When I was a kid, my grandfather used to sing He ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother by The Hollies as he tinkered in his garage. I never understood why someone would name her son “Heavy” or what the song was about in the first place, but it never stopped Grandpa from whistling the tune while he went about his business.
I thought of my grandfather and that Hollies song this week after I spoke with a friend about my many weaknesses as a parent and the effect on my kids. The conversation left me rethinking some things, but especially how I totally missed the point of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” when I was little.
But let me back-up…
Every Wednesday afternoon I teach a one-hour grammar class to tenth grade students at the homeschool academy my children attend. While I dissect the intricacies of subject and verb agreement, my two youngest children, ages four and three, wait for me in the school nursery. Fortunately for them, the woman who runs the nursery, a fellow homeschooling mother of eight children, is quite possibly the sweetest, most motherly woman to ever walk the planet.
Let’s call her Maria.
The decor of the pre-school nursery where the children play matches the personality of its caretaker–bright and sunny and warm. There are circular throw rugs scattered on the floor and primary colored plastic toys lining the walls. Little cubbies await the book bags and snacks and sippy cups of the visiting children. It’s a safe and happy place for babies and toddlers to spend time before their mothers return to claim them, made even more so by Maria’s gentle, nurturing and chipper presence.
One day last week, when I came back to the nursery after teaching, I was tired and my back ached from lugging around extra pregnancy weight, so as soon as I hugged my kids, I made my way to one of her overstuffed rocking chairs and sat down.
Maria kneelt on the ground performing surgery on a broken toy. She looked over her shoulder at me and said, “You must be a joyful mother.”
I rocked steady in the chair, trying to catch my breath, and I scoffed.
“You mean when I’m not yelling?” I responded.
She pretended not to hear, her entire body bent over the toy, and she went on.
“You have such happy children,” she continued. “They share and they are kind to one another. And they play so nicely together! You must have a happy home.”
She finished fixing the toy and busied herself tying someone’s shoe.
I laid my head back on the rocking chair and felt my body relax a little. I know I haven’t been easy to live with the past few months and my kids get the brunt of my cantankerous demeanor. It was nice to hear someone — a veteran homeschooling mother of eight, no less — affirm that she thinks we’re doing something right.
“Thanks for saying that; I really appreciate it. I have good kids, but I can be hard on them. It doesn’t help that I’m so grouchy when I’m pregnant,” I confessed.
“When are you due again?”
“Not for another ten weeks. November 26 is my due date. I’m a miserable pregnant person and my family pays,” I confessed.
Maria looked thoughtful. She was wiping down a padded children’s mat and she turned her entire body to face me.
“You know, it’s not a bad thing for your children to have to learn to be patient with you. Their entire lives they are going to have to deal with difficult people — at work, at church, everywhere they go, really. Family life is a great place to learn how to get along with others who are challenging. Even though you don’t like it, your impatience is a chance for them to grow in virtue,” she said.
I stopped rocking the chair and smiled at her. The truth of Maria’s words resonated in my soul.
Just as I’ve learned to have patience with my children, they also must learn to have patience with me! I worry and fret ad nauseum about my faults and the negative impact on my kids, but the excessive hand wringing and guilt are such a waste. All of us, in fact, have to learn how to deal with the imperfections of others. All of us have to bear the burdens caused by others’ weakness. It’s part of life.
Isn’t the ability to deal with difficult people a skill I want my children to have, even if my cranky ways are the impetus for developing it?
A large problem in the world today is people don’t want to have to deal with the burdens or the imperfections of others. We want everything sterile and tidy and comfortable. The other morning a radio announcer informed the listening audience passengers on airplanes don’t have to be worry about crying babies and children in confined cabin spaces anymore. Why? The airlines have hired nannies and created small rooms to contain fussy children on flights.
We’ve become so intolerant of inconvenience we have to separate children from all the other passengers so everyone can “enjoy” their flight? Part of growing in the virtue of charity is putting up with one another’s defects, with the difficulties they cause us, with the burdens they impose. If we are constantly looking to escape the discomfort, how can we grow in kindness, patience and love?
Saint Robert Bellarmine once said, “Peace and union are the most necessary of all things for men who live in common, and nothing serves so well to establish and maintain these as the forbearing charity whereby we put up with one another’s defects.”
There is not a person in this world without fault, which means everyone-every single soul alive and walking around-is a burden to others.
That’s a fact.
It’s easier for me to accept the small burdens my children cause me, than it is for me to accept my weaknesses as a burden to my kids. But they are and while I must never cavalierly excuse sinful tendencies, it’s consoling to know my imperfections are an opportunity for their growth.
I think I get why my Grandfather liked that song by The Hollies so much. It’s because The Hollies were right. When we love those around us by accepting them for who they are—cantankerous ways and all—we won’t find them all that burdensome.
To my kids, I’m not heavy, I’m their mother.
Colleen Duggan is a popular writer for Catholic media and holds a Master in Education from the University of Notre Dame. She has spent the last 12 years teaching religious education classes, running Bible studies, and giving talks on Catholic spirituality at the parish level.
Visit Colleen’s website: http://www.colleenduggan.net/
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