April 23, 2012

Loving, Striving, Trust and Time—Reflections on Cultivating Maternal Confidence.

Photo by Liza Fox.

*Originally published in The Wonder of Childhood.

I have a small doll, made in the Waldorf tradition, of a spiritual teacher named Ammachi. Amma is a living saint from India, the Divine Mother incarnate, my spiritual mother.

The doll was given to me as a birthday gift by my sister-in-law long before the children were born. Many would have kept this special doll out of the hands of young children, especially those too young to “properly” care for her, but I always knew that she was meant for our kids-to-be. So when my toddlers discovered her sitting high on a shelf one day I took her down with no hesitation.

From my heart into their arms.

My children are young, they are curious and while nurturing of doll friends, they are quite determined in the removal of all clothes, hats…everything. Over time this Amma doll has been thoroughly stripped of all her “whites” (the petticoats and sari she wore), her jewelry, even her nose ring. Now, she is naked save for an embroidered heart on her little round body. Amma is of a renunciate tradition and thus, this is just as it should be.

When I see this doll, stripped bare by two loving toddlers, I cannot help but make the connection to the process of building maternal confidence. Prior to my children’s birth I was ripe with images of the kind of mother I would surely be: how gently I would respond to situations, what inspired activities we would embark on, how abundant my energy and patience would be. Beautiful visions of effortless, bountiful, spacious days were collaged on my internal vision board.

And yet quickly these grace-filled intentions were stripped away by a kind of savage love only a child (or in my case two) was capable of. Theirs is a fierce love, innocent yet indiscriminate, in how it is offered. Soon I too was literally without jewelry and petticoats (more like sweats and a hair clip if I was lucky enough to get out of my PJ’s) but also emotionally naked, exposed and tender. From this vulnerable position I understood first hand what one of my mentors meant when she called motherhood “the ultimate path of service.”

Being of service is an act of devotion, an act of surrender, and an act of love.

From this position you must grapple with complex issues about the realities of who you imagined yourself to be as a mother, who you actually are and hopefully, who you are becoming. And for many of us parents the toughies often center on power and authority. Holding it and losing it- two equally complicated positions.

Photo by Liza Fox.

We each face our own unique challenges: a child for whom nothing soothes them just right, a child who will be held by you and only you, a child who will not let you hold them at all, a child who will not sleep or a child who screams. We are offered the chance to learn to set healthy, loving boundaries as well as the opportunity to lose them; often at the same time.

When I was up to my chin in the murky sea of twin infant overwhelm combined with a healthy dose of new mother anxiety I would wonder, “How is it that people develop maternal intuition? How could I just “get quiet” and trust that deep inside there is an answer when there was need and chaos all around, both inside of me and out?” Family, friends, books all offered guidance and opinions. Yet I felt a yearning to feel my own steady feet beneath me so that I could nurture from a place of embodied confidence.

And then there was the wisdom that did actually nourish my soul: the beautiful, bountiful, spacious Waldorf pedagogy that I love so dearly. In those early days, and sometimes still, there was a weight to all that beauty; the weight of feeling like I could never be a good enough “Waldorf mom;” the perfect image of maternal warmth, the quiet rosy days built on rhythm and singing, happy cherubic babies who peacefully looked on as I merrily cared for the house seemed so very far from my reality.

Photo by Liza Fox.

It has taken time and experience for me to see that those first months, even years, are akin to an initiatory practice for us following the householders path. For the renunciate, ten years in a cave might come close to what it is like to shepherd a new being (or two…) into this world, deprived of sleep, the ability to think clearly, pee when you need, and eat a full meal. If you allow the love of your children to work its magic you will be fully stripped of your lofty intentions, ideals, and armoring. In exchange, you are given a chance to slow down, to rethink time, to grapple with the sobering reality of not being able to meet all your children’s needs, to sink into the humility that realization brings and to build relationships with people who support and understand you.You can embody your “good enough-ness” and there bubbles an intuitive spring.

What a gift.

Because, in that peeling back of one’s personal illusions there is an opening for learning about what is really essential for you. And for your family. Your unique, lived, unfolding experience together. That instead of the burden of ideals and comparisons with others you might actually be enlivened by a striving towards your evolving; knowing that there is no end point, but rather a series of heart-opening, sometimes heart-breaking stops along the way. A true striving allows for mistakes, change of direction, loss as well as the strengthening of will, the coming into self-responsibility and the capacity to look within with compassion.

My personal path led me to see I needed to step back and observe more. I could not assume that I knew what my children wanted or were feeling, despite our connection. More often than not the feelings and assumptions arising in me when things were challenging were in fact reflections of my own losses, longings, and fears. And so my children offered me the chance to rework old sorrow, ritualized reactions and mis-attributed experiences. The more willingness I had to accept our different experiences in the world, the less challenging things felt. The more I was able to be present for my children’s strong feelings, sadness and discomfort without trying to make it go away, the more I felt competent or like a “good mom.”

I also had to learn to trust in time; that what is happening now really does pass, sometimes sooner than you hope… sometimes not nearly soon enough. After three years of parenting I have just enough trust to feel a wobbly sense of confidence, one that finds me tripping often and easily knocked over. But now, during the really hard times, the days when there is constant bickering, crying, or discontent, I remember that it will indeed be different soon. I trust in that simple truth. The work instead is to stay present and connected, to feel my steady feet beneath me so that my children can regain theirs. There is comfort in knowing there will be equally glorious days of gentle play and collaboration, even ones with cherubic children happily playing and looking on while I am merrily cleaning the house. Time and change can be counted on.

Photo by Liza Fox.

“I saw Amma yesterday,” I will often hear one of my children say. Yesterday of course means anytime before just now. “She gives me kisses…and chocolate.  I like her smell.”  The small doll who travels between the arms of my children reminds them of the loving, rose-scented embrace they receive when they meet the real life Amma, who plants the seeds of human expansion with her clear, penetrating love.

And yet, when I see that doll I am reminded of the teaching that came along with her, waiting for two toddlers to reveal. We mamas are given an opportunity to let go of the trappings of psychological (and material) protection we thought we needed in order to parent: be it lofty ideals, perfectionism, or all the complicated issues that revolve around power and boundaries. Instead, we can trust that when things fall apart or are stripped away, that we have a chance to move towards a deeper connection with ourselves, with our partners and our children; maybe in ways we did not imagine. If we allow our little one(s) to change us with the intensity of their love, a love that is not always rose-scented and chocolaty, we can emerge with a renewed sense of what is really essential in our own unique life.

Photo by Liza Fox.

Amma’s embroidered heart now reminds me that striving, loving, trust, and time feed the ground from which my maternal confidence grows.

~Editor, Jeannie Page.

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