1. Motherhood has phases
Instead of only mentioning motherhood, I would say “parenting” has phases, but I really have no idea about the phases involved with fatherhood, so I can’t speak to them.
In my experience, one of the phases of being a mom involves packing things. I’m talking about really packing things. Packing like you are preparing to go on overnight safari with clumsy people prone to sudden outbursts of Norovirus, narcolepsy, and ADD, even though you are really only headed to the library.
When my oldest three children were small, I was much more “prepared” than I am no, in the technical sense anyway. I anticipated the kids’ every need before going on trips. I packed an enormous Mom-Bag full of these maybe-essentials and placed this oh-so appropriate bag in the trunk of our recently vacuumed car. After arriving at the playground, pool, or Mommy-and-me story time (yes, I actually made it to those at one point in my life), I would keep my eyes peeled for the sudden need to heroically grab the right item from my bag. Do your lips feel chapped?!?! Out here, so far from home?!? Don’t worry, I have chapstick for you right here in this bag, and it’s organic! And I packed it! Are you suddenly feeling fevered while simultaneously feeling snacky and desirous to play with a matchbox car?! No worries, I’ve got you covered. Even if you aren’t my kid, I’ve got it all right here for you in this Mom-bag.
I remember that phase of motherhood. That was how I showed my children that I thought about them and prioritized their needs. It was legitimate and important and I still see the incredible value in it.
That is not, however, the phase I am in now.
I have been trying to show my children that I think about them and prioritize their needs by making sure that I set aside some time for myself, to read, write, run, or whatever I might be able to squeeze in that day. Because me staying sane helps all of us, and seeing me make a little time for myself will help them later, I hope. A side effect of this is that I rarely have time to pack a Mom bag, or vacuum out the car. When everyone decides that it might be a good day to go to the creek for a few hours, I only have time to feed the baby and make sure there are enough diapers.
No one wants to wait hours for me to make sure I have packed bagged snacks and patterned Band-Aids. If I tried to do that everyone would disappear to their bikes and screens and I wouldn’t be able to get them on board with leaving the house again. So, now I feel a certain sense of triumph if we just make it quickly out of the house on a day that I also got a little time in to read or write. If one of the kids has an accident, or needs chapstick, well I just go searching around the floor of the van. Sure, this outfit might have been waiting for a few months in the goodwill bag in the back of the car, but look, you can still squeeze into it! And this bag of veggie straws that got left in here last time is still crunchy! “See?” I say, while enthusiastically chewing a few so that they know they aren’t poisoned by the dreaded “stale” that my kids are so frightened of. Now we can stay a few minutes longer!
You might witness me scrabbling around in our van and think I’m unprepared, because you’re in the Mom-bag phase, but I just prepare differently these days. Some people might call it a messy car, I like to call it a mobile Mom-bag. On a side note, how do you pronounce “mobile”? Any input on this might help settle an ongoing disagreement between my husband and I. For instance, do you say bat mobile in the same way you say mobile home? Why not?
I’m sure there are phases for me beyond this one, I’m just not sure what they are yet. Maybe they even involve me purchasing one of those items people refer to as a “purse.” A purse is that thing that holds less stuff than a van but more stuff than you can hold in your hand. That seems a bit too far out for me right now. Maybe after my kids are grown I will start looking up some youtube videos about how to purse things around. Not yet though.
These phases help me remember that most moms operate on the “You know better, you do better” principle and that I will never be able to rightly assess what another mom has been learning recently. So, please know that I will be busy giving you the benefit of the doubt, and also maybe a fist bump.
Actually, anyone who knows me knows I would never actually give anyone a fist bump, ever. The very idea of it is starting to give me indigestion, so suggesting it is a little disingenuous. I will, however, give you a smirk bump.
2. Love is the only thing worth waking up for
I have experienced enough loss and grief in life to know that the only thing I will care about on my death bed, if I get a death bed, is whether I have shown people I care about enough love, and whether I’ve put enough energy into making happy memories with them. The reality is, when the time comes I might not even be aware that I am dying, because death often comes suddenly. And, if I am aware, it will most likely be too late for me to make any significant changes in my life. Being close to the space of someone else’s death can be a window to our own though. When my brother died, and then my father, I only regretted that there had not been more time for us to share together. That I hadn’t told them I loved them a few more times, complimented the unique goodness that I saw in each of them one more time, or put the energy into sharing at least one more memorable experience together. I think I missed out on feeling the full gravity of this lesson about life when I was younger because our society is so artificially distant from the space of death. It is barely spoken of in our culture, and when it is, it is often sugar coated to such a degree that much of its importance can’t be fully felt. I thought I could feel it, but I couldn’t. These losses have forever changed my idea of a well-lived life. W.S. Merwin, a poet whose work I love, wrote:
“Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
I will not care if my kitchen floor is clean, or if my socks are matched, or if I get the degree I have been working on, or if I ever publish my book. And I certainly won’t care about your socks or kitchen floor. Even though I know these things, it is important for me to daily remind myself that giving and showing love are the most important things for me. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who spent her life caring for the dying, said: “Love is really the only thing we can possess, keep with us, and take with us.” I think that’s true.
3. Staying home is hard, going to work is hard
I used to stay at home with my three babies who were all less than two years apart. It was wonderful, and beautiful, and so so hard. It was hard to spend all my energy trying to do a great job at something our society says isn’t worth very much. When someone asked me what I did, I responded with something like, “Oh, I stay home with the kids.” And a lot of career type’s eyes glassed over and they’d give me the impression that they thought I was free-loading or something, even though I had just worked my butt off all day and had spit-up on one side of my shirt and I just spent hours teaching my children to read better and to be kinder to each other even though they were in the middle of their umptimillionth argument about who walked the dog last and whether or not their sibling was smiling bigly and meanly at them, and I was so so tired. Spending time investing in your children in this way is important and it is something that everyone around us benefits from (well, not the spit up part). Staying home is busy, and lonely, and so often thankless. It is astoundingly valuable though and I wish, more than anything, I could still do it.
Do you know what else is hard though? Kissing my babies goodbye in the morning and knowing that I will miss out on the next 6-8 hours of their lives. Doing that is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It is hard to know that I won’t be the one who gets to kiss away their tears or make them laugh during the day, that other people will get to but I won’t. It is hard to make peace with the fact that it is most important that we have money for food, and housing, and that I have to take time away from those other important ways to care for them so that their immediate physical needs can be met. But, do you know what? My kids know how much I love them and that is what counts the most. They will understand one day, I think, and they will mostly just remember that I loved them lots, even if they are sad some days now when I have to go.
4. My disappointments are most often because of unrealistic expectations. I should try not to expect things.
I’ve noticed that so many of the things I have been disappointed by were because I had expected that they would happen differently. Often, it was the expectation, and the energy I put into it, that caused the disappointment and not the actual circumstance. For example, when my first daughter was born I planned for our first trip home from the hospital very carefully. I picked out a beautiful going home outfit for her, and packed clothes for me that I thought I would feel good in, and I laid things out in her bed at home so that she would feel comfortable and wonderful in it. I felt like a laminated magazine article about prenatal readiness. Only, the going home outfit was huge on her, and sagged in pathetic ways, and she cried and cried while I tried to wriggle it on to her flailing pink little body. Because she was an actual newborn. Also, my clothes didn’t really fit me yet and only seemed to accentuate all of the pounds of fluid I was bringing home. We had to drive through bad traffic, which isn’t romantic at all. When we got home, my baby didn’t want to lay in her bed, not even for a minute, no matter how nice it looked. She hated it. So we just rocked together in our clothes that didn’t fit and held each other and cried about how things weren’t working out. Now, I guess this seems typical and pretty silly, but back then it was apocalyptic.
When I came home from the hospital several weeks ago with my last little girl, I didn’t even have time to put her in any clothes at all. She was wearing her diaper and a swaddle blanket because the nurses suddenly gave us the okay to leave, 24 hours after I had given birth, and my husband had already put all of our bags in the car. I left the hospital in a robe and sweatpants and tennis shoes, like an escaped crazy person with my sort-of-naked baby cocooned in her car seat, in a torrential rain storm, and it felt awesome. It felt awesome because we were going home. I had enough experience with babies to know that I shouldn’t plan ahead for anything more than to feel profoundly fortunate that she was healthy and that I had this time to enjoy her, and my husband. The drive home was like a short weird date for the three of us really. Well, for me anyway.
I think the difference between those two experiences can translate to so many other life experiences, I’m just too tired at the moment to know exactly how to say it. If you know how to, and you’re better rested, maybe you can message me. I’m not expecting anything though.
5. I should accept help when I need it
I have been on a roll with accepting help these days. I used to be really bad at it.
When my youngest baby was born, almost two months ago now, our awesome neighbor asked if we would like some meals for the first week or so after we got back from the hospital. And do you know what I said? I said, yes. Yes, that would be really nice. That isn’t something that I would have said years ago. I used to think I could do all of the things, and that I should do all of the things. Like, freeze meals ahead of time and such. I can’t do that. Maybe you can, but not me. So, instead, I said “Yes, we really enjoy food, and eating each day, and thank you so much for thinking of us.” And those meals were a memory of love surrounding our new little baby that I will always treasure. My older kids were astonished that people would get together and think about what we would want to eat and then make and bring it to us. It taught my kids something really important about how it feels to be loved and supported like that, and how we can find joy in turning around and doing it for other people. It allowed me to just sit and smell my baby, and watch her stretch and yawn. It was blissful. I stayed in my pajamas and then just came down for dinner. I just, came down for dinner. Can you imagine?
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, my good friend asked if she could take my older kids to do some fun things because she remembered that it was hard for her when her older kids had to miss out on stuff. After her youngest was born her older kids couldn’t do all their usual fun things for a while because they needed to stay at home for a napping baby. This made her feel guilty, which was exactly how I was feeling. So, I said yes. Yes, that would be great, and I will make sure they’re dressed in passable day time clothes when you pick them up. And then I got to stay home and nap with my baby, guilt free, because I knew the older kids were out having fun somewhere and not schlepping around all bored while I napped, again.
Accepting that sort of help isn’t something I used to do. I used to think it meant that I couldn’t handle it all and that I wasn’t a good Mom. Well, it does mean that I can’t handle it all. Because sometimes I can’t. And that’s normal. It is wonderful to have parents that have been through the same kinds of things before come along and give support. It doesn’t mean that I’m not a good parent. I’ll have opportunities later to turn around and help someone else.
I am sure about less and less things each year that I get older. My list used to be long. Maybe in another ten years the only thing on this list I will still be sure about is the bit about love. Hopefully it isn’t only the bit about finding outfits in the van. The thing is, I can’t know with any certainty what insights hindsight will bring. So the most honest thing I can do is rest in all the ways that my journey as a mom is similar to the journeys of other moms and parents around me. We are all digging deep to do the best we can for our children. And if I know you, I, for one, promise you that I am impressed with all the ways I see you loving your kids. It takes work and energy and doesn’t allow for very much sleep.
There is so much that we all have in common, so much that ties our experiences together.
You know that moment soon after your child was born when your eyes popped open with terror in the dark, while everyone else was sleeping, and you realized that there was absolutely no way in the world that you could protect this beautiful sweet baby you just had? That you couldn’t protect him or her from the big things like cancer, or bullies, or future heartaches? I had those moments too, after each of my children were born, and I could only promise myself that I would hug them and be there for them in as many ways as I could. I bet you did that too.
And you know those nights when you lay awake thinking about all the opportunities that you missed that day to love your kids, or your family, or your friends? And then you promise yourself that you will do better tomorrow? You have company there too. Those nights are my specialty.
And, you know the way you gulp water so loudly at night that it wakes other people up because you suffer from the chronic inability to drink like a regular person once you have been asleep for a little bit? And then even your kids make fun of you for it? No? Ok, well that one is just me then. (Message me if you have this problem)
So, I guess my main point is, if you see me starting to focus on small things instead of these other things I know to be true, please call me out on it. Especially if I forget the part about love mattering most. Also, if you see me digging through our van, please offer me some sunscreen, if you happen to have it. That’s probably what I’m looking for.
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