Lessons From The Frazzled Mom

Why Mother’s Day Was Difficult…

On Mother’s Day, people tend to talk a lot about how wonderful mothers are and how accomplished they are at doing All. The. Things.

My first couple of Mother’s Days were difficult because of this.

I spent most of my time back then thinking about all the ways I wasn’t winning in this game of motherhood. Having spent a good deal of my life up to that point working toward and achieving goals, I was finding this task of motherhood to be a different beast altogether.

The rules seemed difficult to discern, and the expectations for what it meant to be a “good mother” depended entirely on who you asked.

I longed to find that sense of accomplishment I remembered from a task well done, but I was finding it difficult to even complete a task.

I could start the day with a clearly outlined to-do list but find myself at the end of the day looking around at a mess of laundry and dishes and projects left undone.

I remember thinking to myself that I had imagined somehow a magic transformation would overtake me some time during pregnancy and labor and delivery — that somehow or other I would be equipped to figure out my child’s every need and have an intuitive sense of how to meet those needs.

But my baby boy was baffling. As beautiful as he was, and as much as my heart treasures those early days, most of my memories of his newborn weeks are of the frustration of trying to get him to eat.

The nature of the struggle seemed, to me, to be absurd. Though I’d anticipated some challenges, I couldn’t believe that I was stuck so soon out of the gate. I was rapidly failing the very first test of motherhood.

I had believed that a mother would have answers about how to care for her child, and within those first several days as a mother, I was confronted with all the things I didn’t know how to do.

I couldn’t make him eat. I couldn’t get him to sleep. I couldn’t seem to comfort him when he cried, and I felt inadequate in ways I’d never felt before.

While I still often long for those early days of motherhood when my children would hunt me down in any room of our house just for my company, when they would snuggle sweetly in my arms, I’ll tell you what I feel marked those days more than any other sensation — the sense that I was in over my head, that I didn’t know how to do this thing well, the fear that I would somehow mess up the most important task and challenge of my life — mothering my children. Everyone else seemed convinced I could do this; my husband and family were so supportive and encouraging. But somehow behind their words I continued to hear the lies over and over again, and I continued to let my heart agree with them.

This was the mood my fourth Mother’s Day. With a four-year-old little boy clinging to my hand and an 8-month-old baby girl snuggled in my arms — two little ones I loved more than I’d ever known I could love — and a strangling sense deep in my gut that I’d been had this time. I had somehow convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough to be their mom.

I enjoyed the celebration, but I also harbored a lot of secret doubts and worries deep down inside. Somehow, the praise heaped on mothers at Mother’s Day — the sweet messages inside the cards and the families in the commercials — just made me feel even less capable by contrast. The sentiments of Mother’s Day seemed to poke deliberate and mocking fun at the wound deep inside me — the fear planted like a weed inside my mind and taking root there — isolating me in my anxiety and shame.

Disney World The Happiest Place on Earth…

A month after my fourth Mother’s Day, we took a family vacation to the happiest place on earth: Disney World.  By all accounts, (and perfectly in line with my generally trumped up expectations about all moments our family spent at Disney World), we should have been having the absolute time of our lives. Like everything else, I’d set this week up in my mind like a series of tasks to successfully accomplish in order to prove to myself that I was fit for the job.

And we did have lots of fun.

But mostly we were exhausted and hot and doing our very best to connect all the dots and see all the cool things and ride all the rides and find all the diaper changing stations and avoid all the friendly, giant costumed characters relentlessly stalking us through the park because we knew they would send our little boy into fearful hysterics. And meal times were a puzzle because our baby girl would need a high chair, our boy would only eat chicken nuggets, and the mathematical calculations required to decide how much of our life’s savings to invest in said overpriced chicken nuggets was exhausting.

I know those of you with more than two children might shake your head, chuckle and call these lightweight concerns. And it wasn’t lost on me that this situation should not have had me tied up in knots. But the reality that I still hadn’t figured out how to care for my family without a fuss and struggle still had me convinced that I was inept.

Pizza Planet Fiasco…

So, the situation was this:

We were at Pizza Planet, a restaurant, incidentally, that our little guy had eagerly anticipated visiting since it was based on one of his favorite movies, Toy Story.

But there was a hitch.

My boy had never liked pizza.

He had never pretended to like pizza.

But somehow, on this day, I dug in and decided that THIS was the exact moment to engage this battle. THIS was important and right and necessary, and because my identity as a “capable” mother was on the line, I made this threat:

We were at Disney World, at Pizza Planet, a restaurant which served only pizza. He was four years old and hungry and WOULD eat his lunch.

Or, he would not set foot in the next room . . . an arcade so glorious and larger-than-life that we could hear the beeps and trills, feel the glow of the colorful lights, and absorb the moving, flashing, dancing stimulation through our peripheral vision . . .

The arcade was beckoning my little boy. All that stood between him and the time of his life was that pizza.

Heaven for a four-year-old boy, just out of reach.

Lines had been drawn.

The stage was set.

And somehow, I believed the magic of Disney World would supernaturally override the reality of four years of relational history — more of these battles had ended in ugly retreat on my part than had ever resulted in the triumph of parental victory.

In plain English — my boy never backed down.

And as badly as he wanted to run into that arcade and play and explore with his daddy, he could not, would not, eat one bite of pizza.

I’d taken the situation from bad to worse in record time, and now our child’s heartbroken sobs drowned out all the merriment of the arcade and quickly drew the attention of everyone around us trying to enjoy the air conditioning and the pizza.

I had created a mess for myself and I knew it.

I was upset and frustrated with my little boy, but I was more angry at myself for putting us in this impossible stand-off.

In those moments, all I could do was stand in the restaurant and feel shame from head to toe.

Ashamed that my son was crying, and everyone was looking.

Ashamed that strangers were watching my apparent parenting failure in a drama unfolding before them and judging me —

Ashamed that my husband and in-laws were seeing me at my worst — choosing to engage in a battle with my four-year-old son over a slice of pizza.

I was ashamed that I couldn’t solve this problem and ashamed that every attempt I had made to “handle it” had made the whole situation worse.

There was nothing to do but disappear.

So, I grabbed my boy’s little hand, marched both of us outside, sought refuge in a corner, and sat us both down. I put the two of us in a time out.

There we were, knees drawn to our chests, heads down, both of us crying into our folded arms.

A Light in the Chaos…

After just a few minutes like this, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

When I looked up, I saw the face of a stranger. This lady had apparently seen us in our distress, made her way over to us, and taken the time and braved the crowd to intervene. Her words to me were simple:

“I’m a mom, too. It’s hard. I know. Can I pray with you?”

Something in me shifted then and there. This person I’d never even met disrupted the spiritual storm raging inside me. I choked out a yes, put my head down, and gratefully soaked in every word of that prayer, sent up by a stranger on my behalf.

As much as I wish I did, I simply don’t recall the words of her prayer. It’s something I wish I could write down and remember forever.  But my mind was a fog of exhaustion and emotion.

All I could do was breathe, and every time the kind lady said the name “Jesus” my heart eased, my breath came more freely, and my shoulders lowered.

I felt my little boy shudder as his tears subsided, felt his breathing even and slow beside me, and I eased up on my grip of his hand.

At amen, she kissed the top of my bowed head. I tried to squeak out “thank you,” my throat still tight. When I looked up, my eyes still blurry with tears, I saw only her back as she walked away, melting back into the crowd moving along –a sea of people making their way to their next happy Disney moment.

I looked over at my boy. I kissed him on top of his head. I said “Buddy, I’m so sorry.” We hugged and sat together in silence, awash in relief and wonder.

A Stranger’s Gift…

In just a couple of moments, a kind stranger had handed me a treasured gift that not only blessed me then but also lives on and continues to bless me and guide me today.

In that critical moment, when I was prepared to give up on myself once again and willing to accept the lie that I couldn’t do this, she did something for me that I think we can all do for one another if we’re willing

  • She interrupted my isolation. Her hand on my shoulder awoke me to the reality that a world existed outside my pain and confusion.
  • She spoke words of acceptance. “It’s hard. I know.” It wasn’t until later that day that the enemy of my soul sensed what was up, that freedom was stirring, and condemnation once again tried to regain the upper hand. I questioned my own recall of the moment with the kind stranger and began to over analyze.

She didn’t even know that it was all my fault. I demanded too much, insisted on my way, and created a terrible scene, probably scarring my child for life.

If she would have known THAT, she wouldn’t have been so kind.

But the longer I thought about it, the more important it seemed that she hadn’t asked.

She didn’t ask to know the details. She wasn’t interested in acting as judge or jury.

And because her judgment did not keep her away from me, she offered the best gift of all:

  • She pointed my eyes to Jesus.

She didn’t just give me her acceptance. She brought me to Jesus and reminded me of his acceptance. Her prayer pulled the love of Jesus down around me and held it there. She had grace to give, saw someone who needed it, and freely gave.

Almost as important as what she did give was what she didn’t.

  • She didn’t give me advice.
  • She didn’t make suggestions.
  • She didn’t try to distract me from my troubles by telling me about this one time when her kids were young . . .

The kind stranger’s interaction with me that day was zero percent condemnation and one hundred percent unconditional acceptance and grace.

I wish I could say I learned a few things about parenting that day and never again engaged in a senseless battle or lost my temper or drew the wrong line in the sand. But a few moments of foolishness (or more) come to mind that prove otherwise.

What I did learn that day was who I want to be in this world, and who Christ and his gospel compel me to be . . .

A Vessel For Grace…

It’s what every heart needs, and I believe it is what every mother needs in extra measure. Not just in the early days of her motherhood journey, but all along the way.

Like the kind stranger who reached out to me in my lonely, shame filled corner outside Pizza Planet:

Could we . . .

  • Destroy the lie of isolation? Could we come around one another, offering our confessions of “I know” and “It’s hard,” and breathing with relief to realize we don’t carry this weight alone?
  • Could we forget to judge, ignore the urge to give unsolicited advice, resist the desire to “one up” and compare by turning someone else’s struggle into a backdrop for our own dramas?
  • Could we point one another to Jesus, whisper his name into one another’s ears, believing in his authority over our lives and the power of the promises he has made to us? Could we share our faith with one another and remind each other of the truth that we already possess his acceptance?

Sometimes I think of the kind stranger who dared to offer her prayer to my child and I on that hot summer day. I wonder what experience she had along the way that emboldened her to share her grace with me. I imagine all the other kind ones who might have huddled over her in her own times of doubt and pointed her to Jesus.

And I am grateful.

This Mother’s Day let us truly celebrate motherhood. Rather than allowing our trumped-up expectations to lead us into doubt and fear, let’s huddle up alongside the mothers nearby and remind them of their worth and their place with Jesus.


Briana McDonough
“I’m a wife, mommy, teacher, writer, reader, and child of God.”

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