January 19, 2018

5 Life Lessons Only Motherhood Could Have Taught Me

I approached first-time motherhood pretty much the same way I did getting my bachelor's degree: like a crazed maniac. 

I was going for a 4.0 in pre-motherhood studies, baby.

I read everything I could get my hands on about how to wash tiny onesies, how to swaddle a baby, how to breastfeed, how to give my baby a bath, how to get my newborn to sleep through the night, how to provide adequate tummy time for my infant, how to ensure proper sensory stimulation, and, just for good measure, how to discipline a toddler and raise a respectful teenager.

Then I had the baby. And pretty much gave up on everything but that sleep deal.

Over the course of the 19 years since the birth of my eldest (who is, as it turns out, a pretty respectful teenager, thanks for asking), I kept up my on-the-job training in the school of motherhood. I learned how to get permanent marker off the walls, how to hem a dance costume at the eleventh hour, and what in the world “box multiplication” is. But while I was figuring out how to be a mom (a learning curve that still hasn't straightened out for me), I also gleaned a few lessons that spill over into the rest of my life. 

And honestly, I'm not sure I could have learned these any other way.

1. Not every decision comes down to one “right” choice and one “wrong” choice.

When my older daughter was in preschool, my husband and I started thinking about when to send her to kindergarten. Her late fall birthday put her on the fence in our school district, so the choice of whether to send her as a young five-year-old or wait a year was left to us. We (okay, I) agonized over this decision. I questioned other parents, teachers at our church, the UPS guy…anyone who would give me their opinion on the subject. We were staring at door number one and door number two, and I was sure one would bring our precious girl happiness and success, while the other would RUIN HER LIFE. What if I picked the wrong door?

Ultimately, the decision was made for us: my due date for baby #2 fell on what would have been the first day of school if we’d sent our older daughter as a young five-year-old. I wasn’t up for two major life events in the same day, so we decided to have the baby one year and send her big sister to kindergarten the next. It turned out to be the best choice for a lot of reasons, but I learned something in the process: there were pros and cons behind both doors. Our job was to make the best decision we could at the time and then move forward.

A bunch of years later, when our then-kindergartner was thinking about college, our experience all those years ago told me that in the mix of options, we weren't looking for right or wrong, but the best fit. Maybe she’d go to a four-year college and live in the dorm. Maybe she’d start at a community college and transfer later. We helped her make the wisest decision she could —but that time around, I didn't bother asking the UPS guy what he thought we should do.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Save your sweat for the big stuff.

In her fascinating book The Spark, Kristine Barnett describes a “code scale” she developed to help her autistic son reign in his reactions to life’s smaller annoyances. She told him that losing a loved one was a “code ten” on the scale of things to get upset about. An annoying tag on his shirt, on the other hand, was a “code one.” She counseled him not to waste “code ten” energy on a “code one” event.

As someone who routinely freaks out about everything, I love this graduated approach to life’s ups and downs. I don’t agree with the traditional adage made famous by Richard Carlson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff. It is not all small stuff. There is heartbreak and sorrow and grief in life that cannot be brushed off as insignificant. But if everything that happens—from a “D” in algebra to a family member’s serious illness—causes the same reaction, we’re going to be living in constant crisis. We’ve adopted Barnett’s scale in our house, and these days, when I’m defaulting to freak-out mode, my very sage 14-year-old often says, “Mom. It’s not a code ten.” Yes, dear.

3. If you are a mom, you have power. Use it wisely.

Here’s the truth: my mood can make or break a day for my entire family. By my words, the expression on my face, and the tone of my voice, I can send my family off to school and work with a blessing or a curse. This is a huge responsibility and one I often wish I could hand off. I don’t always want this much power. I wish my little family could be happy even if I’m not. But as the heart of our home, I have a unique opportunity to influence the minds and hearts of my husband and daughters. I can ruin a good day or save a bad one.

A few years ago, our family was getting ready for a long-planned vacation. This trip was A Big Deal—something I hoped we would all recall fondly for years to come. As I prayed for our trip, I asked God to help me choose not to let anything ruin our time together. I knew that no matter what happened, I had the power to cast it positively or negatively. If we all ended up with raging poison ivy or if the motel room we’d booked sight-unseen looked like something out of a horror movie, my little family would pretty much buy whatever spin I chose to put on it. (“This will be fun! We can play Psycho! Who wants to take a shower?”)

Again, that’s a big responsibility, but it’s an amazing opportunity, too—my mission, should I choose to accept it. (And for the record, we didn’t get poison ivy, the motel was fine, and we’re all counting down to version 2.0 of that trip as soon as possible, this time with increased ice cream consumption.)

4. Little things matter.

My favorite quote about homemaking is from the American psychotherapist and spiritual writer, Thomas Moore. In his book, Care of the Soul, he writes, “The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest." I hear the truth of this whenever I go to parent-teacher conferences at school, and my girls’ teachers tell me that my husband and I should “keep doing what you’re doing.” 

What we’re doing, as it turns out, isn’t anything revolutionary and, taken as individual practices, probably doesn’t look like much. Does it matter that I yell “I love you” out the front door to my girls when they’re heading off to school? Does it matter that my husband used to take his daughters to dance every Monday night in their pre-driving days? Does it matter that Family Pizza Night is a sacred, inviolable ritual my girls say they look forward to all week? Moore would suggest that these details do matter, and I agree. 

I have, for instance, repeatedly witnessed the transformative power of the family dinner. Over the course of an unremarkable meal, something remarkable happens: moods are lifted, burdens are shared and eased, and we generally like each other at least a little more when we’re finished than we did when we started. This feels miraculous to me—and very important to our souls.

5. This too shall pass.

As a first-time mom, I often felt discouraged when my baby was in a stage I didn’t particularly like because I was convinced that it would NEVER END. The blessing of being an older mom is that I can look back over the years and see first-hand proof that stages are finite. 

My two-year-old quit throwing tantrums and morphed into a fascinating teenager we're really glad we kept around. My firstborn traded her pubescent insomnia for solid sleep. (I’m trying to remember this while I’m up half the night with daughter #2). When you’re in it—I mean, IN IT—the stage seems interminable. But more than a few years of motherhood have proven to me that there is an end, even if it’s not in sight at the moment.

Here in my home state of Michigan, we have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” Sunny and seventy degrees one day can swing to snow and frigid temps the next. Being a mom has taught me that a similar truth applies to much of life—if you don’t like what’s going on one minute, wait a little while and it will probably change.

Motherhood has shown me what I don’t know over and over again. I can’t braid hair. I’m hopeless at crafts and take-home science projects. I’m still figuring out how to navigate the complexities of teen friend drama. But I’m thankful God has taught me some truths along the way. I’ll take these far-reaching life lessons over understanding box multiplication any day.

My students...and my teachers.

This post originally appeared on Power of Moms. It may have been shared at some of these link parties. 


  1. These are spot-on, Elizabeth!! I wish I'd taken these lessons to heart when my girls were younger, but I do feel that I've grown in at least some of these areas - and am hopefully applying them much more regularly now!

    It's hard to pick a favorite, but I've found number 1 to be so true. My personality tends to always want one "right" answer, so I find myself having to adjust my thinking there. As for number 2...I've sweated WAY TOO much small stuff over the years. And then number 5...there's a few things happening in these teen years that make me glad that one is true!! ;)

    Blessings to you and your family, and thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom. Have a great day!

    1. Thank you for all your kind words and thoughtful feedback, Tracey! I am "amening" and nodding at all you said but am particularly loving your comment about #5 in the teen years. I SO hear you on that, mama! ;) Blessings back to you and yours, and thank you so much for taking time to encourage me as always!

  2. Oooh, I love all of this, but my anxiety-prone self especially loves #2!! I've always felt the same way about Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, so I'll have to go check out The Spark, for sure!

    1. AW, Lisa! Another thing we have in common?! I love it! I think you would really enjoy "The Spark"...I read it a couple times in a row. Let me know what you think if you find time to read it. In the meantime, I really hope to be back at #FridayFrivolity next week...today I was (sob) helping L shop for supplies for her dorm room; she moves on-campus Wednesday. I'm fine. Really. But I am also engaging in preemptive cookie therapy right now. ;)

  3. Tracey (above) linked to your post from her blog, and I wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed reading it. #3 especially resonates with me. As a matter of fact, I was just talking about it with my children the other day. One of them said that the toddler's mood mattered the most in our family because when she's screaming, we all want to scream. And I replied that, no, my mood is the most important because, if I'm upset and frustrated, everyone else will be, too. Although I've found that even when I'm in a happy mood, not everyone else is. Why is that? ;)

    1. Hello, Nikki! It's so nice to officially "meet" you here, although we've been keeping company for a little while now on Tracey's wonderful blog, haven't we? Thank you so much for taking time to hop over here from there! And oh my, do I ever feel the weight of #3 along with you: over and over again as a mom, I've seen the truth of the words of the pastor at my husband's and my wedding when he called me the "heart of the home." When my heart is ugly or edgy or whatever, WOW does it affect my home. Huge responsibility, but huge privilege, too. I do know what you mean, though, about our happy mom-moods not always carrying over. In my house, anyway, that's called "having teenage daughters"! ;) In a larger sense, though, I guess it's because no one can make anyone else happy...we all have to choose it for ourselves. Still, I'm a firm believer in the mood-affecting power of mom. Thanks again so much for your interaction...you've encouraged me greatly today!

  4. Oh so very, very true! I love this and am sharing it everywhere. For me the biggest take away is the code 1-10 scale. I have been known to overreact a time or two.

    1. Oh my goodness...thank you so, so much for those kind words! And bless you for sharing! That code scale is HUGE for me, too, because I am, ahem, rather infamous for my overreacting. I'd rather be known for my chocolate-chip cookies, baked in a calm manner. ;) Thank you for your kind and encouraging feedback!

  5. I love the "code scale"! Sounds like a great plan! Thanks for sharing at The Blogger's Pit Stop! Roseann from www.thisautoimmunelife.com

    1. Isn't that scale so fascinating, Roseann? Left to my own temperament, I'd be at "code 10" all the time, so this reset button has been so helpful to me. Thank you so much for hosting The Blogger's Pit Stop...it's one of the highlights of my week! :)


I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to tell me what you really think. Years ago, I explained to my then-two-year-old that my appointment with a counselor was "sort of like going to a doctor who will help me be a better mommy." Without blinking, she replied, "You'd better go every day." All of which is just to say I've spent some time in the school of brutal honesty!