“The privilege of a lifetime is to be who you are.” Joseph Campbell
It started as a 5 or 6 year old, receiving my first baby doll named “Baby Secret”. I loved that sponge bodied red pajama suit clad doll. I rocked her, held her, talked to her. I could even pull a string on her hip and she would tell me a secret. Whispering with rubber lips “I Love You”, she filled my deepest longing for love and affirmed my worth when my parents couldn’t express it due to exhaustion or emotional stifling. Cementing our bond, I clutched her each evening until I wore out her red pajama suit and hand stitched it back together. No matter the discord that was happening in my home or in my mind, my worst moments were made better through bonding with Baby Secret.
The seeds of motherhood were planted.
Every year for Christmas there was a new doll, with each year bringing a new “better than ever” feature; a doll whose hair actually grew in length out of the top of her head, a doll who could urinate, a doll who was nearly life size and you could hold hands and walk with; the mother-child relationship becoming more and more realistic with each passing year.
Then the 70’s came and I began to question whether I would ever want to be a mother. Having to be responsible for another person’s emotional life was a burden. Who would really ever want to clean up someone else’s urine? Watching the mothers of my friends, I was firmly in the camp of career over family. Mothers as a category were largely uneducated, powerless and unhappy. My own mother was a mixed bag. She was the only woman I knew who worked full time and had a career as a nurse. But she paid dearly for her desire for intellectual and professional fulfillment, both emotionally and physically. I watched as she struggled mightily to survive each day, never mind even hoping for balance. She was breaking ground and running head long into the family versus career struggle long before the women’s movement championed issues of life balance as worthy of social critique. She was living what would be rallied against in feminist circles decades later. I equated motherhood with a wasted emotional and intellectual life, an inability to pursue your dreams, and pursuit of a career with supreme self actualization
I pursued education, became a lawyer, and then began to look around; Single career women were also unhappy. Living in Washington D.C., watching career civil servants at the State Dept., I became disillusioned with the allure of being Mary Tyler Moore in the city. A great wardrobe and killer high heels meant nothing when Friday night came around and there was no one at home waiting to share your secrets. Though I didn’t know what a fulfilling life trajectory looked like, I checked off successful single career woman living alone in Crystal City with a cat as one possibility. Life without children looked painfully lonely.
And so, that is how I find myself at the age of 48 with four children ages 19, 15, 13 and 11. At a time when some of my friends are experiencing the thrill of an empty nest or even some beginning their grandparenting years, I still have seven years of nesting before college even begins. There is a reason behind everything that eventually comes to light. For me, the protracted length of my motherhood has been the gift of time I needed to come to terms with the task and joys of motherhood and myself.
Motherhood and my ability to be complacent with it has been shaped and illumined by each passing year. I’d always assumed that the urge to grow myself would subside and I would become completely fulfilled being a mother to four Baby Secrets. When that didn’t occur for me, without great effort, I began to question my motherly quotient. I was not joyfully selfless like June Cleaver. Prior to my awareness of breath, of being rather than doing, and being able to rest in the space between stimulus and reaction, I was a crazy mom, trying to constantly control disorder. Four children, a white kitchen floor, a dirty dog and unhappiness compounded by a shelved career and an inability to identify or make my emotional needs known created an unsettled uneasy alliance with motherhood. I was doing all the right things: dressing my kids well, checking their homework, driving them to lessons and co-curriculars to develop any inkling of talent they exhibited. I thought I was a great mom. The same zealousness and energy I had applied in the courtroom I summonsed as a mother. Outdoing any expectation of the norm, I exceeded all expectations for outward signs of motherly success. My daughter was identified as intellectually gifted and was writing for the newspaper, my children all learned to read early, tied their shoes early, learned to ride bikes on their own early. They were clearly functioning at the top of the American family intellectual growth charts. They were in the 98th percentile for everything, everything but happiness. The notion that I could control anything was terminal. The idea that being constantly busy was healthy was decidedly stressful. In hindsight, it’s a wonder one or two of my kids didn’t develop a tick. But most of all I was unhappy and didn’t know why. And shatteringly, this was a topic that was taboo. No one talked about being an unhappy mother at playgroup, Shake, Romp and Roll or Pollywog swim classes. I would search other mothers’ faces for signs of discontent. Maybe there was a code I would see in their eyes. But there was no tribe of unhappy mothers who wanted to honestly explore the entangled feelings that motherhood brought on. Instead, they held Tupperware, Tastefully Simple and Silpada jewelry parties, exchanging recipes and trying to outdo one another with their entertaining prowess. I was disinterested, exhausted, resentful they could be content with such an insipid life and alone.
I can still recall hopping in the family van when their father came home and relief troops were in place to “go for a gallon of milk “– code for aimlessly driving around two counties to feel freedom, independence and gain a modicum of balance in my life for a few hours. My kids used to think I went to Vermont for the milk. But I would return to the trenches of motherhood after my several hour sojourn only slightly relieved. Like opening a shaken bottle of soda and slowly relieving the gaseous explosion, I knew each time I had released only the most explosive element and soon enough would reach that point again. I’d duck my head, hunker down and hide from what was dogging me – my unhappiness. Afraid of what I might find and what I might lose if I faced the truth of myself.
In recent years, as the physical aspects of parenting ebbed, I have begun to experience renewed waves of awakening. But this time the calls begged me not to run away but to delve deeper into myself and pursue my persistent questions about myself. In yoga, we say what you resist persists. “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” - Pema Chodron. The motherhood inquiry was not going away without deeper inquiry.
Interestingly, gracefully and delightedly, yoga has been a powerful tool for mining my depths. Exploring myself through yoga has resulted in a profound shift in my feelings about motherhood. My tension and ambivalence towards motherhood is resolving. Or more truthfully, it’s me that is resolving. I love the word “resolve” because it contains the word “Solve”. Trying to solve myself. World peace begins with inner peace. I was not quite sure world peace was a consequence of a more peaceful me, but I have seen powerful changes in my family as a result of my own peace. The notion that a child would fulfill something inside me like Baby Secret did has finally outlived its usefulness. And more importantly, the notion that outward signs of status, accomplishment and achievement as indicators of happiness and fulfillment have been foiled. As I suspected, real life parenting was bound to be more difficult once you add real children with real needs, real poop and real vomit. In hindsight, my less than skilful response to such challenging experiences as four children vomiting at the same time while running out of all the towels and sheets in the house are understandable.
Falling in balance postures and large distances looming between my nose and knees in forward bends have taught me to be compassionate with my limitations, accept the beauty of my imperfections and see myself shine even as I fall. Falling and realizing I was okay, still loved and still worthy of another try gave me courage. My determined resistance to handstands, headstands and crow was a metaphor for my life. I resisted instability at all costs, even if that meant missing out on the fun. So when my teacher asked, “ who is afraid of handstands?” my hand flew up. With his support and guidance I kicked up against the wall marking a seminal moment of growth, of stepping into unknown space. I could explore parts of myself that were taboo and survive. I did it. I was okay. But if I allowed fear, my arms collapsed. Yoga doesn’t care if you fall. It only cares if you get back up. Yoga doesn’t care if you succeed. It only cares that you try. And then try again. It isn’t about where you are in a posture but how aware you are in a posture. Awareness of myself had always scared me. I feared where it would take me and that my carefully constructed world and belongings would fall apart. It did. They did. And I am much happier living in the mess of my real self.
My relationship with myself is now premised on unconditional self-love. I no longer label or limit myself as inadequate or angry. I view my limitations as friends, teachers. I embrace them as loving guides. Observing my mind in postures I can finally see my mental patterns. Rather than sinking into loneliness or disappointment, I have become attuned to the physical feelings that accompany emotional judging and can observe when the critical feelings first rise in my body and mind. It is a relief to be able to identify those feelings at their outset and know I will no longer become their prisoner. I note the feeling. Identify it. When it is especially intense or painful I sit with it, breathe and breathe some more. When my heart rate slows, my shoulders drop and the tightness in my stomach relieves, and I feel some distance from the emotional rise, I am able to become curious about the feeling. Through this process, I have feelings but I am not the feeling. Resting in the space between the stimulus and my emotional reaction, I can inquire where the uncomfortableness is pointing me to look at myself. I don’t run away anymore, instead I curiously explore myself. And accept myself. Sometimes I don’t reach an answer, I just note the circumstance and feeling and return to it on another day, like finding a key that doesn’t fit a door that you put back in the drawer because you know one day you’ll find the door it fits. If the issue becomes apparent, then I release it. Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow.
Ending judgment of myself and practicing self compassion has freed me to more fully live my life. It has also emboldened me to give myself permission to explore happiness. Limitations of the mind can also take form as limitations on joy and happiness,. Consequently, I have begun to explore the dreams I packed away when my babies began arriving. It has been glorious, like rediscovering a treasure chest of myself. Ah, there you are Mary Beth! Buried for so long! Come on out! I don’t have to choose between roles anymore nor play a role.
With my yoga practice, I am gaining peace with my identity as woman, creator and mother. Giving myself permission to indulge all sides of myself simultaneously without judgment has been key. Feeling satisfied for the first time, I am able to wholly embrace the sublime pleasure of giving to my children, not out of duty or playing a role, but giving with pure love, no resentment or resistance. This is the beautiful juxtaposition of being an older mom with years of parenting still ahead of me, I get a do over. Each moment with my children is more poignant because of the shift in me and awareness of myself brought about by yoga.
In the context of mothering, this presence and openness has revealed itself in many ways.
I can love with abandon.
I relish the moment.
I attune to my children’s needs and intuitively sense the slightest problems.
I can simply be with them,
Hold space for them to unfold and
Be a container of love and security for them to experience all of their problems without feeling the need to resolve it for them.
I allow them to experience growth, challenge and pain and teach them to be curious about it.
The depth of my love for mothering has grown in step with the depth of my love for my children. My love for my children has flourished and my children have flourished in that new love and space. I no longer get annoyed I have to drive an hour to pick them up when I am tired. I look forward to time alone with them, and the opportunity to be a welcome respite from the stress of school. To simply be with them in whatever moment or mood they are in. I welcome and accept their anger, frustrations and limitations of their emotional responses and can hear their desire to grow as well as fear of being vulnerable. In many ways it is like I am mothering for the first time. And I love being a mom with all its challenges and limitations. When things go wrong , I release it – releasing the planned life I had for the life awaiting me. Before, my sacrifices were tinged with resentment, now they are expressions of love.
I often begin my practice by saying, “close your eyes and come home.” That home was previously clouded by fear of repeating maternal mistakes, lifestyle judgments and fear and resistance to being myself.
I am finally landing home. In my heart. In my children’s hearts. In love.