Yesterday held some odd convergence of time for me. While I was enjoying every spectacular moment of the present day, the past sidled up next to me. I became the middle of the Oreo cookie, with today on one side and years of history on the other. Seventeen years ago, at this time of year, I was dizzied by the tectonic shifts I was making in my life. I left people I loved, a job I loved and a city I called home to move to the far end of a dead-end dirt road in the rural mountains of Colorado. What I hadn’t realized then was that I was moving into a rare, tight-knit community of amazing people all enjoying a small corner of paradise together. In the time I have been here, people have gotten married and divorced. Babies (lots of them) have been born and grown taller than their parents. People have moved in, moved away, been moved to change, or departed the planet entirely. Businesses have shuttered and new ones built. Jobs have changed. Fences have been built up by neighbors and torn down by herds of elk and blustery winters. Houses have burnt down, been built anew and aged with grace. And through it all we have played, worked, loved, and mourned together. Every day I am keenly aware of what an uncommon and exceptional community I am lucky enough to be part of, but yesterday each movement exclaimed to me really and truly what a strong “neighborhood” of people we are. And, in a way, how irrelevant past and present are in contrast to the convergence of it all. I did absolutely nothing out of the ordinary yesterday — just the same things I have been doing since I moved here, but each of them with a twist unique to the day and its place in time. I skied the same powdery, shimmery snow I have for years, but this time I got to do it with my son, me following the tree lines he plotted from the lift. The same bright, friendly smile of the woman who sold me a slice of her homemade pie my first night here 17 years ago shone on my son when she set him up with a hot chocolate after a cold morning on the ski hill. The same end-of-day shadows moved across our house in the same slow February light, even though the house and the number of creatures in it are different than 17 years ago. The same friends who came over for dinner last night were the same friends who came over 17 years ago, except this time they have kids old enough to drive and babysit and give us their perspective on things with which adults grapple. In the scheme of things these are all minute details that are easily missed, but to me they are strong reminders of how, even amidst seemingly tectonic shifts, so much of life stays the same. Some changes we want to hold on to and savor forever. Others feel like they will crash on our heads and drown us. But in the end, all change swirls around together in the sea of life, leaving us just as we were save for the new experience we get to put in our pockets as a reminder of the moment.
When I was six I befriended a homeless man. I met him on a park bench next to my house and thought he was the greatest person ever. I visited him often and tried to convince my father to let me take things to the man on the bench. Food, money, house plants, it didn’t matter; I just wanted to give. Now, you may be thinking Who lets their daughter be friends with a bum? I trust my father had good reasons, namely that it was a different day and kids had a lot more freedom to explore their world. Plus, as he tells me now, I always showed a keen interest in the homeless and the ultra-wealthy. Bums and limos were kinda my thing, I guess. As long as I was safe, who was he to corral me into a hermetic environment? My friend the homeless man was kind and patient. He let me prattle on about whatever spilled out of my mouth. In response to the many questions I asked him, he provided simple answers. Unfortunately for both of us, each answer only fed my curiosity more. In my little mind, I couldn’t figure out what it meant to not have a home, or how you could fit all your belongings in one small bag, or where you went to the bathroom, or where you slept, or how you ate, or who tucked you in at night, or when your home would come back to you. I even remember wondering if he ever left the bench. After sitting there all day, did he just lie down at night and then sit up in the morning? Where were all the people who loved him, I wondered? One day I finally asked him why he didn’t have a home and he rocked my world by telling me that at one point he had a house and a job and a family, but his house burned down and his family died. I really couldn’t wrap my head around that at all. When I told my father, he said “Yah, likely story.” But to this day I still believe the man and think about him often. I wish he were around today so I could ask him all the questions I never asked. I want to know what became of him. While there is one part of me that wonders why I was allowed to be friends with a bum, there is another, bigger part of me that is so thankful for all the freedom I had as a kid. Maybe I had an angel looking over me, or maybe the world was different then, but I came out unscathed after soaking up all the experiences and adventures that come along with independence. Well, not entirely. There were plenty of skinned knees from falling off my bike. But there were more treasures than skids, like when I pedaled three two-for-one coupons to three different Dairy Queens around town so I could eat a total of six ice creams in one afternoon. Or when I walked my friend home from school every day and fell down in puddles of laughter at each step. My own son is not interested in the kind of independence I had, nor am I interested in him having it. However, I do find myself encouraging him to do things he doesn’t want to do, like walk to his friend’s house alone or use the men’s bathroom at the grocery store. Maybe he is just smarter than me. Mountain lions live around here and he knows they could snag him. Creeps hang out in public bathrooms and he knows he could be prey. We aren’t overly cautious parents, but we talk to our son about things that weren’t discussed when I was a kid. In my day, people didn’t talk to kids about safe grownups or being the boss of one’s own body. I was taught to be strong, intuitive and independent, but I was pretty clueless to the fact that grownups could be bad to kids. I knew what a kidnapper was, but I envisioned such a person looking like a kidnapper. Perhaps I thought kidnappers would wear a sign identifying them as such. Now that I am a parent, I find myself struggling to find the balance between encouraging independence and self-sufficiency, and protecting and teaching. I want to be protective and extra safe, but what does my son lose in the process? He certainly won’t be friends with a homeless man anytime soon. At the same time, I would have missed out on a great gift had I not known the man on the bench. Linked to the parental drive to protect is prejudice. My father was leery about the man on the bench being anything more than a crazy person, but he never told me that. He kept an eye on things, but he never laid down a judgment or spoke badly of the man. If he had, what would it have done to my view of the world – to my acceptance of people who are different from me? I’m pretty sure my son will grow up being prejudice of people who smoke cigarettes or don’t wear helmets, but in my effort to protect him what other unintentional judgments do I impart on him?
Perhaps it’s just me and the books and articles I’ve been reading or my current role in our family, but it seems that questions of feminism are everywhere. The gist of what I keep hearing is this. First, women were oppressed by the trapping mentality that their roles as dutiful wives and perfect homemakers were equivalent to being righteous and acceptable women. If they worked or rocked the boat in some way, they were judged. Then, women found liberation and subsequently careers, activism, divorce, sexual freedom and self-actualization. Because of this, the notion and shape of families changed. Today, we are questioning what feminism means because women are in a double bind. Some say the idea that mothers can do it all (career, family, self- actualization) is in and of itself just a new type of trap for women. Working mothers everywhere are feeling worn thin by the demands of their hectic lives and feelings of guilt or inadequacy. After all, who the hell can simultaneously charge ahead in their rewarding career, be a perfectly involved mother, run a Martha-Stewart-like home, appear beautiful and fit, and still have time to please everyone else in their lives? No one can, but the construct – the unrealistic ideal held above women’s heads – still remains. The alternative, of course, is to go back to the 1950s and become a housewife. Well, not exactly, because a modern housewife is called a “stay-at-home mother” and she does things very differently than June Cleaver. Maybe this mother held on to a modicum of her former career through freelance work, or her activities through yoga and running. Unlike Betty Crocker, she is not looking for short cuts like cake in a box or TV dinners, but feeling ridiculous pressure to make her children everything fresh and by hand. All the while, an oh-you-don’t-work attitude slides down people’s noses onto her Lilliputian self-esteem. I once was a woman determined to never marry or have children because that would be like falling for a trap society set for me. I was going to be dependent on no one, fulfilled only by my career, friends, favorite pastimes and boyfriends, if I happened to be in the mood. I never labeled myself feminist; I just followed my strong, independent female role models. As it turned out, I chose a totally different path. I chose to marry, because I met a man who I wanted to spend my life with, not because that was what I was supposed to do. I chose to become a mother because I felt it would make me a whole person, and it was an experience I did not want to miss. I chose to be a stay at-home mother because I was raised by a hard-working single mother who had no time for frivolities, and I wanted to be the homemaking mother I dreamed of as a child: the mom in the 1970s Kool-Aid commercials. If you stir together the ideals of society, images of perfect mothers seen in the media, the judgment mothers heap upon other mothers, expectations we have of ourselves and then mix in a load of boiling reality, you get a coagulated mess. It can’t work. The only thing that can work to open this trap of judgment we set for ourselves is to believe in loving mothers — mothers who are doing the hard job, whether they straddle the worlds of career and family, or root themselves in the home. Isn’t women choosing their own life path the thing for which feminists fought so hard?
Before I became a mother, there were lots of things mothers were supposed to do and not do. Being a non-parent, of course I knew everything about how parenting was done. I had a long idealistic list of I-will-always-do-this and an even longer, more self-righteous list of I-will-never-do-that. Case closed. I can go home now knowing that I have set the world straight. But then I became a mom and the lists were either dissolved with spit up or digested by my baby because I was never able to find them again. You know, just for reference. Now I slink back into the reaches of my memory, like a dog who’s been caught eating the trash, and try to recreate the items on these terrible lists. My child will never watch TV or videos. Instead, we will read or do crafts. Ha! That was before I was with my child 24/7 and a 10-minute break became a life saver. Better a video viewing than a mommy who loses her shit, right? I will never stoop to all that kid food crap, like boxed mac and cheese and hot dogs. What was I thinking? That I should just starve my child? For a story about me trying to feed by 9-month old liver, click here. My child will be kind and respectful because that is how he will be treated. Obviously, I had not factored in my short patience or our family’s bodily functions. Or that kids are just kids and part of figuring out how to be good is being rotten some of the time, or even a lot of the time. I will allow my child to learn from exploration. I won’t be so uptight as to cut them off from the delights of the world. While I have done this in large part, a girl can only take so much. I have had to draw the line and say things I never imagined humans could say to one another, like “Please take your finger out of your butt and go wash your hands,” or “It is not okay to rub your body against mommy’s leg like that.” If I have a boy, I will send a good man out into the world. Although I still wish for this with all my might (and think we will succeed), I realize now that I really don’t have control over the situation. I can do my best to teach him, but in the end I do not make this person who I call my child. He came into the world the person he is, and I am just here to feed him hot dogs and tell him not to hump my leg. The lists were so much longer, but in the process of basking in the sunshine of being mommy and digging out through the volcanic ash of motherhood, I seem to have forgotten all the points. Thank God. Now I can just get on with the task at hand; loving the being I am here to love.
If you were to look at me, you would notice that nothing about me says mother. You may notice that I am sitting in the neonatal ICU with a four-and-a-half pound baby in my arms, but my stomach is flat, I am not leaking milk and my nether regions are just fine, thank you. I have a dazed look of confusion on my face, complemented by a worried brow. I look more like a lost deer peering into oncoming headlights than a surefooted mother, led by instinct and bonding. The day before, my husband and I had gotten the call. “Your baby’s been born, come to the hospital to meet him!” Welcome to motherhood. No pregnancy hormones. No ten months to slowly easy into the idea of what it means to be a mommy to the being growing inside of me. Just one phone call and, BOOM, suddenly a mother. Walking into the hospital to meet our son, I felt like an imposter – a poser. During the time we had been in the process of adoption, I had images in my mind of what it would be like to lovingly hold our new baby for the first time and who I would be as a mother. But the clinical setting and ill smell of the hospital swirled these images away like leaves in the wind and left just the clear skies of fear and cluelessness. Does the world really think I am fit to do this? I don’t even know how to take care of a baby! I never even babysat as a kid. All the beeping machines and flashing contraptions in the neonatal ICU yelled their answer to my question and secured confirmation of my fears. No, I am not fit to do this. The family to one side of us was stumbling through the challenges of nursing. The family to the other side of us was about to go home with their twins, who had been hospital residents for the three months prior. I hardly knew how to hold a baby. How could I compete with this level of medical care? I was soon to find out. With our discharge papers in hand, we traded the chaos and noise of the hospital for that of the freeway and the long drive home – a drive we had done several times a day in order to make it to the hospital in time for feedings; the only time we could hold our baby. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the very wrong idea of putting a very tiny, helpless being into a flimsy car seat and careening down roads littered with terrible drivers. It did not seem right. Nothing seemed right. But then we got home, and everything changed. The three of us sat in the window seat of our living room, a beautiful vantage point from which all important things in our lives happen, and together we let out a collective sigh of relief. With this breath, we became a family. Gone was the alien atmosphere of the hospital. Gone were the beeping lights of life-support machines. Gone was the lack of an intimate setting for the most intimate actions. Gone were the fears, stress, insecurity and worry I had felt at the hospital. Gone were the questions I had about myself as a mother. All that was left was an innate knowing that I was finally a mother to the soft and precious being I held to my chest. Sitting in the comfortable peace of our home, looking out a picture window at the swaying trees of a waning summer, I felt an immediate infusion of maternal instinct and the blossoming of a love beyond my wildest dreams. And, it wasn’t just me. This change was palpable for all of us. We saw the expression on our newborn’s face change to one of relaxation and ease. It was as if upon entering the threshold of our home, we entered a magical world that formed us into the soft creature of a family we are today. Once we entered this magical world, we never looked back. Now, when my son and I pick berries or dig for dinosaur eggs in the backyard, that hospital stay is ancient history – one of the many things that went into making me the mother I am and our son the person he is. In fact, I often forget that our son did not come from my own flesh. I have to think through a few extra steps at the doctor’s office when answering family history questions. But I am also the first one to pipe up with the suggestion of adoption when any willing ear is nearby talking about starting a family. So today, if you were to look at me, everything about me would say mother, especially if you were looking at my heart.