This article was written as a feature for the Be Zine and will be published later today.
Spiritual Lessons from Nature #5
The great fur bulk lies supine, inert, warm, creating a sheltered harbor in the deep snow in contrast to the flat, icy landscape. Two milky cubs clamber dough-footed all around, exploring clumsily, arousing no concern. They orbit close by, drawing into contact periodically to suckle and nuzzle. The wind blows a moderately threatening question of survival through the morning. Mother closes her eyes to the sting, looking sleepy and stupid, lifting her blinking face to the sun. She is the solid thing in a shifting drift, placid and mountainous, serenely established on the face of the horizon.
This image of motherhood was suggested to me by a wise psychiatrist as I sat in her Pasadena home with my husband while our daughter crawled at our feet. I was 22 years old and suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety. I wanted to be the perfect parent, to do everything right in order to raise up a child who would take her place as a blessed jewel in the crown of my god. My models spoke in scriptural tones, living or in print. My aspirations were clear, I thought, my inspiration abundant.
And I was exhausted.
The good doctor looked at my 98-pound frame and announced her diagnosis with authority. She looked at my daughter exploring a paperback with her fingers and mouth and recognized great intelligence. It seemed to her that we were not badly broken or dysfunctional, but we needed to relax. Parenting is a living thing, a responsive dance with biology, and although we humans are biologically social creatures, heavy-handed social structure can strangle our relationships and bind us into damaging patterns. My reliance on the authority of these constructs seemed helpful at first, but that lock-step really tripped me up when my children were in their teenage years.
The tendency to defer to “experts” in my Western affluent culture is a dangerous trend for parenting, I think. It can lead to a mistrust of instinct and compassion. That can also translate to lower self-confidence and heightened anxiety in both parent and child. I see that demonstrated in stories of helicopter parent vigilantes, DCSF over-reactions, and soaring statistics on depression and suicide in young people. I also see that in my own 4 children 30 years after my initial visit to an “expert”. They are still working out their concerns about “doing it right” and their responsibility to “make good decisions”. A good decision is perhaps a lot easier to make than we suppose.
My only son was born hastily into the world when the doctor noticed fecal matter in his amniotic fluid. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck as well. At six pounds and six ounces, he had a slight case of jaundice. I brought my fragile bundle home, and the hospital equipped us with a bili light to give him extra skin exposure to the blue light that would help convert bilirubin. I was instructed to give him plenty of fluids and to let him lie under that lamp in just a diaper and protective eye shades for a good 8 hours a day. I kept a detailed record of the time he spent nursing and how much glucose water he would drink from a bottle, and I charted his time in the bili-box. Newborns have an instinctive response to feeling a “sudden loss of support” called the “Moro reflex”. They flail their arms out and cry. This is what my son did when he was in that chamber. It broke my heart. I decided, in my 24 year old wisdom, that what he needed more was to be swaddled and held. So I wrapped him up tight and carried him into the living room. My mother was visiting and helping me with my older child. I poured out to her my worry about whether I should follow the doctor’s instructions to the letter or whether I should comfort my son. She and I commiserated about the difficulties of parenting, and I realized that she wasn’t going to help me decide. She was going to help me by letting me decide and supporting my decision.
And that’s the other sustaining image of motherhood I gained early in my parenting.
When they’re young, lie down with them. When they’re older, support their decisions. Your presence is the greatest gift you can give your children. Don’t try to give them too much of anything else. They need to get those other things themselves.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
I probably greeted about 200 mothers at work today. I talked to each of my 4 children on the telephone, and left e-mail and voice mail messages for my own mother. Mother’s Day was sunny and bright and happy, or at least seemed to be, here in the Midwest. The local grocery store ran a sale, as did most businesses, and featured a picture of a mother and daughter in 1950s style matching dresses, matching pearls and matching smiles on their outdoor sign. How American. How stereotypical. How misleading.
Every mother-child relationship is unique. We use the term “mother” for convenience, like we do any other word, and run the risk of that symbol replacing the concept of an actual individual living out a particular life in a particular way. This is where we have to be vigilant and intentional in order to keep from assuming a role instead of forming a relationship. My mother is not a cookie cut-out on an assembly line. Neither am I. Nor are my children. I want us to know each other as real people, in the present tense. We have histories together that span our lifetimes, but we are always evolving. I don’t want to get stuck in old habits, old emotions, old psychological baggage. I want to keep a vital, dynamic exchange going with these people whom I so dearly love. That takes effort. Distance complicates it. It takes dedicated time, too. I am humbled by the idea of loving my mother and loving my children. I want to have more than the sentimental attachment or the Hallmark moment once a year. I desire more and they deserve more. I guess this is another way that “convenience” and ease can lull us into accepting a substitute. Just send the card, the flowers, the e-mail. Say the words, do the brunch, go through the motions. Done. Off the hook for another year. Nope, not good enough; not to me. I want to slow down, appreciate, be present, be real. I want to know and be known. I want intimacy. It’s actually a scary venture, so I’ll only try that with a few people in my life. I think my mother and my children qualify. So, my darlings, I’ll keep trying to overcome the distances. You are very important to me.
I crossed a threshold. My life was completely altered, impacted, and enhanced by a single event: I gave birth. What that has taught me about myself, from biology to personal philosophy, and about the rest of the world by extension, might fill a future book. Today, I’ll just touch on a few categories.
Biology – I was 21 when I got pregnant, 22 when I gave birth. I weighed about 105 lbs. starting out and 128 lbs. at delivery. Baby Sooz weighed 7 lbs. 4 oz. I had never experienced so much physical change in so short a time, and each new symptom and sign astonished me. I remember looking at myself in a full length mirror and thinking that I looked like a road map, every vein in bright blue following the landscape of my pregnant body. Weird! I read every bit of literature the doctor handed me with utter fascination, and photographs of babies in utero by Lennart Nilsson kept me spellbound for hours.
Family – My mother had given birth just 11 years before me, and that had been the most exciting thing in my life at the time. I would rush home from school every day to play with the baby. I read all the baby magazines that came in the weekly diaper service delivery. At 22, I wanted to be as confident, as devoted, as blissful a mother as I found my own mother to be. My father helped me pick a name. I had originally intended to name my first daughter after my sister who had died at 20, but then, the thought of using that name all the time for another person began to seem odd. Then my father told me that he dreamed about a little girl named Susan, and that name sounded just right with my sister’s name following. And, of course, she got my husband’s Italian last name to add the exotic touch. First grandchild on both sides. Three generations assembled for her baptism. A whole lot of expectation going on.
Personality – Just after delivery, I was wheeled to the recovery room with the baby in my arms. The baby. Susan. Not my baby, not my daughter, not my family’s latest addition. Susan. A person I had just met. She had a bunch of dark hair on the top of her head. My husband and I were blonde. I looked into her completely alert brown eyes and told her, “I love you.” It was a conscious act of will. She hadn’t done anything, yet. I didn’t feel anything, yet. I was stating my intent for our relationship, for my own benefit. I don’t think anyone else was paying attention. I wanted to start things off with a pledge to her, and I wanted to leave room for her to be herself. I remember being conscious of that position when I spoke to her for the first time. I love that she has been teaching me about who she is ever since.
Education – Showing a young person the world for the first time is an absolute joy – a shared joy, too. I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve always loved learning. To have the opportunity to engage enthusiastically with new experiences day after day is the greatest part of parenting, I think. Language acquisition, scientific experiment, art, music, dance, games, literature….oh, wow! The truth is, I was afraid to take her out into the world outside much. We lived in a rather nasty section of Southern California. I didn’t feel safe in the neighborhood, so we spent a lot of time indoors, truthfully. I did take her to my college town a few miles away for outdoor exploration pretty regularly, though. What I remember is a lot of time together looking at books and that when a friend asked to test her IQ just out of curiosity, her gross motor skill were the only ones that weren’t advanced for her age. So, she’s not an athlete. But, man, does she read!
Literature – My father delighted in bringing literature into her life. When she was able to sound out words of three letters just before her third birthday, he wrote her little stories containing only words of three letters or less. He sent her cassette tapes of family readings of Dr. Seuss books and various musical selections. We visited the children’s library every week and took home as much as we could carry. Very early, it was Richard Scarry for vocabulary, Peter Spier for detailed illustrations to talk about, A.A. Milne for poetry and stories. Later, I remember going through all of Dr. Seuss and Bill Peet and Chris Van Allsburg and Steven Kellogg and Robert McCloskey because it was quicker to just find their stuff all at once and check out…this was when I had younger kids in tow. Then the day I knew would come finally did. She surpassed me. Her reading speed and voracity and curiosity outstripped mine. She read Stephen King’s It at the age of 9. I hadn’t read it, and I didn’t want to read it. She was on her own. (Not that she didn’t do that earlier; she probably did. But this was the one I remembered.)
Psychology – This section would require her approval and collaboration. Suffice it to say that we have learned a lot together about who we are, who others are, and how to be in relationship. We have always “gotten along”, though, and shared a remarkable honesty. As adults, we really enjoy each other’s company and we genuinely like each other. We stimulate each other in all sorts of ways…like sharing a history that enables us to reference entire concepts and discussions with one or two words.
I think that our first conversation was prophetic:
“I love you.”
*brown eyes alert, gazing back, positive*
Stay tuned for Sunday’s blog, where I’ll probably write about how we celebrated her birthday in Madison the night before….