It was almost more than this mother’s heart could handle, watching them there in the aisle of the grocery store: my oldest son, just weeks away from his fifth birthday, and the elderly gentleman who has asked for his help.
I’m not really sure if the man saw Ephraim’s eagerness to help me put things in the cart, then decided to give the boy another opportunity, or if he really couldn’t bend and reach the item as he claimed. But he asked for Ephraim’s help, and Ephraim bounded over to him eagerly, carefully making sure that he understood which item to select and place in the cart–a bag of egg noodles on the very lowest shelf–before doing just that, then running back over to me with a huge grin on his face.
“Mama, I helped him! I love helping!”
And I beamed with pride, at his politeness, his willingness to aid others, and the clear joy he derives from being useful.
It’s a moment that is easy to catalogue in the folder of “Motherhood Mission Accomplished.” And it does represent a good amount of work–there was a time not very long ago where Ephraim was surly and rude to people in the grocery store, where I stopped the cart and required he and his brother to repeat a polite response to a person’s greeting, rather than the childish and uncivil one they had chosen initially. I saw our trips to the grocery store as an essential component of real socialization. It helped that having a cartful of children drew the attention of many other shoppers–we were never in want of people to practice on. Now that he’s older and “out of the cart”, as I think of it, he spends our grocery trips helping me load and unload the cart, engaging the other shoppers in conversation, picking out the right item from amongst its neighbors after I tell him how it’s spelled. He has learned to be conscientious of blocking or bumping into people around him, and he excuses himself when he does. He is easy to take out.
After we’re all loaded back into the car, I thank the kids for their behavior in the store. I thank Ephraim especially for his help–it is right that I should. But while I’m proud of him, in my heart I also know that this is only half the battle.
Ephraim is what could probably be described as a pleaser–he has a very strong personality, and I wouldn’t call him compliant, but he is eager for approval, and he relishes it when it comes. When I see him act appropriately in a situation, when I praise him for it, I can appreciate the work that’s been put in on both my part and his, but I can’t pat myself on the back and end it there.
I can’t because I can still remember the day where I hovered over him in his crib, when Clive was just born and Ephraim was barely eighteen months old, and I had laid him down with his blankets and his pacifier and as clear as day I was impressed with the words: his greatest struggle will be knowing he is loved even when he doesn’t perform up to par.
And I froze for a second–I had no idea where the idea came from, whether it was divinely inspired or was just a passing thought. But I can say that it came out of the blue on a day where Ephraim was too young for his inner thoughts to shine through, from before he would reveal himself to have a difficult time remembering not to brag, and before I knew from Clive’s highly-sensitive, beyond-strong-willed, stubborn-bulldog nature (and Anselm’s charming yet sly nature) that Ephraim’s behavior was just as much a product of his personality as it was my training. I was really ignorant at that point of the inner workings of the little person I had just put to bed, but the revelation of the struggle that would face him was as clear as it could be.
As a mother, I long for easy days with good behavior, peaceful days where everyone gets along and we can snuggle into bed at night knowing we’ve all done as we should. I love those sorts of days. Every now and then (a very rare now and then, but still it happens) we actually get those kinds of days. And it’s hard to not desperately try to formulate how I can duplicate the circumstances of that day so that I can experience it again and again. But the truth is that those days bring little more than temporary peace and comfort. As a Christian, I long for my children to understand the truth of the Gospel–and that requires an understanding of their own need for salvation. And one can’t understand his need for salvation if he believes he is perfect.
No, those peaceful, perfect days can’t do much to communicate unconditional love in the face of failure. They raise children like the older son in the Prodigal Son story–living his life with the Father but failing utterly to understand the lovingkindness that drives him to watch for his wayward son every day and to run to him when he sees him return home. They raise children who may know the right things to say and do, but whose hearts are far from God. Children who know how to perform well, but who live in the deep-rooted fear that an honest mistake will rob them of love forever. All of them tragic, all of them disastrous.
It is not a very easy thing to look at your child and pray that he come to understand that his behavior, though good, will merit him nothing. That he comes to a point where he will know clearly how undeserving of mercy he is so that he can truly taste Grace. In a sense it’s awful, praying that, knowing that it likely means he will need to fail and fail hard to crack that shell of performing for acceptance that will solidify to bone if left unhindered.
Oh Ephraim. I write these posts in part so that you boys will know my heart when words are no longer able to be said. I am so proud of you and your eagerness to please, but I don’t want to rob you of the opportunity to know true grace and forgiveness and unconditional love. I have always loved you, even when you didn’t know I existed, even when you couldn’t do anything to deserve it. And I will still love you when you fail. But more than my love is the love of One who sacrificed everything to pay a debt we could never hope to pay ourselves. We will never deserve it, yet it is freely offered.
I hope beyond hope that you could come to understand this through no great trial, though I do not know if that is possible. But know that when the trials come, we will be good company. Because I am learning this lesson, too.