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.
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.
As Christmas approaches, I am being courageous and communicating about something important to me, even though it’s a bit awkward and out of my comfort zone. Being courageous in communicating about things that are important to her is what I’d want my daughter to do — so shouldn’t I model this courage myself?
In giving myself permission to communicate this with you and others who I care deeply about, I ask that you first and foremost keep in mind that: 1) I love you, 2) I value you and all the ways you are generous with our daughter, and 3) this is nothing personal about any one person, including you. It is simply an expression of our family values — something we genuinely believe in — and I trust that you will receive this in a spirit of curiosity, with an open mind and a warm heart.
Here’s what we’ve noticed.
Whenever our daughter receives a lot of presents, she feels overwhelmed. It’s like her nervous system is frayed, and she can’t seem to appreciate or focus on any one thing. It’s as if she would prefer quality time rather than a lot of presents. It’s as if she is — without words — asking us to “step up our game” and show her how meaningful life can be without material excess.
She is fortunate. We are fortunate. And we’re grateful. So grateful that, in fact, we want to extend our gratitude into a family challenge to focus our time and attention more on laughter, music, conversation, cooking together — rather than having a holiday that is swimming in stuff.
We want this for our daughter, so that her holiday memories are rooted in the sharing of love. Yes, presents are usually given with love. Yet — they can also easily overwhelm children, and there is a growing movement among parents who recognize this overwhelm and want to teach their children how to live with less stuff. And less debt.
We also want our daughter to know that this living planet we call home — Mother Earth — is our life support system, and that we honor her future on it. We want her to know that buying more stuff is not good for the planet we love — which is her home.
My wish for our daughter is that she receive one very special gift from her family at Christmas. When we sit around our tree on Christmas morning, we would like her to revel — with attentiveness, presence and joy — in one very special gift her family has come together to purchase for her. We want her to feel what it's like to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy one gift. The magic of presence.
Trust me, if you want to be part of this gift I will be sure she knows that you are, as is anyone else who contributes to make it happen.
This year, we’re still on the case 😉 investigating what one “big” thing she would like for Christmas. Maybe it’s ice skates or a sled, or a day in the snow with a friend. Maybe handmade doll clothes. If you would like to contribute, please let me know.
If there is something special that you want to give her, let’s do it at a time when we can be with you, outside the holiday rush perhaps over a peaceful dinner, spending quality time enjoying the gift of your generosity and the huge blessing of your love in our lives.
As I laid in bed yesterday, the left side of my head ripping apart from the inside with constant pressing pain, it felt like the end of a burning softball bat was pressing against my blood vessels. Migraine #8 has been an acutely painful dance. Life from here on out must look different. I cannot live with this kind of pain. I must hear the message it is meant to bring. I surrender.
Have you been in pain like this? Are you among the 19% of women with migraines or chronic back pain, or some other bodily agony? What about your child – are you a mother whose child lives with Crohn’s Disease, another autoimmune disorder, a vaccine related injury or some other kind of pain?
Pain is, above all things, a messenger. Suffering does not need to happen as long as we listen to the message that pain brings and tune in to what is being asked of us – we are, in pain, always being asked… something.
On the very bright side, there is unlimited love right at our very own fingertips. We can speak sweet words to ourselves in our own minds. This nurtures our hearts. We can tend to our physical pain with massage, acupuncture, plant medicine. This nurtures our body. We can take time for ourselves to be spacious, rather than planning too much. This tends to our soul. We can tend to our own body, heart, and soul in many ways and this is always available to us at no cost, with no delay, and with no limits.
How rich we are, that we can love ourselves like this! That we can model for our children what it means to care for the self. That we can create a reality, by “being the change we wish to see in the world” as Gandhi said – a world that is more gentle, more kind, more delightful than before we found it.
Beyond the riches of our own capacity for self-love, there lies an oceanic swell of love felt for us by others. Whether or not we see it, it is absolutely there.
As my most painful migraine thus far carried on, the option of caring for it “all by myself” disappeared. There was no way I could function; I had to call for help. At 6:30am one morning, a neighbor went out into the world to buy medicine and bring it to my doorstep, while my brain felt as if it were about to explode. What was going on in my head? I didn’t know. But I did know I needed help, and he rose to the occasion before the sun came up.
That was when it became clear this was no time to pretend I was independent. We need each other.
A chorus of compassion started singing in my head. I thought of all the other women in the world who experience painful migraines. I thought of the men who do, too. Many of those women and men don’t have friendly neighbors who’ll run errands at the crack of dawn – or worse yet, they don’t have the inner self worth to ask for the help in the first place. My heart swelled with compassion for the emptiness, the hole, the sad state of being so many people live in while living with pain. My life is full of soulfully rich relationships. Many people’s lives are not. And even with rich relationships, life presents significant, sometimes lengthy and seemingly insurmountable challenges. How tough must it be for those people who don’t have this kind of relationship wealth in their lives?
Sidled up to my compassion for others who experience migraines is a batch of compassion for mothers who wanted to give birth vaginally and ended up with a C-section. Some mothers truly mourn the loss of the labor they dreamed of; others are fine with whatever turned out. I feel for the ones who felt a loss, as I too experienced labor-related trauma, even though it was after a vaginal home birth.
Sidled up next to these compassion wells is a deep bay of feeling for those who struggle with emotional eating, overindulging in sugary foods, and deep loneliness. I have faced these dark valleys, and they are not sweetened by the breath of spring lilacs. There is charcoal lining the way. What I would give – I’d give a lot – to soothe the aches and sorrows of anyone suffering along these painful trails.
That’s a lot of compassion. And it’s only my own.
I thought of all the friends and family who offered – from the abundant goodness in their hearts – acupuncture and massage and magnesium in the mail and child care, care packages at my doorstep and fiercely empowering text messages to my very soul. The mountain of compassion embodied in these hearts astounded me.
How sad it is that anyone on Earth ever feels alone in their pain. How unnecessary and inappropriate this is, when every woman, man and child on this planet has access to this riveting chorus of kindness, love, compassion.
There is only the space of one single thought in between any single person – you, your partner, your child, your mother, your neighbor or best friend, or the homeless person on the city sidewalk – and this chorus of compassion that can soothe all the pain in the world. Sit with this. If your child lives with pain, if you live with pain, stop pretending this is not available to you.
All the love in the world belongs to all of us; it is no one’s alone and could never be.
Let us teach our children, first by modeling ourselves, the importance of self-care for a life well lived. That their mother and father are worth all the asking for help, all the affirming mantras, all the pauses and song that are needed to fill up one precious human soul in the busyness of life lived these days.
When our child is in pain, let us show them how to treat it like a friend – to listen to it, to love it like it has something important to say. It does. And our children, energetic masters of feeling and presence, will be glad to step up into seeing their pain as the messenger it is. Let us remind them of the compassion-filled universe awaiting their requests, their calling, their ask. Let us help them lead the way.
This will be one of my shorter posts. I’m feeling not so wordy today, though certainly touched deeply by life’s beauty, by many elements of life’s beauty, as the holidays wind down toward the new year.
One thing especially has gifted itself to me this holiday season, and that is the grace of humility as delivered, it seems, through aging. And although this is about a happy place I’ve reached with this particular challenge, what is taking place is the culmination of many years of trying and confusion, disappointment and longing.
Short and sweet. I am glad I’m aging. What is coming along with it for me includes a level of humility that wasn’t here in younger years.
Grateful for this, I will state some simple commitments that I will carry further in my own life, and that I trust will be encouraging for readers of my blog.
I commit to…
May we all thrive in our relations, especially those nearest to us that carry the most potential for expansion of the human heart.
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.