Originally published in Natural Parent magazine July 12, 2018
Recently in a greeting card mailed to me by a wise and long-time friend, she wrote that I “more singularly identify with being a mother” than any other mama friend she has. My initial inner response was, Oh great, am I weird in yet one more way in life? Does that mean she thinks I’m boring now? Have I gotten lost in the dance of mothering, and given up on my other passions?
Within moments, my little self-doubt voices dissipated. Her words then struck me as a powerful invoking of reflection about the last five years of my life.
Let me call myself out, to begin. Curiosity is powerful in relationships and I have not yet asked this dear friend what she meant by “singularly identified”. Letter writing is a slow exchange, more spacious than talking or texts, and my next letter to her will include a question seeking to understand what she expressed from her bold, loving heart.
According to standard definitions, I could interpret what she said as this: I am more remarkably, extraordinarily, and exceptionally identify as a mother than any other mama friend she has. Sounds like a big, kind compliment, right?
My friend’s bold way of showing me love in her letter left me with a feeling of pride about how I mother. Her words felt like a spotlight on a stage where I am dancing the awkward, passionate, indescribably rewarding dance of being a mama. So that is what I will respond to here, as I know many of you reading this have your own way of shining in your very own mothering stage.
On the surface being a mother is all about playgrounds, naps, tantrums, cuddling and a giving-up of self.
Right beneath it, there appears a mountaintop presenting to a mother some of the richest and most fertile personal expansion terrain available in life.
It has been said our children are our greatest teachers. To actually experience this in life can be fascinating, blissful and grueling at times. We can pay money for meditation retreats and gurus, yet our children offer astounding spiritual lessons for free on a daily basis. Children are the original gurus.
And I’m up for that. My religion is Love. In this life I want to shed all my layers of fear and bloom open to what Spirit, what Love, has to offer. Bring it on, little guru.
So it isn’t surprising that life hasn’t let me detract substantial attention from this opportunity in order to “make” other things happen, since my child was born. While I’ve tried to create a stable income flow, I’ve instead seen a path dotted with seemingly random creative output, unstable income and no clear sign of what’s to come. When we are trying to force something to happen, it is a pretty clear sign that it’s not meant to happen right now. It’s just not time.
In a way, motherhood has swallowed me whole. I have allowed it, though, feeling the briefness of this sacred encounter. Years fly. My guru won’t live with me forever.
My top priority is being the mother I am meant to be. It appears the priority is my child, but equally the priority is me giving her the all she deserves… Me welcoming the extraordinary and unmatched opportunity of being spiritually stretched and widened, that she presents to me. It is about me being the fullest version of myself that I can be, expanded by the presence of a being who I love as much as, dare I say, God. Or so it feels that way.
To the friend whose handwritten words led me to this helpful self-reflection, I extend my deep thanks. You see me from a perspective I value. However clumsy and grumpy I may sometimes be, I like who I am as a mother and as silly ol’, perfectly imperfect me.
This is #7 in The Motherhood Letters, a monthly feature in the Mothering Arts community by Leaning into Light founder Jessica Rios. Rooted in universal themes of motherhood, Jess shares the essence of her unique art of mothering through letter writing.
It’s only been two days since we said goodbye. Our little family of three is jet lagged as expected. Sweden to San Francisco, for us, meant a 26 hour trip. And after every plane I’m in that lands, my heart is wide open. I know I could have died. Life is more lucid than it was the day before.
I’m writing to you because my heart is filled with a bewildered sort of thanks.
It's the kind of thanks that questions why we can’t all be as good at showing up for others, as you are. It is the kind of bewilderment that wonders how I got so blessed to live a life with people like you in it.
Moving to a different continent and culture 5,200 miles away from my California home took a lot of courage. Even though I knew it was the thing to do, the experience presented multiple stretches way outside my comfort zone.
For our entire year there, you lived close by. So close that you saw my first bout with anxiety, when physical circumstances stood my hairs on end because I feared for my daughter Helena’s life. So close that, as her grandfather’s long time wife, you spoke up about it. You felt it, too. You voiced your Mama Bear concern, assuring me that I had a right to be scared. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. You were that mama for me.
Through your empathy I stood stronger in my own mothering skin.
From the moment we landed, you were abundant in the attention you shared with me and Helena. You gave generously with your curious, attentive spirit, becoming her gardening partner and playful companion. I knew I could trust you to be honest with me, and that made me feel more at home even though I was so far from it.
When I accepted that I didn't feel a genuine desire to learn to speak Swedish while there, simply because my "plate" felt too full already as a mother and writer living abroad, you accepted me. I didn't feel judged by you.
That kind of love is really, really helpful to a mother of a young child, who is navigating life in a whole new land.
At dinnertime during one of my horrible multi-day migraines, you asked if I wanted the overhead lamp turned off. I could barely answer; I could barely think. You didn’t wait for me to reply. You stood up and turned the light off. And that wasn’t the first time you noticed something on my behalf, or Helena’s, and took action because…
Village. We had a village together for that one precious year.
In a world so far away from what I knew, your outrageously radiant smile shone through your eyes at me, reminding me that mamas always have each other’s backs.
And I also saw you honor your own limits. When you were tired, you told me you were tired and you told Helena, too. You didn’t force yourself to be something you were not. Through this you showed me and my daughter how women can take care of ourselves. It helped me to give myself full permission to be my true self, too. When I was grumpy about the long winter or my marriage, you were fine with me where I was. Not taking sides, not feeding my complaints, just letting me be me.
When I birthed this child and married her father I had no idea you were coming along with the deal. I had no idea I would gain in my life, a woman who I’d lean on intensively, and who would show up with a spirit of sheer generosity as I lived out one of my life’s greatest adventures.
Mamas need each other. Women need each other. Life depends on other life. You aren’t my mother, and you sure showed me and Helena love that felt as deep as a mother’s love, while we were there.
We miss you with every jet lagged, bewildered tear our eyes shed. OK, she’s not shedding tears. I am. I really love you.
Endlessly, endlessly, thanks.
Last week we put on life vests and climbed aboard your grandfather’s wooden sailboat, the one he built when your father was a little boy, the one they spent summers on for many years in your dad‘s young life on the coast of southern Sweden.
Your grandfather is a master sailor so I knew we were in good hands. But I was also quite afraid because the ocean is our planet’s greatest wilderness — and four years ago on my first and only other sailing experience, we experienced trauma that left me scarred inside.
You were 18 months old and carsick from the curvy drive over the Santa Cruz mountains to the harbor. You clung to me from the minute we climbed on the small sailboat until the minute we climbed off four hours later. You were my emotional safety blanket, as giving you comfort swayed my attention away from the fear that wanted to eat me alive as we drifted further out to sea. The boat’s sails were not working properly, it was windy, and my old college friend was not skilled enough to sail in these conditions. Our radios and phone signals weren’t working for a while. I was terrified.
What made it worse on so many levels was that your father and I had neglected to put life vests on any of us, probably because we felt confident climbing on the boat – but we were both disgusted when we realized what we’d done — no child should be without a life vest out on the ocean. I was humbled and horrified. We finally reached support and a boat came to toe us back to the harbor.
Your father was indescribably amused as he’d had hundreds of successful sailing trips with his father, and now this… Now he sat with a freshly cracked open beer in a boat being towed to shore.
As I healed through this traumatic experience, I used a tool that comes in handy during hard times. I asked myself, How is this perfect?
What came to me was how beautifully you were a willing player getting us safely back to shore. If you had been actively toddlering about the boat, it would have been much more dramatic as I tried to keep you stable on an insufficiently equipped boat without life vests. Being carsick somehow kept you safe at my chest, and kept me comforted as I comforted you.
It’s peculiar, isn’t it, this great and crazy thing called life?
As expected, the sailing trip with your grandfather, your father, you and I was very different. We sailed to an island the first day, you ran around on the big boulders watching them catch fish, fell on a rock and got a fat lip for the first time, asked 100 glorious questions about the ocean, and charmed the three of us to no end.
The next day we sailed to a different island, your father tied the boat to the rocks and we hiked up giant boulders to explore lush green meadows with a wandering herd of sheep, flocks of geese and duck families with newborns waddling, and the old rock wall that used to be the border of Norway and Denmark.
As the rain came in that night and the boat rocked back and forth during our sleep, my fear washed in like a wave again. Wind and rain does not make for enjoyable sailing. But we decided to venture back to the island where your grandfather keeps his boat, and we made it through significant boat rocking, wind, and some big splashes on our faces. You asked about whales, you stayed calm and sat down as your grandfather had asked us to, you made your mama and papa so proud… Not of what you do or don’t do but simply of who you are.
In the great wilderness of the ocean, you exhibited a splendor and beauty of presence, from within your own great inner wilderness.
As we reached the dock, you said, "I want a boat and I want a dog on my boat." My whole soul smiled. Your father has now shared one of his life’s peak experiences with you – sailing with his father on the boat he grew up on.
I may never go sailing again, but you might. Remember, just like your mama, you’ve got the ocean in your hips. Breathe, ask questions, move to the high-side of the boat when the waves feel too big.
I want you to know about these experiences through my words because you may not remember them in a conscious way if I don’t write it down. And I love writing letters; they help me live my fullest life. Writing letters to you is mega double joy.
This is the fifth piece from The Motherhood Letters, a monthly column of letters written by Leaning into Light founder Jessica Rios for Mothering Arts.
I’m writing to remind you that we’re mortal. (Go ahead, start laughing about your nutty aunt now, I know I toss you some funny curveballs in life.) 😉
We're mortal. Not your soul, not the Spirit you’re made of, not the love in your heart. That’s all eternal. Our bodies, dear nephew, will die. Yours, mine, everyone’s.
Ridiculous, right? Why would I take time to write you a letter about this, I mean, come on, you’re 19 years old. You are well aware that every body dies. But are you, really?
Let me tell you why I ask. Let me tell you why I’m writing you this letter.
Plain and clear, we live in the west where most people pretend they’re not going to die. Living this way is a lie, and I love to you too much to miss this chance to help you live awake to the fact that your body will die.
Look around. Most people eat like it doesn’t matter what we put into our bodies, as if their bodies will tolerate crap forever. Most people withhold the truth from themselves and others, and they sit around wishing and dreaming without stepping up to the plate to follow their dreams.
Following your own joy will show you this tragedy, because you will have awakened eyes to see how unusual it is for many people to follow their joy, and when you see this it will break your heart.
Let’s admit it. Often times, people seem half dead. Eventually they will lay dying in a hospital or sit dying in a wheelchair, and they’ll wish — they will wish — that they could turn back the clock to when they were your age, and make different choices. They’ll wish they had loved more, worried less, and spent more time with people who love more and worry less.
The bad news is that living in a culture where people pretend we don’t die means you’ll absorb some of this mentality.
The good news is that no one else’s beliefs have power over you. You choose what you believe and how you live your life.
In my life of adventure — with all its challenges and joys — I have found that life is most vivid, vibrant and satisfying when I remember I could die tomorrow. It doesn’t make me depressed; it gives me confidence! It gives me courage to take risks that lead to great learning. To say things that are in my heart without walking on egg shells. To follow my dreams even when I’m afraid. It attracts people to me who are truly interesting and alive.
My handsome, kind and funny nephew, you’re there now, in your young healthy body, facing the bulk of your life. What an exciting time! So much is unknown.
I’m not your mom; I am your aunt. Still, I love you like crazy. I care for you so, so very much. I want you to love this one life you’re living. And I’m here to support you 100% to make it so.
At your age, very few people know what they want to do for the rest of your life. Literally very few. Some people have an idea about what they might enjoy doing, that could earn them money — such as becoming a police officer, nurse or school teacher — but even people who “know” at age 19 might find later on that they were just settling. They didn’t really know.
To really get a sense of what you would deeply enjoy doing for work, it takes time, travel, experience and exposure to the great big world. Please don’t rush it.
Looking outwardly at what careers are available will give you some insights. It is by looking within your own gorgeous heart -- at what brings you most alive -- that you will find what lights you up.
Ever heard this quote?
Don’t ask what the world needs. As what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. — Howard Thurman
Alright. Now that we’ve gotten that out…
Will you play a game with me?
Every day for one week, starting as soon as you finish reading this letter, I want you to ask yourself this question, and answer it honestly. Write the question and answer in your journal. Journaling is powerful stuff! No need to share your answers with anyone, this is for you.
Here's the question.
If I knew I had one year left to live, what would I do today? (Then do it.)
I’ll step up to the plate to give you an example. If I knew I had one year left to live, today I would decide what three songs are my favorite to sing, and I would sing them out loud, today.
Alright, another example. If I knew I had one year left to live, today I would update my Living Will so that all my friends and family hear what I most want to say to them — and where I want my stuff to go, so they don’t have to think about all that when I die.
I know you’ve felt moments of being truly alive in your life. Aren’t they awesome in contrast to those moments when you feel bored or uninspired?
This life is yours, bud. Don’t follow anyone else’s truth. This is your one precious life. Follow your joy, follow your heart, that is where your wisdom lives. And as you tell yourself the truth, the path forward will reveal itself — one small step at a time — one day at a time. You are young, and time will reveal what you want to do in life. Travel. Read. Follow honest media sources. Watch people, watch life, listen for clues to the song your soul wants to sing. That is beauty. And you’re up for it. I’ll always be your ally.
Love and hugs,
It's late morning on day three at Findhorn, 450 miles north of London on the Scottish coast. I'm sitting cross legged on a maroon love seat while a blooming lilac bush outside darts back and forth in a dance orchestrated by a cool breeze and a drizzle of rain.
With each day that passes, I feel more here. More me. More in the now. For three nights I've slept more deeply than I have in five years.
I first heard of Findhorn through Tom Carpenter, my spiritual mentor of 21 years, who has given talks here before. It's been a distant trickle in my mind since then, and now with five years of devoted mothering behind me, I walk on its soil. I am here in celebration of all I have given to and learned from my precious daughter — I am here on retreat to write, rest and refuel a bit.
Every few steps I take on this land, I am stopped. My chest feels throttled by the outright and subtle beauty, and my jaw drops in awe, invoking silence or some sort of, "Whaaaat? Are you kidding me?" This place is outrageously charming, tended to over the years for hundreds of thousands of hours by many, many people who love to create beauty in the outer world and within their own being. It's what Findhorn Foundation's all about. Listening for the divine within, doing our inner work as we tend to this miraculously rich and generous planet we call home.
It's striking. It's remarkable. What they've done all these years since the three founders began on a flat patch of relatively barren ground — a magical community now exists for over 100 people who live here and thousands of visitors who come for retreats every year.
Yet as I am floored by the beauty, tears of admiration swelling from my eyes, I notice something else too — I feel hurt. Like my heart is broken. So I listen for what's there.
What I notice is that the beauty I see and feel at Findhorn is a huge contrast to the environment I've been living in the past 10 months. We have been living in a city of 400,000 people, and for me that's a harsh amount of exposure to human noise, machines and concrete. The contrast between here and there hurts.
Here, it's like I'm falling back into the arms of the beauty I want to hold me. Back into the pleasure and yes-ness I feel when immersed in a place where Earth is respected and people actively engage in their spiritual practice, whatever it is. Back to... a place that feels like Home.
So I fall, and the hurt comes and goes for a day, and then it's gone. As soon as I let myself feel all the "ouch" of contrast, as soon as I remember I can bring elements of this place back with me when I leave, the hurt melts away.
I hug a majestic, wide-canopied tree in bloom and carry on.
Writing this post is part self-therapy and life processing, and part share and invitation — especially for those of you who have really wanted to visit Findhorn and have yet to come. At least a few people have told me with a song of longing in your hearts, "Ohhhh I have wanted to go to Findhorn for years." If you've wanted to visit, how about: Book your trip! Not ready for that yet? Write a date on your calendar to book a ticket.
You're perfectly lovable no matter where you go in life, and... if you really want something, why not open up and let it in?
Since I'm not on social media for a year or so, this is where I'll share my Findhorn photos. Below are several brief slideshows to give you a peek into this place.
Whoever and wherever you are, I hope you enjoy this little tour through one of the most enchanted spots on Earth.
slideshow one: en route from airport & arriving
slideshow two: the awe keeps on awe-ing
slideshow three: compassion & more gardens
slideshow four: kissing flowers & such
slide show five: more beauty
slideshow six: epic stonework & a nearby village
slideshow seven: come closer
slideshow eight: death, gnomes and unicorns
slideshow nine: laughter & stained glass
That's a wrap.
With love for the beauty inside of YOU~
For today's unusually brief blog post, I share this moment of thanks for the good laugh I get over Earl Grey tea every morning.
Oat "milk" is common in Swedish cafes. Perhaps lots of people here are lactose intolerant or vegan. When we landed last July for our year living abroad, I was ever grateful to discover an abundance of delicious oat milk for cappuccinos.
To top off the palate-pleasing dairy alternative, the people producing these popular oat milk products have a sweet sense of humor. Nothing like a good chuckle to start a dreary winter day!
Here's the side of their oat yogurt carton.
It's been a long winter. Thanks, guys.
It's usually when I walk around in my underwear. On occasion my daughter, who just turned five, chases me squealing, "Mama your legs are so biiiiiiig!" She giggles and wants to touch me and play with me.
The first time she said it was about six months ago and it caught me off guard.
Did she really just say that?
It was one of those semi-shocking moments, when a child blurts something you just wouldn't say as an adult. Women don't want to hear that. But plain truth be told, my legs are bigger than hers. She has a slender build and I am almost twice as tall as her. Plus her body is lean and I spent my early childhood snacking on Oreo cookies and ice cream. Mine's not so lean.
So once I got over the reaction I would have had 20 years ago: Whaaaaaat? Ohhhh this hurts, ouch, she's right, I really need to get more exercise or stop eating sugar or... which took about three seconds to move through me, I simply said what seemed true and loving: "My legs are just the right size for me."
Frankly I almost couldn't believe what I'd said. Was that really me talking, saying words of self-acceptance about my body? Who was this matter-of-fact-I'm-fine woman that I'd become?
Let me answer that question. This woman is a woman who has experienced so much culturally and self-inflicted criticism, yes mostly self inflicted, about my body that I refused to ever, no I have not ever, said one negative word about my body around my daughter. I don't talk about women's bodies as if they are to be criticized. Spending 30-something years in the pain of that world was enough.
This is a woman who birthed a girl child, for whom I want as little of that kind of pain as humanly possible. Magazine ads and peer chatter will be enough for her to pick up on society's sick perspectives about the female body. I will not be contributing to that.
We all get to choose our parenting style. We all get to choose what we say to our children. So many of us want our children to be free of the wounds we lived through in our own childhood.
Will we teach our daughters to focus on their bodies' strength, on how they feel?
Will we teach our sons to respect girls' bodies, by respecting our own in front of them?
As for me, the best I can do is let the outrageously big love I feel for my daughter escalate my own process of accepting that I am fine.
I am just fine, just the way I am, whether it's summertime and my skin is glowing, or a long dark winter where I'm pale as a pigeon plucking snow from the curb. At age 14 I had magazine covers plastered on my walls because I thought supermodels were it, and I wanted to be like them. Now, things are different. Age has freed me up. Something like that.
Yes I know full self acceptance is a tall order. Yet I know it is worth wanting.
Thank you, child, for calling forth my wiser self. May you always know your legs are just the right size for you, too. May you have no idea how many thousands of hours I've spent criticizing my own body, and especially my legs, until someday by the fire while we're camping, it feels like time to tell you that story. Dear child, may your life show you a way that is glorious galaxies beyond the wisdom of mine.
Two weeks ago an article appeared in my Facebook feed with these words: You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed. It was written by a former Facebook executive, and my response was simply to shrug because, frankly, I know that. Look around you. On buses and trains, at dinner tables in people’s home or out at restaurants, everywhere you look, people have married their screen devices. Computer phones. Whatever you want to call them, these devices are “smart” in that they’re very much designed with the intention to grab your attention, and keep it.
That’s it, I thought. I’m out. It’s time. And in that moment, after skimming the article which was basically an affirmation of my own years of discomfort with humanity's screen device habits, I decided I’d take two weeks and deactivate my accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
It wasn’t the article that tipped me over. Other people’s thoughts don’t have that much power over me, or so I think. I brought that discovery into my life to help me make the tip, the lunge, the leap.
What about the joy? Oh, there is indeed joy. My top intent while spending time scrolling social media scenes is to share joy, to share love, to illuminate the beauty in being human. Openly I share my huge heart’s love for humanity, one person at a time. Openly I offer kind words to anyone who seems to need them in one post. Or another. On it goes, joy being shared, big questions asked, some useful information gathered, yet overall…
Wellness is only a slice of the feeling I get from participating in social media. For every bit of my precious life that I enjoy interacting there, in the background there’s a tension, sometimes hard to notice, often hard to name.
What could be bothering me?
Could it be that I stopped watching TV in 1993 and suddenly I feel like I got snatched from behind, tugged into a TV-like landscape that I didn’t really know I’d get so tugged into? It’s awfully cunning, the waterfall of tricks and drips of happy, hooking hormones showered upon us as we use social media.
Did someone else tug me into it or did I willingly dive? As one wise friend pointed out, we cannot be programmed unless we allow ourselves to. She’s so right, on an essential level. Yet very few people I know have actually mastered the art of having full command of their attention, very few people I know find a deeply balanced relationship with screen device use. Quite frankly, almost everyone I know -- myself included -- has become more habitually enslaved to their devices, than not. Who’s doing the programming? This is where I give both parties credit.
It’s a relationship. And a very intimate one.
We take our phones to bed. They live against our skin, in pockets and bags. They sit on our dinner tables, always ready to serve. We’ve basically married them, but never written vows, and never consciously acknowledged we were entering an intimate partnership. We tend to our phones more closely than we do to most -- all? -- people in our lives. Including ourselves.
This is the itch. Something is tugging at me, itching my skin, and it’s stronger than the tug of sharing life with friends and family on computer screens. One thing I’ve learned that I’m downright thrilled to know, is that feelings aren’t usually easy to name, especially when they’re edgy, and yet they must be honored. Feelings don't just go away because we deny them and try to pretend they're not there.
Just because I can’t articulate my reasons for leaving social media with highly sophisticated eloquence, I know for sure it’s the right thing to do. For me. I know for sure that I will find pleasure in re-routing the ways I share life and joy with people. I know for sure it feels good to be honoring this feeling, and that life outside social media will satisfy me in at least these three ways: It’s less noisy. It’s less shallow. It’s less cluttered.
When I choose quiet over noise in life outside the screen, why would I choose the noise of social media as part of my everyday life?
When my deep-feeling heart extends itself to feel big things in the collective human experience, needing close relations to listen, to witness, to really see me with their eyes, presence and words, why would I spend so much time in a landscape I find so shallow?
When I don’t allow clutter in my home space, it simply doesn’t get to live with me, why would I allow my eyes, ears and attention to lay in a landscape filled with clutter?
Questions, for me.
For you they may have no ring, no resonance. For you social media might be a wonderful place where you love to play, where you feel your time is well spent, with no tug to do otherwise. You might even be one of the rare ones who’s found gorgeous balance in your own engagement with screen time. To you, I bow in respect! I seek that balance. I haven't found it yet.
Even with minimal engagement on social media, implementing my own mindfulness practices including focusing on those who are dearest to me, keeping comments brief yet packed with Love’s punch, and rarely scrolling my own "Home" wall or anyone else's, I’ve found it to be too much. Even with limited engagement, the tug of irritation has persisted.
That’s when I knew it was time, and that’s when the article appeared. Ha! Don’t you love the swift-winged synchronicity of this universe?
So here I sit, with one day left before I deactivate my accounts and begin the rerouting process. One day after deciding, I already felt weight lifted off my shoulders. In my bones, I know this is right for me.
Still, leaving social media when I’ve been engaged with it intimately for nine years is no small thing. It’s 2018. Come on. Social media is, like, life. Right? Riiiight?
How will I reroute regular contact with my teenage nieces and nephews? Will it be arduous, like that one time I tried to dump my new computer-phone for an old phone, and realized it just made life more difficult? Will it feel effortful to engage in causes I care about -- like Raffi’s Centre for Child Honouring, the Free Range Learning Community, Wild + Free, or simply hearing about fabulous things my friends are doing, parties they’re having, prayers they’re calling for?
I am left with trust that all will find its way, as I know I’m the one person alive tasked with taking great care of me. And as I age, I take this job more seriously and find it more and more delicious.
When my daughter looks around and sees people plugged into their screen device most of the time, I want her to have another example.
I want her mother to be one of the people who offers a way that’s more real-touch, real-time. More based in pleasure, the sand, the light of the sun not the screen. Ultimately I’d like to offer her and me, a way of using screen devices that is balanced, moderate, engaged, while not being tethered. I haven’t found that yet, and stepping out feels like the best way to rewire my own brain’s engagement, while rewriting the story I tell about sharing life and joy with those I love.
You’ll find me most easily via email, through the articles I soulfully write for a number of international publications, all of which are posted on my blog, and through my newsletter (sign up!) which will contain all the goodies I produce including news of my first book, coming out in the fall of 2018, and the podcasts I’m about to bust out.
With love, I salute you and your choices.
With love, I salute me and mine.
See you ‘round the way!
as published in Natural Parent magazine, New Zealand
Growing up in the 80s, the only time I recall hearing the word stranger was within a common remark made by grown-ups: “Don’t talk to strangers.” I didn’t think much of it. They all loved me; I took it as good advice. Strangers were people I didn’t know, and I didn’t feel a pressing need to talk with them much. Why was I being advised not to talk to strangers? Because of fear. There was a general cultural consensus that it wasn’t safe to talk to strangers.
Thirty years later when my own daughter entered the world, I contemplated one question more than any other: How do I parent from Love, not fear?
It’s a gigantic question. There is no one right answer. We each must choose to navigate the terrain of living — and parenting — from Love, one moment after another, one experience at a time, honoring our own truth. Yet we cannot choose both Love and fear at the same time.
Fortunately, our children present us with an unparalleled invitation to choose Love.
Do we want to teach our children to be afraid of people they haven’t yet met, or do we want to teach them to trust their own instincts? Having a fixed rule about not talking to strangers is parenting from fear. When a child is by default restricted from engaging with someone rather than expressing themselves naturally in that moment, the child is being taught fear.
Many adults, many parents, live from this place of fear. And it’s sad. People can be mean and scrappy. I get it. At 11:00 on New Year’s morning I was harassed by a drunk man who reeked of cigarette smoke, hurling out his breath and aggressive questions as he slumped over my seat on the city tram. I was disgusted. But that was the exception. Normally, people are decent. I feel highly confident in my own instinctual sense of whether someone is respectful, and I want my daughter to feel that too. It’s up to me to help teach her that.
We live and learn. Decades pass, parenting styles evolve. Never would I tell my daughter, “Don’t talk to strangers.”
Instead, as we move through life, I support her freedom to interact with people as she desires. A more reserved child, she often sticks to her own space, uninterested in engaging with anybody she doesn’t know. But when she smiles at someone and tells me, “Mama, he smiled at me,” I say to her, “OK, nice, it feels good to smile, doesn’t it?” Or when she asks, “Mama, why did she smile at me?” I say, “Probably because it feels good to smile. And probably because she is kind.” My mind doesn’t run off into a dark fearful forest, afraid she is going to smile at someone and the worst case scenario will erupt. And I guess that’s because I don’t want to live in fear. With children who are effusively outgoing, perhaps there are different ways to guide, or perhaps some of this flavor of guidance still applies.
In the past seven months living in Scandinavia, my daughter has had about 10 encounters with strangers that have built her self confidence muscles. Usually it’s on the bus or train, we’re sitting near someone, and they smile at her. She smiles back, then tells me about it. I give her space to have the experience on her own, without me needing to be part of the smile exchange, or the words they exchange… usually a question about whether she speaks Swedish.
No, I wouldn’t let her go off on the bus by herself at four years old. Yes, I stay close to her anytime she’s in my care because she has entrusted me as her primary guide and I take that role seriously.
Yes, there are creepy-ish moments like yesterday when a man with a belly bulging big out of his pants, Coca-Cola in one hand, smiled at her and she turned to me and said, “Mama why are his eyes like that?” Trusting my own sense of things, I waited a moment to casually look and see what she was referring to. I saw his gray eyes. There seemed to be sickness in them. When we got off the train I asked her, “What did his eyes look like?” She stopped, scrunched up her face, made her eyes beady and constrained, and said, “Like this.” She sees. She senses.
Children are tuned in. Except when they’re not.
Each child is their own masterpiece. Each child offers us an invitation to co-lead with that child, and no human being is always in-tune. So we dance with that too. Life was never said to be totally safe.
Yet building a child’s sense of self confidence, to trust their own instincts and sense of other people, is safer than teaching them fear.
Modeling plays a big role. Much of what our children learn about how to interact with others comes from what they see us do. And again, just as each child has his own personality, each of us parents has ours.
Two months ago while my daughter and I sat on a train, a mother (about 55) and daughter (in her 20s) boarded the train with luggage. Instinctively I moved over to make space for the younger girl who hadn’t found a seat. The two of them seemed open, with a unique effusive kindness about them. I felt it. So I started talking with them.
Their eyes lit up, as if surprised. Turns out they were visiting Sweden from Germany. We had a bright-spirited interaction for about eight minutes until my daughter and I reached our stop. I pulled out a business card, gave it to them, and the very next week the daughter emailed me. We’re Instagram buddies now and heck, who knows, maybe one day we’ll see each other again.
From a smile, to a thoughtful gesture, there we were talking.
Talking with strangers. My daughter never spoke up because she has her own style, yet she watched me, taking it all in with her brilliant young brain, making mental notes on how she might want to be like Mama and how she might not — yet headlining it all, she had an in-the-bones experience of joyful connection between people who had just met. We were strangers. Now we’re friends.
People are basically good. Let’s accept that. We’ve all got an inner jerk, and we are basically good. We are wired for Love. Fear is no good way to live.
Let us each interact with people how Love guides us to. When we see someone with a beautiful knit sweater, we can compliment them. Nothing lost. Let our children see us expressing kind words and gestures, untethered to the “watch out” past that restricted our urge to show Love.
When our children move through this world, may they feel free to fill it with a little more kindness. A smile can go a long way in brightening someone’s life, at least until the next smile comes along.
This is the first letter in my new monthly series, The Motherhood Letters, for Mothering Arts, an organization supporting mothers and babies in their first year postpartum. You can learn more about Mothering Arts here.
In the heavenly haze of the day you were born, your father and I held a clear dream. Before you turned five, we would live in his native country, Sweden, for at least a year.
It wasn’t just a cool place to go, where we’d play with gnomes and pick mushrooms and touch moss in the forest. Your grandparents lived there, they loved you, and we wanted you to really know them. We wanted you to learn your father’s native language and know his culture. Maybe one day you would want it to be yours, too. And so we left.
Early summer, seven months ago, you were four years old. It was time. A half year of intensive physical and emotional preparations behind us, we lifted off the shore near San Francisco and flew across the world.
Today marks seven months living abroad. Had I known the rigor involved in it all, I don’t know how I would have done it. The travel plans and logistics, that I could handle. But I never could have predicted the emotional and spiritual stretching required for me to lead and hold our family — and myself — as we have stepped into this dream. It was a big, bold move, one that’s helped me see why so many families who want to live abroad, may never do so.
Through our numerous moves and living from boxes, through navigating the city ferry, train and bus schedule, through figuring out what to wear in this new climate, how to keep my nose from painful dryness and get rid of my monthly migraines, through supporting your papa to spend more time with you here as he has so longed for, through researching where to take you for preschool and where to live, through month after month of being 5,000 miles from my dearest friends and family, you’ve held the bar high.
As my skin has grown pale in the long, cold, dark, wet winter, your spirit lights my life with color. Without words, you remind me...
We’re in this moment now, Mama, let’s climb this boulder! Oh, OK, right.
I can walk along this water’s edge without falling in, trust me Mama! Yes, OK, I can.
I don’t want to go to förskola [preschool] today Mama. I want to be with you. But I need time to… Yes, I want to be with you too.
Titta! Har kommer spårvagn elva! [Look! Here comes tram 11!] Totally! Here it comes, yes!
Presence, trust, foundation, delight. You keep them warm in your fleece-lined pink mittens. They’re at your fingertips every second, every day.
Your soul is a golden gem of giving, and by choosing me as your mama, you made my life a land of fuller possibility, adventure and courage. While pregnant, I knew that if I was fortunate enough to birth a healthy child, I’d be birthing a miracle. But I didn’t know just what a masterpiece you’d be.
Thanks for your daily reminders, your daily teachings, and for setting the bar high so I could become a more confident, humble and radiant version of me.
Love beyond the seas,
Listen to our free recording for August, a 30-minute talk with Jessica Rios on her 13 month adventure living abroad, Humane and Heartbreaking, here.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternally a fan of Fred Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.