For the past few months, my two oldest daughters have requested I hang out in their room for a bit at bedtime. They each lie in their respective bunk, tucked in snugly beneath their heart-covered bedspreads, and I either find a spot on the bottom bed with my nine year old or lounge in the doorway.
There is always chatting and laughter, and occasionally questions of great importance and relevance to a nine-year-old and six-year-old. Questions like, "Mom, what will I do if two people want to marry me someday?"
My kids obviously don't have a problem with self-esteem.
And although by that time of night I'm more than anxious to get on with my own evening--watching reruns of The Office with my husband, while tucked into my own cozy bed with Alice sleeping sweetly by my side--I treasure these times with my daughters ever so much. They want me there at the end of the day. They think a lot, and have questions about life, and they look to me for the answers.
And oh, how I want to say the right things, the things that build up and breathe Truth and speak freedom to two little girls well on their way to becoming young women. I'm their mother, entrusted with preparing them not only for life but also for eternity with God. Our home and our family mysteriously exist as a microcosm of Christ's bride, the Church, and our very marriage is ordered towards bringing forth and educating our children.
This is why each night after the dinner dishes are cleared and the kitchen is cleaned and children are showered and dressed for bed, our family gathers for prayers in the living room. We read the Bible together. We talk about saints and learn the catechism. Our hope is that through this structured routine, our children will experience a robust and personal relationship with God while also receiving a good foundation in the tenets of the faith. But we're also learning that sometimes, the biggest and most important conversations happen in the final moments before little ones drift off to sleep, when they dream out loud and ask hard questions and long for the company of a loving mom and dad.
So I've made it a priority to, without exception, say yes to a few moments with my girls in their room each night. Bedtime tucking in is generally my husband's special ritual with the kids, but I'm learning to enjoy my role in it too. And my secret hope? That my daughters will still treasure these conversations when we head into the teen years, when no doubt the questions become harder to answer, and when there will surely be some tears and worries and drama mixed in with the end-of-the-day giggling and joy. The stakes will be higher and I suppose that is why we try to set the course now, when they're little. Open communication, honesty, love, and willingness to laugh at the tough stuff together. As a family.
I'm not sure if it's this way for everybody, but ever since my oldest started speaking in complete sentences, I've known that while some things get easier as children grow (fewer diapers, greater independence, more capabilities), some become more difficult--I'm less physically tired at the end of a day, but far more emotionally spent. Because by the day's end I've dedicated hours upon hours to listening, responding, empathizing, guiding, and listening some more. I've praised drawings, laughed at jokes I've heard a dozen times already, encouraged someone to tell the truth, explained why God is or isn't this or that way, and hugged no fewer than two small people wailing at the tops of their lungs. I generally fall into bed exhausted. But in a good way. Because it means I've worked, I've fulfilled, I've invested in something far more precious and eternal than any worldly pursuit. I'm not winning the Nobel Peace Prize or curing cancer--instead, I'm merely raising my children.
But in spite of being unglamorous and fairly mundane (I say "fairly" because sometimes parenting eight kids can get pretty interesting), it has incredibly far-reaching consequences for not only myself, my husband and my kids, but for the greater culture as well. See I'm hoping, really hoping, to raise secure, positive, respectful people who will one day go on to work at jobs and have children of their own and vote in elections and be members of local parishes. They will each contribute to society in some way, for good or for bad. At this point I'm hopeful that it will be good, but even if it isn't, I want to be able to say that I did what I could. That I loved and nurtured and guided well, in spite of my own shortcomings and imperfections. Nobody's perfect, least of all me, but I at least want to try.
And want to know a secret? Lest you hear about my bedtime conversations and assume that I must be some sort of quintessential mother from a Norman Rockwell painting, I'm not much of a natural kid person. I never had any desire to work at a daycare or be a teacher, and I don't like crafts or mess or chaos. (Those words are synonymous in my book, and just the thought of running a daycare would give me hives, if I got hives.) So don't think that I'm speaking to you as That Mom with a perfectly structured home, who feeds her kids organic snacks in fun shapes, plays parachute out on the lawn with the children every day, and who never yells. That's not me. Instead, I'm the mom that tells her kids she's not here to entertain them, who gets on them to do their chores, and who doesn't dole out many snacks, period, because isn't it better to eat good, healthy meals that you're actually hungry for at mealtime? I'm old-school like that. (Fresh veggies, fruit, cheese and hard-boiled eggs are pretty much the in-between-meal options around these here parts. Oh and otterpops in the summertime. Because you're only a kid (and therefore eligible to eat frozen sugar water) once).
My theory is that the vocation of marriage and motherhood got conflated at some point with the position of Fun Activities Director, and we have culturally bought into the idea that being intentional has everything to do with throwing creative birthday bashes and taking kids out on fancy excursions, as opposed to simply being family. As for me, I'm (thankfully) never tempted towards the former because I would never want to be a Fun Activities Director. But for too many, that is the ideal, the sign of a Really Good Mom. I on the other hand find that most of my own efforts go into just engaging. Making conversation. Being available. That's why I drag myself into my daughters' room upon request most nights, tired or not, good mood or not. It's admittedly something small and who knows, maybe they won't even remember these conversations as adults. That's okay. It's still a good thing.
As parents we must regularly ask ourselves if we are allowing ample margin in our lives for these unscripted moments, free from curriculum or programming or activity written by somebody else, and full of space for questions and laughter and love. It doesn't have to be hard--I'm more than convinced that this can happen anywhere from the car to the dining room table to a child's bedroom decorated with hearts. And while I used to occasionally wish I were better at planning fun activities for my children, I'm realizing as they grow that the simple life we lead, organized around the rhythms of home and family and church and loved ones, lacks for nothing in the margin department. And not only that, but there is a raw and natural beauty in this emphasis on relationship and charity: it thrives and flourishes in the quiet, unassuming routines of daily life.