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18 May 2012

Meditations on Motherhood

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, both in the US and in New Zealand.  I used to think that Mother’s Day was just a cheesy Hallmark holiday.  However, since becoming a mother, it has, of course, taken on new significance.  When we were in Guatemala waiting to take Kate home, Guatemala celebrated their version of Mother’s day and we were SO excited to finally be mothers that we participated in the apparent tradition of going out to eat at Compero Pollo (the Guatemalan version of KFC).  We then arrived home on the weekend of the US version of Mother’s Day and got to celebrate our new motherhood again. 

It’s wonderful to celebrate Motherhood.  Being a mother is the strangest, most wonderful trip I have ever experienced.  And yet, the concept of celebrating Mothers and Motherhood is fraught with difficulties.  During the years that we were trying to become Mothers, Laura and I experienced such a range of emotions including excitement, loss, pain, grief, joy, anger and fear.  It was a roller coaster that threatened to destroy us individually and as a couple.  Mother’s day for those who want desperately to be mothers is a very painful reminder of what they desperately want but cannot have.  I have also walked with friends through the deaths of their children and have found that, especially in the case of the loss of an only child, those women want to be acknowledged as mothers yet find, sadly, that people are uncomfortable wishing the mother of a dead baby “Happy Mother’s Day.”

To make matters even more complicated, many people have very complex and troubled relationships with their mothers.  I used to think I was one of those people but over time, I have discovered that compared to many, my relationship with my mother is actually quite ordinary, perhaps even HEALTHY!  At the very least, it is pleasant.  I enjoy spending time with my mother and value our conversations.  I perceive my mother to be less critical than she used to be.  I don’t know if that perception is based upon any change in HER behaviour (perhaps she just doesn’t tell me what she really thinks?) or if it is simply that I am not as sensitive as I used to be.  In any case, I am grateful.  And I am keenly aware that many people are not so fortunate.  I know Mother’s Day is very hard for those who have broken relationships with their mothers, those whose mothers have died and especially those whose relationships with their mothers were never healed prior to the death of their mothers. 

As the mother of an adopted child, I am also keenly aware of the complicating issues of unwanted pregnancy and the choices that face girls and women in that situation as well as the difficulties faced by children who have been given up by their mothers.  Kate will always wonder and imagine what her birth mother is like and why she “really” gave Kate up for adoption.  And, although she is blessed to have two mothers who love her dearly, she has endured a huge loss at a very basic level.  We can’t dismiss the importance of the bonding that occurs between the mother and baby in utero. 

But for those of us who are fortunate enough to be mothers when we’ve wanted to be and to have a happy relationship with our mothers, Mother’s Day is a good time to reflect on the many nuances of Motherhood. 

Being a mother is FUN.  

There is never a dull moment in our house.  Kate is always coming up with new things to do and new ways to do them.  It is amazing to see the world through the eyes of a child.  It’s a cliché but it’s so true.  When I stop what I’m doing and just watch her, I see her thinking, struggling, listening, and seeing in ways that I’d forgotten all about.  She never stops learning and, as a result, neither do I.

Being a mother is SCARY.

Terrifying, actually.  How many mothers have held a tiny baby and wondered, “What do I do now?”  How many mothers have had nightmares about horrible things that might befall their children?  I’d daresay the answer is somewhere between most and pretty much all of them.  I shiver sometimes to think of things like the time Geyser got stuck in the flooded culvert and Kate tried to rescue him while standing on the bank of the swollen creek with a stick in her hand.  We found them in the nick of time, nudged; I’m sure, by the still small voice of God calling us outside to check on them.  I spend a lot of time praying for God’s guardian angels to shield and protect Kate both physically and emotionally/spiritually but in spite of all that prayer, I am, still, often afraid.   John Irving in “The World According to Garp” coined the term “undertoad” to describe the feeling of impending danger.  Garp heard his mother say “Beware of the undertow” when swimming in the ocean.  He misheard “undertoad” and always imagined a very large toad under the water, waiting to sweep children away.  It’s a powerful image as most of us can readily imagine that there is just such an animal lurking unseen, waiting to snatch our precious children from us.  For those of us who struggled to become mothers, I think the fear might be somewhat greater.  We know better than to take this gift for granted.  All love involves the possibility of loss.  Motherhood is no different.

Being a mother is BAFFLING.

The truth is, I have NO idea what I’m doing.  None of us do.  I have learned that it is really important to not compare my insides with other people’s outsides.  Those mothers who seem to “have it all together” probably don’t.  I know this, in part, because, as a doctor, I am privy to the secrets of these women who seem to be supermoms.  I can’t reveal their confidences but I can speak in generalities and say that in many cases the perception of “Supermom” is a total illusion.  I don’t think it’s “shaudenfreude” to take some comfort in the revealed weaknesses of other mothers.  I don’t take pleasure in anyone’s misfortune.  But I do feel a bit better knowing that I’m not alone in my befuddlement.  I just wish mothers could be more honest about those feelings instead of perpetuating the illusion that we “have it all together.”  I certainly don’t have it all together.  I don’t have a CLUE.  I just pray that my daughter will grow up to be a reasonably capable adult, in spite of me. 

Being a mother is AMAZING.

By that, I mean, it fills me with amazement.  What a miracle, what a gift.  How did I get so lucky, so blessed?  It’s easy to forget all that it took to get here. It’s easy to get swept up in the day in day out work of parenting and forget what a gift it is.  But when I stop to consider that part of things, I AM amazed.  I always thought I wanted to be a mother, but I had NO idea how hard and how wonderful and how scary and heartbreaking it all would be. 

Mother's Day Breakfast in Bed

As I was thinking about this post, I found myself contemplating some examples of mothers that I’ve found interesting.  Many of these mothers are Biblical, some are fictitious or fabricated.  One in particular is the mother of the boy who shared his lunch with Jesus, who went on to multiply it into a feast for thousands.  I was reading an “Arch Book” version of the story to Kate once last week when this thought occurred to me.  The story was told from the perspective of the boy whose mother packed him a lunch so that he could go with a family friend to see this man they were calling The Messiah.  The boy tells her he won’t need a lunch because he believed Jesus would provide food for the masses.  The mother, however, insists that he’d better bring some food along, “just in case.”  It’s fascinating to view the story from this perspective.  This mother is a prime example of how our actions vis a vis our children will have huge ripples that we may never ever see.  This boy’s mother probably never thought that she would pack a lunch that would be turned into one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, and certainly one of his most famous.  Most likely, all she wanted was to make sure her boy had enough to eat and, perhaps, she wanted to make sure he learned to “pay his own way.”  It is also clear that this mother had instilled some very important values in her son.  She did not teach him to take what he had and hoard it.  He had obviously been taught to share what he had with others, no matter how little he thought he had.  He had clearly been taught to trust God to provide for all his needs.   It reminds me that, as a mother, it is vitally important to teach my child to trust God and to share with others. 

If I’m going to discuss Biblical mothers, of course, I would have to mention Mary, the mother of Jesus.  It turns out that the most prominent “Mary story” on my mind this week has been the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus famously turned water into wine.  This story is one of a couple of accounts of Jesus seeming to rebuke his mother in a way that could be seen as “dishonouring.”  In this story, Mary comes to Jesus for help and he tells her, “It’s not my time, yet.”  She ignores him, of course, and tells the servants to do what Jesus tells them to do.  Once again, it’s the mother behind the scenes that has a tremendous impact on the course of events.  What if Mary had not insisted?  This miracle was recorded by John as “the first sign” in Jesus’ ministry.  Once again, the faith and the faithfulness of the mother have monumental consequences in the course of history.  Now I realise this might sound hyperbolic, especially to my non-believing friends.  That’s ok.  The point is, MOTHERHOOD MATTERS. 

Then there are Mother Goose, Old Mother Hubbard, and the “Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe.”  I’m not sure what these mothers would add to the discussion of mothers but it seems appropriate to give them a shout out for Mother’s Day as well!

Overall, I think it’s important to acknowledge the blessings, the challenges and pitfalls of Mothering and Motherhood.  But while we consider these things, may we be sensitive to those who have less positive experiences around Mothering and Motherhood.  Mother’s Day is more than just a “Hallmark holiday.” It’s a time to consider all the joy, pain, sadness, and blessing that go with being a mother and being mothered.  

06 May 2012

Family togetherness

I haven't had time to write in awhile.  Kate and Laura have finally arrived, and by now they've been here for 10 days so writing has taken a back seat.  The days just prior to their leaving and the days they spent in transit were quite nerve-wracking for me.  It's hard for me to not be "in control" and sometimes things like this make me realise just HOW not in control I am.  I spent a lot of time with the the Serenity Prayer and praying for the grace to let go and leave them in God's more than capable hands.

And so, they made it, tired but happy.  And Geyser made it, too, to Christchurch, where he will be in quarantine until tomorrow.  He will be flown down to Dunedin and we'll pick him up there tomorrow evening.

The plane arriving in Dunedin
Tired girls getting off the plane in Dunedin
It was a happy reunion, especially for Kate.  She was SO excited after not seeing me for 2 months (and feeling a bit neglected because of all the time Laura had to spend getting the shop situated for her absence) that she couldn't stop talking.  She'd lost 2 more teeth, she'd gotten a new dress and some new stuffed animals, she'd learned more reading and maths skills, she'd grown and outgrown shoes and clothes.  You miss a lot in a kid's life at this age and I tried to just take it all in, rather than dwell on how sad it was to have missed it.  Laura, on the other hand, was a bit sick with a bad cold, and utterly exhausted.  So I put her to bed and took Kate to see her new school, where she was suddenly shy and didn't want to talk to anyone!

They arrived on a Thursday morning and we'd planned for Kate to start school on Monday.  However, Kate, despite her shyness, was SO excited about starting school that she insisted upon starting on Friday. She was up and dressed in her new uniform by 7 am so we decided, hey, why not?  It would give Laura some extra rest and maybe get Kate into the swing of things quicker.

Kate ready to go for her first day
It was interesting to see how the jet lag affected Kate.  Basically, her body clock was about 6 hours ahead, so at 2 PM here her body was getting ready to sleep.  For the first couple of nights we let her go to sleep around dinner ("tea") time but she kept waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning and not going back to sleep.  On Saturday, we went on an outing to the Catlins and she had a wee nap in the car on the way back.  So we snatched the opportunity to wake her up for dinner and prod her awake until about 10 PM.  She slept through till about 7am the next morning.  Mission accomplished!  She's actually been sleeping much better here, going to sleep more easily and waking up on time to get to school.  It helps that school starts a bit later and that she doesn't have to spend any time picking out clothes or fussing about not having the right ones.  I LOVE uniforms!

All during this week, we've basically been trying to get back into the swing of things as a family.  It's the first time probably ever that I've had to worry about getting Kate up and dressed and fed AND getting myself ready for work.  It's a challenge but it's going well.  In addition to the things I just mentioned (later school time, uniforms), it's also a big help that I typically don't have to be at work until 9 am (except for the weekly doctors' meeting at 8:30).  I don't have hospital rounds to do and I've usually completed all my tasks from the day before prior to going home for the evening.  It's quite a luxury having nights and weekends off!

The first weekend after Laura and Kate arrived, we had our first visitor, our friend Bill from north of Seattle.  He was in Auckland on business and decided to fly down and see us (it was cheaper than two nights in the hotel up there).  So, in addition to Laura and Kate getting used to things, we had a house guest who was keen to see the area as well.  We decided that since he would be here for, basically, one full day, that we should do a bit of the Catlins tour that I did a few months ago.  It was a lovely day, although a bit chillier and, occasionally, rainier than the previous trip.  Of course, we are late into autumn and heading toward winter, here and, given that, the weather has been quite amazing!

It was really fun to watch Kate as she saw the ocean for the first time.  Like me, Kate seems to have the ocean in her blood.  In spite of the coldish weather, she insisted on throwing off her shoes and wading in the surf, collecting shells and digging in the sand with her hands.  To top it all off, we went to the beach with the penguin hide and managed to see 5 yellow-eyed penguins.  We caught a couple of them as they were waddling up out of the water.  Laura had her excellent camera and so she got a few pictures that were way better than the ones I tried to take with my Android.
Yellow-eyed penguin walking out of the water

Capital of Country Music 
The big trout in Gore
Yesterday, for our second weekend together, we decided to drive down to Bluff, stopping at Gore on the way.  Gore is "New Zealand's Capital of Country Music".  There is also a fabulous little art gallery and a few museums, including a "Moonshine" museum (which we skipped because of the admission charge).  While we were there, eating in a cafe, we suddenly heard a high-pitched voice behind us yelling, "Kate!"  It was a little girl from Kate's school, whom we had met earlier in the week.  This little girl is in the class younger than Kate's but I suspect she's on the older end of that class, while Kate is on the younger end of hers.  She seems to be quite a social butterfly and apparently, according to her mother, she was chatting about Kate all the way from Balclutha (about an hour's drive).  We laughed because, back in Livingston, Kate had gotten quite famous.  We'd meet people everywhere who knew Kate and we'd have no idea who they were.  It was funny that, after less than 10 days in the country, we'd drive an hour from home and run into someone who knew Kate!  She makes an impression, for sure.

The best part of the day was playing on the rocky beach at Bluff.  Unfortunately, Laura's camera battery died before we got there and I left my Android in the car so we didn't get pictures of what would have been just a classic Kate image.  Kate was dressed in a very fancy pink dress, one of her favourites.  I don't bother trying to get her to NOT wear such things when we go to play on the beach, because it's not worth the fight and it makes her happy.  She, of course, shed her shoes the minute we reached the beach and started frolicking in her fancy pink dress.  She climbed around on the rocks, picked up shells, and examined the very interesting sea life.  We even found 2 tiny hermit crabs.  Laura had picked up a couple of shells, thinking they were devoid of life, and suddenly saw tiny claws extending from them.  We put them back in the sand and watched them very slowly make their way back to the water and safe hiding places under rocks and seaweed.

Laura and I at the beach at Paptowai
We ended the day with some battered oysters and chips and a lovely drive home with a big almost-full moon periodically enshrouded in mist.  Tomorrow, Geyser will be joining us.  Another exciting reunion!   And then it's down to the business of seeing as much of New Zealand as we can, in case this adventure really only lasts a year because, believe me, a year is not nearly enough to see all of the amazing sites we've read and heard about!