Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.
Here are pastels, she said. Draw.
Here is clay, she said. Create.
A gathering of mothers. A time and space set apart. A whole afternoon to ourselves, to pause and pray and ponder what it means to approach pregnancy and childbirth as something spiritual.
At Peg’s retreat, I thought about birth and babies and becoming a mother all over again. But weaving between these weighty meditations were simpler sensations: the chalky smear of pastels on my fingers, the ghost-white trace of clay under my nails, the wavy curl of paper as watercolors dried.
When was the last time I let myself make art for an entire afternoon?
Sometimes I sit down with the kids at their small table in front of the sunny window and I doodle while they draw. Or I dip a brush and make soft strokes while they paint. Or I roll playdough into long coils while they squish and smash their creations.
But I never make art. Not on my own.
Why? Because I’m too busy. Because it’s not what grown-ups do. Because I’m not good at it.
. . .
All the way home from the birth retreat, I turned one question over and over in my mind: when did we decide that we were bad at art?
Many adults I know, who colored and drew and painted and pasted their way through childhood, no longer make time for artistic expression. It’s considered child’s play. Delightfully entertaining or developmentally enriching for little ones, but not a serious way to spend time as mature, productive members of society.
But when did this shift start? When did art cease to be an essential way we explored the world? When did it become reserved for the talented, the elite, the lucky few?
I used to love making art – at school, at home, in classes at our local art institute. I especially loved the pottery classes: the whirl of the wheel between my knees, the slippery slide of the glossy clay between my fingers, the surprising emergence of something new and warm between my hands.
But then I stopped. I can’t quite remember why – maybe sports seemed more important, maybe art seemed less cool, maybe the insecurity of adolescence whispered that I should shy away from somewhere I didn’t excel.
So now it seems daunting to start making art again – how? where? when? Why am I afraid of what used to seem so simple? Is it still the worry of looking like a fool? The intimidation of not knowing where to begin?
Or the primal, pulsing fear of failure?
. . .
Only six weeks left till the due date. Of course my thoughts wind birth-ward every day.
Heavy with baby, I watch my boys scrawl with sidewalk chalk, paint pages with watery doodles, color their latest crayoned masterpiece. I see how they trust themselves to create, how un-intimidated they are by the blank page, how much energy they pour into their work and how much delight they take in showing it to others.
At night when I dip into the childbirth books on my nightstand, I find myself turning over and over one question: when did I decide that I was intimidated by birth? When did this biological capacity become something to fear, medicate, suppress, or evade? Why do I have to psych myself up with the mental focus of a marathoner for a natural process that my body was created to do?
It’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated question, I know. The process of labor and delivery can be complex and dangerous, to say nothing of long and painful. Even if I had seen a hundred births in my lifetime, as other women my age would have in other cultures or eras, I might still be as terrified of the known as of the unknown.
But I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make to laboring women if we thought of ourselves as powerful co-creators.
If birth had remained at the center of our culture rather than being shoved to the side.
If we understood more about our bodies and their potential.
If we didn’t listen to the voices who told us we weren’t strong enough.
If we hadn’t decided we weren’t good at it.
. . .
I’m trying to practice, a little every day. (Easier said than done.)
Breathe, don’t balk, through the Braxton-Hicks contractions. Focus, don’t flinch, when the pressure of baby gets too intense.
Paint something, don’t write, when my mind wants to muse. Sit with the kids, don’t scurry, when they’re creating.
Step aside from the well-worn grooves of thinking one way. Sit with the possibility that there might be another path.
. . .
Yesterday afternoon my son came to me in tears because the tail of the monkey he was coloring had torn off.
“I can’t do it another way!” he wailed when I gently suggested that he might try coloring the animal before cutting it out, so that he didn’t have to color on such a skinny tail. “I only can do it this way!”
What if we tried it again? I suggested. What if he took a deep breath to calm down? What if we worked together to try a new way?
His bottom lip still puffed out in a quiver, he hesitated. And then he nodded yes as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers still stained from the morning’s markers.
What if we were all brave enough to try, again?
When I was a few months pregnant with my first child, I signed up for BabyCenter’s weekly emails on the development of my baby. My husband and I got a kick out of learning which fruit or vegetable the baby’s size matched that week, and I was amused by the cutaway illustrations revealing what miraculous change might be taking place deep in the dark inside me: eyelashes! kidneys! fingernails!
Then I made a naïve mistake.
I also signed up for BabyCenter’s online “Birth Club” for the month my baby was due to arrive. Pitched as a way to connect with other expectant moms, the birth club was supposedly a great source of support and community as we prepared for our babies to arrive.
But I quickly found myself in a strange new world, more mysterious than anything of the wonders of the womb. Peppered across every post on the online message board were bizarre abbreviations and acronyms:
I’m a EBF, CD-ing, CS-ing AP (Translation: I’m an extended breastfeeding, cloth diapering, co-sleeping attachment parent)
Or: FF, WAHM, LO EDD = 8/24/09 (Translation: formula-feeding, work-at-home mom, little one’s expected due date August 24, 2009)
I couldn’t catch on to their jargon. Was this really how moms conversed? My head spinning, I quickly signed off the birth club as quickly as I signed on.
Yet over the years that followed, I came to see how many women defined themselves by their parenting choices, even if they didn’t use an alphabet of abbreviations. Whether or not to offer a pacifier, let your baby cry it out, vaccinate, circumcise, delay solid foods, use a stroller, or allow screen time – these apparently were not casual choices but commitments that defined you as a parent. And as a person.
Frankly, this phenomenon both terrified and fascinated me. As a first-time mom who felt clueless about nearly everything she was doing in relation to her child, I was overwhelmed by the idea that I should pick a “parenting philosophy” that aligned with my beliefs.
But I was also intrigued by this conception of personhood: that you were the sum of your choices, and that the implementation of your ideals defined you.
. . .
I don’t dispute that some of the ways I’ve approached parenting have shaped me as a person. Breastfeeding changed how I viewed my body, for example. Helping my kids develop good sleep habits taught me how much I value rest and quiet.
But I just couldn’t accept the idea that offering my baby a pacifier or getting him on a nap schedule somehow defined me as a mother. Motherhood meant something deeper, more primal, even more universal than the particular choices I made, given my time and place and social location.
I thought about these questions – what kind of mother am I? what defines me as a parent? - as I wrote today’s column for Catholic Mom. Settling into my new identity as a mom over the past few years, I’ve come to see that it’s often the overlooked categories or characteristics that drive my self-definition: I’m a mom who craves community, I’m a mom who loves laughing, I’m a mom who hates clutter:
Labels often get a bad rap when it comes to parenting. Too often they back us into opposite corners, squaring off against each other in rival camps.
We want to say something about the kind of mothering we do – breastfeeding, homeschooling, attachment parenting, working outside the home – but these descriptors can have unintended effects. They can heap another layer of judgment on moms who didn’t make the same choices and feel the need to defend their own.
But adjectives are helpful and important, too, as any good English teacher will remind you. Adjectives bring color to our lives, appeal to our five senses, and let our imaginations run wild as we wonder how to describe the world around us.
Maybe if we get more creative about the ways we describe ourselves as moms, we can break out of the tired divisions and find the beauty in our differences and similarities.
What kind of mom are you? Here are a few ways I can fill-in-the-blank:
I’m a goofy mom. I’m a silly nicknames for everyone, dance parties in the kitchen, funny faces in the bathroom mirror, squawky sounds to make them eat their veggies kind of mom. I’m a making up songs in the car, tickle fests before bath, shouting “boo!” from the stairway to make the baby giggle kind of mom..(read the rest at Catholic Mom)
It’s not that I think our choices don’t impact us. Today I also have a piece (re)running at Practicing Families about the choice to approach parenting as a spiritual practice. How the small decisions we make every day can offer us opportunities to put our core beliefs into action:
The more trips I take around the sun, the more I become convinced that the spiritual life is mostly about two things: paying attention and shifting perspective.
It’s about seeing the abundance of grace in small moments.
It’s about reframing my vision to remember God.
Whenever I do these two things – see differently and re-member myself back to the God who is love – it’s no exaggeration to say everything changes. Or at least all the important things change.
These two practices remind me of how to be in right relationship with all that is around me: my God, myself, the people who challenge me, the tasks ahead of me…
Read more at Practicing Families.
But I still can’t define myself as an attachment parent, even if I nurse my babies till they’re two. Or a tiger mom, even if I believe kids need strict discipline at times.
Theological anthropology teaches me that my deepest identity is as a human being created for relationship, in the image and likeness of God. For me, that means every other part of my identity springs from this communal, created, beloved reality.
So I think about parenthood in these terms, too – as the relationship I have with the children I have been given to raise. How I feed or diaper or carry them can’t change the essence of that love.
(Although can I secretly admit that maybe I love them a teensy bit more when they bless me with the first simul-nap in months so that I could crank out this blog post?)
How do you define yourself as a parent? What choices have been the most important for you?
Mama, do the Our Father in French tonight.
He whispers his request as he burrows under the comforter, eyes flashing bright in the dim of his bedroom draped in night. Of course, I agree. And in an instant we’re off. I close my eyes and start to sing, and for a moment I drift back.
The cold stone church, frigid even in summer. The rows of plain wooden chairs with ancient woven seats. The prayers of the Mass turned to poetry in another tongue, the words I committed to heart to keep from flipping through my missal every moment like the obvious outsider that I was, even after a year.
I’ve forgotten so many words from that time – the names of strange vegetables at the market, the polite way to ask for directions, the slang on the corner store magazines. But still the language lingers, if not on my lips then deeper.
Even when I thought I’d left it behind.
. . .
Some choices seem definitive. I dropped the journalism minor when I fell hard for the humanities. I left the English major behind when art history flared its passion. But I could never quit the French. Even when it was impractical, indulgent, unemployable, save for the doctorate too many professors tried to push me towards.
So when I finally had to admit to myself that there was a turning, that the longing was no longer for language, that the tug was towards theology – the deepest of the humanities, the heart of the cultures I loved, the Word before all other words – I had to grieve the loss.
There were dreams – of a Parisian address, of doctoral programs abroad, of years spent pouring through poetry – that I had to let slip away.
Maybe somewhere deep down I wondered if it might bubble up again, if I could come back to the conjugations and the circumflexes and pick back up where I’d left off.
But I never really thought it would happen.
. . .
People would ask sometimes: you’re teaching the boys French, right?
And I’d look up at them with dark circles under my eyes from bedtime battles and mid-night nursing and early morning rising to tug soaked sheets off the crib again, and I’d think to myself: you’re kidding, right?
But then little by little, it started to creep back in.
A nursery rhyme here, a church hymn there. A few cooking words in the kitchen while we’d bake. A simple grace before meals. Then one rainy afternoon I taught the oldest Notre Père and we were off.
Suddenly he was digging out the children’s dictionaries and asking me to tell him words-in-French from his favorite books and correcting his little brother’s toddler version of Frère Jacques.
How did we get here? I’d wonder.
. . .
I’d only grabbed the church bulletin out of habit, something to read for the thirty seconds between strapping the last kid in a car seat and starting the car to drive home. But that Sunday a small notice in the corner caught my eye: French translators needed.
Turns out our sister parish in Haiti was sending a team to visit us this fall. Since they didn’t speak English and our folks didn’t know Creole, everyone’s non-native tongue was the only way to email back and forth.
You’re kidding. I thought to myself. I could actually help them with this from home?
So here I am now, the giant black French dictionary back on the desk, the dusty Micro Robert off the shelf to check verb tenses, even the Google Translate cheat to look up words that didn’t exist a decade ago in my college texts. I’m back in the world of delighting at what translates well and laughing at what’s impossible to culturally correspond, back in the world where we reach across differences through the power of language, back in the world where words matter deeply.
And with each email request that pops in my inbox, I remember how much I love this world.
Would I have had the courage, the confidence, even the chutzpah to blow off the dust and start the rusty wheels squeaking again, if it hadn’t been for these little boys who dragged me back first? It’s a terribly humbling thing, to spend years of your life perfecting a language and then fumble for the most basic turns of phrase years later.
But my son’s Montessori teacher talks over and over about synapses, about stretching out the tiny tendrils of a preschooler’s mind so that years from now, when he comes across rhombus or ovoid or quadratic equation, the synapses will already be reaching out across the divide to let the spark jump that much quicker.
Maybe callings run across these same impulses and energies. When we spend years chasing one dream, plowing into the work and sacrifice it takes to strive for a worthy goal, then even when we turn and take up another direction, the pathways do not close completely behind us. There’s still electricity waiting to leap across the now-dark abyss.
In all my work on vocation, these are my favorite stories. Not I knew I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was 5 years old. Not I stumbled into this work, though looking back I can see God’s hand.
But I had this dream once, and I thought I let it go, I thought my life turned in a very different direction, but then it turned out that years later, I did get to follow that dream after all.
So when he cuddles under the quilt and asks me to sing Je vous salue Marie again, I always say Yes.
You never know where Yes will lead.
Today I’m thrilled to welcome Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How To Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day. Her book is an irresistible treasure trove of ideas for celebrating big and small moments with kids of all ages.
Meg has gathered ideas from families of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, so no matter what your cultural or spiritual tradition, there are heaps of creative, easy, inspiring ways to celebrate and ritualize the moments that matter.
I had long eyed Meg’s book in Chinaberry’s catalog, and when I saw that the book was now revised and updated for its ten-year anniversary, I had to grab it. As soon as I finished devouring the book – dog-earing so many ideas I want to try with my kids – I knew she would be a perfect addition for this series on How We Spend Our Time.
Whether we’re planning a birthday party or wondering how to brighten up a long winter with a new family tradition, this is an important way we spend our time as parents: celebrating. Enjoy Meg’s insights on how families of all kinds celebrate life’s small and monumental moments with creativity and love:
1) What is one truth about time you have learned since becoming a parent?
Ritual time is intense time, and it doesn’t have to take a long time to mean a lot. You may spend only a half hour together at dinner, but eating together often, keeping the conversation flowing and having at least one good laugh together creates a very strong bond. I used to pack an enormous amount into 20 minutes at bedtime, including one or two stories, a prayer, and a special good night to everyone in the extended family.
2) What is one practice of using time well that you have developed as a mother-writer?
I’ve tried very hard to work intensely while my son is at school, so I won’t be closed off, in the middle of interviews or deadline writing, when he comes home. I also try to model keeping all tech devices away from meals and family time: when we are together, we truly are, together.
3) What new insight about faith did you gain from writing this book?
For this and my other books about family traditions, I’ve interviewed families from many different faith backgrounds, and I think it’s extremely powerful to have one’s religious faith threaded through all sorts of daily and weekly rituals.
I interviewed a family once that tithed even when they played Monopoly: when you pass Go, you set $20 aside for charity. Now that paper money doesn’t feed a homeless person, but it sure sends a message about making sharing a constant habit.
4) What is your favorite way to spend time with your family?
There are many ways I love to spend time with my family, including summer vacations that usually include some time at the Jersey shore. We are all book-lovers, and enjoy a vacation where we can do a lot of reading.
But as my son got older, into his teens, I really learned to love spending time with him in the car, just the two of us, because it’s easier for teenagers to talk without looking a parent in the eye! This also works if you are fixing dinner together, or dyeing Easter eggs or frosting Christmas cookies, because there is a shared focus and not a parent-clamping-down-on-kid atmosphere.
. . .
Your chance to win! Meg has generously offered a signed copy of her book for one reader of Mothering Spirit. Leave a comment below about a special tradition your family celebrates.
Entries must be received by midnight CST on Friday, May 3rd.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard
From the second we wake up, we make choices about how to spend our time.
Shower or not? Black pants or grey? Cereal or eggs? Music or news? Work out or email? Highway or back roads? Speed or slow down?
Our days are shaped by decisions. How we spend our time is the defining choice we make with every moment. It becomes who we are and what we value.
As a mom with two young kids, a career to pursue, a house to keep, and all the key relationships of my life to nurture (you know, small things like God-spouse-family-friends), I get overwhelmed by all the demands on my time. But I also get tired of the same old “so busy” conversation. I have the same hours as everyone else. I make time for what’s important. I let other things slide. We all do.
But I’m fascinated by the implications of our choices, how the little and big decisions of our lives become our story and shape the stories of those around us.
My kids are no exception. They already notice how I spend my time. They whine when I check email over lunch; they grin when I sit down to read with them. They ask what we’re going to do today, this week, this month, and they sort through their reactions to the choices their parents have made. Even as young as they are, they understand how time matters.
In an ongoing effort to fight the “too busy, no time” cycle, I’m constantly wondering how to spend my time in more life-giving ways. How to enjoy each hour rather than exhaust myself. How to stretch out the margins of our family schedule so we all have more room to breathe.
Lots of ink gets spilled on the big choices that I make as a mother: for example, whether to stay home with my kids or work outside the home. But within these larger vocational decisions are a thousand other important decisions about how to spend my time. How do I structure my days according to what I value? How do I stay present to the task at hand? How do I prioritize people first and foremost?
This week I’m launching a new series about how we spend our time as parents. How do we use our hours meaningfully in the busy years of raising kids? What practices can help us to become more mindful about the way we spend our time? How have other parents learned to live into the choices they make about time?
In this series I’ll be asking four questions about time to a group of mother-writers whose work has inspired my own thinking on the subject. Each of them offers a unique perspective on the activities and attitudes we bring to our use of time. I hope they will inspire and invigorate you (and there might be a few giveaways of their wonderful work, too, so stay turned!).
Till then, have a wonderful day – all 24 hours of it.
What a lovely way this has been to kick off 2013, with weekly reflections from wise women on how they nurture their mothering spirits in busy seasons of parenting.
The last installment in the series will be coming this Wednesday – from yours truly – so in the meantime, check out any posts you may have missed.
Here’s a look back through the past few months…
Nell shared a story of discovering sewing as a way to connect with God in the midst of parenting little ones.
Maureen invited us to join her in a hot cup of chai and a quiet moment of simple pleasures.
Melissa wove her story of learning to embrace centering prayer as a connection with the Divine within.
Lydia considered hands-on crafts like knitting, sewing and baking as ways to enjoy the quiet process of creating alone.
Kate offered a number of simple and creative ideas for nurturing her spirit as a pregnant mama.
Peg evoked the practice of greeting the morning darkness as spiritual self-care while parenting teenagers.
Mihee reflected on life as one big inconvenience and how we encounter God in the unexpected moments.
Leanne wrote about her love of writing and the catharsis of processing motherhood’s challenges through her words.
Roxane evoked the healing powers of pot roast and how we need to nourish ourselves in order to care for others.
Ginny described her writing desk and the need for a private space at home to call her own.
I’m deeply grateful to each of these kindred spirits for sharing their wisdom and words with us here! Please be sure to visit their blogs in turn, where you’ll find even more nourishment for your spirit and soul…
Tune in Wednesday for the culmination of the series. And if you’ve caught up on all these wise and wonderful reflections, take a minute to explore the latest redesign of Mothering Spirit and let me know what you think!
In the classic girls’ book Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy’s mother understands the creative process. She gives her daughter an old trunk to use as a writing desk, a special place where Betsy can sit and be alone and pen stories to her heart’s content.
“Betsy’s mother was a great believer in people having private places,” says the narrator.
Betsy’s mother gets it.
I, too, have a private desk of my own. It’s a brown desk in the bedroom, pushed up against the corner where two windows meet. Ever since my second child was born, it has been the place where I go to pray, to read, to write.
It’s a place that is mine and mine alone: the only place in the house where this is so.
Motherhood is all about sharing: sharing one’s time, one’s energy, one’s body, one’s last Kleenex. I would not have it any other way, because all that sharing has stretched me in ways that nothing else could have done. My two young boys are worth every bit of it, and more.
But, like many of us, I still need a small piece of physical space to call my own.
On the writing desk, I’ve put all kinds of special items and trinkets. There are family photos, a small statue of Mary that I bought in Lourdes, a Valentine card sent to us by a dear friend the year that she died. There is a quotation from Hemingway that always jumpstarts my writing process. There are candles to light and books for inspiration. In the desk drawer is a rosary – two, actually – for times when I need the soothing repetition of prayers I know by heart.
The desk is like a little shrine of all the things that sustain me: family, friends, faith, reading, writing.
It’s my own space, and it is capable of working wonders. A few candlelit minutes there in the evening are enough to slow my breathing and help me pick off the burrs of stress that routinely attach themselves to my day.
Whether I pray, or read, or write, or just stare off into space, that desk reminds me that I have an inner life worth cultivating and tending. It’s a reminder that although I am a wife and a mother and a teacher and a writer, underneath it all, I’m always me.
And I’m a more peaceful me when I let myself be nourished in – and nourished by – this special private place.
. . .
Ginny Kubitz Moyer is a writer, teacher, and mother. She is the author of the new book Random MOMents of Grace: Experiencing God in the Adventures of Motherhood. She blogs at RandomActsofMomness.com.