"If my heart looks broken in, then I've been brave enough to live..." Christa Wells
Eight months pregnant with a two-year-old in Michael’s Craft Store spelled disaster, I knew. But it was the last gasps of a long summer and the beating sun had worn out its welcome. I was hot and achy, with a two-year-old that had unlimited energy and curiosity, and definitely a mind of her own. My sister, Erin, had met me there with her two girls in tow, ages eight and four, so we could find activities to buy for keeping the girls occupied indoors during the brutal heat wave. Erin’s children listened and followed her path, hands to themselves like model students, while my child bobbed and weaved around me, fingering every breakable item within her arm’s reach.
This excursion was feeling more like an obstacle course of embarrassment rather than the relaxing outing I’d envisioned. But then my antsy toddler satisfied her grasping hands with a soft stuffed cat with big bulging eyes that meowed when she squeezed it. The twenty five dollar price tag meant that this object of her affection was not going to come home with us, but for a peaceful moment she was content trailing behind me squealing with the meows of the overpriced cat. For a moment I felt a bit guilty. After all, I was breaking our standing rule that we can’t play with toys we don’t intend to buy…but oh—the guilty pleasure of a contented toddler soon won out, and I conveniently ignored her offense.
Then like a screeching tire, our happy moment came to halt as I heard the high pitched coo, “I hope your mommy plans to buy that for you.”
“Oh yes!” my two-year-old responded with bright, earnest eyes.
I heard her before I saw her. The woman whose hair was threaded with grey and pinned on top of her head, adorned in her blue canvas vest and badge stamped with the name, “Pat.” The woman who passively aggressively reprimanded me through the falsely sweet words aimed at my toddler. Hormonal rage flooded my consciousness and my mind tunneled around this woman. My sister, nieces, and daughter watched as I stormed up to her.
“Pat,” I spat, “We need to talk. If I am doing something wrong, you address it with me. Not my daughter. You have no right to speak to my daughter like that.”
Her eyes widened in an innocent stare.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but you need to calm down. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Before the shame and tears swept over me, my sister grabbed my shoulders and met my eyes, “Go outside and calm down.”
She was right. I needed space and distance from the situation that had become tense and thick with my emotion. Hot tears started before I made it to the exit. Once outside, I collapsed on a bench and let my emotions hijack my body completely. A hormonal cocktail of laughter and sobs mixed within me as my mind felt overtaken by feelings that were too big to explain or understand. I wrapped my hands around my huge belly and sucked in giant lungfuls of air.
Finally, my mind quieted and I could form reasonable thoughts once again. I wanted to wait outside. To slink away and forget what happened. But I knew I had to go back in. The doors swooshed open and I found the woman who was lingering near the entrance. I think she had been watching me discreetly from a distance.
“Excuse me,” I said. She paused tentatively and looked up. “I’m really sorry I got so mad. I just have all these big emotions and sometimes they take over! I know I overreacted.” Tears escaped my eyes as I explained.
Her arms opened. “Come here honey,” she said, and wrapped me in a motherly hug. Her hair smelled like vanilla. “I have three myself, and my daughter is pregnant with her second. Congratulations! It sure is an adventure!” We embraced for a long time. This offending stranger transformed to friend as unspoken experience and understanding passed between us.
I remember before I had kids my two sisters and mom were part of a club I didn’t understand. “You’ll get it when you have kids,” they said, with shared understanding that I mistook for smugness. What was there to get? I loved kids. I loved being around kids. I wanted kids myself one day.
But it wasn’t an exclusive club as much as a sisterhood formed from understanding and experience. The kind of connection that forms between sisters who know the things another can’t know: the sacred threads of experiences hidden in the fabric of every day struggle. Whether we become a mother through adoption or birth, our hearts learn to beat outside our own chest as our lives stretch into a new shape.
From "Babysitter’s Club" to "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," I’ve read my share of books about girls whose friendship have banned together into a deeper connection that look more like sisterhood. I use to marvel at the closeness of these girls’ friendships. My own experience with friends growing up was rife with betrayal and feeling misunderstood. My own sisters, six and seven years older than me, always seemed to be in a different life season, like they were always ten steps ahead instead of walking beside me through life. But I would escape in these books to a reality where friendship was the anchor that kept them steady and reminded them of who they were. I longed for that kind of connection. For that kind of understanding.
My loneliness forced me to grow deep roots as I reached for identity that went beyond approval. These seasons alone created the fertile soil for my faith to grow as I reached beyond my life circumstances for God to hold me and remind me who I was. But more, God transformed these times of aloneness into the facets of my character that would enable me for deeper vulnerability and connection.
God was teaching me that the hurt and heartache, the seasons of struggle, the times when I felt the most lost and misunderstood were the places that He would meet me, and strengthen me, as I reached beyond my own capabilities and resources for His strength and grace.
Eventually I found the sisterhood I longed for through my experience of motherhood. I needed to have a deeper understanding of who I am, in order to see and embrace someone else for who they are. As my life and identity shook in the growing pains of motherhood, I finally saw beyond myself. I understood my mom and my own sisters in new ways as their lives and experiences took on new meaning colored by my own shared experience.
One of my favorite books is "The Velveteen Rabbit" by Margery Williams. A bunny stuffed with sawdust and stamped with button eyes is gifted to a little boy for Christmas. He is quickly discarded for other more entertaining toys. In the play room the other toys behave as though they are better than Velveteen because they are mechanical with wheels, whistles, and other moving parts. They insist they are, “more real.”
When Velveteen meets the old skin horse rocker that has been in the family for generations, the wise old horse educates the rabbit about the stuff that makes one real:
“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't
Not everyone has to bear the crucible of motherhood in order to become real. Motherhood can be a shortcut, as we journey through the art of utter self sacrifice—giving up all of ourselves for the love of another. It is sacrificial love that transforms us.
But to draw from the well of love for another, we need to feel loved, held, known, to find utter belonging and acceptance. I found this as I belonged to my own mother. As she gave all of herself to form me.
I am so blessed to have a mom like this. But even in all the ways our moms fall short, they are the image bearers of a mother, a father, a creator that loves us perfectly.
BECOMING, the skin horse calls it. Such a complicated, incomplete word that captures the complexity of growing up, of growing old, of growing into who God intends us to be. Becoming happens as real life struggle meets the love of a creator that reminds us of who we are. Becoming happens as we let go of what this world defines beauty as, and look to our hearts that are becoming richer, deeper, bigger, and more complete, as we remember to look to the “unseen things” like humility, integrity, and bravery, rather than our worldly measuring sticks like smooth faces, hard bodies, wealth, and success.
When I was young I thought life was about being accepted and understood. I thought life was about discovering who I was. When I became a mom, I learned that we must love beyond what we can accept and understand. We love even in the pain and uncertainty. It is love that binds and transforms. I learned that discovering who I am is short sighted. I would rather reach for who God wants me to be—which is always stretching into unknown places of self sacrifice and uncertainty.
I look back on my encounter with Pat. The obvious questions hit me first: “Was she wrong?” “Was I right for being mad?”
Then I think, “Maybe.” Maybe it doesn’t matter. Becoming means love wins over being right or wrong. Becoming means I can see my experience with Pat as the perfect messy material for forming me into who God wants me to be.
I’ll leave you with some lyrics to one of my favorite songs, “Velveteen,” by Christa Wells:
Shadow and light
I've learned to let them find me
Feels a lot like dying
Ooh, I believe that I'm becoming
So if my beauty starts to fade
Well, I've been held in a thousand ways
If my heart looks broken in
Then I've been brave enough to live
If perfect turns to perfect mess
And all your love is all that's left
Then I'm as real as real can be
Call me Velveteen