There have been many times in my life I have felt ashamed or embarrassed, but none quite like this.
It had been a long day and I was hungry to the point of grumpiness. After carrying two toddlers, perfectly capable of walking but who doggedly refused to, my toothpick arms felt juiced and my ankles, like bricks. I headed to the nearest cafe, dying for a meal.
“I’ll take that table,” I said with military decisiveness. All I wanted was to drop the kids and sit my tired body down to have a meal. Nothing could stand in my way.
“Do you want a baby chair?”
“Oh but your kids are so small- surely the second one needs a high chair.”
“No, we don’t need one.”
“But the benches are quite high and if she falls it could be dangerous.”
“No, we are fine. Neither of them will allow us to put them in it.”
“I really think-“
Suddenly, the cumulative burden of years of unsolicited advice and the weights of “shoulds” and “musts” tipped the scales over and the words “I really think” became the straw that broke the mama camel’s back.
I lost it.
I was hangry. Tired. I wanted all four members of my family to be seated on a table with food and water in front of us- was that so hard? Did I need to explain that our children have a visceral dislike of high chairs or that our home dining table had the exact same set up as the cafe’s? Did I have to explain why I thought it would be way more dangerous to strap a stubborn and unwilling child into a tottering plastic chair?
Ungraciously and pointedly, I said, “I do not need you to tell me what kind of chairs my children need to sit on, thank you. Now if you DON’T mind, PLEASE let us take a seat!”
All at once, a backlog of emotional baggage and unspoken words of anger, hurt and spite buried deep within me, towards people who had been more than candid about their their pity on us having two girls (try again for a boy?) or our decision to have home births (are you crazy?) or homeschool our children (won’t they not have social skills?) overflowed and spilled on the floor like oily debris exuding a foul stench.
The dinner, our first time dining out with two toddlers, was astonishingly uneventful, a marvelous breakthrough. The table-and-bench set up proved perfect for our unusual brood, and we returned to the same cafe a week later. The staff had been exceedingly kind to us and the kids enjoyed the fish and chips.
As we paid our bill, I noticed a little “Jesus” signboard at the side of the cafe.
Not recognizing the lady at the cashier, I asked, “Do you run this cafe? The staff and food are amazing.”
“ Yes, it’s mine. I am so sorry if I came across wrongly last week. I was not trying to tell you how to parent. It’s just that one of our customer’s kids actually fell here before so I didn’t want the same to happen to your kids.”
Suddenly I realized she was the lady I snapped at a week ago.
“Gosh I’m so sorry too- I was not quite in the right mind. I’m Wai Jia, what’s your name?”
Then the heartstopping words.
“Yes I know you’re Wai Jia. I follow your blog and writing on Facebook. I really admire you.”
If I were in a movie, that would be the scene where the walls came crashing down in slow motion. Behind my mask, my jaw dropped. I wanted to completely disappear.
Weeks later, while taking our kids for a walk by the water, a lady came up to us, “Are you Wai Jia?”
Suddenly I looked down to see what I was wearing and whether my mask was worn properly.
A thought lingered, “What if I had known they knew me? What if I lived my life consistently on the inside and out, where it wouldn’t matter who was watching?”
Months later, when we moved next to a nature reserve, I was so excited about showing our kids wildlife right at our backyard that I brought them to a little pond behind our home to watch turtles. As my children threw little bits of bread at the fish and hungry terrapins, a passer-by said, “This isn’t fish diet. You should know better.”
Any self-righteousness I desired to preserve my dignity evaporated quickly, when I realized that even though there was no “No Feeding” signboard, there was likely a rule that disallowed feeding of wildlife.
Cliff and I looked at each other, countenances fallen. Our older toddler, bewildered by the sudden change in our demeanor, asked what was wrong.
“Oh,” I said, my voice falling, “Mummy’s wrong, sweetheart. We can’t feed them.”
The next day, still disturbed by this incident, I asked Cliff if he could bring our kids back to the nature reserve to return some guppies and shellfish that a neighbor’s child had caught for us as a gift.
“But why, Mama? They are mine. E gave them to me.”
“Because they don’t belong to us, darling. See this rule? It says here on Mummy’s phone- no feeding wildlife. No catching wildlife.”
“But why, Mama?”
“It’s illegal, sweetheart. So the right thing to do is to return them. So they can be happy and healthy in their own homes.”
My heart cringed to break the bad news to a little child brimming with curiosity and pride at her little critters. But we knew it was the right thing to do. More important than the prize of caught guppies or the joy of seeing our children “enjoy their childhood”, was the need to share with them what was right, and perhaps even more crucially, how to make amends when we do wrong.
“So… sometimes Papa and Mama can be wrong too. So when we are wrong, we have to tell God we are sorry, then make right. This is called repentance, Sarah-Faith.”
Days later, as if to check if I had learnt my lesson, my newly minted four year old asked me, “Mama, do you know on the way to the lake, I told God I was sorry for keeping the fish because it is eel-leegal. Have you said you are sorry to God yet?”
“Yes I have, sweetie.”
Several weeks passed since that episode, when I chanced upon a news article using caricatured illustrations to contrast two mothers’ responses to their children’s feeding of wildlife when stopped by passers-by.
My heart stopped beating.
Alone in my room, I went into quiet hysteria. They’re writing about me, I thought. Who’s putting a camera at the pond and sending news to Big Brother? I was horrified.
But more than terror, was a deep profound sadness. While I had felt guilty for doing wrong, it was at that moment that a thick shame enshrouded me.
From “I am a mother who did something wrong”, my thoughts rapidly spiraled into “I am such a bad mother. I am a failure.”
I am incorrigible.
Just days before Good Friday, which was also Esther-Praise’s second birthday, she spiked a high fever. Due to her medical history, she needed urgent attention. It was only upon discharge that I recognized the doctor’s name on her tag.
“Aren’t you my junior? I’m Wai Jia,” I said, clarifying, since my face was hidden by a mask.
“Yes, I knew all along.”
“ Oh gosh, how embarrassing. I’m such a disgrace as a doctor,” I said, reflecting upon my anxiety and impatience with medical staff, and being so close to tears at every moment. I wondered if I would have reacted the way I did if I had known.
“Not at all,” came the gracious, professional reply. “ You’re a mother first. And it’s been our pleasure to help you.”
Tears dammed behind my eyes.
As I pondered upon the many moments of wrongdoing in my life, I realized that perhaps, one of the hardest things to forgive myself for, was doing them all wrong as a mother.
I have raised my voice too loudly at my children. I have lost children library books. I have abandoned park benches with spilled juice without cleaning up while chasing a distraught runaway toddler.
I should know how to do life, by now, shouldn’t I? I should know how it’s done right to teach my children the right things, shouldn’t I?
But Paul reminds us in Romans 7:19- “ for I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
I am learning this Easter, that my very human-ness makes me certain to to falter, to fumble, to fail. And if left unchecked, the accumulation of shortfalls will surely leave me doomed to a life of endless self-condemnation.
And yet, as my firstborn reminded me, perhaps the solution to this is simpler than we think- for the candour of authentic repentance to God through acknowledging Christ’s death on the Cross for our failings is more than enough to pry off scales of shame from our eyes, scrape off the debris of disgust from our hearts.
As time passed, the lady from the cafe and I became friends, exchanging personal contacts to send each other mutual encouragement regularly.
Our children have grown to adore wildlife, from a safe distance.
I decided to write a letter of compliment for the outstanding staff I met at the hospital.
I am learning to move quickly from wrongdoing to repentance, without over-dwelling on guilt or shame.
As my second child Esther-Praise turned two on Good Friday itself, I recollected all my foibles and failures, and gave thanks for the grace I have received, in spite of my wretchedness. As we sang her birthday song, I realized that she is alive and well not by my admirable mothering, but purely by grace, in spite of myself.
This Easter, would you, like me, learn to forgive yourself and surrender all your burdens at the cross, even as the sandbags of past hurts and burdens weigh you down? For His burden is easy and His yoke is light.
And because, He has truly, paid it all.