Licking the last of the dessert off my spoon, I look up to see my mother wiping down the underside of her microwave with Windex. I stopped by her house this morning for a visit after the kids got on the bus. When I arrived, she poured me a cup of coffee and offered something to eat. “Let’s see what I have here,” she said, opening her freezer to reveal dozens of plastic storage bags, neatly labeled and dated, filled with leftovers and baked goods. “Oh, never mind that, I’ll just make something.” Within fifteen minutes the sweet smell of blueberries, simmering in sugar, wafted through the kitchen. “There you are,” she announced, handing me a steaming bowl of cobbler, floating in cream.
It has taken me seven years and four living, breathing reminders, to accept my fate as a mother of young children. With acceptance, came adjusted expectations and a longer fuse. Today, however, as I sit in this cool, serenely sterile prototype of a life without kids, I feel in my gut the resurgence of a gnawing appetite for an existence other than my own. It is usually my practice, to douse sparks of resentment with a big splash of reality. Tending to the needs of family leaves little time for mental ponderings on “what if?” But here, the quietness releases the running to do list from my head and opens the floodgates for spontaneous reflection. Windows without smudges, the absent smell of pee and damp towels coming from the bathroom, a gleaming linoleum floor; everywhere I turn I am reminded of the contrasting chaos and clutter waiting for me at home.
“If my children were grown…” and with that, I throw out the first log. The spark is now lit, filling my insides with the warmth of possibilities. I imagine my own freezer, layered with lasagna, stew, and homemade muffins, ready to thaw and serve at a moments notice. “I could decorate however I wanted”, I muse, remembering with frustration the broken vase currently lying in pieces on my dining room table. I’d be a better hostess, a better wife, and a better friend if only I weren’t so distracted by trying to keep up with the mess! This line of reasoning spreads like the wildfire it is, engulfing my resolve with flames of dissatisfaction.
When traveling down the path laid out for us, we are often held up by debris. Pulling up to these roadblocks, the natural inclination is to change direction. “A different job, a different town, a different spouse, would make this life so much easier.” And we avoid the tedious work of reconstruction by driving around in circles in search of a street that is clear. We run to escape our frustrations only to find out that the root of our fear, insecurity and procrastination was not deeply imbedded in that person, place, or thing left behind, but in the very center of our soul.
Two years ago, I was newly pregnant with my fourth child when I found a lump in my left breast. My doctor was concerned and referred me to a specialist. I had to wait three weeks for an appointment, and the not knowing was almost more than I could bear. I slept all the time and let the house chores and laundry pile up around me. Any little thing would set me off, resulting in either yelling or tears. I am a person with a strong belief in the will of God but I allowed myself to become a victim of my circumstances. If only I didn’t have morning sickness… If only I wasn’t so tired … If only this apartment wasn’t so small… then I would be brave.
Two months later, I am naked from the waist up, lying on a medical table listening, with relief, to the ultra-sound technician confirm she had seen absolutely nothing unusual. Whatever growth had invaded my breast was now gone. On the drive home, I felt elation accompanied by a twinge of shame over my lack of stoicism. About two weeks into my depression, my mother had come to check on me and was appalled by the scene behind our front door. I was weepy, unkempt, and still wearing my pajamas at eleven-o-clock in the morning. The kids were running around me in circles, Sesame Street blaring in the background. She stepped over the toys and dirty underwear to sit me up, look me in the eye, and compassionately kick me in the butt. “I am so sorry you are scared and fatigued,” she started “but these are your children and they need you to get off that couch and be their mother!”
No matter how legitimate our gripes and difficulties may be, wallowing in self-pity will always feel worse than picking ourselves up by the bootstraps and doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Dissatisfaction gives us permission to sit idle while we complain about all the great things we could do if only we had the right materials to work with. Contentment assesses honestly the materials in our possession, and realizing their potential, transforms them into art. Wisdom and patience aren’t handed out for free. It takes the right combination of joy, pain, fear, love, and disappointment to find our hidden strengths beneath the many layers of unfulfilled expectations.
This is not the season for me to be organized. This is not the time for gourmet meals. For now, I have the temporary honor of being the most influential person in the lives of four small children. To take this responsibility for granted would be catastrophic for my own development. It is within my power to create an environment of peace and well being, not by the color I paint my walls, but by listening, laughing and a limitless offering of unconditional forgiveness. In the blink of an eye, I will be melancholy for the scuffmarks and ink-stains: proof of a house filled with life. But for now, I will pre-heat the oven for another round of fish sticks, and quiet the longings for anything, but this once-in-lifetime opportunity to feed my family