Motherhood is different for everyone.
For some, it’s marked by great joy and bustling excitement- for others, with tears and loss.
For most, perhaps a mix of the above.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my early days of motherhood would be characterized by an expression I could only find in the Chinese language.
In Chinese, when taken apart, the characters “矛盾 (mao dun)” literally refer to a spear (矛 mao) and shield (盾 dun).
Chinese legend had it that in a time of war and battle, a busker was selling “the world’s strongest shield that could defend any spear” and “the world’s sharpest spear that could pierce any shield” to the king’s army.
It beget the question from a village passer-by, “What happens when your own spear butts against your own shield?”
It was a contradiction, a paradox of sorts- illustrating the meaning of the term.
In my first weeks of motherhood, this Chinese term made its appearance over and over.
It’s a beautiful time of enjoyment, of integrating a new life into one’s own- but also a time of great demands, of dividing one’s life into hourly blocks of nursing, burping, rocking, shushing, washing… and then all over.
It’s a time of raucous gatherings and celebratory fanfare- but also of long lonely nights of quiet musings and at times, desperate tears.
It’s a time of celebration, of a baby’s first bright-eyed smile, first coo, first giggle- but also a time of mourning, of the loss of one’s personal time, space, and work.
It’s a time of assuming a proud new identity and also of losing one’s proud old identity.
One night, at our baby’s 6-week growth spurt, I finally felt the climbing sleep debt push me over the edge of a cliff. Fatigue hit like pelting hail.
With round-the-clock on-demand nursing, unpredictable schedules and multiple night wakings, I wondered how such a beautiful season of life could also be at times, so frustrating, lonely and painful.
矛盾 (Mao dun). Like how a spear clinks against a shield, the dissonance was jarring.
One cold wintry night, as tears began to roll down my face, onto a little peach-faced cherub I held tenderly in my arms, I asked myself where they had come from.
It was then I was forced to acknowledge, that while I loved and relished being a mother, part of me was missing my old life- the old structured, clean, unmessy life, which was either circumscribed in meticulous routine or scribbled with unbridled spontaneity.
Brochures and leaflets of new mums always showed them with perfect smiles and luscious hair without eyebags, frowns or tummies- who let this other world exist?
Instead, day and night was a blur.
One night, while rocking a wide-eyed newborn who had yet to develop her circadian rhythm from 1 to 4am, I felt every color of frustration, anger, and self-pity consume me.
I hated not being able to control, predict or schedule my days- or nights. I hated that I needed help from others, and that my life revolved around another being. I hated that people told me this was normal.
I wanted out.
Desperate for relief, I prayed, pleading with God for rest, but more importantly, to show me what it was He wanted me to learn.
That night, in the tear-filled darkness, I heard Him ask me- was nursing, burping, rocking, loving on His child less important than my own pursuits?
Was mothering not productive or fruitful enough for me to feel unembarrassed to let my busy, high-flying friends know that I was busy being a mom?
There were times I could do nothing but hold a little baby on my lap trying hard to burp a frowning little tyke, and wishing I could free my hands to type, read, study, cook. But I learned, that God chose MY two little hands to hold, kiss and rock this little bub, and no one else’s.
Another pair of hands could hold, kiss and rock her but they would not be the same.
It was then that I realized where the 矛盾 or contradiction came in.
While entering a precious season of nursing, rocking, shushing, patting, kissing and holding, a part of me was still clinging onto caffeine-strung work days, schedules packed with back-to-back meetings, and late nights preparing for endless suit-and-jacket presentations.
Part of me had been clinging onto a now decaying definition of what “important” meant, giving no room for what its new meaning now held.
As I pondered upon this great paradox, it dawned upon me that the dissonance arose from resisting the process of self-crucifixion, of denying one’s flesh for a purpose greater than myself.
Therein lay the internal conflict, the 矛盾, of having to continually deny my own desires, pursuits and flesh for another.
I learnt that parenting our baby with love, was like how my husband, Cliff had and has always loved and continues to love me- putting my needs above his, ungrudgingly, even when it requires sacrifice.
His love is a promise to be there always, and in his words, “a choice I made, a commitment for life” even when the going gets tough, when one feels exhausted, frustrated or unwilling.
I learnt that while parenthood can drive a wedge between a couple, it can also draw two people even closer together as a team. I’ve never appreciated Cliff more- for how he can joyfully bring Baby out in a stroller walking for miles just so I can get a haircut; how he can persist in bottlefeeding her amidst bawling refusals; how he endlessly smiles through the stains of parenthood and laughs it all off, because everything can be washed and cleaned in the end.
I learnt that motherhood is a mystery- not everything is linear, or can be explained by a formula or theory. Sometimes you do everything “right,” and the outcome is still a curveball. I learnt, for example, that newborn sleep comes in fits and spurts, and is ambiguous at times no matter what techniques you use, even though I am infinitely more comfortable with predictability, clarity and hard answers.
I learnt that no baby or mother deserves to be compared to others, because each one is unique. Every baby is different, and so is every mother.
That night, after three hours of soothing, rocking and crying (on both sides), as I lifted my tired, bleary-eyed head up, I saw our newborn’s eyes finally flutter shut. I then caught, in the darkness, a magical moment- the biggest sleepiest smile spread wide across her cherubic face before she drifted to sleep.
It was at that moment I learnt a key lesson about motherhood- that it is when we learn to surrender our rights- rights to our own pursuits, time, sleep, and really, rights to our entire lives…. that we can fully find joy in giving our lives for another, the way Jesus did for us.
For when we lose our lives for another, yes even in this context, that is when we truly gain.
I realized, that the way Cliff had loved me, was the model of sacrificial love that lay the perfect foundation for parenthood.
Since that night God spoke, that outrageous sleepless episode never repeated itself.
I am learning, that when we lay the battle between our flesh and spirit to rest, the spear and shield (矛盾)within us can be laid down.
The conflict within ourselves stops when we not necessarily discard, but simply lay down our professional and corporate identities to assume a new and sacred one- that of being a mother.
Our internal strife ends when we hand over our lives to God.
Only then, can we grow into grace-sown, faith-filled parents, who are continually being stretched, tested and growing.
I am learning, that God is far less concerned about what we own than what we are willing to give up. He is far less concerned about our definition of success, than the definition of significance we place on what He calls us to do- whether it is submitting a project grant for tens of thousands of dollars, or wiping drool off a cherub’s face.
He is far less concerned about the money we make for the house we think we need for our families, than the kind of home we build as a legacy for our children, one that is built upon pillars of faith, surrender and obedience.
He cares most about where we place our identity, what we value, and whether we are willing to surrender our lives to what He calls us to, just as how Jesus surrendered His life in obedience unto Him.
He is pleased when we are so focused on Him that we can surrender and lay our lives down for love with these words: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” – John 15:14
Some say a life of success as a working woman, and significance as a mother, are contrary to each other. They say as a working mother, you have to take up your sword and fight the world.
But I’m learning, that when we choose to define success and significance on God’s terms, love, and not spear and shield, wins the battle.
When we lay our weapons down, that is when we become free to luxuriate indulgently in the boundless joys of motherhood. The night wakings become special moments with our little miracles; each whimper, burp, and cry to be soothed, a sacred privilege. Our homes no longer look messy, only lived-in, loved on. After all, this time will pass all too soon.
Now, tears still often well up in my eyes- but they are tears of joy, of nostalgia, as l desperately yearn for those special moments with Baby to be folded like origami and stored into a treasure chest forever.
Motherhood loses its sting, when the 矛(spear) and 盾(shield) are laid to rest, when we surrender to God, the way we ought to surrender every aspect of our lives.
Thank you Cliff, for being the example of a surrendered soul, willing to love me, and now our family selflessly, at the expense of your needs. You set an example for me in every way.
Thank you Baby, for being the vessel God is using to enlighten and encourage me, with your mile-wide smiles and generous giggles. You bring more joy to Mama than you’ll ever know.
And thank you God, for the incredible reward and abounding joy that comes with parenthood, when we lay our spears and shields down to surrender our lives wholly to you.
Truly, the battle laid down is the one that’s won- with love and love alone.
“These things I have spoken to you,
that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
an to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
– John 15:11-14