I used to judge those people who put leashes on their children. But a couple of years ago we planned a trip to NYC with all three of our kids, and I could not envision our subway experiences without fear. I mean it literally when I say it kept me up at night. Then someone offered us one of those backpacks with a leash on it, and it seemed like the perfect solution. I mean to us it’s a backpack with a leash, but to a kid it’s just a monkey with a long, cute tail. I decided I was willing to risk the judgment of strangers rather than risk the safety of my four-year-old.

So on our trip, my husband and I took turns wearing our baby or pushing him in a stroller. Our oldest child walked, and our four-year-old got the honor of being leashed. No regrets!

But let’s fast forward. That same child is now six, and the other day she rediscovered the monkey backpack hanging up with some bags. What fun! So she wore it around the house. No problem. Then she decided to take the backpack with us in the car on the way to Target. Sure, whatever. Then she decided to PUT IT ON in the parking lot. Gasp. So we’re walking through the parking lot and she’s holding out the monkey’s tail, offering it to me in public. And I’m shifting uncomfortably trying to figure out how to look aloof while my six-year-old wears a leash.

And then it happened. She asks me directly, “Will you hold the tail? Please?” And I say nope, can’t do it. But she asks again, as though confused. I mean isn’t this monkey’s tail made specifically for parents to hold on to?

I gave in. Because in that moment I realized it didn’t matter. So what. So what if I hold the leash connected to the monkey backpack that’s connected to my six-year-old.

If motherhood doesn’t lighten you up, then nothing will.

But if you saw me that day and thought, “CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT MOM HAS HER KINDERGARTENER ON A LEASH?” Well, now you know the backstory.

There is always a backstory.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my adult life it’s that things are not always what they seem. Do not judge anyone by their happiness or unhappiness. Do not judge them by their Instagram feeds. Don’t even judge them if their child is on a leash.

We can’t help it, I know. We look at the outward appearances because we cannot see the heart. But we should always account for the portion of information we can’t see.

We have to weigh our judgments—even positive ones—and realize we are not all-knowing. Don’t put any human being too high on a pedestal. Don’t put anyone too low on the totem pole. Don’t assume that mom is inferior to you. Don’t assume someone’s marriage is perfect.

I was a teenager sitting in Sunday school one day. During the lesson, we were supposed to pass a notebook around for prayer requests. I reached over the aisle in order to hand it to the girl in the next seat, but she did not look or reach back. I’ve got my arm out and the notebook is in plain sight, so I’m expecting her to take it, and I’m a little annoyed she’s not responding. Finally, the girl’s friend reached over and took the notebook from me.

After class, the friend comes to explain what happened. She tells me that this girl couldn’t see the notebook because she has a newly diagnosed eye disease—her peripheral vision is deteriorating. As it turned out, my expectations of her were actually physically impossible for her. I had assumed I had all the information I needed, but I didn’t.

All of this might sound incidental, but I have never forgotten it and what it implies.

Never underestimate the power of the backstory.

Knowing takes effort. You have to lean in and ask questions. Knowing doesn’t happen just by observation, or looking from a distance on social media. Don’t eavesdrop on someone else’s life. Move closer. Be direct. Sometimes it’s awkward and that’s okay. An eavesdropper hears things while no one else knows she’s listening. An eavesdropper wants second-hand information. But it’s a cowardly way to experience people. It lets you off the hook for being vulnerable and puts all the vulnerability on the other person.

Take the time to know people in a way that lets them know you, too. And if you don’t get that opportunity, then suspend judgment. There will be lots and lots of people in your life that you can’t truly know—some of them might be part of your family. So leave room for missing pieces. Leave room for the backstory that doesn’t belong to you. And give those people and those situations the grace to be something other than what they seem.

“Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36

Lee Stewart

Lee is the wife of Josh and the mother of three. She’s a pianist, a baker, a runner, and a recovering perfectionist. Motherhood, to her, often means finding beauty in the minutiae and grace in the big picture. Writing helps her find those things a little faster. Lee believes God’s truth seeps into everything from the duty of a simple laundry load to the making of little disciples. She loves being a mom because it takes her through deep waters and plenty of silliness, all in a day’s work.

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