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.
It was evening.
We sat in your living room and as you do every day, you watched the evening news.
Summer time in California meant every other story was about wildfires. Then came the reports of shootings.
When the guns, blood, police sirens and faces of black American citizens flashed on the screen, I asked you to turn off the sound because my daughter, your 7th grandchild, does not know what a gun is and I don’t want that horror present in her awareness yet.
You turned off the sound, and then it happened again. Another story about another shooting. This time you were a bit annoyed when I asked you to turn off the volume. You said, “Someday she’s going to have to learn about reality.”
And I get that you see that as reality. I’ve been through this before with another family member.
Deep sigh from my Mama Bear heart.
This is a letter to you and to millions and millions of people in our culture who would feel the same way you did in that moment. Annoyed, like I am privileged and should be teaching my child about shootings and other violence already.
Simply put, and with love and respect for you, I have every right to differ and I do.
Just as somebody might choose to use a gun to protect their child, I choose to use my instinct and powerful voice — and my ability to select what she is exposed to — to protect mine.
Back up with me for a moment. We all get to choose what we read, what we watch on TV or if we watch any at all, where our information and education comes from… Yes?
That’s worth asking. It’s worth considering. Otherwise, we’re just going with the default. Is life meant to be lived by default?
The news most people watch comes from big business corporations. Let’s not get elaborate here, this is simple. I don’t want news that is chosen and delivered by a big corporation and I don’t want my daughter receiving news from a big corporation either. Our news comes from smaller entities that we find trustworthy. It’s a simple as that. We want to expose ourselves to trustworthy information that affirms the life-honoring values within us and teaches us how to create a kinder, more loving world. You choose your news, I choose mine.
It’s important to recognize that what you call reality isn’t the reality I live in. Yes, I sound privileged to a lot of people. Yet we do not all live in — we do not all experience — one reality.
We all get to make 1,000s of choices daily that culminate in different “realities.” But absolutely, and with great sadness I say, we do not recognize this freedom inherent within us. We see ourselves as imprisoned, each of us in our own way.
Life is sad and beautiful, as a dear wise friend once said.
I choose to expose my child to the violence in the world in those moments, one by one, when it is time for her. When we are ready. That’s not up to anyone else to decide.
How can we dampen the ever-sprouting, sheer joy of a child? Children are here to play, feel safe and loved.
My child is not here to fix the problems in the world right now. She is here to grow and blossom as a healthy citizen who will, one fine bittersweet day at a time, get to know the horrors of the human experience in more detail.
For now -- and may it forever be my foundation -- I teach Love.
I teach her that we all have different skin colors because we come from different parts of this life-giving, colorful planet. I teach her that when she feels pain, and when a friend feels pain, she can show love. I teach her kindness. I teach her how to communicate with her words, not with violence. These are tools she’ll need to lead to a world with less shootings to report on the news.
You are a beautiful father and I wouldn’t trade a single thing for the fortune of having you as mine. I’m glad we can share how we feel and see life, and keep showing up to love each other through it all.
Your youngest daughter,
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.
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 published in the Natural Parent magazine, New Zealand
Idealism can be a blessing and a curse. To be at peace we must surrender our ideals at times rather than clinging to high dreams. Yet the imagination is a gift, and if we are in love with the human spirit — as I am — we ask ourselves which elements of society best honor the human spirit, and which do not. In this article I will leave out criticisms of school, its original design, and how it fails young humans and our future. Those critiques are not the best use of my writing. Sharing what I believe does serve life, is.
What I will assert is that all children are naturally curious. All children are born ready to learn, and homeschooling is a brilliant way to honor a child’s inherent beauty and wholeness.
Once led by religious families who wanted God to be central in their education, the homeschooling movement is now comprised largely of families who simply want their children’s learning to be natural. Less forced, more free.
Consider 30-year-old Tiffany Smith, who was homeschooled from 4th-12th grade and completed all her degrees, Associates through Doctorate, online. “My mom paved the way for child-led learning for me. She let me choose what I wanted to learn. I graduated two years early, valedictorian out of a class of 600 in our homeschooling program, then went on to achieve awards and graduate with honors for every degree. I am very grateful for my mom’s faith in me.”
On average, two hours per day are required for a homeschooled child to learn the subject matter. In school, this is found to be the actual amount of time spent learning subjects.
How about socialization? The myth that homeschooled kids are largely under-socialized is amusing to me at this point. Homeschooled kids overall do not lack social skills in contrast to schooled kids. In my experience, homeschooled kids often possess unusual levels of maturity in social scenarios, including a noted ability to interact with adults.
My own self-directed learning journey began in college when I stepped into a professor’s office in tears about something disturbing I had learned in his class. He listened attentively, said I’m not an average student and that I might want to write my own major. We opened the Course Catalog, I chose courses that were highly appealing and spoke to my strongest curiosities, and two years later I graduated with a BA in Social Ecology and Personal Ethics.
No, those two years weren’t easy. Charting a homeschooling path for our own children isn’t easy, either.
Most parents who homeschool their kids find themselves asking, every so often, Was I crazy to do this!? Yet quickly they bounce back to being 100% convinced it is the richest and most joyful educational path, worth all the time and heart, courage and vision it entails.
As with any rich topic worth exploring, it’s wise to keep an open mind and trade defensiveness for curiosity.
Conversations about parenting and how we educate our children can lead to divisive degrees of blame and other negative emotions and communication dynamics. School teachers and parents who feel judged or threatened by the idea or practice of homeschooling are a prime example. Yet it is possible to find teachers and parents with open minds, who accept that we don’t all need to see or choose like each other. Chances are, you will find open minds when yours, too, is open. That said, don’t expect to find these conversations easy at every turn. This is not the easy path.
I don’t want to paint an excruciatingly rough picture, and I also don’t want to portray homeschool life as “eating Bon Bons on the sofa all day.” One defensive school teacher mom voiced this remark and I mention it as a reminder that those who choose to homeschool are in the courageous minority — fast growing, yet requiring maturity to face ignorant perspectives like this, and then move on.
Thank goodness we are well supported by our own primal instincts and maternal intuition, by studies, and by a blossoming number of well informed leaders and organizations.
Turning to other moms is my Step Numero Uno when facing a tough issue or decision. Half of the time, that’s all I need. Where I live in coastal Northern California, there’s an abundance of homeschooling and the well informed open-mindedness required to do it well. When a mama friend isn’t enough to solve my problem, I reach for movement leaders and organizations with deep wells of wisdom and resources to share.
Wild + Free began as a small community of Instagram’ing mamas on the U.S. east coast and grew a ton in recent years. At the heart of W+F is the desire to give children a quality education while preserving the wonder, freedom and adventure of childhood. Recent articles released by W+F include Shaping Souls that Break the Mold, The Lost Art of the Family Walk and Nature Journaling the Human Body. “For as long as humans have lived on this earth, children have been schooled at home. Still, we homeschooling mamas often feel like pioneers forging a new path for the next generation,” writes W+F founder Ainsley Arment.
Feel the spirit? Pioneering requires great courage, so having a supportive community is essential.
Self-Directed Learning advocate Blake Boles quit his college astrophysics program to design his own degree in alternative education. Blake leads teenagers on international self-directed learning trips through his company Unschool Adventures, and is the author of three books including The Art of Self-Directed Learning (2014) and College Without High School (2009). He also wrote one of the most compelling pieces I’ve ever read on education: What Does it Mean to be Educated?
Thirsty for a deep critique of school? Turn to one of the greatest minds in the homeschooling movement, former New York State and NYC Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto, who wrote Dumbing Us Down and The Underground History of American Education.
Speaking in London on The Purpose of Education in 2012, Noam Chomsky rolled out genius reflections that may be tough for some to swallow yet will thrill anyone who is open minded and interested in the brave pursuit of an authentic life for self and child.
School reformer, youth rights theory pioneer and former classroom teacher John Holt (1923-1985) published several books including the popular How Children Fail and How Children Learn.
Numerous groups are available online for homeschooling families. Laura Grace Weldon’s Free Range Learning Community is one of my favorites. For bedtime reading without the glare of blue light escorting your dream state, her book Free-Range Learning beautifully explores the meaning and importance of natural learning.
Unschooling is a form of homeschooling guided by the learner, where self-chosen activities and life experiences of the learner lead the way. The Alliance for Self-Directed Education created a fantastic short video for those curious about what self-directed education means and why it’s beneficial for learners.
Most of the homeschooling parents I know are far-out passionate about providing a rich educational life for their children, one rooted in the most natural way young humans learn — based on interest, with freedom to play, non-coercively.
Yet for many parents who want to homeschool, it just doesn’t work out. For many families, school is an easier path for one reason or another.
Lifestyle and income play a huge role. Often in homeschooling families, Papa works at a paid job full time and Mama leads the homeschooling journey (on top of her other unpaid jobs). But this recipe doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t work for my family. As with any path worth walking, this one requires a willingness to explore possibilities and see what works for you. Buying less stuff? That helps. Spending more time with our children sometimes asks that we be willing to downsize, live minimally.
Parenting is the big work of life. We are all doing our best. A mother’s intuition is one of a child’s greatest allies. After all, as Laura Grace Weldon wrote, Mother and Child are Linked at a Cellular Level. Humanity will become more clear of this in time.
Be honest about what you want. Find community to lean on.
In the words of former Waldorf teacher and homeschooling mother of three Melanie Heysek-Macdonald, “Do what feels right for you. There is lots to consider, and there are so many options for what’s right out there.”
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.
(also published in Holistic Parenting Magazine, spring 2017)
Our free recording for December is a 43-min interview On Privilege, with Griffo Distillery's co-founder and Director, Jenny Daly Griffo. You can listen to it here.
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.