Should. It’s such a shitty word. “Should” ignores accomplishments in favor of a towering to-do list of impossible tasks and unforgiving criticism. I should spend more time playing with the children. I should stop playing and get that proposal completed. I should shave my legs. I should call my mom. I should work on math with Nathan. I should read more books with Ellie. I should be able to pee alone. I should cook dinner. I should be a better wife.
I didn’t used to be such a should-er. There was a time, B.K. (before kids), when I moved confidently. I worked, I wifed and I friended, without giving much thought to the paths I wasn’t taking. Even when Jon and I made the decision to get pregnant, there wasn’t any waffling. But one quick (and fun!) month and a positive pregnancy test later, the season of should began.
Should I be worried about those three, okay four, beers I had at the cookout last Saturday before I knew I was pregnant? Should I scale back at work? Should we increase our life insurance policies? The first time I walked into Babies R Us, the shoulds hit me with such force that I nearly hyperventilated. When week 36 rolled around and we found out that Nathan had stopped growing, requiring a c-section for his safety and mine, the shoulds were shouting.
I should’ve been more careful. I should’ve drunk less coffee. I shouldn’t have eaten that piece of sushi.
Five pounds of dark-headed perfection couldn’t shake the should monster. He was fine; I was fine – and yet the shoulds still haunted me. It’s as though I failed at my first task of being a mother, at bringing him safely into the world. He made it, but it should’ve been better.
Here I sit, five years and another child later, and the shoulds still linger. But on a good day, I can feel the tease of a shift in seasons close by.
It started 15 months ago, when I was down to my last few days of maternity leave following the birth of our daughter. Instead of going back to work, I quit a job I didn’t enjoy, the one I dreaded returning to. This also meant that we cut our income nearly in half. I fully expected panic and self-doubt to set in, but the shoulds were surprisingly silent. We scrimped and penny-pinched and ate way more spaghetti than I cared for, but within months I’d lined up a part-time job that let me work from home as much (or as little) as I could manage.
The dynamic in our marriage shifted dramatically; no longer were we equals in the workforce and on the home front. Suddenly, Jon was the breadwinner, and I was doing the lion’s share of the cooking, cleaning, laundry and childrearing. For someone as fiercely independent as me, that should have chafed. It should’ve led to arguments and resentments, but instead it just felt … right. While it’s not always an easy choice and some days are downright awful, there’s still an overriding peace that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be at this moment of my life.
In this role, I’m realizing my own strength battling the shoulds when it comes to my children. Take my daughter, Ellie, for example. She should be able to fall asleep on her own every night. We probably ought to bite the bullet and cry it out or ferberize or babywise or some such. But when I hold her close and rock her gently, she falls asleep within minutes. The whirlwind toddler is gone and my baby is back in my arms for a few brief moments. For once, I’m not telling her no and redirecting; I’m giving her exactly what she wants, and gladly. On the heels of the hard days, she and I both need those minutes to fall in love with each other again.
As for Nathan, I learned the other day that he should be able to draw a recognizable stick figure – head, body, limbs, facial features. What he draws most closely resembles a potato with toothpicks jutting out of it (he’s mostly his daddy, but I’m afraid I’ll have to take credit for his art skills, or lack thereof). While he may be lousy at drawing them though, he sees people more clearly than anyone I know. Our conversations at bedtime frequently turn to who was alone on the playground that day at school and why and always end with Nathan’s resolve to invite that child to be his friend the next day. His gentle heart can’t bear another’s loneliness. Being empathetic and kind is effortless to him, and my heart comes near to bursting when I see how well he loves others. A perfectly-rendered stick man could never bring that joy.
That’s the thing about children, though– milestones and shoulds and checklists don’t mean much to them. They revel in what is, without a thought to what could be. They’re perfectly content with who they are. For all that I’m trying to teach them, about letters, numbers and how to treat others, my children are handing out lessons of their own in the school of motherhood.
Perhaps that’s the reason for my newfound confidence, for my release of how things should be and my embrace of how things are. When you spend your days with two little people who are constantly saying new words and learning new skills, you realize how quickly it’s all slipping by. There’s not enough time to both celebrate what is and mourn what isn’t. You’re forced to make a choice … although there was really never a choice at all.
These days are too brief and filled with too much joy, too much love and far too much grace to be held captive to the shoulds. I’ll embrace today and pray for tomorrow, but as for yesterday – I’ll hold tight to the good and let the rest fall away.
When your heart is filled with the light of what is, there’s no room for the darkness of should.