There are two kinds of "mean" when it comes to being a mom.
There's the good kind, or at least what I'd call the good kind. I'm a "mean" mom to my kids (in their eyes, anyway!) when I don't let them play video games on weekdays. Or, say, when I make them pack healthy snacks for school all but once a week. When I make them go outside to play when they'd strongly prefer to be inside. When I discipline them for misbehaviour, even when they're convinced they don't deserve it. You know the stuff I'm talking about.
Fine. That kind of "mean mom" I'm willing to be - even the kind I feel I should be if I'm going to fulfill my end of this parenting gig with diligence.
Then there's the other kind. The kind when I'm simply, in fact, mean. Actually mean, not just theoretically. No bigger picture, no silver lining.
On Saturday I found myself in the throes of the bad kind of mean. Everything seemed to go a bit wrong - not tragically wrong, just ever-accruing lumps of minorly wrong. My youngest daughter's kindergarten class had visited a local Crete radio station that week to sing Christmas carols, and they were airing the thing ostensibly at 10:40. I wanted to tape it. It finally came on at 12, by which time I'd spent half the morning hovering near the radio trying to sort through what was being said in Greek, keeping my people shushed. Then the clothes dryer wouldn't work properly; it was my first time using it since, till now, it's been warm enough to line-dry outside. Did the trouble stem from it's being energy efficient/front-loading (new to me), wrong selection of programs (all in Greek), or legitimate malfunction? No idea. If I sat and pushed the button every 90 seconds, it would in fact operate. A TERRIFIC way to spend a Saturday, let me tell you. I had three loads. My house was a mess. Behind it all I felt tearier than usual and eventually put two and two together to realize: hormones. My husband and I quarrelled. Inside was the rising sense of frustration and bleakness that such a day brings. You know the feeling.
By dinnertime I was the opposite of a gentle or reasonable mother. I was in fact - just to reiterate - mean. My youngest two were alternating between rowdy play (some horsey game involving riding on each other's backs) and bickering, with a side of knee-jerk tattling. After a few iterations of attempted correction I reached a crescendo. I was harsh with them, especially my youngest. She was sorry but I wouldn't have it. My words were lined with rudeness and contempt. I could feel the meanness leaving my mouth, filling the room, but I seemed to feel it couldn't be helped.
If one of my children spoke to another in like manner, I'd have put a fast stop to it. I was self-righteous, impatient, without mercy or grace... and I knew it. We can be the worst kind of hypocrites, can't we?
We muddled through it, I apologised, I got them into pyjamas and in front a movie. I felt guilty, justifiably so. My outlook still felt pretty bleak the next morning. I went running and re-prayed through my woes. Here it was the fourth Sunday of Advent, a day of yuletide festivities ahead, and I couldn't seem to get my heart washed out.
But that's when I started wondering. About the shepherds. What was the disposition of the shepherds on the night when the angel host showed up in the sky? I bet at least one of them was was in an annoyed, self-righteous mood. At least one, I'd venture, vented some meanness that night. Had he made snide comments to a fellow shepherd around their evening fire? Had he prodded a sheep with a staff a little harder than he'd needed to?
Of course they would have, because I know I'm not the only one with a spirit of meanness that sometimes rises up inside. It's something we're born with... as sure as we're born with the pleasure we feel in a warming sun and blueing sky.
We're human, after all - but that's no excuse. We have a shred of innate meanness, ready to jump from the shadows when circumstances prod, but that doesn't make it OK. It's not OK.
But that's actually the POINT of Christmas. The whole entire point. If we could get the meanness out through trying - through deep breathing through it or yoga or any kind self-actualisation - we wouldn't need Christmas. And there wouldn't be any.
Christmas is a big deal, the biggest deal really, only because we need it. The meanness streak, some vestige of it, can't be self-ejected. The big deal of Christmas is that God Came Down. He came to earth - one time, one deal - to do the thing for us. To wash us out like we can't wash ourselves out.
It's pretty wild, when you think about it.
And so as my feet pounded earth I got ushered in, like maybe a mean-spirited shepherd did on Christmas night, to the cleansing God brings. The release of the angst and the cleaning up of the heart's black corner. And my own deep heart, perhaps like the shepherd's, realised its true part: worship. Worship plus laying down whatever burdens it carries - an offering requested by, and acceptable to, the Saviour who comes on Christmas day.
Just because there's meanness, doesn't mean you can't be clean.