The One Who Makes You A Mother

227890_1028354066305_4262_n

Every mother, no matter how many children she has, knows the enormity of the gift she has been given in the form of her first child. That first baby makes us mothers, and there is nothing more precious or more transformational. It’s a gift we share with our future children, who add to it and enhance it and who share equally in our love. But it is our first child who gives us the gift of motherhood.

My first baby, the one who made me a mother, turns 8 today.

I remember the first time I held her with remarkable clarity, and with the same welling up of emotions I felt then. She was tiny – full term, but only five pounds – and swaddled like a burrito.  She opened her eyes to me right away and as I met her gaze, her lower lip pushed out into a pout and an expression of bewilderment came over her face. I remember thinking that it must have been tough for her; that everything she had ever known had changed in an instant.

If I could distill my becoming a mother into one single moment, it would be that one. Not because it was the first time I held her in my arms, but because it was our first time experiencing the world together.

Looking back over the last eight years, the best moments of motherhood have been exactly that– sharing the experience of the world around us. And I have been so lucky to have such an incredibly cool person to share these moments with.

11392929_10206602548919620_2253319815369299607_n

My girl is deep. She’s complicated. She’s tough and persistent as hell and one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever known. She wakes up in the middle of the night worried about growing up and dying. Life can be a little too big for her sometimes. She is like me in so many ways that I can almost feel my own fears and insecurities within her. Sometimes, that scares me.

She is a one girl justice league, and if I have to tell her a dozen times a day that life is not and never will be fair, I’m proud that she has a strong sense of equity. She gets angry quickly and thoroughly, but her temper is matched many times over by the strength and fullness of her love.

11138500_10206604927379080_3966426333656539286_n

She tells us stories, with chapters and in series, but she doesn’t have the patience to write them down. There are times when her creativity astounds me.

She takes people as they are, for who they are, which is a rare and precious quality I hope she never loses. Over the years, I’ve imagined her growing up to fill a number of different exalted professions — a famous writer! a dolphin trainer! a CEO! — but as I come to know her better, I think she would change the world as a teacher of students with special needs.

She is a proud Hufflepuff and will not tolerate bullies, but she slayed as Cruella DeVil in her drama class play.

12115996_10207524441206351_3709521663725071667_n

 

I love this kid beyond words. She made me a mother and she gave me the gift of herself. She’s not my baby any more, but I am overwhelmingly grateful that she is my girl.

12308584_10207761722658239_1977710451311251037_n

 

 

Mother’s Day

My youngest daughter woke me up this morning with a whisper – “Mommy! Is it morning time yet?”

I answered yes, groaning just a little as she climbed over my ribs, wincing as the dog took my opened eyes as an invitation to sit on my hair. “Ok,” she told me, “now you can go back to sleep,” and she slammed the door shut to give me some privacy.

Some twenty minutes later, she returned with my husband, her sister, and a plate of pancakes swimming in syrup. I ate a sticky breakfast in bed while my girls showed me their hand-made cards and the dog pierced my soul with his hungry gaze. It was—if not quite bliss – a moment in which I felt blessed.

* * *

Mother’s Day is not a day of simple emotions – not for me, and, I imagine, not for many others. There are so many struggles when it comes to the relationship between mothers and children. We are all children of a mother and cohorts of a society with a rigidly idealized definition of what motherhood should be. Rarely does the reality fulfill the expectation.

And then there are the women who wish they could become mothers, but can’t, and those who can become mothers, but can’t mother the children to whom they gave life. There are the mothers who have had to give a child back to the earth, and the children whose mothers have left the world too soon.

As the adopted daughter of a mother who died young, the celebration of Mother’s Day has always been bittersweet. When I was a child, it was a day when I felt the pull of my connection with the mother I had never met. It was a day when I honored the mother of my heart – and as I grew older while she grew sicker, it was a day when I wondered what would happen to me if she – when she – died.

After my mother’s death, the day was searingly painful. I had eyes only for what others possessed, but I had lost – twice.

As the years passed, my grief mellowed and so did the pain of Mother’s Day. I became a mother myself, which magnified everything good about the day. And I came to understand that the loss of a mother gives a gift of its own – the experience of being loved by the women who mother the motherless.

These women represent the best of what humanity has to offer. They are the grandmothers, the aunts, the neighbors, the sisters, the friends who love where love is needed. I’ve known these women in my own family, and I have met them in many other contexts, in every part of the world.

Mother’s Day is an easy holiday to celebrate. As children of mothers, it is easy to see their value in our lives. As mothers of children, it is easy to see the gifts motherhood has given us — the weight of a tiny person on your chest, the softness of a cheek, the comfort of a small body still warm with sleep, the fierce strength of a child’s embrace.

It’s easy to celebrate the beauty of idealized motherhood.

It’s harder to embrace the darker side, where mistakes, regrets, and loss reside. But I think it is in this side of motherhood where we find its deepest and most powerful meaning. Because it is here where we find the forgiveness, the persistence, the tenacity of a love that transcends everything, even the grave. It’s here where we find the women whose hearts are the deepest wells, who fill the world with their nurturing grace.

For my mothers, for all the women who stood in a mother’s place in my life, and for my children who have given me more than they know, I am filled with gratitude. And for those we have lost, I will mourn.

mom and me

 

20131223-122737.jpg

Michele and Grandma

Flaunting Failure: My Messy Beautiful

Like most people, I don’t really enjoy bragging about my failures. I recognize them, and feel what is probably an excessive amount of guilt for having them (I’m not Catholic for nothing), but I prefer to keep them on the down low. They are not my favorite topic of conversation.

So it was as astounding to me as it would be to anyone else when, a few weeks ago, I found myself emphatically, almost eagerly, telling my daughter that I make bad choices and really big mistakes every single day of my life.

“Mommy is, like, a huge failure, sweetie!” I told her brightly. “I mean, I told Daddy to shut up this morning! That was really bad! And I yelled at the dog because he ate grass and puked on the new carpet, and then I yelled at Daddy again because I had to clean it up! And I forgot to pack your lunch that one time — remember?! I forgot it and I didn’t bring it until lunchtime was almost over and when I got there, you were crying in the cafeteria line? That was a really bad choice that mommy made.”

There was that time when my house looked like this.

There was that time when my house looked like this.

I stopped there, because the flow of my thought process was moving toward previous boyfriends and hangovers and tattoos obtained in foreign countries, and that whole lunch incident really was blemish enough on our mother-daughter relationship. We have plenty of time for all of mommy’s more spectacular failures to make themselves known.

This overflow of honesty might have been excessive, but it was not without purpose. Because it was in response to my baby girl sitting in the bathtub sobbing, wailing that she “wanted to be good ALL DAY and not just SOME of the day because you, Mommy, ALWAYS make good choices and NEVER make bad choices.”

How else could I answer her? I don’t always make good choices. I do make really big mistakes. I am never, ever perfect ALL DAY.

My daughter is on the Autism Spectrum. For the most part, her differences manifest as odd but charming quirks. However, there are times when the world becomes too much for her.  She has a certain rigidity to her expectations from life, and when life doesn’t conform to those expectations, she becomes overwhelmed. When she becomes overwhelmed, she becomes defiant and angry. And when she becomes defiant and angry, she begins to feel guilty, which leads to more defiance and anger until it all comes crashing down and she is empty but also somehow devastated by what she sees as her failure to be good.

That’s a lot of feeling for a five-year-old.

My heart breaks for her when she starts to fall down the Autism rabbit hole, and when I found her crying in the bathtub that night it was shattering to see that, this time, she was tumbling down because she was comparing herself — negatively! — to me. And it made me think.

I don’t like to broadcast my mistakes to the world at large, and I really don’t like to broadcast my mistakes to my children. As parents, we feel compelled to serve as an example of the kind of people we want our children to become. We want to be their heroes. And I think a lot of times, we strive to hide our faults from our children in order to meet the expectations we set for ourselves.

But the thing is, I don’t want, or expect,  my children to be perfect, or even almost perfect. And I don’t want them to grow up to become the kind of person who feels that perfection is expected from her. I want my girls to try new things, to succeed sometimes and to fail sometimes. I want them to know how to own up to their mistakes and to try to make things right. I want them to be able to forgive themselves for not being what it is impossible to be. Above all, I want them to know that they are both messy and beautiful, and wholly — overwhelmingly — loved. And they will never learn any of those things if I don’t teach them.

* * *

I have written before about losing my mother at a young age. It was hard to lose her. It is still hard to not have her. These things are true for anyone who has lost a parent. But one of the things that makes losing a parent when you are young especially difficult is the fact that you never get to know her.  She is always as she was to you when you were a child: perfection, and everything.

My mom would have been a hard act to follow, no matter what. One summer, she spent 6-hour days at the pool with a portable chemo pump delivering toxins directly into her bloodstream so my brother and I could enjoy our summer. She once fell and broke her neck in the morning one day, and that evening she showed up, neck brace and all, at a fashion show where I was modeling First Communion dresses. I have to bite my tongue on the F-word when I stub a toe, but breast-turned-bone cancer never even elicited a “damn my life” from my mother.

As far as I can remember, my mom was as close to perfection as a person can be. She never had the chance to prove otherwise.  I have spent much of my life feeling as though I will never, ever measure up to her — and now that I am a mother, I know that’s not what she wanted for me. It isn’t what I want for my own children.

* * *

So many of my parenting decisions have been made based on my desire to have the mother-daughter relationship with my girls that cancer stole from me and my own mother. Mostly, these decisions have had to do with being together — just existing in the world with them —  as they go through life’s big and small moments.

But behind all that is also my desire to be real for them. For us to grow together as a family, and to know that we love each other always, unconditionally.

And that night with my daughter, when her world was crashing down around her because she wasn’t good all day long, reminded me that sometimes, showing your children your failures also means that you are teaching them how to love themselves and others.

* * *

 This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

messy-beautiful-700b

 

 

 

 

 

 

They Love Us Too

Last week, a dear friend of mine shared a beautiful tribute to her father, who passed away several months after her wedding, shortly after she became pregnant with her first child. She wrote:

“Today, on what would have been my dad’s 74th birthday, I remember the song I picked for the father/daughter dance at my wedding: Forever Young, by Bob Dylan.  I shared the song with my dad a couple of months before the wedding, and when he heard it for the first time, he teared up.  He understood why I chose it – not only is it a wish from him for me, but also from me for him.  We practiced dancing a little bit that day in my parents’ living room, and looking back I’m so very happy that we did.  By the time the wedding day rolled around, cancer radiation treatment had left my dad unable to stand without support.  Dad and I didn’t get to dance at my wedding, and a little part of me is sad when I think about that, but more so I am grateful that he was able to be there at all.
So, Dad, this one’s for you. 

I thought her post was profoundly touching, and not just because I knew her father — who was a good, kind, immensely intelligent man — or because I know how it feels to regret what you could not do with a beloved parent who has been beaten down by cancer.

What moved me the most was what she said about the song she chose for her father/daughter wedding dance — that the words of Forever Young were not just a wish from him to her, but also from her to him.

Bob Dylan’s Forever Young is a song whose lyrics can bring even the most unsentimental parent to tears. The first stanza alone has everything you need to feel both heart-swellingly hopeful about your child’s future and crushingly nostalgic about the childhood she will inevitably leave behind:

May God bless and keep you always.
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others,
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars,
And climb on every rung. May you stay forever young.

Of course these are the things every parent wants for her children.  We want them to follow their dreams, and to be righteous and brave. We want them to be loved, and to know truth, and to find joy. We want them to be young, forever. We want them to have everything in the world that is good.

But my friend took this point further and reminded me that these are the same things our children want for us, their parents.

I have written before that the best thing we can do for our children is to be there, beside them, as they walk through life. But it is also important, for us and for them, to remember that —  behind the tantrums and the defiance and the smug know-it-all-ism of their early years — they both want and need their parents to be content and fulfilled. They want us to be strong, and healthy, and as young as they remember us to be. They want good things for us, too.

Our children, particularly when they are young, don’t often show us that our welfare matters to them. I’m pretty sure that if you asked my three-year-old, she would say that her greatest hope for me is that I forever provide her with goldfish crackers. Or that I forget the word “nap.”  My five-year-old would like me to concede with prejudice that I am not, in fact, the boss of her. I feel certain they would neither acknowledge nor express any lofty aspirations for me. But I think our children feel a need for our happiness nevertheless.

* * *

For the last few months, I have been battling one rough winter illness after another. I had antibiotic resistant strep throat for four weeks back in December, which led me to discover some minor, though temporarily worrisome, heart problems. Then in January, I picked up the norovirus at Chuck E. Cheese, which knocked me out for eight solid days. I am currently winding up another course of antibiotics for a sinus/ear infection and bronchitis. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I haven’t been my usual self.

While all this was going on, I noticed that my five-year-old’s behavior at home had been getting increasingly worse. She was being contrary, oppositional, and having massive meltdowns at the least provocation. I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t figure out why she had picked the time when I was at my weakest to bring out her worst behavior.

But eventually it dawned on me. She was reacting to my illnesses. It was because I was at my weakest that her behavior was it its worst. I wasn’t well and she was worried about me. I wouldn’t have argued if she had shown her concern in a less challenging way, but that’s how my girl rolls — when life pushes her over her limits, she pushes right back at life.

* * *

Our kids love us and need us to be there for them. They also want, and need, for us to be well and happy*. Our wellbeing affects them — but it also matters to them. They can’t find their own contentment if we haven’t found ours.

And if we do our job right, one day, our children will want everything for us that we want for them. That is a big and beautiful thought, and I am so thankful to my friend for reminding me that the love and concern we parents feel for our children is reciprocated, and powerfully so.

This one’s for you, CHW. And yes, Dad, this is my way of saying I love you, too.

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

*Read more about our right to be well and happy at These Walls Blog, by my friend Julie.

The World Belongs to Such as These

Last Sunday, my five-year-old and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon together, just the two of us, at a local indoor pool. With a younger sibling at home and a full day at school, time spent one-on-one has been rare this year. I’ve missed her.

My girl has a prolific imagination and spends most of her unoccupied time making up or enacting stories. As she has been learning so many new things this year, I have had the gratifying pleasure to observe how she weaves the new facts and ideas percolating in her brain into her stories and play.

So when we packed up go to the pool, I was interested to see her stash three princess figurines, three plastic cupcakes and a baby doll into her toy bag. I never really know where she will go with things.

When we got to the swim center, she headed straight for the baby pool, where she began setting up a scene. First, she brought out the three princesses and lined them up along the side of the pool. She placed a plastic cupcake in front of each. Then she went to her bag and brought out her baby. She carefully cradled it in her arm and carried it into the pool.

And then she baptized that baby, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen, using water consecrated with chlorine and the contents of a half-dozen swim diapers.

When I asked her about it, she explained to me that she had learned about baptism in her religious education class that morning. She told me that baptism is how we become a part of God’s family. And because she loves her baby doll, she wants her to become a part of our family. Therefore, a baptism was clearly in order.

photo (8)

It was an achingly sweet moment, the kind that reminds parents that bringing their child into the world really was the best thing they have ever done. It made me proud of her. It also made me reflect on and appreciate the best thing children do for us — allowing us grown ups to witness the fertility of their minds and the largess of their imaginations.

Most of us recognize the story from the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus urges his disciples to bring the children to him, because “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” It is a story that tends to be linked to the idea that what is most valuable in children is their innocence and unworldliness. It seems to imply that children, in their dearth of experience, are better able to absorb the teachings of faith, and indeed of the world around them. I don’t believe that this is a strictly religious way of thinking. There is a common tendency to think of children as blank slates waiting to be written upon.

Children are certainly unworldly. There is necessarily an innocence to the way they approach their world. They have no basis of comparison. They have no prejudice. Their minds are open. They are open, but I don’t think they are waiting, passively, for us to shape them. 

If I have learned anything about children and the way they approach life, it is that they do so through constant questioning and experimenting. They are endlessly pushing the boundaries of their universe. And these attributes apply equally to the way they understand faith and the way they process new facts.

When I think of my daughter, who is at that perfectly ripe age when the concepts of faith and fact are just coming within her intellectual grasp, I see nothing passive about her approach to the world. All I see is activity – a dynamic, unrestrained pursuit for more knowledge, a constant pushing and stretching of the limits of her understanding.

I hear her asking why, and no matter how thorough an answer I give, I hear her asking why again. I see her acting out, and re-enacting, what she is learning so that, through interpretation and experience, it becomes a part of who she is.

When I think of the idea that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” I don’t see it as a calling to submissiveness or innocence. I see it as a calling for us to approach faith — and reason — like children do – with flexibility, enthusiasm, ceaseless questioning, and a mind with ever-expanding boundaries. Those are the best things that children have to offer the world, and we adults should not forget that.

After my daughter finished her charming baptism by pool water, as I was thinking about the profundity of what her mind, and the minds of all children like her, will bring to our future, she reminded me of something else.

She tossed her baby to the side of the pool and, splashing, shouted, “Mommy, that boy FARTED! He made BUBBLES in the WATER!” While I blushed and suppressed my silent laughter, I reflected on the next best thing children have to offer the world: their uninhibited appreciation for bathroom humor.

Life is best lived with curiosity, questioning, a mind without boundaries, and the ability to laugh at our bodily functions.

Impossible Cuteness

There are many days when my two-year-old is impossible. I mean, she is two. And she is tiny and feisty and stubborn and smart and really, really good at getting her own way. She can be exhausting.

But then there are days when she is just impossibly cute. So cute that I want to squish her up into a little blond meatball and gobble her up. (Hey, I was raised with an Italian grandma and a Polish grandma in my life. We love our babies through food imagery.) Today was one of those days.

She was mad at me (surprise!), so she sat down on a kitchen chair and said, “Well, I jus’ gonna sit hewe and be fwustwated! Hmph!

Hmph!

Hmph!

And since today is Wednesday, and my friend Julie at These Walls has introduced me to the Moxie Wife’s Five Favorites series, and this little turkey kielbasa really is pretty cute, I will add a few more of my favorite photos. I will call this series the Silly Time Spectacular! 

I was supposed to be the "easy" one.

I was supposed to be the calm one.

We can’t leave out the classic naked spaghetti picture.

I'm naked. I'm eating spaghetti. Life is good.

I’m naked. I’m eating spaghetti. Life is good.

And then there’s the one where she puts together an outfit.

Caption THIS!

Caption THIS!

And the one where she tries to take all of her clothes off but they get stuck around her little heiny.

Meatballs, amiright?!

Meatballs, amiright?!

And now I am signing off. I have some meatballs to make!

fivefavorites

We Are All They Need

Today is Janurary 6, my mother’s day. It became “my” mother’s day 23 years ago when my own mother, after a nearly eight-year battle, lost her life to breast cancer and when I became aware of how vitally important a mother’s presence is in the lives of her children.

For many years, whenever January 6th arrived, I thought about my own losses. A first, I missed her with every nerve; I felt flayed and exposed to a host of things that were beyond my understanding. Gradually, my piercing grief was replaced by a longing that was no less intense, because it contained the realization that with each passing year I was separated even further from her.

But now that I have children of my own, when January 6th rolls around I find myself thinking less about my own losses and more about what my mother lost when she died.

She was so beautiful.

She was so beautiful.

Parenthood is a future-thinking endeavor. When we first breathe in the newness of our just-born child, we look forward, far forward, to decades of moments with that brand-new baby. Yes, we marvel at their smallness, their freshness, their perfection. We revel in the tiny yet immense gift we have been given. But we also envision what that baby will be like as a child, and as a teenager, and as an adult. We see them on birthdays, on holidays, at graduations and weddings. We see their children.

We plan to be with them until they are grown, and to experience life with them after they have reached their potential as adults. We don’t plan for our relationship with them to end when they are children.

When my mom died, she didn’t just lose her own life. She lost her life with her children. For her, my life and my brother’s life, intertwined as they were with her own, ended when we were eleven and six.

I can’t even imagine how painful it must have been for her, when she finally accepted that the end was near, to know that she was about to lose her future with us. That she would miss all of the moments of our lives, big and small, for the rest of our lives. That she would never know us as adults, or meet the people who would become important to us as we matured. That she would never, ever, hold a grandchild in her arms.

As her daughter, and as the mother of my own children, it breaks my heart to know that this face…

IMG_7943

…and this face

norahblog post

…are wholly unknown to her.

When she knew that she was dying, she also had to know that she was letting go of a million moments with her children. That the past was all she would ever have with us. She must have experienced the kind of pain that pray I never have to face.

***

This is not going to turn into one of those “enjoy every moment with your child because you never know how many you have” posts. I could go there, but I’m not a hypocrite. I would wager large sums of money that, when my children are grown and gone, I absolutely will not be longing to re-experience the prickly-hot feeling of panic spiked with shame that comes over you when your five-year-old is publicly behaving like a spoiled toddler, while your toddler is running in circles like an untrained dog smelling distinctly of eau de poo. There are many moments that I won’t miss.

I’m not even saying that we moms (and dads!) should be doing anything differently. If anything, I am saying we should all do less, or at least that we should worry less about what we should be doing. Because if I have learned one thing after 23 years of being without my mother, I can tell you that what I missed, what I craved, was her. Her presence. The knowledge that the world contained her.

I didn’t need any extras. I didn’t need perfection. I would have preferred to have had her healthy, but to have had her at all was a blessing and, as I have learned, a luxury. To have had her, just as she was, was enough.

And if just having her was enough, then it follows that just having us, their parents, is enough for our own children. The fact that we are in their lives, that we are actively loving them, is enough. Our flaws and imperfections and mistakes do nothing to lessen the impact of our mere presence. Isn’t that a freeing thought?

What I am saying is that the sum of moments that we have with our children is probably the best thing that we, or they, will ever have. And that if we are able to look forward to a future of these moments, when we and they are all present together in this world, then we are damned lucky.