One time when I was in college and doing just about everything I could to ruin my life, I ignored 17 calls in a row from my older brother. I stood alone in the dingy apartment of the awful man I was sleeping with, adjusting my short skirt and choosing which heels to wear for the next party. In the sticky smell of hairspray and Tommy Girl perfume, swigging down the cold burn of Sparks (an energy drink/alcholic beverage that is now outlawed, God help my poor liver and heart), I flipped my cell phone over on the counter so I didn’t have to see my brother’s name pop up on the caller ID. I watched my phone light up with his calls again and again and deliberately hardened my heart against his concern. I knew he was calling to check on me, to hear the voice of his errant little sister who was running about with pain as her compass, true north swung in the wind like a quivering forest of birch trees. I pressed ignore on my phone and shut my eyes tight, stumbling a bit further down the rabbit hole and into the darkness, away from my brothers and sisters and my parents and the goodness of my whole community, really.
It’s ten years past those dark days for me, each sunrise bringing with it a new mercy, and I am now surprised to find myself in a different set of shadows. I love being a mom. The circuitous rhythm of my days in which I am feeder, bather, comforter, a place holder for all that is good in my children’s lives brings me inward, a constant refocusing from self to others. And this is good. This is natural. But there are times; Lord almighty, there are TIMES when the needs of these little people feel like hail pelting my face. The shadow of their demands and their absolute dependence just about knocks me over sometimes. Their cute faces can only make up for so much of their selfish baby hearts, you know what I mean?
My daughter is racing into her toddler years with an attitude surprisingly large for someone who barely tips the scales at twenty pounds. She still looks like my baby girl but then she stomps her foot and crosses her arms and I’m like, oh yeah, you grew up last night. My apologies for trying to buckle your sandals for you. I find this stage with her trying, and I’m disappointed in how much I am not enjoying it. I relished the first year of her life. The newborn stage, those tentative turns towards personhood, the way my babies look at me after I nurse them…I can barely stare in their bright eyes without crying. So I didn’t expect to feel so roughed up by the second year of life.
Clara is 19 months old and her language just doesn’t match her will or her wants and as with most toddlers, this results in fits. I’ve never been a big fit thrower, even in adulthood; my talents fall more in line with manipulation and lying. The expressive tantrums of my girl act like a forcefield between us, and I often find myself drawing away, afraid of her emotions and reactions and the hidden needs that I cannot seem to satisfy. There is a certain darkness in this age that I cower from. I fear her dark places because they seem so out of reach, so exclusive and guarded in a way that I am unwilling to breach. And the other day was a bad one. After tugging with her over everything, constant tiny battles and war wounds I could barely count, in the midst of breast feeding my infant son and trying to remember to breathe or feed myself, I was done for. Exhausted to the core of me, I slumped to the floor. And I began to cry.
I told God that I could not bear the weight of my children’s souls. I could not bear the burden of their well-being and future and their tender vulnerable hearts for even one more minute. I knelt there, surrounded by dollies and blankies and the mess of making cookies because what else does one do on a day like that one? I cried a silent few tears of desperation. I heard Clara rattling around her play kitchen, and the soft whir of the swing where baby Sam watched me intently. I heard the rolling drips of rain water down the roof and through the gutters. I heard my own tired beating heart.
And then I heard a whisper.
“Of course you can’t.”
I knew it was God. Reaching through the haze of my fears and failures it was the God of this and every Universe, crouching there beside me on my kitchen floor.
“Of course you can’t bear it. And I never asked you to, my love. So give it back to me. Their souls and their futures and all of your failures – those are mine to hold.”
My friend Heather recently shared these sage words with me:
“As God gave caterpillars a time of darkness before the metamorphosis, so our children will constantly burrow into times of darkness. This is absolutely necessary for growth.”
Isn’t that beautiful?
This time of toddlerhood is hard. I think, like Heather said, it may be a time of darkness. Clara will come out on the other side of this more independent, more herself than she’s ever been. And just like when I burrowed into my own darkness all those years ago, we are not alone here. There is a tendency to fear the dark. We install nightlights, we avoid the streets, and we dread the times in our lives when everything is just absolute crap. We want the light. But listen:
We need not fear the darkness.
Do you see? We need not fear the darkness.
Or for others.
God ordained the dark for the caterpillar. A dark and lonely chamber, the cocoon incubates what the catepillar was meant to be. The dark will produce the butterfly. Although, I think that we as humans will never get this completely transformative butterfly moment because we are constantly in some stage of metamorphosis, moving in and out of the darkness by season and by choice. But what I’m learning; what I’m working through, is that we must allow for the lights to go dim. There will be 17 ignored phone calls. There will be tantrums. There will be painful toddler years followed by difficult teenage years and maybe terrible loss and failed ideas and moments in your marriage that will make you want to sharpen an axe or call a lawyer, but we need not fear. God ordained darkness for the catepillar. God does not fear the dark. God joins us on our kitchen floors and catches every tear, because the darkness is nothing He has not already conquered.
Later on that difficult day, Clara got her foot stuck in the crib slats and woke up sobbing from her nap. The baby needed to sleep too, so I gathered them both onto my lap, a pile of sleepy babies and their blankets and a few stuffed animals tucked in there too, and rocked them together. It was still raining and the late afternoon cloud cover softened the yellow walls of the nursery into a warm gold. The house fell silent except for the slight creak of the rocking chair as we glided back and forth, back and forth. And as my children melted into me, their arms and legs weighted in slumber and their breaths coming slow and even, I sang a lullaby over their heads and into the still of the afternoon. Burrowed in with them. Letting God into my dark.