I war against bitterness as a mother. The “bitters,” as I call them, are the Sirens always diverting a mother from the heroic journey of child raising. As a new phase of this epic unfolds, that of sending a daughter off to college, the “bitters” amplify, and resistance requires fresh calls for supernatural aid.
I remember: toddler days spent on the little patio that connected our small, two-story condominium with our garage; there was sidewalk chalk and playing kitchen. I remember her plump face giggling in her car seat through the lens of the review mirror, trying to make a joke and ending with: “I just choking mommy, I just choking!”
Her favorite, recited umpteen times a day was: “What do you call a cow with no legs? Ground beef!” I remember the fussing and crying every night at bath time—she hated having her hair shampooed; the blood-curdling scream the first time a fly landed on her arm. I remember tea time every day with Walker’s shortbread cookies. And I remember prayers and “Goodnight Moon” every night in the rocking chair. Every night: “Goodnight room, Goodnight moon, Goodnight cow jumping over the moon…”
Moments that Change a Life Forever
Two discrete moments stand out to me for this particular daughter, instances that gave me a glimpse at how God works through imperfect parents. I’ve always experienced my journey as a mother like one lost at sea. That is why these two moments confirmed to me that God works even through someone like me.
An eye-opening experience came not long after we began attending our local Catholic parish. We were in the car together, my daughter and I, discussing Catholicism and the particular Protestant faith we were leaving. And she said: “When I was younger I could never bring myself to believe… [but I went] to church with you and listen[ed] to all the theology. I did this out of love for God because I still believed in his love and mercy for us. I also did this because we are called to obey our parents. So I obeyed. But I also thought to myself that when I left for college that I would go to a church that I would choose based on the theology I thought was true.”
A second life-altering moment came shortly after finishing her junior year in high school. We were out visiting family in southern California when I reminded this daughter that her school had suggested we visit colleges during the summer if possible. My exact words were: “Sweetheart, I know you’re not considering this college, but we are one hour away. I think we should go for a visit. You don’t ever want to say, like I have so often in my life, ‘If only I hadn’t been so stubborn, if only…’”
She said “yes,” and off we drove to visit Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. The college was on summer break and we had no appointment, but their college admissions counsellor was in, and he took time out of his schedule to spend the afternoon with us. He treated us to lunch at the cafeteria and led us through a tour of the college while talking to us about its history and method of education.
We visited the small old chapel where Mother Teresa had once been, and the new beautiful and serene Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, including the choir loft and confessionals. He did this even with all our younger children in tow. Our repeated refrain of “Fall back!” went unheeded at times, as the younger kids danced around the poor college counsellor, peppering him with questions of their own. Much later in the afternoon our daughter sat for a long time talking with him as we prayed for her. You see, for at least a year this was where we had desired our daughter to go, but after learning many hard life lessons, we decided not to push and cajole.
Parenting Is about Letting Go of that Bike
That night, sitting under the clear, crisp La Crescenta skies in my aunt’s yard, my daughter and I sat alone in quiet for a long time. I looked at her and she began to cry: “I had my own plans for my life, and God changed all of them today.” When I asked: “Do you feel God’s calling to attend Thomas Aquinas College?” She nodded yes, tears streaming.
These are the tears that come to so many of us at different times in our journey, tears happy in God’s goodness and calling, at the same time sad as we let go of our desires. This is life, until our personal desires map his perfectly.
When we were on our conversion journey we were warned that our teenager might rebel against us becoming Catholic, so we may want to let her keep attending the church we had been at. That never happened. Without knowing until she said it to us, we also averted a college rebellion.
Without giving in to fearful parenting, I gained a daughter with a solid and strong faith, one who is on her own journey of friendship with Jesus. Without pushing her into the kind of education I had always wanted but didn’t have as a poor immigrant, I gained a daughter who is able to appreciate the value of the classical liberal arts, and desire it for herself.
Self-doubt can plague parenting. The “bitters” are always tempting: either to despair or to envy. As a mother it would be very easy for me right now to either envy my daughter for having what I always wanted, or to despair at her leaving and at the thought that maybe her parenting was accidental, that I won’t “succeed” in parenting the other children.
As I continue to sail through this epic journey of motherhood, this is the part where I sail by my personal Sirens, the “bitters.” Like Odysseus, I have asked to be tied to the mast of my ship so I may resist their temptation. But the cords that secure me, preventing my soul from shipwreck, are the cords of God’s love. Mercy and grace surround me, lovingly binding me.
My ship will soon pass through these troubled waters. I will be able to say “Goodbye, beloved daughter,” without the lure of the “bitters.”