So, if you were to come to my house for a cup of tea, I’d apologize and say I don’t carry the stuff, not at the moment. Coffee? I’d offer, and pull out a cold brew from the fridge. You’d find me wearing an old pair of men’s boxer briefs, no bra, yesterday’s hair.
I’d probably put on mascara, though, let’s be honest.
We would talk about a number of things. I’d share that I’m feeling tired, overwhelmed. A bit out of sorts. You’d share you’re struggling with comparing your parenting efforts to another mom, and we’d all toast to that.
Refill? I’d ask.
We’d sit down for a long while, chat about what’s beneath it all, this comparison waltz we know so well. And I’d say that while I don’t have it down quite yet, and while I’m still working through this sneaky little tendency, it does happen to be a particular area I think (think) I can wrangle into something bite-sized.
I’ve had lots of practice, after all.
There’s a saying in the land of comparison, something we reference when we’re trying to contrast our own gifts with another:
Oh, sure, I’m a great mom. But I couldn’t hold a candle to that woman over there. She’s incredible!
Do you know the origin of that expression? To hold a candle to something?
In the days of apprenticeship, of hierarchy and social caste systems and manual labor, to hold the candle of a more experienced workman while they chiseled, wrote, labored overnight was an honor. It was the duty of a trusted apprentice, a helper. It was one person offering time and appreciation to another. It was deep respect.
I see you have a gift. Here, let me help you offer it to the world.
To not hold a candle to someone else, then, has little to do with comparison. It isn’t a sign of a lower status, a lesser person with lesser gifts. It’s simply choosing not to encourage another. It’s being unwilling to help them labor through the night.
It’s us, sitting in the dark, saying, Who them? They’re brilliant? Why would they need my help?
And that’s where we all stay, then. Dimly lit, cold.
Not holding candles to one another.
And so, when I think of the way in which we compare ourselves, I think of what an honor it might be to instead act as an apprentice for the mothers I respect in my own life. I think of how beautiful it might be if I offer to hold her candle, if I say to her:
I see you have a gift. Here, let me help you offer it to the world.
The beauty, of course, is that the one holding the candle gets to watch the experienced workmen, step by step, hour by hour.
And she gets to learn the ways of the skilled.
But we’re quick, instead, to distinguish each other’s flames, aren’t we? We’re quick to peek around a dark and crowded room, to see the brightest flames, to wonder about our own. How does my light measure up? Who shines brighter?
Do I hold a candle to her?
But you can.
There are so, so many different experienced workmen in this world. My friend Natalie is a master at laughing in the face of chaos, of making a terrible situation into something funny and light. I’d love to hold her candle, to learn her ways.
My other friend Alison is a master at enjoying each day, at sucking the marrow out of life, of dancing until her feet grow numb and her kids roll their eyes from the dining room table. I’d love to hold her candle, to learn her ways.
Still another friend Shannan is a master at patience, at understanding, at empathy. Her quiet soul is wise and she is forever exploring what it means to serve each other on this floating planet. I’d love to hold her candle, to learn her ways.
But we know this is the easy part, yes? The apprenticeship?
We can watch and learn, to peek over the shoulders of more experienced workmen, to marvel in awe at their techniques, to encourage them, to steadfastly hold their candle.
But then, when the work is done, when the moon is high, we must blow out the master’s candle and – blinking – light our own.
Therein lies the work.
A girlfriend offered me a book to borrow last week, and in it was a simple line:
Whose “Well done” are you looking for?
Who do you want to congratulate you on your parenting skills, on your experienced workmanship at the end of the day? Other moms? Your husband? Your kids? Grandma? Yourself?
This can’t be our sole purpose, to seek praise from the ones around us. Holding a candle is a thankless job, you know.
If we seek a greater “Well done,” if we seek to be faithful with what we’re given and we trust that our work, our skill, our quiet prayers and our small offerings are enough? That we are enough?
That our flickering flames will be blessed in ways we cannot know?
That’s certainly something to hold a candle to.
And so, this morning, when you’d come into my kitchen, when we’d talk over the coffee rings and pistachio shells on the countertop, I’d say that what I think I’m getting at here is that we’re all focusing on the wrong thing.
It’s not about the candles, not really.
It’s not even about the workmen.
It’s about the work, that’s all.
The hard, tedious, glorious work. In a room that’s just warm enough, bright enough, big enough for us all.
A few of my e-friends are chatting about their own battles with mom comparison today, if you’d like to take a peek at a few other perspectives: Alexandra, Rebecca, Bethany, Amy, Catherine, Em, and Hilary.
So well said. So beautiful. I’m holding the candle up to you, friend. x
Oh Bethany – thank you sweet friend!
Another insightful and encouraging post today Erin, thank you. Our household tries to focus on the process but in a praise and like and validation driven world it is easy to get lost and easy to compare. To ask why not me? Why them? Instead of feeling encouraged I often find myself feeling inadequate. Not just in motherhood either, it’s with my weight, my frizzy hair and my wardrobe. Lately I’ve been struggling with choosing to go back to work with Windy City Bloggers vs choosing to be a full time mom. It is probably pressure and projections I put on myself but I feel like being a mom isn’t “enough”. That my peers judge me for loving being Little b’s mother so much that is rather not do anything else all day. That my daily measurement of joy is how long he napped, how well he played, how eagerly he nursed – not how many likes my photo got, how many emails I received or how many brands reached out to me. Maybe it isn’t that they’re judging, maybe it’s that they don’t understand the beauty and the pleasant exhaustion of the process. So *long story long*, thank you for sharing today. It’s just what I needed on a Friday and I’m feeling inspired to explore these feelings more. Bon weekend!
Oh Erin, I hear you! It’s such a treat to know yourself well enough to understand what brings you joy and what doesn’t. I feel like sometimes that’s half the battle, and I’ve definitely been one to try to plant my feet in one camp. But I’m realizing there’s no such thing as stay-at-home parenting vs. working motherhood. It’s simply a matter of capacity, I think. We’re always mothering something! Sometimes we have seasons of nurturing our kids, other times we have seasons of nurturing projects. Sometimes our time is split into nice and tidy fulltime/parttime windows; other times it isn’t. The good news is that our energy isn’t wasted anywhere – it’s just a matter of embracing where we’ve been placed and assessing where we’re needed most. :)
Thank you Beth!
and this is why you are one of my favorite bloggers ❤️
Oh Megan, you’re so kind!
Thanks for letting us hold a candle here on your blog..basking and learning and seeing your goodness. You’re right, the hard part is lighting our own…but you are definitely helping us get there. Thank you!:) big virtual hugs!
You’re so very sweet, jana – thank you!
Beautiful words today, friend. Thank you.
Big, big hugs, friend.
I stumbled across your blog one day and have been reading it every since. I thank you for being so real. You say the things we are all feeling and want to say ourselves. Your honesty and “realness” is a breath of fresh air. I would be honored to hold the candle for you.
Oh Melissa, what a kind note to receive! Thank you!
You have such a way with words. So touching and timely and beautiful. Thank you for sharing! Its great to be reminded how we all do better when we all hold each other up
Thank you sweet Sarah!
I didn’t know the origin of that phrase! Thank you for illuminating a new way of thinking about praise and comparison (ha – unintended pun!).
Ha, you’re so welcome Dona! :)
I really should have gone to bed, but now I am so glad I read your blog… Again so so true and so so beautifully written.
Oh Liesbeth, thank you!
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