I've been thinking lately about what I've learned because I gave birth and am raising four children. Certain things are pretty obvious. Like, going to the park becomes so much more enjoyable once they learn to pump themselves; and that breakfast, lunch and dinner can be eaten in any order. Or that a king size bed is a necessity. I have also learned that 18 years is not such a long time. It seemed so long when Julia was two and Christian just born. But now when I think that Julia is only months away from graduating, my chin starts to tremble. (We are thinking about changing the rules. We will double date with her until she's 30--which means she has to be in by 10.30 because that's when Kevin falls dead asleep.)
There are other truths though that I've come to see take root in me because I am a mother. This is not to say that they cannot be learned in other ways. It's just that the arena of mothering forces me, if I am willing, to become a better person in a far shorter period of time.
I've come to recognize that mothering is part of a woman’s nature. Whether we give birth or not, being a women means living with the urge and pull to mother. I find it significant that the name given to our first woman indicates she is "the mother of all living." While mother is not all of me, it is a significant portion of me that colors the way I look at the world. A mother's eyes see differently; they notice more; they notice need; they notice others.
Mothering is also a community effort. Or at least it has been for me. Like the infant Moses, whose mother and sister offered him up to the river, and whom the Pharoah's daughter and her ladies raised, mothering even one child is done by more than one woman. I know for a fact that my children and I need more than just me in their life. I have worked away from our home at various periods in the past decades. My children have been watched over by women, wonderful women, whom I, in turn, have watched. I have learned from these women in my life.
When I was in law school, Adam and Seth could be found in the arms of Neng Lao, a four-foot nine Hmong woman who took them on bus rides to nowhere and back, on stroller rides around the block, and car rides to the park, perched on a cushion from the couch because she couldn't see over the dash of my car. She sat cross-legged on the couch, one boy on each side of her solid, diminutive lap, reading stories and continued reading long after they had both fallen asleep. They knew, with some familiarity, the ghost stories her father told her during her childhood years in a refugee camp in Thailand. Our lives were blessed by her quiet and calm influence in our home. And, I am a better mother from having seen her comfort and steady my sons.
Others can teach my children what I cannot. Because of who I am, I cannot do certain things well or easily. I was raised in a school system of school uniforms, no makeup, and pigtails until we were eighteen. Julia had to learn to fix her own hair and put on her own make-up ever since she realized hair needed to be fixed and that women wore make-up. Christian gets up on his own and fixes his own breakfast during the winter. It's just so cruel to get out of bed in the dark. (Come summer, I'm a lark.) So, because I remain under the covers on cold, winter mornings, I am grateful to women of simple faith, of unrestrained happiness, of cheerfulness. Those things I cannot always show my children, and those are attributes they need to see.
I have learned from Elise, a Nordic blonde with precise enthusiasm, the peace that comes from a clean home. By watching her, I have learned how to make my house a place of order. Not that it comes naturally or easily, but, as Christian said one morning while he was handwashing his white shirt because he had forgotten to put it in the wash and I had not actually done any laundry, “I like the results of work. I just don’t like while I am actually working.” Because I am like my son, we have had to learn from Elise how to work in our home.
Being a mother has taught me to be more of a steward, and less of a master. Together with Kevin, I am merely a steward of the souls of these children. Like Hannah's son, our four children have been "lent to the Lord" since their birth. My responsibility is to give them room and light to grow into what they have inside them. Making right appear attractive is part of my responsibility. Teaching, showing , demonstrating correct attributes of divinity is also. They need to know love, tolerance, patience, gentleness, generosity of spirit and abundance, beauty so that they will recognize their Father in Heaven in their life, and will want to turn to him as a matter of course. They need to know a parent who is slow to anger, a God of abundance and mercy. (And that is why I am glad Kevin is their father!)
I also know, with a certainty, that my body is part of my motherhood. It is a remarkable treasure. It has taught me important lessons, and given me unforgettable experiences. The tumbling of a baby in my womb. The feel of the little hand that rests so naturally in mine. The sheer relentless pressure of trying to deliver a child. The warmth of my husband's body curving next to mine.
If I listen to my body, it can teach me. I know that my body, after periods (euphemism for years) of inactivity, yearns to move. It has taught me that action brings forth blessings and quiets hopelessness and discouragement. That people, bodies and souls, can return to the right position quite quickly; far more quickly in fact than it took to get them out of kilter in the first place. My mother’s body has taught me that, generally, other people’s needs are more important than my own. I have learned that fatigue is really, quite often, just a state of mind, that my body can endure far longer than my mind is willing. I have learned that meeting the needs of those around me allows me to feel that my life has significance. And for me, a significant life has come to mean a life spent meeting needs: community needs, children’s needs, husband’s needs, needs for a better soccer program. That work helps lift and improve the lives of others. Just as I offered my body as a place for children to grow, so I offer my life as a place people may come to find refuge, strength, peace and happiness.
I also know, because I am a mother, that joy is the guaranteed suprise attached to mothering. I never thought I could love as I love my children, and their father. To think that, perhaps, my parents feel about me as I feel about my children is remarkable. To think that divine beings feel about me as I felt about Seth when I saw him running around the track one Friday morning, long legs pumping in the morning air, running for all he was worth in the Hershey meet, trying so hard to keep his form during that last 100 meters of the 400 metre sprint. My heart burst, even my bones seemed to swell. I recognized in his determined face as he rounded the turn for home the same determination the newborn nursery nurse saw when she said, “Hey, look at this one. He’s trying to hold his head up.” Seth was hours old. They come as they are, these remarkable creatures who live in my home.
And they come with love attached. Children are remarkably resilient and forgiving. Poor Adam thought his name for the first few years of his life was “DammitAdam.” But I, by some large and forgiving heart, am his favorite person in the whole world (besides his cousin Thomas). I also believe that God’s special blessing rests upon first children who must bear the brunt of our clumsy efforts to raise a quiet child. Because I have seen Adam and Julia love me still, I sense that God’s love for me is similarly remarkably resilient and forgiving.
Last of all, motherhood has shown me to be a far better person than I imagined. For the capacity to see myself for what I can be, and for the time and space to develop into that, I am grateful.
(Title: from Dixie Chicks, Lullaby on Taking the Long Way (the best lullaby I have ever heard))