what’s the soul of a parent?

When I was a child, I got obsessed with figuring out what we all had in common.

Call it the curse of Catholic school. All those lessons on how we’re all made in God’s image. I remember riding home on the bus, swinging my skinny legs off the sticky vinyl seat, trying to figure out exactly what that meant – what magical thing we all had in common that made us reflect God.

First I decided it must be eyes. Everyone had eyes, I figured. And you learned a lot from someone by looking at their eyes. So maybe that’s what we all had, that made us in the image of God.

But then my grade school self remembered pictures from National Geographic of people with disfigured faces, people who might be born without eyes, or might have eyes that didn’t work. That didn’t seem very image-of-God-like. I scratched eyes from my list.

Next was arms. I was pretty sure everyone had – nope, then I remembered that man on TV with no arms, playing his guitar for the pope. He had to be made in God’s image. Arms were out.

Ditto legs, hands, hair, teeth, feet, ears. Any physical attribute I could think of was crossed off the list. Even as a first-grader I got frustrated: how could there not be a single thing that every human being shared? How were we all supposed to be made in God’s image if we had nothing in common?

This was my first inkling of soul. Of the spark of Spirit within each of us.

Because, I studied seriously, chewing on the end of my pigtails, if there had to be something of God about us and it wasn’t outside us, then it had to be inside us.

God had to be within.

. . .

When I became a mother, I became obsessed with figuring out what parents had in common.

One late night when my first son was a few weeks old, I stared out his bedroom window, trying to stay awake while he nursed. As became my practice, I thought of all the other parents awake at that hour – across the street, across town, across the globe – doing all the things parents do that keep them awake at wee hours: rocking babies, soothing sick kids, keeping vigil for curfew-breaking teenagers.

I remember rocking in the nursery, swinging my feet off the glider, trying to figure out exactly what made us parents.

Was it birthing a biological baby? Definitely not. Plenty of people I knew became parents through adoption.

Was it caring for a child full-time? Not necessarily. Grandparents and babysitters and daycare providers often watched a child for more daylight hours than their parents ever saw them. But that didn’t make them parents.

What was the core of parenthood exactly? I knew it but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I thought about legal definitions and cultural redefinitions and variations on a theme. And that’s when it hit me:

It was the same dilemma I puzzled over on the school bus that day, wanting to define the essence of a thing.

It was the same searching that led me back to the idea of soul.

. . .

What is a parent? Does what we do make us who we are? If we are so wildly diverse, how can we all be the same thing? What is common to this complex calling?

When Sarah at Fumbling Toward Grace first blogged about her frustrations with breastfeeding and how harshly she felt judged as a mother for feeding her baby with formula, her honesty struck a chord with many of us. So when she invited me to participate in the “No More Mommy Wars” series that sprung out of the deep resonance of her post, I started mulling over this question.

What makes us the same as mothers, even though we make such different choices for ourselves and our children? Where can we meet in the soul of parenting?

Today I’m posting at Fumbling Toward Grace about my experience of extended nursing. If you had told me a year ago I’d be writing on such a subject, I would have laughed in your face. But the winding road of this parenting journey twists in ways I never expect.

This story is one of them.

Please click over to read the rest. And check out the rest of Sarah’s wonderful blog while you’re there!

rhythm, metaphor, and mama’s heartbeat

In the days leading up to the writing workshop, as I planned and packed (and wasted time worrying about how I would be away from the nursing baby for a week), I envisioned the chance to spend a week writing as a world apart from parenting. No requests for snacks, no cries for milk, no laundry to fold, no meals to prepare. For a few precious days I would get to be a Writer, not a mother-who-occasionally-writes.

How wrong I was.

Because not only was my writing shot through with my children and my identity as a mother, and not only did others around the table bring poignant and painful reflections on their own roles as parents, but the very craft of writing we worked to hone returned us time and time again to the early years of the parent-child relationship.

In the book we used for the course, Words That Sing: Composing Lyrical Prose, our teacher Mary explained how our basic sense of rhythm, the cadence that carries our sentences, was set by our mother’s heartbeat: the steady thump-thump-thump we heard for nine months in the womb. Turns out the reason we love music with a good beat is the same reason we love favorite authors: rhythm.

Whether or not we are aware of rhythm when we read or write, we understand it innately. A sentence either works or it doesn’t; it sings or it falls flat; it soars or it stumbles. Which is why balanced sentences appeal to us on a gut level: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Because the comfort and constancy of our mother’s heartbeat is still thumping somewhere deep in the recesses of our minds.

And rhythm’s not the only part of writing that goes back to mother.

Turns out that primary metaphors are also hardwired into our brains. When we are first learning about the world as a baby, certain sensorimotor experiences become connected to affective emotions. So when a baby is nursed, one of the sensorimotor experiences is warmth (milk! mama’s body!) and the emotional experience is affection (someone’s taking care of me!). Our brains conflate the two, creating a primary metaphor of warmth and affection that sticks with us for the rest of our lives: “He welcomed me warmly” vs. “She greeted me coolly.”

It’s the same reason we view “up” as positive. The breast or bottle is always up, above the baby’s mouth, so the child’s primary experience of nourishment, warmth and comfort is looking and leaning up. So this direction becomes forever associated with all good things: “Things are looking up” vs. “I’m feeling down.”

And it’s the same reason we equate “big” with importance. The small child sees their parents, bigger in size, as having power and control. So as we grow, we don’t think twice about calling something “a big deal.” Our body never forgets the early experience of spending years looking to something physically larger than ourselves as the most important influence in our lives.

Weighty stuff for writers to remember. How can the metaphors and rhythms we use evoke deep responses in the reader?

But equally powerful for parents, too. The fundamental way my children begin to learn about the world is through their experience of me.

Fascinating, says the writer in me. Terrifying, says the mother.

writing workshops & birth stories

I got to spend the whole week writing.

From where I sit now – surrounded by piles of laundry and dirty dishes, worrying about work emails and tomorrow’s to-do list, planning meals and errands and playdates – last week already seems a year ago and a world away.

I’m left with lingering memories of my time at the workshop: an annoying tendency to analyze every phrase I write (what a lovely suspended sentence! what a charming balanced series!), a head bursting with stories I need to share, and a heart brimming with gratitude for the writers with whom I was graced to spend six days.

We laughed, we cried. We cradled each other’s sacred stories and pushed one another to go deeper into truth. And by the end of a long week, with little sleep and lots of caffeine, plenty of swearing but even more praying, we each agreed that we had been changed.

But how exactly? As writers? As people of faith? As something more?

For the past few days, as I’ve reacclimated to a life weighted heavier on mothering than writing, as I’ve dived back into the daily swirling mix of my vocations, I’ve been wondering what I could say about the week, what I could convey about this transformative experience – without sounding trite or falling flat.

Ironically, my inability to crystallize my impressions about the writing workshop has helped me make sense of a completely unrelated phenomenon: the birth story.

Sprinkled through endless blogs, splashed across pregnancy magazines, shared and reshared at moms’ groups and baby classes, the birth story has become a genre of its own. But a strange genre – a narrative that swerves wildly between lengthy clinical descriptions of labor’s stages and euphoric elations of how absolutely amazing, beautiful, and life-changing childbirth can be. Part boring medical textbook, part born-again testimony.

As someone who loves story, celebrates the act of claiming one’s voice, and wonders at the marvel of birth, I should be interested by birth stories. But I have to confess that I usually find them painfully, ploddingly boring. Even the tales that dance the edge of danger, even the feats of endurance through searing pain.

I could never understand why my eyes glaze over when I read them, why my interest wanes halfway through a friend’s passionate storytelling, why I never bothered to write the story of my own boys’ births, even when I love to write about so much of their early years.

Until I realized why I couldn’t write about the workshop either.

Because the truth about Life-Changing Experiences is that they are impossible to express in the immediate aftermath. Even when their power compels us to share, we can’t make sense of the experience when we’re too close to situate it within a larger context.

Ironically, it’s the timing of birth stories that traps them from becoming powerful narratives of transformation: new mothers want to capture all the details before they forget, but they’re too overwhelmed by the newness (and the hormones and the lack of sleep) to grasp the totality.

It’s why women seize upon centimeters of dialation or hours of progress through labor as landmarks of their story, even though inches and minutes fail to describe the transformation that takes place. It’s why tracking my progress as a writer through lessons on sentences and style falls short of expressing how I was shaped by the deeper relational experience of being in community with such a quirky, passionate, committed group of writers.

Words fall short.

I’m like the weary, wonder-struck new mother who wants to tell you how her world has shifted but can’t convey the depth of the transformation.  Even though I know something significant has taken place, I can’t yet see the scope of how I (the writer) or my baby (the writing) or the world around me (the audience) has changed.

I jot down fleeting impressions, share snippets in conversation, promise myself I’ll sit down and let the words pour forth before their immediacy passes. But I can’t capture it completely. I need plenty of time and space to sort out how this shaped me, who I am becoming.

To say nothing of making sense of the beautiful, terrifying new life – its promise and its responsibility – that is emerging.

praying the particulars

I’m willing to bet that M.D. mamas secretly troll Dr. Google for quick answers to questions about mysterious rashes and childhood ailments.

So I’ll admit that one late night recently found me googling “prayer for stressed-out mother.” (Tsk, tsk – such a poor pastoral response for a mother with a MDiv!) Yet my need was great, my desire to pray was strong, and my ability to form thoughts into words was positively shot. And despite stacks of theological volumes around me, I came up empty-handed for a prayer that spoke to my heart.

I needed someone else’s words.

While I didn’t find exactly what my Google search sought, I was delighted to uncover a treasure I’d never found before – a collection of prayers for mothers from Creighton University’s Online Ministries.

The prayer for working mothers touched my heart (and made me chuckle), but I found myself pausing at prayers that didn’t speak to my life situation. The prayer for a mother with Alzheimer’s is heart-wrenching, as is the beautiful prayer for a mother whose children are no longer at home.

What I appreciate most about these prayers is their particularity. They don’t lump experiences of motherhood into one quick blessing. Instead, each one lifts up a unique aspect of mothering. Far from closing the window to those whose lives don’t match the situation described, the sharpened focus allows prayer to reflect in many directions, like a prism’s light.

Every day perfect strangers find my blog in search of prayer. I see the words that bring them here: prayers for pregnancy, prayers for anxiety and parenting, prayers for childbirth. Sometimes I see desperate words: prayers for unexpected pregnancy, prayers for depression. I wonder if they find anything here that speaks to their need; I wonder if I could do something more to help.

But all I can do is pray my own prayers. From the particular perspective of my life, my questions, my circumstances. And yet finding those prayers for mothering that spoke about Alzheimer’s and adoption and all sorts of situations that don’t reflect my own, I realized the merits of praying the particulars: even if they are not my words, someone else’s story can shed light on my own understanding of the divine.

So I’ve started scribbling down some prayers. Prayers for particular situations that are challenging for my parenting these days. Perhaps they’ll ring true to your struggles. Or perhaps they won’t, but they’ll remind you of someone else. Or another season in your life. Or they’ll simply reflect God’s light through a part of the prism you never noticed before.

What I really hope they’ll do is inspire you to pray the particulars of your own life. Because as interesting as someone else’s words may be, the Word of God inspires each of us to speak words of our own.

So if you’re wondering just why I’ve been so stressed out lately, check back tomorrow for the first in this series. (Here’s a hint: we’re eating lots of pizza for dinner and should have bought stock in Home Depot.) Maybe by the end of the week you’ll have your own particular prayer to share, too…

What part of parenting is challenging for you this week?

where we dreamed our babies

We’ve been tackling lots of house projects lately – windows, floors, closets. So I find myself thinking a lot about this home we’ve created, this place we became a family.

There is a deep joy in making a house a home, a fulfillment I never imagined when I was an energetic twenty-year-old, hauling tattered boxes in and out of different apartments every year. Today I find myself having lived on this street for longer than I’ve lived anywhere except my childhood home. My address hasn’t changed in years, but my perspective has.

Through the seasons I’ve spent gazing out the same windows at the same trees, I’ve learned that settling in isn’t the same as settling. The joy of owning a home is putting down deep roots so beauty can grow. It’s the wisdom grown from tending to one small piece of God’s green earth. It’s the wonder of taking someone else’s place and filling it with your own dreams.

We’ve planted gardens and fruit trees, rose bushes and lilacs. We picked out new appliances when old broke. We hauled furniture upstairs and down when inspiration struck. I’ve watched crews of construction workers tromp in and out of our yard, putting on new roofs or tearing up old floors. My handy husband even built a bedroom and a basement of bookshelves.

In short, we’ve made this place our own.

But when I think back on this house, my strongest memories will be the transformations that took place within us, within its walls.

This house was full of infertility’s charts, tests and meds before it was full of babies’ clothes, books and toys. It was full of couple love before it was full of children. This “starter home” is where we became partners and parents. Where we started writing the story of our life together.

A few days ago I took a break from wrangling the bottomless heap of kids’ clothes in the closet. Sweaty and tired, I laid on the floor and stared up at the spinning fan. The fan that my husband installed, in the room that my mother and mother-in-law painted for our first baby. I thought about the home we have made while I listened to my son pretend to read from one of his favorite books:

We’d dreamed a baby, we’d wanted a baby, we’d planned for a baby, we’d waited and waited and waited for a baby. 

Until finally there was you. 

As he flipped the final pages, I turned my head on the carpet to watch him sing: And oh, how we love you!

Watching my baby-turned-boy, I realized that perhaps this chapter is the most important one we’ve written in the story of this house. Not the herb garden we planted out front or the strawberry patch we dug out back. But the family we became along the way.

When we were giddy newlyweds rushing in the door from our honeymoon, we had no idea how the early years of our marriage would be shaped by the wanting and hoping and praying for children. This was the place we dreamed our babies, wondering how they would look and when they would arrive. This was the place we planned for our babies, worrying as the months stretched into years. This became the place we waited and waited and waited for our babies. Until finally, they were here.

And oh, how we love them.

enlighten your spirit: louise erdrich

“But of all passing notions, that of a human being for a child is perhaps the purest in the abstract, and the most complicated in reality. Growing, bearing, mothering or fathering, supporting, and at last letting go of an infant is a powerful and mundane creative act that rapturously sucks up whole chunks of life.”

Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year

I knew from the moment I saw the book’s cover that I would lose my heart to it.

Drawn from the back, a dark-haired woman nuzzles a dark-haired baby in the curve of her neck, both gazing together at a blue jay outside the window. A newer edition has replaced the duo with the lone bird’s unflinching stare. But at the beginning of my own birth year with baby #2, it was this quiet, anonymous madonna-and-child that drew me in.

Erdrich describes her book as “a set of thoughts from one self to the other – writer to parent, artist to mother.” (So of course I tore through it cover to cover.)

And her treatment of a well-worn feminist theme – the dilemma of mother torn between child and work – is tender and tough at all once.

But what I love above all is that her treatment of maternal love is the most true and least sugary-sentimental I’ve yet read:

We live and work with a divided consciousness. It is a beautiful enough shock to fall in love with another adult, to feel the possibility of unbearable sorrow at the loss of that other, essential personality, expressed just so, that particular touch. But love of an infant is of a different order. It is twinned love, all absorbing, a blur of boundaries and messages. It is uncomfortably close to self-erasure, and in the face of it one’s fat ambitions, desperations, private icons, and urges fall away into a dreamlike before that haunts and forces itself into the present with tough persistence. The self will not be forced under, nor will the baby’s needs gracefully retreat. The world tips away when we look into our children’s faces.

You have to love nature to truly love this book, or at least be willing to stay the course through Erdrich’s wanderings through the wild that eventually wind back to mothering.

(You also have to forgive her several sections of randomly-placed recipes and homages to her husband’s cooking. Though pregnant and nursing mothers can’t help but fall in love with food as they nourish themselves and their babies at a staggering pace. Writes the woman who just helped herself to second dinner.)

But anyone who has lived through the seasons of a child’s early years will find themselves in her changing landscapes, both of the natural world and the interior life.

She weaves the stories of three of her babies into one narrative of a nameless daughter, reminiscent of the way any mother of multiple children looks back and wonders, “Was that with the first baby? Or the second? Or was it the third?”

A blur of babyhoods, but the powerful love and the raw frustrations and the deep conflicts meld into one story of woman becoming mother over time.

I love this memoir of early motherhood because it is poetic in its imagery and powerful in its honesty.

She writes of walking in winter at the end of a pregnancy and letting her swollen body sink to rest in a deep snowbank, wishing she could just birth the baby right then and there.

She describes her fraying nerves while rocking a colicky newborn for the umpteenth night in a row that finally resort to whispering (amidst the baby’s screams) words that parents never admit in the light of day: I love you, but you’re driving me completely nuts. You’re such a g****** crank.

I still laugh out loud when I think about that scene.

So if you long to write in the middle of life with littles, or if you gaze out windows to mark seasons passing through the maddening monotony, or if you simply love to dig in the dirt with children, your mothering spirit can find yourself in Erdrich’s words.

Perhaps we all can:

 Mothering is a subtle art whose rhythm we collect and learn, as much from one another as by instinct. Taking shape, we shape each other, with subtle pressures and sudden knocks. The challenges shape us, approvals refine, the wear and tear of small abrasions transform until we’re slowly made up of one another and yet wholly ourselves.

why i hate to leave my babies (and why i do it anyway)

I love my boys. And I love my job.

And I hate the tension between them.

While my commute being only a walk downstairs can seem enviable, working from home brings its own struggles. Boundaries are blurred. Child care or housework can encroach on my work time if I’m not careful. Or work can seep into every hour of the day and corner of the house if I don’t make myself fully present to my children when work is done.

Yes, working from home means I’m closer to my kids when they need me. Yes, working part-time means I’m able to be with them for much of the day-to-day of their early years. But it also means that when they are wailing upstairs, I can’t run to them – there is work to be done. Likewise, when they burst out in peals of laughter with the babysitter, I miss out on their joy. And that kills me, too.

Both sounds – the cries and the delights – tear at me when I can’t be right there. The flip side of being only a door away is that I am only a door away. And no white noise or background music can mask a mother’s most immediate and instinctive desire to run to her child.

There are other frustrations, of course. Trying to explain to a toddler why he can’t barge in on his mama whenever he wants a read or a cuddle. Pumping milk for a baby in the room right above my head. Navigating the tricky balance between letting a responsible sitter take charge of their care and feeling tempted to micro-manage since I’m within earshot.

And I’ve learned that living in-between worlds – that of the working mother and the stay-at-home mother – means I’m not good at doing either 100%.

Not being a full-time stay-at-home mom means that on the days when I’m with both boys from dawn till dusk with no break for my work, we are all on each other’s nerves by bedtime. I struggle when I’m home with them full-time.

Not being a full-time working mother means that on the days when I have to leave all day (or week) for meetings or conferences, the whole household is turned upside down to prepare for my extended absence. I struggle to get everything organized – for me and for them – to be gone full-time. To say nothing of hating how it feels to slip out of the house before they wake and return late after they’re back in bed.

So my work and my mothering are decidedly a muddle in the middle. Both/and; neither/nor.

And yet somehow I make it work and find the back-and-forth to be life-giving, if exhausting. I make it work because I love my kids and I love my job. I love using my skills and my gifts and my education to help make a small difference in my corner of the world. I feel called to this work and want to give myself to it.

But even knowing that I am blessed to have choices, and choices between good things, I still feel deeply torn on some days. The tensions I feel between my work and my family will never be fully resolved. I simply have to learn to live as best I can within them and rejoice in the fullness of my life writ large, pulled back from the daily effort required to keep juggling all these balls in the air.

One truth I did not know when I started on this mothering journey was how deeply compromised I would sometimes feel about the choices I would make. How much I would envy moms on one side of the fence or the other. But it turns out that parenting is a much more complicated picture than the pretty pastels I painted it to be in my youth.

Motherhood is also about compromise. And ambivalence. And guilt. And fear that if you choose poorly, you may somehow fail the most precious people in your life.

And when we don’t talk about the shadow side of mothering – when we insist upon the illusions of loving-every-second and complete-and-utter bliss – we sell ourselves short. All of us.

Including the God who mothers. The God who works. And the God who calls all of us to become the people we were created to be: people who give ourselves to work and relationships and service and others.

So I share my struggles here, in this space, with you, because I think it is only in the honest claiming and sharing of our stories that we create a community where diverse decisions and situations can be understood. I stake none of my choices as normative: this is simply the path I carved for myself. But showing the truth of it – the good and the bad – and inviting you to share your own story in turn reveals the many ways in which we are called and create our life out of our many calls.

One wish I have is for better language to share our stories. No “stay-at-home mom” lounges in the comfort of her couch all day, and all moms are “working mothers.” Women are called and gifted to serve the world in a myriad of vocations and professions. And it is the goodness of the work we are each called to do that makes our sacrifices “worth it” in the broadest sense.

So how could we more truthfully and creatively share the stories of the work we do as parents: inside and outside the home, paid and unpaid, for our children and for others? And how might this help us to tell God’s story better, too?

Where do you live in this tension?

How is your parenting shaped by compromise or conflict?

How do you embrace the choices you’ve made?