“Look at me!” I announced to my bleary-eyed husband when he emerged from the bedroom one morning soon after our second child was born. Carefully, I shifted tiny Eamon in the crook of one arm as I scrambled eggs, buttered toast, and poured juice with my free hand. “I can nurse the baby and cook breakfast at the same time!”
I was such a fool.
What I didn’t know is that it’s not long after a young mother makes her first heroic efforts in the face of parental adversity that family members stop applauding her clever resourcefulness and just plain expect it.
By the time Eamon was one year old, he could turn cartwheels and scale the curtains, but he still expected that I would pick him up whenever he demanded. Which was all of the time. My first clumsy, one-handed scrambled eggs faded into memory as I became proficient at weeding the garden, cleaning the bathroom, and changing my clothes without ever once putting down the baby in my arms.
Eventually, I wound up at my doctor’s office complaining of back ache, occasional numbness, and sharp pains in my legs. He suggested I might have pinched a nerve and asked if I had been doing any heavy lifting.
“I carry a 20-pound baby all day long,” I told him.
He didn’t get it. Reluctant to diagnose me with an acute case of motherhood, he wrote “sciatica” on my chart and sent me home with a dose of ibuprofen and a photocopied list of back-strengthening exercises.
Today, 14-year-old Eamon walks quite surely on his own two feet, but his younger brothers and sisters have claimed their rightful places in my arms, each in his own turn. These days, Daniel especially clings to me like a tiny monkey. “I want you,” he says, and I can’t resist being so needed.
I know that I am not alone. The other day, I noticed a woman in the parking lot of the grocery store. She had her pocket book, two bags of groceries, and an infant car seat hanging from one arm and a kicking three-year-old in the other as she struggled (I think with a third arm) to unlock her minivan. When I offered to help, she observed the flock of children hanging from my various limbs and smiled.
“I’ll manage,” she answered.
In our brief exchange, I recognized a level of appreciation and mutual understanding that mothers can only get from other mothers.
It’s sad but true. A valiant mother who slithers on her belly to extract a child’s sneaker from the dust-bunny farm deep beneath the living room couch probably won’t emerge to rounds of applause. In fact, her efforts are likely to be greeted with, “I wanted to wear sandals. And could you take another look under there for my G.I. Joe’s ammunition belt?”
After one of my son’s recent birthday parties, my mom sent me some pictures of the day. One of them in particular stood out — not because it was unusual, but because it was so typical. It was a shot of the grinning birthday boy with his cake . . . presented to him by nameless hands. I have dozens of these. And the hands are always mine.
I used to wonder at the way some mothers seemed content to give themselves over completely to the lifelong service of others. My own mother especially. Maternal generosity amazed me and I didn’t suppose I could ever forget my selfish self long enough to accomplish such a thing.
But then God made me a mother.
While I have not become perfectly selfless, the preciousness of my children in my own eyes has made me realize that it’s not half so bad to play a supporting role. To be the giver. The organizer. The behind-the-scenes, unseen and unrecognized do-er and supporter.
I like to think there is power in my hidden “momnipotence.”
Mothers are the secret silent force behind birthday cakes and neatly folded piles of laundry that magically appear in dresser drawers. We can get a cranky two-year-old to take a nap and think it was his idea. We can turn a pound of hamburger, a box of pasta, and a can of soup into “company dinner” at a moment’s notice. We kiss boo-boos better, mop up spills, and whip up peanut butter and jellies, all with a smile on our face and a toddler on our hip.
I am still not as naturally selfless and generous as I ought to be, but I do relish my quiet role. Most days, I am content to watch the people — the real, autonomous, and fascinating people — my children are becoming. I don’t expect any non-mother to understand it, but I am happy to be the unnamed force behind the full bellies and clean laundry that support them along their way. I am pleased to be the hands that support them, on their birthdays and every day.
Right here, in this hidden place, is where God put me. And it’s a privileged place to be.