The White Flags of Motherhood  


Like the myriad of women who marched into motherhood before me, I was wholly and completely unprepared for the top-to-bottom, inside-to-out undoing that is mothering another soul.

That tiny voice that pierced the early morning hours of a late-April morning all those years ago, pierced every last fiber of my being, too. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.

I would never be the same. Nothing would ever be the same (certainly not my hormones or my hips).

In a raw and unfiltered moment of humility, I might confess to you that, had I glimpsed the vastness of motherhood—the soaring joy and haunting sorrow, the to-the-marrow exhaustion and moment-by-moment dying to self, the all-consuming delight and constantly gnawing doubt, the swells of pride and gaping holes of disappointment, the glorious ordinary and the crippling monotony, the beauty and mystery and magic, the messiness and noisiness and sameness— I’m not at all certain that I would have been brave enough to choose it. Scratch that. I’m quite certain that I would not have been brave enough to choose it.

Fortunately, marvelously hard things have a way of swallowing us right up before we really even know what’s happening. To think of all that could have been lost…

I had a lot of ideas about motherhood. Most of them were wrong.  

Those first three months barreled in to me like a runaway train and I crawled from the wreckage a sleep-deprived, emotionally-disheveled, manically vigilant crazy person with a choice to make.

The First Great Reckoning.

I could succumb to a lifetime of worry-induced misery, watching my fears grow-up right alongside my child—Is she still breathing? Is she eating enough? Is this normal?  

Those anxiety ridden questions would never go away…not completely; they would spill over into new stages of life; they would morph into concerns about middle school and driving and dating, oh my, and on and on and on until, eventually, I would fret my way right into an empty nest and an early grave—or I could accept the truth that I had brought an infinitely precious gift into a terribly broken world and that to protect this child, and all the ones who would follow after her, from any heartache or harm, through sheer want and willpower was beyond the reach of my control and the boundary of my assignment.

Imagining a limitless amount of make-believe catastrophes couldn’t prevent a single one from actually taking place, but it sure could make for a treacherous journey. Before my child could even roll over, she’d already drowned, been kidnapped, sustained a concussion, and developed an eating disorder.

Listen, Friend, real life is hard enough. You and I do not have the grace or strength or energy to walk through the turmoil of fictional circumstances and the tragedy of made-up scenarios.

The relentless fear that blindsided me in those newborn days of mothering brought me to my knees more quickly than I’d care to admit and hurled me face-to-face with the reality that if I held any hope at all of being a somewhat peaceful, relatively resilient, occasionally joyful mother, then I’d better figure out my next move STAT, because I may have come out swinging, but I was about to get knocked out in the first round.

And so, as a fledging and already haggard young mother, I pried open my fingers, one white knuckle at a time, and let go of the notion that if I just tried hard enough, worked hard enough, prayed hard enough, cared hard enough, if I read the right books and cooked the right food and chose the right schools, if I didn’t raise my voice or lower my guard or lose my patience, then I could keep my children totally safe and perfectly healthy and entirely happy, that if I could just do all the right things, at all the right times, in all the right ways, then everything would turn out…well…right.

I waved my first white flag.

Surrender: not defeat, but progress; not an apathetic, cowardly giving-up, but a resolute, courageous giving-in; not an admission that something is right or good or fair, but an acknowledgment that something simply…is; not a finale, but a start—to grieving or celebrating or changing or accepting or coping or moving on or walking through; an end to fighting with reality and a staunch decision to look it squarely in the face.    

Children get hurt. They get cancer. They die in car wrecks and housefires and freak accidents. This child, whom I loved with more than my whole heart, could be gone from me in one dreadful, shocking instant.

Even mothers who love their children fiercely fail them in countless ways through the growing up years, because even mothers who love their children fiercely are flawed and broken and imperfect, just like me, just like life.

I went there. I said it out loud. I sat with it.

I dragged my heaviest fears, kicking and screaming, right out into the light of day and they loosened their suffocating grip just enough for me to take one big, long, deep breath for the first time since becoming a mother. Freedom, the great paradox of surrender.        

In many ways, the song of each new season—adoption, homeschooling, miscarrying, fostering, moving, changing/leaving/losing/loving/hating jobs—has mimicked the rhythm of those maiden days of mothering.

Nearly a decade in to this parenting gig and my white flags could stretch to the moon and back. Ten (thousand) times.

Wrestle, surrender, embrace, wrestle, surrender, embrace…the ebb and flow of motherhood.

The raising up of little humans, who will one day charge out into the world as light-bearers and difference-makers is the mightiest, most extraordinary work that we will ever put our hands to.

It’s unspeakably terrible and unimaginably wonderful and, mostly, it’s just plain ordinary.

It’s dirty feet and crooked haircuts and endless questions.

It’s Sharpie-ed walls and broken China and wet beds.

It’s pinworms and ringworm and pink eye (we really should get medals for some of this stuff).

It’s music lessons and permission slips and ER visits.

It’s phonics and manners and errands.

It’s all the things you never imagined yourself saying, like, “Don’t eat donuts off the street,”

“No, I promise you won’t get bitten by a shark in the lake,”

and, for those of us lucky enough to be bringing up boys, it’s 1001 variations of “Don’t use your you-know-what for THAT!”

Motherhood is never (like, never, ever, ever) quite what I expect it to be, but I’ve squandered too many days wandering through the wilderness of what-ifs, if-onlys, why-mes, how comes, and why-nots, so I’m reaching for those white flags a little more quickly these days.

I’m learning to fight better battles—not the circumstances or moments themselves, but my response and reaction to them.

I’m learning to accept each moment for what it is—to sit with the sadness, the boredom, the happiness, the anger, the loneliness; to lay aside my idea of what the day…the week…my life…should be like and to embrace it, wholeheartedly, for what it actually is.

Sometimes it’s gut-wrenching work, like grieving the loss of a dear old friend, and sometimes it’s as effortless as breathing, but we can never be truly content with or grateful for what is until we make some sort of peace with what is not.

Here’s the thing, I’ve nearly worn my soul right through trying to force myself and motherhood to be what I thought they should be (read: control everything and be perfect). I’m done. No more half-life living. I don’t always often get it right, but I’m learning to embrace that, too.

The truth is, Sister, on my best day, you’ll find me holding on for dear life to the end of a very frayed rope, in yesterday’s leggings and a dry-shampooed ponytail, second (okay, fine…third) cold cup of coffee in hand, because, even on its most uncomplicated day, motherhood simply demands more than I have to give.

I need Jesus and my mama. I need my partner and my friends. I need you, the women beside me in the trenches, tirelessly wiping sticky faces, doggedly stewarding little hearts, faithfully feeding hungry mouths and minds. I need Netflix and a hot bath. I need Google to help me understand the words that are coming out of my teenager’s mouth.

Some days I need a bottle of red and a good, old-fashioned, honest cry. I need to bring store bought cookies to the potluck, because, Patty PTA, I can only bring my A-Game to so many things and this ain’t one of them, thank you very much. I need five minutes of alone time every now and again.

I need my people to remind me of the finish-line, when my feelings get too weighty. I need wrinkle cream and a really, really good chiropractor. I need help navigating tantrums and diagnoses and allergies and attachment disorders and Algebra-I homework. I need to have a little chat with the brains behind Baby Shark and Daylight Saving Time.

I need to be forgiven and reassured and taught and encouraged and loved-in-spite-of…         

I’m an imperfect mother, raising (lots of) imperfect children, in an imperfect world and I’m finally okay(ish) with that.

How about you? Can we practice:

  • Surrendering our perfection to embrace showing up, day-after-day, to mother our children with as much wisdom and grace as we can muster          

  • Surrendering our guilt to embrace growth     

  • Surrendering our pride to embrace our need for community (bring on the casseroles, ladies!)

  • Surrendering saying yes to e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g to embrace saying yes to the best things—the things that leverage our stories, our time, and our abilities for the greatest good of others

  • Surrendering the urgency of our agendas to embrace opportunities to honor our children as real people, with real feelings and needs, instead of managing them like inconvenient interruptions (let’s be real; children are terribly inconvenient…like weeping and gnashing of teeth over crumpled socks inconvenient…but they are not inconveniences…see the difference?)

  • Surrendering our ideal spouses and children and homes to embrace, as gifts, the ones we’ve actually been given

  • Surrendering our fear to embrace defiant hope that we will be equipped and empowered to walk through whatever the future holds   

  • Surrendering what should have been to embrace what is

Let’s lock arms, Mama, wave those white flags high, and march on with strength (but not in Mom Jeans…for the love of everything, let’s never surrender to those).

Kelsey Harrison is a former counselor, turned sometimes speaker/writer and all the time mom. She and her husband are living in functional chaos, with their four forever kiddos and one foster love, in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains.

Kelsey Harrison is a former counselor, turned sometimes speaker/writer and all the time mom. She and her husband are living in functional chaos, with their four forever kiddos and one foster love, in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains.