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Imperfect Mothering

Morning Glories

Awake, but still in bed;
I wear my favorite nightgown—
slippery, pale green, synthetic.
Morning sun streams through
opaque shades, slightly raised
for the breeze; only windows
cool this house without central air.
Crop duster sounds bleed in
from distant potato fields.

Early on these summer mornings
my mother tenderly cares
for her morning glories,
climbing just outside my window;
she is present, but not with us;
she’s alive, but always hoping
for more. Here though,
on these mornings,
spent tending her flowers
she finds a semblance of peace;
perhaps even joy.

Now a mother, it’s reassuring to know
my mom too left dreams unattended,
as we all must do, and this summer
I wake with clenched teeth and pass
my own flower beds, over run with
weeds and whimpering, dried out leaves.

Delayed gratification, they might say,
but still I hope that I might
find ways to nurture my children;
my morning glories.

Amen, Mother, Amen.

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Josh at 5

Josh at 5

Dear Josh,

Someday, perhaps, you’ll read this blog that I’ve been keeping since just before you were born; you may also one day question why I completed baby books for your older siblings and have not written one word in your baby book. From the blog, you’ll surmise that, during the first five years of your life, I was immersed in worry and fear. From the empty baby book pages, you’ll perhaps ask why I failed to celebrate your milestones.

Just one month ago you turned five. I won’t lie; getting to age five was a bit like pushing a stone up the mountain. When you were born, I had just one night ensconced in the dreamy future before learning of your failed newborn hearing screening. After many bouts of false hope, you were definitively diagnosed with mild to moderate reverse-sloped, bilateral, conductive hearing loss at ten months of age. Back then, I grieved for you and the extra challenges you would face in life. I had no idea whether you’d join us in the world of spoken language. I knew, of course, that if you didn’t ever speak our language, we would learn how to speak yours.

Thanks to early intervention and hearing aid technology, at age five, you are fully lingual: a highly verbal, extraordinarily intelligent little boy. Lately, I’ve been thinking that perhaps you hit the “jackpot” of disabilities. Indeed, it was only because of your hearing loss that you received extensive speech therapy early in life. When your observant speech and language pathologist noticed issues with tongue weakness, she referred you to an occupational therapist. The occupational therapist further recognized and diagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder in you. This diagnosis allowed early and robust therapy with a disability that may have remained “hidden” and hindered you even more than your hearing loss. Because of your hard work with this same occupational therapist, most of your sensory issues have lessoned: some have disappeared.

My joy in you at age five is immense. To see you going down a slide or riding your bike, for me, borders on the miraculous. To hear you say to me yesterday, in your cowboy duds, “Now I’m going to wander the Wild West” makes me smile. I love how your words provide us glimpses into your vibrant “imaginated” (a Joshy word) world. Challenges have abounded in your short life and I know more challenges will come. Still, I am enjoying the view from the top of this particular mountain. And I am experimenting with a softer grip for the journey ahead because you’ve already shown me just how good you are at climbing mountains.

I love you so,

Mom

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Josh with big brother Ethan

Well, this past month, my daughter and I had a rough little patch of it. Basically, I was trying to take over in the pilot seat of her newly launched adult life. It was sort of that scene from my all-time top favorite movie, Apollo 13, where the Tom Hanks character (sad that I know my actors’ names better than my astronauts) inadvertently sits in the seat of the Kevin Bacon character, who is now the pilot (and Tom Hanks is the Captain)–he looks at him and says something like, “Sorry, old habits die hard.” (this is a very very loose version of the true quote–I am not going to dig out my DVD at this moment to get the exact quote for you all).

Two weeks into our impasse (with Hannah in CA not speaking to me, and me here knowing I overstepped my bounds: at the same time thinking “but I am right!” Still, as the defensive driving quip goes, “You can be dead right and still be dead.” Right doesn’t always matter), I awoke in the middle of the night knowing I needed to find a journal entry that I had written when I was pregnant with Hannah. I even knew where to look for this archaic document. It was in “the stacks”–one of my many huge Rubbermaid containers containing old journals. Finally, an old journal entry proves its value! Anyway, I was shocked to find that I wrote this entry when I was six months pregnant with Hannah. At seven months pregnant, I turned twenty two. Hannah turns twenty two in just one month. Hence, I wrote this journal entry at the EXACT same age that Hannah is now. I essentially wrote a journal entry to help myself along in the future. Here’s what it says:

June 15, 1992

They say that by the sixth month of pregnancy you, my child, can see, hear, taste, and feel emotion. I wonder how you felt yesterday when you heard me yelling at your grandmother; saw the walls of my abdominal muscles ball up in knots; heard my heartbeat increase; later heard my sobs of frustration while you were bounced up and down by a heaving diaphragm. So fragile still and yet you, like me, are already susceptible to the changing moods of your mother. I look down at my outstretched belly and try to explain the unexplainable: the relationship between mother and daughter.

I might start by describing the subtle rift created when a mother repeatedly tries to get her sole daughter, one who only agrees to wear jeans and corduroy pants, into pink, lace dresses. The battles waged in department store fitting rooms morph into larger battles fought over the dinner table when the daughter comes home to visit. The exact subject matter of these exchanges may change, but personal autonomy is always the undercurrent driving the feud.

How can I explain how scary it is for me now, at age 22, to be standing on the threshold of becoming a mother when I still haven’t learned how to be a daughter? I know you are going to be a girl, even though the ultrasound didn’t confirm it. During the test, you kept your legs firmly crossed in front of your genitalia; only a girl would do such a thing. I know you are a girl, even though I wish for you to be a boy because, with three older brothers, I’ve observed that the bond between mother and son is so much more humane than the one between mother and daughter.

Mothers and daughters spend an entire lifetime trying to shape the other into the ideal mother or the perfect daughter. Worse yet, I’ve observed how only daughters, like myself, feel the burden of this desired perfection more acutely than those with sisters, who will help shoulder the unbearable weight of perfection.

I don’t want to ever ask you to be perfect my dear one and I know already that I will fail to be your ideal mother. I hope that 22 years from now, you are ever so much more the person that you want to be than the one that I want you to be. Know that the 22-year-old me understands, for I’ve walked the road as “daughter” too.

Love,

Your mom

I typed it up and sent it to my daughter and you know what? Forgiveness abounded on both ends. Grace and love brought us back into the circle of each other’s heart.

P.S. It is so true about mothers and sons too. I have two sons, and grace flows easily between the three of us. I will, from now on, work to cultivate that same kind of grace with my daughter. And give up my need to always be right.

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At this moment, it looks like 17 teenagers and at least 4 preschoolers live in my house. I assure myself that it is just the five of us. There are the two fortysomethings who would certainly live in a very clean, calm home if they were left by themselves (with the exception of our piles of books around our chairs and desks–those will always be there). There is the one preschooler, who has scattered Legos, blocks, and Playmobile castle stuff across our basement in such a high density that I cannot walk across it. I have chosen, instead, to avoid the basement for the past three weeks. There is also one teenager, who lives quite small and takes up very little space. His room is filled with his art easel, light table, and art supplies and a bed–that’s really all. I hardly know the difference between when he is living here and when he is living in his college dorm room–with the exception of the extra shoes by the door. And now, for five more days, there is a twenty-one year old in our house. The contents of her dorm exploded all over the main level of our house last Sunday when she arrived home after graduating and she (and by she, I really mean “we”) still are sorting through the wreckage as she decides what to bring with her into her next phase of life. Questions she (we) are asking: What will fit in the trunk of her car as she moves to the west coast? What items can she live without going forward? How can she live smaller (when she’s never really lived small before, except perhaps in Japan)? What stuff should she donate? What stuff should she store in the closet of her room, putting off the inevitable decision to pass the items along to others?

I’ve found that these are the same questions that I need to ask myself on a continual basis in my own life. When I put off the questions, I rapidly find myself weighed down by the amount of stuff that I have accumulated. It all requires thought and care. Theoretically, I know that excess stuff detracts from my enjoyment in life. Yet I’ve observed now since my early twenties how I seem to go through periods of expansion and contraction. I have a weakness for accepting other people’s cast-offs, I guess. I’ve always loved garage sales, estates sales and The Goodwill. Anyway, I am nearing the end of an expansion period (I think) and beginning to feel the need to contract once again. In the meantime, however, I have lots of stuff to deal with today because somehow, I unwittingly invited people to my home on Monday for a farewell get together for my daughter. At this moment, there would not be any free place for house guests to sit as every chair is covered with the often mysterious entrails of a now expired college life.

Here are my choices today: I can either sit here drinking tea, looking at the clean, organized rooms in the new Pottery Barn catalogue that just arrived in the mail or I can begin the process of picking up into cleaning up. I know that tomorrow everyone in the family will be around to help me and so my tendency is to put it off but if I don’t begin the cleaning process today, I know I’ll feel anxious and unproductive, even while I turn the pages on the perfection that is the PB world. Did you ever notice that PB’s fantastic entry room organizers are never filled with the multiple shoe collections of a five or more person household? I have yet to see a system out there that can handle our family’s many shoes and make it appear neat and tidy. But if you know of a system that works for shoe clutter around the door, please let me know. I’d be forever grateful.

For now, here is a picture of the guest bedroom/my writing space, when it was last clean. I’m kind of inspired.

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My cup of tea is nearly finished and I might make just one more cup. Just one though . . . then, I’ll get busy.

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Dear Hannah,

I was married at your age. You don’t even want to learn to cook dahl. (line from Bendit Like Beckham—just for fun and since you are a film girl and all)

You graduate from college in just three days. I want you to know that I am so proud of you and all that you have accomplished in your almost 22 years. You are an amazing, inspiring, creative, strong, loyal, dedicated and intelligent person. Often now, when we are talking, I am awed by the maturity and wisdom of the words you speak to me. It is hard to believe that you began as that tiny, dark-haired girl with the rosebud ears that came out of me when I had just turned twenty-two. I was still a baby in a sense, and I was continuing to raise myself as I began to raise you. You were the child meant for me at that time in my life—you were the one strong enough to withstand my cutting teeth.

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The two of us–Just after you were born. You can sort of see from this picture that I didn’t know the first thing about babies.

I think you know me well enough now to know that, when faced with transitions, I tend to write. It is no different on this eve of your graduation and imminent move to California. Instead of thinking so much about your accomplishments, which are many indeed, I find myself filled with gratitude for all of the people that helped me along the way in raising you. When you were about four years old, the wise Hilary Clinton made famous the African proverb that states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” At that time, I was practicing law and very reliant on daycare providers, babysitters, and your grandparents to help me raise you. This moment of your graduation will be a mountain top vista for me—a time to look back and embrace the village that helped me raise you.

Because I am not only a lover of the written word but also a devotee of making gratitude lists, what better way to celebrate your graduation from Beloit College and your leap into the world of adulthood than with a gratitude list for all who helped you along the way. I may never get an Academy Award (but maybe you will–do they give Academy Awards to Casting Directors?), but I did manage to raise you and that, my dear, is one of the singular accomplishments of my life. So here goes a list of thank you’s that would send the “exit the stage” music playing long before it was done–here’s to your village:

  1. Your dad, for believing in my ability to be a mom when we found ourselves unexpectedly expecting you during our first year of law school.
  2. My Constitutional Law professor, the late Marcia O’ Kelly, who taught so eloquently about the rights of women but also of the sanctity of family. I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant that first year of law school because I was embarrassed. I hadn’t ever planned on children—only ever a career. When you were born, in the fall of my second year of law school, Professor O’Kelly gave you a little snake, covered with black and white fabric in geometrical patterns and stuffed with crunchy, sensory-rich filling. It was less about the gift to you, but her acknowledgement that I could be a law student, a career woman, and a mother that was so supportive to me. *You too will find surrogate mothers down the paths you walk in life. Be ever on the look out.*
  3. Law Professor Patti Alleva, who gave me a job as her research assistant after you were born. She was more than flexible and accommodating of my schedule as a law student and new mom. She’s continued on in both of our lives as a friend and support person.
  4. Your Grandma Melinda, who helped out with you during my first semester back at law school.
  5. Your own Grandma Marcia, who retired from teaching early to take care of you during my second-third year of law school and the summer before my second year, so I could write my law review—the summer after, so I could clerk in Fargo, ND.
  6. All of your kind and loving daycare providers through your formative years: Kim, Kari, Cheryl, and Karla.
  7. My dear friends, study partners and fellow UND law graduates, Pat, who baked you beautiful birthday cakes when you were younger and helped us out of many needful childcare dilemmas (like when I had to go to the ER with dehydration from the stomach flu) during our Brainerd years and Shari, who lived across the hall from us in married-student housing when you were born—already a mom and law student—she first taught me how to balance career and motherhood and still being a person; she continues to do so to this day.
  8. Your Aunt Tiffany, who took care of you on short notice so many times when our daycare was closed and was such a loving force in your life.
  9. The warm, caring, nurturing relationship you (and Ethan) have always had with Aunt Tiffany and Uncle Scott’s children, Phoebe, Jake and Nick.
  10. The prayers and guidance of your broader family of Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and Grand Aunts and Uncles, as well as cousins of all sorts (first, second, first once-removed etc).
  11. Your Godmother and Aunt Sarah for helping out with you at so many junctures (she watched you when I had my wisdom teeth surgically removed when you were just four months old and couldn’t nurse you for a whole day—she struggled with the pre-frozen breast milk and a baby who wanted her mama). She also threw you a confirmation party when I had to be out of town on your confirmation day in 2009.
  12. Your Irish Step Dance teacher, Katie who created such a wonderful dance community, all of whom became sisters that helped to raise you.
  13. Laurie, another dance mom, who sewed you vests and skirts, because I couldn’t sew, and set your Irish Dance curls for you—in your pre-wig days—because I did not have a way with curlers or hair products.
  14. Jean, your youth group leader. You were the one that led us back to church and specifically, to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Kent Street in St. Paul. I think you found your own way to Jean, who nurtured your spirituality. Perhaps Jean was one of your first surrogate mothers.
  15. Your second mom, Cindy, who helped your dad raise you during your visitations with him and who has worked so hard to continue as a supportive friend to you after she and your dad’s engagement ended. Another surrogate mom, to be sure!
  16. Your Grandma Melinda (again) for coming and staying with you guys after your dad and I divorced, to help accommodate my business trips. She was such a huge support to me through the years and I miss her greatly.
  17. Your Grandpa Spencer, who had the foresight, discipline, and generosity to purchase US Savings Bonds from your date of birth until you began college. These funds paid for travels overseas for your Rotary Exchange and your study abroad, paid for housing costs and books while in college, as well as other incidental expenses. What a huge gift he and Melinda gave you.
  18. Your Grandma Marcia (again) and Grandpa Duane, who also both helped out watching you and Ethan while I was away on business trips or wanted to entertain my hobby, concert going.
  19. When you don’t have another parent to discuss your kids with, you really rely on your friends. As a working single parent, I did not have much time for friendships outside of work and so I am ever grateful for all of the many friends I had along the way at work who listened and laughed and worried right along with me as I endlessly shared kid stories, issues, and joys, long before any of them had children of their own. In the order they came into my life, I want to thank: Christy, Kim, the triumvirate power of Louis, Staci, and Alice (oh to the life-saving power of the corporate coffee break), Bonnie (another surrogate mother who gave me the best advice ever and I followed it too!), Trina, and Tessa.
  20. My boss (and your boss, after you started babysitting her kids!) Pam, who was really so gracious and understanding when it came to the challenges I faced raising you and Ethan as a single mom. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive manager during the near seven years that I balanced being both a single mom and a woman with a demanding–but fulfilling–career.
  21. Suzanne, who started out as my author and became my friend. She also became your friend and was so supportive always of us both. She continues to believe in you and for this, I am grateful. She is another one of my surrogate mothers and, in such a way, has become your surrogate grandmother (a very beautiful, young-looking grandmother).
  22. Chris, your second dad, who came into your life just about a year before you left for Japan. I am so grateful for the loving relationship you guys share. I am grateful that he brought you on all those college visits and got you through the bed bug experience in Pittsburgh. I am grateful for the solid, loving, supportive presence he’s been in your life throughout the past five or so years. As you know, he loves you so very much.
  23. Your two brothers. Siblings are a blessing. From Ethan, you’ve learned how to be in relation with people who are very different from yourself and I’ve watched proudly as I see the two of you closing in on a more mature, adult-sized relationship. And Josh–well, we all know that Josh is sort of like pure light and love. What could be better than a daily dose of Josh. Hopefully he’ll get better at conveying that light and love via Skype.
  24. Your Japanese Tutor, Kate, who did such a great job preparing you for your year in Japan with such a small window to work with (February through July, 2009).
  25. Your three sets of host parents (the moms in particular) for looking after you so well during your year in Japan. Sending a sixteen year old off to a strange country for a year is perhaps one of the more daunting things a parent can do. I still remember my last glimpse of your long brown hair as you went through security at the Minneapolis International Airport around 5:30 am on August 13, 2009 (I didn’t even have to look up that date—that’s how well it is burned into my head)—it was all I could do to let you go. So grateful that you had good host families and I know that your second host mom most especially became another surrogate mom and I am glad you’ve been able to see her twice now since your year in Japan. I hope you can continue to keep in touch with her in the future.
  26. Your Rotary Liaisons, John and Tom, who helped smooth out all of the many issues with your exchange on this end and many a time, helped smooth out your anxious mom who had a difficult time letting go of her baby.
  27. All of the people who prayed for you while in Japan—especially your step Grandmother, Helen, who has now passed on. Once, early on in your time in Japan, she wrote me a message that said, “Just want you to know…a silly little thing I do…do you remember when you were young and wished on a star?…well, each early morning and evening when I am outside with Sadie, I look for the brightest star, and do not ‘wish’, but pray for Hannah to find her place of joy there in Japan.” I like to think that both Grandma Melinda and Grandmother Helen are out there somewhere, looking out for you–still praying for you to find your place of joy.
  28. Ellie Roscher-your senior year English teacher at Cretin Derham Hall. She too had re-entered after a time abroad and I think it was just so helpful for you to know that at least one other soul understood what you were going through when you returned to an American high school after your life-changing year abroad. I thank God that this exceptional teacher was placed in your path the year you attended Cretin Derham (and that someone in the CDH office had recommended that you take Spectrum). She is the teacher everyone hopes their child will have someday.
  29. Three key best friends along the path of your life so far:
    1. Julia—Oh we love Julia so much. We’d adopt her into our family if we could. But I love how she stepped into your life when you transferred to St. Joe’s and I pretty quickly saw what a quality friend she was and I hoped she’d be a friend for life. It appears that is certainly the case. I think you already realize how blessed you are to have Julia in your life.
    2. Hikaru—Dear Hikaru who befriended you in your school in Nagasaki and made your time in Japan better in every way—introducing you to other friends, eating lunch with you and inviting you to social gatherings. I think it is neat that you were able to do your study abroad at a college so close to her college last year. It was fun to watch you guys (via FB on my end) reconnect.
    3. Sydney—Not everyone leaves college with a close friend like Sydney. I think you were friends with her from nearly the first day of freshman orientation—the day Chris, Josh, and I left you crying in the parking lot outside your dorm room. Knowing how she was placed across the hall from you, perhaps you can trust how all things truly do work out for our good, in the end. Sometimes our best of girl friends can also, at times, be surrogate moms to us. This is certainly true of my friend Shari’s role in my life. Embrace Sydney always, as a friend, a kindred spirit, and a mother in your time of need (P.S. I just realized that you have her listed as your mom on Facebook—kind of apropos).
  30. Debbie. I am not sure how you managed to find your career mentor last summer or how she found you, but I am so grateful that you two intersected and she has given you such a great internship experience this year and continues to mentor you in your chosen career field.

Seems to me, you’ve already learned a thing or two about finding surrogate mothers. But always remember, sometimes, as much support as you find around you, you still have to reach deep inside and mother yourself. I ask that in your life ahead, you be kind, compassionate, and forgiving of yourself. Please, treat yourself with as much loving care as you are able—it is more than okay to care for yourself in this world; it is a necessity.

And to all that I forgot on this list, and I am sure there were many, thank you. Thank you so much to all of the diverse members of the village that helped to raise my only daughter, my first born, my beautiful, smart, strong-willed girl with the teeth marks. We did it!

I love you to the moon and back into the atmosphere and deep down into the smallest fiber of my being.

With Love,

Your mom

 

The Kneading Dough Blessing

My Blessing to My Three. That even if you are kneading dough, perhaps especially if you are kneading dough, that you be fulfilled in each moist, sticky moment of contact. That you have mind-bending conversations while pouring the heavy whipping cream in a bowl or sprinkling poppy seeds throughout the batter. That you feel immense joy when returning phone calls over your lap top at a coffee shop, running your small business. That you smile while you ride your bike down the streets of the new city where you have moved, exploring each little organic food co-op and french bistro. That you know both the thrill of nose-diving in the air, and the centering pull of regaining balance. That you face each day’s battle with the confidant knowledge that it is the very battle that is meant for you. That you celebrate the shape and outline of your nose each time you look in the mirror. That you always leave room in your life (and your belly) for an occasional bowl of ice cream. That you spend time meandering through used bookstores and have the pleasure (often) of seeing the exact book you “need” jump into your hands. That you might someday be kissed in the stack of books of a library or in a parking lot by the person you’ve been waiting all of your life to meet. That you might find the perfect pair of leather boots that will travel decades of your life with you. That you have many crisp, well-seasoned pickles to accompany your deli sandwiches. That you go skinny dipping and swim with dolphins (perhaps at the same time) at least once in your life. That you will participate in a post-secondary learning situation, which will open your mind and enliven your soul. That you will have some friends who will know you all of your life and hold up a mirror to help reflect back all of your many gifts. That there is never enough room in your suitcase to carry around any bit of regret. That your siblings will join you on your path, from time to time, to remind you of where you’ve come from. That you always know and feel the love that has brought you here. That you will always know and accept the peace that passes all understanding.

* * *

I wrote this poem four years ago now, when my daughter was about to return from a Rotary Exchange Year in Japan and now, she is graduating from college in two weeks with a degree in Japanese Language and Culture (which she did in 3 years–see The New Global Student for benefits of study abroad including reducing time in college). My blessing remains–although I am not so sure about the swimming with dolphins. I’ve started to believe that is an unethical practice, at least as a commercial venture. Also, for at least one of my kids, the ice cream may need to be made from coconut milk.

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