The Tender Place of Motherhood

As an expectant mother nearly 30 years ago, I could never have anticipated what would unfold over the next three decades. Never – absolutley never. I listened carefully even to unsolicited advice. I read manuals on caring for babies. And I observed with the keen eye of a social scientist how mothers interacted with their children – nurtured them – comforted them – redirected them – developed independence in them – loved them. No matter how many resources I had available to me, I knew I could not prepare for every scenario.

The best decision I made, however, occurred during a high school volleyball game. Carrying my bag of popcorn, I settled next to a woman for whom I had great respect. Jane, with her her husband, Marv, was raising seven children of her own while running a home daycare – a daycare many of my students had attended and on which they reflected with nostalgia and love; their experiences intrigued me. I had the privilege, in fact, of having had 5 of her children in my English classes, and valued their work ethic, their reflective and compassionate and respectful dispositions, and their intense love of their family.

As Jane and I watched her daughter take the volleyball court, our conversation turned to motherhood and her philosophy of raising children. She observed that nurturing children required intense love, consistent and high expectations, and immense amounts of grace both for the children and for the parent. With a subtle smile, Jane reflected on her expectations of her children, requiring them to participate in the running of the home through chores as well as teaching them the importance of studying – not just completing homework. In the end, she said, “Heather, you can never love your children too much. It will be okay.”

Since that moment in the fall of 1992, I have had the privilege of watching two vulnerable infants unfold into independent, strong-willed, passionate, and compassionate adults. Two humans for whom I would do anything.

I have messed up a million times – yelling when I should have taken a deep breath – filling their schedules too full when I should have told them to simply rest or go outside to play – asking them to be strong when I should have held them while they cried. In those moments, especially in the most heated ones when the stubborn sides of our personalities locked horns, I have learned the art of grace – both in the asking for and in the giving. Again, despite having access to resources and excellent mentors, much of parenting occured in the moment. Always, however, my love for them was unwaivering. In fact, with time, it has only deepened.

Through every step of motherhood, I gained an important life lesson – perhaps the most important of them all. I learned to savor both the bitter and the sweet. For example, there is angst watching a child’s heart break, but knowing they will emerge stronger and more intent on the characterstics they need in a life partner. And the journey is filled with a plethora of these tender, bittersweet moments. As I watched my children drive off for the first few times in their own cars, I experienced elation at their new found independence and fear of realizing they no longer fully needed me. And I celebrated — yet wanted to hang on tighter– as my adult children began their lives after college with new jobs and the purchase of their own homes, trying to walk beside them for as long as I could, but falling farther behind as their strides widened.

Unfortunately, nothing can really prepare a parent for what unfolds. And even in that, bittersweetness resides. Every new human enters the world uniquely themselves – without a manual or even a cheat sheet. The ones in whose charge they are left must figure out what is best in the moment – often without all of the information and certainly without the required resources. In best case scenarios, deep roots develop and parent-child relationships develop and deepen over time. Nothing, however, is guaranteed.

Most recently, my journey as a mother took a path I could never have imagined as I carried my children to term. Just a few days before Christmas this past year, I sat for hours beside both of my children in a dimly lit room we had transformed into Elizabeth’s room. I watched my son – my youngest- rub his sister’s leg, whisper to her, and cry as Elizabeth succumbed to the grip of brain cancer. And while I sat in the room next to the two humans I love more than anything, I felt separate from my physcial body.

So this is what motherhood is, I remember thinking. It is the space where one can simultaneously hold the bitter moments of death and the sweetness of having loved two humans more than life itself.

While my heart aches at the loss of my daughter, it breaks even more when I think about my son experiencing death at such a young age – realizing he has lost his only sibling. And yet, even in these moments of anguish, I continue to experience thanksgiving in having rasied two children who love and respect each other – of having mothered a brave woman like Elizabeth even if it was for too short of a time.

No other life experience has fully captures the flavor of bittersweetness quite like watching my children sit together in death – one trying to hold onto his sister, and the other letting go. This specific moment offers me the intense reality that this is motherhood – parenthood – and I am doing the best I can. In the end, Jane was right. My work as a mother is important. I had nurtured these two individuals into adulthood, and even if the story isn’t written the way I had imagined it should be, it is my story. And everything is okay.

I’m joining an open community of writersover at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Be the YELLOW

“Be someone’s Yellow Joy”

Several years ago, I ran across an early childhood teacher’s personal social movement to spread kindness, a tribute to his colleague Honor who lost her battle with cancer. While I didn’t know Honor, her story resonnated with me. Even though she faced her own mortality, she leaned into the experience and continued to speak her truth. Her colleague reflected on the larger than life, happy woman who taught the youngest of children. Honor always wore yellow and her classroom was filled with yellow. She taught her kindergarteners to spread kindness – to be someone’s yellow.

Since then, I have used her story, my own story, the story of my daughter to remind others to pay it forward – to brighten someone’s day – to fill the world with kindness and love. It’s why I leave cookies and notes on people’s desks or in their mailboxes. It’s why I have coffee or lunch with students who need someone to listen. It’s why, in the pre-pandemic days, students would stop by my office, sometimes just to sit on my floor to do homework. It’s why I show up in the middle of the night if someone needs me.

Spreading kindness, I guess, really is my WHY. Leaving the world a better place by caring for others gives my life purpose, and for this Sagittarus, having a purpose in life is incredibly important.

On occasion, I have been the benefactor of being someone’s yellow: when a dear friend from the Progressive Education Network lost his battle with stage 4 lung cancer, two of the young women I mentored on the Manchester University softball team delivered a huge bouqet of yellow daisies (my very favorite flower); when my daughter Elizabeth’s diagnosis of brain cancer rocked my world, several of my former students, now mothers themselves, sent me a box filled with yellow gifts; and the day after my daughter died, which happened to be her 29th birthday, another former softball player delivered a huge yellow gift bag filled with, you guessed it, everything yellow she could find.

Being someone’s yellow matters. It doesn’t make the difficult situation or heartache disappear, but it offers hope. It reminds the receiver of humanity – of connection – of the reality that someone cares – that they are not alone. Even random acts of yellow are not lost; the unsuspecting stranger feels a rush of warmth and cannot help but smile. Yellow holds great importance – it brings sunshine into the world and brightens the space.

A week after my daughter died, one of the Manchester University women’s basketball players texted me, “Come outside. We have your yellow.” Honestly, seeing a group of cheerful young women and faking happiness for whatever they were about to give me required a strength I didn’t know existed. Before they arrived, I had been lying on the couch devastated by my loss, wishing the floor would open and swallow me in entirety. However, my desire to please and not disappoint pulled me off the couch, and I found myself slipping on my shoes and walking outside into the dark winter evening.

What I didn’t anticipate, though, was the incredibly sweet, fluffy ball of a golden retriever with which they were about to surprise me. As one of the players said, “Dr. Coach, we brought you your own yellow,” or something like that, a player stepped forward with a nine-week-old puppy stuffed inside her team jacket. After a few seconds of processing the situation, I took the puppy into my arms, and she felt at home. It is the first, most tangible moment of understanding how a grieving parent can hold immense saddness and complete joy in the same tender space – a lesson I have experienced several times since that moment.

Her name is Yellow Joy, and the months that have unfolded since that sad-happy day have been filled with potty training and behavior management of a puppy – although most days feel more like management of the human in a house with three large dogs. At first, I couldn’t fathom caring for myself let alone a vulnerable puppy, and I doubted whether I could actually do it. I quickly learned, though, the power of distraction and the cure for a fractured heart in puppy snuggles and sloppy kissses. And I been surprised at the sound of my own belly laugh as Yellow charged out of the bathroom – ears flopping – eyes wild – rolling across the floor as the towel she was dragging behind her tripped her up.

I wouldn’t trade this surpise gift for anything – she represents love – she embodies connection – she fills the house with silliness and curiosity – she truly is my YELLOW. And she serves as a reminder that acts of kindness – no matter how big or how small – really do make the world a better place.

#MakeRoomForJoy

Visit Make Someone’s Day Yellow by clicking on the picture

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #SOSMagic

Sorting It All Out

My last blog post occured three months ago. The irony of the last entry’s boastful title “I am a Writer” clasps its searing claws around my throat. What does my silence say about me? After all, I AM a writer. And yet, I have not written. Open up my journal; it screams inactivity. My writing is mine – it isn’t an assignment with a looming deadline. Why, then, do I feel guilty about not sharing my thoughts with the few people who read my blog? The shame comes from not following through on a promise I made to myself: to write – to create a gameplan for life – to share my resiliency in an unfair universe – to teach how to seek joy even amidst chaos.

For the last few months, instead of turning to the laptop or pen to sort through my emotions, I have kept them in my head, processing during my long daily walks or my frequent baking episodes. Along the way, I have listened to a gazillion podcasts, mostly Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” and Ferne Cotton’s “Happy Place” – seeking connections with others who often feel like my best friends – women who approach sifting through life with passion and curiosity – always working to be a better version of themselves.

2020 has definitely posed challenges, and yet, it has not been the worst year of my life. The silver linings are too great; they outweigh the challenges of the pandemic. The ability to work from home as well as the scheduled fall sabbatical have offered me the gift of time, especially time with my daughter fighting stage four brain cancer. I have had time to walk 4-5 miles a day, seeking the lessons the universe wants me to learn.

Sometimes, the days feel heavy – too complicated with obstacles. I cannot just pop into the retirement home less than a mile from my home to visit my dad. I cannot slip to Indianapolis to have dinner with my son and his girlfriend, and I certainly cannot drive to Ohio to spend the day with my daughter and her fiance. And yet, as I have folded into my thoughts and my heart, I have learned so much about who I am – what I want – where I am headed.

And so, if it took a hiatus from writing – from being extremely social – from a life that used to feel normal – to discover these important parts of myself, then I won’t trade it. I’m still sorting through emotions, especially the fear of what awaits. And yet, I am more sure than I ever have been that I can handle whatever the universe throws at me, especially if I stay in the moment and realize that I have made it through difficult times before.

The greatest gift of the last few months has been the recognition that I cannot truly appreciate and find joy in the small moments of life if I do not expereince the pain and sadness of life. Yes, I am a writer, but sometimes, writers need to take a deep breath, observe and experience life in order to take up their pen again.

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic
Share this:

We Belong Here

“Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to the world.” The wisdom of Joanna Macy, a woman who has lived a lifetime of applying her religious scholarship to six decades of activisim, speaks to my heart – to the spiritual connection I feel with the universe. She doesn’t just whisper her message. Instead, she claims it boldly. Active Hope is waking up. It requires an action – a realization – a call. It demands I listen. My ears, my heart, my soul are hungry for her wisdom.

Because of Active Hope, the vocation of teaching chose me. Because of Active Hope, I build deep freindships with others who also often want to change the world or at least seek to be the best versions of themselves. Because of Active Hope, I mentor young adults outside the classroom. Because of Active Hope, I actively participate in my communities at the local, state, and national levels. Because of Active Hope, I have am deeply connected to and incredibly proud of my adult children.

I AM awake to the beauty of life.

At face value, my interactions with others may seem selfless. I am loyal, and I will do anything to ensure another’s safety, sense of self, and growth. I almost always put my needs aside for another’s. Yet, if one listens carefully, I admit the benefits I receive from these relationships. I often respond to gratitude, “It’s a win-win.” Yes, my familial roots urge me to remain humble, and yet, the “win-win” statement captures the balance received from this Active Hope.

As I lose myself in the service, in acting on behalf of others, life really becomes more beautiful – more joyful. Even amidst the most difficult times of life – the ending of a marriage, the cognitive and physical decline of an aging parent, the magnitutde of the cancer my oldest child battles – Active Hope empowers me with a spiritual understanding. It gently unveils a picture so much larger than myself. In that masterpiece, Active Hope offers me joy in the connections I have with humanity, and ultimately the universe. It reminds me that I belong. It reminds me that we belong to one another.

#MakeRoomForJoy

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic