I’m a mom of three boys and three girls. It’s easy to show my girls that I love them. I sit and ask them questions. I listen to them talk and talk and talk. I buy them pink nail polish with sparkles. I “get” girls.
It was harder to figure out my boys. When I asked them questions about their day, I could feel their frustration. Once, when I was asking my young adult son about his first day of college, my husband turned to me and said, “Why are you grilling him?”
What? I was just trying to show I was interested. My daughter would have loved to share every detail!
If you’re a mom of older sons, it can sometimes be hard to show your love. Here are 15 ideas to do just that.
15 Ways to Show Your Teen Son Your Love
1. Go on a long drive and just sit side by side. Don’t ask any questions; just enjoy the view and wait for him to talk. (It will feel awkward, but I guarantee your son will love the side-by-side time.)
2. Ask your son about his most recent video game … and then just listen.
3. Make your son’s favorite dinner and let him know you were thinking of him.
4. Tell your son how proud you are of a good character trait you see in him.
5. Visit him at his work. Don’t make it a big deal, but just smile and wave.
6. Invite him to lunch, your treat, at his favorite restaurant.
7. When you’re at the grocery store, text your son and ask if there’s anything he needs.
8. Offer to play his favorite board game with him … even if you know there’s no chance of your winning, even if you try.
9. Do his laundry without making a big deal about it.
10. Stop what you’re doing and really listen the next time he wants to tell you something.
11. Let your son overhear you talking to someone else and praising one of his accomplishments.
12. Make snacks for your son and his friends when they’re hanging out at your house.
13. Buy a book he’s interested in and leave it on his bed with a note.
14. Show up the next time he invites you to do something with him.
15. Take his problems seriously, even when they don’t seem like a big deal to you.
These seem like simple things, but you know you’re making a difference when you see your son’s smile!
Now, how about you? What are ways you show your teen son that you love him?.
Tricia Goyerhas written more than 35 books, including both novels that delight and entertain readers and nonfiction titles that offer encouragement and hope. She has also published more than 500 articles in national publications such as Guideposts, Thriving Family, Proverbs 31, and HomeLife Magazine.
Sometimes it’s easier to apply God’s truths to my life than to the lives of my children. I don’t know why that is. Maybe I feel like I should be able to fix things for them because I’m their mom.
If I just love them enough, they won’t feel the void their Dad’s departure left. Nope—not possible. Only God can.
If I just spend enough time with them, they won’t miss their father so much. Nope—not possible. Only God can.
If I just do enough for them, they’ll know that they are valuable and loved. Nope—not possible. Only God can.
If I make life easier for them, the pain won’t be as acute. Nope—not possible. Only God can.
What I’ve done in my feverish attempt to fill the hole left by their father is become completely exhausted and a bit ineffective as a parent. It might have served a purpose to a degree at the beginning, but now I have children who are selfish about my time, demanding of my resources, thoughtless of the dynamics of our family and a bit entitled in their mentality.
Lest it sound like I have the rottenest kids on the East Coast, let me say they are all wonderful. They all have lovely, sweet moments and kind words often. My teenage daughter still calls me “Mommy” sometimes, which absolutely melts my heart. My tweenage son still enjoys reading with me each night while we snuggle. My 6-year-old loves to draw pictures to encourage me. And at the most surprising and sweetest times, my 5-year-old will flash me the sign for “I love you.” They all bless me; they just don’t really help me!
I’ve noticed recently that they don’t seem to be getting some pretty obvious house rules. You know, the knock-before-entering thing. The don’t-help-yourself-to-mom’s-things-without-asking thing. The pick-up-after-yourself thing. The whole obey thing.
I’ve made myself entirely too available for them, so now they expect me to always be available for them. I’ve allowed them to enter my space freely and, boy, am I paying for that now! There are always people in my room messing with my stuff, making a mess.
Jason Bradshaw grew up in a middle-class home. He was the oldest of three kids and was the only son. His parents loved each other. But when Jason was 12, tragedy struck their family. Jason’s father was killed in a car accident. The family was devastated, and Jason’s mother grieved for several years.
As Jason got older, his mother poured her life into him. He was the apple of her eye, and she often saw her husband in him as he got older. “He looks much like his father,” she thought to herself. His mother doted on Jason, and sometimes Jason reacted to what felt smothering to him.
Jason’s mother often prevented Jason from doing things that normal boys of his age do, for fear of him getting hurt or even losing Jason. Gradually, Jason began to feel controlled and manipulated by his mother. This developed into a love-hate relationship with his mom. On the one hand, he knew he was now the male head of the family and wanted to care for his mom, but he hated the control he felt.
Jason began to date girls as he got older and found that he sometimes masturbated to relieve the stress and pent-up desires he felt inside. He also found himself on the internet checking out pornographic pictures. He didn’t know why he did this. He just thought it was normal for boys his age.
Jason went on to college and kept a distant relationship between him and his mom. He wanted to respect and care for her, but he wanted to keep his distance and gain his independence. Jason got engaged after college and things were great with his new wife. However, over the next several years he found that there was conflict in his relationship with his wife.
Sometimes he felt the same feelings he felt when he was growing up with his mother. That feeling of control gave him a sick stomach. He often reacted to his wife when those feelings swelled up inside, “Stop trying to control me,” he would say. His wife was surprised at these reactions as she was only trying to connect emotionally with Jason. She wanted to be a part of his life. Jason pulled away each time he felt these feelings.
When Jason and his wife visited his mom, his wife noticed that Jason’s personality often changed when the three of them were together. Jason’s wife felt like a third wheel. It almost felt like Jason was married to his mother instead of her. This caused arguments among them and Jason often demonstrated a very unloving spirit to his wife. Jason would always defend his treatment of his mother, often at the expense of his wife.
This pattern continued for many years into their marriage. Finally Jason’s wife decided they needed professional help. Jason reacted negatively to the idea and felt the only problem they had was his wife kept trying to control him and she needed to stop. However, reluctantly, Jason agreed to go to counseling.
Jason, to his surprise, discovered in the counseling that the reason he reacted to his wife’s “control and manipulation” as he perceived it, was due to something that happened in his childhood that related to his mother. The feelings he was feeling were the same feelings he felt when he was a teenager growing up. In essence, Jason was shocked to discover he was subconsciously viewing his wife as his mother. As the truth of his situation unfolded, Jason was able to recognize why he reacted to his wife this way.
Today Jason and his wife are happily married. However, many couples who have the same symptoms often result in divorce. This same scenario happens when a father divorces a wife. The mother is often left emotionally bankrupt and she seeks to meet her emotional needs from her son. However, a son is not made to emotionally bond with his mother and the pain that is caused within him must be released through some form of sexual expression. That is one reason Jason turned to sex to relieve his emotional pain.
Compounded with this is the legitimate need for Jason to have an emotional connection with a female, but because of his negative perception of his wife, he often sought that emotional connection through women at his workplace or in other social settings. He was often seen as a flirt with women but Jason denied such behavior. This too is rooted in the mother-son bonding relationship.
There is a crisis in marriage today. Research reveals the Christian divorce rate is higher than non-believers. There are many reasons for this, but one of those reasons is rarely spoken about. It has to do with the inappropriate bonding between a mother and her son during his adolescent years.
Many men never emotionally bond to their wives because of the impact of being emotionally bonded to their mothers during their adolescent years. The reason many men are not able to bond with their wives is often due to mother-son bonding that takes place during adolescence.
Dr Paul Hegstrom explains in his book, Broken Children, Grown Up Pain, that “a husband without an emotional bond to his wife sees her as someone who sleeps with him, cleans the house, takes care of the children, and works—he doesn’t see her as a real, living, emotional person.” As a result, the husband is often distant emotionally to his wife, but he does not recognize this in himself. However, his wife definitely knows it. She tries to connect on an emotional level only to be perceived as trying to control him. This leads to conflicts in the relationship.
If the father and mother are not bonded to one another, the mother will often bond to the oldest son. This can happen as a result of an absent father, either physically or emotionally. If a wife is not getting her emotional needs met through her husband, she may attempt to draw this from her son. If the parenting style is weak in emotional validation, giving words of love, or shaming of the child, these combinations will eventually surface through problems in the marital relationship in adulthood.
Resolving an Inner Conflict
When mothers bond with sons during adolescence, the son rebels against this bonding because he is not wired to bond with any female once they get into adolescence without some form of sexual expression. When they should be growing independent from their mother during this time, they find themselves in bondage to their mother’s emotional control. This all happens subconsciously.
Gordon Dalbey, author of Healing the Masculine Soul, explains that “beyond the basic fact of initial physical dependence upon the mother, the quality of that bonding experience also influences the son’s later relationships with women. If the boy’s maternal bond was painful (perhaps his mother didn’t want to conceive and thus rejected him) or inappropriate (perhaps she was seductive toward him), the boy may later associate physical bonding to a woman with pain and anxiety.
He then may become compulsive about sex—either as the freewheeling playboy who is incapable of commitment, or the demanding husband who fears being emotionally vulnerable to his wife. Given the biological and emotional intensity of the mother-son bond, only someone whose intrinsic identity with the boy exceeds that of the mother can draw him away into individuality and adult responsibility. Clearly, only the father meets such a requirement.”
If unresolved, the young male will seek to rebel against this bonding and control they feel subconsciously. They will have a love-hate relationship toward their mothers during late adolescence. This can lead young males to masturbate or get into pornography or have premarital sex in their adolescent years as a means of dealing with the emotional pain of that bonding from the mother. The male will eventually pull away from the mother as a result of seeking to become independent from her. This can be traumatic for the mother.
These feelings are often felt subconsciously as the son grows into adulthood. Often an unconscious vow is made to themselves: “I will never be controlled by a woman again.” This personal vow can go with them into future dating and marital relationships. The wife will often feel like their legitimate input is being viewed as criticism by the husband and he is resistant to talking with her at an emotional level. The husband will often shut down or rebel against his wife’s input.
Dalbey explains that “when a boy reaches puberty, filled with the powerful physical stirrings of his emerging manhood, the father’s role becomes critical. If at this point Dad doesn’t call the boy out and away from the mother to bond with his masculine roots among men, those stirrings are overtaken by his natural bond with the mother, becoming bound up in her and thus unavailable later to the woman he loves.
“Without the earthly father to call the son out into manhood, the boy grows up seeking manly identity in women—whose voices seem to call him to manhood through sexual conquest. Masculinity grows not out of conquering the woman, but only out of conquering the man—and not another man, as in war, but oneself.”
Dalbey explains how this can further affect the man’s identity: “Enmeshed with his mother, he may find that his heart is unavailable to another woman to walk with him later as a wife in his life calling (Gen. 2:24). Unable to bond with either a woman in marriage or a man in healthy friendship, he then may fall prey to homosexual impulses.”
This is why moral failure can happen even among the most mature Christian men. Despite a commitment to a disciplined Christian life, they have never resolved their inner toil rooted in mother-son bonding and he eventually loses the battle. This is actually God’s grace designed to take the male back to the source of his pain to become healed.
Fear of Dependency
Paul Olsen, declares in his book, Sons and Mothers, “What a man is frightened of, more than anything else in the vast possibilities of living experience, is dependency, regression to a state in which he becomes an infant in the care of his mother—a mother later unconsciously symbolized by almost all women with whom he comes in contact.”
If the son has had any male to male sexual exposure in his childhood, this issue is compounded. Subconsciously he will seek to prove his heterosexuality by bonding to other women outside the marriage. When a dad abandons a son emotionally and physically, he is left to gain that validation elsewhere, often through a female or even another man. If the boy has any male-to-male sexual exposure he will grow into adulthood leaning toward homosexuality or he will have to prove his heterosexuality to himself by getting his validation from women.
The popular comedy TV sitcom series Everybody Loves Raymond is a classic portrayal of two sons who have been doted on by their mother and conflict consistently arises between the loyalty of the sons at the expense of their wives. The father is emotionally bankrupt and emotionally abuses the mother. The mother seeks to get her emotional needs met from Raymond, the favored son. Many of the situations are quite humorous, but sadly, are portrayed very accurately as to the depth of the problem.
Ken Nair, author of Discovering the Mind of a Woman, cited a perfect example of this when counseling a couple and the husband was reacting to his wife’s treatment of his wife. “I’m thinking of a situation where a wife said, ‘On Mother’s Day, you made sure that your mother got to sit at the head of the table and was waited on first.’ He retaliated, ‘Well, it was Mother’s Day!’ His wife defensively said, ‘I’m a mother! In fact, I’m the mother of your children. But that doesn’t seem to carry any weight with you!’ He illustrated his deafness to her spirit by saying, ‘I’m not going to stop loving my mother just to make you happy!’”
This man always gave deference to his mother’s needs at the expense of his wife’s. The husband was never emotionally bonded to his, but was still bonded to his mother. When this happens the husband will pull away from his wife because he subconsciously views her as his mother who he believes is trying to control him. Whenever a son’s behavior changes in the presence of the mother and the wife feels like a third wheel, you can be confident there is a mother-son bonding issue that exists.
This usually results in the son bonding to other women outside the marriage in a subconscious attempt to deal with the pain of the mother-son bonding. He is often a flirt with other women usually unknowingly. Subconsciously he is meeting an emotional need in himself to prove his manhood through other women.
John Eldredge shares a very personal account of his discovery of similar deep rooted issues he described in his book, Wild at Heart. He discovered what happens when a man cannot offer himself emotionally to his wife. “If the man refuses to offer himself, then his wife will remain empty and barren. A violent man destroys with his words; a silent man starves his wife. ‘She’s wilting,’ a friend confessed to me about his new bride. ‘If she’s wilting then you’re withholding something,’ I said. Actually, it was several things—his words, his touch, but mostly his delight. There are so many other ways this plays out in life. A man who leaves his wife with the children and the bills to go and find another, easier life has denied them his strength. He has sacrificed them when he should have sacrificed his strength for them.”
There were three people in front of me at the Wal-Mart checkout. I was on my way to a drawing assignment and stopped to pick up a large sketchbook. Wal-Mart has them cheaper than the art store, although David Art of Metairie is a great place with wonderful people, and I keep them in business.
In front of me was a Hispanic lady with a toddler in her shopping basket. I opened the sketchbook and did a hasty drawing of the child. I signed it and handed it to her. She was thrilled and said, “Merry Christmas.” That was around November 1st, and she was the first one to greet me in this way this season. A Spanish pastor friend heard this and laughed. “We Latinos love to celebrate our Lord’s birth for months!” he said.
Driving the interstate that day was no fun. We were returning from visiting our son and his family (I’m working hard not to say the truth here—that we were visiting our grandchildren!), and all day long the highway had been beset with rain, fog and mist at times so heavy we turned on the blinkers and leaned forward to see the lines on the pavement. But finally we arrived and checked into the hotel and drove down the street to the Cracker Barrel restaurant.
“You have a 15-minute wait,” the hostess said. That was fine. Margaret began browsing, and I hung around close to the line.
Behind me stood a young mother with her daughter about 5 years old. Now, I’m the grandfather of six little girls (little—ha! They range in age now from 16 to 24) and love children. So, I struck up a conversation with the child.
“Have you ever seen a man with a purse before?” (I was holding Margaret’s while she shopped.) She shook her head; she hadn’t.
I told her, “Grandma is off somewhere, so Grandpa has to hold the purse.”
Mommy told her that Daddy sometimes holds her purse.
I spotted a rack of coloring books a few feet away and called her attention to the one with horses. I said, “I’ll bet you like to color, don’t you?” She nodded.
At that, the child reached over and pulled out a coloring book with children on the front. I said, “May I see it?”
I saw it was only $3.95 and the inside covers, front and back, were blank and white. So I said to the mom, “I’m a cartoonist. May I draw her picture here and then buy the book for her?”
She smiled and nodded.
By this time, Margaret had returned from her browsing tour and entered the conversation. I was glad, because people are justifiably suspicious of strangers who strike up conversations. I grieve over this because our society is becoming at the same time more dangerous and more isolated.
The drawing of the little girl turned out excellent, so I turned to the inside back page. “May I draw you here?” I said to the mother. She agreed and gave me a smiling pose.
At the end, I wrote—as always—”joemckeever.com” and got in line to pay for the book.
Some of our readers are wondering why I didn’t write their names on the drawings in the rather creative style I use. Answer: To ask for their names like that felt as though I might be crossing a line of some kind. The mother was already taking a risk by engaging in the conversation and allowing me to sketch their likenesses. Later, Margaret agreed that not asking for names was the right thing to do.
I frequently pray the Lord will lead me about a) engaging strangers in conversation (as to if, when and how) and b) give me discernment as to whatever messages He is sending. I pray c) He will help me draw well, enough to bless and encourage those I sketch, and d) be glorified through it all.
I was in the car wash waiting room with four or five other customers, no one saying a word, everyone eager to get on with their day. After a few minutes, the front door opened and a man and a little girl entered. They made quite a contrast.
The man looked scruffy, like he’d been hitchhiking on the highway. He needed to shave, he carried a scar on his face, his jeans were dirty, and the T-shirt had seen better days. He did not look like anyone you would want to cross.
The little girl, perhaps 4 years old, was a vision of loveliness. She was dressed up in her party clothes with her hair beautifully fixed.
Everyone in the waiting room turned to watch them enter, stared at the unusual duo, and said nothing. That’s when I spoke up.
“How did an ugly guy like you get such a beautiful little daughter?”
Yep. I said it. And you could feel everyone in the waiting room sucking in their breaths, wondering what was about to come.
In the dead silence that followed, the man said, “I ask myself that every day of my life!” And everyone laughed.
We got into a conversation, and I sketched them both. And then I learned what was happening.
The man and his wife, the child’s mother, were divorced. She was remarrying and moving several states away. Today was the last day he would be seeing his little girl for some time. It was a sad occasion.
God used me to minister to him that day, for which I will be eternally grateful.
Do not fail to show hospitality to strangers, Scripture tells us in Hebrews 13, for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Sometimes you are the stranger, and sometimes you get to be the angel.
Some people, when hearing these stories, give me far more praise than I’m entitled to or comfortable with. This is nothing, folks. I’m just doing what I do, in the same way one of you might cut someone’s yard or repair their steps or bake them a loaf of fresh bread.
Later this morning after typing this, I drove to the supermarket in the Alabama city where we had spent the night to buy a case of water. As I paid for it, the young employee standing next to the checker said he would carry it to my car. That caught me by surprise.
His name was Matthew, and as he helped me place it in the back seat, I noticed the tag on his apron said, “No tips accepted.” So I said, “Matthew, I can’t give you money, but I’ll give you something else.”
I opened the trunk and took out some paper and did a quick sketch of him, signed it and handed it to him. After a few words of encouragement to him, he was on his way. And I was blessed. Matthew was the angel today.
Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.
Several years ago I realized I was outnumbered. There were more people bringing clutter intomy home than I could control. With five children in the house, several sets of grandparents, and lots of generous friends who would give us their hand-me-downs, my children rarely saw a day where they were truly in need of something. For that, I am truly grateful. What that also means is that everything brought into our home needed a place, or we would quickly drown in utter chaos. Add to that the fact that my husband and I both have things we love to collect. For me, it is books. He has what we affectionately call “The Cord Hoard.” He loves electronics, and sometimes decades after an electronic device is no longer functioning, we will still find its cord tucked away someplace unexpected. By themselves, cords do not take up much space, but after twenty-one years of marriage, we have lots of them. I secretly think that some other families have been leaving cords here too.
In any case, when I had only one or two children, I simply went through their rooms each month or so and would make sure things were back in their proper places. A little excess never really bothered me because it was tucked away in the privacy of their rooms, which I needed to see only in the morning and at bedtime. However, once children started sharing rooms, the excess began to spill out of the closet and onto the floor, under the beds, into my room, and into the main part of the house. Before long, I felt like I could never get the house clean. There was too much stuff to move around, organize, and dust before I could begin to vacuum, scrub, and polish.
Now that many of my children are older, I have found that having frequent de-cluttering days with challenges and prizes has been a fabulous tool.
Here is how we do it:
We choose a day with no other plans. We get up at a reasonable hour, and everyone gathers in the kitchen to see the goals, the challenges, and the fabulous prizes for the day.
In addition, I make sure we have plenty of black garbage bags, boxes, regular trash bags, black markers (for labeling the boxes), and an empty truck or trunk of the van. We set goals for the number of donated items, and along with each goal, we establish a prize or award. We do not typically set individual goals but rather family goals. This helps keep everyone working together and encouraging one another.
Here is what our day looked like the first time we did this:
At 8:30 we made sure everyone was up and dressed, and as they ate breakfast, I told them the plan: “Today is de-cluttering day! Today we are going to all work together to get rid of the things we do not need.” Then I outlined the rules for them, and with great excitement and enthusiasm, I put the incentives on our white board:
If (as a family) we get rid of 100 items, we would get dessert with lunch.
If we gave away 200 items, we could go out for ice cream one night that week.
If we gave away 300 items, the family could go out to eat for dinner.
If we gave away 400 items, we could have dinner out—with dessert!
Items that were thrown away did not count toward the tally.
Every item had to go through the dining room for Mom to make sure it was suitable to give away.
Every item was to be tallied on a note pad kept in the dining room.
Everyone got to work immediately. My oldest daughter emptied her truck and turned down the seats to hold the loot. My middle daughter got the trash bags and boxes ready. My youngest daughter grabbed the laundry baskets to use to transport stuff from the rooms to the dining room.
It did not take long for the excitement to build as the kids discussed the “poor children” who would love to get their toys that they no longer cherished but which were still in terrific shape. They joyfully brought out some little dolls that were always underfoot but rarely appreciated. They brought out clothes that were outgrown and made room in their dresser drawers for the things they needed in there. Around lunchtime the truck was full, and our item count was very close to 300.
Over lunch the kids discussed the progress so far and were excitedly planning when we would go out for ice cream. Then this question came up: “What if we hit 500 items?” That got the excitement growing again, and after lunch everyone got back in gear. We were all getting pretty tired by then, but we kept saying: “Look for one more thing; keep going! Almost to 400!”
Soon, we were all in the garage and the number approached 500. Anne Mary declared that 500 items should be a family movie night with popcorn! “YES!” everyone shouted!
The excitement built as the 499th item was placed in the box. Then they started talking about donating their winter coats, shoes, umbrellas, and one another’s clothes…
Now that we have had several de-cluttering days (usually two large ones per year), I have also learned to appreciate small de-cluttering days. I will often ask each of the children to eliminate five or ten items they are no longer using. Now that they are in the habit of letting go of things, at times they will surprise me by simply showing up with a small box or bag of items from their rooms and tell me they would like to donate those items.
I am ashamed to say we could probably do this over and over again and still have too much stuff, but I was excited to see the family pull together with a common goal and a lot of fun. We know others will be blessed by what we gave away. The children do take care of their things and they are usually in very good shape when they have outgrown them.
If you are planning a de-cluttering day of your own, here are some additional suggestions to help you prepare:
Go through younger children’s rooms a day early to cull all the outgrown clothes and unwanted/unneeded toys and books. This prevents a loss of momentum because of a napping baby.
Start making a mental list of problem areas.
Get some empty boxes to hold things to take to charity and some big black garbage bags for things that need to leave. Getting these items ahead of time means you will not have to scramble to find suitable boxes or bags on de-cluttering day.
Decide on rewards you can offer the family for goals met so that they share the excitement.
Invite a friend. Having a friend along helps you get rid of things more easily.
Let the kids and your husband know ahead of time what you are doing so that no one makes any other big plans that are going to cause problems during your de-cluttering day.
Empty the vacuum bag and get your cleaners ready. You will find dust and dirt when sorting and organizing, so be sure you are stocked up on cleaning supplies before you begin.
Think about how your family could be a blessing to others today. Perhaps you could set a goal for each person to give away five things or ten things. Make it a fun challenge and celebrate each act of generosity. Your family will be blessed!
“O Lord, help us to be content, Whatever we possess; Protect us from the foolish lie That ‘more’ brings happiness.”—David Sper
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
“My mother is in the hospital, and I have a new baby sister!” It was show-and-tell time in Mrs. Gibble’s first-grade classroom. I was bursting with real news: I was the first in our class to announce a new baby had been born in our family.
“Do you think your mother could bring the baby to school so we all can see her?” asked Mrs. Gibble.
“Oh, I’m sure she will,” I replied. My teacher and classmates clapped with glee.
Mary Louise Hershey was born on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1954. Now we had the perfect 1950s family: Mother, Daddy, me, Henry and Mary Louise. Just like in our schoolbooks: Mother, Father, Dick, Jane and Sally.
Mother said she would bring Mary Louise to school after Christmas vacation, when the baby would be a little bigger. I couldn’t wait to show off Mary Louise to my classmates.
At age 6, I was ready to understand the role of big sister now that I had had three years of experience guiding my brother into and out of adventures. We noticed that our sister sometimes had bluish fingernails and lips, but Mother said that Dr. Hess said babies usually grew out of this symptom.
Just before Christmas, after sundown on Dec. 20, Henry and I were playing in the little stack of hay next to the cow stable, making tunnels out of bales and talking about what we hoped for in our stockings. Down the row, cows chewed contentedly. The DeLaval milkers sounded almost like heartbeats—lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub—as they extracted warm milk from each udder.
And then we heard it: a horrible, penetrating, animal-like scream, piercing that night and my life to this day. Until Mary Louise died after only 39 days on this earth, I didn’t know one mother’s voice could hold the sounds of all the weeping women of the world. The terrible sound grew louder as Mother came toward the barn. She ran to Daddy and, still screaming, started pounding him on his chest.
“My baby is dead. Our baby is dead. My baby is dead.” That was all she could say, over and over again. Then she would throw back her head and wail.
Mother never attempted to hide her grief. Losing Mary Louise tore her scarred heart in two—again. She had lost two grandmothers when she was a teenager. Her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Her mother died suddenly just three years earlier when Henry was a baby and Mother was 24.
My mother already knew grief like a river. But this one threatened to engulf her. No other loss sears the soul like the loss of one’s own child. I would not fully understand my mother’s courage until I became a mother myself. But what I did understand was that my magical childhood had changed.
Mother coped with this death by going back to her first dream of becoming a writer. With other Mennonite women, she started an organization called the Homebuilders. She and others sent packets of solace, letters of condolence and poems to other grieving mothers when they found their names in the newspaper along with the notice that a young child had died.
I didn’t understand then how much work my mother was doing to transform trauma into growth. But that effort would teach me more than any words she could have spoken. For the next decade, Mother would help to lead the organization of mothers by speaking and writing as a way to use her gifts for the church. Her healing happened best when she fulfilled her dream of expressing her deepest feelings in writing.
The cause of Mary Louise’s death was never clear. Dr. Hess said he could find only two paragraphs on this condition in the medical books he consulted. There was no known cure.
If I ever want to know the limitation of words, all I have to do is hold the bronze-colored book provided by the funeral home for Mary Louise’s viewing. Next to the guest register is a little sketch of a heart, drawn by Dr. Hess himself, and the words that took Mary Louise away from us: “subendocardial fibroelastosis.”
One of the large bouquets of flowers delivered to our house in those sad and somber December days right before Christmas came from all the teachers and students at my school. My parents read the card and wept again.
It would be a long time before I would stand up to make any new show-and-tell announcements in school. When I did, the words came from a new place in my heart, a place that had visited death.
Shirley Hershey Showalter grew up in a Mennonite farm family and went on to become the president of Goshen College and a foundation executive at the Fetzer Institute. She is now a writer, speaker, blogger and consultant living in Harrisonburg, Va.