Wednesday, February 27, 2013

this mother's words

In recent months I've had a number of friends reveal that they are expecting their first child.  I used to teach prenatal yoga and I never tired of the sharing between soon-to-be moms and those with some experience under their belts.  Which any mom will tell you, never feels like enough!

I usually send my friends this essay by the writer Anne Lamott who is my favorite writer when it comes to expressing the wonder, the insanity, the highs and the poopy, ranting-like-an-insane-person lows of parenting.  She is the first stop for any mother-to-be not so much for advice, but for reassurance that you are not an awful person if you snap at your child. Lesson number one: we are all flawed (didn't you get that memo?) but it's a place to start. There's only up!

So I've decided I need to write my own "letter to a friend who is expecting" as I have 6 1/2 years under my belt and some stories from the road to share that may be helpful. Here goes:

Of course, my heartfelt and immediate first response is to say what everyone with kids will say: "Congratulations ... your life will never be the same!"

Ominous, I know.  The meaning of that statement depends upon the tone of voice in which it is uttered and I'm sure by now you've heard the entire range.  I can tell you - they are all correct.

Here's how I would sum things up:  You've heard about the Cyclone rollercoaster (or maybe the Beast or Titan or MegaForce) and you wait in line for your turn.  Time seems leisurely, you sip a lemonade and chat up your neighbors in what appears to be an endless queue. You are nervously excited.  Sooner than you expec, you are next to go.  You are hustled into your seat and the roll bar snaps down across your lap in a startling and unsettling manner and then cars lurches forward towards the first massive dip and you realize: There's no going back.  

You have two options: scream your head off out of fear and lack of control; or scream your head off in total surrender to the moment.  

My advice is the latter, but you will all-too-soon have a chance to decide.

What I wasn't expecting when I became a mother was just how incompetent I would feel. Like, all that time waiting and I should have been studying pediatric medicine, child psychology and early education principles.  But I did what most of us do - get lost in the wonder of children's books, toys, clothes and room decor. (I went with the jungle animal theme; never underestimate the power of that first interior to mold personality! My girl loves the zoo - so there's the proof!) 

You will believe for a time that everyone else has this parenting thing figured out.  Many  will try to impress upon you that they do know it all and know best. (Not to make general assumptions, but often they are the vocal and demonstrative breast feeding moms; not that all moms who embrace breast feeding are this way, but many of the more assertive advice-dispensing mothers happen to be passionate about the subject.)    

Don't be deceived!  Everyone fumbles their way through those early months (did I say months?  How about years?) and I maintain it is the truly secure among us who freely admit we are pretty much winging it.  It's a lot like sitting in a meditation group: while you sit there in agony from the effort to sit still and quiet the mind, you will look out and see all these other serenely meditating people.  The thing is, they are probably in just as much mental and/or physical distress as you and are wondering how you are able to pull this off!

Okay, so we've established there is no manual, no real preparation possible, and that others may try to assuage their feelings of incompetence by questioning the way you are raising your child.  Family may do this as well.  The thing is, the only one you need to worry about is your child ... and he/she won't know about Super Mom down the block. They will only know you.

Here's the diamond among all this mess: your child will love you.  Nothing can prepare you for the power and immensity of that love and the trust.  They will lift up their chubby little hand and they just know you will reach down to clasp it.  They will look at you with such love and wonderment in their eyes and you will be blown away to realize you are the object of such adoration.

There is a tangible moment when you realize you and your child are falling in love with each other.  Not that you don't already love your child before they are placed in your arms; but as your relationship grows, there is this sense of dropping down into a sea of love that is vaster and more powerful than anything you can imagine.  You fall into each other. Words cannot capture the magnitude of this experience.  But once you experience it, you will want to return to that memory again and again.  It is like a talismans that will protect and guide you through some of the thornier experiences that await you.

Speaking of which ... Anne Lamott does a great job in describing all manner of poop so I'll let you read her.  I will say this: I promise you, your child will be toilet trained at least by the time of their 16th birthday.  You laugh now, but trust me ... when the time comes you will question how anyone survives the experience. (Best advice I received: toilet train in the warmer months outside with a wadding pool, portable potty and naked child.  Give them lots to drink - lemonade was a forbidden fruit that was sucked down in great quantity - and let them play.  The elmo sprinkler was a nice added touch.  All that bubbling water ...)

Children are constantly growing and in ways we can't always see.  Much of the crazy behavior (those moments when we wondered if we broke her) I think is due to a delicate nervous system constantly re-wiring itself. (Here's where I could have benefited from prior pediatric studies.) Some of the best information a friend passed on to me was that when there is no discernible problem and your child is still crying (usually at the end of the day), it may be their way of releasing pent up energy, stimulating endorphin production or even releasing toxins.  If you are proficient at meditating, now is the time to practice it! Or just breathe. Or sing. (Which is breathing with sound ... having a song that was our soothing song was a powerful tool for calming us all quickly. It actually was pretty miraculous!)  You being calm will carry you through many rough patches.

The other really useful information is to know that before every breakthrough, there is a total breakdown.  When your child is moving towards some new developmental stage, like walking, they will have a sense of what they can do,  but need to develop the skills to do it.  So frustration levels are huge.  And it seems the entire family feeds upon this energy. So when you find yourself in a state of utter chaos, rest easy knowing soon ... soon ... something new and wonderful will happen.  Until then, return to your happy place recalling those moments of blissful love and adoration.  (I believe this model - breakdown before breakthrough - applies for all changes even subtle emotional and intellectual developments.  When Cowgirl was learning to read, there were some massive melt-downs the likes we hadn't seen since those terrible twos ... and threes ... I bet we will have them in the teen years when the brain does a massive remodel!)

Okay, some of the random bits that I want to get off my chest share:

Your child will be like a fun house mirror.  You will see yourself magnified and distorted in ways both comical and unsettling. One day while trying to get Cowgirl ready for the swimming pool, I had to put her into a 4 minute time-out.  Naked and seething, she put her face just inches from mine and snarled "You're wasting my time!"

This is actually one of the great services our children provide for us.  We are given the opportunity to polish our rough edges, re-visit and resolve those problem areas ignored for much of our life.  (Apparently, we all need to work on the tone of voice we use - its a family affair!) We can choose to fix ourselves and even though it can be daunting work, our children inspire us to take on that challenge.

Our children inspire us to be braver than we previously might have held possible. I have found myself dancing and singing in public and my friend Diana will testify that I went down the water slide multiple times (and almost drown!) Going out regularly in a bathing suit in public is pretty high up on my list of brave.  More daunting, I have had to initiate difficult conversations and confront people I would normally avoid.  We are their advocates and as such must use our voice when they cannot.

You will also do some wonderful and crazy things.  Yes, one day you will find yourself sitting the crowd of Sesame Street Live wondering how did I get here? But you will look over and see your child be-bopping in the aisle to Elmo and that hour of an inane storyline  will be worth it. (Pray Dan Zanes and his band come to town while your child is young.)

There will be times your child does something and your head will nearly explodes or you will want to punt kick them across a parking lot.  Ask my husband about the time Cowgirl decorated his car with an engraved star.  Remind me to tell you about my new (and only) burnished leather bag and the pen mark.  A whole new twist to "tag - you're it!"

My favorite part of being a mother is I get to relive being a child from the vantage point of having survived it.  I can indulge in the play, the games, the stories, and the magic of the world revealing its mysteries all over again, only this time I'm sucking the marrow from the bone and savoring every delightful morsel.  You also tap into your past in ways that are unexpected if not informative. (Oh, the first time you play Monopoly as a family ... like Proust's bite of madeleine ... all childhood issues come rushing back to you)  


Now is a opportunity to process some of that material, if you choose.  The challenge is always questioning whether you are making choices based upon who your child is, or whether you are being haunted by the specter of your childhood self.  The universe having no small sense of humor, often takes care of this by providing us with the child exactly opposite of what we know and understand.  Hence shy, uncoordinated, introverted me (I know ... hard to reconcile ... but that's who I was) has an active, outgoing social butterfly for a daughter.

One delight no one told me about (so here is something to look forward to!) is how amazingly toasty warm and cuddly children can be.  If happiness is a warm puppy, well, children are just like puppies (read: squirmy with sharp nails) in that you will want to constantly hug, squeeze, kiss, and nuzzle them.  Imagine the most delightfully warm and fragrant homemade roll coming out of the oven and now imagine being able to wrap your entire body around it.  Our family manifesto includes this vital point: begin and end every day with cuddles.

You can expect many such treats as compensation for the worry, anxiety, frustration and confusion that are part of the package deal. (There are only package deals,  much like cable television.) Record those moments  - the strawberry scented kisses, the tummy raspberries, the handmade presents, snowball fights, nonsensical knock-knock jokes, the first lost tooth, crazy songs and wilder dances, the full body "I love you!" hugs - and treasure them.  

Parenting presents us with the opportunity to clarify our values and beliefs and can serve as incentive for us to make our life - our actions, our words, our contributions - rich and meaningful. We are given the chance to remember dreams and to see possibilities continue to abound and our children remind us that there's never a better time than right now to begin anew. We have this little person who understands the magical ways the world works and we are given the privilege to learn from them. In exchange, we must  honor the responsibility to care for, guide, and love them. 

It's a wonderful dance, squashed toes and all. The beauty is you will be the expert on your child.  No one else is qualified to do the job.  It truly is the toughest job you'll ever love.  And at the end of the day, your reward is all that warm, wiggly, cuddly love. It's oh so sweet!

For K - I'm holding you three in my heart.


  1. Every word - wonderful! It is true that life is never again the same. Every little thing changes - as you know - the house will never again be clean, orderly and all those things you thought mattered get put on the back burner. Although no one could ever really make a new parent understand the changes about to happen because there really are no words, I do wish someone taught me more about self care without the guilt attached. But it is never too late to learn, as I am doing with a little help from my friends!

    1. I'm leaving it up to YOU to write the manual on momma guiltless self care! I love it ... it takes a village ... for OUR self care and love! xo

  2. Oh, Lis, this is beautiful! Thank you so much! I love how you describe the "your life will never be the same again" and all the various tones you get to hear it in :) I have to admit, some of those tones have really scared me! We are about to buckle up, and I haven't finished my child psychology classes yet :) I really don't know how anyone takes this leap of faith or how anyone survives it all, but here we are . . . about to jump in to the total unknown.

    Thank you SO MUCH for all you have shared here! I am not kidding, this is getting printed out and posted on the nursery :)

    Much love,
    Thank you so much for keeping us in your heart - it's so very appreciated!

    1. I forgot to add that the world will never feel safe once you have a child out in it, but at the same time Life becoming more vital, more meaningful, richer, full technicolor ... once the leap is made you will know you cannot image your life any other way ... that the point of everything is summed up in one small, gurgling, wiggling, pooping and smiling bundle. There's a Lou Reed song that is his reaction to becoming a parent ... "Beginning of a great adventure" ... that about sums it up! xo

  3. how much do i love you! LIS! this is so amazing, so perfectly descriptive of the walk we do... oh yes. so many flavors of wonderful. thank you for being such a magical word-shaman and capturing parenting/motherhood and all its adventures!

  4. I love the observation of the breakdown before the breakthrough. I've never really thought of it that way, but you are spot-on. I remember those hazy first days home, nursing Max and laughing until I cried while reading Anne Lamott. I remember suddenly, for the first time, being terrified of my own death. I could not leave this baby motherless. I remember laying on the bed, sobbing while I gazed at my perfect newborn, and my alarmed husband asking what was wrong and I answered "some day I'm going to be mad at him!" I'm twelve years into this marvelous crazy-making ride called parenthood. wonder what the next twelve years will bring?

  5. so very beautiful...and while i have been a mother for 7 yrs now, there are days i wake still and wonder how do i do this?? but the constant are the two small hearts who continually cheer me on and love me dearly. and that, many times, is all i need to get by.

  6. Thank you for the reminder of my Will's younger days! I had such a clear flashback this morning to his babyhood. I loved going in to watch him wake up. His little body would curl and stretch in his unique way, and he would roll onto his back and look up at me with the most glorious smile. "Hi Mommy! Let's start another wonderful day!" He is still the love of my life. The deepest, scariest, most marvelous love I have ever known. When I think of the depth of that love - and of his love for me - it brings tears to my eyes.

    I had a wonderful bonding moment with my sister Kit the other day, about childrearing. Her daughter is 14, in all her teenage glory, and Kit was telling me of some silly thing she had to punish her daughter for. We both agreed that we're just feeling our way, none of us sure we're ever doing the right thing. It's all guesswork, backed up by love. It's the love that makes the guesswork come out ok in the end. I loved having that conversation with my sister, because I've always seen her as being so together, so organized, so confident in what she's doing. It was a relief to hear that she, too, is uncertain sometimes. Parenting really is universal, I guess.


  7. Oh Lis, this made me smile and nod and giggle all at once. You've got it! That's pretty much how it happens. xoxox

  8. I completely agree with everything you write here. I wish I'd known before now that we were ALL winging it. :) Hardest work ever, this raising a human being. :)