It was 1999 and I was working at a residential treatment center for what they called “high-potential, under-achieving” teens. I worked in a home with about eight girls, all with moderate to severe emotional and behavioral issues. I supported the house parents in their roles, and on their days off I took over complete supervision. It was a difficult job. The issues that these girls were working through were deep and intense.
I remember one day when my mom and sister came down to visit. We were sitting at a restaurant eating lunch and I was sharing with them a few experiences from the previous few days. Girls out of control, having to call for back up help, dealing with a 12-year-old who regularly soiled her pants as a means of control, a 14-year-old who was deeply wounded by her parents ministry choices that left her to raise herself…basically, a group of girls who intentionally made their outside world incredibly chaotic because only then did their inside world not seem so out of control. As I told story after story to my mom and my sister, one of them said, “And you like this job?” Without hesitation, I said, “Yes, I love this job.”
It might sound surprising, especially after hearing my war stories, but what they hadn’t heard yet was the good stuff. The moment when a deeply wounded 18-year-old said, “I really want to change my life and I think that now with God, it can actually happen.” A deeply scarred and defiant teen who went about her work without being asked. A 13-year-old with horrid abuse in her past who learned to seek and ask for appropriate touch from those who truly care for her. A 17-year-old who ran up to me and said, “Listen to this verse I just read!” The moments when they talked, laughed, and giggled in a way that only teenage girls can do.
You see, it was one of those jobs that included a lot of really low lows. A lot. It was exhausting. It was defeating. It was excruciating to watch these wounded kids fling their fiery behavioral darts at anyone who dared for care for them. I spent most days utterly exhausted and wondering what the point was. However, it was also a job filled with many high highs. Some nights I couldn’t sleep because I was so in awe of what was happening in those young hearts. I was thrilled to witness real transformation, genuine smiles stemming from broken hearts, and hope pushing through the most resistant wills. Some days I wanted to run away, sure that I had the hardest job in the world. And on other days, I sat starry-eyed wondering why anyone would ever want to do anything other than what I was doing. High highs. Low lows. And it was amazing.
And so it is with parenting. High highs. Low lows. Days that I want to run and hide so I can eat…cry…shower…pee….read…sleep…pick any word you want…in peace. Some days I feel so defeated, so overwhelmed, so tired, so utterly inadequate to do this mothering job well. And then there are other days (or moments) when my heart is so full I fear it might burst. I literally inhale deeply, trying to take every emotion of the moment and absorb into my heart and mind where it can stay forever. High highs. Low lows. And it is amazing.
As psychology majors in college, we learned about a term called intermittent reinforcement. What psychologists have found is that “intermittent reinforcement increases resistance to extinction.” Basically, it means that reinforcement that is intermittent — not continuous — makes a behavior more likely to continue. Continuous reinforcement loses its merit because you are so used to it that you don’t care anymore. Extinct reinforcement — reinforcement that never comes — makes you resign yourself to the fact that reward will never come. You just quit. But intermittent reinforcement — when you never know exactly when the reinforcement will come — gives unquenchable motivation to keep going. It’s the thrill of not knowing. Hello, slot machines!
Maybe this is what gives me the drive to keep going…to intentionally choose to invest myself in these young lives and hearts. Some days are hard and I want to quit. But other days are amazing and I am reinforced. I never know when the high highs are coming and so I keep going, believing that the low lows will eventually have to make way for something better.
In any given moment I am listening to a screaming baby, looking at a disastrous house, struggling to find the end of the laundry pile, trying to educate a child with learning disabilities, training a two-year-old who is dealing with her teething pain by breaking down into all-out emotional heaps, wondering about how we are going to make it financially, trying to control my anger at a child who lost something that was important to another child, wondering what we will have for dinner, feeling sorry for myself, hoping I will get to shower someday. Sometimes the weight of it all makes it hard to breathe. I feel alone, lost, and like a failure. It would be easy to quit. Low lows.
In the next moment, the good starts to shine through. That screaming baby settles and coos and tries hard to smile with muscles he doesn’t yet know how to work. I hear the dryer buzz and I realize that for the next five minutes, there are no more dirty clothes. The child who struggles to read voluntarily picks up a book and reads everything word for word. The two-year-old walks over to me, crawls in my lap, and says, “rock” and then we rock in the chair and sing as she quietly snuggles into me and mindlessly plays with my necklace she loved as a nursing baby. In another moment, I look around the things in my room, so many things that we didn’t have to pay for and God reminds me of His unfailing provision for us. I let my anger towards an act of irresponsibility in my oldest child slip away as I am reminded of her amazing maturity and love that is evident 99% of the time. Another moment has me hearing that the girls are surprising mama by making dinner for everyone and their giggles and sweet words to each other make my mama heart melt. My little man falls asleep and I quietly slip into the shower and wash the worry, fatigue, frustration, and baby puke off of me. High highs.
Intermittent reinforcement. I don’t know when the highs are coming, so I keep going. I take the low lows with the meager amount of patience and perseverance I have (as I pray to the only One who can provide more) and I expectantly wait for the high highs. They will come. The Lord, in His goodness, will give me moments of seeing the fruit of my work. He lets me see that the energy I pour into these hearts is being used by Him to bring forth growth in young souls. He lets me see and feel the beauty of this high calling of motherhood. He lets me be smothered in kisses and “I love you mama” and He lets me rest quietly with a one month old who thinks I am the most important person in the world. Oh the highs…they are so high. And the lows, well, they make the highs all that much better.
So to you, weary mama (or teacher, grandparent, sister, friend, daughter, employee), keep going. Keep striving. Keep doing what you are called to do. The highs wouldn’t feel so good if the lows didn’t feel so bad.