"to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
Motherhood is cathartic. It is maddening. It is consuming. It takes every ounce of who we are and puts it in to a crucible and holds it up as a mirror to our weary eyes. It allows us to see the darkest parts of ourselves, the parts which are the most capable of expanding for love’s sake. It stretches us beyond our wildest imaginations and asks us to love to the point of ultimate sacrifice, to love with the kind of love that aches and bends your heart in the most uncomfortable directions, the kind of love that grasps but knows it cannot control, the kind of love that gathers but knows that it cannot hold forever.
I so often feel this strange mixed sense of boredom and frantic activity, like a mouse skittering around it’s cage, searching for the next sense of pleasure- a cup of coffee, a hit of dopamine from a social media notification, a moment of silence in between the wiping of rear ends, the cleaning up of messes, the snuggling, the disciplining, the cooking, the nursing. The overwhelming feeling that being a mom is, cosmically speaking, my most important job. It is an all-consuming job, but I can never shake the feeling it’s not the only job I want. I try to put a noble spin on it and tell myself I want to do something else to be an example to my kids of a strong, empowered woman, but to be quite honest, I have to do it for my own sanity.
We all know taking care of kids is hard, but it is the one thing nobody can admit out loud. Admitting motherhood is hard automatically puts you in some category with abusive or neglectful mothers who don’t love their children. Since when did it become the norm to just paste on a smile and talk about how enjoyable this is all the time?
The last time I checked, it was totally draining, and often completely crazy-making. Beautiful? Yes. Magical? Yes. So freaking hard? Yes. So I realize, choosing to work outside the home, if I am being honest, is ultimately a selfish endeavor. It is my attempt to pay attention to the little girl inside me who knew that her story could somehow be magical, could be different.
At the deepest, truest level, I am the little girl dancing in the mirror, singing into the hairbrush, swirling around the room to “Me and Bobby McGee.” Trying to turn my life into a doxology. Trying to stay awake, to keep my eyes open. Trying, so very hard, to stop trying so very hard.
I search for the little girl, but so often she hides, like a little girl might. She is shy that way, protecting herself. Every time I think I have found her, she skitters behind a shadow, a dark part of my memory I can’t see past. But I have to get to her. Sometimes I catch glimpses of her in my daughter’s eyes and my breath catches in my throat.
When you look in the mirror, who do you see? Can you find that little girl now? Do you remember what she dreamed of, what made her heart leap?
I say let’s wipe these fake smiles off our faces. Let’s start getting real with each other. Let’s start talking about what’s hard and what makes us crazy and what makes us weep with joy and exhale with wonder. Let’s start here. Maybe that little girl is just waiting, patiently, for us to let her out into the light.
I laid in the hospital bed, IV resting in the crook in my left arm, blood pressure cuff on the other. My eyes stung like fire as I tried to blink the exhaustion away. My legs were anvils binding me to the bed. My lower abdomen was suddenly foreign territory, separated from the rest of me. I couldn’t process the violence that had been done under the thin hospital gown. Not right now. I just wanted her in my arms. Bring her to me. Bring my baby to me, please.
They carried her in, and the visitors slowly filed out. I unwrapped her sturdy little body from the stiff white blanket and brought her to my chest, shakily. My body surged as she latched on. She was sure of her task, even in my fumbling. Her chin clicked back and forth, her first skill mastered without effort. Her warmth combined with mine, skin on skin, and I began to weep silently. You were worth it, baby girl. Every moment. You will always, always be worth it.
I always knew I would be a mom.
You know, eventually.
It wasn’t something that I thought about at length. It floated around in the transom of my mind, a distant, glimmering future that would eventually make its way into my reality. If you surveyed me at age ten, I would have told you I wanted to be a famous dancer or actress. I was not one of those kids whose Barbie was working hard in the kitchen with her apron waiting for Ken to walk in the door from work. My Barbie was always more of the Samantha Jones type.
But I knew, deep down somewhere, I would be a mom, someday. Because that’s what we women do, right? To nurture and care seems to be hardwired into us.
Growing up, my parents always told me “you can be anything you want to be!” They met in 1980, both carrying with them heavy baggage from past relationships and failures. Their love was instant, the kind that sweeps you under. They were married when my mother was two months pregnant with me. It’s a running joke, but I like to thank them for inviting me to the wedding. The more sobering aspect of this joke is, they married because of me. They had talked about getting married and having children, but when my mother found out she was expecting, they decided to make a covenant. And they have kept it to this day.
My father worked in straight commission sales most of my life, and always taught me you had to work for what you made. I always admired my parents for working hard, and I saw them as equals who were earning income as a team. I didn’t realize I was part of the “latch-key kid” generation- one that was bemoaned in the media. I never understood why everyone was so concerned about me. I knew my parents loved me deeply, and I also understood that they had to work for us to survive. The two were never mutually exclusive. I would get home from school each day, make myself a snack, and start in on my homework. My parents arrived home, dinner was made, and we spent time together. It wasn’t the crisis situation that many were making it out to be.
I never felt sad that my mother worked- I was always so proud of her. She would bring me to her office, show me her desk, and let me help her set up for workshops. I saw the pictures of students and notes on her wall, so many nurses thanking my mom for helping them get through school. How many people had been nurtured and cared for by these nurses because my mom made it her mission to get them through nursing school with high scores? How many nurses would have failed and never been able to pursue their dreams if it wasn’t for my mom? I was in awe of her.
Isn’t it fascinating how the stories of our parents weave themselves so powerfully into our stories, without us even realizing it? Whether we are working to emulate our mothers, working to be the opposite, or somewhere in between, so much of how we mother is a direct response to the choices our mothers made.
Even as a young adult, having a family always seemed like something that I would get to eventually. But it didn’t factor in whatsoever to my career plans. When I pictured my future, I saw myself as one of the leads in a Hollywood film- high heels, power suit, espresso in hand, briefcase in the other. Walking briskly down a hall, West Wing style, with a crowd of minions trailing closely behind me, giving me my schedule for the day, reporting back to me about important results, and me, kindly but with a noblesse oblige air, thanking them, and entering into my next high powered meeting. I didn’t see the allure of a life in the home- I wanted to be “out there”, adventuring, conquering, leading, making a dent.
A husband and kids were always there, of course. But they didn’t factor in in a realistic way. Of course I wanted a family, who wouldn’t? Of course I wanted the picket fence, the house, the yard. But those were all peripheral to my career. They were part of it, but surely they would just manage to wind their way into my already amazing life, right? Surely.
The powerful women in my family go way back. My paternal grandmother was the essence of a beautiful, strong and graceful woman. She was the grandma of all grandmas. She was buxom enough to make for a super comfortable pillow to fall asleep on. I have the happiest memories of sitting on her porch swing, her telling me stories about when she was sixteen and ran away from home to work in a shoe factory, and falling asleep on her at family parties. All the hubbub around me, grownups talking, drinking, telling stories, and I would be lulled to sleep by the din. I felt so safe in her arms, in her lap. My head would rise and fall with her breath, and it would shake when she laughed her deep belly laugh. And now I wonder how she had such a deep laugh- what brought her so much joy?
She had six children, barely any money, a husband who drank, and sometimes hit her when he got angry. What did she have to get tickled about? But she did. She got tickled, and sometimes even peed her pants. The women in my family have a history of laughing so hard we pee our pants. I think that is an awesome legacy to leave my daughters.
May you laugh so hard you pee your pants.
Strong women often come in very unassuming packages, don’t they? When you think about the strong women that have been part of your life, who might you look to? And how would you define their strength? If they could have told you their stories and their secrets, what do you think they would have whispered to you?
Unfortunately, my grandmother died before she could watch me become a mother myself. What I would have given to hear her secrets- the stories of each of her six children, how they came into the world, what they were like as babies, how she managed to keep it all together. I would have listened in rapt attention, while we sat on her porch swing and she told me everything- the tiniest details that make up the most beautiful and mundane things in a mother’s life. They happen in the quiet, in the dark, often. They don’t happen in front of an adoring crowd, and great novels have never been written about the glories and tragedies of the life of any mother. We have forgotten how to tell our stories- we have been told that they do not matter. That those tiny moments, those tiny bodies that we care for, day in and day out, do not make up the majesty and grandeur of life.
And so we don’t tell each other our stories. And we are left to mother without a real village, without a common understanding, with only online forums, parenting books and Google to help us along. We can do more, and we can do better by each other. We start by sitting down, around tables, and telling our stories. Recounting the details. The smells, the feeling, the sounds, the emotions, all of it- without shame.
The desire to mother, and the experience of becoming one, completely redefined my sense of self. It is the journey that every one of us begins when we even consider the thought of becoming a mother. From the woman who has just begun to have “the itch”, to the seasoned mother with grown children, the journey unites us all.
I learned many things the hard way through the process of birthing and raising my daughters, but the one thing I have always wished I could unlearn was that as soon as my children were born, I was being admitted into a larger story that I wanted no part of.
When I welcomed my daughter into the world, I was ushered into the cultural myth of motherhood. And this myth is powerful. It shapes how we perceive ourselves.
Myth. miTH/ , noun
1.a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
This motherhood myth holds sway on our everyday choices, our social circles, our Facebook groups.
It is the myth that a mother should be perfect.
Not just try hard, or do her best. Perfection is the standard, and effortlessness is the expected mode of operation.
My friends, this is the furthest thing from freedom.
This motherhood myth is rooted in a deep history, one that we will explore in the following chapters. It is all encompassing, and delivers several lies to the new (and seasoned) mother. The myth whispers that you must strive, achieve, and please to earn love and acceptance. It whispers that you are not enough to meet your children’s deepest needs. It sows seeds of comparison, strife, and resentment. It causes you to question every decision, in every moment. It produces anxiety and loneliness in a time when we most need to feel affirmed, connected, and accepted.
Do you feel the ache? I know I do. It’s hard to describe, right? But it’s there.
It’s there in the exhaustion. Not the kind that sleepless nights produce, but the soul exhaustion that tells you things will never change. That tells you she is doing this so much better than you. That forces you to smile when you want to break down. That shows up in the Facebook comment feed when you ask a seemingly innocuous parenting question. It’s there, simmering just under the surface, feeding lies and smirking while we scramble to fix ourselves. It turns us toward other mothers in bitterness and accusation, instead of pulling us together.
Birth and mothering are universal. But the myth persists, and poisons. It is quiet, subtle. Sometimes the most effective lies are the ones that are covered over in glittery half-truths.
I have been there. I have lived this. I am still walking it out. Motherhood slammed into my preconceived notions about life as I know it, and I have been trying to reconcile this ever since, while reconciling a mother’s place in the grander myth of motherhood that culture has created for us.
I have managed to wade through the darkness and come through the other side with my soul intact. I haven’t reached a place of “I get this”. I simply have recognized the lies, and am choosing every moment to turn toward truth. This book is about us working it out together. It is an experiment in asking hard questions of ourselves, of our society, of the church. It is finding our own redemption song in this complex puzzle that is mothering and womanhood and calling. I hope you will walk with me on this journey and we can turn toward the truth, and toward each other. The world needs us, our kids need us, and we need this more than ever.
As I write this, my two daughters are asleep upstairs. I am drinking a twice warmed-over cup of coffee and listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album. And praying that somewhere inside this book, you find freedom. You find a deep sense of not-aloneness. You find yourself again. You see your story in my story, somewhere, and you connect to that little girl who didn’t have inhibitions. Who dared to dream. Who made a vow that her life would make a difference, even if we aren’t sure anymore what that even means.
Meet me here?