On the night after Mother’s Day, I tumbled into a pit full of grief and fear and recrimination. At midnight, all I could do was weep and get out of bed until I picked up Julie Canlis’ Theology of the Ordinary to switch the conversation in my head. Canlis says, “Without at theology that values slow growth over dramatic change and the ‘ordinary’ as essential to our spiritual maturity, we are in danger of living in a burned over district or burned over spirituality” (8). Her emphasis on not doing great things for God was deeply encouraging considering how plain and quiet my life has become.
At any rate I didn’t think Mother’s Day bothered me when I scrolled through everyone’s posts on Facebook stating how much they love their mothers–living or dead. I clicked “love” under the pictures of family gatherings and gifts. But I told Bruce I didn’t feel much for my mother, who departed this life forty years ago. He said he didn’t have much feeling for his parents either because they’ve been gone a long time.
Facebook reminded me that last year I posted how proud I was that she’d built the Helderberg Workshop, a summer school whose motto is “an adventure in learning.” It’s logo is a child in a tree with a book, an image I think I inspired by sitting in our apple trees to read my Bible. In essence my mother was a community organizer and poured hours and thought into the school until she needed to make money to pay for my brother’s and my educations.
I thought I’d made deep peace with her, roaring through dreams where I screamed I hate you at her set mouth early in my grief. I wrote pages and pages of memories. She became a main character in my novel The River Caught Sunlight. Much of that writing allowed me to come to terms with her. I felt her love through writing the stories, though if you read the pages, you wouldn’t think so. I’d arrived at a place where I was proud of her accomplishments. And I was deeply grateful both she and my father pushed me out of “the nest” when they could have called me home when she was dying of cancer. I can’t tell you what a deep act of sacrificial love that was. But I guess our relationship with our mothers is like diving into a pond where the top water is warm like bath water and the bottom is black and murky, the mud cold on the toes.
During the Integration healing Part 2 class, a classmate talked about how she reacted to a picture of a baby–angry words came up like spoiled, angry, petulant. But she also had another image of a little girl, whispering in her ear: I like that baby. A light went off in my insight. My own terror of pregnancy and babies popped up, the most vivid memory came when a horse trainer’s mother advised, “If you don’t want to have babies don’t have sex.” I leaned on a rake, the lines in the aisle straight. I’d was in grad school, starting to kiss men. Babies disgusted me–their squirming, their poop, their crying, my imagined lack of sleep.
My father didn’t help, saying I wouldn’t like changing diapers, doing laundry. He thought I should stay independent. (That memory is tied to our cresting the ill on 787, looking over the giant gas tanks bordering the Hudson in Albany. I was studying poetry. He was proud of how I’d gone off on my own adventures.
Labor and delivery terrified me. “You want to hold my baby?” people would ask. I’d shake my head no, afraid they would squirm out of my arms. A friend reassured me, “But it’s different with your own child.”
But I’m not sure it was different for my mother. My newborn picture showed me laid out on a hospital bed, my expression shell shocked, not unlike the scowl lines that drop from my lips today. When I thumbed through the family album with Bruce I felt the chill of loneliness. A therapist told me that such a primal urge as wanting to have children being broken was not good.
Post menopause, I have wept over not having children, but there is no way I could have raised one. Bruce’s mom would have been a hard grandmother. Even though our church said the way to make friends was to have children in school, and my close friends brought newborns to our lunches, it wasn’t enough to make me stop taking the pill. Neither Bruce nor I think I would have been able conceive naturally because I had endometriosis and never got pregnant from unprotected sex.
I see Bruce’s eyes light up when he looks at little ones. I catch my breath. We could have had children if he’d insisted.
So I ran this disgust through a paradox prayer, because it’s important to make peace with the children inside us, even if those feelings came from my mother. So I prayed, “Even though I am disgusted by my baby self I am loved and accepted by God. Even though I am disgusted by my baby self, I love and accept myself. Even though I am disgusted by my baby self I love and accept myself.” This prayer breaks up the shame and reminds us how deeply we are loved by God. A person can insert anything troubling. This prayer is so powerful I’m not ashamed to tell you this story.
The day after Mother’s Day I wept until 2 am–for all kinds of griefs–my horse who died a year ago, dogs, cats, my parents. I wept for this shame and for an outsized reaction to another shame. And through my tears I almost saw Jesus standing in our living room, a living bar of light, but I felt him inside and out, warm like the afghan wrapped around me.
During the last Integration Healing class we did an exercise where we imagined someone coming to our door that we were glad to see. The facilitator asked, “What does that feel like in your body?” Then we imagined someone we weren’t happy to see. And then we could imagine Jesus himself at the door. And we invited the person we weren’t happy to see inside. This time my mother walked through the door. She was thin and looked tired. And then Bruce’s mother walked in. I was glad to see them both because Bruce’s mom picked up where my mother left off, taking the role of a mother dealing with a child who was cutting the apron strings. When my mother died, I was just starting to become my own person. With many mothers and daughters, conflict brews when this happens. Bruce’s mom carried on with the job until we finally reconciled twenty years into our marriage, just before she died. So in the imagination or was it a vision, we sat down at my kitchen table and caught up on news. My mother was pleased I’d married Bruce. He was the exact man she’d hoped I’d find. (I remember what she said when I asked her who she hoped for me to spend my life with.) She was proud of me and meant it. I felt it. Bruce’s mother was impressed by the farm house clutter on the kitchen table. The two chatted. After we talked they looked young and beautiful. Then the exercise was over.
I bought myself a Mother’s Day gift, a glass globe I found on Etsy. It’s solid like a crystal ball but it has blue and white stalks like coral growing up from the ocean floor. It’s an icon for how I am made in God’s image, how the blue and white show God’s spirit and my spirit growing together. The blue makes me think of Mary’s color, the woman who bore God in her body.
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