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Or a Dissertation is Like a Baby…

Announcing the safe delivery of Dissertation-Baby, weighing in at 225 pages, black and white, Times New Roman 12, double-spaced.  I truly feel as proud as if I’d given birth to another human being (which, God-willing, I will do in the middle of September).  There are so many parallels in the process and product of both the writing and birthing process:

1)       A loooong gestation period in which things start to come together in an as-yet-invisible form, but with lots of hope and excitement and sitting around.

2)      An extended labor process in which said baby enters the world in recognizable, though as-yet-unfinished, not-able-to-stand-on-its-own form.

3)      Lots of tears, pain, wondering if or when it’ll ever be over, when it’ll be able to stand on its own, to give you some space to live a normal life again

4)      An experience of testing yourself over and over again—your strength, self-confidence, stamina, faith, patience, energy, commitment, your sense of identity

5)      Learning through the process that you had more in you than you ever knew

6)      An immense feeling of pride at watching your baby go out into the world, and a strange feeling of nostalgia for all those days of stress, pain, tears, and temper tantrums after all!

So I have until May 5 to prepare for the two-hour oral defense in front of my three committee members and two outside readers.  But for now, I’m just going to relax in the feeling that there’s nothing I have to do today!  Yippee!!  Thanks to all of you (you know who you are) who supported me throughout this whole process.

*The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland

A couple weeks back, I volunteered to write and read aloud a meditation for the Stations of the Cross Good Friday service at my church, a service I’ve always loved.  Well, today I received an email requesting the meditation itself, though I’d never gotten a confirmation that I was indeed on the  list and that the Station I’d requested was the one I’d been assigned.  This was in the middle of working on my dissertation final draft, which is due next Friday.   Needless to say I was a bit freaked!  Luckily, it’s supposed to be 200 words maximum, so it’s not like I had to scramble together 200 pages (like I’m doing now for my dissertation!). 

I’d requested Station 13, when Jesus is taken down from the cross and placed in Mary’s arms; I thought, way back a couple of weeks ago, that in the interim I might have some great maternal inspiration with which to write about Mary, mother of God.  Er, not so much.  But as I thought about the station more, I was reminded of one of my favorite sermons of my own mother, a Christmas sermon about Mary offering her baby son to the world to hold, even those who are most intimidated or afraid of such an idea:  “Here, you can hold him.”  So I went from there, trying to figure out how Mary’s actions were fulfilled in that final act of having her son returned once more to her arms.  As a mother now I cannot imagine being asked to give up my child to death, but I can identify with that bittersweetness of letting go, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice one can make.  (Thanks, Mommy, for your inspiration and sacrifices; thanks, too, to my brilliant, eloquent husband for the opening sentence!)

STATION 13:  JESUS IS PLACED IN THE ARMS OF HIS MOTHER

Jesus had lain in Mary’s arms long before:  in a stable, under a star.  Even then Mary knew, though the child lay in her arms at the moment, that He was not hers, that He could not stay forever, either as a baby in her arms or as her son on this earth.  Mary, whose name means “bittersweet,” must have known truly that sadness mixed with joy, that longing for things to remain the same along with the knowledge that they never can.  It must have been a bittersweet moment indeed, when she offered her baby son to the trembling, humble arms of the poor shepherds, or the powerful, richly-clothed ones of the Magi.  In that moment, Mary gave up her son to the world, holding his fragile body out to all people, as if to say, “Here, you can hold him if you like.”  And on this Good Friday, as Jesus’s body is taken down from the cross, the world returns Mary’s son to her arms again, and in this last bittersweet moment Mary bears Christ once more, and for all.

Surrender:  (v.) To give up, resign, abandon, relinquish possession of, esp. in favour of or for the sake of another.  Also, to render, return (thanks, etc.).  (Oxford English Dictionary)

My church’s “Moms’ Group” is beginning a new book on Monday, called Surrendering to Motherhood, by Iris Krasnow.   Not knowing anything about either the author or, really, the subject matter or focus of the book itself, I found myself pondering the book’s title this week, turning it over in my mind to imagine what “surrendering to motherhood” might mean.

I thought about my aversion to major life changes, or at least ones I know will disrupt or significantly alter my routine, the way of life to which I have become accustomed.  Though I am deeply ashamed to admit it, when I found out I was pregnant in December of 2006, with a baby we’d been trying for and whom we truly wanted, it took me several weeks to fully embrace the fact that I was going to become a mother.  Rather than feeling the dreamy joy or giddiness every other expectant mother seemed to feel, I was terrified, wondering if this had been a mistake.  What the hell was I getting myself into?  How would this change my life?  How would having a baby limit my freedom or independence, change my identity forever?  I was doubly ashamed to admit this to anyone because I had so many friends desperately trying to have a baby, so I felt even more ungrateful and undeserving.  I found myself withdrawing, brooding in a not-healthy way, resenting already the changes to my life that this baby would bring.

Now, of course, looking back I can’t imagine life without AE, would not change a thing about becoming a mother or the new life that has meant.  And yet I already find myself, in thinking about a second child, resenting that child for once again placing me in that state of feeling tied down, limited to one identity and one way of being (at least when the child is a newborn), of feeling like nothing more than a milk machine, an exhausted, sore, weepy milk machine.  Because AE has gotten to an age where life feels “normal” again, where I have more freedom to have a life of my own.  And I am once again ashamed that once again I anticipate not receiving and enjoying the blessing of motherhood when so many friends would give anything for such a chance.

I know, of course, in my head, that life does get back to normal eventually, that I will once again feel human, feel more than a feeding/breeding machine, and that whatever child God blesses us with the next go-around will be, like AE, more amazing and breathtaking than I could possibly imagine.  I also know that the changes a child brings are all good ones, that children take you out of yourself in the best way possible, reminding you that there is more to life than YOU.   Embracing the period of the newborn baby reminds you just how dependent you are on God and on those who love you, reminds you that there is more to you than what you accomplished that day, that reminds you that you are not in control, and that all you can and should do is enjoy the present moment for the gift that it is.  I am so grateful for a God who blesses me even when I least deserve it, who forgives me my selfishness and ungratefulness.

But all this is to say, in pondering the phrase “surrendering to motherhood” I found that the word “surrender” opened up a whole new way of thinking about motherhood and about living life in general.  Once I surrendered to my new identity as mother, I was able to enjoy it.  When I am not spending all my time and energy fighting against something (most especially a blessing!), I can enjoy it, appreciate it.  What a life-giving way to be, to surrender to what life presents, both the good and the bad.  Because in surrendering you acknowlege your weakness, and you save lots and lots of time and energy fighting against things over which you have no control.

What if, instead of railing at minor frustrations like not being able to find a place to park downtown, or having to run errands I don’t enjoy (I know, poor me, what First World problems I suffer from!), what if I surrender to current circumstances, not in the sense of “giving up,” but of “embracing,” but also, as the OED defines it, of “giving back” my (fantasied) sense of control to God, the one whose plan is far better than any I could imagine or hope for.   (One of the moms in my church group once said that she’d learned she HAD to let the small things slide by, because if she used all her energy getting upset about those little things, what would she have left for the things that are truly difficult?  And I have found that to be SO true; those are some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard:  I’ll spend a day getting so worked up, so angry or resentful about small inconveniences, and find I have so depleted my emotional store that I’ve got nothing left with which to face the truly terrible, should it arise.  I mean, goodness gracious, if I throw up my hands in abject frustration or fury because the vacuum cleaner broke, what on earth will I do when something really goes wrong??)

And what if I surrender also “for the sake of another”?  In surrendering to motherhood, or to dissertation revisions, or to housework or to money worries, I relinquish my resistance, and I do it for the sake of those around me who witness a much calmer, more centered, and less self-focused me.  Surrendering to being AE’s mom means I give up part of myself (which also happens to be the self-centered, lazy part) to serve her as Christ wants me to and as Christ does every day of her life.

That is such a freeing concept to me, the idea of humble, grateful, selfless surrender.  And the added blessing is, of course, that in surrendering I gain more than I ever thought I lost.  I hereby surrender to today.

+ Riding the Metro into the city the other day, I saw a woman, probably in her twenties, who (like many people riding the rails) had her iPod on, earbuds plugged in.  Unlike many others, though, she was mouthing the words, and dancing to whatever she was listening to.   She wasn’t like some of our friends and neighbors often seen on the train– slightly nutty or inebriated–she was just, it seemed, happy.  And it occurred to me that you can’t dance if you’re unhappy.  I tried to picture myself wanting to dance when I was stressed or sad or angry or even tired, and I couldn’t.   I knew without a doubt that this girl was having a good day, because she was dancing– by herself, for herself–just because.  It was something I’d never thought about, but made me wonder:  what else is like that, what else do we only do when we’re happy?

+ Girls Gone Child had a lovely post recently about children playing in a playground.  How kids like her son will just walk into a playground, go up to the first child they see, say hello and ask, “Do you want to play?”  And then, friends in an instant, the children will play for as long as they’re there– making up games, playing make-believe, having fun, just being.  The author then notes how different the parents appear– all self-segregated, shy, sizing each other up, insecure.  And it is so true.  The children don’t see different socioeconomic backgrounds, they don’t talk politics, judge appearances, worry about looking like a loser.

     I’ve been thinking lately about how we as people really just want to be around like-minded people; that while we may have friends with whom we disagree, the folks we most enjoy spending time with are the ones who share our basic value and belief systems.  You can see people visibly relax when they realize the person to whom they’re speaking gets them, agrees with them.   While some of us may like to debate or argue with people, at the end of the day I’d bet we also just want to relax with like-minded people.  That’s when we can let our guard down, can trust that we’re not going to have to defend something we feel strongly about against the disagreement or skepticism of another.  I find myself feeling very lonely at times in certain circles of my daily life– like I don’t truly relax until I am back in the company of like-minded people.  I might enjoy spending time with those others, but I never feel at peace, at home.

+ I’ve also been thinking about all the things we don’t say to one another, either out of kindness or to avoid an awkward situation, or because we don’t want to offend or because we feel guilty or feel it’s not our place.  Even among our most intimate relationships, among those people we love and know best in the world, think of all the things we don’t say, for one reason or another.  Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means, it’s just interesting, the spaces that remain between us.

+  I had absolutely no idea, when I became a mother, how difficult the daily struggle would be, between balancing work and mothering.  I don’t mean the day-to-day stresses, but the emotional divide I feel.   Every time I drop AE off at daycare I am sad.  And yet, when I am in the midst of doing what  I love (professionally), I am so happy, so energized.  One day last week AE was in daycare for a full 8.5-hour day, which is rare.  And though I had a great, fulfilling, productive day, when I picked her up and realized that I’d missed an entire day, including the couple of hours we usually spend together in the morning, I felt so wistful, nostalgic.  I think it’s a case of “the grass is always greener,” because I know, when I sit there struggling with an essay and longing to just be with AE, hanging out, that that’s not always how it is, that it’s not always fun and games, that I am not, when it’s happening, enjoying every second of it.  And I know that if I chose to stay at home, I would feel this vague sense of something missing.  So instead I have a vague sense of something missing in both roles.  Which is fine, and normal, and healthy, I know.  But sometimes it’s really, really, emotionally taxing, to constantly feel pulled between two heart’s desires.  I knew that these kinds of feelings would arise from time to time; I just didn’t know it’d be every day.  That every leave-taking, no matter the reason, would be tinged with sadness.  Of course, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but one thing parenthood is teaching me is that almost everything is bittersweet, each moment is so precious and yet it so easily slips by.  In one moment you can feel the utmost joy and the utmost pain.  It’s a strange, new way of life.

“Pops” and I just finished watching Julie and Julia, the blog-turned-book-turned movie about Julie Powell’s yearlong journey through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Last summer I read Child’s memoirs, My Life in France, in which she recounts moving to France with her husband Paul in the 1940s, speaking not a word of French and having no idea what she’d do with herself while her husband was at work.  As everyone now knows, she ended up falling in love with everything French, especially French food, and learned how to cook, then brought French cooking into everyday American kitchens.  Her cookbook took several forms and involved various cooks, writers, photographers and editors over more than 8 years, but finally it was published.  Julie Powell’s blog chronicled her attempts at every recipe in the book over a period of 365 days at a point in her life where she felt lost, directionless, and doomed to failure.

The movie had its faults, but what “Pops” walked away with was this:  Julie Powell’s mother, whom we know in the movie merely as a voice on the telephone, is portrayed as this negative, pessimistic, nagging parent.  Most of Julie’s friends are portrayed as materialistic, shallow, self-centered, joyless even in their wealth and professional success.  Even Julie’s husband in the movie was, I thought, a bit of a bump on a log.  So, as Pops noticed, for Julie to “find” Julia and to get to know her (or her idea of Julia) through her experience of cooking and writing, meant that Julie found someone whose way of living and being granted her new life in a very real sense.  From Julia, Julie learned to master not only the art of French cooking but the art of living. 

In Julia Child’s memoirs, one gets the sense that even as she moved from place to place (for her husband’s government service appointments), Julia bloomed where she was planted.  And even though she and her husband were never able to have children, her works (her cookbook, her memoirs, her television cooking lessons) had such a far-reaching impact.  In this movie, Julia Child “mothers” Julie Powell, even though they never meet, in a way that Julie’s never did.

What a great thing to remember:  that our works, whether they be our children or our passions or our jobs, or even our actions in daily life, have such an impact.  They may inspire people to do great things or even just to do something different.  I’d like my friends and family to help me remember to live in such a way that I can be confident that my impact, however small, is a positive one.  Since I do have a child, I ask my loved ones to remind me, when I get down deep in day-to-day annoyances or my own moods or stresses, to pay attention to how I am living– to think about the sort of impact I am making on my daughter.  I hope that her childhood memories of me are that I was a joyful person attuned to and grateful for all the richness that life offers.  That I bloomed where I was planted.  That I pursued my passions with singleminded dedication and perseverance but without forgetting the daily joys of family and friends.  I hope that when AE is a young woman making her way in the world, that she can think of her mother, as I do my own mother, as an example she wants to emulate.  My parents bring so much joy to those around them, make people feel so loved and unique and supported; they take joy in the pleasures of life such as good food, beautiful art, fellowship.   As I continue to make my way in the world, and support my children in their own journeys, I want to say “thank you”– thank you for showing me what it means to have a “good appetite” for life.

Last night M and I tried to play hide-and-seek with AE.  It was precious because it was clear she had no idea how it is supposed to work.  First, she and M were supposed to count while I hid, except she expected me to hide in the same place everytime.  Then, we let Daddy hide, except while we were counting, she had her eyes wide open and was peeking around trying to see where he was headed.  Then when it was her turn to hide, she hid in the same spot M had just used.  And while M and I pretended to look for her, I could see her out of the corner of my eye, just standing there in her “hiding place,” smiling expectantly.  I think she’d have stayed there as long as we pretended to be looking for her.

Later, she was playing with  her favorite babydoll, and I asked her, “What’s your baby’s name?”  She thought for a minute and replied, “Mommy Ashely.” 

These days she doesn’t really want me to rock her for more than about 15 seconds.  Once I put her into bed and try to start rubbing her back, she’ll say, “Mommy, you go shower and go night-night.  Close the door!”

And that’s that!

When did this little baby turn into a little girl?  It’s so strange to look back at photos of AE when she was a newborn, or a little fuzzy-headed baby, or a crawling toddler.  To try and remember what it was like when she didn’t speak, when we didn’t yet know “who” she was, who she would be.  How was the world ever complete before she came along?  How has she not been with me all along?   I think she has.


HAPPINESS

John had
Great Big
Waterproof
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Hat;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Mackintosh --
And that
(Said John)
Is
That.

~A.A. Milne
 

AE got her first pair of rainboots today.  I took her to the park

after school (so that we could also throw the ball for Polly),

and she sploshed around in the puddles of the sand volleyball court.

Just as proud as she could be.  She delighted in asking me, "Mama,

come with me?" so that I would say, "I don't have magic rainboots

on so I can't splash in the puddles!" Then she'd beam so bright I

thought the sky would clear just to give Miss Sunshine some space.

Last night AE’s dad was working late and I had a craving for sushi, so I took AE to our favorite sushi/hibachi place.  She was an absolute doll the whole time; she ate her edamame and her avocado roll with gusto (she eats the rice and avocado out of the sushi roll, leaving the seaweed, for which I can’t blame her, since that seaweed never really chews, but feels like you’re chawing on some masking tape or something).  She talked and laughed, and watched the hibachi cook making people’s meals.  She’s normally terrified of the fire when it flames up on the grill, but since we were sitting up at the sushi bar, comfortably far away, she was not afraid and in fact loved watching the men cook.  It’s a testament to how often we go there that she knew before he did it that the cook was going to throw an egg into the top of his hat as part of his tricks.  I told her, “I’m scared of the fire!” just to play with her a bit.  She was in my lap at this point, after we were done eating, and she stood up and turned around, wrapped her little arms around my neck, placed her cheek to mine, and patted me on the arm to comfort me.  Stayed there for about 3 minutes.

Then we walked to the grocery store, and she had her little hands in her coat pockets, all grown up and proud.  She pushed the child-size cart around the store and after we paid, she carried the little bag of groceries like it was a treasure.  We had such a nice little time together, chatting, laughing, singing, just being together.  It was the first time I’d had a glimpse of what it’ll be like to go out to dinner with her when she’s, say, 10 years old, and I realized just how much fun I have in store for me, watching her grow into the person she’s becoming, seeing the world through her eyes.  I can’t wait to learn what makes her heart sing and what makes it ache, what is important to her and how she expresses herself.

My mom was talking last week at Thanksgiving about how sweet but terribly sad it is to watch us all go our separate ways, how heart-wrenching it is as a mother to let your children go.  I feel I already get glimpses of this in moments such as last night.  AE is already too long to comfortably snuggle in the rocking chair with me at night as I rock her, more interested in the world around her than she is in me, but with these moments of pure tenderness and love where she reminds me of the baby she used to be.  Parenthood is a roller coaster of emotions, each moment containing in it the greatest joy and also the greatest grief– heart-aching longing for your child, desiring to experience fully each breath with her but also feeling your throat tighten at the awareness of just how fleeting each breath is.  I ache to think of watching her walk away from me on the first day of kindergarten or on her wedding day, but I am so eternally grateful to be here for her life.

Almighty God, heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children: Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

~ Book of Common Prayer

Random thoughts for the day:

Cold weather, even if it’s sunny, makes me somehow feel as if I am ill—makes me feel sort of stiff, achy, fragile, and also like I have a fever. I guess it’s that cold-skin feeling, even under your clothes.  So even on the most beautiful cold winter day I feel less alive.  I know lots of people who love cold weather and I love them, but I honestly to my core don’t understand how you can love the cold, the bare trees, the darkness.  I understand why people used to imagine that in Eden there was no winter, only fall into spring.

I love watching my dog roll around in the sunshine on the grass.  It makes me feel better about the world.

I used to sometimes, if not often, wake up in the morning feeling sad and a bit hopeless, just mildly depressed and for no good (or even identifiable) reason.  And Sunday evenings I had those blah feelings again.  But since my daughter was born I never get that feeling.  There is something about waking up to a little life in the next room, whether it’s happy or sad, that invokes some sort of good feeling.  Even if it’s just a momentary heart-stopping feeling when she cries out, of wondering if she’s sick or hurt.  Or more likely, I just hear her in her room talking or singing to herself, and my heart fills up.  And on those Sunday evenings– or anytime in which I used to find myself feeling a bit at loose ends, not knowing what I wanted to do next or feeling bored– I now feel comfort and joy, watching  AE  play and live in the moment.  Makes me cherish the times I do have the luxury of feeling bored or restless.  Having a child takes you out of yourself in the best way possible. 

I’m currently reading about Christian attitudes toward Islam during the medieval and early modern periods in England.  And it strikes me again how little we change over the centuries.  How there’s something inside of us—small, mean, and broken—that wants to take down something that frightens or confuses or threatens us.  I struggle a lot with the whole question of who’s got the “right” answer to who God is, what God is like.  In my heart, though, I have to admit that Christianity is “it” for me, while at the same time accepting that Judaism or Islam or Buddhism might be “it” for another.  For me, Christianity means joy and redemption, two things I could not live without.  I’m not in charge of the rest of the world, only of myself, and even that to a very limited degree.