For most of my adult life, my image-management game has been solid. Not showy, but average enough to be respectable. I earned the right degrees and married a nice man and we both got the kind of jobs that don’t pay a ton but everyone more or less finds admirable: nurse and teacher. We settled in with a home and two modest cars and found a community to do our lives with. And then we had children.
In case anyone has not realized this, I need to tell you something: children blow up the whole image-management thing. It will start subtly, like the first time she pushes the button on the cable box and then does it again 28 times even when you told her not to and slapped her tiny little hand away. (I have heard there are children who do listen the first time, but I have never had any of those. If you have, I’m so happy for you, and you may ignore the rest of this.) It grows stronger, usually around 18 months, maybe two years, when he starts to find a few more words—namely, “no”—and get an opinion about things. “Time to leave, buddy,” you’ll say kindly. “No.” He will say back matter-of-factly, as he runs back into your friend’s basement. And he may do this more than once, just so that the actual dragging him from the house is extra dramatic. Next is the first grocery store meltdown and the first abandoned cart in aisle 4. And for some of us, the dreaded call to the church nursery, where upon arrival to make sure our sweet little one is doing ok we hear the words, “He bit someone.”
He did what?! You’ll think to yourself as you say a fond farewell to the pinterest board you titled “toddler activities and ideas”, the one that had all those darling pictures of children playing nicely in clean spaces. Because life does not look much like that, and there ain’t no mama who needs a collection of pictures to taunt her about it. You go home and google “disciplining strong-willed children” and “toddler biting” instead.
And let’s not miss all of the times that we will be the ones throwing a tantrum. Yep, that’s right, the times when the day gone awry is on mama. When you forgot your phone on the bench at the park and took your frustration out on the four-year-old. When you were trying to get some work done but your kids wanted to play with you, not around you, but you yelled at them for crawling on your lap too much and then got angry when you saw the sharpie marks on the wall – most certainly the ones put there during the 45 minutes you did not allow them by you.
Maybe it’s just me, but it was about the time I saw the sharpie that I also noticed the image I had been working real hard to build was starting to crumble around me for, believe it or not, the real thing: the messy, the needs-forgiveness, the ‘I don’t know what I am doing’ mama and her children, who apparently had no idea they were supposed to come into the world making me look the exact opposite of all that. Did no one tell them this?
But alongside the very real lesson that God did not design motherhood in order to make all the mamas look good, I also learned another equally important one: the people who actually care the most about me and my kids don’t want the image anyway, they want the real thing.
Alex headed out to the car with a screaming child in his arms. I stayed behind to pick up the last of our things and thank our hosts for having us for dinner, but I was not really feeling all that thankful. From the minute we arrived I knew it was going to be a hard night: kids were not allowed upstairs, no standing on the couch, a whole lot of “hey kids, inside voices” from the host family and then me, thinking from the get-go that this was an environment my loud and adventurous children were not going to thrive in.
They didn’t. Neither did we. And it wasn’t just the strict rules - I believe strongly that I need to teach my kids to respect the boundaries they are given wherever they go. It was much more than that. It was the fact that I felt judged about who my kids were and how we were parenting them the entire evening. To top it all off, when the three-year-old lost her stuff by the end of the night and had to be taken out of the house mid-tantrum, I looked back to see one of our hosts with wide, disapproving eyes. I knew that would be the last time we tried to make a family dinner work.
When Harper was a year old, my friend Emily came over with her two kids for a playdate. At some point in the morning, Harper had crawled over toward the bathroom door following the bigger kids, and while I was still chatting with my friend I went to get her. I thought I moved her away from the door enough to close it, but I was still looking over at my friend, who saw the whole thing unfold. Just as I pulled the door shut, my friend began to say “Oh, watch her…” and then Harper started screaming. Her little fingers were still in the hinge of the closed door.
It all happened in just a few seconds. I immediately opened the door and picked up my hysterical daughter, and while I was trying to console her my friend went to the freezer looking for an ice pack. And then, when she handed it to me and in my moment of confusion I put it on the wrong hand, she gently said, “It was her right hand. And don’t feel bad, friend, I’ve done it a dozen times.”
For me, here is what it has come down to: the friends I choose today are simply the friends I feel the safest to fail in front of—because I will fail, a lot more than I’m proud to admit. They are the people who see me lose my patience, who see my children talk back or act out, who see up close and personally the bad and the ugly parts of our family and my parenting and still choose to love us: me and my children. The ones who I can walk away from a tough moment and not feel judged in the slightest. The ones who run to my refrigerator for an ice pack and chuckle at all the times they’ve accidentally injured their child too, offering solidarity when I felt like I must be the worst mom alive. The longer I parent, the more I realize I just do not have the mental and emotional bandwidth for people who I do not feel like I can make a mistake around. But offer me an “I’m a mess, too” bit of encouragement, and that’s a game-changer for our friendship.
The ‘come as you are’ feeling that we can give and get from other moms is an incredible gift. We don’t need to have everything in common, we don’t even need to parent the same way, but if we can look at one another during the embarrassing moments, the funny moments, the disciplining moments and even the “I will replace your lamp” moments, and offer each other the understanding we all desperately need, we can do this friendship thing for the long haul. Because the best kind of friends are the gracious kind of friends, the ones who know that an image is just that: an image. And when they see my real, they can be real, too. That’s who I want to parent around, and also who I want to be in return.
Bring your imperfect self and your imperfect kids around here, friend, and you’ll have a safe place for both.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode on Motherhood + Loneliness