When I was pregnant with my daughter, someone gave me a photocopy of “The Invisible Mother” as part of a gift. I read it at the time knowing it had been meant to give comfort, and I was touched by some of the words. I couldn’t yet identify with the writer, not yet being actively involved in motherhood – but the piece was so well-written that I felt I could sympathize. If you’ve never read it floating around the internet or in a mommy magazine, here it is (and I can quote the full essay since it was – appropriately – anonymous).
It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I’m on the phone and ask to be taken to the store. Inside I’m thinking, ‘Can’t you see I’m on the phone?’ Obviously not; no one can see if I’m on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all. I’m invisible. The invisible Mom.
Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more! Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this?? Some days I’m not a pair of hands; I’m not even a human being. I’m a clock to ask, ‘What time is it?’ I’m a satellite guide to answer, ‘What number is the Disney Channel?’ I’m a car to order, ‘Right around 5:30, please.’Some days I’m a crystal ball; ‘Where’s my other sock? Where’s my phone?, What’s for dinner?’
I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history, music and literature -but now, they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again. She’s going, she’s going, she’s gone?!
One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England . She had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself.
I was feeling pretty pathetic, when she turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, ‘I brought you this.’ It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe. I wasn’t exactly sure why she’d given it to me until I read her inscription: ‘With admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.’
In the days ahead I would read – no, devour – the book. And I would discover what would become for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could pattern my work: 1) No one can say who built the great cathedrals – we have no record of their names. 2) These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished. 3) They made great sacrifices and expected no credit. 4) The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything
. A story of legend in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, ‘Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof, No one will ever see it And the workman replied, ‘Because God sees.’
I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was Almost as if I heard God whispering to me, ‘I see you. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you’ve done, no sequin you’ve sewn on, no cupcake you’ve baked, no Cub Scout meeting, no last minute errand is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can’t see right now what it will become.
I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on. The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree.
When I really think about it, I don’t want my son to tell the friend he’s bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, ‘My Mom gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for 3 hours and presses all the linens for the table.’ That would mean I’d built a monument to myself. I just want him to want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, he’d say, ‘You’re gonna love it there…’
As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we’re doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible mothers. —Anonymous
I posted the photocopied bit of inspiration on my fridge, so that I could re-read it while I washed dishes. It stayed there for two and a half years, where I read and re-read the words probably a thousand times.
A few days ago, I took it off, and threw it away.
Why? Because something had been bothering me about it for a long, long time.
It wasn’t long after my daughter was born that I started to see “me” slipping away. The first thing to go, of course, was my autonomy. I could no longer hop in the car for an unscheduled trip – or even go to the bathroom – without first consulting the needs of a tiny human. She depended on me for everything, which meant my freedom took a hard hit. I wish I could say that I was okay with it, but as I paced my kitchen bouncing a screaming baby at 3 in the morning, knowing that I was “building a cathedral” wasn’t comforting. In fact, as I realized I no longer had the time to read my beloved books, or how long it had been since I sketched anything, I would find the lines rolling over and over in my head: “She’s going…she’s going…she’s gone?”
Every time I would open a jar of peanut butter, I’d feel a small twinge of sadness at the thought that maybe it was true – maybe all the literature and poetry and theater was disappearing from me, going into a peanutty vortex a little bit at a time. Slowly, I began to hate “The Invisible Mother.” I only hung on to it for so long because I felt like no longer appreciating the sentiments meant that something was fundamentally wrong with me as a mother – not with what the words were communicating.
But finally, I had a revelation – the author, that poor, lonely, struggling woman – was wrong. Completely wrong.
Because it’s not true. I didn’t lose myself when I became a mother. I became more myself. And I didn’t disappear – I’m more visible than ever. Just as I became a better version of myself when I fell in love with my husband, I became better for falling in love with my kids.
I discovered an ability to persevere. I had always been (and still am) an easily frustrated person, quick to give up tasks that aren’t easy – but children won’t let you give up. It’s a realization that hits with the first painful contractions – children are happening, and you can’t prevent it. For the first time in my life, I stood before an obstacle, said, “This is too hard for me,” and did not quit. I was forced to draw on God for strength in a way I never had before. I became stronger than I’d ever been – and grew faster than I ever had before. With every time I’ve failed – whether it’s forgetting extra panties for the toddler or completely losing my patience and turning into a screaming banshee – I haven’t been able to just lick my wounds and feel depressed that I’m not the mom I want to be. For everyone’s sake, I have to pick myself up and figure out how I can do better next time. Motherhood solidified my resolve and my faith.
I discovered that I had unknown passions. I studied health and probiotics and vaccines and patient rights and child development and Christlike parenting. I applied myself to learn with a fervor I’d never had in college. Back then, I thought I was pursuing “my dream” – but I never pursued it as relentlessly as I’ve pursued mothering. Sometimes, it feels like my horizons have gotten smaller – but in other ways, they’ve broadened.
I discovered what kind of man I’d truly married. Nothing reveals the nature of a man’s character more than how he treats children – and seeing him love and serve my children has increased the passion between me and my husband. We’re a team in a way that we couldn’t have achieved without them – unified in our desire to raise these children with the best opportunities for success in life that we can give them. This new unity was something we had to fight for. Having children forced me to overcome a long-standing inability to communicate effectively. It’s forced me to become more transparent. To speak my mind rather than to retreat and pout. Motherhood has begun chipping away at walls I’d built around myself as a child, finally revealing the raw thoughts and ideas beneath my exterior.
I discovered that I wasn’t “alone.” Becoming a mother is becoming part of a large community of women who are trying to raise little humans to become wonderful big humans. There’s honesty, support, vulnerability – and a sisterhood that binds together women who might otherwise have always remained in separate “cliques.” The “mean girls” and the “shy girls” and the “smart girls” are suddenly on a level playing field when it comes to sleepless nights, colic, and inability to shower at will. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, there are “mommy wars.” But there have been far more moments in motherhood when I suddenly saw another women more clearly for having been through her battle. That girl in high school who used to intimidate me with her perfection – she, too, has stretch marks. Her once-perfect body now bears scars – but she cherishes them. It’s humanized someone I used to view as inhuman. God help me, motherhood has shown me how badly I used to stereotype other women, and minimize their struggles. I’ve found more compassion for others, because I’ve realized that everyone - everyone – is beautifully and fragilely human, no matter how perfect they seem to be on the outside.
I discovered a fearlessness in my easily-frightened soul. I’ve never considered myself a brave person. I’ve gotten through traumas and trials because I had to, not because I felt capable of it. Something in me fundamentally changed the first moment I held my daughter. I realized that I would never be afraid to fight for her. I remember watching war movies as a child, wondering – if it were me in that situation, would I be the hero? Or would I be the coward who runs away? I know now, without a doubt, that if I ever had to fight to save my child, I would fight to the death and never retreat. I now understand what strength is behind those mothers who somehow raise millions to research cures for childhood diseases and stand before Congress demanding the passing of new laws. I understand the mothers who run into the flames of burning houses. Something has threatened or harmed their child – and they are fighting tooth and nail to conquer it. The Bible says that perfect love casts out fear – and for the first time, I truly know what that means. My love for my children leaves no room for me to be afraid.
I discovered that most of the things I used to be self-conscious about were holding me back, and needed to go. I would readily accept defeat in many areas. “I’ll never be good at controlling my temper…I’ll never learn to be patient…I’ll never have the self-control to exercise…I’ll never be able to quit comfort-eating…I’ll never feel beautiful.” Then, in the tiny hands and face of my daughter, I recognized that I could no longer accept those things – because I would be devastated to hear those words come out of her mouth. I needed to become someone that I would be okay with her emulating. I was an example – her example. I needed to stop making excuses and become the woman that I wanted her to be as well. I’m not anywhere close to being that woman yet – but I am fighting for it. I am trying. If I never achieve it – if I never become the “good example,” I will at least give her the example of always, always, always striving to be a better person. When the Bible talks about that Proverbs 31 woman – the one who exemplifies multifaceted, beautiful womanhood – I want to show my daughter that woman. The woman who makes everyone around her better for having known her. “Invisible Mom” seems to be a miserable, trapped, woe-is-me woman. I want my son and daughter instead to see a mom who’s life neither began nor ended with their birth – but who is growing and flourishing as much as she can in this season of life.
My kids will someday grow up. When they’re grown and gone, I don’t want my purpose to be over – and I don’t believe it will be. This is a glorious, but brief, phase in my life – the phase when I am given the chance to cherish and nurture two little lives. In this phase, I’ve been forced to grow in leaps and bounds. My children have not only given me the courage and strength to change, they’ve given me the motivation – and it’s made me more complete. When I emerge on the other side of child-rearing, I will not be a woman who’s expended her energies raising kids and now has only exhaustion and loss of individuality to show for it. Instead, I know I’ll be more complex, more intelligent, more confident, more ready to tackle whatever comes next.
It is right to see ourselves as great builders. We are doing something sacrificial, and we are investing in our children years upon years of our lives – but that’s not the complete picture. If we only see motherhood as “cathedral-building,” no doubt we’ll someday wind up with a child who fails to live up to the great expectations we had for them: an ungrateful child who, it seems, has completely thrown away all our hard work. If our focus has been on the work we were doing, and the only goal was to build great cathedral-kids, it would be the most crushing blow imaginable – but it’s not just the kids who were being “built.”
Yes, I’m blessing my kids with all the labor I’m expending on them – but they’re blessing me right back, helping me become something I could not have become on my own.
I’m not becoming invisible – I’m not disappearing. Motherhood brings many sacrifices, but each sacrifice brings only a better, greater, stronger, more beautiful identity. I’m slowly becoming, for the first time, someone who is worthy to be truly visible.
To all mothers – you are more now than you were, and will become more every day.
And for heaven’s sake, get your eyeballs out of the peanut butter.