When the Day Runs Off the Rails

By Stephanie Gates


Stephanie Gates piccy - when the day runs off the rails

At this moment, my five-year-old is sitting in front of a TV programme I swore my children would never watch.  My three-year-old is standing beside him, eating an apple, when food belongs in the kitchen and she should be resting in her room.  My one-year-old has finally fallen asleep after an hour of whining, throwing books out of his cot, and taking off his clothes.  And my seven-year-old has just walked out in the snow to go to play video games at a neighbour’s house – his way around the “we are not a gaming family” rule.

It’s 2:48 pm, and I’m losing at motherhood.

I sit down at the computer and begin to write. I sense my perspective is all wrong, but I can never make sense of things until I write them down.  I look around me – at the gusting snow outside, the open book I should be reading for my study group, the cup of lukewarm coffee beside me.

Suddenly my issue is clear.  I’m measuring the wrong things. 

When the success of my day is determined by who napped and who didn’t, what show they watched on telly and where an apple was eaten, I’ve forgotten what mothering really is.

I can so easily fall into the trap of counting wrongs.  Who refused to fasten their seat belt today, and how many squabbles have I sorted?  How often did I raise my voice?  How many times have I picked up (or stepped over) that particular toy?  How often have I swept the kitchen floor?

My success as a mother becomes a weird equation of housework and patience and time away from a screen measured against my children’s obedience and engagement and play.

No matter how hard I work, I am always on the losing end of the maths.

When I count the wrong things, I quickly feel overwhelmed, frustrated, uncertain, hopeless.  I become convinced that my children are destined to a life of crime, with no hope of healthy relationships or meaningful work, because I never quite got all the sultanas off the floor.

You know what?  That’s a lie.

Mothering can’t be quantified.  Children aren’t an equation, and a balanced home life cannot be gauged by who napped on a given afternoon.  My purpose is not to solve domestic life like a complex word problem.

My purpose is to nourish and strengthen. To build relationships, to extend grace, to plant love in the hearts of the people I love most.  And if I’m honest, to that end I think I’m doing okay.  If I must count something, why not count the number of times I stopped what I was doing and listened to a child today?  Or the number of times I laughed when they did something silly, the number of cups I poured, the amount of time I spent cuddling with a child in my lap?

This afternoon I didn’t meet any of the standards I’ve set for myself.  But mothering is more than a single afternoon.  When I feel like a failure, most often I’m counting the wrong things.


Stephanie Gates is a mum to four beautifully rambunctious children and wife to a guy who still makes her smile. If you’ve ever abandoned religion in search of faith, ever left your hometown to find your home, or ever climbed to the very tiptop of a jungle gym to rescue an overzealous toddler, come and sit by her. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at her blog, A Wide Mercy. You can also connect at HuffPost Parents, on Facebook, or on Twitter.