As a young mother, I felt incompetent — especially when I was around other mothers who looked so awake, confident, and relaxed as they casually cradled their babies and chatted happily at church, in my neighborhood, and at the store.
“All of those women are so happy!” I fretted.“Why don’t I feel that way? Am I the only mother who feels like I’m perpetually walking through a fog bank? Am I the only one who can barely get showered by dinner time? Am I the only mother whose brain has turned into mush?”
This relentless barrage of self-condemnation was stoked by well-intentioned people in my life, who asked why I couldn’t keep my house cleaner, why my oldest couldn’t walk yet, and why I didn’t do more of this, that, and everything else I was quite frankly too exhausted to do. These questions heightened my insecurity and convinced me that I was the most incompetent mother ever. And nothing my husband said could sway my opinion.
I hid all of this angst behind a mask of false confidence until a snowy Sunday morning in February. That morning, I dropped off our sons in the church nursery, then staggered into a bathroom to freshen up my makeup. As I stared at my haggard face in the mirror, feelings of wretchedness overwhelmed me, and tears welled up in my eyes.
Just then, a voice behind me asked, “Are you okay?” The voice came from a beautiful, pulled-together woman. Although we had never talked before, I knew who she was. Her name was Julie, and she and her husband sat toward the front of our church every Sunday with their perfectly behaved little boys, who always wore adorable little shirts and ties.
Before I said a word, Julie gently asked, “You had a second baby recently, didn’t you?” I nodded, too terrified to say anything to this paragon of competent, mothering perfection.
She gave me an encouraging smile, then confided, “I have two sons, just like you. Do you know what I did after my second son was born? I sat in a rocking chair and cried every day for weeks, thinking, ‘What have I done to myself? I can’t handle this!’ But as they got older, things got easier bit by bit, and I promise that things will get easier for you too. God gave you your children because He knew you could handle them. And if I can do this, then you can too. Okay?”
I was stunned and sputtered, “You’ve struggled too? But you’re so perfect! And so are your boys!”
She chuckled and said, “Nope, I’m not anywhere near perfect. None of us are. Someday when your kids are older, other mothers might think that you and your family seem perfect too. Make sure you let them know you’re not.”
Julie’s encouraging words reminded me of Proverbs 10:11: “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life.” (NIV)
As my parched and weary soul drank deeply from Julie’s words of parenting grace, a great deal of my anxiety dissipated, like air from a balloon. I’ve since realized that our conversation was a pivotal moment in my life, because from that point on I knew that I was not alone in my parenting struggles. I also realized I didn’t have to be perfect, and neither did my children.
Just a few weeks after this conversation, we moved away, and I never saw Julie again.
Since then, much has happened. I’m now a veteran mother of five children, and although God has kindly placed several wonderful long-term spiritual mentors in my life, I have never forgotten that single mentoring conversation in the church bathroom two decades ago.
Over the years, I have strived to follow Julie’s life-giving example by doing my best to be encouragingly transparent about my struggles — parenting and otherwise — with those journeying along the same paths I have walked. In the process, I’ve discovered this is a powerful form of ministry that anyone can do. All it takes to get started is the courage to tap a hurting person on the shoulder and ask, “Are you okay?”