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Crying in the Card Aisle

One of my friends used to work in our church’s book and gift store. In May, the staff would often notice women standing in the Mother’s Day card aisle, crying. Because Kate also volunteers in our Care and Recovery ministry, the staff always sent her in to offer comfort, thinking maybe she had the goods for crying-in-public people.

What did Kate find out that all those tears about? These women couldn’t find a card that fit their experience with their mother. The cards were just so darn superlative.

“You’re the best mom in the world…”

“You’ve always been there for me, Mom…”

“God knew just what I needed when He gave me you…”

“You always knew just what to say…”

“When I was down, you were always there…”

So, the grown-up daughters stood in the aisle and cried, feeling guilt that they didn’t want to buy these cards for their moms, or grief that their moms didn’t live up to these cards, or both. And poor sweeties, I can relate, and I remember my mama saying she struggled at Hallmark picking out something for her own mama.

I bought this for my husband to give to HIS mom. Inside it says, "My love for you is permanent."

I asked my Instagram followers if Mother’s Day was painful, and if so why. The card-aisle came up more than once. One DM said:

“I’ve never found a card that didn’t feel fake or forced or untrue in some way…And then I’m comparing the stranger next to me picking out their cards, imagining their relationships with their moms and now I’m coveting a thing that doesn’t even exist while resenting what God has truly given me in grace.”

And I don’t know how to help or advise us, except maybe to suggest they we all start making our own cards, that honor our real human mothers with their real human sacrifices and accomplishments.

· Mom, thanks for making me breakfast and packing my lunch when I was a kid almost every day.

· Mom, thanks for painting your face at my football games.

· Mom, thanks for making all those doctor’s appointments and remembering my vaccine card some of the time. (My 18-year-old now has to make her own doctor’s appointments, and she really appreciates me now.)

· Mom, thanks for reading your Bible and learning about God.

· Mom, thanks for working on your marriage. Dad’s a real piece of work. (Just kidding on that last sentence.)

And then, post Mother’s Day, let’s work on giving moms a break, especially if we are one.

I have a theory, backed in both the social sciences and Scripture, that the most important thing a mother can do is to be present and emotionally attuned to her child with as much consistency as possible. Since a large portion of you are moms with children under 18, I’m going to spend the month writing about what disrupts our ability to be present for our kids. If you aren’t a mom, I hope you’ll stick around, because this may help you understand your own mama, and may help in other relationships too.

The first enemy of being present is perfectionism. Perfectionism ranges from a “normal” desire for excellence; to a neurotic belief that you will never be good enough; to a narcissistic perspective that you are all good or all bad so you choose all good. All of these forms, to differing degrees, make us more self-focused and less empathetic. God designed us to reflect our children’s emotions back to them, which we do instinctively every time we make a sad face at a crying baby or a smile at a laughing baby. But when we’re obsessing about how good of a mother we are, rather than being attuned to our kids and projecting security, we project insecurity.

Bruno Bettleheim, in his book The Good Enough Parent, uses the example of bonding during feeding time, and puts it this way:

The not good enough mother [perfectionist mother, my addition] fails to reflect the infant’s feeling in her face because she is too preoccupied with her concerns, such as her worries over whether she is doing right by her child, her anxiety that she might fail him. The infant who does not find himself reflected in the face of such a mother responds instead to her being worried, and becomes worried about himself. Worse, he sees the face of a stranger where he should find what is most familiar, so he feels lonely rather than deeply connected…

I know. Now you’re worried that you worried too much when you were feeding your babies. But don’t get lost in the details: go bigger. It means that humility is one of the keys to being present with our kids, that we need to strive to be good enough rather than perfect. When we can stop trying to be superlative, Mother’s-Day-Card-worthy moms, and recognize that we will fail, we can take a deep breath and just show up to the dinner table, the rocking chair, and the soccer sidelines – knowing that we are good at doing what is most important and that is SHOWING UP.

And then, in the next breath, we can come to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for mothers, too, that we get grace and forgiveness from God, and also, God’s favor when we are humble. When we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us. And when we confess our sins to our kids, God gets to be God for them, and we can stop trying to be.

What I’d love to see on my Mother’s Day card this year:

“Mom, you tried so hard. And when you made a mistake, you said you were sorry.”

One last thought, and it’s doozy.

One response to my question about Mother’s Day was this: “Growing up with a narcissistic, abusive mom, try finding a card for that! Painful reminder of what wasn’t.”

This broke my heart and begs the question: Why are you buying a card for an unrepentant mother who abused you? And don’t make her a card either, because if she’s really a narcissist, she knows those superlative cards are out there and she’ll be mad she didn’t get one, and she’ll probably tell you. You might not hear this hard message in church this Sunday, but I want to whisper it to you here: Celebrating abuse is not Biblical. God does not ask it of you. If you need to just let this Mother’s Day go by, go ahead. But if you are a mom now, let yourself be celebrated, for the humble, human, beautiful mom you are.

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