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!

Sometimes, I Am Sad. And Pissed.

I need to be honest, dear reader.

Sometimes, I am sad.

It doesn’t always make sense- what have I to be sad about?

My husband loves me. My children do, too.

My body is healthy, though aging is hard. Joints hurt. Menopause undoes.

I love my home, with its sunlight and hardwood floors and fairy garden.

My bills are paid. Just.

Food is plentiful and I usually eat like I am supposed to- foods rich in protein and low in processed carb and starch. Vegetables. Fruit. I have set aside the old habits of self-medicating with high fructose corn syrup and sugar.

I feed my soul by listening to Super Soul, Rob Bell, and Liz Gilbert, I read a meditation each morning, I peruse stories of empowerment and encouragement over my breakfast of Grapenuts and low sodium V8 juice, hoping to plant seeds in my heart, kernels of courage and contentment.

I exercise, though on sad days, not with much felicity. There is a heaviness to my legs, it’s work to take the steps, not joy. The breath of yoga would make me cry today if I attempted it. Maybe I should do it anyway. Probably should. Definitely should.

I have anxiety medication. I take it.

I have a first world life, with only first world problems.

And yet…I live and breathe with diagnosed and medicated anxiety. Perhaps that’s a first world problem, too? Do women in countries where they must haul clean water in baskets even have time to be anxious? Do they have time for needless worry over credit card balances and cable TV bills? Are they compelled to track calories in a fitness app? Do they fret over every plastic water bottle they see in the hand of a passerby, knowing it might very well end up floating in the ocean?

Relevant and True: Knowing that women in Africa are struggling with weightier issues does not make my anxiety less. It simply does not. We harm others and ourselves when we say: “Look at that person. Her suffering is worse. Buck up.” What we should say is: “I see you. I hear you. I hold you.”

My anxiety is my legacy from my mother, a desperately addicted and acutely mentally ill woman who hurt her own body and the bodies and spirits of her children.

In the days leading up to this melancholy, hands shook. Heart trembled. Breath accelerated. Sleep evaded. Body ached. Soul hurt.

And, dear reader, I will go one step deeper into authenticity. Into the place where good women, sweet women, gentle women, are not supposed to go.

Sometimes, I am angry. Angry as hell.

But this? This, unlike the random bouts of sadness, makes sense to me. I am angry at my past. I am angry at family members who seem to have abandoned me. I am angry at a world in which people can be unkind, dishonest, and abusive and not be held accountable; but are venerated instead. I am angry at a world that believes that Viagra is a legitimate prescription for insurance to cover, but hearing aids for small children are not. I am angry at a country in which walls, not bridges, are solutions, and where millionaire politicians would rather spend money putting guns into schools instead of books and hot lunches.

I am angry because sometimes I feel trapped and confused, and I yearn to walk away; or to find the courage to really say all the things I want to say to those who, from the landscape where I stand, set me aside years and years ago.

I am, on a minute-by-minute basis, endeavoring to live authentically. To be transparent, even amid anxiety and anger and hormones and menopause. To be rigorously truthful in the gratefulness I feel daily for the family I have created, a clan that includes the dear friends who have stood in the gap so often in place of blood.

All of these feelings are as veritably me as those that more usually govern my days- those of joy and hope and creativity.

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Last night, I dreamt I was having a baby. My father, who is deceased, was there to calm my worry over the late-in-life pregnancy, as I fretted over my own dangerous, impossible pregnancy and my daughter’s healthy, vibrant one. My subconscious seemed to be bidding goodbye to my fertility, through the precious echo of my father’s voice and calming presence, both of which I miss terribly.

I understand why anger happens. But why does depression happen? I have to be honest- I don’t know. What changed from two weeks ago, when I was I excited about my new camper, career possibilities, and my granddaughter-to-come, who is, right now, about ten inches long inside my daughter’s womb?

Why, in the midst of lovely things, do I isolate myself from friends and withhold myself from family? True, I am an introvert by nature, and so it is way too easy to hole up inside my house. Most of my family of origin is dead, and the one remaining person has little interest in a relationship. He has his own life and loves, and he is very happy in it. Many, though not all, of my most trusted friends are hours away. My stubborn, aching spirit will not call for help. Another legacy of my mother’s, who spent years holed up in her living room, angry, bitter, and heartsick.

Anxiety feels like a rushing river in my veins, something I cannot impede, though I erect dam after dam. It feels like muchness; too much muchness, all quivering inside my fragile shell. It feels like my clenched abdomen and jaw. It feels like darkness and piercing light, all simultaneous.

It feels like fear.

I have spent an entire life with it. I’ve done the self-harm, the mental hospital, the therapy, the religion and its renunciation. I turned a corner. I recovered most of my life, my agency, my courage. I learned to start speaking up sometimes, even when it costs me.

A year ago, I decided to be intentional about what I thought my life’s mission would be, and I started writing about it:

” I believe, down deep in my bones, that life is magical, and that making the attempt to approach each moment with a sense of wonder enables us to live beautifully, no matter our circumstances. I believe that my mission, my personal legend, my work is to help others see, create, and accept the magic of their own lives. I listen. I write. I hope. I pray. I dream…”

Today doesn’t feel very magical, unless it’s a darker magic. A Maleficent kind of magic. Moon magic. Winter in the midst of summer. As I have dug deeply inward, trying to discover whether my moments of rage or sadness make the rest of my life’s message fraudulent, I say no. I am a complex being, with the inescapable right to conflicting emotions and not entirely consistent behavior. I just have to keep coming back to what I know is the core of me: life is beautiful.

Perhaps, it is these intervals of shade that enable me to enjoy the days of sun that I know will come. Today, I will lean into the feelings of sadness. Instead of masking them or eating them away, I will just let them be. I will take a nap, I will move my body. I will talk to a precious friend. I will spend a few moments communing with the Goddess.

And I will trust in fifty-one years of living, when the gray days always gave way to the sunny ones.

 

Losing My Religion

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It’s the day after Christmas. I am sitting in my quiet house, my sweet husband is napping, my eldest daughter and her fiancee have left for a movie, my son is at work, and my youngest is across the world. It has been a wonderful Christmas- everyone is healthy (I didn’t fall and injure myself severely- just one small second degree burn from a candy-making fumble) and happy, and very much in love with their significant other. I don’t feel any post Christmas blues, but the holiday’s passing has left me feeling reflective about one very specific thing: my vanished faith.

I do understand the actual origins of Christmas- Yule and Saturnalia, Pope Julius I’s decision to create a celebration of Jesus’ birth and using the conveniently placed Solstice celebrations to do so, the Puritans’ refusal to acknowledge the holiday (it was against the law to celebrate Christmas in Boston from 1659-1681), its absence in America throughout the 18th century, then its resurgence in the 19th with the publication of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ novels.

Historically, Jesus is really not “The Reason for the Season.” But in contemporary America, in Texas, Christmas is very much about celebrating the birth of Jesus.

But not for me.

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Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith’s Christmas concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion here in the Houston area. I was so excited! It was a chilly night (a rare occurrence in a Houston December), and poor Amy had come onto the outdoor stage in an emerald sleeveless gown. She spent most of act one wrapped in a blanket, and changed into jeans, boots, and a quilted parka at intermission. Smitty was in a suit, and playing pretty vigorously at the grand piano, so he seemed to fare better in the chilled air. I loved it. They sang back to back renditions of “Jingle Bells” (Smitty sang the Perry Como arrangement, Amy the Streisand), “The Christmas Waltz,” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” I have been listening to these two sing Christmas songs since I was 18 years old, and it was like being home.

But the mood changed in the second half. It became more tender, more reflective, more…worshipful. In this half, Amy sang “Heirlooms” and “Breath of Heaven.” Smitty led a sing along. But this was not a sing along like happens at your child’s elementary school PTO program, with “Rudolph” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” This was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.” The mood became holy. And I couldn’t sing. Clearly, the audience was worshiping, and I knew that to lend my voice would be inauthentic. Counterfeit. It was beautiful, and I felt alien. Throughout the remainder of the concert, I teared up several times; and when the first notes of “Friends” played in the encore, I began to really cry…when the lights went up, I found I couldn’t talk, I could barely hold it together and my sweet husband held me while I wept, truly wept.

Christmas is often a time for heavy-heartedness- that’s not news to most adults (and a few kids). We grieve for lost loved ones. We mourn passing time. I am a little melancholy this year. But it’s not really nostalgia for my childhood Christmases (which were spotty, to say the least). It’s not even nostalgia for the holidays for when my kids were little.

My grief is for my lost faith.

I no longer believe in the Christian faith. Not because of “hypocrites” or the times when God hasn’t answered prayers. Not because of the insanity of millionaire ministers or the rampant suffering and injustice in the world.

I can’t believe a virgin birth. I just can’t. Nor can I believe that a dead man rose and walked after three days entombed. And I can’t force myself to sit in a sanctuary and recite the Nicene Creed or sing hymns (or praise and worship songs) that strike me as so very, very false. It would be, for me, fraudulent, and an insult to the sincerity of the Christians who find such joy in their faith.

I believe in the teachings of Jesus, wisdom of the Proverbs, the passion and pathos of the Psalms. But I cannot accept that many of the writings of the apostle Paul were meant to be followed verbatim, by all humans, no matter gender, culture, and time, for ever and ever amen. I know enough to know that what we have as the Holy Bible was passed around, rewritten, interpreted, and adapted for 300 years before finally being codified. How can it possibly be infallible?

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But secular Christmas seems so empty.

How does one recover from lost faith?

When I posted on Facebook that my thoughts, not prayers, were with the victims of the French terrorist attacks, a long time friend (who is not a person of faith) sought me out two days later to tell me, in person, that that made him sad. That he sensed that the loss of my faith was a grief to me. How profound is it that it was an agnostic to express sorrow over this loss?

That he has expressed more kindness over my loss than nearly any Christian in my acquaintance is also profound. I think I am a pretty big disappointment to a lot of people.

Most days, I don’t really give it much thought. I don’t miss church, not even a little bit. I think years as a minister’s wife, privy to the inner workings of church politics, cured me of ever wanting to belong to a church again. American Christianity has become a frightening place, full of fear and politics.

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In her book Quiet, Susan Cain describes the dilemma of introverts (of which I am most definitely one) trying to participate in American Evangelicanism: ” Contemporary Evangelicanism…emphasizes building community among confirmed believers, with many churches encouraging (or even requiring) their members to join extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable subject- cooking, real-estate investing, skateboarding.” She meets with a man who struggles with his introverted nature, and can’t find the place where he can worship, commune, and serve. I get that. In my last attempts at finding a church home, all I wanted was a place where I could have a few real, genuine friends and contemplative, thoughtful worship, preferably far, far away from LED smart lights and Jumbotron screens.

Oh, and by the way, I still believe in God.

So I try to use walking or yoga time to reconnect with the Divine. In my solo worship time, I have learned that God is also Goddess. That trees and animals carry a bit of the Divine spark. That literature and music do as well. I have learned that kindness can be found and is often practiced by the most unexpected people: the tattooed, gypsy “heathen” is often more benevolent than the most polished Evangelical.

Years ago, when I confided to two of my aunts (on my mom’s side) that I had found myself in a desert place, they assured me that if I was just patient, that God would lead me out of the desert. I don’t feel arid anymore, and that’s a blessing. But I don’t feel Churched, either. I feel like I am in a quiet forest, with a beautiful lake. Pretty alone, but with something Divine whispering to me. Maybe that’s enough.

Merry Christmas, friends.

Pass On The Salt, Please

I loved Sunday School when I was a child. Felt boards with figures of Bible characters were how I remember learning the stories of the good book, watching the sweet grandmotherly women manipulate these flat figures as they narrated the tales of Old Testament and New. And the puppets! Big mouth puppets made of felt with fuzzy acrylic or yarn hair that led us in church songs like “Blue Skies and Rainbows” or “Roll the Gospel Chariot.” I loved Sunday School, I really did. There was a story that always puzzled me, though, and that was the story of Lot’s wife.

You may not know this one: God has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of its evil, and one Godly man remains. Lot and his family have been warned to flee the impending disaster and NOT TO LOOK BACK AS THEY LEAVE.

But Lot’s wife does. And God turns her into a pillar of salt. A freaking pillar of salt! As a child, I just didn’t understand why God would choose such a harsh punishment for simply wanting one last glance back at one’s home. The twin cities were corrupt and toxic, yes, but they were also familiar. They were home. I don’t know that I understood this until recently.

Let me explain:

I recently left my twenty year teaching career. I hadn’t really planned to. I finished my Master’s degree in my field (Theatre), I thought I had turned the corner on what had been an extremely difficult transition with a new principal, I had started the preparations for the coming school year’s production schedule. We had even started making the costumes for the planned fall production: a steampunk version of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Boom! On a Friday afternoon, upon arriving home from a week teaching drama camp, I learned that a position that I had been coveting for three years had magically become available: to be the School Days Coordinator for the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest renaissance faire in the country, a faire I had worked at for fifteen years as an entertainer.

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I struggled with the decision for about ten days, then took a deep breath and resigned my teaching position. And ever since, I find myself looking back over my shoulder, wondering if I made the right choice, fretting that my replacement would not take good care of my program, at moments desperately missing those great core theatre kids, and sometimes wishing for the chance to direct something.

It’s crippling, really.

In moments of clarity, I remember that I felt like I was slowly suffocating from the workload.

I remember that for every wonderful kid who smiled and tried, there were four who spoke rudely or whose apathy was a line drawn in the ground of the battlefield that is the classroom.

I remember that my administration treated me like a child.

I remember that my voice was ragged, and my own creative endeavors outside of school nonexistent.

It was toxic. Maybe not always, and maybe not for everyone, but for me, my school and career had become a poisoned place.

I think the Divine One knows that to look back can hinder you until you carry that misery forward into the new life He has laid out in front of you. She knows it to the tune of salt. It is as though He refuses to allow you to carry that forward. It will keep those with you from travelling forward as they should. I don’t know why God chose such a drastic means of chastening Lot’s wife, but I am trying to remember that I do not want to become my own living salt statue, inert and crumbling, unable to connect with my husband, kids, or friends.

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I need to let go, and look forward to the blessings that await me on this new path:

Golf cart rides with my husband out on the verdant grounds of the renaissance festival, a renewed singing voice, time to write, respect from my boss, and work that is challenging on a large scale.

Walking away does not make me a loser. Setting down a burden that is smothering is not a failure. Life is not only struggle, it is release.

Note: I was searching through my drafts and found this one. This very week marks one year since I started my new job. My replacement took good, if disorganized, care of my students. I still miss teaching, but I am getting better at looking ahead and dreaming of what possibilities might lie ahead.