“What I’ve Learned from Mothering,” Ensign, June 1978, 7
When our first child was born, I was thirty, and I had been sure I was ready be a mother. Then I held him in my arms and realized that this little boy was actually a human being—and I was responsible for him!
I had taught in church and had worked as a schoolteacher, but those experiences really hadn’t prepared me for the awesome task of motherhood. How could an imperfect person like me be worthy to associate with this tiny, loving spirit? Not only that, I had to teach him—and my own life had to be a fit example for him to follow.
Motherhood was going to change my life!
It has been fourteen years since his birth, and I am still learning that the relationship between a mother and her children brings as much growth to the parent as to the children. In fact, though I had always known that parents had a strong influence on the lives of their children, I have frequently been surprised at how much influence my children have on me—more than that of any teacher, Church leader, friend, or sibling. Only my relationship with my husband has had more power to motivate me to perfect myself.
The growth, of course, comes as much from the challenges as from the pleasures of motherhood. When our third child turned out to be twins we found ourselves with four children before the oldest was three. Those days were filled with diapers, spilled orange juice, and band-aids. Even church attendance became a major project, and any other activity outside our home was out of the question.
What sort of personal development could I hope to have under those trying circumstances? And yet, though I’m sure there were some black, discouraging days, I can’t remember any of them now. I look back on those hectic years as a time of great rewards. Never had I been required to sacrifice my own needs so completely in unselfish service to those who really depended on me. The sense of being so thoroughly needed was very soul-satisfying—especially as, through prayer and hard work, I gradually became capable of meeting my children’s needs.
Now, of course, as the children have grown older, they have come to do many things for themselves—they help each other, too, and share the work of our home. And I find that this leaves me time to care for other kinds of family needs and to develop other qualities in myself.
As the children grow physically capable of caring for themselves, their emotional needs don’t decrease—they intensify, if anything. For example, one of our daughters has problems at times with physical coordination, and playground games are often sheer torture for her as she not only struggles with running, jumping, catching, and kicking, but also faces the ridicule of her playmates. Yet she never gives up. She tries and fails, practices, tries again, and often fails again. I help her practice, encourage her, and cheer wildly when she finally succeeds even a little bit. In the meantime, I make special efforts to emphasize her strengths. She is a good student, an excellent reader, is a great help at home, plays the piano remarkably well, and has a cheerful, optimistic outlook that helps us all.
As I teach this special girl, I am assured myself that I am loved despite my inabilities, for the Lord compensates, giving great gifts along with weaknesses. Even more, however, I am influenced by her example of persistence, her willingness to try and try again, and her ability to face unkindness from her playmates with a forgiving spirit and without bitterness.
Children in their “middle age”—after diapers and before dating—pose their parents a difficult dilemma. They insist on greater and greater independence, while at the same time they need to feel secure in the safety of loving and protective parents. It is so tempting to parents to shield children from all failures and all dangers, knowing how easily these fragile young people can be hurt. But the confidence and the knowledge they have to have in order to become adults can’t come entirely from behind the walls of Fortress Home, guarded by ever-watchful parents at the gate! They have to be allowed to have their own experiences, learn how to succeed on their own, in order to learn both the skills to cope with the world and the confidence to walk alone.
Twelve-year-old Joanne has been learning to knit. A safe enough activity! But as she battles the tangles of yarn, it’s all I can do to keep my hands off those needles! When she asks for help, it’s so tempting to just finish the row myself with neat, tidy stitches, instead of showing her how to do it and coaching her as she finishes the row herself.
When one of the children had a Sunday School speaking assignment a few weeks ago, I found myself wanting to plan, organize, and outline the whole talk for her. I had such a good idea and I knew it would make a splendid talk. And my daughter would have been perfectly happy if I had handed her the ready-made speech. But we both resisted temptation, and for more than an hour she worked sorting, sifting, and trying ideas until she came to a topic and wrote an outline that was really her own. She had a far greater sense of accomplishment when she gave her talk that Sunday morning. And she did a great job!
These are small examples—the greater trials come when the children are making decisions on matters of eternal importance. But even then, I will try to restrain my temptation to lock the castle doors and put water in the moat to keep the world outside. My husband and I will attempt to guide, teach, and inspire—but we won’t force. If the children are going to learn to walk, they can’t be carried all the time.
But sometimes I think that their missteps are even harder on their concerned parents than they are on themselves!
The children have changed our lives by rekindling in us bright memories of significant events in our own past. Our son Douglas will be baptized this year. Each time this sacred experience has come for one of our children, I have been impressed with what a great blessing my baptism was and is for me. Family home evenings centered on the significance of baptism, faith in Christ, repentance, and the gift of the Holy Ghost are only the beginning—my husband and I answer Douglas’s gospel questions with more care and deliberation than ever, and we ponder the scriptures with more purpose.
To know that our son will soon be accountable for what he knows and what he does inspires far more urgency in my husband and me than final exams! After all, if Douglas is unprepared, the responsibility lies with us.
Yet even as we try to impress upon Douglas the beauty and importance of his entry into the waters of baptism, my own testimony is strengthened as I review the first principles of their gospel. I, too, feel a need to strengthen my faith, repent of my failings, constantly renew my baptismal covenants, and rely upon the Holy Ghost. How can I teach the importance of these things to my children, if they are not also vital in my own life?
Even serious problems can be growth-promoting for a mother. One of our daughters was born with severe physical and mental disabilities that will keep her from ever walking, talking, or growing to normal womanhood. No one plans to have a child with a defective body, so it is very difficult to be prepared for this experience. Although I knew from the moment of her birth that Janet was different, I could not believe at first that there was anything seriously wrong. Gradually, as the months passed and various kinds of therapy had no effect, disbelief changed to disappointment and finally to acceptance.
But even as my hope for Janet being “normal” waned and disappeared, I discovered that we were growing as a family because of her. Her condition, though frustrating and disappointing, has never brought sorrow into our home. True sorrow comes only from sin, not from the natural adversities of mortality. And caring for this perpetually helpless child has taught me greater patience and given a deeper sense of compassion for the weak and gratitude for blessings to all of us. In her own way, this girl has brought us great happiness, and I have learned profound lessons about life and eternity from her.
The challenges of motherhood haven’t ended. The tug-of-war between peer pressure and parental teachings is only beginning with our teenagers; the major decisions of their lives—marriage, mission, school, career—are only a few years away. But I look forward to those times with confidence, knowing that where I am not equal to the challenge, the Lord is able to teach me through my children, and help me grow.
There is a place for service in the Church and community, hobbies, the development of talents, and education in the life of even the busiest mother, and these things can certainly help. But as I’ve spoken with mothers who have led busy lives outside their homes, I don’t regret the years I’ve spent at home, being a mother. Perhaps some of them are right when they say that their absence from home has not been harmful to their children. I guess only the Lord—and the children, eventually—know the answer to that. But I wonder if a mother’s absence from home isn’t also harmful to herself! Learning and accomplishment away from home can be very satisfying to a woman. But it could never equal or replace the many wonderful things that I have learned from my children.