Picture it: a group of 9 ladies and their children aged 8 weeks to 16 months sat in a circle, meeting for the first time. Toys were in the middle, music was playing, and all the children were sitting or playing nicely…except one kid. This boy was whining, wouldn’t sit still, ran around without any reservation, and was raiding diaper-bags. He even ran up to the bag of pigs in a blanket brought by a thoughtful mom, reached his entire arm into the bag, and popped a whole blanketed piglet into his mouth before they could be passed to the first person. Good Lord, where was this boy’s mother?
Oh, that would be me. Well, I was trying to go from the sitting cross-legged on the floor to running after my child in 6 seconds without ripping my jeans. (It’s happened before but somehow didn’t make it to Youtube. Tragic, I know.) I’d already sprinted after Firstborn for an hour and a half, struggled to hold the 30 pounds of fish-flopping child through worship while protecting my belly from flailing limbs, and had been totally unsuccessful at quieting or calming my miserable child.
In a few shining moments of calm playtime, my son happily chattered away. Although he can say several words, he prefers to jabber in his own language. In a string of babbling, out came, “Oh GOD!” Although no one else seemed to hear it, I stared wide-eyed fearing he would start calling out, “Oh, Jesus!” I immediately started fasting and praying. It would make perfect sense; I had spent lots of time the previous day talking about God, Jesus, and doing learning activities that ‘really good moms’ do. Now, I was reaping the reward. There we were in a chapel and it sounds like my son is defiantly shouting out violations of the third commandment. Fabulous. By the time we left, he had seemingly used the Lord’s name in vain, dishonored his mother, undoubtedly coveted, and stolen all reachable food and toys. In the South, we say, “I was sweating like a sinner in church!” Well, I was sweating like the sinner in church’s mom.
I had broken the Mom-commandment of “Remember the nap times and keep them holy” and I was feeling truly repentant. His 2 year old molar arrived early at 16 months, he woke up very early, and he had no prayer of a mid-morning snooze that is vital during teething times. I gathered my items to go repeatedly, but I felt the strong need to tough it out. It was a chance to meet new ladies who would hopefully extend grace and understanding. As we introduced ourselves I began with, “As you can clearly see, I am the perfect mother and I have it all figured out.” A few smiles, no laughs. I was so exhausted from the look at my ‘real life’ being on display that I forgot the rule about holding a little something back during first encounters. Sadly, this was not the first time.
I particularly recall one such instance during a gathering of fellow military wives. It was a relief to be with other women experiencing the joys and struggles of our lifestyle without fear of political commentary, pity, or needing to put on a brave face. We were dressed nicely, enjoying snacks and mingling, and generally having a moment of authentic enjoyment with people we could relate to. As we gathered in groups to discuss some tools for resiliency and the importance of banning together, we were given the first question:
Who is the woman who has taught you the importance of solid and dependable support?
If the question had been multiple-choice, I would have known that I was expected to identify a family member, fellow military wife, or well-known author. Instead, I honestly named the woman who is a walking demonstration of the importance of solid and dependable support; Dolly Parton.
The stunned silence and confused looks immediately reminded me of why I will never be awarded Mrs. America. While the other contestants emerged gracefully from the soundproof booth and answered, “World Peace”, I had opened the door, tripped on my dress, tumbled into the judge’s lap, and then discussed the defense budget while twirling flaming batons. Of course, there is as much to be said about prudent speech as authenticity, so I began a succinct explanation that provided full coverage in defense of Dolly. It brought a few smiles, but I made a mental note that next time I should discuss Momma or Julie Moore (wife of General Hal Moore of We Were Soldiers fame).
Thankfully, back at the circle of moms holding their darling babies, I was in good company. These ladies were willing to open up and dump out their diaper-bags; there’s no hiding ‘real life’ with kids under age 2…or 18 for that matter. Case in point; our ice-breaker was “Describe your birthing experience in 30 seconds or less.” It was the funniest introduction ever. We had some live-wires in the group. The great thing about the military is that most of the time we can’t afford to wait to build lasting friendships organically…we have been transplanted. There are spots where others have been recently pulled up by the roots; new ladies who don’t want to be isolated have to graft on in. As we passed around snacks, sang songs with our little ones, mingled, and described our seasons of mothering, authenticity and honest answers tumbled forth. I was truly blessed; the woman I was paired up with has lived through a unique challenge I have just been presented with and was brimming with encouragement and great information. Our conversation would have seemed odd to others, but it fit in our context.
Identifying context and adapting to the audience; it’s an important life skill that many master, but no one quite perfects. Appropriate behavior for surroundings is essential, but toddlers don’t quite cooperate. Neither my son nor I mustered a fake smile to impress strangers—and none of them passed judgment or rolled their eyes. In fact, they spoke lovingly to my son, patiently took his hands from their bags, and gave me understanding smiles. I am sure it won’t be long before my son shatters a moment of silent prayer with a body function and uncontrollable laughter. There will be other days of temper-tantrums and tears when we should be playing and singing together…but that is why the class exists. If our lovely children were born wanting to obey perfectly and always heeded our instruction, we could all sit in a new group and pretend we are perfect parents. Sadly, our children will be the first to provide context for lessons in humility.
I’m convinced I will always struggle to find the perfect answers. When my sons ask a tough question and I manage to nail the answer, I am sure my celebratory dance will give me away and make them hide their faces. It’s a mutual relationship- we will embarrass each other forever. All these frustrating moments of being the mother of the misbehaving boy in church will meet the total world-ending of having a mom chaperone the middle school dance or run a lunch out to the bus in pajamas and curlers. (Not that I’m plotting… mwahahaha) Thankfully, I’m in in great company.
Being able to get under the outer layer, stay close to the heart, and uplift someone with a heavy load is the mark of an excellent friend and dependable support. I’ve learned that from experience…and Dolly Parton.