When I graduated with my Master’s degree in social work at the age of twenty-three, I was going to change the world. I set out wide-eyed and full of enthusiasm to serve others in any way that I could. The first eight years of my career were spent working with some of the most challenging populations from highly traumatized children to developmentally delayed, court-mandated adolescents to adults with persistent mental illness who had committed murders, sexual assaults, and arsons; and I took great pride in my work no matter the setting. I learned over time to define success not by the behavior of those I served, but by how I behaved toward them, especially on my worst days.
Despite having always known that I would be a working mom and that I enjoyed working very much, after the birth of my first son, my ideal work situation changed a bit. I no longer wanted a job that required long hours, or that I stay late, or on-call responsibilities. I no longer wanted to take any part of my work home with me. When I was home, I wanted to be home, completely immersed in life with my son. When my second son was born, this was even more imperative. The accumulation of years of being completely emotionally available to others who had suffered was weighing on me, and it was difficult to turn off sometimes. This, coupled with the stress of mothering two young sons when I got home, left me in a constant state of being turned “on” with little down time to care for myself. I was tired in my bones.
I made the decision to shift to a position in my field that no longer required as much of me. I now have a great job that I enjoy (most of the time), but I am not where I imagined I would be career-wise by any means. I have made the choice to stay in a position where I am not very necessary so that I can continue to be available whenever I am necessary at home. Everyone has to weigh what is best for their family, and that is what was best for mine. Although this change worked wonders for my stress and seemed like a perfect solution, there have been many times over the last four years that I have wondered if I made the right choice. Am I fulfilling my purpose? Am I really making a difference? Am I doing enough?!? After all, I never really did get around to changing the world.
But one of the beautiful things that I have found about life is that somewhere in the middle of the chaos and the messiness and the busy-ness, are these moments of quiet truthfulness that are interwoven like the thread that holds everything together.
My moment came the other night. As I lay asleep in my bed, exhausted, desperately in need of rest after a difficult week at work and still battling a cold that seems to have lasted forever, my youngest son climbed into my bed. I let out a sigh as I recognized that the freedom to sprawl out as I wished in the bed had passed, but I drifted back to sleep again with the length of his body nestled gently against the curvature of my spine; a familiar feeling that once felt so taboo with my eldest has become a comfort that I am not yet ready to let become a memory with my youngest.
But, within minutes, the cough came. My son had been battling a runny nose by day that was triggering his asthma at night. After many sleepless nights, we had found that holding him in the bathroom while we ran a steamy shower offered him the most relief because he struggled to wake enough to use his inhaler or nebulizer treatments meaningfully at night. The challenge was that I also struggled to wake enough. I started by trying to ignore the coughing until it became so frequent that there was little rest between coughs, he was clearly uncomfortable, and I had no choice but to drag myself from the bed to the bathroom. I was tired. I was cranky. But, I was there.
And, so I stood in my pajamas, hair in a messy bun, sweat dripping from my face in the steamy bathroom, holding my forty-pound son as he slept in my arms until they ached so badly that I wanted to cry, and I listened as the quiet between his coughs grew longer and longer. I felt his chest rise and fall more easily against mine as his breathing slowed. He became comfortable. As exhausted as I was and as much as I wanted to still be sleeping in my bed, I was there. And, I thought, this — the unrehearsed, imperfect moments that I continue to show up for, in which I genuinely care for and serve another human being, even if it is my human being, above myself — is motherhood.
And maybe, this is my purpose right now. And, maybe that, and that alone, is enough.
“If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.” – Mother Theresa.