Mother of All Messes

Motherhood is messy.  With a resident artist, a clumsy kindergartener and an infant son with reflux issues, I’ve learned that nothing says “spit up” or “spilled milk” or “tempura paint” like a freshly laundered pair of pants and trendy top.  I like to call this Murphy’s Law of Mothering: if it’s cute and clean, it will be stained by your children.  This also explains why most days I’m rocking the gray sweatpants.  Some days, though, the mess seeps beneath the surface of my sweats and soaks right into the fabric of my heart.  Today was one of those days.

To back up a bit, Rainey received an invitation to a birthday party earlier in the week.  The timing of this invitation coincided with a lesson I’ve been trying to teach her about money and how to spend it wisely.  Up until now Rainey has received little bits of allowance, but without a lot of consistency or structure to it.  So this month Scott and I determined a dollar amount appropriate for her age and put her on a spending plan.

Of course she thought this was a fantastic idea.  Within days of receiving what she believed was a large wad of dough she had most of it spent on a charm necklace she saw at a local boutique.

“Remember, Alana’s birthday is coming up,” I reminded her before she made the purchase.

You see, the other, less attractive part of this spending plan is that now the responsibility of paying for her friends’ birthday presents rests with Rainey not me.  Drastic, maybe, but it’s my attempt at teaching her that she can’t spend frivolously, that she has to start making responsible choices.

To her credit, Rainey was trying to grasp the concept.  She chose the sterling silver chain that was five dollars less than the multi-colored one.  That weekend she even raked leaves in the backyard to earn additional money to supplement her base allowance.

But, when that invitation arrived a few days later, her funds were still pretty low.

“I can just buy Alana something from the dollar bin at Target,” Rainey suggested when I asked her what she was going to do about a present.

“Just because you think miniature Slinky’s and Flarp! are priceless treasures doesn’t mean everyone else does,” I countered.

“True,” she agreed and then sat puzzled at the thought of what to give one of her closest friends for her birthday.

“Why don’t you make her something special?” I appealed to my daughter’s creative side.

“Okay,” she agreed and skipped off to play, content to leave the gift-making until later.

The day before the party, in between a full day of schoolwork, a visit with friends, and a date with her dad to the high school football game, I reminded Rainey over and over again about the present.  Finally that night she went to bed with a few supplies and fewer ideas on what to create for her friend.

Surprisingly, the next morning, when I came into the kitchen, Rainey was putting the finishing touches on her gift: a small, heart-shaped drawing of a cat and dog labeled “Together for ever” in a wooden easel frame.

And this is where it starts to get messy.

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but when I saw her workmanship, I was a little disappointed.  I pictured something far more artistic and inspiring than what was perched on my kitchen counter that morning.  And as hard as I tried to hide it, Rainey could tell.

“You hate it,” Rainey sulked.

“I don’t hate it,” I protested.  “I just wonder if you gave it your best shot.”

Rainey walked away, sullen, and I knew I’d hurt her feelings.  But she needed some space, so I didn’t pursue it.

Meanwhile, Scott entered the kitchen and wondered why Rainey looked so despondent on the couch in the next room. I quietly explained the situation, showed him the gift, and confessed my reaction to it.

“I like it,” he said. “I think it’s cute.  Besides, I don’t agree with your rule about the present.”

Two hours before the birthday party is not a great time to tell me that.  Now tension loomed between me and two members of the family.  So I stood there speechless, trying to figure out how to proceed without doing any more damage.  But before I could conjure up a diplomatic approach, Scott called Rainey to the kitchen.

“Mom wants to talk to you about your gift,” he said when Rainey appeared, waiting for me to say something.  But before I could, Scott blurted, “Mom doesn’t like the gift you made Alana.”

I’ve never wanted to murder my husband more than I did at that moment, and the glare I shot at him communicated as much.  Now Rainey was weeping and more devastated than ever.

Immediately Scott recognized his monumental blunder and tried to talk to Rainey.  But she was inconsolable.  Then I made an attempt but got nowhere.  So I snuggled up close to her on the couch and held her in silence.  Too many careless words had been spoken that morning, and I didn’t want to say any more.

A few excruciating minutes passed, and then an idea came to me.

“Grab your slippers and come with me,” I softly beckoned Rainey.  Sniffling, she took my hand as I led her downstairs into the cellar.  Clearing away boxes and climbing over air conditioners, I heaved a big, yellow storage container off the shelf.  I opened the lid and began gently lifting out piece after piece of Rainey’s artwork that I’ve collected over the past nine years.

The pig with one eye that she drew on pink construction paper when she was two.  The bold and beautiful painting she titled “Noodletown” from her first painting class.  Numerous sketches and comic strips starring Bud, her cat, and other fanciful critters.  Wonderful watercolors featuring flowers that look like they came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Each masterpiece evoked an emotional response from me, and as we sat together on the cold basement floor, I let each picture and the smile it brought to my face, heal my wounded daughter.  When we reached the bottom of the bin, I sensed Rainey’s spirit lifting, and so I ventured a few words.

“Rainey, I love everything you make because it comes from you.  But some of your artwork I love more than others.  That’s why I put them in here.  Does that make sense?”

She nodded.

“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings earlier.  I never meant to.  It wasn’t fair of me to rush you into making your present for Alana.  If I had to create something spectacular under pressure, I’m not sure I’d be able to do it either.  Will you forgive me?”

“Yes, Mom, I forgive you,” she said and then began digging through the pile to revisit some of her favorites.

She found a floral print, one that we both loved, and she stared at it for a long time.  With her permission, I took it from her hands and placed it behind another wooden easel frame that was sitting on the shelf.

“I like it,” she smiled proudly.

I hesitated then asked, “Do you think Alana would like it?”

“But I love it,” she said reluctantly, torn between her art and her friend.

“And that, sweetheart, is what giving gifts is all about,” I responded.  “It isn’t love until you give it away.”

From that moment on without any more prodding from me, Rainey knew what she needed to do. And so we spent the rest of the morning preparing the picture and frame, wrapping it carefully, and relishing the entire process together.  We even scanned the original, printed a copy, and hung it in Rainey’s room for her to enjoy, too.

Just before the party, I pulled Rainey close to me again, looked her in the eyes and said, “I think your artwork is worth far more than anything money can buy.  And I think what you’re doing is a beautiful thing.”

She gave me one of her stunning smiles and said, “I think so, too, Mom.”

And so, at the end of the day, I managed to make it through another mess. A little soiled, as usual, but better for it.  I think admitting our mistakes always leads to something good, and the stains often serve as great reminders that I’m privileged to raise three amazing children.

Even Scott and I cleaned up quite nicely.  We apologized for our indiscretions, talked through our differences, and landed on the same page as far as birthday presents are concerned.

What he doesn’t know, though, is that the picture of the cat and dog will be his gift from me this Christmas, and how appropriate.  Together for ever!

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