“My mom ALWAYS cries when she reads this story to us,” my son loudly proclaimed to the librarian as we stepped up to the desk with a movie adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit. The librarian nodded and looked at me with a knowing smile. “Yep, it gets you right in the feels, doesn’t it?” she asked.
Oh, does it ever. We get about three pages in, to the part where the Velveteen Rabbit is learning about becoming real from the wise old Skin Horse, and I’m gulping and sniffling and struggling to keep reading while the tears blur my eyes and my kids are patting my back and saying “mom, it’s okay! It’s okay!”
Whenever I cry in front of my children, my daughter always asks, “Mommy, are you crying because you’re sad or because you’re happy?” And when she asks in the midst of one of my Velveteen Rabbit meltdowns, I never know how to answer. Well, am I happy? Or am I sad? I’m just not sure. The answer is… both. It feels like a polyphonic deluge of feeling with the beauty and the sadness so intimately intertwined as to be inseparable; two sides of a single emotion. All I know is, it’s real.
I think the story pricks so many tender emotions because it tells our story, or rather the story God wants to tell in our lives. For us to become “real” and embrace an even more majestic future, something must be lost, often something precious but something whose time has passed. Loss and gain, surrender and persistence, nostalgia and hope - these pairs can’t be divorced. But we resist.
I told a friend once that when I’m feeling pessimistic and overwhelmed by the bigness and ruthlessness and sometimes outright badness of this world and I gauge it against the tenderness and vulnerability I see in my children, I wish I could just fold them back into myself. “Oh, well, THAT’S healthy,” my friend sarcastically exclaimed, and we laughed. But it’s true. The tension is real. When my kids were really tiny, I remember spending entire days feeling filled with dread about the passing of time, days when the cliche “the days are long, but the years are short” rang so true and I’d project years ahead and my heart would cry “no!” and ache at how everything changes.
In those moods, it felt like everything was being irrevocably lost. Gone, gone. When I tried to stay on top of the flow of time rather than let myself be subsumed by it, panic and melancholia and a feeling of things constantly and irretrievably tumbling into the chasm of the past, despite my desperate efforts to hold on, poisoned my days. Memories of hazy spring days spent at the park, memories once lucid, grew faint as they receded. My children’s limbs kept lengthening and those baby fat creases kept fading and time kept rolling on like a river, like water over the palm. And I finally learned that if you clench your fists and try to stanch the river, it seeps through your fingers and pummels your knuckles with its relentless onslaught. You drown. But over an open, receptive palm it flows untrammeled, pooling for a moment before being replaced by new streams. It’s living water, not a stagnant pool.
Seasons crest and ebb. We are always feeding out more rope to the tether that binds us to our children. One day it will become gossamer-thin as we watch them eagerly venture out into the world alone. And we’ll still be able to see the baby, the toddler, the child echoed in features and mannerisms and we’ll feel terrified and accomplished and nostalgic and fulfilled and emptied all at once. So I hear.
We can’t stop the flow of time. We can’t predict the future. We can’t, by force of will, keep things the way they are forever. Our children will grow. Things will change. But we have a good God who holds it all. He has made and is making everything beautiful in its time, and we are being invited into greater trust with every passing moment.
Will it hurt? Yes, it will. It’s bittersweet, this mothering business. There’s no point pretending it isn’t. The delight of witnessing them learn and grow and become is tempered by the yearning for days gone by, for sweet kissable baby cheeks and quiet moments in the still of night when the whole spinning world seems to revolve around the silent, sacred sanctuary that is you and your baby. It will hurt, the constant letting go that motherhood demands. But the fruit of letting go, of holding the flow of time in an open palm and trusting God - is joy: magical, flowering, overflowing joy. And joy isn’t pain-free. It isn’t safe. It isn’t shallow. It’s not a one-dimensional kind of happiness but a prismatic bounty full of texture and complexity that nourishes the wild wordless places of your soul. And it makes you real, and draws you into a life more deep, more rich and more lush than a life clutching to any illusory sense of control ever could.
And when you’re real, as the Skin Horse so wisely says, you don’t mind being hurt.