If you stand too close to an Impressionist painting — such as Monet’s iconic water lilies — you see what appears to be indiscriminate blobs of paint instead of the composite image — but when you step back, the blobs come together to form a visual masterpiece.
Viewing things from their proper perspective—seeing each thing in its appropriate place, and not holding any one too closely but giving to each its due—makes art, and life, beautiful. Related to the virtue of justice, this taking of a reasonable perspective means not making a mountain out of a molehill, nor waving aside the real mountains that emerge on the landscape.
Few fields of endeavor feel as rife with molehills that seem to be of Everest-like proportions as parenting. Every small choice feels so consequential, especially in the early years when strident divides exist about everything from feeding, to sleeping, to child care—which is ironic given that these sharply differing approaches will be of little or no relevance once a few years have passed, and are completely imperceptible to the outside observer.
But it’s hard for a mother of little ones to realize that. Busy as she is with her children’s endless cares, and often too tired to think through things systematically, every unforeseen challenge may seem insurmountably difficult. Who can think straight when the baby and toddler are screaming at the same time, and you’re on the verge of joining them in the dreaded “triple cry?”
That’s when it helps to get the gift of proper perspective from an older mom whose children are grown, someone who can say, “This is hard, what you’re going through. Of course you feel overwhelmed; anyone would! But your sacrifices are not in vain. God sees and knows all that you are doing for your family.”
I have often wished there were some kind of formal network to connect such older, experienced “aunties” with young families needing encouragement, especially in today’s transient world where so many young parents live far away from helpful extended family. If you could use a word of support, you can find the rallying cry you’ve been looking for in Giving Thanks and Letting Go: Reflections on the Gift of Motherhood.
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Catholic author Danielle Bean has written about motherhood before in a number of earlier books, but Giving Thanks and Letting Go is something different—something more personal, and more profound. She writes as a mother whose children have mostly left home, some starting new families of their own, and reflects on her decades of raising little ones. She and I seem to be in opposite stages of motherhood, as my home and arms are full of babies and preschoolers, but that’s why her words were just what I needed to hear.
Even brief lines in her book left me pondering them for days afterward. Describing what it feels like to see her grown children move away and make their own homes, she says,
Did you know that you are not supposed to recall your child’s baby years when they are leaving for college, getting married, or otherwise beginning their own lives separate from you? “Do not do that,” an older, wiser friend once warned me. “Do not look at old pictures or think of them as toddlers, or you will never stop crying.”
I immediately thought of my rascally 1-year-old, the current gremlin of our home. She spends her days knocking books off shelves to scatter wantonly about the house, climbing on the kitchen table to push everything on it onto the floor, endlessly trying to get into the bathroom with its mystical toilet and sink. No roll of toilet paper or sibling is safe in her presence. Of her, my 6-year-old said last week, “She’s like Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, and we’re the poor weasels that get whacked, and whacked, and whacked.” We all eagerly look forward to her naps and (mercifully early) bedtime.
But with Danielle’s words ringing in my ears, I saw her with new eyes. Her mischievousness is only outmatched by her cuteness, after all, and I realized that she’ll grow out of her rambunctious habits soon enough, but she’ll also grow out of her squishy cheeks and tiny curls and endearing baby babble. Seeing my toddler from the perspective of an older mom who cries when she thinks of her adult children as toddlers, I savored a slow bedtime with her, kissing her dimpled hands and thrilling to hear her little voice ask to “‘Nuggle, Mama?”
This change in perspective, from overwhelmed frustration to appreciating the blessings of the present moment, is at the core of Danielle’s book. She describes how the incessant demands of motherhood can seem like too much to bear, but how these sacrifices are transformed in light of eternity:
There is sometimes too large a gap between what I know to be true and what I experience in my day-to-day life. Can a God who is so big he created oceans from nothing and hung uncounted stars in the night sky be present here, in this small space, where I feel myself disappearing, stabbed to death by a thousand tiny daggers? Can this small work, unseen and unthanked, wiping up spills and cooking macaroni, really matter? Can my acceptance of buckling and unbuckling endless car seats, of a six-year-old’s boisterous rendition of the “Marines’ Hymn” for the eighty-fourth time, of aching legs at the end of a long pregnancy make any bit of difference? God tells me yes. And it’s him that I meet in that gap, that space between what I know and what I feel. It is God who sees me there in that space and calls me to trust and to grow closer to him inside my suffering. I just have to remember to look for him there.
Looking for God in the day-to-day challenges and joys is the work of a lifetime, and sometimes, when these things are so close to you and so much a part of who you are, it’s hard to look up and put them into perspective. That’s why it helps to hear a heartening word by your side. This book can be that friendly cheerleader, sharing the gift of wisdom gained from long experience. It offers solidarity to older moms entering the empty-nest years, and rallies moms of little ones to see the enormous good in a season that can feel thankless.
With the gift of an experienced mom’s perspective, you can step back to see the big picture, composed of all those tiny acts of self-denial. Suddenly it becomes clear how, together, they form a spiritual masterpiece.
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