The Giggglemonster, has a way with words.
For all that he is still several months shy of his third birthday, he is already finding unique ways of using language to express his personality to the world. Part of the joy I find in this is the bubbling charisma of that personality. A friend of ours was captivated by his chatter on a recent weekend we spent with her family in the mountains. After two days’ observation she made a delighted comment that he is like “a little actor.” With a mother’s shameless pride I cannot help but agree. The boy can really deliver a line. But it is not simply his delivery that has prompted this outpouring of enthusiasm; it is the words he chooses.
In particular, one of his new phrases has inspired this reflection on the joys and responsibilities of motherhood. His intention is not nearly so grand, of course. All he wants to do is to convince me to stay and cuddle with him at bedtime after the nightly routine of stories, songs, and prayer. His strategy in pursuing this goal displays a disturbing mastery of the art of Mommy-manipulation. He softly strokes the area on the bed sheet next to his warm little body and says “Look, Mommy! I make a perfect place for you!” He says it with such joyful expectation that I will respond as he wants, that his expectation is contagious. Cuddling my sweet, loving little boy is certainly much more fun than rushing off to wash the dishes or fold the laundry.
These are just the kinds of moments that I fantasized about before becoming a mother. In my daydreams motherhood offered connection with a person who loves me unquestioningly and wants nothing more than to be near me; the emotional “perfect place.” I knew it was a utopian dream, but if any human relationship offered such a connection surely it would be the one with my children. After all, their hearts, by nature and nurture, are built to fit with mine. Regardless of the challenges of sleepless nights, and temper tantrums, this perfect fit would make it all worth it.
The Gigglemonster’s nightly invitation, however, poses unexpected challenges. In practical terms, I cannot regularly just ignore the remnants of food hardening on the unwashed dishes, or the very real threat that the piles of unfolded laundry will swallow the couch. These tasks weigh in my mind and leach some of the joy from those potential quiet moments with my son. Much as I sometimes wish that I could master the art of “not sweating the small stuff,” I find that neatness has become very important to me now that my home has become part of my “job.” I can no longer escape to the office for 9 to 10 hours a day, so when my house is dirty I have to look at it all day long. And the daily tasks of picking up after little ones who are continually making new messes has birthed in me a deep need for at least a few moments every night where my cleaning show a result.
But even if I could magically banish my mess-induced moodiness and become the truly selfless mother I want to be, the nightly pleas for extended bedtime cuddling are still a challenge. When the Gigglemonster points out the “perfect place” he has made for me in bed, or when his sister begs for “just a little more special time with you, Mommy” I am faced with the task of determining what really is the most loving response. You see, as endearing as the pleas are, they are also clearly manipulative. They are requests for attention and affection, but they are also efforts to extend bedtime just a little bit longer. They are genuine appeals for love and connection, but they are also rejections of the skills of self-soothing and independent sleeping that Tyler and I are trying so hard to teach them.
So, on any given night, the simple request to cuddle leaves me struggling with contradictory inclinations and responsibilities. Should I indulge us both in 20 minutes of cuddling or try to get us both to sleep close to our targeted bedtime? Should I meet their need for expressions of love, or their need to be encouraged in independence? Of course, the end of the bedtime routine is not the only moment of the day for expressing love or teaching independence, but it is a predictable one. And my inconsistent responses from one night to the next have me hearing the voice of my college child development professor exhorting the importance of “consistency, consistency, consistency.”
It turns out that having someone, or two someones, who love me unquestioningly and want nothing more than to be near me is not such a perfect place to be after all. Being the object of that kind of love is an awesome responsibility, and feeling responsible for people I love so intensely is anxiety-provoking. Thankfully that thought brings the echoes of another voice. My amazing sister Bethany helps to care for her boyfriend’s two little boys and her practical wisdom for everyday life extends to parenting. “Don’t stress yourself about being a perfect parent. You can’t be. Practice good-enough parenting.” Despite my life-long leanings toward perfectionism, this rings true. The Gigglemonster’s artful claims to the contrary, no place, and no relationship, is going to be perfect in this life. That’s part of the blessing that keeps me longing for the only ultimately fulfilling relationship that exists, the one with my Creator. While I wait for the ultimate fulfillment of my faith, however, it’s good enough to enjoy the glimpses of intense love and joy that parenting offers.
Tonight is my night to put Princess Imagination to bed. I’m sure there will be dishes in the sink, and the laundry has extra urgency because it needs to be not only folded, but also packed for our road trip to Greece in two days. It’s been a rather tough day for her though, and there’s no reason she can’t sleep in tomorrow. I think tonight it will be good enough – for her and for me – to forget about the important life lessons and just have some special time together.