The familiarity of the lecture halls come back to me in a moment. The open laptops, the furious note-taking, the confidence of the professors contrasted with the insecurity of the first-year graduate students, all of us there with lofty goals for our future and remarkable enough histories to make us believe we could achieve them.
I remember how I could sometimes hear my own heartbeat when called on for an answer, so unsure of my ability to keep pace with the brilliant minds around me that I would dig deep for words I hardly knew the meaning of, throwing them into discussions and hoping my feigned confidence was working. And I remember the pushbacks, the debates, the moments of feeling embarrassingly out of my league and then eventually, the nods of approval — which were often all I could get, but they more than sufficed for a starstruck young woman hungry for acceptance. We were being trained in those lecture halls to contribute, to further knowledge, to accomplish something — to be great.
Being great, after all, seemed to be what drove us all there.
I heard the cries for ‘Mommy!’ around two in the morning, so loud and urgent that my feet were on the floor long before my mind was and I immediately stumbled over the laundry basket I told myself would be fine until morning, a frustrating lesson in procrastination I cannot seem to learn. I walked into my sobbing four-year-old’s room, leaned over her bed and asked “Honey, are you ok? What do you need?”
“Mommy,” she said through tears. “You told me I could watch The Little Mermaid and you forgot!”
So this is what it has come to. Startled awake in the middle of the night by a four year old to be scolded for forgetting to watch a movie.
“Sweet girl, we can watch it tomorrow. Go back to sleep.” And she did, with just a little bit of coaxing. Whatever dream that woke her up to remind her of her mother’s forgetfulness was already gone.
I crawled back in my own bed, still feeling the effects from the anxious seconds of her first yell and told my heart to slow back down and let me rest, but the dimly lit time on the clock across the room silently screamed at me. I knew the baby would be awake for a bottle in two hours, then shortly after that my morning would have to begin if I wanted to get any minutes of quiet before six little feet started running around. The quick and foggy math in my head told me that my best hours of uninterrupted sleep were already behind me, and anxiety over the next day’s long to-do list settled in where sleep should have been. I started my mental list of pity: I have deadlines to meet, words to write, papers to grade. I was trained to accomplish something, but I cannot accomplish much if I can’t sleep, and the kids are stealing my sleep, so it’s their fault I can’t accomplish anything. I was taught to contribute to the greater good, but I cannot even keep matching socks around here, and the kids go through a pair of socks three times a day, so it’s their fault I cannot contribute to anything beyond them. Yes, this is it. My life is no sleep and no socks.
This blaming went on — because my head needed to find a way for all the things I am falling short of in this season to be someone else’s fault — until I found my sleepy, frustrated conclusion: Motherhood wrecked who I thought I could be.
I am nine years from my time in those lecture halls. I am five years from my “I’m going to be a mom!” moment, three babies in to the truth of it, and one lifelong diagnosis into the reality of it. Time seems to continue to put numbers between me and those dreams of greatness, because it is impossible to think about being great when one four-year-old talks so much you cannot get your own word in, and one three-year-old cannot find his words at all so you cannot get your own worry out. There is always a nose to wipe, a diaper to change, a time-out to enforce, a night of sleep interrupted, and a stack of books I cannot stay awake long enough to get through, reminding me of who I used to be, on my nightstand.
The thought hangs around me often, tempting me to believe it’s true: I wanted to be something great, but now I am just a mom. There has to be more than just being a mom.
I cannot pinpoint when it happened, but somewhere along the highly motivated line of my life, I accidentally got the idea that motherhood is simply a bit of a holding season. In the hardest moments, I began to see these years of raising little ones as more of a boot camp, a proving ground or placeholder; because ‘you can have it all, but not at the same time’ was my battle cry, and motherhood was the ‘not at the same time’ part. The laundry and the sleep deprivation, the tantrums and the endless doctor’s appointments were all training me for what was next, for the great parts.
It wasn’t that I did not love motherhood, but outside of a few chopped, cropped and filtered squares, no one saw my motherhood.
Can someone be great if no one sees her?
The answer, I have learned, is wrapped up entirely in how I define greatness, in who I let define greatness.
I often wonder if all those hours in graduate school, all of those hard-fought grades and heavily revised papers are sitting wasted right now, collecting dust and growing rusty at the joints. I am not really making a difference; I am mostly treading water, trying to keep my cool enough not to yell at toddlers and my wits enough not to be outsmarted by them. By 8:00pm, ‘great’ mostly looks like everyone in bed on time and no dishes left in the sink for the morning—a low bar I still fall short of.
But laying the foundation for the never-ending ‘to-do’ list, and the never conquered ‘undone’ list, there are four other people to love extravagantly and selflessly in my home, four people whose lives I get the chance to serve every day. And when I really think about it, hasn’t true greatness always been defined by the measure of extravagant and selfless love we give away — by how much of ourselves we give away?
Then that is the bar I must daily measure myself with.
I wanted to be something great. I wanted to teach and inspire, I wanted to liberate others and make a difference in the world with all that I worked so hard to learn myself.
And these three babies, they give me the chance to actually accomplish those goals every single day. I’m not practicing for greatness later on; I am living it right now.
I do not know what life will be like when my little ones are older, but I do know the work in front of me is not to wish away these years with visions of something different, something people see. If I’m honest, when I look at what is required of me today, I cannot help but feel the amazing grace of it all: I wanted to be something great, so God made me a mom.
Photo by Jennifer Batchelor.