When I was living in Boston working toward my master’s degree, I spent the summer in Tanzania, Africa.

We spent one day volunteering at Mother Teresa’s orphanage there.

Sometime around mid-day when lunch was about to be served, I found myself in the back corner room where there was just a couple children and a sister.  The sister was getting ready for lunch and asked me if I would feed one of the boys.  Of course, I would.  Yes.

I can not remember his name- which kills me because this is one of the sharpest, clearest heart memories I have in my life.  He was about 15 years old.  And he was severely handicapped.  He was tall, but since his arms and legs were crippled, he was long and curled.  His neck permanently stuck in an upward thrust.  He had a hard time controlling his tongue and so feeding him needed to be slow and careful.

I sat on the floor and we arranged him to lay across my lap, with his head cradled in my left arm.

I slowly fed him oatmeal and lovingly held his glance the whole time.   God, I wish I could show you his eyes.  They were the largest, brightest, deepest, most GRATEFUL eyes I have ever seen.  I could hardly handle the ache that collapsed my heart.

As we gazed at each other, I had an open smile and tears kept rolling from my eyes.

I had never experienced anything like this before.

He didn’t seem to feel awkward that I was smiling and crying and fumbling with his food.  He just lay in my arms, with the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen gracing me with his gratitude and love for being there with him.

After lunch, I was a bit on emotional overload and needed a little breathing space so decided once he (can we just call him Matthew so he has a name as I tell you this?) once Matthew laid down for a nap, I moved into the room with all the infants.

One of the most pressing needs for visiting volunteers is literally to just hold these babies.  Because, while the sisters can keep them clean and fed, there are just too many babies and the sisters couldn’t possibly hold them all for the amount of time a human baby deserves, needs, to be held every day.

So I just picked these babies up and walked with them and snuggled and whispered prayers into their necks and kissed their heads and rocked myself to calm as I held them close and breathed in their beauty.

About 10 years after that summer work trip, I would become a mother myself.

I think back to that day often now.  I had no idea at the time that I experienced a glimpse of the depth it takes to really love someone.

What you get when you choose to let love come pouring through into the awkwardness, the brokenness, the imperfections, the ugly, the difficult.

It was my first glimpse at what you receive when you love the hard to love– and that really there is no hard to love- once you make the choice to love, it is all easy.  It wasn’t hard to love Matthew…what was hard was to soften into the experience, to be there, truly be there- to let my tears come rolling down even though I felt self conscious and uncomfortable.

In my everyday life when I’m so caught up in my head and my to-dos and the busyness and my need to control the day;  I find myself resisting when my kids look “ugly”.  When they have attitude.  When they are fresh.  When they aren’t listening.  When they are rude or arrogant. When the level of chaos is giving me heart palpitations and I think I’m going to fly into code red.

I often don’t soften, I try to control and force everything back into order again.

Matthew wasn’t able to mask his needs- he was bare to the world.  Just like the infants I held and rocked.  Like my own children when they were babies.  And now as they grow and assert themselves I get tricked into thinking they are not deserving of my compassion, my love when they are at their roughest.  I get tricked into thinking they aren’t needy of my love exactly when it feels hardest to give it.

I think love has a whole lot to do with cleaning up your own heart so that you can have the courage to meet someone where they are.   To see underneath their exposed edges.  To not take everything so personally and escape yourself for just a brief moment long enough to have your heart break a little for them.

I know that Matthew healed me that day..in fact I know that he LOVED me that day as much as I loved him.

And when I let it, motherhood heals me all the time.

We are all needy.  We are all difficult.  We all have rough edges and scratchy spots that don’t feel good to rub up against.

What if we loved our own broken parts? What if we didn’t spend all our energy trying to hide them…to be the perfect mother, the one who never needs or asks or requests for anything?  What if we simply were who we are, did the work to keep ourselves growing and healthy and allowed the flow of life to take over a bit more?

Wouldn’t that make it so much easier to let our kids be who THEY are?

Wouldn’t that let love soften us when they needed our love the most? When we needed our love the most?

I’m willing to bet it would heal us in the process, too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…and if you are inclined I’d be grateful if you’d share this with your community.  We are all in this together!