My first daughter was born very early on a rainy morning just under four years ago. So I’m new at this. And I’m no parenting expert. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I haven’t even sent a kid off to kindergarten yet. It’s been a sharp learning curve, to say the least — bleary-eyed lessons about sleep windows and fever remedies, my need for patience and better knowledge of snack foods. There’s more to say about any of this and so much more to learn, but here’s some field notes from my first stretch of motherhood.
Last year, during a rough patch in our marriage, my husband and I made a commitment to go on three dates a month. On days when it seems impossible to find ten minutes together, actually leaving the house and hanging out for two hours sounds like a mission to the moon. But do what needs to be done. We altered our budget to pay for sitters. We found friends to date swap. We opted out of some nighttime commitments. We called NASA.
Often, our date will just be sharing a walk or coffee — what we’re really after is time with each other to check in, to talk, to connect without kids around.
Sometimes date night is beautiful and we don’t want it to end. Other times we spend the whole date arguing (but at least we got the time to argue). At times, we don’t keep up our commitment; we’ve had to cancel, couldn’t find a sitter, or didn’t prioritize our time correctly.
But kids need parents who talk to each other. And let’s face it, that can’t really happen with them around — there’s only so much spelling that can be part of every conversation. If we wait until they go to sleep to talk, we’re exhausted. We have to get out of the house and be deliberate about opening up and asking questions.
Usually we begin the date by asking, “How are you?" And usually the answer is, “I have no idea.” We’ve been too busy with diaper-changing and work and refereeing who actually took whose crayons to notice how we are. So we drink a glass of wine or stroll through the park or have dinner and together we figure out how we are. Even when how we are is kind of terrible, it’s good to be in it together.
There will always be 753 good reasons not to have a date night. On the front end, it often feels like a pain, just another thing to do. Still, have date night. Fight for it.
2. Know your limits as a mom. And get help.
You aren’t meant to be everything for your kids. You can’t be. Know what you’re good and not-so-good at — whether it be teaching them math, discipline, or throwing birthday parties. It isn’t bad parenting to need back up; it’s humility. Get resources to help — books, counselors, tutors, or (most often) friends and family.
I’m very grateful that my daughters have men and women in their lives — inspiring, godly, thoughtful people — who love them in ways I cannot. Kids need community. They need other adults in their lives. They need godparents. They need the church.
And so do I.
Knowing older women — other mothers in different phases of life — has been a lifeline for me. I need mom friends of all ages — their perspective, their ability to empathize, their advice. Parenting is a gift, but, in ways, it feels like a battle. I need war buddies. I need veterans. I need to hear some good scar stories.
And I need people in my life who aren’t moms — the insight they bring, the attention and friendship that they offer my daughters, the great gift of calling out parts of me that have nothing to do with potty training or sling choices. Some of the richest truth I’ve received about caring for my kids has come from my girls’ godfather, a single man. He hasn’t raised kids but he lives a life rooted in the gospel, loving people around him, and that gives him ample wisdom to offer. Plus, he’s going to teach my oldest about the constellations. And I’m hoping she’ll teach me.
3. No one has the teacher’s manual.
In elementary school, the teacher’s manual had all the answers in the back. It was the Holy Book of Rightness. It could tell you if you were on the right track in long division or if you understood how to diagram a sentence. The book of answers. And oh, how I love answers.
I’m kind of an idealist and a bit of a perfectionist. Soon after our first daughter was born, I was on the phone with our doula, who is a trusted mentor (and a mom of five grown kids). We were talking about sleep. I was armed with the conflicting and confusing advice of the 152 baby sleep books I’d read. She told me, “You know, a lot of this is going to be trial and error.” Trial and error? But that implies that there must be error. I was not okay with that.
People will have answers — the way it has worked for them or the way they hope it will work — about nearly everything: sleep, schooling, discipline, raising Christian kids, eating, potty training, media exposure, household rules, engagement with culture, everything. It’s important to listen well, learn from others, and make the choices you can. But, truth be told, no one really, precisely, exactly knows what the heck we’re doing.
Parenting humans is really complicated. More complicated than long division. We have no idea how our choices, how our sin and successes, how our 10,000 passing and forgotten comments, good and bad, will affect our kids.
We trust a Sovereign Lord. In the end, he’s our hope, not a Holy Parenting Method of Rightness.
And it’s hard to trust God. And it’s hard not to have a teacher’s manual. I know. Because I want to be good at this more than I’ve ever wanted to be good at anything in my whole life. I want to get it right, figure it out, avoid the pain of messing up.
Maybe it’s because my kids are still small enough to pronounce spaghetti “puh-sketty,” but it’s far easier for me to accept the reality that I must extend grace and forgiveness to them than it is to accept that, regardless of how much I love them, my kids will experience the fall in our very own home, even in their mom. There will be error, not just about sleep schedules, but error that really counts, that really hurts. No one gets out of life without having to forgive their parents. That’s just part of the deal.
To seek to love my kids means opening myself up to the pain of letting them down and the humiliation of needing their forgiveness. I need as much grace from my kids as they need from me. They need to learn the hard work of extending forgiveness as much as I do. It’s good work and it’s unavoidable.
For me, repenting of the idolatry of parenting perfectionism is a long, hard, holy, freeing death.
4. There are two people whom God is raising in every child-parent relationship.
It can be easy for me to focus on how my kids are growing — what they’re learning, what they’re struggling with, how they are unfurling. But parenting is a key site of my own spiritual formation. God is as interested in growing me through this gift of motherhood as he is in growing my kids.
Parenting advice can be so very results-oriented: Parent like this and your kid will be godly, successful, able to speak four languages, what have you. But some of the best wisdom I’ve received was from an older friend who raised her three kids very similarly and very beautifully. Now as adults, one of her children seems to be yielding very different "results" than her siblings. We love our kids, teach our kids, pray for our kids. But, my friend reminds me, whatever we do, there’s a ghost in the machine.
God has given our kids their very own will and we don’t control it. They have experiences, influences, and temptations that we don’t determine — sometimes that we don’t even know about. The point of parenting, therefore, cannot be some specific result in our children. Instead, this vocation is part of our larger call to learn to trust, worship, and enjoy God.
What if God wants to work in our hearts through our kids, whatever the "results"? What if our greatest parenting struggles are places that God is most deeply at work in our lives and our families?
The vocation of motherhood is not a task to be completed or a craft to be mastered; it is a means by which God is pursuing me, calling me into repentance, sanctifying me, and loving me.
I want my kids to abide in God’s love, to follow Jesus, and to thrive. But whoever my kids are or become, whatever "results" lie ahead, whatever life has in store, I want to learn to love and be loved by God as I live out motherhood moment by moment — in today, in the gifts and frustrations and beauty right where I’m at. He is the beginning and end — the point — of motherhood. And he’s enough for both me and my kids inch by inch, day by day, generation to generation.