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By the Book

Should a mother's love be measured by the space she fills in her child's scrapbook?

I wish my sister-in-law had never shown me the scrapbook she's putting together for her three-year-old daughter. The darn thing makes me feel as though I've failed at motherhood.The book is absolutely beautiful. Pearls, sequins, and lace adorn the cover. On the top of all the pages a stenciled border highlights seasonal themes. There are Christmas presents with big red bows, birthday cakes with tiny striped candles, even Fourth-of-July fireworks with flames aglow. Under each border, stylish black-and-white photos detail my niece's life—her first day home from the hospital, her first bath in the tub, even her first day of preschool. An apt paragraph appears beside each photo in my sister-in-law's calligraphy-style handwriting.

Her scrapbook's a true work of art—filled with so much happiness and joy, anyone would treasure and admire it. Except for me. It makes my sons' baby books look like something I flung together during a bout with amnesia.

Nicholas and Ben's baby books contain locks of hair tossed in Ziplock bags, a few photographs stuffed between pages, and a couple of short, scribbled paragraphs scattered here and there like toys in my sons' playroom. What bothers me most isn't what I've put in the books, but what I've left out. There are no cute cut-outs, no star-shaped stencils, no blue bunny borders. The page devoted to childhood milestones—first tooth, first step, first word—is blank. I've gone back and tried to fill in the details, but I can't remember if Nicholas rolled over at four months or six, if Ben slept through the night at eight weeks or twelve.

I know a mother's love can't be measured by the amount of space she fills in her child's journal or in the type of shapes stenciled on the border. Still, I feel guilty. In my definition of good mothering, creating a beautiful scrapbook ranks right up there with calming a colicky baby.

"Are your boys' baby books up-to-date?" I recently asked a busy mother of triplets who I hoped would have no time to devote to scrapbooks. "Word for word," she replied, her smile beaming as brilliantly as the pearls on my niece's baby-book cover. "You have to set time aside each week."

And so I did set aside time. Or at least I tried. When the nine-year-old girl next door took my sons outside to play one afternoon, I started writing in their journals. This lasted a whole two minutes before Nicholas bolted through the back door, tears streaming down his face, blood running down his legs.

In my definition of good mothering, creating a beautiful scrapbook ranks right up there with calming a colicky baby.

He had a scrape on his right knee that didn't need stitches, but did need the following: a Sesame Street Band-Aid, a Popsicle, and his favorite book, Goodnight Moon, read over and over again. After that, it was lunch time.

So when my father called a few days later and offered to take the boys to the zoo, I immediately grabbed my supplies and thought: Finally, I'll have time to work on their books. Right before my father arrived, though, Nicholas threw himself on the floor, kicking and howling.

"Mommy, Mommy!" he screamed.

Here goes another one of his tantrums, I thought. Then I noticed his nose was running. I felt his forehead and realized Nicholas was burning up. I took his temperature. It was 102 degrees.

As I held him close and rocked him that day, his warm body pressed against mine, anxious thoughts ran through my mind like a fever that wouldn't break: What will my sons think when they grow up and read their baby books? Will they feel neglected? Will they feel as though part of their childhood is lost forever because they don't know their Apgar scores?

More than that, I wondered what they would think about me. That I was disorganized? That I was lazy? That with two kids 21 months apart, I just didn't have much spare time?

Sometimes I wonder how other mothers do it. How they find time to sponge paint their children's bedrooms, whip up wonderful Halloween costumes, put together incredible scrapbooks that highlight their children's early days, when for me, just getting through the day with two small children is a challenge in itself.

I'd ask my own mother how she did it with three children, but she died when I was 24. Even though she's been gone 12 years, I miss her more, not less, as time goes on. I want her to know each of my children. I want to see her standing at my back door, wearing her pink wool coat that always looked like a surprise. I want to sit down with her after dinner while she holds my sons on her lap and tell her, "Mom, I feel as though I'm a failure. I can't even keep Nicholas and Ben's baby books up-to-date while all these other mothers create childhood scrapbooks complete with pop-up pages."

I imagine she'd comfort me by saying in her soft, lilting voice, "Don't worry so much about what other mothers are doing, Jodi. You're doing a fine job with your children." Or, "If this scrapbook issue bothers you so much, why don't you do something about it?"

The other day, I decided to do just that. During a rare quiet moment, I began sorting through old photos. I was looking for pictures to paste in the family-tree section of my sons' baby books. And that's when I found it. On the bottom of the cardboard box was a yellow book with white lambs on the cover—my baby book. The edges were frayed; there was a water stain on the cover. I opened the book and ran my fingers over my mother's handwriting as if I could once again feel the hands that wrote there.

My mother wrote only five paragraphs in my baby book. She wrote, for instance, that I was a sleepy baby with black, curly hair, my first word was "bye," and my favorite doll's name was Emma.

What surprised me, though, was that these details about my babyhood didn't interest me much. I would rather have known more about the woman who wrote these details down. I wanted to know how she felt about motherhood. What she thought about me.

As I read my baby book, things I'd forgotten about my mother rushed back to me, even though most of the memories were written only in my heart. As I looked at my mother's handwriting and heard her soft voice inside my head, I could see her as though she were sitting beside me. I could see her dark, dewy lipstick and her black hair slicked back in a chignon as she hemmed the green velvet dress I wore for my kindergarten Christmas concert. I could see her standing at the kitchen counter, wearing a white apron, frosting cupcakes for my Brownie troop. I could see her wearing jeans and a T-shirt, spinning cartwheels with me in the backyard. I could see her at the dining-room table late one night, bleary-eyed and scribbling in the baby book I now hold in my hands.

That's when it hit me: My mother didn't create the most beautiful scrapbook and didn't fill in every detail, but she did so many other things for me that made me feel special and loved.

So I've put away the stencils and the scissors and I'm simply trying my best to record Nicholas and Ben's early days. I still marvel at the mothers who, like my sister-in-law, create beautiful scrapbooks for their children. But I no longer feel compelled to compete. What I learned when I found my baby book is something my mother understood long ago: What matters most is that our children's hearts, not the pages in their baby books, are filled with their mother's love.

Jodi Rusch Leas, a freelance writer, lives with her family in Wisconsin.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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