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Once upon a time, I thought my primary role as a mama was to nurture my children – physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Time – and many children later – have refined and broadened that perspective. I still think this is a primary role of mine, but I have also painfully begun to realize the reciprocal part my children play in my own physical, spiritual, and emotional growth, which directly impacts the way in which I raise them.

I’ve always considered the stage of 3 years of age and younger as the most physically exhausting. Sleep deprivation and I have stared each other in the face. I’ve often wondered during this time, if I was going to have to wait until they turned 4 before I was ever able to get anything done again.  Let’s couple the lack of sleep with hunting down my little ones when they’ve gone too quiet or chasing after them when they’ve run away from me, again – it’s physically draining!

It is during this initial stage that my children first hold up that mirror of motherhood to me. A mirror that shows my true self, but I often look away not even capable of understanding what I’m seeing. I focus all of my attention on them, completely ignoring my actions, which are staring me in the face.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom tells of a story about St. Philip Neri, in Beginning to Pray, where he explains that God does not simply free us from our struggles when we pray to Him. Instead, God provides the opportunities for us to learn how to overcome these struggles.

When in our prayers, we ask God to give us strength to do something in His Name, we are not asking Him to do it instead of us because we are too feeble to be willing to do it for ourselves. – Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray

There is nothing passive about being an Orthodox Christian, including being a parent. There’s always an aspect of continual intellectual learning for us, but the great majority of our time is spent LIVING our faith. Actively engaged.

How many times have we wished that we could simply take our little ones to church, have them stay calmly in our arms or play quietly at our feet so we could listen to the service? The thing is though, this is a huge learning time not only for our children as they learn to gradually stay in church a little bit longer each time, but it’s also a growing and learning time for ourselves.

How many times have I earnestly and desperately prayed to God for more patience with my kids? And how many of those times was I actually praying that God would simply grant me that patience without any effort on my part to reach for it? It was precisely in those moments, when I walked out of the nave and into the narthex with a loud and energetic child, that I was provided the opportunities to learn patience, humility, and compassion. Did I feel exasperated being back out in the narthex, asking myself if either of us were benefiting in the least from being here or did I focus on the fact that my child was attempting to kiss every icon in the narthex and not fixating on the fact that he ran to every single one of them? Did I think about skipping the next service because my kids are incapable of being quiet and still in church or did I think about how with everything in their life right now, we present it in small, simple chunks. We do a little bit at a time right now in order to prepare them for more later. Why would I expect attending church services to be any different from the rest of their daily life? We stayed in church for 5 minutes this time, I’m going to strive for 10 minutes next time as I whisper into their ear, “How many candles do you see? Where’s Jesus? Where’s his mommy?” The next time you pick up a liturgy book, pay special attention to how many times we pray for peace during the liturgy. When I have to leave with a crying child, it is precisely these moments when I can choose to be an active participant in achieving that peace in the world, or not. It is through me, how my children perceive attending services.

My husband recently told me something that has really stuck with me and I’ve been mulling it over in my head ever since he said it. We have been working on really understanding the art of bread baking, especially in relation to prosphora. We’ve devoted a great deal of time learning about the different influences and variables that can completely change the outcome of a loaf of prosphora. My husband was telling me, “Alton Brown says that dough is like your children, you’ve got to get to know them.”

Thus is this first stage with our children, getting to know them. With your first child, you’re not only getting to know the personality of this little one but you’re also getting first hand experience with the realities of parenthood. With each subsequent child, you begin to realize that each child is unique and you are getting to know this child personally. You begin to be more comfortable with the daily rhythm of life as you spend more and more time with your children.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains in Celebration of Faith: The Virgin Mary, that the icon of the birth of the Theotokos is “The most routine, unremarkable event. Or is it? Could it be that the Church is telling us through this icon that every birth, every entrance of a new human miracle explodes all routine, for it marks the start of something unending, the start of a unique, unrepeatable human life, the beginning of a new person.”

I looked over at our three loaves of baked bread on my kitchen counter. We used the exact same base recipe for each of the loaves – the same foundation – but when we varied some of the external circumstances, the end product changed for each loaf. I thought about this in relation to my own children. My oldest child grew up differently in so many ways in comparison to my youngest child. Her life will not look exactly the same as any of my other children, but I have provided them all with the same basic foundation – an active life in the Church. The same is true of other Orthodox families as well. Even though we are all striving to provide the same foundation for our children, my family’s spiritual life will never look exactly the same as your family’s spiritual life.

(Photo: We had intentionally changed one step in the process of each loaf to see the effect it would have at the end. For one, we kneaded it less. For another, we kneaded it for the prescribed length. Yet another, we placed the dough inside of a round cake pan instead of on a baking sheet. The recipe was the same for all three loaves but slight variations in the process made each loaf unique in the end.)

I consider the next several years with my children, the heavy duty, foundational years. There is so much ground work being laid in this stage. I’ve always considered this stage labor intensive too but never as exhausting as when they are little ones or as we approach that all encompassing hormone avalanche at the precipice of the teen years.

Oh my pre-teens! I remember when you used to cry if I left without you, and now you challenge the strength of the very foundation I labored so hard to create for you! There are moments when I contemplate the desire to swap emotional exhaustion for a few minutes of physical exhaustion instead. Those moments when an extra cup of coffee could be a potential temporary fix but now is no longer a viable option for the situations we face today.

Here again is another time my children diligently hold up that mirror for me to see myself. I don’t always like who I see staring back at me, especially when I realize that I turned to sugar in my favorite forms of chocolate, chai tea, and coffee for sanity and consolation instead of to God in prayer. I’ve been provided with opportunity after opportunity to learn patience (because I thought I had learned it when they were little and now I realize I still have so far to go), endurance, and the hope that I will someday recognize that my strength does not come from ME but rather only from God.

So one of the things which God continues to try to teach us is to replace the imaginary and minute amount of disturbing strength we have by this frailty of surrender, of abandonment in the hand of God. – Met. Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray

My two oldest children have shown me that I immensely enjoy the teen years – the deep discussions, the emerging adult personality, the growth of ideas and interest in the world. I stand back watching them, as others begin to test those foundations that I laid with them. How did I do?! Is it going to hold?!

It is during these teen years with my kids that I continue to nurture them but also witness a unique adult struggling and striving to emerge. I’m hoping I still feel this way after the rest of my children have passed through the teen years, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that each child is different and they’ll show me exactly where my knowledge ends and my arrogance begins.

Being a mom, is without a doubt, about loving and caring for the needs of my children. But at the same time, it’s also a real and active way for me to work towards my own salvation. It’s recognizing that acquiring a peaceful spirit (Saint Seraphim of Sarov) can be labored for and achieved in the daily life of being a mom – appreciating the miracle wrapped inside of my embrace (whether born of my flesh or not) and entrusted to my care, praying as I go about my daily tasks instead of holding out and waiting for that elusive moment of quiet, recognizing my struggles as opportunities to learn patience, unconditional love, self-denial, and humility. It’s in reflecting on how I’ve reacted and acted towards my children that I can begin to see the path of my own personal, spiritual journey (or lack thereof). It is through the choices I make in choosing to turn to God in those moments of frailty as I nurture my children or whether I attempted, yet again, to find strength in my own fiercely independent self. Experience has taught me that relying on myself as the source of my strength was not the best of choices.

It is here that I turn to the example of the Theotokos for direction. Fr. Alexander Schmemann shares Fr. Bergius Bulgakov’s sermon on the Mother of God and provides a beautiful account of motherhood through the life of the Theotokos:

She is love and compassion, mercy and care, intercessor and defender. She does not judge, but has compassion for everyone. Hers is not to be the righteous judge, or the judge of righteousness, but to intercede as a mother. And at her Son’s awesome tribunal she intercedes on our behalf with the Righteous Judge to ask forgiveness.

Each and every day, I strive to look to the Theotokos as an example for my own life – and through my years of labor, to offer up to God my children as gifts to Him, just as He gave them as gifts to me.