Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "Choosing Motherhood: Stories of Successful Women who put Family First," published by Cedar Fort.
As I watched the German countryside bump slowly past my train window, I had the unsettling sense that I was being watched — and that the watcher was my sister.
“What?” I asked, peering over the head of the baby in my lap. My sister hesitated, her pale, freckled cheeks flushing carnation pink.
“Well,” she mumbled, now looking everywhere but at me. “So, if you don’t mind my asking,” she began again. As I watched the color spread from her cheeks to her neck, I wondered what question could possibly cause such discomfiture. “Why ...” she finally blurted, “why would anyone want to be a mom?”
I jerked my head, blinking. If she had leaped across our train car and boxed my ears, I would have been less surprised. My sister, a recently returned Mormon missionary from the Germany Munich Mission, had been living with me, my husband, and our three little girls in Frankfurt for five weeks.
Months before, when I told her we were going to Germany for my husband to take a language immersion course, she had insisted on coming along. She didn’t think much of my ability to navigate three small children through a foreign country on my own. “You will die,” she predicted. So she bought herself a plane ticket for a two-month pleasure trip with her three darling nieces.
But the trip was not always pleasurable, and the nieces not always darling. At first, I took her question as a thinly veiled complaint. Sure, the first month of our sojourn hadn’t been totally idyllic. No one liked to live six people deep in a two-room apartment for a summer. I could think of a better use for the 20 minutes we spent stacking and unstacking mattresses at the beginning and end of each day. And it was a challenge to keep a tiny European fridge stocked for three adults and three children.
But we were in Germany! We had floated on a riverboat past the famous Frankfurt skyline! Dressed the girls in princess dresses and visited the Neuschwanstein castle! Toured downtown Munich and sung with the Glockenspiel!
This was exciting motherhood — what did she have to complain about? Hadn’t I been the one with one child strapped to my back, one buckled in my stroller, and one clinging to my leg? Hadn’t I been the one to silence all the tantrums and petty squabbles? Hadn’t I masterminded the clean-up of multiple potty-related incidents in disgusting U-Bahn bathrooms? Hadn’t I ....
Ah. I started to see where she was coming from.
“What do you mean?” I asked, tossing my hair over my shoulder and hefting the baby from my lap to the floor. I stayed doubled over to examine the carpet’s small white-flowered pattern in a ridiculous effort to hide my face from my sister. “Well, my friend Betsy has been staying with her sister and nieces too, and we just can’t figure out ....” Great. Talking over my lousy life with the BFF.
“What do you have to look forward to every day? How do you bear the monotony? Why do you even get up in the morning when no matter what you try to do, you have these kids in the way?”
I felt my body stiffen and my blood rise. Was that all she had seen for the last five weeks? Through all the museums, the playgrounds, the Gutenberg and Brothers Grimm birthplaces, she had absorbed only my logistical difficulties? Snatching my baby back from the floor, I sat up straight and stared at her a moment. I struggled to gain my composure but failed. I finally shot back with a flustered, defensive answer — a haughty jumble of idealistic platitudes on the order of finding one’s life in losing it for another. She dropped the subject. I didn’t.
I thought about the question for months. Why would anyone want to be a mom? From the outside, especially the up-close-and-personal outside that my sister saw, mothering could appear to be nothing more than fits and fights, dirty noses and dirty everything else — no matter the castles-and-fairy-tales sheen I had put on it. To the casual observer, the way I visited those castles — burdened with children on every square inch of my body — might represent motherhood more generally.
Mothers, it would seem, were restrained and restricted, held back and weighed down. And yet, excepting the occasional bad day, I didn’t feel that way at all about my life as a mother.
Many months after my sister asked me this question, I saw the answer. It lay in a painting on the cover of a book my husband brought home from the library. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “What is that!” I asked, excitedly taking the book from him. My eyes ran eagerly over the image before searching the jacket for the painting’s title. I let out an involuntary cry of elation when I found it: "Teach These Souls to Fly" by William Blake. I flipped back to the painting, captivated by the world of this mother and child. The beige muscles swelling across the mother’s back inspired my admiration first. A woman with such strength could perform any labor she chose.
Yet, the curve of her shoulder introduced a steady softening that ended in a touch on the child’s elbow. I saw the same combination of force and persuasion in the look she gave her child. This mother seemed in the same instant both to command and to invite, to compel and to persuade.
I found the odd trajectory of the mother’s flight as intriguing as the paradoxes of her person. She was definitely flying — that was clear by the way her robes hugged her body before swirling away. But her torso twisted back toward her child.
An outsider like my sister might have seen in this mother a picture of how children hamper and restrain. What heights could such a woman not have attained, had she been free to pursue the course she had started?
The question could be asked about most mothers. Watching this one — a woman whose strength convinced me she would fly despite the restraints — brought to mind many real-life examples: the mother who, during her teensy student-apartment years, resolved to learn all there was to know about house plants and went on to teach lessons on the subject; the pastry-loving mother who set a goal to bake one hundred pies, met her goal two years later, and became a master pie-maker in the process; the wife of an emergency medicine doctor who determined that her family would “be prepared” and gave regular workshops on the subject. These women flew, but none of them performed a solo air show.
When I heard the urban gardener’s 3-year-old explain the re-potting procedure for philodendrons, the pastry chef’s 2-year-old critique the flakiness of his pie crust, and the preparedness guru’s 4-year-old extol the virtues of powdered milk, I knew that in all these women’s aeronautics, their children, whether they knew it or not, flew too.
The child in the painting definitely didn’t know. He stared blankly toward me, not his mother. His chubby toddler arms barely reached past his head, and his feet rose behind him like two lazy balloons. While his mother seemed wholly devoted to some noble end, the child appeared merely present. This child flew only because his mother pulled him, but, like most children, he seemed oblivious to what his mother did for him.
I saw in this half-conscious little soul a reflection of my own children. Try as I might to expose the girls to classical music, they still preferred "Disney Princess Greatest Hits Volume III" to Bach’s "Mass in B Minor." They still craved preservative-laden chicken nuggets to my garden-fresh ratatouille, even though I had drawn neat little chalkboard diagrams to explain how my cooking was really much more tasty, nutritious and eco-friendly. And I wasn’t very amused at my daughter’s response when a co-worker at my husband’s law firm asked, “If I go to work, and my wife goes to work, and your daddy goes to work, then what does your mommy do all day?” “Oh,” she responded, shrugging. “She just makes my lunch.”
Like the child in the painting, my children had no idea how their mother struggled to keep them aloft. Perhaps my sister had noticed this in them, too. Why forgo the funds and endure the hassle to raise them to new heights when my children would be content on the ground? Why not provide them with a bare-bones version of what they needed and spend the rest of my energies on myself?
Now seated at the dining room table where I could better study the image, I propped my face in both fists and mentally smiled at my sister for asking such questions. As I watched the flight of this mother-child pair, I thought of how my sister — or any outsider — couldn’t know about motherhood until she experienced it herself. I didn’t think that my sister could know that the ignorance I saw in the child’s face could also be innocence.
In humility, he let his mother pull him — just as my children let me — proving him everything King Benjamin required: “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, and willing to submit to all things which (his mother saw) fit to inflict upon him” (Mosiah 3:19).
In devoting my days and nights to my children — the sort of individuals the Savior had said made up the kingdom of heaven — I might teach them all that I knew, but they would teach me many, much more important lessons through their childlike nature. We would lift each other.
Considering the symbiotic relationship between this mother and child, I found the use of the plural “these” in Blake’s title to be profound: "Teach These Souls to Fly." It would be impossible to convey to my sister all the flying I did as a mother.
I could mention that I had taught my daughter to read, but my sister couldn’t know how it made my own soul soar to see the wonder in my daughter’s face when she read her first book. My sister could marvel to hear my 3-year-old identify a particular waltz on the radio, but she couldn’t experience the earlier lift of listening to Strauss for hours with that little one. Until she turned back to teach a child she loved to fly, my sister couldn’t know the profound joy I felt to hear my children lovingly and patiently teaching one another.
The interesting thing about this painting was that it wasn’t particularly beautiful or technically impressive. Still, the longer I looked at it, the more the mother in me responded to it. As I watched the young child in the painting, I felt with a sense of urgency that he had entered a fallen world, and, but for the guiding hand of his mother, he would sink into the blacks and reds toward the bottom of the painting.
The protective shield of light and truth his mother provided for him — a safe haven from the world around them — relieved me. I felt a kinship with her efforts to guide her child into the airy blue expanses that this world also extends.
This powerful woman reminded me of the counsel from Elder M. Russell Ballard of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve: “As mothers in Israel, you are your (children’s) first line of defense against the wiles of the world" (see "Mothers and Daughters," Ensign, May 2010).
I couldn’t provide my children better protection against darkness than to teach their souls to fly above it, to teach them to rise above the middling, the tawdry, the base and follow me into the beautiful, the exalting the holy. Satan ensures that the reds and blacks always will be there. In her position as her child’s first defense, the mother must identify the blues and yellows, and she must teach a child how to fly to them. “Teach These Souls to fly”— the sacred duty entrusted to mothers, a sacred opportunity afforded to women.
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I finally laid down the book with a feeling of reverent awe. “Who wouldn’t want to be a mom?” I wondered. A career in motherhood had its elements of drudgery, but so did any other. What other career could claim as its end product the elevation of a human soul? Not just the enlightening of a mind or the development of a body, but the improvement of every aspect of a vibrant child of God? I, at least, wanted to be a mother because I believed, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Harold B. Lee, that the most important work I would ever do would be within the walls of my own home.
I chose to be a mother because I wanted to teach souls to fly.
Lia Suttner Collings is a Brigham Young University graduate. During her undergraduate years, she worked as a researcher on the Joseph Smith Papers Project. She and her husband, Justin, live in New Haven, Conn., with their three daughters.