I’ve been reflecting on the holidays where we honor caregivers & parents for the last 25 years. Supporting families has shown me that parenting is a journey that involves courage, resilience, joy and loss. Every May or June, I begin to try and find a way to roll out a Mother’s or Father’s Day greeting while holding in my thoughts all of the families I am connected to.
What message will land with the family who gave birth a week ago to a premature baby that is in the NICU, beside themselves with exhaustion, and reckoning with their new reality of trekking back and forth from the hospital while managing a 2–year old at home? The transgender parent that is trying to make sense of these gendered holidays? What can I say that holds space for the person struggling with infertility? For the new mother whose mother just passed away before being able to meet her granddaughter?
I come face to face with all the myths about motherhood, all the pressures to feel a certain way, to be a perfect parent, to have a certain family with a particular template. Mother’s Day is a messy reminder for me about all of it. Relating if not to our own parenting, to our relationships with our parents.
I don’t object to honoring those who do this heavy lifting of raising human beings. Not in the least. I’m just reflecting on how limited our approaches can be. All the brunches. All the suggestions that we should take care of ourselves. What we need, I believe, to parent, is a little more vast than that. More nuanced. More practical.
My first Mother’s Day was a blur. I have a picture of me dozing on a blanket on the lawn, my daughter nursing and covered with a light blanket. I vaguely remember getting a bad sunburn, but she was safely kept shaded on what was likely the first sunny day of the year.
The photo shows that it was a bright day in what I do recall as a dark year. A winter-born baby had me housebound for much of the long Midwest season of gloom. But not in the same, cozy home I had nested in during my pregnancy. I had just navigated selling my house, after putting it on the market when my daughter was 6 weeks old. That spring, I was staying temporarily with family while I waited to move in one direction or another across the country, depending on the offers that my then partner was waiting to begin a Phd program. I was denying how depressed and anxious and overwhelmed I was. By Mother’s Day, I was just halfway through my baby’s first year, and it wouldn’t be until that fall that I finally admitted how much I was struggling. I was sinking pretty good by May, but October, I felt like the mud had closed over me.
It wasn’t what I wanted for my daughter or for me. I had so wanted to be her mom, but not just any mom, but a happy, engaged, fabulous mom. To give her all the safe, joyful things of home and family that I didn’t get. Instead, I could see myself feeling paralyzed by fear, depleted by fatigue, efforting until I couldn’t muster an ounce more. Even the dog that I had wasn’t fitting the mold of the childhood pet that I wanted for her. I had a dog that was getting more and more unpredictable each week having grown past quirky puppyhood into fearful aggression. That fall, I made small adjustments, like starting to find a new home for that dog, having my baby sleep in her crib, taking Zoloft, and asking for help. Each of these felt huge at the time. Big failures on my part. Squarely falling into the “not what I wanted” camp.
On my 2nd Mother’s Day, still living in a temporary situation, but now packing to move again, I woke at 3am with a little one that was throwing up and continued to cuddle her and dodge vomit all day. There were boxes all around me. I found an empty one to let her play inside it.
On my third, no surprise upon reflection, I was navigating my divorce, living in the town where my ex was happily engulfed in the world of academia, while I was unhappily trying to support us, manage my company, a super intense and active 3 year old, and all the haphazard childcare solutions I tried to piece together. To resolve the latter, I had started what I hoped would be a childcare co-op but ended up being another responsibility I tried to shoulder. To resolve the rest, I turned to friends and family and despite this time of change and loss, remember sweetly the dinners at my home with some of my most beloved people. Letting go of what wasn’t working let in lots of what I had always wanted in my daughter’s life. Her dear ‘guidefather’ uncle, her auntie who lived in our town for a while, helped me celebrate that year. I went for a run, having reclaimed a level of health and fitness that had eluded me for decades. Early parenting was starting to get easier.
I spent many of those school years to follow planting my garden on Mother’s Day. Watching my daughter grow into a curious, smart child. When I had my farm, we hit the library plant sale and a local tree grower that first week of May, and I happily played in the dirt, with my daughter at varying degrees of interest in my hobby. She raised chickens, climbed trees. Rode horses. There were ups and downs and challenges but it seems dreamy compared to adolescence.
Mothering has continued to take me on a rollercoaster ride and I don’t really like rollercoasters. Actually, not one little bit. My last Mother’s Day, my teenager slept all day. The year before that, it was more volatile. It involved door slamming and tantrums that only a teenager can throw. You think they are grand at 2, at 3. Wait till 13.
Ironically, that tantrum-throwing year, I put an offer in on a house on Mother’s Day, so that I could move her out of the small town we had been living in to get her into a school that would be more diverse, and that would have her break free from some intense bullying. Single again, I had to trust that I would be able to find a budget to fix up this fixer-upper. I remember hearing that same night that they accepted the offer. My kid was so moody she didn’t even seem interested. I didn’t sleep that night, wondering if I had just made the right decision.
This is what parenting looks like. My ex, not very involved in my daughter’s life once complained that she doesn’t get Mother’s Day cards. I didn’t know how to say in a level, matter of fact way, that despite my slogging through single parenting, and, I must say, being an incredibly dedicated great mom, neither do I.
Yes, parenting can involve sweetly picked dandelions, kind recognition, and maybe breakfast in bed.
But it more often involves sleepless nights, bodily fluids, and tears. How can we find a way to give a bow of recognition to the messy stuff we courageously face as parents or caregivers? What if we didn’t gloss over the hard stuff of parenting but really found a way to relate to it without shame or blame? What if we didn’t have a measuring stick against which we lay down the reality of our lives to be measured?
I recently talked with a mother who has been caring for her daughter born with disabilities for more than 30 years now. During one of thousands of crisis that they’ve walked together, her daughter’s doctor admonished “you’re taking care of yourself, right?” This landed a little flat, and instead of communicating compassion, it felt like another defeating moment to her.
We need more than a hot bath and a cup of tea. Though these are lovely. We need a way to live moment to moment connected to our basic sanity and goodness.
While attention to my physical fitness and vitality was my stress buffer in those early years, turning to a daily meditation practice is what truly supported me year after year. When I was a runner, I had a chance to get away, to burn off steam, to have a glimpse of freedom for 20-45 minutes. My practice offers me more than just minutes of what I’ve come to know as a much bigger freedom. A freedom from expecting things to be a certain way, from judgment, from constantly expecting something different to happen. Freedom from seeing my situation through some construction of how it’s supposed to be, based on my own story or that of my family or my culture, from seeing everything as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. From ‘want/don’t want’. From that measuring stick.
Yesterday I took a walk with a friend who is curious about mindfulness practices. She suffers from depression and anxiety- finding it’s getting worse as she gets older. We talked about what it’s like to not only feel a certain way, like sad, or anxious, but then feeling bad about feeling bad. The thoughts that organize around “how I should feel” and compare them to “how I really feel.” She lit up at the possibility that she could just stop at feeling bad, and not feeling bad about feeling bad. She has paid attention to how the spiral works, that downward one.
It is a pretty big deal, I realized, to have found ways to just let things be. I think its what love really is. Accepting one another just as we are. Mothering is that. Accepting the long nursing jags, the fussy times, the vomit, the tantrums, the moodiness.
I love David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious. For lots of reasons, but bear with me as I just simply love, in this moment, the name of it. I think the ways we love and care for each other are just that. Ugly. And Delicious. When we really are loving well, we can sit with all the hard stuff AND enjoy what is absolutely nourishing about being there for one another. When I think back, my love was fiercely present on each of those Mother’s days. How learning to be with the ‘don’t want’ stuff was the most amazing lesson about being a great mom. I didn’t always know how to see it, to acknowledge it, to give it the bow of recognition it deserved.
Accepting it seems like the best way to uphold all the things that make a mother. So, this Mother’s Day, I wish for us all that we know the deepest part of love: Acceptance of life just as it is. Rest for just a moment. Your life is enough. You have enough. You have done enough. You are enough.
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Our programs are designed to help us be fully awake for all of it.