It was easy to tell with Kya. She listened with wide, vacant eyes and let jumbled words tumble out of her lips. She could not count beyond the number two and stumbled over words longer than a syllable.
We knew with her.
Micah was different. He had a speech delay, to be sure, but his logical brain and quick-thinking masked the reality that he would not be able to read without a daily, excruciating attempt to get the letters and words to hang in a room that had no hooks.
But then there was Paul. Unlike the other two, he took to reading fairly easily.
Except when he didn’t. One day, he could read without missing a word, and the very next day, he couldn’t differentiate between “a” and “the” and confused all the vowel sounds like he had never seen them before. His inconsistency seemed more a matter of the will than a matter of the mind, so I pressed him harder to pay attention. “Focus, Paul!” was my daily mantra, but it didn’t help.
The truth is, I missed it with Paul.
When your twin is barely comprehensible and your sister can’t remember 2+2 without daily drilling, who notices when you turn your sixes and nines around and put b’s on the beginning of words? It’s just cute that you say “bemember” and “beget” and call your jeans “pantses.”
Nevermind that you can’t get dressed in the morning without fifteen reminders, and your shirt is always on backward and for the life, you cannot figure out what’s different about d’s and b’s and p’s. Reading is a daily crap shoot, and sometimes, Mom gets so frustrated, she whaps you on the head with a tattered copy of Little Bear’s Friend because you just read that word, and now you can’t. The other kids have reason to struggle but you…well, you don’t have any of those excuses, so you must not be trying hard enough.
Paul lived seven years before I sat in a learning specialist’s office and listened as she explained how his reading comprehension was at 0% of grade level. He understood oral directions like a four-year-old. An average four-year-old, she emphasized, lest I had delusions of genius preschoolers blowing the curve.
“He also has a high level of anxiety,” she added after thoroughly revealing the degree to which I had been blind to Paul’s needs.
“He does?” I stammered.
“He tells me he worries,” she said, looking at me over her big desk. “I asked him why he doesn’t like school, and he said, ‘I always worry.’”
It was right there in her report. She turned her iPad around so I could see it for myself. “I always worry.”
Three words to convict the woman who everyone thinks is so patient and never raises her voice. The woman who writes a blog about children and tells mothers they should enjoy their full quivers because it is the highest calling of God in their lives.
Three words that mean, “I always worry because my mom gets upset when I don’t read well.”
“I always worry because she says my name with anger in her voice when I can’t do what she thinks I can.”
“I always worry because I never know when I’m doing it wrong until she does.”
“I always worry because I should be smarter, but I’m not.”
Not “I am loved” or “everyone learns differently” or “you are exceptional” or any other words I wished were planted more deeply in his identity.
I always worry.
My heart snagged on those three words and unraveled me. Oh, my sweet boy.
I had tried so hard, and failed. I had been frustrated, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Day after day, we got up and did it again, only to feel like we weren’t making any progress at all.
And I resented it.
All the Pinterest ideas in the world and my kid still couldn’t remember the word “the.”
Still, I wanted to believe that all the hard work was paying off because it mattered. It mattered that these children learned to work with their disabilities. It mattered that they felt loved even if they couldn’t spell. It mattered that I kept my patience because good mothers don’t get frustrated when their dyslexic children actually act dyslexic.
But I did. Big time.
I drove home with tears sneaking into the corners of my eyes, blurring the road.
Later, when Paul alone remained at the table picking at his dinner the way he does when the food is mixed up and he can’t tell whether he might bite into a tomato, I said, “Your learning specialist told me what you said today.”
Paul’s face flushed and he ducked his head like he thought I had a copy of Little Bear handy. His eyes turned soupy and he could not talk. So he nodded, and then he cried and poured out the broken bits of his heart. He believed he couldn’t do anything right because I get mad at him when he makes mistakes.
I do not get mad at you when you make mistakes! I wanted to say. It’s just frustrating when you don’t try!
I would have said it, too, if the lady behind the big desk had not made it abundantly clear that this little boy had been trying his hardest for long enough, and I had not noticed.
I looked at the tears in my baby’s eyes, knowing full well that it was my sin that put them there.
All this time, I had been crushing Paul. His cheerful, sweet spirit was not enough to earn my favor. I had successfully taught him that he fell short. He could not read the way I thought he should. He could not focus long enough to complete a one-step task or remember to chew with his mouth closed or figure out those crazy b’s and d’s and p’s.
He worried about all those things because every day, they proved to him that Paul simply was not good enough for me.
All of that, in three words. Three horribly true words.
If the world had rolled over on me, it would have been a mercy. With my tears mingling with his, I grabbed my son and whispered three words of my own into his ears: “I’m so sorry.”
Sorry hardly seemed like enough. All I wanted to do was run and hide. How could God have given such precious gifts to such a woman as me? He knew I was impatient, intolerant, and psycho-perfectionistic. And look what happened! Look at what I’d done to my son—I’d taught him that he was somehow less than he should be.
How can sorry be enough for that?
It isn’t enough, but sorry is the gate by which grace rushes in. And grace makes up for what sorry cannot do.
Grace tells me that motherhood is more than just the balance of my successes and failures. God gives children to women who do not deserve it, of which I am a shining example. We break these children with our brokenness, sometimes, and they break us right back.
It is awful, and I can do nothing some days but beg God to keep my sin from taking root in their lives, to protect them from me.
But the beauty of it is this: somehow, God works all these things together to make each of us more like Himself. God chose Paul for me knowing that this mothering thing would be the single greatest refining fire in my life. He also knew that my mothering, mistakes and all, would be the primary shaping force in Paul’s young life to draw him to Christ.
Isn’t that what we need to know as mothers? That despite our failings, God works all these things together for the good of those who have been called to it—mothers and children, children and mothers, all stumbling closer to Jesus as He shouts through our weaknesses of our need for Him. We need the cross.
And when we forget it, God is gracious to remind us.
Even if He has to say it in just three words.