“Come set the table!” I hollered as I sauteed our Taco Tuesday meat for dinner. My boys, ages six and nine , raced past me.
“Hey Luke, have you -”
“One large, two medium, and a couple of pebbles,” he said, pre-empting my question.
He gave me a high five as their dad walked into the kitchen, right on cue.
“Poops!” The boys celebrated in unison. Dad made a grossed-out face, and they all burst out laughing when I told him to bring the bowl of beans over to the table.
Every kid has their quirks, and my youngest son was a poop holder. When he was a constipated toddler who needed potty training, Dr. Mom here took a deep Google dive and gave myself a solid scare about what could happen if he went professional with his amateur holding skills. I bought stock in prune juice and added tummy massage to the bedtime routine, but because he was avoiding the pain of the strain, he already had a grade A fear of his fanny business, a pooping paranoia, if you will. So, his number two became my number one priority, and I handled it the same way I handle most of my parenting dilemmas. I threw a party.
Potty training was a week-long “potty party” with all family hands on deck to make this fearful process into something fun. We started with unlimited salty party snacks and washed them down with all the fun, forbidden fluids – juice, Gatorade and popsicles galore. He went around the house nude-booty style, we hooted and hollered every time pee started dribbling down his legs, and he’d make it to the toilet in time to empty the tank. By the time he was ready to do the darker deed, there was positive adrenaline, stickers and treats paving the way. He was the champ to our cheering and grunt-faced his way to his very first porcelain throne kerplunk. If toilet training was the Olympics, he was the gold medalist that day. That’s how he earned his Mickey undies, and we earned our reputation as a family who does daily doo-doo reports.
It might seem a silly thing to worry about holding poops, but this momma saw the angst and stress in her little boy. His learning to let it go was actually an important foundation for understanding his own feelings and learning to trust his instincts. And isn’t that our job as moms, to sense what our kids need? Not just to appease them in the moment, but to identify what they need to keep growing and thriving?
Now his older brother, on the other hand, needed a little help resisting his instincts. If he felt the urge to draw a nine-legged monster during first grade math, off to the crayon cabinet he would go without an iota of concern for the teacher’s glaring eyes. When he felt like I was being unfair as his soccer coach, he’d march off the field in protest, grabbing himself a Capri Sun from my cooler for his troubles. He was equal parts class clown and defense lawyer and always had a compelling reason for his poor choices. When I told him in my most disapproving tone that it wasn’t funny to do the wrong thing at school, he cocked his head sideways and said,
“Oh yeah, then why does everyone laugh?”
I tried everything to manage his misbehaviors – reward charts and consequence charts, time-ins and time-outs – none of it seemed to matter. The principal’s office remained a morning pit stop, and the marbles never got to the top of the jar. No amount of pep talks or punishments made a dent in his determination to treat all rules like suggestions. While I battled emotional fatigue and parenting insecurity, my naughty kid moved through his day with the confidence of a recently elected politician. No regrets, baby.
That is, until he started to show some frustration that all his best ideas generally earned him a seat in the hall at school or a sigh from a disappointed parent at home. Concern for his behavior began to manifest, and while I was relieved I hadn’t given birth to a total psychopath, my heart was heavy for him.
After a particularly harrowing day, he flopped on his bed in despair.
“I’m just a bad kid with bad ideas. I guess I can only do bad things.”
The fog of fear clouding his tear-filled eyes was like a jumper cable to my defeated momma heart. His moral anxiety kickstarted me into resuscitation mode, and I finally knew how to help.
“Buddy, do you remember learning about how God created the world?”
“Yeah,” he sniffled.
I reminded him that our entire world is God’s beautiful handiwork – such a spectacular accomplishment in fact, God only had one thing to say when He was done with all of creation.
He said, “It is good.”
“Eli, do you believe God made you in my tummy seven years ago?”
He nodded and wiped his snot on his sleeve, the one still dirty from dipping it in Quinn’s ketchup at lunch.
“So, if you are made by God like the rest of His creation, do you know what else you are?”
His eyes widened, and we finally had a pulse. “I’m GOOD,” he shrieked with his little hands in the air like an emphatic Italian.
Before he fell asleep that night, and every night for the rest of second grade I asked him,
“What did God say when he was done making you?” No matter how the day had gone, he would take a deep breath in, exhale out his frustrations and tell me,
“He said, ‘I am good.’”
This season set a new tone in our house. If the journey of motherhood in the early years is about learning what your kids need, my transportation of choice to secure their little hearts was celebration and affirmation. It meant that every birthday breakfast table floated too many balloons, dripped extra icing and streamers, and everyone in attendance wore a crown. Most nights we went around the table to take turns giving each person a compliment, or a reason why we loved them. It meant that after a week of working hard at our difficult things, we often needed to throw down some pizza and Costco sheet cake and dance like the salsa girl emoji in the red dress. It meant telling my once constipated toddler, now a sweet-spirited perfectionist still prone to an anxious stomach, that I loved how he got everything right and followed all the rules, but I’d love him just as much if he didn’t. And it meant reminding my cunning little class clown, now a conscientious empath, every day that he is fully equipped to help himself and those around him.
I want to call out each struggle and strength of my children over the years – their shadows of humanity and their reflections of divinity – and hold them with equal tenderness. I want them to be able to say, “These are all my things,” and not have to feel darkened by shame because they have full confidence in God’s goodness closing the gap between His ways and their ways.
Who knows why we choose the ways we do as moms. It’s quite possible that my kids will have a strange compulsion to ring me after a bowel movement when they’re off at college or expect a dance party with sheet cake after a normal week at work. They might even be frustrated by meals with their friends that don’t include a round robin of compliments. But, I’m okay with all that; it will give them something to talk about in therapy. When they leave my house one day, I just want them to know to their core that they are fully seen and declared good by God. I want them to know and trust that there’s always freedom from fear to be found, and that is something to celebrate.