staring at door number one and door number two, and I was sure one would bring our precious girl happiness and success, while the other would RUIN HER LIFE. What if I picked the wrong door?
Ultimately, the decision was made for us: my due date for our second child fell on what would have been the first day of school if we’d sent our older daughter as a young five-year-old. I wasn’t up for two major life events in the same day, so we decided to have the baby one year and send her big sister to kindergarten the next. It turned out to be the best choice for a lot of reasons, but I learned something in the process: there were pros and cons behind both doors. Our job was to make the best decision we could at the time and then move forward.
Now, when our then-kindergartner is thinking about college, our experience so many years ago tells me that in the mix of options, we’re not looking for right or wrong, but the best fit. Maybe she’ll go to a four-year college and live in the dorm. Maybe she’ll start at a community college and transfer later. We’ll help her make the wisest decision she can—but this time around, I won’t bother asking the UPS guy what he thinks we should do.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Save your sweat for the big stuff.
In her fascinating book The Spark, Kristine Barnett describes a “code scale” she developed to help her autistic son reign in his reactions to life’s smaller annoyances. She told him that losing a loved one was a “code ten” on the scale of things to get upset about. An annoying tag on his shirt, on the other hand, was a “code one.” She counseled him not to waste “code ten” energy on a “code one” event (117).
As someone who routinely freaks out about everything, I love this graduated approach to life’s ups and downs. I don’t agree with the traditional adage made famous by Richard Carlson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff. It is not all small stuff. There is heartbreak and sorrow and grief in life that cannot be brushed off as insignificant. But if everything that happens—from a “D” in algebra to a family member’s serious illness—causes the same reaction, we’re going to be living in constant crisis. We’ve adopted Barnett’s scale in our house, and these days, when I’m defaulting to freak-out mode, my tween often says, “Mom. It’s not a code ten.” Yes, dear.
3. If you are a mom, you have power. Use it wisely.
Here’s the truth: my mood can make or break a day for my entire family. By my words, the expression on my face, and the tone of my voice, I can send my family off to school and work with a blessing or a curse. This is a huge responsibility and one I often wish I could hand off. I don’t always want this much power. I wish my little family could be happy even if I’m not. But as the heart of our home, I have a unique opportunity to influence the minds and hearts of my husband and daughters. I can ruin a good day or save a bad one.
A few years ago, our family was getting ready for a long-planned vacation. This trip was A Big Deal—something I hoped we would all recall fondly for years to come. As I prayed for our trip, I asked God to help me choose not to let anything ruin our time together. I knew that no matter what happened, I had the power to cast it positively or negatively. If we all ended up with raging poison ivy or if the motel room we’d booked sight-unseen looked like something out of a horror movie, my little family would pretty much buy whatever spin I chose to put on it. (“This will be fun! We can play Psycho! Who wants to take a shower?”)
Again, that’s a big responsibility, but it’s an amazing opportunity, too—my mission, should I choose to accept it. (And for the record, we didn’t get poison ivy, the motel was fine, and we’re all counting down to version 2.0 of that trip as soon as possible, this time with increased ice cream consumption.)
4. Little things matter.
My favorite quote about homemaking is from the American psychotherapist and spiritual writer, Thomas Moore. In his book, Care of the Soul, he writes, “The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest” (285). I hear the truth of this whenever I go to parent-teacher conferences at school, and my girls’ teachers tell me that my husband and I should “keep doing what you’re doing.” What we’re doing, as it turns out, isn’t anything revolutionary and, taken as individual practices, probably doesn’t look like much. Does it matter that I yell “I love you” out the front door to my tween and teen when they’re waiting for the bus? Does it matter that my husband takes the girls to dance every Monday night? Does it matter that Family Pizza Night is a sacred, inviolable ritual my girls say they look forward to all week?
Moore would suggest that these details do matter, and I agree. I have, for instance, repeatedly witnessed the transformative power of the family dinner. Over the course of an unremarkable meal, something remarkable happens: moods are lifted, burdens are shared and eased, and we generally like each other at least a little more when we’re finished than we did when we started. This feels miraculous to me—and very important to our souls.
5. This too shall pass.
As a first-time mom, I often felt discouraged when my baby was in a stage I didn’t particularly like because I was convinced that it would NEVER END. The blessing of being an older mom is that I can look back over the years and see first-hand proof that stages are finite. My two-year-old quit throwing tantrums and morphed into a repeat Student of the Month. My teen traded her pubescent insomnia for solid sleep. (I’m trying to remember this while I’m up half the night with daughter #2). When you’re in it—I mean, IN IT—the stage seems interminable. But more than a few years of motherhood have proven to me that there is an end, even if it’s not in sight at the moment.
In my home state of Michigan, we have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” Sunny and seventy degrees one day can swing to snow and frigid temps the next. Being a mom has taught me that a similar truth applies to much of life—if you don’t like what’s going on one minute, wait a little while and it will probably change.
Motherhood has shown me what I don’t know over and over again. I can’t braid hair. I’m hopeless at crafts and take-home science projects. I’m still figuring out how to navigate the complexities of tween and teen girl drama. But I’m thankful God has taught me some truths along the way. I’ll take these far-reaching life lessons over understanding box multiplication any day.
QUESTION: What decision are you facing in this season of motherhood? Is your biggest challenge today “small stuff” or “big stuff”? How can you use your mom power to build up your family? What little thing made a big difference this week? Is your child in a stage right now you’ll be glad to see them get out of?
CHALLENGE: Today, just try to do the next right thing: make the best decision you can at the time you have to make it; save your sweat for the big stuff; use your power wisely; value the little things; and, if it’s a dark day, hold on until the weather changes.
Edited by Aubrey Degn and Sarah Monson.
Image background from Shutterstock with graphics by Julie Finlayson.