Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Saying No

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How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings!
Luke 13:34

"Hi kitty!"

"You have got to be kidding me," I groan to my husband as I roll over. "What time is it?"

"3:07," he responds, precise to the minute.

I groan again, louder this time, then wrap my arms around my belly and roll back to face my daughter. She is standing up, her silhouette illuminated by the street lights outside our bedroom window. She was up at 2:00. She was up at 1:00. She was up at midnight.

"What is wrong with you?" I ask her. "You're supposed to be a good sleeper, remember?"

"Hi kitty!" she calls again as she begins to jump up and down on her mattress.

"That wasn't the point of your new big-girl bed," I tell her. "The point was to sleepin it."

She ignores me and continues to bounce. I roll back to face away from her and shut my eyes. Bounce, bounce, bounce. I shut my eyes tighter. Bounce, bounce, bounce. I poke my husband in the shoulder, in time with her bouncing: poke, poke, poke.

"Why are you doing that?" His voice is thick with sleep.

"Dunno; you're there?"

He wriggles away from me, and I reach over and start poking his belly. Bounce, bounce, bounce. Poke, poke, poke.

"Stop it," he snuffles. But if my daughter isn't sleeping, and therefore I'm not sleeping, it somehow stands to reason that he shouldn't be sleeping, either.

All of a sudden it's quiet. I stop poking my husband and hold my breath. After a few minutes, I crane my head over my shoulder to see if my daughter is lying down in her crib. No such luck. She's standing right over me, ready to pounce.

"Careful of mama's belly!" The last word is drowned out by an enthusiastic toddler going airborne for a split second before landing, crash, right on my bump. I am convinced my baby will be born with indentations of big sister's backside forever imprinted on top of the head.

"Ooof," I say, rolling her off.

"Go-gie!" she yells gleefully.

No, I start to say, and then stop myself. We're trying not to tell her "no," unless it's a serious life-or-death situation. Endless repetition of "no" only serves to cheapen the word, we keep hearing. Distract your toddler instead. Offer an alternative. Give her an alternative to which you can say "yes." Above all, save the "no" for when she's running into the street, trying to hug a Rottweiler, or practicing her fire-eating skills. Not for when you're simply sick to death of nursing.

"You just had go-gie," I tell her instead. "And we don't go-gie at night anymore, remember?"

"Go-gie!" she answers.

I sigh. Even beyond trying to avoid dependence on the word "no," I have other, bigger reasons for not wanting to tell her off. As a Christian mother I sometimes feel like I can't turn around without stubbing my toe on the God-as-parent metaphor, hand in hand with its twin, you-are-your-child's-first-image-of-God. I love the idea of being God's image for her, being his hands and feet on this earth, and I want more than anything to show that kind of love to my daughter. But it's hard, at 3:07 a.m.

"Time for a sleepy walk with daddy!" I lean over and poke my husband again.

He sighs theatrically as he sits up in bed and reaches out his arms for her. She tumbles into his embrace. It's his turn to be the feet of Christ. It's my turn to go back to sleep. I close my eyes and listen as my husband's soothing, sleep-inducing voice is overrun by little-girl chatter. We are trying to be the hands and feet of Christ; our daughter seems to be the voice.

In the morning, my hopes that a sleepless night would lead to a sleep-in morning are abruptly dashed.

"Go-gie!" she calls shortly after six.

"You had go-gie like twenty-six-thousand times last night," I protest. "Whatever happened to 'night weaned'?"

She laughs and wriggles herself closer to me.

"For that matter," I continue, "whatever happened to sleeping?"

She smiles up at me and strokes my face.

"You little rat," I tell her.

I want to want to nurse her. I want to be an endless flowing river of milky mother-love for her, always there with my arms outstretched, ready to scoop her up and cuddle her. But right now, more than anything, I want to go to sleep.

All morning she clamors to nurse. "Go-gie, go-gie, go-gie!" I hear over and over again, and I don't know what's gotten in to her. Sure, we still have our occasional marathon nursing days, just like we have days where she suddenly doesn't nurse at all and by nighttime I am cow-heavy and sore. But this nonstop nursing is beyond all bounds of reasonableness. My body begins to protest, and I spend the rest of the morning trying, lovingly, to distract her.

"Go-gie?" she calls.

"How about we have a drink," I answer, "and maybe we'll have some go-gie later?"

"Go-gie?" she asks, ten minutes later.

"Mmm, how about we read Where is Baby's Mommy, instead?"

"Go-gie? Go-gie?"

"Oh, look! There goes the kitty!"

And on and on it goes. By lunchtime, I am completely fed up, my well of mother-love now down to a mere trickle. I fix her lunch, place it on her tray, and she proceeds to sort through it piece by piece.

"No, no, no, no, no, dank you, no," she says politely, piling her entire lunch into the reject pile. "All done!"

She says "no" guiltlessly, with alacrity. I make her sit in her high chair until I'm finished, then take her down and put all her food back into the refrigerator. She beams up at me and runs over with her arms outstretched.

"Go-gie!"

"For crying out loud," I finally explode, "NO! No more go-gie! No!"

My daughter's eyes grow big as her mouth drops into a round O. I turn away. I'm not the hands and feet of Christ, I'm just a tired, cranky mama. So much for God-as-parent; my daughter will grow up to think God is an exhausted, exasperated, pregnant lady.

I look back at her. She tips her head to one side and arches an eyebrow at me. I wait to see what she's going to do -- cry? scream? full-fledged tantrum? -- as she considers for a moment.

"No go-gie?" she finally says.

"No," I answer. "No go-gie. I'm sorry." I sink down to my knees beside her and look her in the eye.

"Okay," she says after a minute, then turns and trots over to her toy box. She pulls out her plastic dishes and starts playing. Fifteen minutes later, she's still absorbed. Thirty minutes pass, and then an hour. She doesn't ask to nurse again for the rest of the day. If I'd known it was that easy, I would have said no hours ago. No, kid. No.

And that's where the metaphor of God-as-parent breaks down, I think, as I watch her play. God doesn't grow tired, or lose his temper, or stumble around awkwardly behind a swollen belly. God is constant, in ways that I am not, and will never, hard as I try, be able to be.

Maybe I can't give her an image of a parent that resembles God's love for her, but hopefully I can still help her see the God who looks nothing like me. The one whose well never runs dry, the one who will always pick her up and hold her even when I cannot. I lie down on the couch and she comes over and curls up in my arms, and we rest together, in arms bigger than we could ever imagine.


Elrena Evans holds an MFA from The Pennsylvania State University and writes the column Me and My House. She is co-editor, along with Literary Mama Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant, of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008) and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, forthcoming from DreamSeeker Books. She writes for Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog for women, and lives with her husband and three children in Pennsylvania.


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Kudos to a magazine that publishes an article referring to God that isn't about the pope or crazed evangelicals or the ranting of Obama's pastor but about the God of the gospels who has come near us in human life.
beautiful!
This made me laugh and then made me cry! I appreciate your transparency in struggles and your openness in sharing your faith. Thank you!
Sounds hard Elrena. Your love for your daughter, and for God, shine through in this column. Toddlers are trying little beings, aren't they? (So trying that I put together an entire book about them to save my own sanity by reading about other people's experiences.) When you're so exhausted it's hard to have patience. I used to babysit for a woman who would have me come over for a few hours so she could take a nap. Childless at the time, I didn't understand it very well. Now I do and think there is no better reason to spend money on a babysitter than to sleep! (Well, other than a date with your husband but it's hard to enjoy the date when you're both bleary eyed...)
Silly, silly Christian God. If you were a Jewish God, "no" would be a very normal part of your vocabulary. Actually... given what I know of the Christian God... what was the problem with saying "no" again? It is important to remember that God may always love you, but also important to remember that God also says "don't do X, Y, or Z" pretty frequently. The trick is to always have love, whether you are saying "yes" or saying "no".
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