I stubbed my little toe the other week. It broke. It broke in that kind of blood blister-purple-yellow-green-red polka dot kind of way. I wore my crocs everywhere for ten days as I limped from place to place and desperately tried to dodge smashing blows from other people’s feet, namely feet the size of scurrying mice.
Even now, after the multi-stage bruises have faded, my little toe still aches from time to time.
I’ve restubbed it a few times here and there, each time with a mental scream of panic over how bad it would be to re-break that teeny bone.
I’ll bring this little pity-party anecdote into some kind of context, I promise. Bear with me on this one.
I dropped Little Friend off at preschool minutes ago. I should say I peeled Little Friend off at preschool minutes ago. She was that kid who suction-cupped to her mother’s tree trunk of a thigh until the teacher gained a sloth-child around the neck when the mother left. Little Friend’s not a crier or screamer. I’d call her a “brave griever.”
Last night my brave griever was climbing everywhere she shouldn’t on a chair. Moves which ultimately ended in a spectacular tumbling display as she toppled over the arm of the chair to wedge between chair wall and radiator. I braced for the gasp-wail-scream scenario. It didn’t come. Instead, from the vicinity of the chair leg, I heard, “That was just my trick.” The last word trailed off into a tightly stoppered bottle of tears. Then Little Friend collected herself from the floor and shuffled behind the chair, stuck her nose in the wall’s corner, and silently communed with her fear, surprise, and bruised ego.
So this morning, the brave griever peeled away from me with clenched jaw, white knuckles, and a mute appeal in her blue eyes: “Stay Mama, stay.” I have a dull ache in my own heart from leaving her. It’s easy to see why–no mom wants to see her kid in pain.
When I pick her up from school, her pain will be nowhere in the picture. She’ll come flying to the door with a teacher trailing bearing various crafts, back packs, and half-munched snacks. She’ll be grinning, calling “Mama.” She’ll fling her body against mine in an all-heart hug that will knock me back on my heels. She’ll laugh, giggle, chortle, shout, and race back and forth along the hallway with her equally excited preschool cohorts. She’ll grab her craft and stuff it in my face, “See what I made you? It’s a craft!” She’ll dance and cavort through the door as she yells, “Bye! Thank you!” over her shoulder to her teachers.
I’ll watch her joy, and my heart will ache anew. This time, with no threatened tears or parting in the picture, it’s not so easy to see why.
The first step of becoming a mother is stubbing your toe. (See? Told you I’d get back around to it.) Something in you breaks. It’s not an essential something. It’s not a something that changes how you look. Or a something that cripples permanently. It’s a something that might change how you act in small ways. It certainly changes how you feel. It’s a something that leaves behind a tender ache. An ache that can be triggered when you stub your heart against a child’s tear or smile of joy.
An ache that’s remembered when you watch feet whirl on pedals away from you along a sidewalk. An ache that’s felt keenly when you brush a sweaty, fevered brow at 4 am. An ache that hits you when you open a book of pictures and gaze not at the face you beheld yesterday but a face you remember memorizing once-upon-a-time. An ache that flares when she laugh-chokes under a barrage of her dad’s tickles.
The ache isn’t happy or sad. Motherhood is just a permanent weakness. A never-quite-healed injury. An injury that can sometimes barely be felt or that can be broken afresh with waves of agonizing pain. It’s the weakness that allows us to be ready to explode (when the carefully prepared meal gets rejected simply because it “smells funny”) and later that evening crumble with aching joy (upon seeing a cheek nestled in the crook of a vulnerable elbow on a pillow.)
Motherhood is a never-quite-healed injury that’s susceptible to all moods, emotions, and triggers. It’s no respecter of person, place, or thing. It’s a part of us we can never run away from, totally ignore, or fully heal. It’s a permanent weakness for that precious, breath-catching miracle of a child. We reference, in part, our mom-ache each and every time we say, “I love you.”
To become a successful mom, we have to learn to become brave grievers. We have to take the aches as they come, limp along as best we can, be wary of stubbing the toe on big things, and smile forward. That ache’s there to stay in one form or another.
What I can’t help is the mute appeal in my eyes as I watch Little Friend make her way into the world: “Stay Little Friend. Stay.”