Treasure every moment, dear.” As a mother of young children, I have heard these words of wisdom a thousand times. But that is not the advice I am passing on to my sister, a new mother.
Many of the moments of motherhood are hard to survive, let alone treasure—like the moments of sleep deprivation and colic. There is no real way to prepare for being stripped of your confidence, having your will broken and rebuilding your sense of self with a new vision of what matters and just who God might be. To receive the fullness of what motherhood has to offer, a woman can be present to each day only as it comes. The self-transformation that occurs as a result is significant, if fleeting.
Before having children myself, I entered into a year of full-time study of theology to complete a master’s degree, leaving my high school campus ministry job to do so. I loved my work leading students on retreats, service projects and in prayer and worship. My life framework consisted of the best of incarnational, sacramental Catholic theology mixed with the bliss of being young and healthy with a full social life. That year of full-time theological study opened a door into feminist thought and the imperfection of the church I loved, a door I would need desperately when I became a mother, as it would give me permission to alter my worldview.
When my husband and I had our first child, everything changed. I had no job and had finished school. The pace of my days slowed so much that it seemed as if I had gotten off the ride of life altogether. The new life in our midst had shifted my sense of self and the world.
Upon seeing my son for the first time, I was completely overcome with love and astounded at the miracle of life. I quickly became a mystified prisoner of his every sound and movement. Breast-feeding presented personal challenges that trumped the complexities of work projects or comprehensive exams. My son would eagerly bump his head against my chest (or neck or shoulder, depending on his position when hunger struck), turn his face from side to side searching for the smell of milk and desperately shove his little fists into his open mouth, mistaking them for a more nourishing body part of his mother. This little fury of food-seeking behavior became frustrating for both of us. He started to cry if milk didn’t hit his palate within seconds, and I could not coordinate removing my clothing-obstacles, positioning him in a “football hold” and holding back his interfering clenched fists fast enough while preparing him for a proper “latch.”
My life as I knew it had been ripped from me, and I was frantically trying to respond to the new king of my days and nights and his every need. The subject of my thoughts and actions was something about which I knew next to nothing. I searched deep within myself for answers about whether to breast-feed for six months or one year, whether I should let him “cry it out” at night or continue to soothe him, whether to feed on demand or at scheduled times. Also to be decided at some point was whether to have day care at home or at a center. I learned that my dependence on experts and books, which had served me well as a student, combined with my obedient trust in the church’s wisdom, left me with zero confidence in my inner compass.
As this breakdown in my frames of reference occurred, I filled my time gazing at my son, singing to him and relishing the feel of his warm little body curled up in my arms. I discovered that so many values I had held made no difference in a day filled with routine, manual labor, physical love and a developing human being.
The almighty God I had worshipped, studied and served bore no resemblance to the little person I was enraptured by, nor to the women I admired for their grace-filled patience and wisdom as mothers. Unconditional truth, certainty, institutions and hierarchies of power—these were irrelevant to the daily work of mothering. Rather, in birthing, nursing, weeping, toiling, rejoicing, marveling and mourning, the face of God was being revealed to me in ways I had never known.
Without knowing it, I began to practice detachment, belly breathing and mindfulness, all due to the rhythm of caring for my child. I stayed in the present nearly constantly. I more often paused before reacting and gradually became gentle in my response to loud noises and chaos. I joyfully received love in the form of a grasping hand and an open-mouthed kiss on the cheek. My goal was front and center, and I was grounded in it: caring for and loving the person of God in my midst—a little child.
As I welcomed the slowness, time seemed to almost stop. I discovered what a day without a plan felt like: it stretches for an eternity! Like my child, I was completely in the moment. Living this way day after day tore away my need for lists, accomplishments and the ability to quickly summarize any news. I had little activity to report. I was practicing—and becoming an expert in—the art of the pause. As my patience was tested over and over, I learned to do small things with great love—prepare beds, feed meals, clean bodies, teach facial meanings, sing and touch with tenderness. I felt more alive, needed, fulfilled and beloved than ever before. Being a mother full time shaped me into a new person. The shift in focus from me to another human life, one that demanded my full attention at every turn, changed who I am at my very core.
As a result, once my children grew a little older, I could not easily return to my former life of structure and control. I had found God outside my once-beloved church. Now I wanted to write, make decisions slowly, practice yoga, learn meditative sitting, talk and listen for hours, be outside daily and feel there was enough time for everything.
Unfortunately, the world had not changed along with me. I limp along with a cobbled-together existence of semi-satisfying work, yoga squeezed in once a week and glimpses of once well-known serenity; and I alternate between sitting calmly with my children observing their growth and yelling at them to “hurry up!”
My boys are both in school full time, and I feel their loss as one would a phantom limb. From time to time, I remember the curve of their tiny bodies against mine and how my whole day revolved around them. The challenge of being open to God’s movement in small, slow ways eludes me. I am at risk of losing much of what I found as a new mother. I rush around on errands; I lose myself in tasks. And part of me welcomes this dizzying pace, sadly. It returns me to the “normal” world, to the company of adults around me, valuing success, achievement and efficiency. But, oh, what I have lost!
My only hope seems to lie in my new little niece and visits with her and my sister. When spending time with them, I have to slow down. My sister shares with me the tiny details of her changed life. She tells me about the mysterious differences between one breast-feeding session and the next; she shares the frustration of a night of smooth waking-sleeping patterns juxtaposed with the next night of constant fussing.
I treasure every moment with my nieces. I treasure the lessons they bring back to me about myself, the meaning of life and the essence of God. My prayer is one of thanks for another little child to teach me. My hope is that one day I can integrate the slow, tender mother within me and the speedy, efficient woman of the world who I also am. In so doing, I believe I will somehow know more deeply the God who has led me along the way.