Blog #19: Writer Dreams Retake

Blog 19

 

July 4, 2015, I was nursing my baby in a summer dormer while my seven year old daughter and nine year old son read downstairs with their dad and my parents, the two kids with their legs stretched out on the couch and the adults in separate chairs. Above, I sat cross-legged on the floor in a thin line of shadow afforded by the window pane. Outside, no breeze stirred the pines, and the afternoon sun was strong and heavy, like golden rod honey. The baby drifted to sleep on my lap slowly, still nursing but loosely, intermittently. I was supposed to be composing an email to my department chair, but instead, half-consciously, I reached for a book on the bottom shelf of the bookcase beside me: Island by Alistair MacLeod. I’d heard of him; literary writers liked him. Scanning the table of contents, I noticed a story about summer ending and flipped it open:

 

…we know the weather cannot last much longer and in another week the tourists will be gone and the schools will reopen and the pace of life will change. We will have to gather ourselves together then in some way and make the decisions that we have been postponing in the back of our minds. We are perhaps the best crew of shaft and development miners in the world and we were due in South Africa on the seventh of July. But as yet we have not gone…

 

My breath changed, no longer nervy and shallow but deeper, matching the author’s bold strokes. I could taste salt and feel summer’s warm air blowing over the miners’ bare skin. My personal concerns faded into a watery background while I read about men whose bodies had been ravaged by their jobs and whose families had been equally and irrevocably torn. All of the miners lying on the beach had lost a brother, cousin, uncle or father in a mine, and all had been to funerals for boys too young to be called men. Yet MacLeod’s words emanated a spirit that thrived anyway, some essence of human resilience that lived beyond loss of limbs and lives.

Here was why I read, I remembered, why I taught literature, and why I wrote — to encounter how we humans are more than our circumstances, more than our bodies, even more than our stories. What is true? What matters most in your short and mortal life? Here are the questions that matter, and good writing always leads readers to face them.

I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven and heard the story of Buddha, a prince who defied his father’s instructions for a royal life and stood in protest outside his father’s bedroom window for three days and nights. Neither rain, hunger, nor the growing trembling in his muscles stopped Buddha from standing up for his desire to explore life beyond the palace’s walls. Eventually, Buddha’s father relented, opened the palace gates, and Buddha stepped into the forest.

I was utterly enamored of Buddha, who felt no temptation to stay in a safe, comfortable home but who dared, instead, to venture into unfamiliar and even dangerous territory. I wanted to follow his example and believed, as Buddha did, that the meaning of life had to be more than attaining a comfortable lifestyle and various possessions. What is true? What matters most in this short and mortal life? Like Buddha, I yearned to discover my own answers to these questions.

In the summer dormer reading MacLeod, I remembered myself at seven, thinking of Buddha’s first steps as I packed cheerios, peaches, and a journal, then ventured into the trees behind my parents’ house. The trees and journal felt like a new home, and I spent as much time as I could with both. When winter came, I wore layers of clothes, including several coats at a time, as I sat and wrote beneath the branches of a favorite oak; when summer returned, I used towels to protect my arms from mosquitoes as I read Black Stallion novels in the same spot.

I missed that girl, I realized – her ardor, her journal, her light load. Almost four decades had since passed, and now, as a parent, householder and professor, I appear more like Buddha’s father than his son. I have cherished all three of my adult roles, but I see that an essential part of me had been standing in protest outside my life’s limits for years. This part stirred to life as I read MacLeod’s words and called me back to the truth that good writing always awakens within me — in our finite human reality, integrity means more than comfort and safety. Not fear nor even confusion are reasons enough to avoid the forest.

That afternoon, I faced a decision that carried the heavy weight of consequence. I’d promised to email my answer that day, and it was already 3:30. For ten years, I’d tried to balance my three roles of parent, householder and teacher, and for ten years I had failed. Now I needed to accept the failure and do something about it. Teaching four writing courses a semester while raising three children had proven impossible for me: I missed my kids, I wished to give students more time than my schedule ever allowed, and I often felt like a stranger in my own home. Yet the choice to leave a full time job was terrifying: Could I really give up my full professorship (I’d worked so hard for it! For fifteen years!), or would I keep on keeping on as I had, feeling time pass with a growing sadness?

To leave academia and tenure (in my mid-forties! with a large family!) looked like foolishness to some and flagrant irresponsibility to others. The college gave me as much job security as one could enjoy nowadays, plus summers off, health care, and a retirement plan. What lunatic would walk away from such treasure? What example was I setting for my children, and how did I plan to take care of them?

To live for a dream never makes sense to one’s family and peers: the community sees the community-reality while the dreamer reaches for what has not yet materialized. Even I couldn’t envision the life I’d encounter after resigning. But I was precisely clear about what I did not want, which was what I had had for more than a decade — the experience of handing my kids off to other people so I could teach others to write while I felt increasingly estranged from my own family and my own writing. Who was I to teach writing if I wasn’t doing it successfully? Who was I to teach anyone about “truth seeking” when I couldn’t follow my own heart? I felt like a fraud as a mother, writer, teacher, and person, and living so short of my own truths deeply depressed me. I didn’t respect or even like who I seemed to have become.

I sat on the floor in that dormer letting myself fall deeper into Alistair MCloud’s story. Good writing forces the mind to sit down and quiet down. Rationalizations, declarations, proclamations – all that noise disappears in the presence of good writing. What is true? What matters most in this short and mortal life? Three pages, five, then fifteen pages into Alistair MCloud’s writing named my answers. It happened that quickly, in less than thirty minutes. A writer’s job is to name and abide by undeniable truths, and though human life demands dozens of compromises, I suddenly knew — while reading MacLeod — that I’d conceded to too many. Minutes before 4 PM, I emailed my resignation, then prepared to step into the forest.

It’s green and wild in here. Trees tangle into one another, and the underbrush is thick and thorny. The berries are sweet, though, and apples grow everywhere. Deer pick their way delicately along almost-invisible paths. Every moment is new, and I find that I can’t count on much. A bit of a life rhythm is emerging, though. The days are noisier and more chaotic than I’d ever anticipated, but homework, sports games, dinners and baths are all managing to happen, as are my two new part-time jobs that pay some bills. Vehicles break down, glasses shatter all over the kitchen floor, knees and elbows get banged up, and nasty colds and moods sometimes sweep through the whole family – but we are at our core happier and more together than ever before. When I step outside in the pre-dawn dark and see stars, a slip of moon, and the shadowy shapes of distant trees, I fill up with such a raw and pure pleasure. The feeling is new and bright and always growing; I know need to continue to live true to it. I know I’m on the right path.

My newfound  happiness is fragile, though. Little outside support exists for people who choose a path into the forest. “Fat, haggard, overwhelmed…” I wrote in my journal just three nights ago. Words like “brave” and “inspired” felt far away. Questions regarding my material future would not quit assaulting me: Would I ever again contribute more than fractionally to my family’s income? Would I ever write successfully? Was I a good mom, even when so tired? And would I always look like a gray-skinned ghoul living under a three hundred pound rock?!

Change always brings in the unexpected, and within this forest’s tangled growth of an old life gone and a new one forming, I have to remind myself daily – sometimes hourly – that I am living for truths that won’t show up in the mirror, on a resume, or in a bank account. I need to reaffirm that I am choosing to abide by what is happening within me and within my family, less about what the larger social world sees. This time in my life is more about the spiritual than the material. I can’t look for evidence that I’ve made a “good” decision; I need, instead, to believe that I have.

I also need to remind myself that dreams have their own timing. Like babies, they do not manifest just because a human decides to want one. A kaleidoscope of designs need to happen to allow a new life or dream into the world, from shifts within our biology to changes in the family system, to new openings in the whole universe’s cosmology. My writer dreams will emerge into the larger world – I can feel this truth vibrantly – and my work, for now, is to keep following my path in the forest with sure and steady steps. When I’m cleaning the house, doing loads of laundry, preparing meals, helping kids with homework, volunteering in elementary school classrooms, and spending hours late at night with my one year old building towers and knocking them down, I need to remember that I am on my path. I am taking important steps. My dream is more real now than ever before, even if it is invisible to everyone but me.

The single truth the Buddha discovered about human life is that it changes: no part of our mortal existence can last. Dreams arrive, and dreams dissolve. My children will grow older, and time to type in my computer will lengthen. For now, my job is to remember my writer dreams and to cherish them. I journal every day I can and don’t get frustrated on the days I can’t. I support writer friends whose time to write and shine is now, and I read whenever possible, marveling at others’ creations. These steps, too, are important. Still in the forest, I cannot know where they will bring me exactly, but I can live here grateful for the trees and family, colleagues and role models around me, come what may.

What example am I setting for my children? Hopefully, that the forest of one’s heart does not need to be excluded from one’s adult reality. The Buddha and his father were family. My wish is for my children and me to learn together that dreams come true, if one dares to walk after them, just as I am walking now.

 

Blog #18: Not So Fun Or So Fabulous

tear

Part I.             My recent posts have showcased a mom relishing in her blessings: two healthy children, a robust baby, and a romantic as well as supportive partner. I am gloriously happy and grateful for my life. This life, though – it does have its shadows. Light alone has no definition nor substance. I am writing my book Fun & Fabulous: Moms 40+ to vanquish the noise directed at mature women, cowing them from going after their dreams, especially when those dreams include babies. At the same time, I don’t want to deny that life insists on some harsh rules regarding dreams. You do not get to have them all, and choices mean loss as much as they mean gain.

I want to write now about loss. Part of my story includes loss of a certain kind of creativity and also of love. This year, I’ve been abandoning writing projects one after the other and suppressing ambition to embrace instead the wayward ways of domestic life. “I cannot heed you,” I say to one inspired idea after another as I open more to the physical and emotional lives around me. This part of my story is as important to share as all my fun and fabulous hurrahs.

I wanted my third child since I turned forty, but I was too afraid. For four years, I tried to find other ways of placating my yearning, and in hindsight I see how much I needed that time to know, unquestionably, that Mikah, my son, was what I wanted more than any other dream of mine – a published novel, travel, expansion of my academic career, or time alone. I’d already raised a step-daughter and two babies of my own, so I was acutely aware of how another baby would place mammoth demands on me and my family, and I feared these demands as much as I longed for a child.

“I thought about a third,” my cousin mused when she met Mikah. “The people who talked me out of it were my male colleagues, saying it would totally stop my career.” She pointed a finger at me. “I did notice, the third baby seems to be women’s excuse to stop working.”

Though I didn’t like my cousin’s word choice “excuse,” I had to agree with her. The third baby (and all babies really) ask from a mom…well, just about everything. Sleep, self-care, and career development diminish and sometimes disappear. This year, I’ve earned less than a quarter of what I earned before Mikah was born. I write less than a quarter of my usual output, too. Most days, I’m frazzled and unkempt – a far cry from the fun and fabulous mom I like to portray.

A few mornings ago, I remembered a novel I’d written a first draft for in my early twenties, a story of Harry Blink, a rich man who wrote letters to people he met randomly or remembered randomly – a homeless man shaking a cup outside a grocery store, his old fifth grade crush, the woman who filled his propane tank every other month. The magic of the novel was in the letters, how they reached into people’s hearts in ways that inspired them to live more openly and to change their lives for the better.

“Oh well,” I thought as the memory ended, “that book is gone.”

I don’t believe one can rescue novels from the past. We change so much with every season that years later, we are not the same person; the author of a past writing project is not the same author either. The book that would have been written years ago just cannot be written anymore. Harry Blink is an unrealized writing project, and though I still love the seed that began the project, I have to face that now, at age forty-five, Harry Blink may never be borne unto this world.

But I have Mikah, and I wanted Mikah with an unparalleled passion. I was willing to give up everything to have him, and dreams, it seems, need this kind of eternally unqualified devotion. If I’d wanted Harry Blink as much as I’d wanted Mikah, would that dream have manifested? I believe so, but the fact is, I didn’t. I put that book down again and again, for one reason after another, and for the last decade, I’ve been putting down another novel, this one about a girl graffiti artist. I wanted babies and the family that we have become more than anything else.

I still believe I’m a writer. I still harbor hope of publishing novels and other valuable pieces of writing. If I don’t, though, I can accept the failure – because I know what I do have, and I chose what I have with a wide open heart.
Part II.            Another note about loss calls to be written, and that is the loss of private love time with my partner. I thought that with careful strategizing I could preserve romance with Eric. I planned to wean Mikah earlier than my other babies. I planned to ask for more help from relatives and friends and also to hire babysitters more often. Ha ha! At age one, Mikah is still a ferocious nurser and is allergic to all dairy products and other proteins that could substitute for mother’s milk. He doesn’t like being away from his parents, and he needs less sleep than any human I’ve ever met. He takes one or two cat naps during the day and calls out for nursing every ninety minutes throughout the night. As he’s gotten older, he’s developed even more energy and endurance. The last few months have been outrageously consuming, and I see Eric about as often as I see my own face in the mirror. We feel like strangers to each other and even our own selves.

I miss Eric keenly. He is my best friend, my comfort, and my inspiration. Our first year together, twelve years ago, we used to have dates every Monday night when his daughter spent the night at her mom’s. Eric had a beat-up black Ford back then, and we’d climb into it and drive far into the hills behind our house to a favorite clearing. Pines and poplar ring this area, and I loved sitting there with Eric in the darkening twilight. We always brought a bottle of red wine and a blanket, and we’d lie on that blanket while pouring the wine and telling stories about our day, and then we’d move into the more eternal longings of our hearts. I can still taste those nights, the intimacy of them, the sensuality, the ground and sky and the freedom of true love manifesting.

Now, my God, we wash so many dishes! And bills, bills, bills – we are forever talking about them, sometimes with harsh voices. Not fun! Nor fabulous! I often feel like a failing mother and an even worse lover. “Can you just hold the baby while I…” I release this request much more often than I ever thought I would, sometimes before Eric’s even had a chance to shower after work. Mikah is so impressively industrious: he leaves no second unlived, and life for Mikah involves scaling stairs and ladders, seeking out electrical cords and magnets, and reaching into every drawer and cabinet that hasn’t been nailed shut. Eric or I have to be with him supervising him, which leaves the other parent doing everything that needs doing, and when Mikah does finally go to sleep (usually in the stroller, which one of us is hiking around the back field), we are so goddamned tired, and the other kids are waiting for us to recognize their existence, and … YUCK!

“It’s going to get better,” I’ve been promising Eric, but promises are only words, and meanwhile I see his eyes. They are tired. I long to put a hand to his face, to rub his shoulders and back. He works hard all day long building and tearing down houses and barns, and then he comes home to a household that offers too little rest and so much need. Can our union withstand this kind of relentless testing? We are a month away from celebrating twelve years together, and this amount of time is a triumph! I want to celebrate our love every day and every night…yet this wish, for now, is a future fantasy. Reality demands days apart, and many nights, too, are lost to childcare and exhaustion.

I don’t write these words to talk people out of babies or to beg for help: I just want the whole story out there. Fun & Fabulous can’t create unrealistic expectations. I desperate longed for the exact family I love and am totally devoted to it. I also know that change is the nature of our mortal universe, and this season of intense hands-on childcare will pass. Eric knows it, too. As an author of a book for moms, though, I feel that I need to emphasize that people contemplating babies first need to ask themselves if they can give up years of self-direction to the care of another being. What dreams are eternal for you, and which ones can you let go?

For the four years I tried to suppress my wish for another baby, I was relentlessly sad. My bones ached with a sense of crookedness, and I knew I was walking in one wrong direction after another. At night, I’d step outside to look at the stars and to talk to the spirit that called to me throughout every day and every evening. “The time doesn’t seem right for you yet,” I’d explain, “but I am doing everything I can to create a safe landing place for you.” Words by Thich Nhat Hanh illustrate the commitment I made to this spirit, over and over again, for so long:

Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.

I am repeating these words to my writing dreams now, and to my deep yearning for full carefree days and nights with Eric: Take my hand…Let’s smile…We will meet again on the myriad paths of life. There is no good-bye. I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there is the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies.

Let’s walk into the stars together, dear Eric, dear dreams, come what may.

Blog #17: Reprieve

One isn’t born with courage. One develops it by doing small courageous things—in the way that if one sets out to pick up a 100-pound bag of rice, one would be advised to start with a five-pound bag, then ten pounds, then twenty pounds, and so forth, until one builds up enough muscle to lift the 100-pound bag. It’s the same way with courage. You do small courageous things that require some mental and spiritual exertion. 

-Maya Angelou

A Monday night in May, I received an email from a colleague: it criticized my choice to utilize a Leave of Absence in order to be at home full time as a parent. I had a nine year old, a seven year old, and a newborn. I relished this time – to parent fully, without distraction – and I had begun to describe my experience in a blog. My days at home felt important. I wanted to illustrate them with details and to explore ways I might continue to feel connected to my family beyond my years off.

I was forty – five when I gave birth to my third baby. Staying at home to care for my children at this age was one of the riskiest ventures I’d ever undertaken. Would the college welcome me back after two years? Would I be able to return with sharp enough skills and a keen enough mind? Fortunately, my fears of losing professional value were not bigger than my desire to be at home, and miraculously, both my department chair and college president approved my request for an extended leave.

At first, my colleagues seemed in favor of the agreement. Who wants a mom with tiny kids on board? The breast pump, the “sick kid” absences, the tired eyes – many professionals would rather skip the whole package. The college was facing a budget deficit, and extending my leave helped our department defray impending layoffs. Yet nine months later, one colleague – who claimed to speak for many others – voiced a different point of view: I was playing with babies at home (“and blogging about it”) while others were fighting for their survival. My leave was allowing me to take up a job position while others could be vying for it. I needed to make a choice: was I a full time worker or a full time mom? I could not be both.

I could not be both.

This email felt worse than a punch to the gut, which one can recover from, because it revealed an ugly conflict that my leave had obscured, but which will clearly haunt me all my life: to be an attentive, present parent eclipses one’s ability to be a valued and respected worker. To provide for one’s children compromises one’s ability to nurture one’s children.

Women, it seems, still must choose: do you want to be a parent, or do you want to be a professional?

I work in education. One can never give enough to one’s students. I used to work in a runaway home for teens, and even after two eight-hour shifts back to back, I still never felt that I’d “finished” my work. A yawning need reigned over me no matter what I did. At the college where I work now, students are often less desperate, but the need for attention and assistance is always present and always intense.

The situation with one’s own children at home is no different. Building character is hard, ongoing work. It begins with those subtle kicks within one’s womb and continues long past infanthood, the toddler era and even grammar school: our children always need us parents. Sometimes they need us to challenge them to strive to their highest potential; other times they need a hug and forgiveness. Discipline, education, comfort, communication – there’s no end to what our children need from us.

My point is that the demands of work and home are both intense and can be all-consuming. In the past, trying to do both has left me feeling like a failure in both camps. I thought taking a leave of absence was a solution, allowing me time to focus on my children during a critical period of their lives. My colleague’s email barked otherwise. She reminded me all over again that no matter when I returned, I’d be re-entering an impossible situation, reaping scorn from colleagues and laments from family.

“Come back, or give your job to someone who actually wants to do it,” asserts my colleague.

The thought of giving up my job is terrifying. I adore my job as a professor. Teaching and writing have always defined my identity. My first job occurred when I was fifteen and began tutoring a seventh grade girl. She had peroxide-white hair, a dozen piercings, and wore a lot of black leather. I don’t remember the short story we revised together, but I do remember feeling a pull to connect with her and to listen closely to her words. Writing is healing, and I felt its medicine working for both of us, in a sweet and synchronistic way. When our session ended and she asked if she could come back, I knew I’d discovered what I wanted to do with my life. Scientists in labs as well as sociologists in classrooms have proven that loving attention is as vital to any growing child as vitamins and oxygen. My life purpose, I knew from that moment, was to give this attention to as many children and young adults as I could, through teaching and writing.

Twenty years later, I became a mom.

Federal law dictates that government employees receive six weeks of paid maternity leave and another six weeks unpaid. After that, employees need to return to work full time, and their three-month old babies go to a childcare facility for eight hours a day (or nine, given travel time). As a mom who dropped off her first infant for six to eight hours of daycare five days a week, I can testify, this system is barbaric. Drew was a few weeks older than the typical three months when I returned to work, and both he and I suffered horribly. The ache inside me was larger than any pain I’d ever endured – it dwarfed labor! My son, too, was not thriving. He was underweight, didn’t talk much, had a gazillion food allergies – and he just wasn’t happy.

For working parents and their children, time apart is excruciating, but time together is also often compromised. Consider what happens at 5 or 6 PM, once the parent has retrieved her child. Dinner, bills, the telephone, dishes in the sink from breakfast, the need to discuss tomorrow’s schedule with one’s partner – so much STUFF needs doing, and again, who is looking at the child? Where is that time for creating and enjoying the loving bonds that so many scientists have proven is vital for health and well-being? Do no politicians care enough to pay attention to these studies? Moms on welfare are vilified in politics and in the media, and moms taking leave from work – well, we seem vilified, as well.

So one fails as a mom, or one fails as a worker. One either abandons her colleagues and clients, or she abandons her own children.

I’ll never forget a colleague from my past named Robin, who worked with me in the teenage runaway home. We were on lunch break with the kids, sitting on a cool cement sidewalk behind the school. It was summer, and the air was hot and humid. Everyone felt lazy and felt no need to hurry back to the classroom. “Why don’t you have kids?” one of the students asked Robin. She was a beautiful forty year old, long and lean with hip-length red hair and blue eyes. I turned to listen to her because I had also wondered.

“I didn’t want to have kids just to drop them off at daycare, and I knew I’d always have to work. I never felt I had a choice.”

I can still feel how my stomach lurched at her words. I was twenty-three and knew I wanted kids, and her words made me want to scream, That is so totally unfair! Robin was adored by our students (and they didn’t adore much!). She seemed like she would have been a fun and loving mom. And she never would be.

“Are you coming back?” My colleague has challenged me. She wants me “out” of the college so someone more worthy can be “in.” She argues that I have “ambivalence about returning to higher education full-time,” and yes, I am guilty of that. I worry about how I will manage it, teaching four courses a semester while also serving on committees, responding to emergencies, and being a good team player – all while mothering my three children. Daylight hours of time with my children will go from 100% to less than 50% (and in my area of work, that means an F!). How will I adjust to once again being absent from so much of their lives? Currently, I volunteer in their classrooms weekly and am helping to pilot a project for gifted students in their school. Much more importantly, I’m spending gobs of time with them. Our time together has been utterly wondrous: watching my children grow and engaging with them in this growth feels as magical as sensing their bodies form within me during pregnancy. I am witnessing life’s creation, right here, right now.

What is my choice?

As much as I know that being at home is absolutely right for now, I also know that with motherhood (and just about everything else) what’s “right” changes over time. Moms grow up as much as children do. When our babies first emerge from our bodies, all we can do is hold onto them with a desperate primal love. As the years stretch out, however, the cord that holds us so closely together begins to stretch out, too. Our children learn to balance on their own two legs and take a step forward…and soon after that, they start to run…and we learn at the same time to let go of their warm soft bodies and watch them move away (and leap! and soar!) all on their own.

The key factor here is time. We can’t rush the processes of parenthood. The legally mandated six weeks for stay-at-home parenting is about one percent of what is needed – biologically, intellectually, and emotionally. I am proud to work for a college that understands and honors a more humane timeline – and utterly grateful. Any colleagues who are not aware of my appreciation for the gift that Vermont Tech has granted me have not talked with me directly, for I discuss it constantly. My wish is that what the college has allowed for my family can stand as a model for other institutions and businesses. As my journey as mom and writing professor continues to evolve, I will continue blogging about my experience, scattering notes like birdseed for other moms to find, follow, and digest (and yes, to vomit up if necessary; effluvia is always part of the conversation of motherhood). We are all so different, but we share the common qualities of loving our children unconditionally and striving to let their unique radiance shine. May we be allowed the time we need to do our jobs well.

 

 

Blog #16: Babies Make Life Sweeter for Moms 40+

Drew and bottle

Rain falls gently outside, darkening the rocks in the garden just outside the kitchen door. Acoustic guitar plays from two speakers on the kitchen table where my stepdaughter eats a bagel and sketches girls with different hairstyles. Across the room, my ten year old son and seven year old daughter play Magic the Gathering, crouching over their cards on the rug, then jumping up and down for one play or another. I’m so happy here this Saturday morning, absorbing the presence of my children with my newest baby in my arms. At twenty pounds, he fits against me as warm and squeezable as bread. I lift him up and breathe him in, tasting all the delicious scents of “baby.”

People warn that babies gobble time, abolish leisure, and even cut deep connections with one’s other children, but Mikah has helped replenish all three for me. If it weren’t for Mikah, my baby, I would not be resting in this moment right now. I’m a professor at a local college and would more likely be evaluating new academic programs or reading articles on the future of higher education. I’m also a long distance runner, so I might also be taking advantage of the older kids’ independence by running five miles up the road. Or maybe because of the rain, I’d choose instead to lean over a keyboard and try to write something that feels important. The baby keeps me here, though, soaking in the present moment. I sway left to right, left to right, listening to the rain and and Drew and Gracie laughing. My muscles and limbs relax, my mind softens. Holding the baby in one arm, I use the other to lift my tea, loving its blend of honey and lavender. Every sense feels more intense now because I can take time to savor it.

Friends and family vehemently argued against me having another baby. It wouldn’t just wear me out, they insisted; it would also limit if not end all opportunity for growth. “You could try a triatholon,” I remember a girlfriend suggesting. Others mentioned traveling to different cultures, raising goats, or writing another novel. No one seemed to value the presence of a baby in the home.

Yet this baby is growth – in addition to the miracle of a new existence lighting into form. I could write pages about the wonder of watching a tiny water-bound being grow into a human that hugs, talks, crawls, walks…yet of equal value is the growth that babies inspire in those around them. For moms, this growth is exponential.

Mikah’s presence has inspired me to relax in my home with my family in ways I have never done before. I am content to stand here, feeling warm and cozy, while mist drifts across the lawn and two crows circle over the top of a pine. When did I ever gaze out a window like this? How often does any adult allow such a moment to stretch out so luxuriously? I have phone calls to return, a bathroom to clean, laundry to hang – and yes, yes, yes – money to earn in my new editing business. Yet here I stand, happily, letting my list sit on the counter. I’ll get to it – but not right away. The baby is beginning to purr, and he’ll sleep soon. My stepdaughter has moved on from drawing hair to doodling favorite movie quotes. Drew and Grace are still playing cards, now jumping on the couch between turns. Their legs look so long! Grace tosses her head back like a dancer when she laughs. I’m so happy watching them, swaying by this fire, relishing in all that is, just as it is, for a few more beats.

Babies give more than time. They also give more love – for everyone. One of my most heart-rending fears when I was pregnant was how the presence of another baby would affect my relationships with my older children. I loved them desperately. I had worked long hours throughout their pregnancies and infancies, so a part of me was always missing them, longing for an intimacy we had yet to share. I became pregnant when Drew was eight and Gracie six, and I vexed endlessly over how I’d ever love them enough with a new baby. I became plagued by a repetitive nightmare: my daughter was sliding down a rocky bank into a rough river, and I was too far away to reach her. I’d run faster and faster, but she always ended up lost to the water anyway.

Of course, a new baby changes a mom’s relationship with her kids. Babies need to be held most of the day and often most of the night. My daughter is on my lap much less since Mikah’s arrival. I’m at fewer of my son’s soccer practices. We eat more hotdogs now. Sometimes Drew and Grace put themselves to sleep as I cajole a fussy baby in a room across the hall. These changes are hard for all of us – but no one’s drowning. Quite the opposite. Both Drew and Grace are happier than ever before: they laugh more, are kinder towards each other, and act more confident in school and with their friends. They’re big siblings! Important people! Two weeks ago, Mikah learned to clap – which he does at least a dozen times a day to celebrate them. He claps and smiles when they walk into the room; he claps and laughs when one finishes a chapter of homework and announces, “Done!” Both are able to hold him while standing, and he wraps his arms around their necks and kicks his legs in joy as they parade him about the house.

Along with getting loved up by Mikah, my kids also get more love from me. While working full time, I was often on the college campus long passed the children’s bedtimes. Even if my body were home, my mind was often still up the hill on Route 66. Academic work is never finished: committees always need a report (or two or three); stacks of papers scream for grading; unfinished essays sit in uninspired poses on the computer. I am on leave now, and I am truly here, in the home I built in my twenties and thirties, with the children who’ve emerged from my body to share it with me. My eldest son feels closer to me now than ever. He entertains the baby while I make dinner, fills the wood bin, checks texts for me on my cell. We take trips into the woods together to gather kindling, and because Mikah is on my back, Drew is the one who carries and uses the ax. My daughter is eager to compete for role of best helper and often tromps into the woods with us. She and Drew are the ones who lift the logs and carry them together back home. Grace also loves entertaining Mikah, which she does by singing peekaboo-peekaboo-peekaboo, until he laughs like he’s being tickled. She loads the diaper bag for me in the car, every day, even when it weighs almost as much as she does. In dozens of ways, the baby has transformed Drew and Grace’s sibling rivalry into a much more palatable version of exertion for attention.

The baby has also transformed me. Modern life vexes us with so many pressures to grow and accumulate and improve, and all my life I’ve been chasing after half a dozen goals at time. Now, I’m present with my children and my own being in a new, deeper way. I listen better. I exert myself to follow through on my children’s ideas rather than only my own. If Drew wants to bike, I throw Mikah in the Ergo and run after him; if Grace wants to draw, I put him in the backpack and paint alongside her. I am so determined to make sure my older children still feel cared for. My favorite week days are when I bring Mikah to Drew and Grace’s school, drop him off with the office secretary, and volunteer in their classrooms. This time is their time and feels sacred to all three of us.

I wouldn’t have been so willing to follow others in the past, even if they were my own kids. In my twenties, I was obsessed with certain ideals and living them. In my thirties I was under extreme pressure to manifest a home and career. Now, in my forties, I just want to enjoy those I love. Three of my closest friends had double-mastectomies in the last year. My partner’s two best friends are dead. These losses and others have taught me to value every moment of my life and my children’s. Younger friends of mine seem more eager to send their kids away for a week or so into the care of relatives and friends, while a single overnight is all I can allow – and only to grandparents. I am pulled to be with my kids, not to miss a bedtime, or a good morning hug. How many healthy years do I have left? Whatever answer exists, I wish to enjoy those years with my family.

Of course, I’ll return to work fulltime. Time at home is expensive. I’m making a fraction of what I used to – but my career is not over. I feel it transforming. Like an acorn sending out a pale yellow embryo from its shell, I am reaching into new light, too. When pregnant, I felt inspired to learn a new healing modality “Healing Touch,” which I’ve been able to share with the whole family. I’d always wanted to learn various massage techniques, and at last I am doing so – and practicing on those I love. I also recently enrolled in an online class combining memoir with yoga. This creative and dynamic class is giving me ideas of how I might hybridize some of my own college courses. It’s also connecting me with kindred spirits. Several of the other students and I have become friends “on the ground,” and even our children are beginning to entwine. After fifteen years of working along the tenure track, I’m grateful to have this time to explore learning, teaching, and collaborating in alternative settings.

I would never declare life is easier now that Mikah is born. Babies require love and care around the clock, and with three other kids in the house, my partner and I are often desperately tired. We don’t get enough one-on-one time, and I miss him keenly. The house is messy, and the sink is always full of dishes. Some nights, I sneak into Drew and Grace’s room, and as I watch them sleeping I feel an ache in my heart because the day disappeared too quickly, and I didn’t get enough time to connect wholeheartedly with them. These details, though, do not darken the energy of all that is growing here. We’re happy, and the love in this home feels good. And our baby helped, not hindered, this goodness to happen.

Blog #15: Nice VS. Cool

drew and grace

For most of my life, I sneered at the word, “nice.” Nice was boring, subservient, and docile. In the words of Deborah Adele, it required the “packaging of self in a presentable box, imposed by an outer authority.” Yuck. Cool people laughed at authority. They were real and raw. Their hair was dyed purple and shaped like dinosaur scales three feet above their scalps. Cool people didn’t have jobs. They sold paintings of angry faces on sidewalks and played bass in bars at night. They were not afraid to yell at anyone, not their mom, a cop, or a stranger walking a dog across the street.

At forty-five, I am finally recognizing this attitude as naïve and even arrogant. “Nice” is not fake; it is not cowardly; it is not manipulation for control. It is, actually, a sign of great will and big heart. It requires that one rein in one’s impulsive reactions enough to give others a chance to express their own feelings. It values others’ lives as well as well as one’s own.

In seventh grade, I decided to be cool. Actually, I decided to try really hard to be cool. My recipe for success was (1) don’t talk much, (2) sneer often, (3) never smile. The first day I blew it by 7:30 AM when I said a cheery greeting to the school principal, who shook hands with students at the door every morning. The second day I made it to lunch, but then plummeted into non-coolness by joining two younger kids sword fighting with French fries. I couldn’t even be cool around David Stevens, a majestic eighth grader with black hair and blue eyes. During recess when he deigned to say hello, I smiled back like a stewardess and sang, “Hellllloooooo to you, toooooo!!!!!”

By the end of the week, I quit. “I’m happy, I like school, I’m not cool.” I wrote the words in red in my math notebook, defeated. Yet I remained haunted by images of cool people, those tubercular looking, long limbed adolescents who flaunted crappy grades and smoked everything. They hated their parents, their teachers, their country. And they were mean. Cool people loved standing in corners laughing in ways that made everyone else feel like they’d stepped in dog poo – or were dog poo. Sarcasm, exclusion, and derision – these were their hallmark qualities, with wits sharp enough to cut through flesh. I could never be like them, but if I could have had long black hair, tall black boots and an attitude to match, I would have.

Only now can I finally see that not nice is not cool. Sarcasm and arrogance are signs of small hearts and narrow minds. Nice is regal. Smiling at people for no reason is a gesture that promises, “I think the best of you and invite you to say hello.” Chatting kindly with others is a generous way to share one’s life. Giving compliments is a powerful way to help a stranger or friend.

“I really like your pants,” I remember a cool person saying to me during a sixth grade mythology class.

“Thanks,” I said back, smoothing a hand over my new pants’ soft navy ridges.

“Do you own anything other than corduroy?”

I was about to say, No, I just love it so much, when I looked up at the cool person’s face. She wasn’t smiling; she was sneering. Then I looked at her friend, who was sneering, too. I wished right then for words to flare like fire out my mouth to scorch their pretty white noses. I wasn’t blessed with a quick wit, though, so I just dropped my red face towards the books on my desk. I never reached for those pants again with the same sense of dazzle.

How can I as a parent protect my kids from cool kids? How do I inspire them to choose being nice rather than trying to be cool? Our culture is overrun by not-nice people as much as any junior high. Sarcasm and derision are practiced by all media, most celebrities, far too many politicians, and just about every pop singer out there. Why and when did such character traits become synonymous with cool?

Who is brave enough to be earnest in public? Who can use words to portray direct meaning and look you in the eyes while speaking? Who cares about saying please and thank you and waiting for a turn to speak? Who chooses to value others’ feelings as much as one’s own?

These manners matter; they can even save marriages. My partner Eric and I have been together for twelve years. It took us ten to realize we didn’t need to express exactly how we feel exactly when we feel it. Eric is an entrepreneur and has lots of ideas. I have various feelings about some of those ideas, and I have learned not to articulate all of them. Time will choose which of Eric’s ideas we end up discussing on a practical level. “Are you f–ing crazy?” is not cool to say to someone who’s sharing his imagination while looking at the moon through a window. Neither is the sarcastic remark, “Geez, why didn’t I think of that?” Worst of all, when I am mean and dismissive, my kids pick up on it immediately and start winging barbed comments at each other with perfect emulation.

I dare every one of us – young and old – to uphold the values of “nice.” Live these values and speak up for them. Nice is cool. It is also powerful, more so than the rage that has us throwing insults at others like grenades. I’ve grown up from the sixth grade girl who put her head down and can now wield language with a bit of heft. But this skill doesn’t improve my life or anyone else’s. And isn’t that why we humans are here on this spinning globe, to enhance the experience of life for ourselves and others? For my children, for myself, for you, and for your children, I answer YES.

 

#14: Forty-Five is Fierce & Fabulous

Mikah sword blog

 

I would like to interview you! My goal is to interview forty 40+ moms over the next year to include in a new book, Fun & Fabulous: New Moms 40+, which celebrates mature moms around the world. Motherhood is sensual, sexual, playful, spontaneous, and the stories of this book are designed to help moms 40+ parent and play at our best.

In my early forties, I could not grow the way others expected. My son and daughter were out of diapers, I’d earned tenure at a local college, and my partner and I had finished building our family home (almost). What would be my next adventure? Write a book, travel to Europe, buy goats, party like a teenager?

What I wanted was another baby.

“NO!” Friends and family called me crazy. One said, “You’re too poor, too old, and too tired.” I couldn’t argue with his words: my income was essential to my family’s budget, I was past traditional childbearing years, and lack of sleep often left me haggard.

My heart insisted on a baby, though. I had no rational reason – just a deep feeling. At forty-three, I took a year’s leave from work and threw out all my birth control paraphernalia. Christmas Eve 2013, Eric and I took a home pregnancy test, and I can still feel our hands entwining as we watched those two blue lines emerge.

Did I jump with joy? Yes, of course!

I also felt sick with fear. Had I made a choice that jeopardized the happiness and even the survival of my family? The facts of my life hadn’t changed: my family still needed me to earn income, I was now nearing forty-five, and I was super tired.

Just as daunting as my own fear was the reception of the nurse-midwife at the hospital. I was eight weeks pregnant when I arrived for my first appointment. Miscarriage, placenta failure, and stillbirth were the first subjects for discussion; genetic testing and termination were the second.

Books and electronic media regarding AMA (Advanced Maternal Age) were equally doomsday. Not only did they declare me an anomaly: most literature also warned me of how hard my job as a parent would be “at my age.” Parenting books for moms 40+ are depressing! I felt clobbered by litanies of complaints, coloring parenting as the most exhausting, isolating, and relentless of endeavors.

I knew right away I needed support – yet it was hard to find. Even though the number of moms giving birth after age forty has risen fourfold over the last thirty years, mainstream culture portrays moms 40+ as odd, unnatural, and less-than. We need and deserve literature that celebrates mature moms as fun and fabulous!  

Because I can’t find such literature, I am writing it.

The book consists of four sections: Pre-conception & 2 Blue Lines; Pregnancy & Birth, Infants & Toddlers, and Growing up with Children. Recipes for aphrodisiacs and sustained energy blend with personal stories of romance and birth. Voices of children and teens add humor to the chapters on toddler time and children’s education. Mainly, the book is a forum where moms talk to moms, giving each other inspiration, comfort, and a whole lot of laughs.

Maybe a certain section calls out to you: Want to talk about raising a teen at age fifty-five? Want to describe birth at age forty-five? Did you ever seek out childcare? What are your favorite games to play with a toddler? Any aspect of motherhood that delighted you or challenged you is perfect material for Fun & Fabulous.

To contact me, my email address is best: ssilbert@vtc.edu. I look forward to your stories!

Please note: My calendar has filled for interviews until May 1. After that, I would be thrilled to set a date with you.

 

#13: Daring Dream

 

drew and mikah 2

 

The worst mistake I committed as a parent was assuming babies arrived into the world as “new humans” and that my job was to teach my baby how to fit into my world. I was a college professor, writer, and homeowner, and it never occurred to me that my baby wouldn’t fit into my scheme of teaching, writing, and completing chores. I lined up daycare providers. I bought bottles and rented a breast pump. I even accepted a tutoring job to help with the extra expenses of having a child.

As soon as he was born, Drew astounded me with his sharp elfin features and whimsical humor. For three days I held him, utterly raw with love. He lay on my chest, and we breathed together – inhale, exhale – and the sensation of his heart against mine propelled me beyond any experience I’d ever imagined. Who was this boy? Was this boy my boy? Was he here to stay? I felt incredulous, lost to a dream.

Yet I did not choose to live in this dream. One week passed, and I begged for a second week “to be with my baby,” but by week three, I was back to tutoring, co-caring for my four year old stepdaughter, and preparing for an abrupt return to my professorship. Poor Drew! Weeks melted away, and before he was three months old, we were waking every week day at 4 AM to get ready for our pre-dawn journeys to the college. While I taught, he stayed at a friend’s house with her three kids or with neighbors. I am forever grateful to this friend and these neighbors for caring for my son, but the pain of not being with my baby eclipsed all other feelings. After our long days apart, we were both tired, and once home, Drew often slept while I prepared dinner and read library books to my stepdaughter.

It hurts to write these words, even nine years later. I see so clearly that while I was achieving in the material world, emotionally I was bankrupt. I was cheating my son of the best gift human life has to offer – the gift to discover one self and one’s gifts for the world. Drew wasn’t able to explore himself or his surroundings in depth because we were always whisking away somewhere. And I wasn’t able to tune into his emerging selfhood or focus on our relationship. A baby is a whole human being – body, psyche, memory, wishes – and parents need oodles of time to get to know such a unique creature. They need an entire lifetime! When Drew turned one, I remember such sadness blanketing the day. A year had passed? It felt shorter than a season! And my boy, my dear boy, he still seemed more mystery than family to me. How had I let so much time pass in this way?

Looking back, I see that I did try to change the pace of my life. I just didn’t succeed. I remember one moment when Drew was four months old. He hadn’t been feeling well, and his dad had taken the day off from work to be with him. I’d left around 6 AM to teach but simply could not discipline my mind to focus. My brain felt like a swarm of agitated bees. I came home at lunch unexpectedly: I just wanted to see my son.

He and his dad were on our bed. Sunlight shone extravagantly through the bay window, filling the room. Drew was tummy-down over his dad’s legs, rocking forward and back the way babies do before they learn to crawl. He was wearing a short-sleeved, white onesie, and his legs and arms looked so small, supernaturally so. I walked up to these two men – my new family – and reached out to touch Drew. Wordlessly, I trailed a finger along his thigh, marveling that my hand could extend from hip to knee with an inch to spare. His skin was still as soft as it was on his birthday. I remember tears, so many of them, as I sat next to my firstborn child and his dad, still staring in silence, drinking them in. I was always so busy dressing Drew up to go somewhere, or trying to change his diaper as he played with his toes, or bathing him late at night when we were both tired and the house was cold. I hadn’t had a languid moment like this one, where we just touched in the daylight.

Drew’s dad and I talked that day in the sun. We weren’t happy with our relationship or with how we were raising our son. Warmth was missing. Exuberance. Fun. Trust. Our list of loss was long. We knew we needed more time together as a family to experience these qualities, but changing our schedules meant changing our lives.

We began slowly. I requested a different class schedule for the following semester to allow for more time at home; I also resolved to spend the summer devoted to Drew and his dad and not to write or tutor. After a year, Eric resigned from his job 65 miles away and started his own contracting company at home. Baby steps one after the other brought us closer to our child and to each other. Now Drew is nine and has a six year old sister and newborn brother. I have taken two year’s leave from my professorship to live at home and be with all my children more on their terms. I’m as enchanted sitting next to Drew on the couch watching him design on graph paper a new Dungeons and Dragons scenario as I am to see his little brother learn to use his fingers to pick up a rattle. At last I have learned: it is not my job as a parent to teach my babies how to grow into adults like me. Rather, I need to learn how to lay down my goals and even my standards at least long enough to see them discovering their own.

The tragedy is that so many, many parents have no choice. Their jobs are hard and long, and they cannot afford a break. And when they can create a change of schedule, a lot of time will have passed. I will never know Drew as an infant the way I wish I could have; that time is gone. Could I have made different choices? If I had, I don’t know if I would have been able to hold onto my current home or had anymore children. I don’t know where I’d be.

The point of this blog is not to recite the limits of reality. Finances make choices for us, and we can’t deny that. But I am writing to inspire us to think “out of bounds,” if only for a moment, so we may understand more ideal ways of living and parenting. If we cannot achieve these ideals in our lifetime, can we at the very least make them more accessible for the next one, and for our children’s children?

 

#12: Parenting Hardcore

failure revised

 

Almost every force in our culture works against families. Parents do not know how to protect children from crime, media, poverty, alcohol and bad company.  They can no longer give their children childhoods.

Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other           

 

Is our job as parents to protect our children from our inherited culture or to initiate them into it? Sociologists and psychologists argue why both choices are important, and at the moment, I feel straddled between them. I’ve always leaned towards the protection side of parenting: I’m devoted to giving my kids childhoods, which for me requires a sense of safety as well as support for adventure. I even monitor G-rated movies, screening for sharks, sarcasm, and guns. Yet as my kids grow (and grow and grow!), I’m hearing a call to change.

I was thirteen when I first woke up to the raw suffering of those outside my circle of friends and family. Ronald Reagan was President and that year shut down most of the cities’ homeless shelters. I lived in Washington DC, where he also closed a major mental institution with no plan for its handicapped residents. Overnight, it seemed, the sidewalks filled with people who were desperate, destitute, and in many cases insane. I rode the public bus from school and at the station began seeing more and more homeless men and women. Some had no shoes. Some didn’t even have legs. I was beyond horrified: how could our country allow such suffering? How could anyone?

Within a month, I had dedicated myself to the cause of the homelessness and was often either serving food from a van labeled “Martha’s Table” or volunteering at a shelter for 1,400 residents. The physical and emotional suffering I encountered was overpowering: adults and children were sick, cold, hungry, and so, so sad. I cried more that first year than I had my entire life. Most of my existence as girl, student, and daughter felt eclipsed by the anguish and urgency I faced.

At college, I continued my efforts, where I spent nights at a smaller nearby shelter. Nothing I did seemed to matter: despite my long hours, people’s illness and anger and sorrow continued. After my sophomore year, I left college to volunteer for Mother Theresa in Calcutta where I hoped to learn how to be a better helper and how to handle others’ suffering more gracefully. What I learned instead was that homelessness is a ubiquitous and global issue, not a national one.  In Washington D.C. where I might walk by ten homeless in a day, in India I would pass more than a hundred.

I gave up seeking any kind of large scale solace and returned to my own country where I began to focus more on homeless people my own age. “Every heartbeat matters,” a disciple of Mother Theresa had said. I got a job teaching full-time at a home for teenage runaways and felt a kinship with these young people that gave me hope: like them I was disgusted with what our country allowed (and caused!), and I wanted to find a way to change it. Isn’t that the job of youth – to challenge authority and create a better world than the one we inherited? Passionately, I wanted to fulfill this charge and on weekends began to write a novel of a teenage runaway graffiti artist. My plan was to sell the book and use its profits to travel cross-country while offering creative writing workshops at runaway shelters all over America. But my book failed; no agent wanted it. I revised it over and over again, but the book kept getting rejected, and I began to wonder if I could succeed at helping anyone, including myself.

By thirty, I was losing faith – not just in the book and in myself, but also in the mere possibility of change. I was engaged to a man who had leukemia, and caring for him became all I could do. He endured two bone marrow transplants, numerous rounds of chemo, full body irradiation, and several experimental treatments. None of these treatments cured his leukemia, and he died when I was thirty-five.

What did I learn during my first three and a half decades? In my darkest moments, I could summarize my life lessons succinctly:

  1. All property and security can disappear suddenly;
  2. Life is fragile and fleeting;
  3. People will pass you by even when you ask for help.

When I became a mother, my instinct was to protect my children from all the harshness I perceived in the world. I yearned to nestle my babies in blankets, to nurse them, and to kiss them indefinitely. Reality demanded otherwise, and I will never forget packing my first two-week old newborn in a car seat and heading off to work, crying as desperately as he. But ever since that day, I have fought passionately to change my circumstances so I can nurture my babies as I originally wished. I didn’t want them in daycare. I didn’t want cold wind in their faces. I didn’t want unmonitored media playing anywhere near them. I wanted them safe and with me.

Ten years have since passed, and at last, I am finally able to work more at home than out of it. My happiest moments are when I am with all three of my children, my nine year old son Drew, my six year old daughter Grace, and my newborn son Mikah. We live on forestland by a river in Vermont, and many of our days are spent exploring the countryside, then resting inside by the fire. I like our pace to be peaceful, not harried. I like to hold my children close.

And guess what! It’s time to change.

Two of my kids aren’t babies anymore. Drew and Grace don’t always choose kisses over a challenge. They don’t always want to snuggle. They have long and skinny legs, and they are using them to stride into this very wild world. And I am panicking.

I noticed the change last year. Drew, Grace and I were driving to school, and our usual pop station took a break from music to offer news. I wasn’t paying attention until Drew asked, “Why would a navy officer gun down his own soldiers?”

“What?” I tried to tune in. I was newly pregnant and prone to moments of distraction.

“Who shot people?” Grace chimed in.

“I don’t know how many,” Drew said, “but it sounds like a lot.”

When I tried to change the station, both children screamed for me to stop. They wanted to know the story.

Since this moment, I’ve been trying to catch up to their call. They don’t want to be sheltered: at least, they don’t think they do. Meanwhile, I’m still dealing with my sense that the world is really, really scary. Have I lost my courage to take on the world’s suffering even as my children are asking me to lead them into it?

I don’t have a solution yet. I’ve only just been able to identify the problem. But I do know that parenting is about following our dreams, not our excuses. My kids are waking my old dreams up, and I need to do something about them. I also need to share with my kids more of myself – my past, my edges, my passion to help, even my rage. I can’t be mere shelter for them anymore; I am now also their flight pilot, soaring with them into open air.

A hardcore parent is not one who fights hard to keep the world at bay: it is one who gives her children the metal they need to meet that world with ideals and live them, come what may. I have written myself a list of baby steps, so I can follow through on my own ideals and not just think about them. With my whole family, I want to…

  1. Listen to the news and discuss it regularly (weekly, that is, not daily);
  2. Engage in hands-on helping for causes we are especially passionate about;
  3. Travel to a city outside of our country for a service-project we choose together.

Sometimes, I read this list, and I choose to clean the kitchen floor or take my kids outside for a hike rather than to do what it dictates. But they’re out in the world now – my words and my kids – and I’m choosing to follow them, even if at a slow pace. My job is to teach my kids to embrace the light, and also, when necessary, to battle the dark.

 

Blog #11: Zombie Beauty

beauty_zombie

 

It’s like a job now, trying. In my tweens and twenties, I had it easier. Small and blond didn’t require a lot of work. Black jeans, a boyfriend’s t-shirt, and hair left loose was okay back then, maybe even cute. Now I’m a few months away from forty-five and “cute” is another country on the other side of the ocean. My face is as wrinkled and worn as the sheets of my unmade bed, and the lids of my eyes sag down like those ratty roll-down shades used only in cheap dorm rooms. I see hair brittle as a hand-made broom from a set on Little House on the Prairie, and the skin on my neck looks like it belongs on an elephant’s knee, not on me.

There is work to be done, for sure! But with three kids in the house plus a newborn, how do begin?

Shaving my legs, for example, is like trying to tackle Sisyphus’s stone. Monday I might manage to drag a razor up and down my calf six times before the baby – alone with a rattle on the bathmat – begins to whimper. Tuesday, I’ll finish that calf and get to the thigh, but on Wednesday no shower will occur. Thursday, too, because one older kid has a cold and the other has a soccer game, and I have an editing project due at the end of the week. By Sunday, Eric is home and can hold the baby while I shower the other leg, but I need to cook cornbread for a potluck, catch up on laundry, and I’m still struggling to get the editing project in the mail.

Whenever I do manage to finish this shaving expedition, more than a week will have passed, and all the parts I already took care of will be sprouting into goat tufts all over again!

All tasks involving my appearance are now this difficult. Try plucking your eyebrows with your right hand while holding a spunky baby kicking his legs in your left. It’s no easier asking someone else to do it: making appointments involving phone, car, and five family members’ schedules is like planning a sit-down dinner party for fifteen (and three of them have food allergies!).

And what about a wardrobe? In the last decade, I have had three selves to dress three times – the pre-pregnant one (a bit scarecrow shaped), the pregnant one (balloon sized), and the post-pregnant one (partially deflated balloon sized). My closet is full of hand-me-downs in white plastic bags donated by generous friends, and I continually resolve to organize the whole lot of them, but instead, I grab the same well-worn sweatpants and t-shirt off the floor and pull them on while the baby squalls for a diaper change. Hardly elegant. Far from cool. Definitely not head-turning!

As a college student  in my late teens, I found solace from peer pressure and academic anxiety in the public pool. I swam sometimes for hours, diving down deep in water that felt blue and cool and eternally welcoming. I loved showering in the locker room afterwards, too. I was usually the only person my age in there: all other women were retirees over sixty, sometimes even in their eighties. Their skin was mottled with blotches of purple, brown, or red, and everything sagged – breasts, arms, buttocks, everything. The skin on their bodies was as wrinkled as a pug dog’s. Their hair was short, white or gray, with bald patches, and almost everyone’s feet looked red and sore.

I absolutely loved looking at these women. Their limbs were entirely unique in shape and texture, as interesting as stones on a rocky coast shaped by waves and wind. If I’d been an artist, I would have painted them in watercolors, swirling my brush in a thousand varying shades, creating curves and shadows for every feature. Time had erased the homogeneity caused by these women striving in their youth for a singular media ideal. What lay underneath was the truth of how these women had lived, the accumulated treasure of their lives.

My time in the pool and locker room inspired me to strive for health more than glamour. My peers’ reckless dieting and manic exercising seemed silly, and anti-wrinkle cream was unmasked as a scheme of the Emperor’s advisors. What mattered, I realized, was who could walk across the tiles without slipping, and who could bend down to towel off her ankles, and whose fingers were nimble enough to do up her own buttons. I could guess at who’d smiled more and who had swallowed resignation too often. I knew who’d be fun to sit and chat with for an afternoon.

Twenty-five years after attending college, I now teach at one. I still love to swim and do so often in the college pool. I wonder if my students in the locker room see me as I saw those “older” women. Are they enchanted, or horrified? Am I akin to an intriguing nature film, or a zombie movie?

Whatever their take, beauty is no longer something I can aspire to on a superficial level. And why would I? Why aspire to appearing untouched by life? I’ve been walking this planet for forty-five years: that’s almost half a century! Can’t I be proud of that? Any of us still alive should know by now that survival itself is a beautiful triumph. I’ve buried enough friends and family at this point to know my existence is a fragile, glimmering treasure, which is a fine enough definition of beauty for me.

Of course, I’ll still struggle to find time to shave my legs and deep condition my hair. I hope to paint my nails for the holidays. I’ll try to remember to throw a colorful scarf around my neck when Eric and I go out for dinner tomorrow, our first date in a month. But I don’t want to get too serious about this beauty stuff, except for the beauty inside me, the spirit that lasts.

 

 

 

 

Blog #10: Finances

sarah writing


Thank you to all who have written to me about my last blog, both publically and privately. We parents are 100% united in feeling that our busy days and nights eclipse romance. We would love more time to enjoy each other’s souls and bodies, but many of us are working two or more jobs and have three or more children. Bills add up to more than we can earn with family-friendly hours.

I have no answer for this dilemma. But I can offer this unfinished story:
* * *

At forty, I could not grow the way others expected. I was two years away from being reviewed for a Full Professorship, and both my kids were out of diapers, close to entering school. People expected me to be joyful. I could resume my creative writing, teach more workshops, deepen my yoga practice – anything!

But what I wanted was another baby.

Friends and family told me: “NO!” One beloved family member said, “You’re too poor, too old, and too tired.” He meant it lovingly: he wanted my children and me to live well. My income was essential to my family’s budget, I was passed traditional childbearing years, and lack of sleep often left me haggard. Logic inspired his words.

My heart insisted on its yearning, though. I wrestled with it for years, but my heart refused to change. At forty-three, I quit fighting, threw out all my birth control paraphernalia, and Miracle Mikah arrived. On Christmas Eve, Eric and I took a home pregnancy test to confirm what we already knew, and I will forever remember holding his hands while watching those two blue lines emerge.

Did I jump with joy? Sing hymns to the heavens? Yes, of course!

I also felt sick with fear – terror really – that I had made a choice that jeopardized the happiness and even the survival of my family. The facts of my life hadn’t changed – and they still haven’t now that Mikah is born. My family still needs me to earn income every month, I’m half a year away from fort-five, and I’m super tired. Like most parents I know, I confront financial worries at least ten times a day, and these worries often expand into raw panic. My heart beats faster and faster until it’s like a herd of kids galloping down a school hallway when the recess bell rings. Only all this stampeding isn’t taking me outdoors; it’s leading me to a No-Exit classroom where I start crunching numbers compulsively. I add the property taxes, the car insurance, the house insurance and the health insurance; I average costs of meals per week and meals per month; I wonder about braces and birthday parties and summer camps. On and on I calculate: how much will gas prices rise, why does my landline cost so much, what if another flood hits and we have trouble pulling logs out of our woods for winter heat?

My concerns are valid. Since the market collapse of 2008, economic insecurity has marked all but the highest of class levels in the US. Jobs are disappearing, and so are companies and even entire career paths. Meanwhile, the basic materials we need to survive are costing more and more – primarily heating, healthcare, and food. The prices of private education and higher education, which some people also consider essential, are escalating, too.

However, here’s a more important truth: Losing hours a day to fear about finances sabotages life. I don’t want my baby to feel this toxic adrenaline; I don’t want my children to absorb it or emulate it. In my heart, I know a better way of navigating survival for my family exists. I am on a quest to find it and walk it.

I am challenging myself to recognize that faith is a valid choice even when it comes to financial survival. This last year, as Mikah gained size and form within me, I chose to believe that with this new miracle of life would arrive miracles of opportunity. So many people heard the words “pregnant” or “baby” from my mouth and immediately responded: “How are you going to support it? Will you use daycare?” But babies are not just an income drain or objects in need of daily care. Babies are gifts from the grand source of life itself, and along with them come grace and generosity and new beginnings. With concentrated effort, I am choosing to believe in the full cycle of life and its blessings, and I am doing my best to be sensitive and awake to any new opportunities for my family’s welfare that might come along with our new baby.

Two of my most favorite teachers and healers articulate this faith. Gurmukh, a master international teacher for pre and post-natal care, tells her own story. She acknowledges how material fears can grip new moms within seconds of realizing they are pregnant:

I remember the first thoughts that flashed through my head when I knew for sure I was pregnant: The first was, “Thank you dear God! This is a miracle! This is the happiest day of my whole life!” But it was followed by the little gremlins of worry, “How am I going to do this? I’m too old! I’m too nutty! We don’t have enough money! Where will we live? I’m scared! I’m confused! I don’t know anything! Will my baby be healthy?”

Despite such reasonable fears, Gurmukh insists that if one can choose faith instead of panic, blessings will follow. For herself, she chose to live in a tent in a friend’s backyard so she and her husband could save money while searching for a perfect apartment for their new family:

I trusted from the bottom of my heart that God would give us a little home…And that’s what He did – we called it the “bird’s nest,” because it was so snug. By the end of my ninth month, I could barely get in and out of the bathroom, let alone fit in front of the sink, but it was home, and that was where I gave birth…Your babies bring gifts with them – houses, jobs, opportunities, things you never imagined!

I keep this last line, written in my own handwriting, on cards placed throughout my home and in whatever books I am reading. I believe it; I just need reminding very often!

Another midwife and birth educator, Rima Starr, provides a similar message in her book, The Healing Power of Birth:

A child increases my financial, physical, and spiritual abundance. The child brings another loving divine being into life. As this love extends into the physical world, you will manifest more of what you need.

Rima’s quote promises that just as we can manifest new life within our wombs, we can generate support for that life with effort and intention. Why would any of us choose to believe differently about our babies and about our children? In our hearts, I am sure we all do believe this basic tenet, that our children are miracles, and we are lucky to have them, and the divine beings of the world would not have delivered them to us if we were not meant to care for them and could care for them. The challenge is to maintain faith and to stay open to the various opportunities that will come our way while also tending to daily necessities. I have made myself a “chart” to help me maintain such balance:

1st – Establish a daily practice to buoy your faith and stick to it no matter what. It could be a daily walk outside, a special homemade desert with your children, ten minutes of journal writing, or a quiet moment at night to water your house plants. Whatever the ritual, give it to yourself unconditionally. As you perform it, feel your heart soar into a sense of wellness and security. Let yourself repeat a mantra that feels perfect for your situation. I like this one – My baby is a miracle, and more miracles are manifesting in my life here and now. I embrace every one!

2nd – Take care of business as best you can and write a weekly budget, a monthly budget, and an annual budget. Include everything that feels essential to you –taxes, health care bills, your children’s birthday presents, your annual spring trip to visit relatives, everything. Next, mark down your expected income on a weekly, monthly and yearly schedule. The hard part is the third step – balancing the two! My advice is that you do not try to increase income until you have cut every bit of expense that you can. Time with your baby is its own wealth. Don’t be afraid to give up items that feel necessary. Remember, Gurmukh lived in a tent for four months and then chose an apartment that wasn’t much bigger. She was happy, though, and grateful, and she remained debt free. Respect the value of living in the black.

3rd – Create a circle of friends and meet with them regularly, whether that is once a month or once a week. The power of a group can be awesome. Let the theme of this group be prosperity and allow each member at least fifteen minutes to discuss a particular wish, what the member has done to achieve that wish, and ways the member could use assistance in manifesting that wish. Many times the group will have ideas or resources that are the exact answer to one member’s wish! Do not underestimate the power of meeting with kindred spirits on a regular basis. Our economy has become so destabilized that basic safety nets no longer exist: let our clasped hands be our new net.

4th – Write a gratitude list every day. Best-selling author Rhonda Byrne suggests writing a list of ten items, people or experiences that you are most grateful for at the end of each day. After each item, inscribe the words “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and feel gratitude as you do so. The theory behind this practice is that you are filling your heart with a sense of prosperity and appreciation rather than lack. Such kind feelings attract more good fortune, while negativity and complaints tend to repel people and blessings.

I cannot claim to be living up to all four of these passages of advice, but I sure am trying! It would be easy for me to dismiss my ideas regarding faith and finances as flimsy and insubstantial when it comes to dire need, but too many admirable mamas can testify otherwise. I have met many along my journey who support their families under extremely challenging circumstances – and they are doing it, chin-up! My heart insists I follow their inspiring lead…and I am trying, one step at a time.