May you soften toward yourself. May you mother yourself.
May you know you are part of a chain of mothers that echoes back through time, generations of mothers suffering the impossible love, a love that wants to protect fiercely, a love that all the while knows you cannot protect your children from everything.
The other day, as I drove a curving back road with my son and his friend, we rode past a turtle in the middle of the road.
Its neck stretched toward the sun; its shell gleamed. I slowed down, surprised at the sight.
Before I even knew I was pregnant with my son, I was walking in the cemetery near our home one afternoon. I was scanning the trees and the headstones, reading the names of souls who’d lived a hundred years earlier: Mildred. Lucius. Mable. Among the stillness, something caught my eye: a baby turtle, as small as my thumb, crawling across the dirt road. I grabbed a thick leaf and scooped it up, delivering it to a patch of grass, worried a car would crunch its tiny, fragile form.
Later, I’d wondered if I’d done the right thing by moving it. What if, a minute after I walked away, a heron swooped down to that tangle of grass and gobbled it up? What if its mother was in the opposite direction, and I’d unknowingly separated it from her? How can we ever predict the consequences of each choice we make?
After I saw the positive pregnancy test a few weeks later, I flashed on the memory of picking up the baby turtle—how tiny it was, but how much bigger than the seed of a baby growing in me. The desire to protect had pulsed in me that day, thick and strong. Already, though I didn’t know it, I was becoming a mother, even as—especially as—I second-guessed myself.
The sight of the turtle crossing the winding road made me smile. It made me think of the baby turtle, and of my son in the backseat, now somehow eight years old, tall and tan and wild. But around the next bend, I saw a truck roaring toward it. I wanted to cry for the innocence and inevitability, for the coming crack of shell, muffled by the sounds of the surging truck.
Maybe by some miracle—I sent out a quick and quiet prayer for the doomed turtle—it would somehow end up in the space between the truck’s many wheels, spared.
This is what it is to have a mother’s heart, a parent’s heart. To love someone else so widely, so thickly, so dangerously. Someone who the world will sometimes wear down, who the world will age and weaken. Someone we could lose. I glanced back at my son in the rearview mirror. Please keep him safe, I whispered to whatever might listen.
I often feel not good enough as a mother. As a woman. Guilt drips down on me like pine pitch, thick and sticky and hard to scrub off.
I sometimes yell. Bribes and threats have become well-worn parenting tools. I hear my voice speaking to my babies as if from a distance, and it sounds tired and whiny. Unkind. I look at my phone too often, I let the kids watch too much TV, and I forget to feed them vegetables.
The problem with parenting is that all we can do is make our best guesstimates, every day, every minute, about what’s best for our children. Each day is a poorly trodden, forked road, and the stakes feel so steep.
But we won’t really know until years from now—if ever—whether we made the right choices. We won’t know the moments that will define our children’s unfolding lives. It’s not like any other job, where a supervisor might tell us how we’re stacking up at the end of the day. We only have our children’s eyes, or the voices in our own heads that come alive at night, chiding us, reminding us of our shortcomings, our jagged mistakes.
It’s so hard to keep perspective in parenting, to remember that everything is a phase.
When my son was nearly two, I was worn out from full-time parenting. For almost two years, I’d revolved around him. When it seemed like my breast milk made him fussy, I cut nearly everything from my diet except for wild rice and sweet potatoes. I’d spent months upon months surviving on moth-bitten slips of sleep. I was a hollowed out zombie-brained version of myself. When we discovered my husband’s workplace would subsidize two days a week of daycare, and the amazing preschool across the street from our home had an opening, it seemed like a no-brainer. And yet, I beat myself up endlessly for needing that time for myself. To uncoil. To write. To brush off the parts of me that existed before I was a mother. I wondered what other stay-at-home mothers would think of me if they knew I couldn’t hack being a full-time mom.
Looking back with a smidge of perspective, I am full of compassion for that new-mom version of me. She was exhausted and drowning in the myths of motherhood. She thought she had to choose herself or her baby. She didn’t know she could choose both. That her son would be okay, would be better than okay, so long as she was okay.
Parenting, it turns out, is an act of faith.
It’s protecting, but it’s also so much trusting. It’s cradling the baby turtle, moving it to the spot that seems the safest, and then stepping ever-so-slightly away. Parenting stretches the muscles of our hearts like nothing else, weaving them wider, and in the process, leaving us scarred and corded.
May you float in the knowledge that mostly, you are doing the best you can, and there are no right answers, and just a few wrong ones. May you find pools of faith to rest in. May you grieve the mother you thought you’d be, making room for the one you actually are.
She is full and true; she is messy and right.