My One and Enough

I’m taking a step back today. I’m thinking to myself, How did I end up here, where I am, where I am content, though everything is so different than I thought it would be? I’m especially thinking, How is it that I have become the happy mother of an only child? I never thought that’s who I would be.

I grew up the youngest of three children, and I’d always imagined that when I was a mother, I’d have three or four kids myself. I had no firm reason for thinking having just one child was wrong, but I had a vague sense that it was selfish, that the child would suffer for being alone, that she would be maladjusted, bratty, and self-centered. Many of my childhood friends were only children, and they were lovely, kind friends, but still I held tightly to these underdeveloped judgments of only children.

Judgment. I so easily put on judgment of anyone who makes different choices than I do. But becoming a mother—one so completely different than the mother I thought I would be—has taught me to beat down judgment at every corner. Having struggled deeply with aspects of motherhood that I thought would be easy, even enjoyable, I hold firm to the belief that I cannot judge other human beings for their choices, no matter how wrong or crazy they look to me. When I realize that I’m not the person I expected I was, I have to readjust my view of myself and find new grace for the person I am. And so I choose to do the same for others who have made different choices than I have.

What happened that was life-changing enough for me to reconsider such a long-held negativity toward only children? I must honestly say it wasn’t one thing. It was a million things; it was discovering every day that mothering was so not what I thought it was. It was falling completely in love with my daughter and realizing that our family felt 100% complete as a family of three. Zach and I stumbled our way through a traumatic birth experience, the nightmarish first eight weeks with a newborn, and a painful and miserable 14 months of breastfeeding. In some ways, parenting has gotten easier, but it still challenges us every day—with our one and only girl.

We are so happy to have her in our lives, and she is enough for us. Enough joy and enough pain. Enough struggle and enough laughter. One birth is enough; one first smile is enough; one potty training is enough. I firmly believe that one first day of school, one first lost tooth, and one first love will also be enough! We are filled to overflowing with our one child.

It has taken time to dismantle the negative feelings and stereotypes I had for only children and their parents. At first, I worried that my choice to have an only child meant something was wrong with me. But ultimately, it’s given me a new respect for all families—those with no children at all, those with one parent or one child, those with five or six or more kids, and on and on…families are infinitely varied, and that’s the very thing that makes them so beautiful and so precious.

A Woman, her Bible, and the Church of the Male God

“Whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

Recently, I took a little time away from the Bible. It seemed every time I read it, I found not love but judgment, not freedom but bondage to a God who favors men. I would read the Bible and hear the voices of men only, the history of a patriarchy that excluded me as an equal partner in life and spiritual wisdom. But now I have begun to read the Bible again, and what has brought me back is a new translation—new to me at any rate. I have been reading The Inclusive Bible, a translation by Priests for Equality, a program of the Quixote Center. This translation speaks directly into the feminine wounds I harbor—feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, a sense that I am less valued and less wise and less worthy simply because I am female. The Bible I had been reading (translations like NIV, RSV, and The Message) added salt to my wounds by ignoring the feminine in God, glorifying the male by speaking of God always as He, and using words like man and mankind to supposedly refer to all people (which, if it doesn’t exclude women—though I think it does—at the very least makes women feel swallowed up in words that turn first and always to the masculine). There are few Christians who would claim God is male, but, as Sue Monk Kidd put it, “How many times had I heard someone say ‘God is not male, He is spirit’?”

I read this in the preface to The Inclusive Bible:
“‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,’ says the old proverb. We now know that this is a lie. Words can wound, alienate, and degrade people. Language can also affirm and express love. Care for language is a show of concern for people and a revelation of the attitudes of the speaker…. Church language is predominantly masculine. Male terms, images, and stereotypes, so-called sexist language, dominate church expression. Such usage is no longer adequate. It is time to build gender equality into the very fabric of the church life. The effort to build new gender-balanced ways of speaking helps to educate us toward greater equality for women and men.”

In these translators, I found a group of Christ-followers who had seen my hurt, the hurt of women as a group, and they had responded with many years of hard work and dedication to the God we believe in—a God of love for all people, a God who created all humans, male and female, to be like God. The translators created a Bible that spoke to me, a woman, rather than excluding me from its every page through a constant barrage of male-centric vernacular.

One of the most beautiful moments for me when I started reading The Inclusive Bible was when I came upon this passage from Genesis 17: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHWH appeared and said, ‘I am the Breasted One. Walk in my presence and be blameless. I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.'” I thought, The Breasted One?? What a crazy way to translate one of the names of God! But I love it! I totally get it, and in this context, it is a perfect picture of what God is to us—One who nourishes, One who brings new life! For those of you who are as startled as I was by this translation, there was an interesting footnote about how this is one possible meaning of El Shaddai, based on the Hebrew word shad or “breast.” But I’m not going to try to convince you if this turns you off. For me, it was a wonderful, perfect, life-giving translation. It announced, “God is not only Father; God is Mother, too!” And as a mother myself who went through the hills and valleys of breastfeeding, I was moved greatly by a God who would claim the image of a breastfeeding mother as a picture of the divine.

Some days, I wake up and say to myself, How did I get here? How did I arrive in this day with convictions so vastly different than those I held a few years ago? I turn to Jesus walking beside me and say, How is it you seem so different to me today than you did yesterday, and yet I still know you to be Truth, Love, Grace? And then I think about Christian Wiman’s words—”even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change”—and I am comforted that God is big enough to hold my past and my future, that the Truth is strong enough to be present in how I used to see God and how God comes to me now in fresh language, out of patriarchy and into feminism.

Wandering through Summer and My Soul

This summer has been cold. And already it is August. I’m sad to see the ragweed in bloom, to think of a waning harvest at the garden, the planting of fall beets and cauliflower. Even though summer is my least favorite season, I cherish the temporary cessation of other responsibilities. But, as always, summer passes with as much bustle as any other time of year, with trips and projects that have been put off until this “less busy” season.

Summer also usually brings a slowing down of my productivity in reading and writing, in mining beauty from within myself. Instead, it’s a time of gathering from the outside: camping, swimming, traveling, experiencing. This summer, however, I feel that I’ve also been able to continue to look inward, even as I experience more of the outward.

I have started reading The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd and, as always, I have found in her work such a resonance with my own thoughts, discoveries, and struggles. She writes:

Somewhere along the course of a woman’s life, usually when she has lived just long enough to see through some of the cherished notions of femininity that culture holds out to her, when she finally lets herself feel the limits and injustices of the female life and admits how her own faith tradition has contributed to that, when she at last stumbles in the dark hole made by the absence of a Divine Feminine presence, then…this woman will become pregnant with herself, with the symbolic female-child who will, if given the chance, grow up to reinvent the woman’s life.

I find Kidd’s birth imagery a little distracting and ironic because it was the process of giving birth and the months of breastfeeding which followed that woke me up to the “limits and injustices of the female life.” I became ripe for change in the pain, the loneliness, the dark of a motherhood void of the Feminine Divine. I am ready for the journey Kidd describes. I have, in fact, been on this journey now for nearly two years—discovering God as Mother, discovering feminine strength—though this is the first time I’ve recognized the connection between what I’ve experienced and the drive I feel to become a stronger, more true, more uninhibited version of myself as a woman. 

And I am happy to experience the winding journey of summer alongside the winding journey within myself, leading me onward towards discovering and redefining myself as the days grow shorter and the leaves begin to dream of the first blush of autumn.

Green Hills and Desert Valleys

For much of my life I thought myself unhappy. I thought that I’d be happy once the “next thing” happened. I tried to fight this feeling, made the tagline of my life, “Endeavoring to live in ‘now,’ not in ‘soon.'” I struggled greatly against pressing ever forward to some future place where I’d finally feel fulfilled.

This has changed in the last two years. Before Ramona was born, I believed having children would be the thing that finally completed my happy scene. It was the “next thing.” After she was born, I was, for the first time I think, legitimately unhappy. Not depressed, just miserable. I found myself finally and unavoidably confronted with my great depravity, with my insatiable desire for ever-greener pastures.

Here I was, living a dream of mine, and I was full of bitterness: giving birth had been a waking nightmare, breastfeeding was painful and stressful, and the always, always-present demands from Ramona became infinitely taxing. I had crossed over the green hill and found myself in a vast desert valley. And it was here, in this desert, that I gave up on looking forward to better days. I realized that the future holds no unbreakable promise of greater happiness—it may in fact hold greater pain. It’s a thing I always knew in my head was possible but never believed in my heart would come to pass.

As day by day I began to fall in love with Ramona (the nature of her birth did not allow for that instant connection some mothers experience after giving birth), I also experienced sorrow upon sorrow. When Ramona was a week old, there was a death in the family. Around that time breastfeeding took an awful dive and we resorted to pumping and dropper feeding. I became very nervous about Ramona’s feedings, and when she had a nursing strike a few months later, I began a hard journey through delayed letdown issues that never really resolved for as long as I was nursing her. I felt lonely and isolated from other mothers; I had a hard time figuring out how to balance mothering with my own personal needs. I wrote a whole series of heart-sore poems like this:

Eve, Fallen
Somehow—between baby showers and birthing class—
I missed that when this bewildered sea creature
wails her awakening to the world,
she will demand my breast at each hour,
creasing and blistering until, in infant’s Eucharist
she drinks blood from my nipple:
drains milk and life from me
so I shiver and fold like a dry leaf.
My eyes hollow, even my heart
hollows as I kindle
this tiny flame that was lit from the ashes
of my body. She nestles clenched, anxious,
lost in this cold world;
I am all pain and weariness. But I am also
mother, feral instinct,
fierce protector.
I pull her toward my warmth; whisper,
This is the good place. I’ll hold you tight ‘til it’s better.

But as all this was unfolding, I was also learning finally how to live in the now, how to be thankful for the beauty still present in my life, for the simple things: a glass of cool water; clean, folded diapers; a ray of light piercing through the living room curtains; blue snow glimpsed out the window during a late-night nursing session. I thought to myself, Perhaps things will get better. But maybe they won’t. I’d be a fool to not search for light and loveliness in my life right now.

And so I found the grace in all that pain. In many ways, my life is easier now. But the lesson has stayed with me: revel in whatever beauty is in this one day, this one moment, even if the big things are all going wrong, even if I’m crying in pain or screaming in frustration. Acknowledge the beauty; it’s there—and it is the only guaranteed good because tomorrow might be greener, or it might be a vaster desert.

If I can let the light in on the dark days, I will be all the more able to bask in the light of the best and brightest days.

I have let go of wistful dreaming for the future. I realize sorrow is probably lurking somewhere in my future, sorrow that may match that of the past. But I don’t dwell on that either. Instead I take the gift of today and do my best to be ever thankful.

What I’m Thankful For

Last year at this time, my two-month-old baby girl was going through her “lean phase.” She was not nursing well, not gaining enough weight, and I was a wreck. This was just previous to her nursing strike that led to a long, anxiety-ridden battle with delayed letdown.

Can I just say, I’m thankful that it is this year and not last year? That I’m over all the crazy first-year, breast-related struggles of parenting? That my daughter can and does happily eat all sorts of “real” foods?

As one who battled through breastfeeding, who cried and fought and bled, who never got to a point where it was “nice” or even to a point where it didn’t hurt, I have come to embrace the fact that how good of a mother you are has nothing to do with your breasts or your decision of whether or not to feed your baby with them.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my short/unending one year of motherhood is that I could never, never judge another mother for her parenting choices. We have all struggled through private battles, and we each of us must make our own choices.

With love, to all you mothers out there. Happy Thanksgiving.

Re-creation


Mother, your limbs were strong and green

                         when I was wet and alien,
                                   small and clenched,
and you held me as I lengthened,
first steps… first grade… my first job…
as I left in summer
for lakes,
for leeway:
your hands on my shoulders, your breath in my hair
over college loans and classes,
same as now,
                        how you stand behind me,
                                arms aloft in blessing
                                while my arms warm
                     another tight    green    bud,
                                          another breath
growing strong upon ancestral rings.

Alive, Afire

Today the air has achieved the coolness of early fall, glassy and fresh without the sharpness of truly cold weather. I remember last year at this time, making trips to Happy Bambino for the Nursing Mamas Resource Station, shuffling along in a daze, in post-operative pain. I remember stepping into the glorious golden light of autumn—maple leaves and ash leaves afire with the season. To breath the air, to become again one of the living, surfacing for a moment from my walking-dead newborn-in-tow state….

How thankful I am for the strength I have gained since last fall, for the beauty bestowed upon my life through my joyful daughter. I remember the pain of those early days, yes, but also I remember that time with fearful gratitude, as one of the difficult gifts that burns us closer toward our true self. In its intensity as a struggle unlike anything else I have experienced or could even fathom, it feels hallowed, sacred.

And as my little girl starts to take her first steps, to become a toddler already!, I cannot help but remember this year of growth (for both my daughter and me) with all my love and all my thanks.