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Storytime: The Little Engine That Could
The other day while reading Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could to Addie all of the characters caught my attention. I could see myself in each of the engines at various moments of my week. I’m just as much the Shiny New Engine, the Big Engine, and the Rusty Old Engine as I try to be the Little Blue Engine that could. Here are some thoughts on what mothers can learn from The Little Engine That Could.
Happy Little Engine
The first engine we’re introduced to is the one that’s carrying a “jolly load” of good food and toys for the children on the other side of the mountain. She is happy in her work of caring for the children by bringing them good things to eat and play with even though it’s very hard work. As she’s chugging along in her duties, she suddenly stops. “She simply could not go another inch.” The Happy Little Engine with a precious cargo and praiseworthy responsibility needed help.
Lesson 1: It’s OK to Ask for Help
The story would have ended a lot differently had the Happy Little Engine told the clown to hush it up, get back in the train car, and that would figure something out herself. I don’t think the kids on the other side of the mountain would have gotten their food or toys and I think after a while the Happy Little Engine would just be the Burnt Out, Dejected, Miserable Engine. Instead, the Happy Engine recognized her limits and accepted help.
As moms, I think we try to do a little more than we should on our own. There’s fear of judgment, reprisal, and embarrassment if we seek validation or advice from others. There’s also the fear of being let down if we ask for help and don’t receive it. Finding your Mom Tribe can make all the difference. Your Mom Tribe could be a group of ladies from your neighborhood, church group, or even online that share the same core beliefs and priorities. But finding your tribe can mean allowing your vulnerabilities to show; it could be you have to wade through a little bit of muck before you find some treasure. But once you’ve found your close friends, life might just get a little less overwhelming and more bearable. And just maybe you’ll be a better and happier mom for the help that you receive.
Shiny New Engine
The Shiny New Engine had a pretty sweet job with decked-out cars to prove it. He took individuals and families to far-off locales in comfortable and trendy accommodations. He even had a dining car that brought along delicious food with him. He was going places, literally, and taking a ton of people with him.
Lesson #2: Be Flexible in Your Goals
The Shiny New Engine makes me think of me as a brand new mom. I was full of hopes and dreams of the kind of parent I’d be. Elle would learn English and Spanish and German, I’d make all her baby food, and we’d have a gorgeously decorated and immaculate home for her to grow up in. I would take her to fabulous places – intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Anyone want to take a guess how that all worked out for us?
Motherhood isn’t one thing. It’s not a homecooked meal every night or a story at every bedtime. It’s not Mommy-Daughter dates or teaching the alphabet at age 2. Motherhood is what you make of it – and right now I’m giving you permission to change what you want to make it as life progresses. Try to teach your kid three languages: if it works out, great! But if it doesn’t, that’s ok too. You aren’t a failure because you didn’t reach an arbitrary goal you set out for yourself. Be flexible in your goals and continually audit them to make sure they are helping to make you the kind of mom you want to be as well as giving your child the best chance to become who they can be.
The Big Freight Engine was a beast. He was hauling around heavy machinery around like it was nothing. He was a pretty important guy – without him, the grown-ups couldn’t have their books or newspapers to read. He was making a difference in the world and didn’t have time to help some two-bit engine and her cars filled with stuff for some kids.
Lesson #3: Motherhood Is Important
Some days we may think what we do every day in the home is trivial. How can laundry, cooking, bathing, and reading The Cat in the Hat for the 50th time be making an impact on the world? It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking our talents, intelligence, and skills would be better used outside the home. Plus, a paycheck – something tangible that affirms you did something of worth for the past 10-15 days – would be oh-so-nice. I get it. I’ve been there. I still go there sometimes. This blog is actually a compromise with myself to alleviate that “make an impact” feeling with my desire to stay home.
Whether you work outside the home or stay at home, know that the seemingly insignificant things you do day in and day out matter. They matter to your kids. They matter to your husband. They matter to your neighbor. They matter to your kids’ teachers. Learn how to let them matter to you – and remember that lesson even when you want to just give up and prioritize a deadline or a title.
Rusty Old Engine
The last engine that’s petitioned for help before the Little Blue Engine is a rusty, old engine. The engine is tired. We’re not told what he’s been carrying or doing all day, but he insists he needs to rest. He leaves the Happy Little Engine, toys, and good food for the children on the other side of the mountain and rumbles off “to the roundhouse chugging, ‘I can not. I can not. I can not.’ ”
Lesson #4: Take Time for Self-Care
Some days I just can’t do another load of laundry or think of what to cook for dinner. Some days helping with homework just makes me snap. Some days I need to go just an hour or two without constant demands for my attention. Maybe some days you feel the same. And that’s ok.
Self-care is usually at the bottom of my mom friends’ lists. After baby, older kids, husband, and house, there’s little time or energy to take care of “me”. But like the Rusty Old Engine, the less we focus on self-care, the less we can give to others including the baby, older kids, husband, and house. Taking time out to read, to get a mani-pedi, to eat some Oreos in the pantry closet – whatever gives you a recharge – is good and healthy. Don’t leave “me” at the bottom of the list every day. Plan a girl’s night out, get yourself a little treat next grocery trip, turn the kids over to your husband for the evening. Give yourself time to recharge can help you endure and maybe even enjoy the days and weeks ahead.
Little Blue Engine
The Little Blue Engine is the ultimate underdog. She’s “not very big” and is used “only for switching trains in the yard.” She’s never pulled a train like this one, and she’s never been to the other side of the mountain. But she has compassion on the train, thinking of the children the carloads would benefit. After hitching herself to the Happy Little Train, she begins her iconic chant, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” Up and over the mountain and into the other valley she chugs.
Lesson #5: Keep the Eternal Perspective
It wasn’t the Little Blue Engine’s size, title, or vast experiences that helped her overcome significant obstacles. It was her focus on the larger picture – bringing the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain good food to eat and toys to play with – that took her on the mountain path in the first place. She was successful in her endeavors not because she got stronger, bigger, or more important, but because she achieved the compassionate goals she’d set out to accomplish.
Elder Holland, in his stirring remarks entitled “Behold Thy Mother,” has said:
To all of our mothers everywhere, past, present, or future, I say, “Thank you. Thank you for giving birth, for shaping souls, for forming character, and for demonstrating the pure love of Christ.” To Mother Eve, to Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, to Mary of Nazareth, and to a Mother in Heaven, I say, “Thank you for your crucial role in fulfilling the purposes of eternity.” To all mothers in every circumstance, including those who struggle—and all will—I say, “Be peaceful. Believe in God and yourself. You are doing better than you think you are. In fact, you are saviors on Mount Zion, and like the Master you follow, your love ‘never faileth.’ ” I can pay no higher tribute to anyone.
Like Mother Eve, Sarah, and Mary we can persevere with charity, courage, patience, humility, and optimism. Thinking of our children’s children and their children and on and on, we can speak a little softer and more loving when correcting behavior, spend that extra 10 minutes helping with homework, and enjoy the moments we get to spend at home with our children. Keeping the eternal perspective – past, present, and future – can help us accurately define our successes and failures and help us maintain our sense of purpose and identity.
Bonus: The Clown
In The Little Engine That Could the toy clown is somewhat of the leader of the other toys and anthropomorphic food. He acts as spokesman for the train’s requests for help and buoys up morale each time they are rejected.
Lesson #6: Keep Hope
Rejection after rejection would get anybody down. Not the clown. He kept hope, always remembering that there’s another train that could help. Keeping hope is so helpful in parenting. When potty training takes months instead of weeks, when learning to read is a struggle with no end in sight, when the barrage of “whys” are neverending – hope can bring peace, patience, and love. Hang in there. Keep hope.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve read The Little Engine That Could, consider ordering yourself a copy. I’d love to hear what insights you gain from this classic children’s book.