Driving down I-20, on my way home from a Columbia workshop, I’m searching the dark for something familiar. It’s almost 10pm and I’ve realized that somewhere along the way, I’ve missed a turn…or taken a wrong turn. While I’m somewhat certain that I’m still heading in the right direction, there is no physical evidence to assure me of it. Nothing but a starless night sky and endless miles of highway that may or may not take me where I need to go.
Ahead I see an exit for Hwy. 178, a familiar road. I come to a crossroad, where signs point right and left to towns I’ve never heard of. While I know the road is correct, I’m completely lost as to which direction to take. Which will lead me home, and which will lead me farther from the place that, at this moment, I most long to be?
And then, an oasis in the night, a lone beacon shining. To the right is a service station with a light-flooded parking lot and bars on the windows. While the bars are a little unnerving, signifying the need for high security in this place, the well-lit parking lot makes me feel safe amidst this darkness. Inside, a woman is busy mopping the floor. It’s almost closing time, but she stops and listens to my tale of woe, then pats my shoulder and leads me over to a map on the wall. I listen as she kindly shows me the way that will lead me home, and assures me that I’m not really off course at all. I graciously thank this lady whose polite nonchalance gives the impression that I am not the first wayward traveler who has sought her guidance in the darkness. I try to express my gratitude, the joy I feel for her being there, but she shrugs off my thanks and returns to mopping. It is, after all, near closing time and she, too, longs to be home.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, on the long, winding, and often dark roads that carry us along on our journey of motherhood, we encountered people like this gas station attendant: stranger-sages who could reassure us, with a smile and map, that we are headed in the right direction. That the paths we are taking with our children are, in fact, leading us to the exact place we’re hoping we’ll end up? However, what I have experienced more often than not is just the opposite: People quick to point out my child’s faults, my faults, and that how everything would be better if I would take the same roads that they had taken with their own children. Quick to imply that what worked for their children will work for all children, and would certainly work better for my child than what I am doing, they become like mucky places in the road, bogging us down, preventing us from moving forward. And so we sit, spinning our wheels, wondering if where we’re hoping to go is, indeed, the right place for us.
However, in the words of one of history's most famous sages, we must remember to ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ They don’t mean to pull us down. They don’t mean to waylay us on our journey. They are simply giving us the wrong directions.
Because I felt lost that night on I-20, I would have taken whatever advice the lady at the gas station suggested. Mothers often feel this way, especially when our children are doing or saying things that we don’t understand. Things that aren’t what we want them to do. When this happens, we often go looking for direction…we seek the wisdom of others because we feel lost. We feel we’re not headed where we want to go. And we listen to advice, nod our heads, and go home with the intention of forcing on our children what worked for the children of others, as if they are lumps of cookie dough and we’re the cutters. Even if we’re not sure it’s the right thing. But we’ve never been down these roads before. Nothing is familiar. And so we find ourselves taking whatever advice is offered, even if it is sending us down a road we don’t want to travel.
However, I’ve come to discover that, just like that night on I-20, even when I feel lost, I still have an instinct inside that is guiding me in the right direction. Maybe I still go a little out of the way at times, but the journey is filled with twists and turns, and I always find myself back on the right path. Now, whenever some well-meaning soul imparts their wisdom on me, I nod and smile – I’ve found that simple act can get one through a lot in life – and I continue down the road I’m on, in the direction I know is right for my son and I. Every child is unique. Every parent/child relationship is unique. And thank goodness one does not create human beings in the same repetitive manner of stamping cookies from a lump of dough.
I know there will be many more times along this road of parenting when I will feel lost, confused. Afraid of taking a wrong turn or missing an exit. Not paying enough attention to the road. But luckily, there will always be friends, family, and even stranger-sages, willing to offer direction. Some will be wrong. Some will point out all my wrong turns, all my missed exits. They will tell me I should go the same direction they headed when they were taking this journey. They will bog me down so that I can’t move…if I listen. But I won’t. I’ll smile and nod and remember that there are also those who are like beacons in the night, shining their wisdom, always happy to reassure a lonely traveler that yes, you are heading in the right direction, you’ve just veered a little off course. They’ll seek no praise and take no pride in their words. They’ll simply reassure me that, even though I am heading off into the darkness down a road I’ve never traveled, that I am on the right parenting path for my son and I. I’ll thank them profusely, or at least try to, but they’ll simply shrug and return to their mopping, or whatever duty they are performing, because they have their own journeys they are thinking of. And I’ll head out once more into the unknown, on a path that, while unfamiliar, my mother-heart knows is right.