Borrowing one of my favorite lines from an “American Idol” contestant cut from the competition: “What just happened here?” That is the question I have been asking myself. When did I become that woman in the store who hears a baby cry and makes a beeline to the young mom with an arsenal of “helpful” advice? I hear things come out of my mouth like, “Oh, does your baby need a bottle?” In addition, I look at stressed out mommies and I want to hug them and utter the deadly platitudes:
“These are the best years of your life.”
“The time passes by so quickly.”
“Enjoy your children while they are young!”
(And the worst one of all), “You will miss them when they are gone.” Aa-a-a-r-gh!
When I do this, memories flood my mind of well-meaning older women giving me this kind of “helpful” advice and my reaction to it. Certainly not my first experience hearing helpful advice, but one that stands out in my memory, happened in 1990. I was eight months pregnant with my sixth child. My good friend, who was about twenty years older than me, had called me on the phone. This is when phones were attached to the walls and the handset was attached to the phone by what is called “a cord.” I invested in long cords, which enabled me to walk into another room where I might talk on the phone in relative peace and privacy. (A girl can dream.) I pulled the cord into the kitchen, opened the door to the basement, and sat on the landing with the door closed over the cord, talking to my friend. My son, Eric, had followed me and as I sat, he was laying on my back with his arms tightly around my neck. Did I mention I was pregnant? I could hear sounds of destruction going on all around the house as the children realized there wasn’t any parental supervision going on. I ignored the banging and the clanging, screaming and squealing as long as I could. (If they are making noise, they are breathing, right?) When I couldn’t take it anymore, I told my friend I needed to go and assess the damage. Her parting words to me were, “Cindy, you don’t know how lucky you are. The time goes by quickly. Enjoy your children while they are young.” (Sigh.) I put the phone down next to me, rubbed my face with my hands, took a deep breath, and dove back into the fray.
I love being a mom now, and I loved being a mom when my children were all little. I didn’t wish the away the time (too often). So, what is it about those helpful pieces of advice and words of warning that sound like fingernails scratching a chalkboard? After every encounter, I would say to myself, “I will never utter those words to a mother of young children. Never!” Well, how did “never” become, “Did I just say that?” How it began: It was 2012, thirty years since I had my first child. I had put my youngest child on a plane so he could travel to the great state of Oregon and serve a mission for our church for two years. All of a sudden, the day I dreamed of had come: I was an empty nester. I could read books all day, go to the movies whenever I wanted, I could eat a meal by myself, I didn’t have to hide the soda pop or after-school treats, I could stay up late and sleep in. No more schedules full of kids’ choir concerts and soccer games, no more chore charts, no more midnight madness when a child remembers a homework assignment given two weeks prior and due first period the next day. What did I do? Did I jump up and down? No. I cried. I cried and thought, “Where did those days go and what am I going to do now?” I decided a little shopping therapy would help and so I went to the local T.J. Maxx store to buy a new purse. When I got to the purse department, I saw a mom with her two little boys. These cute little guys were trying to help her shop. It was important to them that she bought just the right purse so they kept bringing her different options and styles she might like. Each time they picked one up, three would fall to the floor. I just stood and watched. I felt the tears well up. This sweet woman looked at me and said, “Oh, no. You are going to tell me this is the best time of my life and I will miss this when they are gone.” With tears coming down my cheeks, I said, “Yes! It’s true and I am sorry but that is exactly what I am going to say!” I told her my story: seven kids; I sent the last one off today; now I am an empty nester, etc., etc., etc. I could hear words coming out of my mouth, while the voice in my brain was yelling, “stop talking!” But, my mouth kept making sounds. She was trying to pretend to be interested and polite. During this time, her two boys were running buckshot over the purse department and had started reorganizing the wallet section. She pointed to their handiwork and said, “And I suppose you think this is cute?” “Yes,” I confessed and apologized again. At this point, she called her boys to her and held their hands a little tighter as she backed away from “the crazy lady.”
I related this story to my daughter, Stephanie, who is a mother of five children. She said, “You all say that you miss this time of small children profoundly and that WE are going to miss it, but none of you, if given the opportunity, would go back or take on more children now.” Well . . . she had a point.
After pondering these episodes from both vantage points, I have a few ideas that may help build a bridge from one generation of moms to the next: the truth is, something does happen to us when it is over. It’s like that feeling you get when you have come through a challenge and, with great surprise, you realize all the things you learned on the journey. You see all of those tender mercies you might not have noticed before and realize that the hardships and hard days you survived did, as the saying goes, “make you stronger.” Those days that seemed so long and difficult start to melt away in these realizations. You look at your adult children and realize your efforts counted for something. They move on and marry, they take care of and nurture their spouses and children, and although that is what you want, the days you spent wrestling on the floor, playing in the backyard, or tricking them into giving you sloppy kisses are missed profoundly. Somehow, in all those long years, the memories or treasures stored in your heart aren’t quite as plentiful as you thought they would be. The tactile memory of arms around your neck and a child hanging off your back doesn’t just warm your heart; it spawns a longing to feel it all over again. When it’s over and you realize the magnitude of the work you did with your children, you are left to wonder what could ever be that important again. What could you fill your life up with now that would have the same kind of meaning?
Then, we see played out for us, in living color, young mothers in the midst of the struggle, and we feel all of those feelings and we want to say to them, to you, “Hang in there. What you are doing is important and worth it.” We want to hug you and tell you that everything will be fine. We want to help you see things from our point of view. There are so many feelings and emotions all jumbled up that it comes out in the awkward sentence, “Maybe they need a bottle.” I don’t know how else to describe it. We want to make sure you have enough memories in your heart and know that the day will come when you would give all you had to feel tight arms around your neck and wipe off a sloppy kiss and the only thing we can think of to say is, “Don’t blink! You will miss them when they are gone.”
Do we want to go back? No. But we want to help. We want to spread the good news that all is well and right and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. We want you to enjoy it and make memories with your children. Play a little longer at the park, let the dishes go, read more books together. Take a day off and do nothing but build sheet and blanket forts in your house with your children, go for walks in the park, and just talk. Cancel all of the to-do tasks of the day and take your kids to the zoo. Knowing that you will never have enough memories, make as many as you can. And please, the next time a woman (and it might be me) tries to give you unsolicited advice about your children or starts crying and babbling in the purse department of a store, take a moment to give her a hug. One day it will be you.