Peaks and long valleys

So my son will not pass Sports Medicine this term.  Alas.  We worked so hard.  And I do mean WE.  I taught myself the material so I could tutor him.  But the class is made for a different sort of student than my son is.  The big news is that I’m saying, “So what?” Sometimes, his grades depressed me.  Now, I’m seeing him take responsibility and, even though we failed this particular class, I rather like the kid.  Of course, there’s more to it than that.  Over the past while, I have been amazed at the depth of questions he’s asked.  Is it possible that my long-haired, long-sleeping son might actually THINK?  That we might someday hold conversation about abstract and truly important things?  That we might consider possibilities and impossibilities?  That I might even be able to tell him how I feel about the Savior without his saying, “Mom, it really bugs me when you cry.”

I remember waiting for my oldest daughter while she broke curfew.  I’d simply sit in my armchair and stare at the door.  When she finally entered, I’d give her a look (you know what I mean), say, “Good night,” and go to bed.  It was enough.  She’d be consumed with guilt.  My intent all along, of course.

But there came that day when I got to help her put on her wedding dress, button each button, and then help her put on her temple robes for the ceremony.  At last I was able to tell her what the endowment meant to me, and not feel constrained.  We were in the temple, after all.  At the moment of her marriage, I did not flash back to the times I let her throw tantrums on the University Mall hallway rather than acquiesce to her newest demands, nor those curfew violations, nor to those awful moments when she slammed her head on the diving board during diving competitions.  My response to my daughter was fully in the present: “Here you are.  I had never dreamed you would be so beautiful.”

I had a similar reaction to her first vocal recital a few years later.  She had never sung at home, but was majoring in vocal performance.  I had no idea how good she was.  When she began her first song, I burst into quiet tears.  Again, it was a “This is YOU!” moment.  C.S. Lewis might call it being “surprised by joy.”  Can it be possible that YOU can do this?  That you can BE this?

I don’t know what waits around the bend, but I anticipate that there will be many more moments of seeing glory in my own children, and wondering how I ever got so lucky–or how I didn’t see it sooner.  I think I will forget Sports Medicine rather easily.  (Already, I can’t remember the difference between vulgus and varus force.)  I can pretty much guarantee that this particular son will not be a doctor.  Will he be a missionary?  On many Wednesdays, I get to see radiant, brand new missionaries in their brand new suits or dresses.  I always imagine their mothers taking them to a good store and purchasing the clothes they’ll wear over the next two years.  (Fathers tend not to do that, do they?)  I can’t imagine any complaining about the price of the suits. I can only imagine the mother marveling at who her son or daughter is becoming.

Of course, neither mother nor missionary really knows how hard the mission will be, how many days will feel like one more failure.  But there will be miraculous moments, sprigs of promise, sacred silences.

Thus far, whenever I’ve blogged optimistically about missionary work, someone (usually more than one) has let me know how hard a mission is, and how different from the ideal.  Yes, I acknowledge it.  And marriage can be a XXXXX (rhymes with pitch).  Child rearing–oh, not for the faint hearted at all.

And yet…

This is what I told one of my missionaries:  “Sublime experiences are usually unexpected and often overwhelming.  They are the peaks on an often difficult path–a path so hard that at times, you wonder if you can take another step.  As I’ve seen temple sealings, I’ve thought about how short the ceremony is.  All of that effort to get there, and the words themselves take about two minutes.  But for those two minutes, we’re elevated into a sacred realm, and we know we’re witnessing something worth everything–and more–which we’ve given be there, to be a part of it.”

My son will graduate from high school.  His GPA won’t be stellar.  But I know that there will be moments in our future when I will look at him and stand in awe.  And he might even acknowledge that I’m okay, for a mom.


  1. He will indeed. In fact, he will find you ok as a sister and a friend too! However, a psychiatrist friend advised me never to start looking for that acceptance before the child is at least 22.
    You write so well about how hard life is, even when it is relatively easy. Thank you, we all need that knowledge.

  2. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I can’t tell you how much I needed thus as I muddle along trying to parent my own children.

  3. StillConfused says:

    I never studied with my children for their classes. My parents never studied with me for my classes. If I had a particular calculus problem that I could not figure out, I may ask my father for his thoughts on the problem, but that was it. If my children wanted help studying for a test, they would come to me with the notecards / questions/ whatever already made and I would assist them by asking them the questions they had already prepared. (My son is now an 18 year old junior in college majoring in math and computer science and I don’t have any clue how to even ask some of the questions; e.g. “the squiggly thing has a 4 on top and a 3 below and a strange triangly thing”)

    Why is it that many parents spend so much time helping their children with school work (serious question here)? When does that help stop (high school / college, gradschool)? This is a genuine question since I was not exposed to this style of parenting.

    Does this type of assistance lead to more difficulty in transitioning into adult society? I would love to hear thoughts on this.

  4. Reminds me of taking my G.E. class requirements with my mom at Utah Valley State College (as it was called) after my mission. She was going back to school with some big goals – which she has quite accomplished, and we’re all very proud of her.

    I’d never been good at Algebra, but I aced that year – mostly because I had to logically talk my mom through a few tough concepts – which helped me internalize them. And we provided motivation for each other. Both of us got As and the teacher even mentioned that I had a real knack for the subject.

    Alas, I became a math-stupid lawyer instead.

    But it was actually fun attending college with my mom. BYU wasn’t even half as fun – interesting as it was.

  5. Thank you, Margaret.

    The year our “foster son” spent with us was a series of unending valleys. Keeping him alive and showing him a different way of life (which he never embraced fully) were our only visible accomplishments that year. It is only now – three years later – that I am beginning to see a peak here and there. The first time (a few months ago) that, without prompting, he said, “I love you, Pops” . . . I nearly broke down on the phone.

    How such a tiny glimpse of Heaven could have made the Hell worthwhile is beyond comprehension, but I will treasure that moment forever – and pray there will be more.

  6. #3–the purpose of this particular post was not to talk about how different parents help their children through school. Those of us who have challenged children (my son has a processing difficulty) will need to be more involved than many parents. I had minimal involvement with my oldest daughter’s education. More is required now, and “No Child Left Behind” educates to the test. Children like this son of mine who will take twice as others to understand and respond to a question will either get help or fail.
    I have no intention of doing more than reading through his English papers once he’s in college and headed towards a field he himself has chosen.
    But none of this is what I intended the conversation to be about.

  7. Seth R–very cool experience. That little role reversal is quite lovely.

  8. I just wanted to say how much I love your writing. I’ve trolled the archives just to read more.

    I hope to have your wonderful perspective and insight as I approach those times in motherhood. My four are only 9, 7, 5 and 2 right now.

    Thanks for sharing,

  9. Margaret, it’s good to be reminded that those peaks can balance the many valleys. Our 20-year old daughter told us over Christmas break that she’s sorry she had to put us through what she did to get where she needed to go. She had the grace to tell us that she knew her learning came at a cost. And hearing that, of course, made the cost worth every penny.

  10. Margaret,

    I’ve had amazing moments with many of my married children in various settings where I wondered “how did they get here?”, and telling them how proud we were of them.

    We’re still in the valley with our youngest, who deals with anxiety, depression, some faith-crushing experiences, and yet may be our most creative and perhaps even brightest child. We have hopes for those sublime moments. Your post reminds me of how I need to view that huge potential from the shadows that currently engulf him and our relationship with him. Thank you.

  11. Margaret — You continue to amaze me.

    I’m hitting some peaks, and, also, some serious chuck-holes on that particular path. It’s amazingly challenging. I’m pretty sure I’ll survive it, although I’m not sure how, exactly.

    Robert Heinlein once said that politics was the only game for adults. He was wrong. Parenting is the only game for adults. Politics is for people of voting age who haven’t necessarily grown up. Nothing will put you through the wringer like parenting, and nothing will give your life more meaning than parenting.

    Please note that “parenting” includes many things beyond basic reproduction. My job as a child care worker is largely one of parenting extremely difficult children in a group-home setting. Making babies is something not everybody can do, but, due to the massive number who have done so in very stupid ways, there are myriad opportunities to parent that many more people can participate in — there is far more need than supply for those who can parent well.

  12. Margaret,

    At some point we should chat. I’m 99% sure that my ex-wife and I used to teach your children piano at our townhome on 5th Street in Provo.

    Is that possible? If so, I did get a sense of your son and his struggles, and your struggles in loving and nurturing him.

  13. “Parenting is not for the faint of heart.”

    Thanks for this, Margaret. It’s really true – and our children suffer when I forget it.

    Without getting distracted about philosophies on homework, I do think that you are sending a message to your son that taking the time to learn this stuff on your own means it’s important to *you*. And it’s important to you because *he’s* important to you. I have to trust this kind of unspoken support will pay dividends into the future.

  14. Margaret, I appreciated this very much. Your penultimate paragraph goes on my list of things to cross-stitch on a pillow after I learn how to cross-stitch. (And after I get a big enough pillow.) Thank you.

  15. Thank you, Margaret. I too have a son with some special learning needs, with whom I spent many long hours getting him through a college degree. Now he is a (generally) happy adult with a wife and daughter, but I see his silent struggles as only a parent can. It IS all worth it for the joy in his quiet victories. Thank you for reminding me.

  16. What a lovely post, Margaret.

  17. I rather like the kid.

    That is neat.

  18. Another terrific post, Margaret. Thanks.

    One real disappointment though: when you said marriage could be a real XXXXX, I had my hopes high–and then it turns out you weren’t talking about quintuple-X rated after all.

  19. According to D&C 138:57-59, “The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God, and after they have paid the penalty for their transgressions, and have been washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation”.

    No doubt there will be a lot of Mormons and those of other faiths in this category. Otherwise the telestial and terrestial kingdoms are going to be pretty barren, while limbo is packed to the gills.

  20. Thanks for this. I really benefit from this type of honesty from experienced parents.

    One of the pleasures of Facebook is to have contact with former students — I knew them as troubled or confused or self-aware teenagers, and they have become functional adults. It’s a good reminder that the hulking individuals that fill my classroom are not really adults, but still in development. Congratulations to your son on any and all of his achievements.

  21. Margaret, thanks for this beautiful thought. The valleys seem long and bitterly hard sometimes. But those moments of light at the peaks, can anything beat them? It’s hard to remember sometimes that before we reach the Field of Cormallen, we have to be willing to slog our parched and painful way through Mordor.

    Ray, thanks to you also for sharing your struggles to raise your foster son. I have faith that they will bear good fruit. You’re an inspiration to me. Maybe with such good examples I’ll be able to learn this parenting business fast enough and well enough to do some good.

  22. Rameumptom says:

    Thanks, Margaret. It is a sad world that thinks that happiness and joy can be experienced sans trials. As difficult as I perceive the trials I’ve gone through, I realize a few things:

    1. There are others going through worse things than me.
    2. “…all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” D&C 122:7
    3. I only appreciate the blessings when I have something to compare them with.
    4. I am following in Christ’s footsteps as I am stretched by saving others.
    5. It teaches me gratitude – one of the highest forms of love.

  23. However, a psychiatrist friend advised me never to start looking for that acceptance before the child is at least 22.

    Yeah, that’s about right. You may get it sooner than that, but if you do, count it as a gift. ..bruce.. (father of nine)

  24. A beautiful post, Margaret. Thank you for sharing your tender thoughts about your children.

  25. Margaret–

    About the joy: I’m one of those of whom Blain spoke who have not “reproduced” (such a bloodless word), but for 30+ years, I’ve shared a few parenting ups and downs in connection with four remarkable offspring of a dear friend.

    One in particular I fell for when he was 3 days old. Have never gotten over it. He is a charming, beautiful, gifted person, and like many, he hated school (started too early) and was super-shy about putting himself forward socially. He didn’t want to go on a mission at 19, and his parents wisely applied no pressure. When he was 21, he was ready to go. I was very apprehensive. I knew first-hand the unique trials of a mission. I prayed, “Just don’t let him ask to be be sent home early. Don’t let it be so hard that he quits.” I almost quit early on in my own mission, and I knew others who did quit, and who never quite got over it. (Elder Richard L. Evans once said to a missionary-preparation group, “Don’t quit. If you quit, you have to explain why your whole life.”)

    Well. Then came the joy. “Surprised by joy” is apt. The joy for me was not about the fact that he became a senior companion very quickly, or a district leader unusually quickly, or an assistant to the president, though he did all that. The joy was how much he loved it, and about the fact that in EVERY picture we ever saw from his mission (and there were bushels), someone had an arm around this 6’6″ angel–whether it was a companion or the mission president or the president’s wife, investigators or members or street vendors! They rejoiced in his very presence.

    The classroom as well as the home can offer such joy. One example: a boy who, I thought, didn’t belong in a particuar Honors class. He wrote poorly, hardly ever participated, wore a baseball cap low over his eyes. Everyone in class knew he was struggling. Then one day, small groups of students were trying to make some sort of graphic capturing of sections of Dante’s Inferno. Cruising around the classroom, I looked over John’s shoulder, to see an artistic rendering of one canto that made me gasp in amazement. The other students couldn’t believe their eyes either. In a later class, I called on John to read a poem aloud. Again, we all were astonished at the meaning and depth he conveyed. And on the last day of class, John played on the guitar a short poem he had set to music. I believe every person in the class felt the joy of learning more fully who John really was.

    Thank you, Margaret, for yet another rich, sweet insight.

  26. Lovely comments all! Thanks!
    Randall–you taught my older son, who has his own set of problems. He is the opposite of the son who just failed sports medicine. The older one is brilliant, complicated, and very artistic. We did get some counseling for him, and his psychologist said that 98% of the children he worked with were unusually smart and unusually sensitive. Bingo.
    Every gift has an edge.
    And Elouise, if my writing pleases you, know that you are a part of it. You were my first creative writing teacher–when I was mostly a mass of insecurity with a mop of red hair.

  27. Margaret, your gifts and spirit would have been obvious even without the red hair. That was just a bonus.

  28. Why is it that many parents spend so much time helping their children with school work (serious question here)? When does that help stop (high school / college, gradschool)? This is a genuine question since I was not exposed to this style of parenting.

    Regarding my daughter and her math …

    Because it’s fun. Because I can. Because I know the material *much* better than she does, and it will be several years yet before she knows more about this particular subject than I do (or perhaps never). Because it keeps me fresh. Because she needs encouragement, and girls don’t get much encouragement re math and science (certainly not from the YW at Church or their leaders).

  29. My family’s business was education. “One-on-few” mentoring and tutoring seems to have been the way they operated best and achieved best results. My mother was and still is an elementary school teacher. Dad is a retired university professor. I have a sib at BYU. I have numerous other family members who’ve taught the gamut from elementary school to high school and college.

    Pedagogically-speaking, the consensus is that mentoring and tutoring works. Maybe parents can’t help their children with a topic. But the one-on-one interaction (or one-on-few) works very well in helping them learn to solve the problem.

    Obviously, children have to learn on their own. And parents shouldn’t turn the mentoring relationship into a helicopter situation, where they are just solving the problem. But there’s a fine line here, and where I have knowledge about a subject matter that exceeds my child’s, I think it’s very beneficial (to her and me) to help them work through problems.

    Oddly enough (or maybe not), we find that in the workforce, pairing new employees with experienced employees is the best way to get the new employee up to speed.

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