February 2, 2013

Honor found in staying the course


---- — My friend laughs at me for not having a self-image. 

It’s not that I have a bad self-image, I just don’t have one at all, she says.

I have to check with her on things like: Am I tall? Do I have a big face? Is my neck short and stubby? 

I don’t know if this is common, but I have never been able to look in a mirror and assess whether I am pretty. I gauge my attractiveness (or lack) from other people’s reactions to me. They are my mirror.

For a long time, I viewed myself as an extreme person. I don’t know if this originated from my youth when I had only two moods, rage or euphoria. There were times when I engaged in extreme dieting and exercise for days (hours) at a time and then reverted to couch potato for extended periods (days). 

My life’s goal was to be a champion for children. I wanted to rescue individual children from horrific circumstances. I wanted to galvanize lawmakers and politicians into overhauling a tired and weak child-welfare system. I wanted to be an avenger of wrongs and healer of broken hearts. But somewhere along my crusade, I discovered that I hate conflict.

Cowardice is a devastating character flaw for any superhero.

Several years ago, I was speaking passionately to a child’s law guardian about bringing down the family who had betrayed him and the system that had failed him. 

The law guardian smiled at me and said, “Mary, that’s not who you are. You weren’t meant to fight. You were meant to bring peace.”

Wow. Her words were a blessing. I had become so focused on what I lacked that I was blind to what I might have to offer.

A friend of mine and I had babies at about the same time. Her first baby was easy and content. When she got pregnant for her second child, she told me that a friend said, “Oh, that’s good you’re having another. Otherwise, you might have thought you’d done something right.” 

For many years, I secretly thought I could achieve some sort of rightness as mother, some sort of certainty. I have found the black-and-white issues easy to master. It’s the grey areas — and there are many — where I stumble.

Many times, as mother and kid-advocate, I have felt that the best I could shoot for was, “First, do no harm.” In the weariness of daily living, even that can be a tough target to hit.

As I sit and write the very column that speaks of family and love, I snap impatiently at my cherished subjects, telling them that I am busy writing and to come back later. The irony is not lost on me. Hopefully, it never will be.

I think there will always be a gap between who I am and who I want to be. In my role as mother and in my work with kids, I have overreacted, underreacted, enabled and failed to protect. I have had brilliant moments bookended by hurtful, selfish ones. I think that if my life’s work were to be graded, I would average out at about a C-plus.

That’s still passing.

Each night at bedtime, my son yells to me, “You’re a good mom!” On bad days, I reply, “Sometimes.” Unfailingly, he counters with, “All the time!” 

Just like not meeting the criterion for superhero, I’ve learned that there really can’t be an “all the time.” In love and life, sometimes OK is good enough. 

Honor and merit can be found in staying the course. I don’t believe that I will ever lead an outwardly remarkable life or participate in some grand showdown. 

At my life’s end, I pray that I will be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (Timothy 4:7). That will be just right.

Mary White is from the Malone area. She and her husband have five children, eight cats, two dogs and three guinea pigs. She has had the privilege of working with children and families (her own and other people’s) for more than 20 years. For more of her columns, visit