One night in college, a group of friends and I were taking a personality test together. The test told us to visualize a cube in a desert, and then kept giving us new elements to add to our mental image, while we wrote descriptions of what we were seeing. Afterward, we looked up the different symbols in this book to find what our interpretations revealed about us.
One of the steps was “Add flowers to your desert. Describe them.” My mental picture filled up with hundreds of little red flowers, scattered all over the desert. We found out afterward that the flowers were supposed to represent our children. The book said that my plethora of scattered, red flowers meant I would have “many children from many different fathers.” We all laughed at this–it’s particularly funny when you keep in mind that we were a churchy group of BYU kids–and I made jokes about my secret wild side and lineup of future baby-daddies.
Then one person said brightly, “Maybe it’s talking about your students!” I was almost done with my teaching program at this point, just a few months away from graduation.
I think I mumbled something unintelligible in response, and I definitely exchanged a bitter look with Emily. She was the friend I could count on in the moment to “get” me.
As a Mormon girl, I’d heard all my life about how children and motherhood were the ultimate fulfillment, accomplishment, happiness, and reason for existing. And as a Mormon girl in a wheelchair, nobody ever expected me to have children or be a mother. (You try living an emotionally stable life with those two messages constantly coming at you.) I resented everybody’s assumptions about me, but at the same time, I was pretty sure they weren’t wrong. Regardless, I appreciated when people at least pretended that family life was still within my realm of possibilities. It bothered me that at basically 20-nothing years old, it had already been decided that I’d live my life alone, but hey, I could “mother” other people’s kids. As long as I kept quotation marks around the word “mother.”
Now, here I am, ten years into my teaching career. My desert is filled with hundreds of little red flowers… And the thing is, I love those little red flowers. Love them like they’re my own.
I feel like that’s a dangerous thing to say. I can see the judgmental thought bubbles that many people have in response. Some want to condescendingly tell me that I don’t really know what it’s like to love kids as my own, that you can’t possibly know unless you’re an actual mother. Others feel sorry for me, as they always do for someone who “pours herself into work because she doesn’t have much else or anyone at home.” Still others want to kindly warn me against getting too personally involved, that it’s best to maintain some emotional distance and boundaries and whatever.
Those people might all be right. Or maybe they’re all wrong. Probably somewhere in between. I don’t know, and I don’t care too much what they think anyway. Thirty-something Kristine doesn’t need other people’s approval as desperately as twenty-nothing Kristine did. And if she wants their advice, she’ll ask for it.
But here’s the understatement of the century: It’s hard loving other people’s kids. So, so hard.
I want my kids to have all the best that life has to offer. All the opportunities. I want every door open to them, and I want them to always know that they’re supported, loved, and safe. I give everything that I have to give, but it never feels like enough. How could it be? I might love them like my own, but they’re not mine. I’m just their English teacher. I play a tiny role in their lives, 47 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 3 years at the most. No matter how much I wish I could do more, my influence is actually really small.
I think I mostly succeed at letting them know they’re loved, but everything else? Not feeling so successful. And even that, is sometimes questionable…. I recently asked a kid straight up if he knows that he’s loved. He gave it some thought, then answered my question with a question, “What is love?” That, of course, was quite a conversation…
I teach complicated kids, with complicated lives. Most have had the cards stacked against them since day one. None of my students’ families came to the US because they had a fancy job in the tech industry waiting for them. They all came to escape from something. (Also, for the record, I’ve never met a family that showed up expecting a free ride, or for things to be easy. They all came ready to work, ready to contribute, and hopeful that life would be better for their children.)
I don’t have a magic wand that can undo trauma. I can’t give the kid whose single parent is working two jobs, an at-home parental presence to make sure they do their homework, eat regular meals, and go to bed at a decent hour. I can’t give them an educational system that’s funded, staffed, resourced, and designed to meet their needs. I can’t end racism. I can’t silence all the messages of “you don’t belong here,” “you’re not good enough,” and “your future is already decided.” I can’t promise that they, their family, loved ones, or home are safe. I can’t protect them from the very adult problems that their kid-brains aren’t prepared to deal with. And I definitely can’t make their choices for them.
But I wish I could.
Of course, it’s getting worse, not better. The kids know the country has turned its back on them.
I teach complicated kids, with complicated lives. But I also teach incredible kids. Incredible, funny, smart, creative, kind, strong, beautiful kids. They deserve so much better than what we’re giving them. They deserve so much better than what I’m able to give them.
It’s such a cliche for the childless Mormon woman to stay home from church on Mother’s Day. I usually don’t. Every other year, I grit my teeth and get through it. But this year, I can’t. I’m not strong enough right now. There are way too many pictures floating around my brain of my kids’ faces, kids who aren’t really mine, who I’m unable to do enough for. Not enough to make a difference. It’s not that I’m feeling guilty, exactly, for being unable to singlehandedly change lives. Just sad. Really, really sad…. And I have to save my game face for Monday.
I do love my little red flowers in the desert. Love them deeply. But if they give out Mother’s Day flowers at church? Please, nobody bring me one. Don’t need it, don’t want it. Not this year.