Recently at a contemplative gathering, S. stood rocking her beautiful baby. When it was her turn to share what was on her heart, tears filled her eyes.
“I am trying to keep hold of where I end and my daughter begins,” she said. “Some days it is very hard to do.”
Her words pierced us as we remembered: there IS a grief to motherhood at times, the breaking open of selves and boundaries that goes with the territory of being female in ways that men, for better or worse, will never experience. Motherhood demands all of us at every turn, and it never stops doing so, even after we are no longer rocking our children to sleep or holding their hands at the corner waiting for the bus.
S. is not a novice by any stretch. She is the loving mother of several children. She is also one of the most intentional women I know, a role model of extraordinary courage and experience, having worked in African missions before returning to the States to raise a family and teach contemplative practices.
I, too, know from experience that to be the one with a baby on your hip in a roomful of women who have had the time to shower, select a matching blouse and scarf for the day, read the paper, and meditate is to feel like you’ve crossed into a twilight zone. “Will my life ever resemble theirs again? How many years will it take to be “normal?”
It wouldn’t have helped at that moment to tell her about the women I know in their 40s and 50s who grieve their decision to be childless. They traded the exhaustion of sleepless nights, and days defined by constant interruption, to offer the world their own significant forms of nurture – professional achievements, board memberships and honorifics. But some of them still weep themselves to sleep knowing that they will never feel the physicality of maternal joy, the breathless can’t-wait-to-see-how-the-first-day-of-school (or college, or marriage, or the job) went.
The insight of value in this comparison is this: no matter how disciplined and faithful we are to a practice of mindfulness, and no matter how intentional we have been about our choices, life has a way of ripping up our scripts. Our identities can be tossed out the window every bit as vehemently by miracles – babies and recovery and good fortune — as by accident and loss.
A job ends unexpectedly and a friend is forced to ramp up retirement plans. Another’s sudden health issues demand a geographic change. A dear friend in her early fifties who house sits my pets every time I go away has been struck with ALS.
“Keep your lamps trimmed,” Jesus told his followers.
The concept of “spiritual fitness” and “being prepared” are excellent as far as they go. But we need to be honest – they are not enough. We can’t hold off the weather systems that effect our own. When life breaks our neat boxes and categories and expectations, twenty minutes of silence each day won’t, alone, keep the inner flame alive.
No mother, alone for hours with her children day after day, with insufficient intellectual stimulation and only exhaustion at the end of it, can believe that this is God’s will for her. I don’t believe it either.
My friend was asking for help. She was asking the rest of us women in the room to remind her of all she is in addition to being a mother. She is asking us to do the sacred work of recognizing those dimensions of her being that aren’t in evidence when she is food shopping with a Snugli between her and the lettuce with teething rings hanging from her blouse.
It is easy to forget that people are often unable to speak of their suffering until it is in the rearview mirror. This is especially true when it arises from circumstances everyone else considers “normal.” So when we are asked for help, we must acknowledge it as a gift, and recognize it for what it is: not a sign of weakness but an act of courage and integrity.
I wish that I had offered these words of David Whyte’s to my friend the other day, but I offer them to you, because we all need help now and then. And we need to know that it’s okay to ask.
“It may be that the ability to know the necessity for help; to know how to look for that help and then most importantly, how to ask for it, is one of the primary transformative dynamics that allows us to emancipate ourselves into each new epoch of our lives…To ask for help and to ask for the right kind of help and to feel that it is no less than our due as a live human being; to feel, in effect, that we deserve it, may be the engine of transformation itself.”