Our Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
–Wendell Berry

Grace stands beside me, staring blankly at the ground. We’ve come to the backyard for the burial of her hamster, Gimli, who expired that afternoon without fanfare. I bend over, and with my ancient trowel dig a hole in the damp mulch and lower his little body, suddenly diminished into a heap of fur no bigger than a cotton ball. Even though she’s seventeen now, Grace’s face is that of a little girl wanting her mama, and I wrap my arms around her.

“I should have done so much more for him,” she sniffles, leaning into me as the rain picks up a little. “Sometimes I forgot to play with him, and he was probably always lonely. I was a terrible mother to him.” A stream of her tears adds to the drops starting to pelt us.

As I stand there, holding her tight now, a lump develops in my throat as I hear in her words the exact echo of my own inner voice these days. Yes, that’s how I feel, watching my three teenagers struggle—the crushing dread that my good intentions were inadequate and that my children will suffer for my incompetence.

When they were tiny, clamoring into my lap, tucked into bed early every night, I mostly knew what to do. Everyone was clean and fed and snuggled.

My duty to care for them was achievable.

We read Bible stories and prayed over skinned knees. Knowing Jesus was like knowing Grandpa who lives next door—he’s always there, he loves us, and he’s ready to help. The questions they asked were simple, and had answers easily plucked from the back pocket of my own simple faith.

But in these past few years, as the faith of my youth has crumbled and I’ve been stranded in the desert of doubt? I’m constantly at a loss, floundering to answer their tough questions, because I’m asking the same ones. I never imagined saying, “I just don’t know” to my children so much. When I witness their anxieties and confusion I long to offer them the comfort that an unexamined, untested faith offered me in my youth.

In the wilderness, you have lots of time to wonder where you took a wrong turn. For me, my wondering has often hardened into a glistening sheen of regret, of the visceral knowledge that I’ve exhausted the outer limits of my own resources and come up short of my ideals. Is there any possible way to be a mother without at least a shadow of regret? I think not. Have I done “my best” all the time? Definitely not. I could open a new file on this computer entitled “Things I Would Change,” and start typing until suppertime. There are no second chances at this gig, so such exercises are anything but helpful. Still, it’s tempting to linger with regret until it seeps into the present.

“You were just the mom Gimli needed, and he had a lovely life,” I say as we stand there in the rain. My voice wavers a little, thinking my own thoughts as Grace nods, comforted.

I think about driving away from her dorm after dropping her off at college this fall. Leaving her that day will be a kind of death, a letting go of the illusion that she’s mine, that her fate is in my hands. It will be the moment when I must trust, despite my fears and failures, that I’ve been a “good enough mother.” It will also be the moment when I must trust God, who, in my bones, I still believe is good. My real work, which comes at the end of my efforts, is just beginning.

Joy Wooddell lives in the Northwest Georgia mountains with her musician husband and three teenagers who always keep her laughing. Currently she’s winding up many years as a home educator and piano teacher and thinking about what’s next. She loves cultivating plants and relationships, listening to music her kids recommend, and getting outside as much as possible.