Sickness abounds still. Five children slumber-partied in the living room last night, bodies strewn upon one another in the kind of harmonic intimacy that only comes after dark. Grace screamed for two hours in her crib with her Papa at her side, and I holed up in the bathroom and tried not to hear. These are the moments that try a Mama’s heart.
Okay, that sounds poetic. In reality, the moments don’t try me the same way they did six kids ago. Ten years and six kids ago (at eight months pregnant) I sobbed in my own bed while my husband trained the still-nursing 17 month old boy to sleep. I’m serious, my heart was breaking. I couldn’t bear his cries, each one screaming that he
wanted needed me, and I was letting him down.
Now I’m a little wiser. I don’t mind co-sleeping with a kid (actually I love it), but I DO mind said child nursing all night long and then throwing a screaming tantrum each time I gingerly try to roll away. Bed sharing is fine and all until little Someones start pulling stunts like these.
MY TEARS WERE NOT OF EMPATHY
So as I hid in the bathroom and sniffled, my tears were not of empathy. She’ll get over it. I know this now. I’ll get over it. I know this too. In fact, she’ll probably be back in our bed
in an hour next week. No, the trying of my heart was not the testing of my deep, abounding love. Instead it was the opposite: a ragged exposure of my compassion which turns off much more quickly than it did a decade ago. Now the question is: will I love enough? Six kids in and I’m protective about my body, six kids in and my heart can more easily turn cold. Crying? Whining? Please. Six kids in and it’s a whole lot easier to turn off the sympathy; the challenge now is not to avoid giving too much, but to fully give what I should.
WHICH HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH LOVE
I think this has nothing to do with the actual fact of parental love. We parents know and can hardly explain the mystery of loving multiple children, how one child wreaks havoc on our hearts and we think we can never love another child the way we love this one. But then the second child is born and we love him just as much; no, we love him differently; no, we love him the same; no, we love him more; no, we love him with a brand new love that’s all his own and belongs to no other; no, we love him with an ancient love which wells out of our soul.
It’s all love, all crazy love, all crazy there’s-always-enough-and-never-enough love. It’s high love and low love; passionate love and lazy love; fought-for love and inspite-of love. Sometimes it is takes-time-to-grow love and sometimes it is exploding-in-a-moment love and oftentimes it’s all of these in the course of a single afternoon.
WHAT MY GRANDMOTHER TAUGHT ME
When I gave birth for the second time, my grandmother (we called her Grammy) called me on the good, old-fashioned telephone to talk about this love. Speaking of her five daughters, she drew a picture of rooms in her heart which, she claimed, opened each time a child was born. This room would be created, she said, with the infant’s name emblazoned across the door. It was a room full of love for that child, and only for that child, a love all the child’s own. She said she learned at the birth of her second daughter that love would not be in competition, for new love was birthed in keeping with life. She wouldn’t be taking from her firstborn to love her second, just as she wouldn’t have to pull from the second to love the third. There would be competition between children for attention, sure, and competition for her mothering, and maybe at different times she would understand one child better than another–she would certainly be imperfect–but never would she love more, not in her heart.
It’s not love that is spread thin, as if there is not enough to go around. Love increases: the more children one has, the more love one possesses (at least in theory). But love is like any virtue or dream or idea: when we apply will and effort and action, it grows.
Our bodies? They spread thin. Our energy? It wears out. Our emotional resources? Find me at the end of a long day without break or husband or a meal plan and I’ll be a pretty good caricature of exhaustion.
Compassion? Actual put-your-love-into-action action? The meeting of the road and the rubber where we prove to the child our love is what we know it is inside? The self-sacrificing part where we keep our heart soft and our tenderness warm despite our natural instinct to run into a cave and hide? Now this can get hard to summon, and even harder to do or die.
CAN A MOTHER FORGET HER CHILD?
Can she? Of course not! But might she? Yes. Will she ever truly? No. But might she act like it? Yes.
Yes, she may forget her compassion for the child she has borne. She is limited: she can be out-touched, out-screamed, utterly and irrevocably exhausted. She can scrape the bottom of the barrel and find it wanting. Still God comes through.
I thought of this verse as I hid from Grace’s cries—not because the hiding was wrong (I mean, we all know there are TIMES) but because of the coldness in my heart. Only, I misquoted the verse in my mind. I spoke it to myself in judgement and then issued God a challenge:
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast or have no compassion? Well, looks like you were wrong, Lord. Because there’s no compassion here. I sure hope your compassion is better than mine.”
But then I actually looked up the words, and was surprised.
HE’S NOT OFFERING JUDGEMENT, HE’S OFFERING RESCUE
See that? He’s not offering judgement. He’s offering rescue. Of course, in this verse God is comparing his own love for his people (in surpassing measure) to the common example of a mother’s love, an analogy most of us can understand. But take this verse a bit out of context and just look at it through the lens of a spread-thin mom:
“Can you forget your baby at your breast? Can you fail to bear compassion toward the child you have borne? I know you don’t want to, and the idea seems impossible, but you, even YOU–you who try so hard–will. So don’t forget: even if you do fall short and fail and discover coldness in your heart (and you will) I will not forget you. Your love toward your child is a picture of my perfect love toward you. Where your love fails, my love is just at its beginnings. I will not forsake you to your own depleted resources. I will remember you, I will have compassion for you. I am the Keeper and the Lifter of Your Head.”
Now that’s strength. I can let down my guard and hang my soul on something like that. Exhausted hearts, tired minds, weary bodies, burned-out sympathies–all can be loved on and ministered to by the Infinite Compassion, by the one who understands the nature of weariness and the limitations of man.