This is The Motherhood Letters #11, previously published by Mothering Arts.
Dear Matt and Peter,
Thirteen days ago, the town where we met back in the late 90’s changed drastically overnight. Up the hill, Paradise roasted in flames from the Camp Fire as Chico sat close-up watching, in shock. Thousands of jaw-dropping stories rolled down social media streams. Friends lost their homes as parking lots turned into donation centers and wind blew toxic smoke to Sonoma County where I live.
After eight days of unhealthy air, I’d had enough. I needed to get my child out. We drove up into the Sierra Nevada mountain range on Friday to find you waiting.
For two nights we stayed with you Matt, and your daughter and son. For the next two nights we stayed with you Peter, and your two daughters.
I could breathe. My child could breathe.
In Tahoe’s fresh air, 7,000 feet above the smoky valley, my heart and lungs felt relieved of the physical and emotional intensity they had been holding for a week. My child and I were gifted “tribe time,” four unexpected days and nights with you and your precious, fast-growing babies, who I adore deep in my Tia Jess bones. I watched my child run, giddy, with your children. My own dull-aired living room more than 200 miles away, I exhaled deeply, gazing out the window at redwood trees as I listened as your child read books to mine, chased her around like a wild tiger, helped her feel like family.
And we are. We are Soul Family. We chose each other. And we still choose each other.
All three of us know we are fortunate to have had those days together. We all know we are fortunate to be alive, with homes intact.
What I mostly want to tell you isn’t “Thanks, Again.”
What I want to tell you is that I’m floored by your fathering.
I’ve been watching you parent for a decade. As your children were born and grew into toddlerhood, I watched you. You have always been good fathers. Yet this time it was different. Somehow, the beauty of fatherhood has seeped into your skin in a way that’s left me feeling really, really fortunate to know you.
You know I revere children. Watching you with yours was like seeing the future treated with the dignity it needs to become bright.
You weren’t like a magazine of picture perfect fatherhood. You did your own thing as they did theirs. But all through those high alpine moments, your voice for them was one of Love. Both of you, in your own ways. How could I not notice that, as a result of a devastating fire, I got to witness two spectacular fathers, one after the other, each for two precious days and nights? This isn’t the norm. Great fathers aren’t everywhere. How could I not be head-shakingly grateful that you are two of my dearest friends? In so many ways, you shone the light of powerfully loving fatherhood upon those days.
When your children needed boundaries, you set them. You named them, you clarified them, you checked in with your children, you listened with your heart engaged.
You didn’t make demands; you made requests. Do you realize you might have prevented a future mean-spirited boyfriend or girlfriend from violating your child, because you’ve shown them that somebody who cares for them will not try to control them?
You didn’t use fear to force them to comply; you used a strong, loving voice to show them the limits.
We’ve had some wild times together, having known each other since college. The men I see now aren’t the same men I met 20 years ago. Your children have offered you a chance to expand into a fuller, more step-up-to-Love’s-plate place within yourselves and you accepted. You stepped right up to that plate. Far fewer fathers do that, than children deserve. Watching you father your children makes me love you even more — did I just say that? Was that even possible?
Deep bow to you both. Thank you for all the stretching you have done over the years to evolve into such beautiful fathers. This is not easy work. Parenting well is high service to humanity — nothing less. What you are doing for your children is the greatest work there is, and I admire you with all my Tia heart for it.
A week after Donald Trump was elected. I walked into the café, ready to order my cappuccino, and there you stood.
Rather than sharing café small talk, you asked how I was doing and I knew you didn’t want to hear, “Fine.” You didn’t want to hear an answer that superficially informed you of where I was going next. You wanted to know how I was really doing, and it showed in the warm presence in your eyes and the spaciousness in your heart.
That’s just your way. You actually, really care.
I had been numbing myself. Until that morning when I saw you, hiding in my own escapist ways from the shock of what had just happened on the national stage. Suddenly, in your presence, the tears emerged. Standing there by the espresso machine, I cried out some of my despair. It needed to happen.
Within minutes, thanks to that moment of opening, I made a decision that led to the biggest adventure of my life so far. My family and I would move to Sweden for a year to be near my husband’s family in his native culture. Your open heart, attentive eyes, and deep capacity for listening were the container I needed to really hear what wanted to happen. Looking back now, almost two years after that café conversation, I see that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I’m not putting you on a pedestal. You wouldn’t accept that from me. I’m not saying you made the decision for me.
I’m saying that in your strikingly beautiful presence, I was able to live my truth in a way I might not have been able to without you. Every mother needs this kind of presence in her life.
Think about it. Right now there is a mother reeling from last night’s drunk abuse, somewhere in America. Right now there is a mother whose child is dying in a hospital bed. Right now there is a mother so lost and lonely she doesn’t know if there is a way out. In fact, there are millions of these.
All these mothers could use a presence as spacious and honest as yours. Thank you for being the way you are. May all these mothers find — now — what you showed me that morning.
And may I be a sliver in life, for others, of what I find in you.
In deep respect,
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.
It's common knowledge that gratitude improves quality of life. Simply put, when we feel grateful, we feel good. And feeling good makes life feel better.
When our daughter Helena was one year old, we began a family ritual. Every night as we sat down for dinner, before picking up a fork or taking one bite of food, we would share three things we're grateful for. What began as a way to bring more joy into our lives has not only lifted us up after long days at work. It has made us laugh and probably helped us digest our food better and eat more mindfully, too.
At first Helena would say, "I'm grateful for blueberries." That was it, blueberries. That was her thing for weeks on end. Other fruits entered the scene, and then it was "pink" for a while. Tonight at dinner it was, "All the colors." Her shares are almost always more laugh inducing than mine.
So in the spirit of this delightful child we've been blessed with, and in the spirit of The Child, who lives within each of us and freely shares her/his joy, let me share my Top Ten Gratitudes for the day. Just for today -- tomorrow they may be different.
As is the case with most of my writing, this is both an honest, personal share, and an invitation for you to explore what brings you joy... what you're grateful for... Both are an expression of my love for humanity: all of you, and me.
10) I'm grateful to have a pro skateboarder friend who's super kind and generous and will gladly send a few skateboarding goodies to me for my young skater pals' birthdays. His generosity feeds the healthy passions of my young pals.
9) I'm grateful for the last 3 weeks off Facebook. I don't miss it.
8) I'm grateful my ego gets weaker every day.
7) I'm grateful to like who I am, even though I sometimes piss off close friends with the bold things I'm not afraid to say.
6) I'm grateful for the college professor who encouraged me to write my own major.
5) I'm grateful my husband loves to cook, and is really good at it.
4) I'm grateful our daughter survived after being born with pneumonia.
3) I'm grateful for our backyard golden raspberries (pictured above). They are my favorite thing about our current home, ripening abundantly every spring.
2) I'm grateful to have studied communication since I was about 8 years old, even though it took childhood trauma to launch this passion.
1) I'm grateful for acupuncture, frisbee and smart friends to help me refine my resume.
It's addictive! See how I snuck in three on that last one? What are Y-O-U grateful for today?
Get out a pen, write down your ten. Choosing to feel grateful results in feeling more grateful. What we focus on, grows. Simple physics. What we acknowledge, we get more of. If your attention is on it, you are giving it power.
I'm grateful you just read my blog post.
One of the things I remember from childhood was being told, "You are smart and beautiful." Mostly by my mother Carmen, aunt Irma and sister Stephanie. It didn't matter what anyone else thought about me. Nobody is smart or beautiful in everybody's eyes. My world -- those closest to me, as a child -- believed in me.
Those words sunk into my chest. Between them and the sense of safety I found in my home and community, I felt I could do anything. The world would take care of me.
I could unravel, like a flower, exposing my affectionate soul to the sun and being fed, day after day, water and light.
It wasn't the words smart and beautiful that mattered. Instead it could have been "kind and creative" or "generous and truthful." It was that Love was behind them. The most powerful force on the planet. The deepest human need. Through their words and how they chose to see me, my deepest human need was being met.
Acknowledgment is some of the most potent medicine for relationship and yet very lacking in our culture. It is as if we are supposed to pretend we don't need to feel appreciated. We're dying for it, yearning for it, yet encouraged to suppress this longing. We are led to believe we can be fed instead by external resourcing, often commonly referred to as addictions.
When it comes to children, we rock: "Gosh Ariana, you are a marvelous piano player!" we might say to a 4-year-old pecking the ivories with two fingers. But when it comes to adults, we withhold it from ourselves and each other, robbing life of this most simple aspect of affection, and then walk around wondering why we feel empty, unappreciated and broke.
So sure, go buy Valentine's Day cards. Let your children make them. Show love. But for God's sake, don't deprive yourself of it for the rest of the year by forgetting that every day is Love Day. Every day is a day to give ourselves and others the most basic human need there is: the knowing that we are loved, and capable of loving.
Stop suppressing hugs. Open up to their joy and oxytocin.
Stop criticizing people. Start seeing and appreciating their beauty instead.
Quit the insecurity act. You could die tomorrow. Your child could die tomorrow.
Don't withhold the love that, on your death bed, you'll know was the only thing worth living.
Any acknowledgment -- any love -- you withhold from others is withheld from yourself.
Let yourself unravel for love, instead.
Love looks good on you. Withholding it does not.
There are four forms of acknowledgment, the most common and therefore least uncomfortable for most people, is Voluntary. So go ahead, close your eyes and peer into your heart and see what wants to be said. Voluntarily offer somebody your appreciation. Who can you tell that you love them right now? That you think they're generous, considerate, or courageous? That you admire their work ethic, creative persistence or patience?
Then mark your calendar to do it again in March. And April. And on. Make it a habit.
And if you're empty, because you've let your own beautiful batteries become discharged and forgotten to take care of your own needs, then take a deep breath and lay it on yourself. If you don't feel fully acknowledged and appreciated, don't look outside yourself for it first. Look within. What do you long to be appreciated for today? What would help recharge your batteries? Is it... I acknowledge myself for being an attentive mom.... or I acknowledge myself for being passionate about the welfare of animals... or I acknowledge myself for being a ripe, juicy and divine expression of wonder... (It's totally that one, huh?)
Those ready for some potent medicine -- in relationship with self or other -- are invited to join Leaning into Light for our upcoming 90-minute phone workshop on The Power of Acknowledgment, Sunday February 28th, 10:00-11:30AM PST. Cost is $28 per person. Limited to 20 participants, first come first served. Sign up here.
We will do a deep dive into the domain of Acknowledgment, covering the four types of acknowledgment and how to work with them. Participants will leave with the ability to move through life feeling acknowledged and appreciated, and the ability to share that with others so that they feel acknowledged and appreciated. How's that for a power-packed 90-minute dose of Love Month medicine?
Our free recording for January is a 20-min talk On Minimalism, with Leaning into Light founder Jessica Rios. You can listen to it here in just a few hours ;) -- technical issue!
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (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.