I became a mother a year after I was married, when I was only 22. I had recently graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a prestigious women’s college, and the prevailing response to my new role was, “Why are you throwing away your education to be a mom?” followed closely by “Why are you throwing away the freedom of your twenties to be a mom?” I was wracked with anxiety about whether I was “old enough” to take on the awesome responsibility of Motherhood. I was a very young-looking mother; I got accosted in public places by people who felt compelled to tell me what I was doing wrong with my child and with my life. I turned to my church community for support and was mentored by some wonderful women. Then I took on a leadership role and led a group I called M.O.M.S. (Mothers Offering Mutual Support) for 9 years. These MOMS were mostly older than me and from an affluent suburb of Chicago. Motherhood was most often discussed in terms of practical instruction in efficiency, in education, in success.
Now that my nest is empty, I am turning my consciousness more and more to Nature. It is now that I am more thoroughly accepting, befriending, and appreciating the tremendous biological grounding of life. I notice how my attitudes and concerns have shifted away from social influences. I feel the memories of Mothering in my body; I am beginning to forget the words, the events, the situations. Childbearing was a fine activity for my twenties. I gave birth 4 times without surgery or drugs. I rarely drank alcohol. I never smoked anything. I nursed all of my children for a full year. In my thirties, I cuddled and carried and played. I was not an athlete, and I was not particularly wise about food, but I was healthy. In my forties, I was stressed. My husband was dying. My teen aged children were struggling. I started making relaxation a “conscious effort”. I found it difficult to regain my biological grounding, so I would go off to the prairies and woods near my home – alone – as often as I could.
Now, in my fifties, I am rarely stressed. I do notice a gentle waning of energy. I have zero gray hairs, but I do have drier, spottier skin. I don’t feel “old”, but I do feel “mellowed”.
I suppose that my thoughts today on Motherhood are simply about the awesomeness of Life. As far removed as modern humans may be from the rhythms of biology, that pulse continues. When all the screens go dead, when all the mini-vans run out of gas, when all the PTAs and soccer leagues disperse and the suburban homes fall into the dust, there will still be the energy of Life seeking a new generation. It will find a way. I enjoy feeling part of that flow.
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.
For many of us, Mom is our first and best teacher. Celebrating my mother’s 80 years brings to mind crucial life skills that she patiently nurtured in me. Here’s a list of 10:
1) How to make a friend. My first friend was the boy who lived next door. He was a year younger than I, and I don’t remember much about him except that we called him “B” even though his name was Todd. I was only 4 when we moved. Our next house was much larger and our next door neighbors didn’t have children. I remember sitting on the front steps feeling lonely when a boy from up the street walked up our driveway. I ran inside to tell my mother that someone was in our yard. She came out with me, greeted him, and asked him his name. He rattled off 4 names so fast it made my head spin. She asked him to repeat it, slower. With her coaxing, we finally learned his name, that he lived 2 doors down, and that he was a year younger than I. I had my new friend!
2) How to take a break. My mother enforced nap time, even when we were on vacation. I was 10 when the family went to Hawaii. My 3 older sisters and I wanted to go swimming in the hotel pool as soon as we got settled, but Mom was pregnant and jet-lagged, so nap time was enforced. We squirmed around for an hour in our room but didn’t sleep, insisting we were too old for naps. By dinner time, I was face down in my coconut chicken. I have been an avid napper ever since.
3) How to join a community. My mom was my first Girl Scout leader. She eagerly got involved in meetings, field trips, camping, and promoting the Girl Scout way. I stayed with Girl Scouts through my senior year in High School, traveled to New England on a National Opportunity, learned to ski, and served as cookie chairman for my troop. I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of skills, and finally developed some self-confidence. It wasn’t always cool to be a Girl Scout, but it turned out to be a useful path to awesome for both of us.
4) How to make a pie. This is a skill that goes beyond simply following instructions. Pie crust is tricky. It crumbles and breaks a lot, but it’s supposed to. You must treat it delicately but not too tentatively. At first, my job in pie-making was to “pie pray”. That meant that my mother would tell me to pray as she was lifting the rolled dough up into the pan. She wasn’t ready to let me actually handle it. Eventually, I earned the right to do the whole process. Making a pie involves a lot of decisions. Making a pie with an apprentice involves a lot more. What and when do you delegate? When do you give up control? It’s as much about negotiating as it is about baking.
5) How to iron…or not iron. My father insisted on using cotton handkerchiefs his whole life. He did not use Kleenex. They were washed in hot water and ironed to sterilize them. He cycled through hundreds of handkerchiefs in a month, and my mother had all 4 of her daughters taking a share of the ironing. We also learned to iron our own clothing and were expected to keep our ironing pile under control. I ironed weekly throughout junior high and high school. When I got to college, the iron was stored on my top shelf and was only used on my choir uniform. My museum costume gets ironed, otherwise I’d probably not even own one now. Just because you have a skill doesn’t mean you have to use it.
6) How to study. My mother and I have similar learning styles. We retain organized information easily, and we never forget a song. The most detailed and peculiar stuff can be absorbed if we draw up a study chart and create a mnemonic device. This is how I got top grades and a B. A. in music. Write it down; make it up. Works for us!
7) How to interview for a job. The hardest thing for me to learn in this area was not to disqualify myself in the first place. I really wanted a job as a camp counselor when I came home from college my sophomore year, but I had a million excuses in my way. I didn’t want to be too far away from my boyfriend; I didn’t know how to drive very well; I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have enough experience or a resume. My mother lit a fire under me. We found a camp just up the mountain listed in the Yellow Pages; she copied an article from Sierra Club News that had a picture of me playing the guitar to a bunch of kids to show the interviewer; she drove me to the interview and sparked up an enthusiastic conversation with the director. The rest is history. I worked there for two years and the director was a bridesmaid in my wedding. It’s still true that my biggest limitations are the ones I imagine in my own mind. I’m grateful that my mother doesn’t live in my head and can draw me out of it.
8) How to be appreciative. One of the greatest gifts we have to give the world is our appreciation. It’s a win-win activity. It makes others feel good that we’re feeling good about something. It’s easy to do, really, because there’s so much in this world to appreciate. The trick is not to be shy. Take a risk, show your appreciation, and be specific. When I first attempted to make bread in Home Ec class in junior high, I brought a slice home, wrapped in a napkin. I have a distinct picture of my mother sitting on the side of her bed, tenderly unwrapping it and remarking enthusiastically on its texture and its smell and then finally taking a small, leisurely bite. “Oh! It’s like Anadama bread!” She showed such pleasure that I was grinning all afternoon. She is not a bread-baker, but I find it one of the simplest, most rewarding things I do now.
9) How to be tolerant and open. It’s easy to throw judgments about other people around, habitually, casually or accidentally, and even easier to harbor them in your own wounded psyche. My grandmother and my father, though near and dear to my mom and me, were both guilty of rejecting others and treating them unkindly. It was very confusing to me to see these people whom I liked and admired showing such prejudice, but my mother was good at including and befriending others despite her mother’s or her husband’s disapproval. I don’t remember any big arguments or scenes, just that my mother kept up her associations loyally, somehow, nevertheless. My own sister was not welcomed by my father for 25 years, until Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him to recognize her. She always had a place in Mom’s life, though, and we would visit together while my dad went out. I can only wonder how these differences were discussed between my parents.
10) How to keep learning. Stay open, stay interested, stay enthusiastic. I trust that my mother is delighted by something new each day. I hear about the new people she’s meeting at her senior living community and her discovery of the binder containing their biographies. She relates bits of fascination every time we talk. She is always making connections between people and stories and places and ideas like she’s weaving a great, joyful tapestry together. I hope I’m like her when I’m 80!
If you’re just visiting this blog for the first time, you’ve stepped into the fourth day of my birthday project for my mom, who is turning 80 years old on New Year’s Eve. Today’s list of 10 things is about Parenting Principles. My mother is, naturally, my primary example of mothering. She and I both became parents for the first time at the age of 22. She raised 5 children to adulthood; I raised 4. Wisdom doesn’t come with numbers or statistics, though. Wisdom comes in the actual practice of decision-making in love. It’s not about adopting a “right way”, it’s about living out of your values and making choices that you deem appropriate. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 ideas of mothering that Mom communicated to me over the years.
1) Your marriage comes first. This piece of advice she always attributed to her mom. The simple logic is this: your family starts out with just the two of you and will end up with just the two of you. That twosome is the foundation for all that happens in the middle. Obviously, this arrangement isn’t what everyone chooses or how events transpire for all. But in the throes of child-rearing, it helps to keep a perspective on who you want to be. If you want to be all about the kids, then it’s likely they will grow up happily at center-stage and leave happily stage left, and you’ll be left standing unhappily onstage with a stranger. Keep the action going between you, and let the other characters come and go.
2) Learn to feed yourself before feeding your family. This is like the airline adage, “Place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.” After her wedding, my mother immediately took up the challenge of feeding her new husband “in the manner to which he was accustomed”, meaning that she taught herself how to make recipes handed down from his nurse/nanny, Agnes. Her time of early experimentation and solid study in the culinary arts led to her success as an accomplished gourmet later. I had planned to have 5 years of marriage under my belt before attempting motherhood, but I got pregnant 4 months after the wedding. I was immediately nauseated by the smell of food before I’d even learned how to cook on my own. I lost weight in the beginning of the pregnancy and rapidly after the baby was born. Postpartum depression reduced me to 98 pounds while I was trying to breastfeed. I was literally struggling for survival. Bottom line: learn to cook and eat, even if it seems like the last thing you want to do.
3) Prepare for delivery. My mother is a model of responsibility in many ways, not the least of which is her health. She educated herself about her body and her options in childbirth and made her decisions with my father, I’m sure, but not based on his participation. He was not ready to be one of those Sensitive New Age Dads who goes to Lamaze or presides in the delivery room. He stayed at home in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1962 and in 1973. I’m sure he had other options by the last birth, but his choice was to let my mom “carry on”. For her first four births, she had her labor induced. Why? Well, she was living on the Marblehead Neck and could be separated from the mainland by a storm at any time. She prepared.
4) Breasts have a clear purpose. In America in the ’50s, scientists tried to impress society with ‘modern’ and ‘better’ ways to live. It was all about innovation and technology and product placement. Sound familiar? Mom wasn’t buying. She was also not washing and sterilizing and mixing formula. She had the correct equipment already on hand, thank you. And she intended to use it. And when she turned 50 and the doctors told her that her equipment was sprinkled with carcinoma in situ, she said, “Well, I’m not going to worry myself into a state while that progresses in any way. I’m done using them. Take them away.” She’s 30 years cancer free. A survivor, a pragmatist, an example of responsibility to me.
5) Cotton is best. It’s natural, it breathes, and it doesn’t irritate your skin. Use cotton diapers, cotton balls and cotton clothing. No plastic diapers or synthetic wipes or flame-retardant coating. Following Mom’s advice, I used a diaper service that delivered fresh, clean cotton diapers to my home every week when I was raising babies in California and Illinois in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was amazed to find 4 years ago that there are NO diaper services AT ALL in metropolitan Milwaukee any more.
6) There’s always room for one more, especially in your heart. This is an attitude of abundance and inclusion that is very generous and non-anxious, which I like. However, with 7 billion people flooding the global eco-system these days, it begs careful examination and consideration. Make your decisions accordingly. Mom gave me some “outside of the box” advice when baby number 4 came along while we were still living in 1050 square feet of house in Southern California. Lacking another bedroom, another crib, or even another bassinet, The Domestic Engineer suggested we could always pull out the bottom dresser drawer and line it with blankets or use the bathtub.
7) Don’t think you’re too old for one more, either. My mother gave birth at 39 to her last child. The gap between me and my brother is just 3 days short of 11 years. Everyone was surprised, even Mom, but the pregnancy was never ‘an accident’, and she finally had a son. You’re never too old for one more plot twist as well. I became pregnant after my husband had had a vasectomy, when my youngest was 6. It was certainly unexpected, but I was thrilled. I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks, which was not entirely anticipated, either. Stay light on your feet.
8) Never miss a teaching opportunity. When my brother was borne home from the hospital, I was 11 years old and my sisters were 13, 14, and 16. We were ripe to learn babysitting skills at least and mothering skills for the future. It went over well with prospective employers to tell them that I had been helping care for an infant at home for a year before I started babysitting other children. As my brother grew, I watched my mother’s parenting from a different perspective. I noted how much time she took with him, reading to him, letting him explore, listening to his talk, getting involved in his schooling, etc. I saw patience and willingness and diligence and, yes, worry. Parenting is not easy; it is complicated, and it requires effort. But it is rewarding on many levels.
9) Even worst case scenarios are teaching opportunities. My mother has survived the number one stress on the parenting list. On any list. The death of a child. Alice was technically an adult at 20, but she was still my mother’s child. She was driving from California to Ohio to begin her senior year at college. Alice fell asleep at the wheel in Nebraska, going 80 mph on Interstate 80, rolled the car and was killed instantly. I was her only passenger. I saw my mother’s grief first hand, also her capability. She flew out on several connecting flights to reach me the morning after the accident. She comforted me in my confusion and shock and made all the legal and practical arrangements to get us back to California. She navigated the complex waters of all of the ripples and storms caused in that one, tragic moment with grace, with authentic grief, and with compassion for everyone affected. Somehow, she did all this without a therapist, too. I think she’s always been good at knowing herself, at learning and communicating, and at being patient and allowing healing to arise. That makes for good parenting, for your children and for your own inner child.
10) Trust yourself. A happy family isn’t beyond you. Just remember, you have to allow your idea of “happy” to be fluid. My mother came to the dinner table one night before my sister was killed, and recounted a visit with some door-to-door evangelists. She had told them proudly that we already had a “happy Christian family”. Many things changed beginning that night and afterward that challenged that idea, many more than I can go into here. Nevertheless, my mother remains happy with her family. That is her, again, taking responsibility. She is not a complainer. She is not dogmatic about attachments and expectations. She allows herself to create, co-create and re-create happiness as life unfolds. Her progeny goes beyond the children she has produced to a host of other projects. Parenting is about life-giving and life-nurturing, a worthy work for a lifetime. I think my mom is doing a great job….still.
Preschool crush plants a kiss. “Isn’t that cute?!” Mom takes a picture.
Grade school crush writes a note. Revelation: someone likes you. Mom smiles.
Middle school crush messes with your self-esteem. Why and why not? Mom worries.
High school crush introduces adult intimacy. Are there rules? Mom intervenes.
College crush invites self-exploration. What if? Mom doesn’t know.
Post-college crush proposes solid possibilities. What will I choose for myself?
Mom leaves it up to you and breathes relief.
Mom takes a picture.
I don’t have a television, so I don’t see a lot of commercials. Still, I find NBA games on the internet and catch a few ads in the process. There’s one for a fried chicken franchise that particularly bothers me. Here’s the set-up: two teenaged kids have made a rare venture out of their rooms to join their parents for dinner. They are still plugged into their media devices and never speak or make eye contact with the camera or their parents. The African-American family sits in the living room with a bucket of chicken on the coffee table. Mom & Dad tell the camera that the chicken is the occasion for them to have this special “family” experience. Dad jokes that if the batteries run down, they might actually have a conversation.
Sigh. Is this an accurate snapshot of our current culture? Rewind about 100 years.
I’m reading a book called Nothing To Do But Stay: My Pioneer Mother by Carrie Young. The author describes her life in North Dakota during the Great Depression. Her mother had acquired land as a homesteader, married and raised 6 kids on the farm. Her sisters struggled to become educated and get jobs as school teachers in local one-room schoolhouses. One particularly brutal winter, their parents found it more sensible to drop off the 18-year-old daughter, the teacher, with the two younger sisters at school and let them stay there during the week instead of transporting them back and forth through the snow drifts by horse-drawn wagon. The week turned into months. Fresh supplies were delivered every week, but these 3 young ladies spent that winter relying on their own resourcefulness for their daily life — with no electricity, simply a coal-burning furnace in the basement and a woodstove with one burner in the classroom. How is that possible? I’m sure that life was one that their parents had modeled for years.
Compare these two snapshots and imagine the changes that have swept through our country. What has “adult living” become? What do we model for our children these days? What skills are being delegated to machines or service companies or ‘experts’ that used to be more universal and personal? Besides modeling tasking skills, how do we model social and moral skills in this decade?
When more families were farming, children grew up alongside their parents and were incorporated into communal activities. They helped milk the cows, tend the garden, and make the food and clothing they all needed to live. In the 50s, when more families lived in cities and suburbs, Dad would drive off in the morning and work out of sight of his kids all day while Mom would turn on appliances to do the chores around home. The kids learned consumerism. Then the Moms left the house and went into the workforce leaving the kids in daycare. In 1992, someone came up with “Take Your Daughters To Work Day”. That was expanded to include boys a decade later. What was first perceived as a Feminist issue of role modeling was recognized as a parenting void: children had no clue how adults spent their work days.
Musing about these changes made me consider what my own children had learned from my husband and me. My daughter made a calligraphy sign when she was in High School: “My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived and let me watch him do it.” (Clarence B. Kelland) She was 23 when her father died. What we intended to model and what she actually learned are most likely two different things. One thing I do know. She did learn to cook her own chicken.
© 2014, essay and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved