This year on Mother's Day I'd like to offer a few reflections that I've called 'lessons from a small guru' – insights from the journey of parenting that I hope will be relevant to all of us with or without children. It feels a little like dangerous territory...talking about mothering. Heaven knows, I am no trustworthy guide to this territory...I have one small child – most of the lessons of parenting still lie ahead of me. But there are some things that I am beginning to learn from my little teacher that I think are basic life lessons – relevant, I hope, to all spheres of human being and doing.
There are a thousand things that I could say about the beautiful gifts of a child – their unconditionality, their spontaneity, their wonder, their questions, their pace as they move through the world being present to each tiny detail, the way toddlers don't see household chores as work so much as opportunities to be involved and try new skills. These are all important. But I have chosen to focus on some of the more challenging things that having a child has occasioned for me, the lessons learned from the confronting, button-pushing, anxiety-causing dimensions of parenthood. I don't mean to be negative, it's just that these have probably been the hardest won insights, and they demand a consciousness and practice that continues to be a challenge over and over again.
Owning difficult emotions
There is something of a conspiracy around motherhood that leads a new mother to believe that she should feel warmth and love for her child all the time. That feelings of anger, ambivalence, and resentment are either signs of post-natal depression, or of failure to be basically human. There are some people whose mothering is deeply and instinctively their gift, and who find that being with their children is the thing that gives them the most satisfaction and fulfilment that they could ever imagine. But even these women, at times, struggle with the sense that there is nothing of them left. That parenthood is asking them to give up every last vestige of what they need for themselves – not just their former lifestyle and enjoyed activities, or fulfilment in work, but also their internal world, their sense of self. Who wouldn't struggle with unpleasant feelings when experiencing this set of challenges? And who wouldn't feel guilty when they look at their trusting, needy, innocent baby and want to run screaming from the room, out the door, up the street, never to return? I remember one morning, sobbing, sore, tired, with 3 week old Emerson crying for yet another feed, and repeating to her 'you are so f***ing irritating', and handing her over to Andrew crying 'Take her away from me.' Hardly my best mothering moment, and probably my first confrontation with the intensity of negativity it's possible to feel toward my beloved baby.
Adrienne Rich, in 1976, wrote this: “My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings towards these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, above all their need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures...I am weak sometimes from held-in rage. There are times when I feel only death will free us from one another, when I envy the barren woman who has the luxury of her regrets but lives a life of privacy and freedom.” Many is the time that I have thought with longing of 'the former days' and envied the lives of those with no child, even as I know that there is great pain and suffering and sadness for many people who don't or can't have children.
I get the sense that many women feel a lot of guilt around their parenting – perhaps guilt at these uncomfortable feelings, perhaps guilt at going to work outside the home, or at feeling relief when they do leave for work, or not having read those books on 'good parenting', or that they let their child watch too much TV, or drink too much fruit juice, or not enough milk, or that they don't play enough with them, or that they haven't taught them to play by themselves, or that their child hit another child in the creche, or that they were simply too exhausted to organise a really special birthday party, or because their child has missed a milestone or is struggling at school, or has tantrums when everyone else's child is being perfectly behaved.
I don't know when and where our culture got the idea that one could succeed or fail at being a parent, but it seems to have become pervasive, and to have led to a lot of anxiety about the whole process. Parenting is not a 'Project' with a capital 'P', not something that our ego needs to get involved in at all. It's a relationship, not something that can have a 'success' or 'fail' grade given to it. Like so many other things in our lives that have been unnecessarily turned into projects, like our health, or our nutrition, parenting is a practice. It's just there – something we are always doing, that we do every day. Sometimes we are happy with our practice. Sometimes we're not. It's okay. We start again tomorrow.
There is nothing to be gained from disowning our nasty feelings or even being silent about them. When we all stay secret about our unpleasant feelings that adds to the problem by creating the impression that nobody else experiences them. And, if we don't give ourselves permission to have negative emotions, how will we ever allow our children to express anger or grief? We all know that repressed feelings lead to unconscious and often damaging behaviours, poor mental health, and also do harm to our physical bodies. Whether you're a parent or not, we all face situations where we feel like we 'shouldn't feel' a certain way. That our anger, or our jealousy, or our resentment are uncalled for, monstrous, or inappropriate. Those feelings are there for a reason, and they have important insights for us to learn from.
At these times, we need to welcome and own our feelings, to listen to what they're telling us about what our needs are in that moment. We can also trust ourselves that we can feel our feelings without having to act on them in harmful ways, and without them cancelling out our basic ability to be kind and compassionate human beings. And if you wonder about whether or not God finds these feelings acceptable, just read the Psalms.
Choosing what I am doing
Here's an interesting anecdote:
“I remember that around the time when our children were two, four, and seven years old, there was one day each week, Tuesdays, when the babysitter worked all day, from 8am till 5pm. Every other day of the week, I ended my workday by 2pm, or I didn't work at all. I came to notice what I called the 'Tuesday effect.' At around 5.30 or 6pm on Tuesdays, I would frequently have the thought 'Oh boy, it's exhausting to be with these kids all day!' only then to realise that I was having this thought only on the day when I wasn't with them for much of the day.” (Daphne de Marneffe)
The person who tells this story goes on to reflect that much of what we experience as exhausting has less to do with what we are actually doing, than the expectations and head-space and identity we are holding while we're doing it. On the day when she immersed herself into her work identity, and centred herself around that pole of her life, being a mother felt tiring, even after a short time. On days when the rhythms and routines of domestic life were her expectation, she was able to move through them without the same degree of exhaustion.
Much has to do with whether we are choosing toward, or choosing away from, what we are doing, even as we are doing it. If I am looking after Emerson, but the greater part of me is thinking about when I can get to my computer to read my email, or finish the sermon, then I am not choosing what I am doing, and I will find the 'mother space' irritating, or unsatisfying.
To what extent do we 'choose against' those things that we say we value and want to be doing? There are a variety of ways of 'choosing against' – not all of them involve being physically absent. We can be distracted, tired, emotionally absent, detached, or passive...internally choosing against even while our body is physically present.
Here are some questions that Daphne de Marneffe asks -not just of parents but of anyone:
“Have I set up my life so as to rationalise shying away from any activity, any spiritual practice, that would put me closer to the burning centre of my life, to authentic connection? To what extent are my activities oriented... away from experiencing...depth of love?”
When we find ourselves 'choosing against' – or even failing to 'choose toward' those things we say we want, it may be time to ask those questions of ourselves.
I think I spent at least the first year of Emerson's life in denial about the way my life had changed as a result of having a baby. And while I think that I've pretty much made the overall adjustment now, there are still moments in every day where I lapse in my ability to accept reality. That is, a gap opens up between 'what is' and 'what I would like'. This is the gap of pain. In the space between what is really happening and my story about what I want my life to be, lurk all kinds of emotional dramas.
Here's Nancy Hathaway: 'Suffering arises when we want something other than what we are presented with. And, of course, we often want something other than what we get. Our children are crying, and we want them to be smiling. They are throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store, and we want them to be cute and make it easy for us to do our shopping. Our child wets the bed or the house is a mess, and we yell out of frustration. The way we usually try to find happiness – by controlling or forcing the situation to be the way we want it to be – is, in fact, the route to more suffering...”
“Living in harmony with life as it is,” while still holding on to a vision for how we might make things better, is part of the practice of parenting, and also a whole of life practice. And the initial steps toward this are ridiculously simple and hard. They consist simply of getting a tiny wedge of space between me and the reaction I'm having...enough to breathe, and notice my thoughts and feelings in the moment. To accept 'what is, is what is.' Enough to say 'my child is screaming in public. I feel really tense. My stomach is clenched. I want to shout and grab her and make my embarrassment go away. This is what is happening.' My immediate impulse is to go straight to: 'my child shouldn't be doing this...must fix it' and to force the situation to a solution that is swift but painful for everyone. Instead, if I can pause and see what is actually happening, and take three deep breaths, then I can create enough space to calm down, and see the compassionate and creative way through the dilemma that leaves everyone with their humanity in tact.
It's not just a child who can teach us this lesson of learning to accept reality moment by moment. Children are incredibly provocative. But I'm sure that many of us have stories of colleagues, of obstacles and disasters that rear their heads in the workplace, of days where everything we touch turns to mud. It seems to be a universal human tendency when these things occur to start making a story out of the discrepancy between what we want, and what is real. Usually that story spirals somewhere in the region of 'why does this always happen to me?' Or 'my life is such a mess'... or 'I can't cope'...or 'They've all got it in for me', or 'I'm a failure.'
These are catastrophising stories that take us to a miserable place that's miles away from the scale of the actual problem at hand. But they are simply thoughts, negative disaster stories that arise because instead of staying with 'what is' and finding the resources to cope just in that moment, we turn our minds to 'what should be' and start analysing, often irrationally, the reason for the discrepancy, often bringing in other scenarios, and past problems, and fears about the future, to inflate how bad we're feeling. If we can practice learning to accept the reality of a given moment, stepping back, taking a breath, then we can let go of those stories, just let them evaporate, and attend to what is in front of us.
Let love in
When we're in the middle of something that feels hard, and if we are able to stop to notice 'what is', one of the things we notice is the self in us that is doing the reacting. Often, it's a scared part, or a tired part, or a stressed part of ourselves that has taken over and become the whole of us for that moment. I find that I hear myself saying petulant, immature, blaming things to my child that I would never say to another adult, in a tone of voice that I would never use to another adult. Something in her needy, demanding, chaotic manner in that moment calls out from me a mechanical set of angry responses direct from my reptile brain. My child has pressed my buttons and suddenly I am being pretty childish myself.
In these moments, taking the breaths, noticing 'what is', involves looking at myself, and asking...what am I feeling here? What do I need? Is there a way of being kind to myself right now? If I can find some compassion for the grumpy, tired, out of control Brenda, then that compassion can flow out to the grumpy, tired, out of control Emerson. If I can somehow access within me, in the moment, a nurturing parent for myself, then I can also be the nurturing parent I want to be for my little girl.
Again, this is not a practice exclusive to parents. We all experience a range of situations that call forth our more unrefined behaviours, whether they manifest as rage, sulking, blaming, bullying, moping, hysteria or dissolving into tears. In these moments, if we can get a fraction of distance – enough to look at ourselves from the outside, with some kindness, and see how overwhelmed we're feeling, then we are on the way to being able to step back into the situation with some gentleness, and reasonableness for all parties.
All of this is about love – about learning to be people who respond in love and from love even in extremity, and towards ourselves as well as others. And, I suspect, it is probably not enough for us to source that love within ourselves – although that is a very good start. One of the most profound truths of our faith is that we are held in love, that there is, beyond us and our limited capacities, a source of love and a sanctuary of love that is always there for us. No matter how many times we have yelled that day, no matter how guilty or angry or tense we feel, no matter that we feel like we have betrayed all that is good in us, in God there are welcoming arms, and a place to rest our tired heads.
It is in coming to accept and experience the reality of this love, that some people find it helpful for us to see God as being a Mother. Not everyone can resonate with this. But some of the most tender, nurturing words in the Bible have to do with God's qualities as a mother, sheltering her babies under her wings, promising never to forget the child that nursed at her breast.
However it is possible for you to connect with the truth of God's love, it is here that you will receive what you need to be able to welcome unpleasant feelings without guilt, to choose to live from 'the burning centre of your life', and to accept reality. We are not inexhaustible wells of compassion and care. No parent can be that. No human can be that. Our wells run dry, and we are weak and often childish, and in our brokenness we cut the world, even those we love most, with our sharp and hurting edges. Only in God is there a love that goes on, that is truly unconditional, that forgives again and again. Our task is simply to learn to receive that love, to let it in. When we do, then we can love ourselves and each other in the complexity and challenges of this life.
All quotations are taken from 'Finding Your Inner Mama', ed. Eden Steinberg