At church this past week, I was given the opportunity to deliver some encouraging words to women on Mother’s Day. I had taken a couple of days and consulted with a few peers and figured out exactly what I wanted to say during the three to five minutes I would be on stage. Talking about anything and everything comes natural to me. However, talking specifics does not. So, I find it much more challenging to speak for five minutes than for fifty. And because communicating a clear message in a short amount of time requires precise, ordered and efficient wording, I have to write down exactly what to say and then memorize what I wrote.
Having grown up attending Sunday School and AWANAs each week and private Christian schools through tenth grade, I was consistently asked to memorize verses with the promise of being rewarded lucratively with candy or trinkets. And because I am part raccoon, I always rose to the challenge. So, memorizing a one-page script is not new to me. And yet, delivering words from memory is so much more anxiety provoking than following a general outline.
What if I forget and have to look at my paper and can’t find where I left off and I repeat myself or skip entire sections and stand there turning red and people stare with gaping mouths wondering what I’m going to do next?
So, to limit the possibilities of that nightmare becoming reality, I decided to get up early and walk the two miles to church so that I could have the time and fresh air to rehearse what I needed to say. Seattle in the spring is beautiful and chaotic. You never know from one day to the next whether you will be wearing your winter parka, a scarf and gloves like I did last week, or if you will be scrounging around for an outfit with the least amount of material so you can endure the eighty-degree heat and no air conditioning, like I did yesterday. While I knew that it was going to be sunny on Mother’s Day, I also left early enough in the morning that I needed my scarf and jacket to cover over my thin dress and keep me warm.
The early morning stroll provided just what I needed. I was getting Vitamin D, my endorphins were flowing, my memory felt crisp and sharp. I walked a little faster than I planned and got to church a few minutes early. So, I took one final lap around the block to practice one more time. When I came around the corner and was then facing the sun, I finally realized that I needed to take off my scarf and jacket. After I took off my scarf and put it in my purse, I unzipped my jacket to find sweat had pooled under the scarf on my chest and seeped into my V-necked dress. There was a U-shaped dark spot right where the wrap of the dress met. My zen-like state that I had just experienced was evaporated in an instant. O, how I wish the sweat would have done the same thing.
I snuck into church unnoticed since it was still early and rushed to the restroom that is more like your bathroom at home than a public restroom. I shut and locked the door and looked in the mirror. To my horror, everywhere I had sweat was darker than the rest of the dress: my armpits, my chest, my back between my shoulders, and above my tailbone. In mere moments, I was supposed to walk in front of a congregation with my back to them and present myself on stage.
Since I was alone in the bathroom, I took off my dress and started waving it in the air. Back and forth, back and forth I was willing it to dry. It was no use, even if it dried it would leave a stain. I quickly called Karl and told him to come to church and bring me another dress! Of course, he was at home getting the kids ready by himself while wrapping Mother’s Day gifts and prepping for our after-church celebration. However, I thought he would still be able to get there before 9:30 AM when the service started. I paced outside (in the shade) trying to keep my backside from being seen and covering my front side with my scarf. Finally, at 9:31 AM, he arrived with a dress in hand.
I scrambled to change as quickly as I could and proceeded to the front of the church to wait. Praise be to sweet Jesus, the worship music gave me enough time to practice my four-square breathing to try and calm myself and get back to the ease I had on my walk. I tried to ground myself in gratitude and praise in order to think straight.
Thankfully, I was so passionate about the message I wanted to communicate that my delivery didn’t betray me. My wardrobe failure didn’t rob me of enthusiasm. Anxiety tried to win, but my heart rose to the challenge. Sweat defeat? Nah…Sweet victory!
It was the fall of 2008 when Lucy was four and Peter was two that I was frantically trying to make use of the two-hour afternoon nap time. That was the only time of the day where my kids were both otherwise occupied when I could scour the final surfaces of my home before I had company over that night. The night before, I had already scrubbed four bathrooms, vacuumed the upstairs, main level and basement, swept and mopped the kitchen floors, ran the dishes, cleaned the refrigerator, wiped down the oven and microwave, Windexed the glass backdoor and dusted all the wood furniture in the house. That afternoon, I just had to Comet the kitchen sink and countertops and I would feel adequately ready to have friends in my house. My two-hour window was closing and I just knew that Lucy would likely be ready to get out of bed before Peter. As I desperately wrung my Comet covered sponge under the kitchen faucet willing it to get rinsed quicker I began my Hail Mary. In those moments, a mother hopes, prays, promises, says the rosary, barters, pleads, bribes, and otherwise commends her spirit into the hands of the Universe to just make her kids stay asleep a little longer so she can finish her tasks uninterrupted. That’s when I heard a voice in the distance. Only it wasn’t the Universe. She hadn’t heard my plea. It was my daughter, “Mommy? Can I get up now?”
I ripped off my rubber gloves and threw them on the counter in an attempt to punish the Universe for not accepting my righteous petition and huffed upstairs to let Lucy come out of her room. I told her I would put a show on for her to watch while I finished cleaning in the kitchen and would get her a snack in just a little bit. I sat her down on the couch and turned on Curious George for her to watch. At four years old, she had surpassed an interest in Sesame Street which meant Peter practically missed Big Bird and Elmo entirely.
I rushed back to the kitchen and skipped trying to wriggle wet rubber gloves back on my hands and instead proceeded to douse the countertops in Comet. [I for one, am a Comet kind of girl. When I was young and cleaning the bathrooms was my chore, I picketed if my parents ever bought the grocery store version of the same cleaning solution. It was Comet, or they could clean the bathrooms themselves. Paying the extra $.59 per canister was apparently worth it, as that remained my chore until I moved out of the house at age 22]. Bending over, I proceeded to apply the elbow grease my mother and grandmother swore got the job done and scrubbed the cracks and crevices of the Formica countertops. Mid-scrub I heard Lucy call from the living room. I stood up straight, with both hands on the countertops and my head tilted back chanting to myself “Why me? Why me?” and finally answered her as calmly as I could muster “Yes, Lucy?”
“Mommy? I think I need some love.”
I looked down at my hands clutched a little too tightly to the blue sponge and thought, “Love. Love. Love. Ok. I can do that. Love. Ok.” So, I rinsed my hands and went to sit next to her on the couch. She was still watching the onery monkey and I ran my hands softly on her back…side to side up and down in circles back and forth. When I thought she had either forgotten her request or I had fooled myself into believing she had gotten enough love, I slowly removed my hand from her back and snuck back into the kitchen to pick up where I left off. My time was most definitely limited now. I knew I only had moments before Peter would wake up and between the two of them I would not have a minute to finish. I started scrubbing again when I heard, “Mommy?” I responded more quickly this time, “Yes, Lucy?”
“Mommy? I think I need some more love.”
I sat the sponge down and rinsed my hands again. Then, I proceeded to sit next to her on the couch and rub her back a second time the same way I had done the first. And when I thought she had either forgotten her request or I had fooled myself into believing she had gotten enough love, I snuck away to the kitchen and was able to finish rinsing the sink and countertops before Peter woke up.
I was able to reach my goal. I succeeded in getting my house clean by the time both kids woke up. Friends came over that night and enjoyed a very clean and hospitable environment and left with plenty of food and fun.
It is difficult for me to find these next words. I am trying to be kind to myself – to look back on the young mother that I was and extend to her grace and mercy, because she didn’t know any better. But, really, in my shame I want to grab her by the arms, drag her from the kitchen to the couch, sit her down and say, “This is what matters! Not a clean countertop, not a clean sink! Love on this little girl right here, right now, so much that she doesn’t have to ask you twice. Scoop her up and rock her in your arms for all the times you couldn’t…for all the times you didn’t!”
Tears of regret stream down my face as I remember that moment. What I wouldn’t give to have a do-over. And…in the same breath, I also believe in redemption. I know that because of that moment, I have been more aware of my daughter’s need for love. I have listened more closely, been more attentive, picked up on the nuances of her needs more acutely than if I had not failed in that moment so terribly. She has never made a direct request like that since. And for that, I am deeply grieved. But, because of my mistake, I have grown a strong attunement to her heart’s needs, and I believe she still asks me in many ways to give her more love. Every time I pause to scratch her back or give her a squeeze, or snuggle with her in the morning to wake her up, or sit extra close to her on the couch when we watch movies, or insist on having my arm around her when we sit in a booth at a restaurant, or hold her hand anytime we are out walking, I get my do-over.
What actions or goals or values get in the way of you being able to give others more love? Is it your to do list, or your image, your busyness, or external pressures? Is it all the ‘shoulds’? We’d love to hear specifics from you in the comments below.
I had a recent experience where I found my heart rate escalate, teeth clench, and eyes bulge. My emotions were boiling and ready to blow at any moment. The person on the other side of my intense rage…a 5 year old boy at the Chick-fil-a play ground pointing at my son and calling him “butt-boy.” If you’ve met my 4 year old Keaton, you would remember his vivacious personality, cute bouncing blonde hair, and his bum crack. My sweet boys crack shows At. All. Times. We have tried every possible way to keep it contained (different types of underwear, belts, tucked in shirts, elastic pants, zip pants, etc.) but the kids little bum just wants to be free. I find it to be rather cute, but I must admit, it’s a bit out of control. I know it hangs out 90% of the day, so why was I so enraged when a 5 year old bed-headed boy pointed it out and called him “butt boy?” Those two simple words caused mama bear mode to ignite with a fury. I’m fairly certain I encountered an out of body experience. I’m not quite sure of the exact words that came out of my mouth, but I do know this rather cute little boy felt my wrath.
I’ve felt a similar reaction before, many times in fact, with situations that didn’t necessarily deal with my own children. I remember watching the public stoning of Miley Cyrus after her 2013 VMA performance with Robin Thicke. While I don’t condone her actions, mama bear surfaced when I saw the double standard as Miley was condemned and no mention was made of the 37 year old husband and father grinding her backside. I experienced similar emotions when I watched the reaction to Seattle Seahawks Richard Sherman’s post game interview and comments about Michael Crabtree. The term “thug” was used to describe this Stanford graduate and amazing athlete. I couldn’t help but think of his mom in that moment. I had intense mama bear emotion surrounding the reaction he faced from the public, so I can’t imagine what she experienced.
The Urban Dictionary defines Mama Bear Mode as “a mom who can be cuddly and lovable but also has a ferocious side when it is necessary to protect her cubs.” Does that describe you like it describes me? I’ve always looked at my mama bear mode as an ugly personality flaw that I needed to contain. But perhaps it’s a beautiful thing when the ugliness of our selves marks its presence. It means we care deeply. It means we love passionately. It means we feel immensely. I’m learning to embrace my imperfections, and even look for the hidden beauty within the ugliness.
What “mama bear mode” moments have you experienced? We would love to hear your stories.