So much of motherhood is hard work. It’s sweet and rewarding and overflowing with goodness, but it’s also endlessly demanding and fraught with challenges. There is the very real responsibility of keeping our children alive, the much more complicated responsibility of raising them well, and all the imagined responsibilities of raising them “right,” whatever that means. Throw in some concern for taking care of ourselves, and not letting our marriages slip between the cracks in the process, and it’s enough to make even the sanest woman start to crack. Or so I’ve heard.
I drive myself crazy with it. I toil over it. I berate myself for all the ways I’m sure I’m falling short, and I lose sleep with worry that I’m failing my kids in ways I don’t even know the extent of yet. The lackluster (or totally absent, sorry second kid) baby books, the allowance for “one more show” when I should be reading to them instead, the bribes in Target—I’m ruining them, I know it.
I received a strange gift the other day, though. A moment in which motherhood was easy; in which I was everything they needed without even trying.
We were on vacation: a four-day cruise with 35 of my extended family members. My husband and I decided to take turns hanging back in our room when our kids went to bed around 8 or 8:30, so at least one of us would get to experience some cruise ship night life with my cousins.
As I laid there one night, reading a book while my kids slept, I wondered what my husband and cousins were up to, and I felt a tiny bit sorry for myself that I was missing out on whatever fun they were having. But in the midst of my little pity party, while my distracted eyes wandered away from the pages of my book and mindlessly looked around the room, I was struck by how peacefully my kids slept. An errant arm flung off the side of the bed, mouths agape, their lovies now tossed to the side as they slept deeply and without care. We were on a boat in the middle of the freezing ocean on a pitch black night—a scenario that in itself gives plenty of grown adults pause. We were in a strange room, one that didn’t smell or look or feel like home at all. But I was there with them. They had their mom, and that was enough.
It occurred to me as I watched them sleep how easy this part is. All I have to do is be here. My presence alone is enough to overpower the fear of a sinking ship, the uncertainty of a dark night, and the unfamiliarity of this strange room. I do not have to recite a special script or follow a research-proven curriculum or even exercise superhuman mom patience. All I have to do is be here, in the room with them while they sleep. I am enough for this. Not only enough, but perhaps the only person in the world who is even capable of providing this kind of comfort to these two kids.
As I’m laying there, my book now resting on my chest while I study their sleeping faces, I congratulate myself a little bit. While I spend so much of my motherhood worrying if I’m getting it right and focusing on my shortcomings, tonight, I am delivering. Tonight, I am exactly what they need.
And then I realize, of course, that that’s all they ever really need. To feel safe. To feel loved. To know that they don’t have to go it alone. Nearly all of the other stuff that I fret about—the manners, the education, the decision making, the social skills—is rooted first in their understanding of my love for them. If I can succeed at engraving into their hearts and minds that they are loved, nearly everything else is gravy.
I pick the book up off my chest and put it on the bedside table, so I can sit up and get a better look at them while they sleep so seriously. There is no trace of blame for the times I’ve blown it, no weight of expectation that I provide a perfect childhood for them, no question as to what tomorrow holds. There is only slumber. Only peace. Only the knowledge that right now, on a boat in the middle of the ocean on a freezing pitch black night, that everything is okay. Because their mama is here.
So I forgive myself. Not just for the times I’ve blown it, but for the ways I’ve beat myself up for blowing it. I forgive myself in advance for the next time that I’ll lose my patience or fail to uphold my word or rely on a bribe to survive an errand. I take a deep breath, and as I exhale, I let go of some of my own expectations about how this is all supposed to look and feel. I try to memorize their peaceful faces so I can always think back to this and remind myself exactly how simple it can be.
Sure, so much of motherhood is hard work. But maybe I’ve made it harder than it has to be sometimes. Maybe I’ve put too much pressure on myself and overcomplicated it in some ways. Maybe I’ve underestimated the immense value of simply loving them. Maybe the best thing we can do as mothers is sometimes the easiest: To love them, to be in the room with them, our presence strong enough to cast out all their fears.