About Me

 

 The greatest thing we can do is to show up for our lives and not be ashamed.

 -Anne Lamott

 

I'm a creature of the word, learning to tell my honest story.

I offer it here because telling stories is the road back home.

Motherhood is not a biological designation
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Friday
Sep262014

The gift inside a package of loss

 

These are my two older boys, standing in front of the dumpster containing most of what they knew to be home and possessions,

a little less than three years ago, right after our house fire.

We keep this photograph above their bunk beds to remind them of what it takes to be happy.

 

Loss can be a teacher, if you let it.  

And for this, you may want to say, "Thank you, Loss, for the gift inside the hard package of your making. I wish you would have dropped the little nugget into my lap, but I understand there was something necessary about the unwrapping."

"Something necessary" may be all you've got so far. You may still be reeling. The wound may still be bleeding. That's ok. Knowing will come.

 

Coming up on the 3rd anniversary of our house fire, I have more perspective now to look at some of the gifts. One such gift is that the fire gave my children at an early age--5, 4, 2, 39 weeks gestation, an awareness of humanity’s cycle of love and loss. 

It gave them humility, a primal knowing forged hard like an iron anvil in their soul that life is fragile, and awe-inspiring, and sacred. 

They learned first hand that pets die, and thus do people.  That toys burn up. That clothes stored for a full season in their closets can be turned to ash in no time. 

That nothing is immune. 

 

They saw firsthand that we need each other. That community can fill the gaps. That we are so interconnected, so dependent.  That we need family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, sometimes not in that order.

That mom and dad are human, and we don’t have all the answers. But if we are brave to ask the questions, people will gather around a dinner table and talk and laugh and cry; and maybe no answers will be found, but we will go to sleep happy and loved.

 

They learned there are people in the world who will spend their Christmas budget to buy clothes for a story of loss they read about on Facebook. That there are high schoolers who will take on a second job so they can buy a Wal-Mart doll and some plastic cars for the children of their history teacher. 

That some of those students came from families with no money, from parents who already work two or three jobs, and that some of those children who couldn’t afford to buy gifts, sprayed perfume on their own stuffed animals, and wrapped them in lumpy Christmas paper, and gave anyway.

 

My kids know how intricately the web is woven- how much we are inside of and wrapped around each other. 

I see it in my eight year old when he cries that his pet grasshopper died, and then buries him in the ground and says a prayer for blessing; in his articulation of social jostling at school, and what people do to try to be cool when really they're hurting.  I see it in my seven year old's empathy, his earnestness, the way he pets dogs and touches his friends, and never pulls away first from a hug.  I see it in my little girl's reputation as the classroom peacemaker, the little momma who tries to make sure everyone is using kind words and having kind hearts. I see it in Phoenix because he was the most surrounded, and he is the most secure. My little fire baby also hates getting water on his face.

 

I am grateful that fire is a defining part of my children’s narrative. 

I don’t want them to take life for granted. I don’t want them to feel insulated from hurt and pain.

I want them to be children who pay attention, who notice spiders spinning webs between tree limbs, and woolly caterpillars inching along in the grass.

An awareness of life’s fragility is a gift usually given inside a package of loss, but is it not worth it to begin to know at such a young age how to truly live?  


Last year, after the 14th annual Sustainable Living Fair had to be canceled because the Poudre River overflowed from excessive rain and flooded the field grounds, destroying many homes as well, Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms (and the documentary Food, Inc.) came to our town and gave a riveting-albeit relaxed and relatable as one would expect from someone who works with land and animals- talk on conservation and sustainability. 

He said something I will always remember: “We are a culture cutting itself off from the ecological umbilical cord.” 

He lamented our lack of understanding of life and death, of growing things, our insularity from something as fundamental as seasonal change, let alone things like the loamy earth under our fingernails, an understanding of the habits of wildlife, a knowledge of where our food comes from, an awe for the interconnectedness of all living things. 

He mentioned how we began as an agricultural society, how communion with the earth used to be viewed as a noble, sacred profession-take the Jeffersonian Agrarian model as an example-and how those associations have devolved into a stereotype of the “trip over the transmission in the yard West Virginian who can’t string two words together.”  

I wrote in my notes that the stainless steel-ness of our lives is robbing our children of their sacred participation in the fragile cycle of life and death. 


I grinned when Salatin spoke about the ineptitude of youngsters these days who don’t know how to work with their hands unless it’s typing on a keyboard.

I laughed when he asked, “how can a 16 year old be behind the wheel of a 3,200 lb vehicle but not know how to use a cordless drill because that’s a potentially dangerous tool?”

And I cried when he said that callouses and splinters and craftsmanship are no longer valued, because I thought of my father, the stone mason, coming home from work everyday with stone dust on his faded jeans, and huge callouses on his dirty hands, and I remembered how safe I felt because my father smelt like the earth. 

I took furious notes when he began to speak of the language of the Bible, of pruning and fruit, yeast in the dough, winnnow and chaff, even jars of clay- words that will soon hold no meaning; of how food in a larder allows us to feel that where we live is an abundant place, so when was it decided it was more important to drive our kids three hours to a soccer tournament than to cook dinner for them?

I thought of my children when he said, “We are segregating the integrated system into two camps: humanism and technology. We survive alone.”  

 

“Not so in this household, please God,” I thought.  This family made it through because of many work-worn calloused hands holding us up.  We made it because other people, maybe because of their own packages of loss, knew what it felt like to walk a dark night alone, and came alongside us to carry a light.

Perhaps we might have survived our fire alone, but that’s all it would have been- mere survival. 

The place we are now, this thriving abundant land we are humbled to call home, was a gift handed to us in a package of loss, a lesson taught by nature and community that we come from dust, and to dust we return, and it is how we love while we walk these few brief steps upon the sacred earth that matters.

 

"For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.

Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,

So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.

He threshes you to make naked.

He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness.

He kneads you until you are pliant;

And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart."

-excerpted from Kahlil Gibran's "On Love" from The Prophet

 

Sunday
Sep142014

I finally found a copy of the parenting handbook

I think someone forgot to give me the parenting handbook, you know, the one you get at the hospital along with the striped hat and the striped swaddle blankets and the free diapers and the booger sucker. 

The one that tells you how to successfully accomplish the role of mother.

The one with chapters like, "What to do when your kid turns two and throws himself on the grocery store floor in a screaming fit."  

Or, "How to raise children who never talk back," or "How to handle sending your kid off to kindergarten without falling apart."

Or, "How to never get frustrated, say something in anger, feel like a failure, or wake up with cold I shouldn't have done that sweats in the middle of the night."

 

Left without my handbook, I also missed the chapter on "Why it pays to wait at least a year after having the first kid to get pregnant with the second," and I got pregnant with my 2nd when my 1st was five months old. And then I had two more in the next two years.  For those of you like me who aren't so good at math, that's four kids in five years. 

After that, the handbook wouldn't have done me much good anyhow.

I had little use for the "How to make sure your kids don't eat off the floor" chapters. If one kid was eating off the floor, fabulous.  That meant they were occupied (and maybe even getting some good nutrition) so I could nurse another kid, and with my remaining two hands (adapt and survive: nursing kid just hung from my boob like a baby orangutan and kept on sucking) I swung around the room making dinner and keeping cups from spilling. 

Higher order parenting concerns like, "How to get your kid interested in art at a young age," or "Which lunchbox teaches sustainability and best practice food consumption," were trumped by "How to not drop the F-bomb when pieces of hardened oatmeal turn into deathly splinters and pierce you under the fingernails while you scrape the table clean from breakfast."  

 

I didn't have time or energy to focus on much reflective analysis of my role as mother.  I just had to DO it. Day in and day out. Having babies so close together highly limits your capacity for self-reflection and change. My goals were to stay awake at the dinner table and remember to put nursing pads in my bras.

I think this is FINE actually, to be about the task of mothering rather than the philosophy of mothering, at least for a season. It's probably another adapt and survive mechanism. If I thought about it too much, I would never have had kids to begin with, and then if I thought about it while I was in the throes of three babies under three, I probably wouldn't have gotten out of bed much.

But often, in the midst of the doing, even without the self-reflection, I'd still feel like I was doing it wrong. That there was an authority out there who knew the answers, and the all-mighty Mothering Authority was purposely withholding. This authority was the same one who neglected to gift me the handbook. Thanks a lot.

Therefore, every other mom knew what parenting was supposed to look and feel like, and I was the only one left outside the cool club.

 

It didn't help that I got pregnant only eight months into being married. I was still figuring out my identity as a married woman, as a Wilbourn, still figuring out how to trust my instincts, be comfy in my own skin...and all the sudden I've got to figure out motherhood?

I felt way too inexperienced for the job; way too scared frankly, but instead of stepping into that uncomfortable place and asking myself questions about what kinds of things I loved in myself and other women, things I might want to reproduce in my own kids, I pushed down the fear, put on my "I've got this" face, and instead did what I thought I SHOULD do, based upon a combination of pleasing the all-mighty Mothering Authority, drawing ideas from the good and bad about how I grew up, comparing myself to other moms, and imagining what the parenting handbook must say about things.

I tried to conform myself to an ideal of motherhood that didn't take into consideration who I was, or who my kids were, or what kind of family we were becoming, and consequently, I felt so lost in it all, but so scared to admit how lost I felt. Like if I did, I would be disqualified, and someone would take my kids from me. 

 

I do remember times when I would get my head above water, like in between pregnancies, or when I would wean a baby, and a little breathing space would open up, and I would take a stab at asking harder questions about what kind of mom I wanted to be, and what kind of life I wanted to live, and then try to make choices for my family based upon a reflective set of family values, but then LIFE would sabotage my efforts with unexpected events like, say, a family crisis, or another pregnancy, and it was back to survival mode. I don't know if this is everyone's experience, but it almost felt like a cruel joke.

I remember this happening right before the fire. We'd settled on the sacredness of Saturday mornings as a non-negotiable family value; I have precious memories of sitting in a rocking chair just watching my kids play with toys on the floor in front of the wood stove while Michael made pancakes, the house filled with the laughter and peace of family togetherness, and my heart aching with gratitude. And just as we settled into this rhythm, the fire happened, and all my Saturdays from November until April when we moved back into the farmhouse were just about survival and recovery again. 

 Finally, there came a day when life settled down, and my kids were more self-sufficient (like they could all tell me why they were crying), and I wasn't just trying to survive anymore. And I could see that the tasks of mothering had begun to turn into a family culture. 

It was not a culture I liked very much.

 

I would fall into bed after a long day and complain to Michael, "This is not what I thought our life was going to look like. I feel like life is happening TO me and I'm just along for the ride, like I'm on those moving walkways at airports.  I don't want to be so busy training my kids, and taking care of my kids, that I can't enjoy my kids.  But I don't know how to stop it."

My therapist friend calls this itchy, can't quite put your finger on it feeling of discontentment, cognitive dissonance- it's when what you value and how you are living do not align.

You see, I'd gotten right back into the habit of asking "Am I parenting the way I SHOULD be parenting," and I'd forgotten (or maybe I was just too tired and too scared) to ask what Brene Brown says is the much more important question: "Am I the adult I want my child to grow up to be?"

I think out of deep love for our children, and the desire to do right by them, we mothers so often spend our energy desperately looking for the right answers, rather than asking the right questions.

 

I love Brene Brown's chapter in Daring Greatly on Wholehearted Parenting.

Forget BabyWise or The Baby Whisperer, I'd slip her book into every hospital swaddle blanket. Because Brene refused to write a formula for successful parenting, and instead she said, "who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting" (243)

I found this to be equal parts incredibly freeing and totally convicting.

 

Because it meant there was no handbook, woohoo!

And also, Oh shit. There was no handbook.

 

This put the onus on me to ask hard questions about what I value and what I'm doing, and if the two line up; it meant bringing my heart to the forefront, and as mothers, it is so easy to put ourselves on the back burner.

To say, "This season is about my children. When they are grown, and out of the house, I can worry about myself again."

But then from what well are we drawing to nurture our children? If we reproduce in our kids who WE are, and if we never engage with defining what we value and embracing our own becoming process, then we can only offer our children the woman in stasis-the woman who existed when we got pregnant, who didn't keep evolving, who didn't feed the well, because we thought it was selfish to take care of ourselves.

The choice to ignore the WHO AM I questions turns parenting into an external production.

We try to execute it from the outside in, overlaying parenting ideals onto ourselves and our kids, rather than parenting from the inside out in a very human, quite messy, constantly evolving journey of our becoming and our children's becoming all intertwined.

This doesn't mean I don't tear my hair out sometimes longing for the handbook. I just want the answer. I want the foolproof strategy. I want to feel like I'm doing this right.

If I had the almighty parenting handbook, I could just flip to pg. 233 on How to Handle a Tantrum, and execute the bullet points.  I wouldn't HAVE to pay attention; I could accomplish parenting like one more task and handle my children like one more project.

And oh, what a loss that would be.

 

Yes, it's terrifying to realize that the only way to teach my kids how to be loving and brave and kind and vulnerable is to learn how to do it myself, while they watch me fail, and get back up, and try again. 

It's the most infuriatingly vulnerable and humiliating and sacred gift we can offer our children to let them learn how to become by bearing witness to our becoming.

It's scary to ask, am I present? Am I real? Am I curious and kind and do I feel deeply and risk greatly and pursue vulnerability?  Am I brave? Am I honest?

All the things I long for my children to be.

But I'm learning, finally, that the handbook is written on your heart; that you learn how to be a mother by learning how to be yourself.

 

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