by Erin Strybis–
Balancing a pile of dirty plates in one hand and a stack of cups in the other, I’m striding toward the kitchen when my toddler’s siren call stops me in my tracks. “Mommy!” he yells. “Miiine!”
I pause. “What’s yours, Jack?” I ask.
He points to his empty sippy cup and repeats: “Mine! Mine! Mine!”
“Jack, that’s empty. You can’t have it,” I say. “Sorry, buddy.”
My son throws his head back in his high chair and lets out an ear-splitting wail. Not again, I think, bracing myself for an epic tantrum, one of many this month. At 17 months, Jack learned the word “Mine!” Nearly everything in our house became his—playdough, our dog’s tennis ball, daddy’s spaghetti, my makeup bag and its contents— anything he wants, he calls it. If Jack doesn’t get his way, he’ll scream, arch his back, then shout his other favorite word, “Noooo!”
Most of the time I keep my cool. But this time, I grappled with stress at home and work. My patience had grown tenuous. I was shouldering the majority of childcare duties and working fulltime while my husband battled cancer. The pressure to do and be everything—parent, provider, cook, cleaner, caretaker, wife— was palpable.
Then one weekday morning, I cracked. I threw my own tantrum.
Here’s the crazy part: I don’t even remember what Jack did to incite it. He might have poured out the dog’s water bowl (again) or dumped a full bowl of cereal on the ground (again) or (most likely) he did something defiant or dangerous. Odds are high some conflict involving the word “Mine!” inspired my outburst. Maybe he took my favorite lipstick or snatched a felt tip pen from my dresser. It could have also been something that trivial. What I know for sure is that morning I screamed at my son. Sure, I’d disciplined him before, but this time it was different. It—I was—well, scary.
“NO! NO! NO! JACK, STOP!” I yelled at him, full volume. “NOOOO!”
Jack’s look of sheer terror brought me to my knees. Realizing what I’d done, I reached out and hugged him fiercely while we both sobbed.
“Jack, Mommy really messed up this time, and she is so sorry,” I whispered in his ear. Jack looked at me, then buried his head in my shoulder.
I hated myself for losing my patience. This wasn’t like me at all. Was I a bad mom?
The thought continued to haunt me as I readied my son for daycare. I put on Jack’s socks and shoes. I am a bad mom. I changed his diaper. I am a bad mom. I drove us to day care. I am a bad mom. I kissed him goodbye. I am a bad mom.
GETTING IT RIGHT
While pregnant, I scoured motherhood blogs and the book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I followed a pregnancy checklist from BabyCenter.com. I downloaded an app and tracked my baby’s growth from the size of an avocado to a watermelon. We’d waited so long for this child. I wanted to do everything right.
Once I gave birth to Jack, that’s how I approached parenting as well—as if it were a class I could ace. Baby swaddling was an easy “A,” but breastfeeding was like high school chemistry: hard and humbling. Ever the good student, I called lactation consultants, watched YouTube tutorials and practiced latching until we both figured it out.
After returning to work when Jack was 3 months old, my need to ace parenting felt especially vital and practically impossible. Our dream baby stopped sleeping well and started rejecting his bottles. I had limited time with my son, and most of the time we were together, I felt dead tired. Still I aimed to be patient, kind, giving, gentle, loving, understanding…definitely not the kind of mom who yelled at her kids.
After Jack turned one, and we both began sleeping better, parenting felt easier in some ways and harder in others. The fact remained: I desperately wanted to be a good mom—no, make that great mom—the kind of mom I’m blessed to have.
Driving to the office, tears trickled down my face. I kept replaying my meltdown in my mind. I worried and fretted. Would Jack ever forgive me?
I recalled other moments when anger simmered beneath my skin, when the idiosyncrasies of toddlerhood, particularly my son’s willfulness, broke me. Once, I got so angry I kicked the empty high chair across the kitchen. Another time I vaulted my diaper bag across the dining room in frustration. I wasn’t one to act out under “normal” circumstances. And I’d never screamed at my son—until today. Who was I becoming?
“I don’t understand why I can’t focus today,” I groaned to my coworker later as I stood at my desk and attempted to answer emails.
“Oh, Erin,” she said, “I do. Look how much you are going through. This is so hard.”
I stopped typing and let my coworker’s words sink in. A wave of relief washed over my body, and the tears welled again.
“Thank you for reminding me I’m not superwoman,” I said.
GOD LOVES US LIKE THAT?
When I was growing up, my mom was our superwoman. She juggled approximately a million things as a teacher, coach, church organist and music director, and she still made time for us kids and our activities. So much doing, doing, doing and going, going, going. I never understood how much she sacrificed for us until I became a mother myself.
The little things surprise me: clipping my son’s fingernails, patting his back through the slots of his crib, sorting through mounds of too-small clothes. Loving him well sometimes feels like a chore. That summer when my husband was sick, it often felt like a burden. Yet tending to meals and sleep and fevers and laundry and toys and tantrums and more is the work of motherhood. We give our lives to our children. Our love for them propels us forward.
I was reminded of this when I heard Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak last July at an event for 31,000 Lutherans, many of whom were youth. She tailored her message to them, so it startled me when she preached, “God’s voice is a warm, singsong of a mother to her newborn. The one that says, ‘You are mine.’ God’s voice calls us worthy, and there’s a word for that, and that word is ‘grace.’”
Chills ran down my spine. I’d never heard that metaphor for God before. The thought left me breathless as I recalled the tender first moments of my son’s life and my first days as a mother.
Giving birth to Jack was traumatic. After hours of labor, the doctors gave me an emergency C-section. When they extracted my son from my uterus, they discovered his lungs were filled with fluid. He couldn’t breathe. As the medical team performed CPR, I waited to hear him cry, terrified that we might lose him. Finally Jack took his first breath, his first strong-willed act, and they whisked him away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
The following morning, the doctors cleared me to visit Jack. My husband and I traveled halfway across the hospital to find our newborn in a glass bassinet, with several cords hooked up to him. Carefully, the nurse adjusted the cords and placed my son in my arms while I sat in a hospital wheelchair. Holding him for the first time, my heart felt like it could burst. I couldn’t stop staring at his pink, wrinkly skin and tiny hands—my own motherly love astonished and overwhelmed me. It was the strongest love I’d ever felt; it was unrelenting.
God loves us like that?
I’ve been Lutheran for 32 years. This idea changed everything for me.
On Sundays at my congregation, we pray “…Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…” I know the words by heart. Reciting them is a comfort. They remind me that God comes to us with the open arms of a parent and believes us when we say we’re sorry. God loves us even when we turn around and commit the same sins over and over again.
When I screamed at my son, I sinned. I’ve sinned in plenty of other ways since then too. I need God’s forgiveness like daily bread.
That evening when I arrived at my son’s day care, I was still carrying the weight of my outburst. Out came Jack, running toward me. It was as if the memory of that morning—of his scary mommy—was erased completely.
I crouched down on the floor and opened my arms wide. He squealed, “Mommy!” and gave me a bear hug. “I love you, bub,” I said, holding him a little tighter than usual. I felt him hug me a little tighter too.
God is in the love of an adoring mother, and God is in the love of a headstrong toddler who knows his mother and calls her “Mine!”
Erin Strybis is a lifelong Lutheran, mother of one and voracious reader who believes deeply in the healing power of stories. She writes at erinstry.com and in Living Lutheran, for which she is a content editor.
This article is from the May 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.
More like this:
by Susie Gamelin— We had just settled into our circle of chairs for a discussion about homelessness when the woman on my left decided to set the agenda for our conversation. “Those people are nothing but drunks and addicts who sleep on the sidewalks in broad daylight...
by Michelle DeRusha— Recently I re-read Matthew 4, where Jesus calls fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him and become his disciples. “Come,” Jesus says. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Matthew tells us that all four men immediately...
by Julie A. Kanarr— I was leading a new small group class on prayer, and—truth be told—it wasn’t going well. Two of the participants were turning the discussion about types of prayer into a debate about the effectiveness of prayer. The disagreement escalated into an...