Friday, January 23, 2015

The Color of Mothering

Recently I attended a baby shower for an old friend. She is about to set off on a whole new path in her life: that of mothering and parenthood. In her honor, we piled into another old friend’s home and packed it with mismatched chairs and relatives and love and good wishes and baby clothes and our most important tips for the soon to be new mother. People had lots of really wonderful (and useful) pieces of advice – things like trust your gut, and if you’re really stuck, call your mother.

But the one funny thing about all of it was that I couldn’t help but feel like so much of the way we paint new motherhood and parenthood for that matter for those about to jump into the deep, is one of extremes. We say things like, “get your rest now because you’ll never sleep again!” or, “you’ll never know a love like this,” or imply that you will instinctively know what to do, or automatically feel overwhelmed, or feel complete, or feel everything or feel nothing.

It’s ironic really, this picture of parenthood as all sorts of lopsidedness: all one thing or another. I’ve always felt it’s actually the exact opposite of that. With children, with loving them and parenting them, it is never all one thing or another. Nearly every moment of the day I vacillate between ranges of extreme emotions with them, and usually land somewhere in between. I feel wild boredom at another round of Candy Land, mixed with a healthy dose of insane gratitude that they are little and young and still want to play Candy Land with me. There is always this tiny crack between extreme exhaustion and sleeplessness, and overwhelming pride or ridiculous joy. And in this tiny crack, this little pocket of gray, this is where my heart beats as a mother.

I’ve always hated gray – the color, the feeling, the lack of anything that it ever is. But learning to love them has been an exploration of the gray and an opportunity for the first time ever to truly embrace the everything and nothing that parenthood always seems to represent. This constant push and pull away and toward them and myself.

Yesterday I took Hope to her first little gym class. It was pretty awesome for her and for me. Nearly all of her days are usually spent napping, picking up someone, dropping off someone, or attending basketball and soccer games. As the third child, she painfully assumes this is an amazing and engaging daily existence. So to listen to her literally squeal with delight in a class that was just for her, was truly a pleasure for both of us. As is customary with this particular baby class, there is a point toward the end where they place a bunch of toys in the middle of the floor and ask the parents to move to the side and leave their babies. They call it, in their terrifyingly sing songy voice, “separation time!” This is my third time attending this class with a little one and I’m an experienced parent when it comes to separation time. I know the drill. Drop them off quick, move out of the way even more quickly, and stay out of their line of sight lest they spot you and unravel.

So I quickly plopped her next to a bunch of shiny looking toys and babies and snuck off behind some equipment to watch. Not surprisingly, she was fine. She was better than fine. She didn’t look back for me even once which was exactly what she was supposed to do. She played, she chewed on some toys, she bartered with some other babies for some balls, and she crawled off on her own. And as I watched her I was surprised to find a lump in my throat and some uninvited tears in my eyes. This is all of what it’s about. Hold them close, snuggle them, rock them to sleep and launch them and let them go. We’re raising them to leave us. Which is right. And painful. And amazing. That crack. That gray.

There is a quote I read by Anne Lamott the other day. In it, she said this: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” This is it. You wait and watch and work. There is darkness and dawn, and all of that mess that comes in between - the hard and amazing? Well this is mothering.

It is the middle of the night and the sound of Hope’s cry wakes me up. I know what she needs. Not a bottle or a fresh diaper or anything, just me and the sound of my heartbeat. I am exhausted and I just want to sleep, but I drag myself out of bed to her and when I pick her up and put her on my chest, we both instantly relax in the dark.  I am tired, and in love. She is stubborn and growing way too fast. Soon the sun will be up and we’ll both try to make sense of a whole lot of transactional bullshit mixed with intense emotions which is the standard formula for the daily existence of a parent.

Hope begins in the dark.

Because of her, because of all of them, I show up to live and love in the gray.


  1. Moved me deeply your essay! Thank you! Reminds me of the time, my children were small. It has not exactly changed very much since then, because it is still about trying to do the right thing and hoping and they still need to be near me from time to time to be reassured or to gain some orientation. It is actually not so much about doing something but just being there, being present for them. Reminds me of: If you are present you are a present ;-) Even though one of them ist grown-up and the other two are in their teens.

  2. I love this! If you are present, you are a present! What a wonderful gift this comment is - thank you!