The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

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God created me with a strong aesthetic sense. That’s probably why the book We Help Mommy appeals to me. This idyllic Little Golden Book features illustrations by Eloise Wilkin, who was so intent on capturing the cute idealness of childhood that she worked 20 years on sculpting the perfect baby doll. (The chubby, lifelike doll was finally produced by Vogue in 1960.)

Wilkin’s own aesthetic sense oozes from the pages of We Help Mommy. Each scene is perfect. There are quilts on every bed. The children have smoochable little angel faces and are shown being kind and helpful to their mother in the midst of their minimalist-but-heirloom-quality homes.

I remember reading this book to my toddlers, cuddled under blankets beside the tandour. I would imagine (and hope) that this book would inspire them to domestic greatness. Then they would run off to play and make mischief. Once, when it got very quiet, I went to find them, following a trail of my daughter’s perfect curls to where she sat holding a pair of scissors. Another time, I left the kitchen to answer the phone. While I was gone, she added an entire cup of baking soda to the cornbread.

“I help Mommy!” Indeed.

Somehow, the aesthetic of all the Little Golden Books dug itself deep into my subconscious, even to my soul. My expectations were affected. I expected that good mommies have quiet, clean children who help them like adorable, sinless little boy Jesuses. 

So when my kids made (and ate) mud burritos or brought me a family of baby mice they found wriggling in a corner or tried to baptize each other in a trash-filled ditch, I wondered. Was I doing this wrong? I looked around my house at their toys scattered across the cement floor. It didn’t quite look like the neat, tidy pile of blocks atop a quaint carpet that Wilkin had drawn. 

Okay, so they’re normal kids, with tangles to comb and timeouts to take. No problem. “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful,” reads a modified quote by Annette Funicello, which I have memorized like a Bible verse. But what about all the external things that threatened our beautiful lives? Things more serious than normal childhood escapades?

I worried about our house, our neighborhood, the hospital with its dark corridors. This crazy job choice of ours. Trauma. Oh, trauma. To me, trauma was worse than death. Even death can be beautiful, noble. But trauma? I knew all about trauma. I watched Sybil in my Psych 101 class in college. The message was clear: trauma creates psychopaths. It damages people forever. It’s irreversible. It is the enemy of a beautiful childhood. 

And my children needed a beautiful childhood. It was a compulsion. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of an artist, so nothing is off limits. Creating art is what I was made to do, I feel it in my bones. Or maybe it’s a tendency to neurotic perfectionism. Who knows?

I would sometimes take life “snapshots,” thinking up my own Little Golden Books. But the titles were unpalatable, unmarketable. “We Get Dysentery” and “We Are Spat Upon by Prejudiced Neighbors” were not the aesthetic I was going for.

Recently, a woman visited our family who is a specialist in trauma and gospel movements. She travels around the world teaching about the path to recovery after trauma and how to support people going through it. 

I interrogated this nice lady with some serious questions. One was this: With all the instability and potential for trauma overseas, should people with kids go to the field as missionaries at all? 

“First of all, that’s a very Western question,” she said. “Let me show you a map.” She later sent me this link, which shows the areas of the world currently experiencing some sort of crisis or disaster. Notably, there are only a handful of places without any crises going on currently. One of them is North America.

I am torn. Between the quiet, idyllic life the Western world says my children need in order to stay out of prison and go to heaven. The sanitized grocery stores, the high-pile carpets, the obedient, expensively groomed pets. And the actual world that I live in, where thousands of children experience a childhood which is not at all like the one I associate with the word “normal.” 

That’s not to say I’m careless about protecting my children. We left our first host country because it wasn’t a good environment for them anymore. I’ve made my children’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being my personal mission. My husband sacrifices some of his time so that I can do things I need to do. I sacrifice much of my time so my kids can be happy and stable. Families in the field need to do this. We have to help each other be okay. 

But the point is, we can be okay. 

Each of us has ideas about what “normal” or “ideal” childhood should look like, based on our upbringing and background. We should always include love, protection, care, togetherness, and community in our list of essentials for raising kids overseas. But the reality is, we all get colds and flus. Sometimes kids break bones. 

In the same way, disasters, traumas, and crises happen. They happen everywhere. We can think of a trauma as a “heart wound” – a wound that needs tending, otherwise it will get infected – a wound that can heal with the right treatment. Even though we don’t see illustrations of health problems or heart wounds in 1950’s children’s books, and even though we’ve seen heart wounds make people bitter or unstable in the past, it doesn’t mean that we have to make the world around us into a bubble of perfection in order to support the spiritual and emotional growth and development of our kids. 

Beauty in the Mud

Our current host country recently experienced a natural disaster. My family and I drove four hours to help a team providing needed relief.

We stepped out of the car to the smell of sewage — the village toilets drained into the parking area. My kids ran over to play with a group of local kids, blind to the sanitary pads and diapers dotting the hillside. I made a mental note to deworm. Soon.

After a couple of days there, it was time to go home. My son and I walked to our car. I watched him jump from rock to rock across the effluent-covered road. Albendazol and bleach, I told myself. Albendazol and bleach. Then I heard a delighted cry.

“Oh, Mommy, look!” I looked. My son perched on a rock, staring at something. There in the mud sat a mother hen, feathers ruffled, head raised in pride.

“Chicks!” my son said. “They’re hiding under their mom!” Sure enough, a large brood of chicks peeked out from under their mother’s protective wings. I looked up the rocky hillside to the people in that community, standing beside their young ones, covered in dust, waving goodbye, calling out thanks for the help.

“Why is she in the mud, Mommy?” I looked back down at the mother hen, then at my sweet child.

“That’s just where she finds herself, son,” I said. “She didn’t choose where she lives. But look how she cares for her children, anyway.”

There is value in living overseas, not just for those we try to serve, but for us, for our children. There is much to be learned in this huge world of ours, lessons about helping others, understanding and valuing people of other cultures, dealing with emergencies, setting boundaries and loving each other well, whether we live in the heart of Africa or the quietest, safest American suburb. 

Living in this broken world causes messes that don’t always make for quaint children’s book illustrations. But the art we’re trying to create is not still life. It’s improv. It’s performance art. It’s less like a colored pencil drawing of a cat on a rocking chair, and more like a dance – it must be entered, moved within, expressed over time. The beauty we aim for, the beauty of grace, love, creative problem-solving, and attentiveness to our families and our host cultures, takes time to bloom. 

Don’t miss that moving beauty because you’re waiting for the perfect snapshot, the magic scene that will guarantee your kids will be okay. Give yourself to your family, trust in your God as you do ministry, and let Him be the choreographer, the painter, and ultimately, the artist.

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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. You can read more from her at Whatsoever Thoughts, or check out her book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas.

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