I remember the exact moment my son expressed shame for the first time.
He was three, and I’d just picked him up from preschool. I buckled my seatbelt and put on my sunglasses as I asked him about his day. In the middle of demonstrating the new song he learned in music class, he interrupted himself to say, “There goes Ashlyn.” I followed his gaze, catching sight of two blond pigtails before they disappeared behind a mammoth SUV.
“Oh yeah? Is she in your class?” I asked. He’d only started at this school a couple of weeks ago; I was still learning everyone’s names.
“Yeah.” A long pause, and then more softly, “She pushed me on the playground today.”
“Really, buddy? What happened?” I asked distractedly as I waited for my chance to pull out of the parking spot and into the steady stream of cars crawling toward the exit. I wasn’t terribly concerned. I’d learned by now that pushing, hitting and even the occasional biting incident were all part and parcel of the preschool experience.
“Well, I was at the top of the slide and she wanted to go down, so she pushed me … and I don’t wanna tell you the rest,” he said as his voice trailed off and his eyes cast downward.
“Wait, what?” He had my attention now. Nathan is my chatterbox; there’s usually no detail of his day that goes unshared. What could he be withholding?
“Buddy, what is it? You can always tell me the truth.” I caught a glimpse of his head shake as I maneuvered onto the main road.
“Of course you can, Nathan. Is it that you’re afraid you’ll get in trouble? Just tell me what happened,” I encouraged.
Another long pause. And then, so quietly that I had to ask him to repeat himself twice, he finally told me the rest of the story.
“I pushed her back, Mom.”
By then we were at a red light, so I could give his reflection in the rearview mirror my full attention. His eyes were big and remorseful, but there was also another emotion hiding in their depths: fear. I decided immediately that, although no pushing/hitting is a hard and fast rule at our house — the violation of which earns an immediate timeout — this time, there was another lesson that mattered more.
We talked about why pushing was never the best choice and how he could have handled it differently. Nathan seemed relieved that no punishment was imminent and as he relaxed, I told him one last thing — the thing I hoped he would remember the most.
“Thanks for being brave and telling me the truth, buddy. I want you to always feel like you can talk to me and Dad. Remember, nothing you could tell me will ever change how I feel about you. I love you with my whole heart and I always will.”
Two years after the Playground Pushing Incident, we continue to instill that message. Every night at Nathan’s bedtime, my husband and I have taken to whispering two questions:
What could you do to make us love you more?
What could you do to make us love you less?
His answer comes automatically now, with a sleepy smile and just one word: Nothing.
Every night, I pray and ask God to help that truth wriggle its way into his heart. We will always love him like this.
My daughter Ellie’s latest obsession is Runaway Bunny. Before every nap and at bedtime, she looks up at me with her big, pleading eyes and asks, “Read bunny book, mommy? Pweaaaase?”
For three weeks, we have read the bunny book twice a day, every day, before she falls asleep. She giggles at the efforts of the bunny to escape, and loves to find his hiding spots on a rock at the top of a mountain or in a row of flowers in the garden. But it is the mother who captivates Ellie most. On each page, the mother shifts her shape or takes up a new skill in the pursuit of her errant bunny.
“Aww,” Ellie says every time. “Mommy catch baby. Sweet mommy.”
While normally, reading the same book over and over (and over) would set my teeth on edge, I have a soft spot for Runaway Bunny. There’s something powerful in this worn little board book, whose words I’ve memorized by now. I identify with the mother bunny's dogged persistence. Her son becomes a sailboat; she becomes the wind. Her son becomes a bird; she becomes a tree. She climbs a mountain and walks a tightrope — there is no length to which the mother will not go to stay a part of her child’s world.
Nothing could make her love him more.
Nothing could make her love him less.
No, I don’t mind reading this one.
Treasure every second. Soak up this time. You’ll miss this phase so much when it’s gone.
When I was in the trenches of mothering a toddler and a newborn, these comments from older mothers and grandmothers would make me seethe with hormonal rage. When would I ever be crazy enough to miss this? I hadn’t showered in three days; I always smelled like spoiled milk. The frustration of potty training, the torture of sleepless nights and teething. Oh, teething.
Days ended with me aching from complete physical exhaustion. My shoulders and neck were perpetually tight, a side effect of too many hours spent in the nursery rocker and too many steps walked lugging a heavy infant car seat. I had no attention left to offer my husband. I was touched out and over-needed and just prayed that our marriage would survive this phase when he came in a distant third.
Caring for little ones is a very primal stage of parenting. As soon as I would hear their cry, I’d bound out of my seat on instinct. When they were scared, I could scoop them up in my arms and hold them close. When they were tired, I’d snuggle them against me, smooth the hair from their brows and watch as their eyelids drooped and sleep claimed them. A kiss and a Batman bandaid were enough to bandage most wounds.
Each night, I’d collapse into bed exhausted, but I could rest knowing that I’d done my job. I’d loved them. I’d kept them safe.
Now, my children are older. Nathan will be six next month and Ellie is two, which means I have one foot in the world of big kids, and one still in the land of toddlerhood. Straddling the two, it’s finally hit me. I understand what all those mommas in Target checkout lines and grocery store aisles and the pews at church were talking about.
I will always love them like this.
And, someday soon, it won’t be enough. A girl will tell Ellie that her cheeks are too fat, and Ellie will believe that girl instead of her daddy, who tells her she’s beautiful, smart, and strong every night as he puts on her pajamas. A boy will tease Nathan on the playground and call him a wuss, and Nathan will believe he is weak when we know how strong his empathy and kindness are. The world will wound them, and my heart will ache for them just like my body did when they were little.
They’ll grow up and move beyond these four walls, and I’ll have to go to bed at night without first peeking in on them to watch their chests rise and fall. I’ll long to know that they’re safe and comfortable, but I won’t be responsible for it anymore. They’ll be beyond my wings of protection, and suddenly I will understand the uneasiness of an empty nest.
Perhaps that’s why so many mothers look back fondly on the early years. They see past the sleepless nights and spit-up covered clothes and never-ending demands, to the ability to “make it better.” They know that the pain of a tired back and knotted shoulders is nothing compared to the agony of watching your children wage a battle you can’t fight for them.
Loving them like this is almost too much to bear.
But there is Someone who loves them more. Someone whose arms are always big enough and strong enough to hold them. Someone who can walk with them, while we sit and wait for a text or a call. We are used to calling God “Father.” But His relentless, pursuing love — a love that we cannot outrun, a love that endures every wrong step and mistake we make, a love that will follow us to the literal ends of the earth — maybe He sounds more like a mother, after all.
Nothing increases your prayer life like parenthood, my mom always says.
God, please. Walk with them where I can’t. I find myself whispering the same plea over and over as my children’s independence grows and my influence fades. For as much as my love for them is unwavering and unchanging, it’s a pale imitation of the love story God has crafted for each of their lives. Through every trial and challenge, from mistakes to broken hearts, He is there. Binding up their wounds and reminding them they are safe, treasured, beloved, just as they are.
Nothing could make Him love you more.
Nothing could make Him love you less.