Medicine for a Mom’s Soul

There is a voice that inhabits every mother’s head. It is a voice of shame and doubt, and it points a finger inward, berating us for all our shortcomings. Today you slacked off, it whispers. Today you made mistakes. Today you were less than the mom that you could be if you would only try harder. 


One way to drown out the voice.

I catch myself listening to that voice all too often. When, for a third consecutive day, I allow my five-year-old to watch a movie while the other children nap: You should be playing with her. When I use the time when they are playing in the bathtub to check Facebook: They’ll think you love screens more than you love them.  When a load of laundry sits in the washer, clean, for so long that it begins to smell like pond water:  Why did you quit your paying job if you can’t handle something as simple as putting clothes into the dryer?  And on the hardest days, when the baby is sick and I don’t bother showering because she’s going to keep wiping her snot on my anyway, when I can see clearly the crumbs on the kitchen counter and hear the dog whining because I forgot to feed him breakfast, when the older girls have decided that today they will be partners in defiance, giggling while they refuse to brush their teeth, it is so easy to let the voice consume me. You are failing, you are failing, you are failing.

It isn’t about silencing the voice. She is undeniable, a part of you. She is a side-effect of the sacrificial love that makes you a mother. She wants you to give everything you have, to dig always deeper, because your children are everything and you are nothing. She will never stop telling you this. And you know that, in some ways, it is true. Could you ever feel whole without them? Wouldn’t you die for them?


After the rain comes so much sweetness.

It takes incredible strength of mind and spirit to rise above the instinct of self-blame and to begin to forgive your own shortcomings. When I am feeling weak, I seek peace in the mundane, which is also a gift: Blue sky after three days of rain. The oh-so-sweet bitterness of a good cup of coffee. A book I can’t put down. Homemade bread, toasted, with butter and a touch of honey. My mother-in-law brought a loaf by the house yesterday, because she knows how much I hate preservatives. A hot shower, when the opportunity arises. Deep breaths of outdoor air. Watching a small brown-green lizard creep along the railing of my back porch, hunkered down against the gusting wind. I sympathize with her- I’ve been there. Let’s be honest, I am there.

I take comfort in the company of the people who love me. My wild “big” girls and my poor, snotty baby, who cried all night and is now napping in her car seat, the door to the garage propped open so I can attend to her when she wakes. My husband, the partner of my life, my fellow lizard in the wind. The friends who will take a fussy child from my arms and hand me a glass of wine. The friends who will say a prayer for me, even though we both know that this is just what motherhood looks like. It is not, however, no matter what the voice in my head tells me, what failure looks like.

Motherhood is a practice, not an art to be perfected. When I manage to make it to yoga class, my instructor always uses the words, “Wherever you are in your yoga practice today.” I need to start thinking of motherhood that way. Some days I will be more flexible than others. Some days will take me to the edge of what I think I can endure, even beyond. Some days I will fall off balance, but I will forgive myself. I will bring myself, all of myself, the flaws and complications, back to the mat to try again.

The voice is wrong. Where there is love, there is no failure. Life – all of it, the crumbs, the snot, the whining dog and gleefully naughty children – is beautiful. My life is beautiful. It is not too much. It is not less than enough.  Try as hard as I might, it will never be perfect. I think I can live with that.


Five Ways Parenting Is Like the Enlightenment

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I taught 7th grade social studies.  Maybe I’m a nerd, or maybe I’m just really enthusiastic about the advent of representative government, but my favorite unit to teach was on the Enlightenment. A lightning-quick recap for those of you who somehow managed not to pay attention during this riveting part of your historical education (bear with me, I promise I’m going somewhere parenting-related with this):

Up until the 17th century, pretty much all of Europe was ruled by absolute monarchs who wielded unlimited power. The monarchs didn’t always use this power for good; King Charles I of England was a particular jerkface, so in 1642 a fed-up Parliament went to war with him. Parliament won and the king was publicly beheaded. A few other unsatisfactory rulers followed, and eventually it was decided that the best solution was a constitutional monarchy.

One thinker of the time, Thomas Hobbes, saw the king’s execution as proof that humans were, by nature, violent brutes. John Locke, who wrote a generation after Hobbes, watched these events unfold and came to a different conclusion: people were born equal, with inherent rights that should be protected by the government. Both men, along with other philosophers of the era, were searching for a rational truth that applied to all men (and women, I guess, but who cares about them?) in order to determine what form of government was the best fit for human nature. It was an exciting time. Science flourished. Revolutions erupted. The guillotine was invented as a weapon of absolute equality and relative painlessness, at least in comparison to the instruments of torture used so indiscriminately by former rulers. Huzzah!*

Okay, I have now adequately conveyed my enthusiasm for teaching the Enlightenment. I’m not in the classroom anymore, which is a bummer, because while I love my own kids, I really did love teaching too. But with each passing day, I’m realizing that parenting is, in fact, much like the Enlightenment. Let’s look at a few key similarities.

  1. It’s always reason vs. emotion. Let’s say that Sir Isaac Newton himself is trying to explain to my children that there are scientific laws that apply to everyone and everything on planet earth. You know, like gravity. So if you stand on top of a rickety stool to look for the cookies mommy hid from you on the top shelf of the pantry, and you lose your balance, well, you’re going to come crashing to the ground. Their response would still be, “But I waaaaant to, Sir Isaac!” You can only reason with people who are rational. Didn’t you know that, Sir Isaac?
  2. The little people are always trying to make it a democracy. I’m trying my hardest to be as unmovable as that jerkface King Charles I, but no one in my house is taking my God-given authority seriously. They keep thinking they can chime in with suggestions. No, I’m not making you macaroni and cheese. You can have quiche like the rest of us. No, you can’t just eat the crust and then ask for a dessert. EAT YOUR DAMN QUICHE, PEASANT!
  3. It’s a study in human nature. What I loved most about teaching the Enlightenment was the discussion it generated with my students about human nature. Are humans really all greedy and self-interested? If we weren’t given rules to follow, what would we do? What characteristics and behaviors are learned, and which are innate? Observe my children for an hour or two and the answers would be as follows: Yes. We would make the biggest mess we possibly could and refuse to clean it up, or do gymnastics on the bed, or eat candy until we threw up. We learn all the good characteristics, like saying please and thank you, from our mothers, and everything else is inherited directly from our fathers.


    The revolution begins at the point of a lightsaber.

  4. The ideas of the past seem hilarious. Remember when people thought that the sun moved around the earth? That monarchs, even terrible ones, were hand-picked for the job by God? Ludicrous, am I right? Parenting is no different. Before I had kids, I thought all sorts of things. Things about staying in shape and going out on date nights and coming up with an organizational system that works for our family. Things about what I’m going to feed them and how I’m going to discipline them. If only I knew then what I know now.
  5. Everyone’s all like, I have rights! Well, not exactly. I’ve made it a point not to teach my oldest child this phrase quite yet- in fact, I’ll just let her learn it from her 7th grade social studies teacher. No, what she says instead, in the snottiest voice possible, is, “Well I can if I want to.” My two-year-old just says, “But I waaaaaant to, mama!” My ten-month-old just says, “Waaaaaaaaaah!” And in the meantime there’s me, going, “I have the right to tell you what to do! I AM YOUR MOTHER! DO AS I SAY!”

You know what? The more I think about it, the more I worry that I really am King Charles I and that a tiny army of Roundheads is plotting to overthrow me. Maybe I should concede to make that macaroni and cheese after all…

*I would totally cite a source for this information, but I crammed it all into my brain during the three years I taught social studies, and now I am really not sure. I know that’s unprofessional, though, so let’s just say Source: Textbooks and Internet.





Gray Matters: Is it Time to Dye?

I’m only 32, but I’m going gray. Well, white, if we’re splitting hairs.

It isn’t a new development; after suffering a minor head laceration in a car wreck when I was seventeen, my hair grew back white in just that one spot. I was self-conscious about it, stealthily plucking the offenders with tweezers in the hopes that no one else would notice. In this way I kept my embarrassing secret under wraps for several years.

But something happened when I had children. I could blame the change in my body’s hormones, or the marked increase in my stress level – whatever the cause, the white hair would no longer be confined to one inconspicuous patch. It was spreading, making itself known at my temples and sticking up crazily along my part. I was teaching seventh-grade at the time, an age group that, while delightful in many ways, is lacking in certain social niceties. The first time a student jabbed a finger at my head and said, You got a white hair, Ms. Pray!, I laughed it off with an excessively sarcastic response. It hurt, though. On top of feeling exhausted by the demands placed on me as a full-time working mom of a small baby, now I felt old and unattractive.

The next time I saw my hairstylist, I asked if she thought I needed to start coloring my hair. She assured me that the white was really not that noticeable, that it wasn’t worth the cost and maintenance of dyeing it. That was over four years ago. Since then, I have had two more children and become convinced that President Obama’s notable graying over the course of his presidency has nothing to do with the difficulty of the job and everything to do with raising daughters. I’m coming to terms with the hard fact that I cannot tame the gray. My options are to live with it or to begin a decades-long process of covering it up. So where do I go from here?


I get it, Alex. That’s how I feel about my hair, too.

It’s not that I’m morally opposed to hair dye. Over the years I’ve used drug store box dyes to kick up my color by a shade or two, just for the fun of trying something different. I’ve just never done, you know, the hard stuff. A box of Nice n’ Easy is seven bucks. A full-on dye job at the salon every six weeks or so is a big-time commitment of both time and money. It’s also a statement, on my part, that I am more willing to spend my time and money than I am to sport white hair.

It bothers me how much these white hairs bother me. I want to be above petty vanity. I want to teach my daughters that it’s not their face or hair, but their character that counts most. I want to look around me and see other women boldly making the choice to let nature run its course.  And I know, I know. It’s not such a big deal. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. There are worse vices I could have, and aren’t I being just a little overdramatic by using the word “vice” in the context of coloring my hair? Calm down, Jenny.

It’s just, I think of my daughters’ imperfections. They have birthmarks, exczema, cowlicks. One of them has a patch of hair on her back that may never go away. My wish is that they will be able to embrace these flaws which are not really flaws at all. God made them the way he made them. God gave me daughters and white hair.

And yet I can’t deny it: I want to feel pretty. So I’m bowing to our culture’s ideal of beauty. I already made the appointment. I’m still young, with a lot of life ahead of me, and because I’d like to look that way, it seems that the only thing to do is dye.

Authors Note: Please, reader, forgive the puns. In addition to all of my other weaknesses, I cannot resist a clever (even if annoying) play on words.

Something’s Right, Even When It All Seems Wrong


Some days everyone in my house feels like this…

This morning went the way most mornings do. I let the baby stay in bed with us after her 5:30 a.m. feeding, and was woken at 6:30 by Ceci climbing in too, bringing blankie, Pillow Pet, and talking Yoda with her. I managed to get everyone dressed and fed. I only yelled a little. We arrived at preschool exactly on time, which almost never happens; everything else was usual.

Still, as I pulled out of the parking lot to head back home, I felt an urge to call my mom. I wanted to vent about how the days pass and I never get anything done that I mean to do, how I feel like I’m just treading water. When I look at myself and I look at my house, nothing ever looks the way I’d like it to. And I’m ready to have my body back, but my 10-month-old isn’t ready to relinquish it. I would tell her that I’m tired from the nights that Alex cries. I’m irritable with the other girls and then immediately sorry for my short temper. Comfort is what I’m seeking, and sympathy. That’s what I want.

What I need, though, I know, is not for someone to pat my head and say, Oh, poor you. Tell me all about it. What I need is to acknowledge that my struggles, as real as they seem to me, are absurd in light of what I know about the world. What I need is to seriously stop complaining and be grateful for all that is right in my life.

So I don’t call. Instead I make an inventory of the things that are, today, just as they should be: The warmth of my baby next to me, her body small enough, for now, to fit perfectly in the curve of my arm. Ceci in her car seat, curls tumbling from the hood of her rain jacket. She lets out a goofy chuckle and I imitate her, and the game continues for a minute or two until we both can’t help but laugh for real. On the drive to school, I hear Maggie say Wow… I ask what she saw and she tells me it was a puddle, a really big one. Good for jumping in? I ask. Yeah. Big enough to fit eleven people. These are moments of joy.

There is peace in my life where I am willing to find it. It comes in the sound of my children at play, pretending only as children can. Ceci walks around the house with the phone from the toy kitchen, calling her friends, relatives, teachers. Miss Amanda? Hi. How are you? Good? I’m good. Are my friends being good listeners? They is? Good. Okay, bye! Maggie, too, is still unembarrassed about playing make-believe. I can hear her in her room while Ceci naps. She is all of the characters; I don’t know how many or who. When I come to tell her that quiet time is over I scan her room for clues. There are Star Wars figurines lined up on her book shelf and clothes pulled out of her closet. She could have been waging a war or posing in a fashion show. Either way, it looks like she had fun. She’s five, she should be having fun.


…and then there are moments like this.

I’d like to believe that there is an order to it all, a harmony so big and wide that it encompasses the chaos I am living in. What I see as disarray is really just a natural process of shifting the pieces until they all fall into place. For instance: In the night, most nights, my youngest daughter wakes. I will not nurse her until morning, so I straighten her blankets and try to quiet her. Each night she will be soothed only when I allow her to hold my hand. It is uncomfortable; I have to hang over the crib rail in a way that cuts off circulation to my arm and painfully tightens my lower back. As I hang there, her small hand fiercely gripping mine, it’s hard not to focus on the pain and exhaustion. I want her to sleep, I want to go back to my bed. But the beauty, the rightness, of my hand in hers- that isn’t lost on me either. Isn’t that what it is to be a mother: to look for the brightness on the other side of pain? To know that every bit of this experience we call motherhood, even the parts that feel awful, add up to something greater?

So many of the things I complain about stem from the three greatest blessings of my life. What could possibly be wrong when so very much is right?