A few weeks ago, my good friend lost her mother after a long and brave struggle with Alzheimer's. When she told me the news, it cratered my heart. In those minutes of choked words and hot tears, everything I thought I knew about gratitude quietly dissolved like snow melting under a strange winter sun.
A daughter just lost her mother. Suddenly, it didn't feel like enough to be thankful for the obvious: my kids, my husband, my parents; my good fortune, my health, my friends, my extended family and their health. We have more than enough food, money, shelter, safety, opportunity and love, and for that I am immensely grateful. But what if all or part of it goes away? Do I truly appreciate what I have?
In the face of death and my friend's grief, the only way I knew how to respond was to immerse myself in gratitude, starting with my kids. I became desperate to feel grateful for every minute of my motherhood, to uncover and behold all the glorious moments, no matter how mundane. I poured my love into school lunches, ponytails and bedtime stories. I pulled my girls close whenever they walked into the room. I greeted dirty diapers with a smile. My gratitude gushed out in a waterfall of "yes's" to everything from more dessert to extra screen time to staying up late.
At first, my blue-skies-and-butterflies approach seemed to work. The kids were mostly all smiles. They didn't bicker as much. I felt calm and content. Gratitude seemed to abound. Hallelujah! It was a miracle!
I was soon reminded that miracles are usually short-lived, very special, one-time experiences.
We're a week in when the older girls have a knock-down-drag-out shouting match over a pair of leggings. On day eight, the toddler takes a Sharpie to the leather ottoman. On day nine, the dog barfs all over the living room rug.
OK people, what the heck is going on? How am I supposed to feel grateful when on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, my kids fight or complain about dinner or the little one refuses to nap or ruins the furniture/walls/my favorite sweater or the dog wreaks her own particular brand of canine havoc around the house?
My experiment in gratitude immersion came to an abrupt end and believe me, I was plenty disappointed.
A few days later and it's back to the same crazy-making grind. I'm in the kitchen hurriedly cooking a dinner I've convinced myself no one will eat anyway. I need to get my kids back to school for Academic Celebration Night and we're already behind schedule when the 2-year-old comes running in and bonks her head on the kitchen counter. As she lets out a yelp followed by tears, I think, I don't have time for this! I roll my eyes, sigh and push my frustration aside. I turn off the stove, crouch down and scoop her into my lap. We sit on the floor for what seems like forever, she with her arms wrapped around my neck, me murmuring, holding her close. It's she who finally pulls away, all better, leaving me slumped against the cabinets.
Clarity often comes at the most unexpected moments.
Sitting on the kitchen floor, my chest still warm from cuddling my little one, I finally figure out what it is I'm grateful for: All of it, the entire experience, with all its frustrations and tedium and glory and hysteria and comedy; all its intense love and sadness, anger and surprise. I'm grateful for the whole shebang. The blue-skies-and-butterflies and the stormy weather. I don't have to like the ugly bits, but I can be grateful for having experienced them.
After my friend's mother died, I tried to create a kind of Zanadu, a place where only good stuff happens. Maybe I was trying to protect my girls from a world where daughters lose their mothers. Maybe I was trying to protect myself.
Thing is, you can't have the good parts without the not-so-good-parts, especially when it comes to motherhood. The toddler will say "I love you" just because then collapse in a fit over the color of her socks. The 6th grader will ask for my opinion on a dress for her first dance one day, then sass me like nobody's business the next. On Sunday, the 9-year-old will run to me with a wide smile because she's scored the winning goal. By Monday she's in tears because she left her homework at school. There will be days when I think I will absolutely lose my mind if I have to drive another carpool or cook another meal or referee another sibling fight. Then there will be days when I can't imagine ever loving anything as much as I love being a mom to my three girls.
Welcome to motherhood. It's quite the experience and I'm grateful for it -- all of it.
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