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Losing my temper: Utah's Young Mother of the Year confesses all

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 4:40 p.m. MDT

Stefan, Michelle, Mary and Gabriel Lehnardt. (Michelle Lehnardt) Stefan, Michelle, Mary and Gabriel Lehnardt. (Michelle Lehnardt)

When I refused to read my little daughter the most boring book on her shelf last night, she scoffed, "And you're supposed to be mother of the year?!"

I'm in for it this year — oh, I'm in for it.

And not just because I forgot soccer treats or sent my kid to school with a lousy science poster, but because I, too, pictured someone much more spiffy and pulled together for Utah's Young Mother of the Year.

Let's make this clear — my closets and pantry are a mess, I hardly ever volunteer at school, and cereal and bananas stand in for dinner more often than I'd like to admit.

But I love my children with every particle of my soul and I passionately believe motherhood matters. I devote the best of my time, creativity, intelligence and energy to my family and I believe the rewards are greater than any career, award or accolades.

Mary, Stefan (serving in the Russia Yekaterinburg Mission), Hans, Xander, Ben and Gabriel Lehnardt. (Michelle Lehnardt) Mary, Stefan (serving in the Russia Yekaterinburg Mission), Hans, Xander, Ben and Gabriel Lehnardt. (Michelle Lehnardt)

I am no better than the thousands of other young mothers in Utah — but I am proud to represent them this year. With the honor (chosen by American Mothers, Inc.) comes the obligation to open my mouth — to build up other mothers — and I think I can do that best by sharing my most embarrassing moment: The Corn Story.

For years, this tale carried a $2 (per person) penalty for the telling. And since my kids earn about $10 a year, the threat was enough to keep my ignominious corn story under wraps.

But I no longer find it shameful or humiliating. Time to come clean. And, no, I’m not paying $2 to each of you.

The summer after my fourth child was born, I was completely overwhelmed. With three little boys racing through the house, one little needy baby in my arms and my husband traveling nearly every week, I was a frazzled wreck. And I got into the habit of yelling. Too much. Too often. Out of control.

Even as a little girl, I knew I had a fiery temper. I remember watching the extraordinarily sweet singing leader at church and knowing I had a different set of DNA. Sweetness did not come easily to me. Courage and smarts, yes. But not sweetness. I envied and emulated my mild-tempered friends. My teachers taught kindness and I listened and did my best.

My best was enough for a long time. Until that summer.

Friday night: my husband gone on business, baby Xander crying and dinner on the stove. I was shucking corn in the kitchen, watching the boys on the back porch, while using my toe to bounce Xander’s little baby seat. My arms were full of corn to rinse in the sink when the boys began banging on the glass kitchen door. The door wasn’t locked, but their arms were full (of what? I forgot) as were mine. As their pounding increased, I feared the door would break and in a burst of anger I yelled and threw the corn on the counter. Hard. Seven or eight ears.

Do you know what fresh corn does when you slam it against a hard surface? You probably don’t because you’ve never lost it like I did that night. It explodes. The same force you see when kernels pop over heat, but wet and slimy and all over my kitchen.

Every surface was covered with sticky yellow bits of corn — counter, walls, stovetop, oven, floor, my arms and clothing, even poor baby Xander’s chubby tear-stained cheeks. I stared in horror at what I’d done, began to cry and called my best friend.

For hours we scrubbed the kitchen. Cornstarch serves as a substitute for glue in all kinds of fun crafts — and all that smashed corn was glued to my kitchen. We gave the kids cereal for dinner, laughed and cried and scrubbed and finally gave up, deciding I’d just have to tackle the job a bit at a time.

As I lay in bed that night, exhausted, one thought kept returning to my mind. The moment of decision. Because I can recall, even now, just a moment before when I had control — but I gave in to anger, threw the corn and created all kinds of work (and mortification) for myself.

Seven years later, when we sold the house, we were still finding bits of corn adhered to a drawer handle or corner of the cupboard.

I knew I had a problem. But I cried and justified and muddled through until school started in August and I went in the first week for an introductory meeting with my oldest child’s second-grade teacher. The kids had filled out a little “get to know me” page with their favorite foods, movies, books and questions such as “What makes you happy?” and “What makes you sad?”

Under the question “What scares you?” Ben had scribbled, “When my mom yells.”

That night I knelt beside my bed, pulled that crumpled paper out of my pocket and begged God for help. I wanted to be kinder, calmer and less scary. At the moment of decision, I wanted to make the right choice, not the angry one. I was deeply shamed.

Change takes time. I broke my resolve more times than I can count. But I kept praying, practicing calmness and kindness. And I changed.

My two youngest children will tell you I never yell. Not even when the water bottle spills across the kitchen counter — and ruins my laptop — or when my daughter and friends pull all the petals off the rose bushes for a fairy dance.

Oh, they’re wrong. I still yell here and there, especially at cars speeding down our street, but not often enough to remember or loud enough to scare them. I now consider myself extraordinarily patient; it takes a whole lot to ruffle my feathers.

Please understand: I share this not to brag but to encourage. We can change. We can turn our weaknesses into strengths. We are not victims of our DNA or personality type. I often hear people say things like, “She never said an unkind word in her life,” or “She never complained,” or “He always had a positive attitude.” If I’m feeling grumpy, I think, “Well, I’ve already blown that.” I need to hear stories about people who struggled, yet improved.

Maybe, for someone out there, it will be more encouraging to hear, “She was a stressed-out, angry yelling mom but she changed and got better and much happier.” Because we are made for happiness.

As for Ben — what scares him now? Spiders. Big, fat spiders.

He’ll have to get over that on his own.

Writer, photographer, Michelle Lehnardt is raising five future fathers and one little mother. She writes at segullah.org and scenesfromthewild.blogspot.com on building chicken coops, hosting tea parties and missing her missionary son in Russia.

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