Motherhood: Inception, Alchemy, and Option. Part Two of a Short Series

I believe, perhaps too strongly, in living a life with a plan. Not for me, the aimless floating in the Flow! Rigorous self examination is a constant. So, in an effort to keep my life, including relationships and work, on a productive trajectory, I ask myself: What is my goal? Who am I trying to reach? Why?

I’ve landed on this: I am hoping use the stories of my own life to connect women to each other, for I believe it’s in authentic connection with a medley of others that we create the sort of beautiful song that our lives are meant to be. Old and young. Faith-led and ambivalent. Married and single. Mother and not.

When a woman becomes a mother, there’s an alchemy at the soul level: love fuses with fear; self-awareness morphs to other-awareness. We are changed by becoming mothers. But as the mother of an adult daughter who is not sure she will ever choose motherhood as well as a daughter who embraced it at the by-modern-standards-young age of 24, I bear witness to the power of the life lived on either side of the coin. It is beautiful to watch a woman exercise choice over this profound condition called “Motherhood.”

Becoming a mother is, for many of us, a beloved experience. Not for all, I know. There are women for whom motherhood is a burden. Maybe for practical reasons like health dangers. Maybe because the partner is cruel. Perhaps because there is not enough money or danger lurks in surroundings. Becoming a mother is, for some of us, impossible. We all know a woman whose empty arms ache. Some are forced to make the bitter choice of whether to carry a terminally ill baby to term. My heart hurts for all of these women.

There are women who become moms through adoption or fostering. That’s its own damn miracle. And sometimes, men do all the parenting themselves and it’s pretty amazing.

Lots of babies are born by C-Section. Equally miraculous, and not one whit less blessed or authentic. My pregnancy and childbirth story just happens to be a bit more conventional. I love it, because it’s my story. I bet there are elements that all moms share, no matter the route to motherhood: the sweetness of holding a child, the agony of watching a child be ill or injured, the long nights of worry and wakefulness.

For me, becoming a mother was magical. Of course, many moms both cherish the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, but shudder a bit, too. Let’s get real and honest: it hurts. Growing a baby is wonderful, but it also stretches your ligaments painfully. Feet swell. Rings get tight. Backs ache. Braxton-Hicks contractions twinge. Stuff leaks out your lady-plumbing. Hairs grow in previously smooth places. Comfortable sleep becomes quixotically impossible.

My first full term pregnancy was pretty easy- my body responded to growing a child with a lot of enthusiasm. I was a college student, so I did all my projects ahead of time, to be ready. I nested by waking up one night, just a few days before labor, and scrubbing the baseboards of our student housing apartment with a toothbrush.

The second pregnancy was less peaceful. We discovered I was pregnant while my husband was in the hospital, recovering from a near-fatal bout with viral spinal encephalitis. I had confided in his doctor that I suspected I might be pregnant, and worried that his disease might have gotten to the baby. He assured me that that would not be the case, but tested me anyway. I wore a pacifier tied around my neck when I went to visit Travis in his hospital room. and his face first showed confusion, then joy as he realized that he was alive, and he would be a father again. We were facing medical bills and unemployment, but those mountains seemed insignificant against the knowledge of just how close he’d come to dying. 

The third, though, her birth was my favorite. We had looked into a home birth for purely monetary reasons. My husband worked for a church that did not provide health insurance, we were living in a state where my teaching certificate was not valid,  and any part time job I could find didn’t pay enough to cover child care costs.

In 1994, home birth was definitely a fringe undertaking, more so than even now. We researched and met with a midwife named Ruth, she was very nurturing, but also pragmatic. She would not brook any argument on one issue, in fact, I had to sign a document on my first visit: if, at any time, she felt I or baby were at risk, I had to follow her directive to go to the hospital. This was the very assurance that was at the top of my wish list, I knew I did not want a midwife who was so committed to the global cause of home birth and natural medicine that she would put my baby’s life at risk to prove a point. I had one visit with an MD, then spent the rest of my pregnancy with Ruth overseeing my care.

Libby didn’t seem to want to be born. At church, our preacher took the pulpit after a rousing rendition of “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” looked over at me, and kindly (and laughingly) proclaimed that “When the roll is called up yonder, Kim will still be here.” Waiting for the baby, her meant. The congregation had a good chuckle- they were anxious for that baby to arrive, and a little worried about our unusual birthing plan.

On a September Sunday, I awoke to the sound of a popping cork; labor had begun. We called Ruth, then did what we had practiced: I walked the little house for hours, Travis following behind with a towel (thank God we had wood floors) and squatted deep at each contraction. Our other two kids awoke just at the moment I needed to start pushing, so , we bundled them off to church with neighbors, and then got to work.

On a bed covered with protective sheets, Travis leaned up against the headboard, I planted myself between his knees, and had the most primal and beautiful experience I can imagine. Sunlight was streaming in through the windows, and when Libby crowned, Ruth laid her hands on Libby’s head and prayed her into the world. Libby was born wrapped in blessings.

That blessed baby is a now a mother. I held her right knee and coached her during the births of both of her children, and watching my grandchildren enter the world has been a gift of immeasurable value. Libby is a woman who has fulfilled one aspect what womanhood means for her.

I have another daughter. She is walking a different path. She has, for now, chosen to build a life of independent creativity.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

She is a writer, a filmmaker, and an explorer who jokes that her projects are my grandbabies, for she labors intensely to bring them into the world. I love that. She digs deep into the heart of feminism, she stands strong at the intersection of activism and art. She, too, is fulfilling what womanhood means for her.

These women, these creators-of-art, pioneers-of-independence, activism-as-caregivers have always been among us.

We haven’t always appreciated them like we should, instead assuming them to lonely and unfulfilled, we’ve pressured them to conform.

I believe the act of creation is what changes us. Whether it’s a child or a book, a family or a film, magical alchemy occurs when it’s done with the intention of love. It may even be both: motherhood and art. May we embrace and bless the women who choose motherhood, and also those who walk a different path. Fulfillment is not, after all, found only in tradition; it can be found equally in divergence.

To Love Being a Mother: Part One of a Short Series

I used to think of myself as having “given up” my young adulthood to be a mother. It was a sacrifice, almost a burden. I didn’t get the time that so many of my friends did to work for a while, get some money in the bank, maybe get a down payment for a house saved up.

I looked at it as my lost youth. Not now.

Photo by Evelyn Chong on Pexels.com

I have had to make a major shift lately because if I didn’t, I was going to move into this next phase with a lot of angst and resentment, kicking and screaming. The Empty Nest is a monumental transition. I had to shift or suffer, wasting the next 25 (hopefully) years unable to enjoy and appreciate what life was giving me. I enjoyed a Facetime call with three of my best college friends earlier this week; we suffered the travails of sorority rush when we were just eighteen years old, and now we bemoaned the travails of wherever we are in our motherhood journeys: two empty-nesters (though my house is not actually empty), a mom who has just one senior-in-high-school daughter left at home and can see her freedom beckoning like a fluttering will-o’-the-wisp, and a mom who has seen her eldest through a grueling triple organ transplantation and is now fiercely protecting her younger children from a negligent, violent husband whom she is divorcing. We are all happy about our motherhood and struggling with it in equal measure.

I am changing the way I think: I am glad I started motherhood so young! It means I get to enjoy this new phase while I am hip and (relatively) healthy. And, more significantly, I am owning this thing that people keep telling me, but that I have had a hard time believing: I was a pretty good mother.

Ready Like a Mother

When I became a mom, I had to figure it out. I hadn’t had healthy mothering in my childhood, so my tool box was pretty empty. My mom was debilitated by mental illness and addiction, was damaged by faith and desperately lonely in a house with four other equally lonely humans. I looked to relatives and friends’ moms to help me figure it out. My friend Chellie’s mother, Bea, stood across her kitchen counter and offered sage advice while feeding me scratch-made chocolate cake. Carol Brady, Samantha Stephens, and June Cleaver were role models. When I became a mother, I didn’t have peers to emulate; my best friend and I were the first in our college class to get pregnant. She and I had been roommates and pledge sisters, and we had our first babies just six weeks apart. She was just barely ahead of me on the question train: how to get the baby to latch on, when to add cereal, how to manage tummy aches, and such.

A theme of my motherhood was to protect them by being around just enough: not a helicopter, instead maybe a stealth missile. I wanted to keep them safe while instilling courage, so I instructed them, at ages 4 and 6 to “hold onto my pockets” so that I could carry their baby sister into stores. They never did let go, not once. As they grew older, I didn’t spy, I never did read a journal, though I did go through some drawers. On the night of my eldest’s eighth grade dance, I dropped her off and pretended to drive away, then sneaked back into the cafetorium and hid behind a pillar to watch her have fun with her friends in the dress I’d put the finishing touches on just a few minutes before. In my mind, the dress was my back pocket and I was at that dance with her, still protecting from afar.

Now, I am a grandmother, with a nine-month-old grandson and a twenty-one-month-old granddaughter; they, along with their parents, live with us. I was not ready for this new role, this new identity. Because I started my family so young, I was looking forward to the span during which my own kids were grown and independent, so I could be a little selfish with my time and resources. I thought I could pretend to be ten years younger and travel the world, just being indulgent and drinking pomegranate mimosas. Of course, that’s not how it worked. Honestly, when do our plans ever really go like we thought they would?

On the day my daughter and her partner told us about grandbaby number one, we were sitting at brunch at a local restaurant. I knew something was up and asked my daughter to accompany me to the restroom, where she told me she was pregnant and I slid down the wall and plopped gracelessly on the cold tiled floor (it was a nice restaurant, the floor was clean. Thank goodness we weren’t at a truck stop). After the meal, we continued the conversation at our home, and when they left after a long talk about the impending baby, I just leaned over into my husband’s arms and bawled, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” “I know,” he sighed, “but are you ready to help your daughter be a good mom?” Of course I am.

The Awesome Power of the Grandmother

I remember the awesome influence of my own grandmothers, especially my grandmother June, whose life was a testament to the beauty of resilience and generosity. She never had a mother of her own, and her father was murdered when she was a young woman, and like me, she had to look around her for women to be role models into motherhood. She taught me about the importance of skin care, and that sitting on the porch watching birds was, in fact, a valuable way to spend time.

Her house was imbued with the magic of hospitality, space to be myself, and a place to imagine: an attic room. The stairs were behind a beautiful oak door, and once climbed, revealed a sublime room with an old iron bed, shelves upon shelves of books, boxes of toys and dress up clothes, and a window seat. This room was where I felt more at peace, more myself, than any place I had encountered. In this room, perched on the window seat, I drew pictures and wrote stories, dressed as a lady, danced, and read books. When I read Little Women for the first time, I recognized Jo’s love for her attic. I had my own attic to love. Almost always, when I was there, my mother was in a completely different town, so the pall of her depression was lifted. My introverted little soul could fly free, all under the gentle and generous eye of my beloved Grandma June.

To become a comparable source of joy and a well of confidence for my grand-kids and, more importantly, their mother, to continue to nurture my relationships with my adult kids who remain single, requires that I look backward into my own child-rearing years. I want to remember, from their births to their graduations and beyond, how I explored the idea of being a good parent as well as how I messed up royally but stayed in the game. I want to acknowledge that I was a good mom, which means I need to figure out how I did it. How I still do it. Because I am definitely not finished being a mom. Nowhere near it.

Lessons from transitioning to being a mother, then to grandmother:

  1. If you’re young, look around for role models and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  2. If you’re older, look around for younger adults who need mentors. We can be a pretty isolated society. You might have a church single or a teen neighbor who could use a friend who’s got a lot of life experience.
  3. Protect, but don’t rescue. Don’t hover. It’s not good for anyone.
  4. Apologize to your kids when you make a mistake. They’ll remember that as they grow. It teaches them that it’s safe to be imperfect.
  5. Write down or otherwise record the moments when you stumbled to goodness. Too often, we focus on the extremes: the picture-perfect happy, glossy moments, or the times when tragedy happens or fierce disagreements cause heartache. I think that lasting joy is found in the middle, those moments when life is just rolling along and you stumble sometimes but you keep going and growing.
  6. Save some toys for your grandkids.

What wisdom do you have about mothering, or empty-nest transitioning? Share, I’d love to learn from you!