The Beauty of Motherhood

I feel so rich with a big jug of fresh cider in the fridge.

We went to an apple-pressing party this morning with a group of other moms and kids in our area.  The kids were running around, swinging on tires tied to trees, sidewalk chalk out, little trucks to push around and a mini-tractor to pedal.

There were potato chips and carrot sticks and apples.  Oh, the APPLES.

We brought a wagon up the grassy hill to the one tree with the most apples.  We climbed in the tree and picked fruit from the branches, shook the tree until they tumbled down like large red/green balls of hail (watch out for your head!).  We used sticks to prod apples to the ground and climbed the ladder to pick and hand them down to friends’ waiting palms.

We got apples.  A wagon full, buckets and bags full.  A good-sized harvest for little hands to manage.

We brought them down the hill, admiring furry black-and-brown striped caterpillars along the way, back down to the old cider press our hostess had rigged up.

The motor was a bit weak but we washed the apples and chopped them up and fed them in.  The teeth grinding the apples into bits, making a big pile of broken fruit in the slotted wooden barrel below.  Then we put the round lid on and screwed it down and down and down.  Pressing.

All the juice ran out the slots of the barrel and into a square wooden tray beneath it.  The tray had one round hole and all the juice ran out of that and into a bucket underneath.  The kids were running in with their paper cups, interrupting the stream, catching all that fresh pressed sunshine and drinking it down.

We pressed again and again. Kids scattered, running back up to the walnut tree cove where the swings hung.  Or colored with chalk and crayons.  Or munched on a buffet of various potato chips spread out on the picnic table.

The sun comes out.  The water in the Puget Sound is sparkling fairytale blue.

I don’t know the other families here well.  Many I met for the first time at a picnic last week.  For a moment in our apple-pressing conversation, the topic turns to wrinkles.  One woman mentions how her mom bought her wrinkle-cream recently, to help erase the lines created when her children were up sick for several consecutive nights. She laughs and says, “Don’t pass your insecurities onto me, Mom!”  We all laugh and I look at the genuinely happy and beautiful face of the woman telling this brief story.

I think about how we moms are sensitive to our own sense of declining beauty.  How all women get trapped assessing their level of beauty, tracking changes as they grow older, but mothers have their own set of additional beauty hurdles.  As if just by being a mother they have more obstructions to clear.  While Hollywood has turned baby bumps into the new sexy, headlines also rush on about how quickly a woman is able to “get her body back” post-baby.  As if the goal is to look like we never had children at all.

But as I look at these mothers pressing apples, I see something I admire, in their blue jeans and sweatshirts and tired smiling faces:  I see their commitment.  I see the softness that comes from caring for little people day after day, night after night.  The inner strength that slowly builds from dishing up snacks and wiping bottoms.  From holding a sweaty sick child all night, praying for their health.   From kissing countless scrapes and bumps and chipped teeth, praying for their healing.  From navigating sibling rivalry, trying to stretch your time and love to embrace all the people in your home, including yourself.

I see the beauty that is created when one is deeply involved in service, in forgetting yourself for the sake of another.  It is a powerful surrender that no one can prepare you for before you become a parent.  I remember when my oldest daughter, Rose, was several weeks old and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get around to trimming my toenails.  If feels silly to write that now, but at the time it was monumental.  I’d end each day and think, “Geesh, tomorrow I will cut my toenails.”  But the next day would come and go and my nails would grow that much longer, pushing against the inner edge of the slippers I wore all day long inside the house.

I remember telling a friend that, a performance artist who asked how new motherhood was going.  She laughed when I mentioned my nails and thought I could do a performance piece just on that, the strange fact explaining so much:  What is new motherhood like?  It means not cutting your own toenails.

It means no longer tending to your own needs as top priority.  It means surrendering yourself to these bright new beings, responding to their cries and hunger and physical and emotional needs over and over again in a blur of self-forgetfulness.

No one can explain ahead of time the work it is.  No one can explain how utterly erased you sometimes feel.  How you can’t remember what you personally think or feel anymore, let alone remember to find time for your own toenails.

But I have a theory, looking at these women on apple pressing day.  I have a theory that all that self-forgetfulness adds up to something.  It adds up to a beauty, a beauty of motherhood.  The tired, smiling faces, they have a quiet glow made up of all those moments of lost self.  The extra gray hairs and wrinkles we acquire when we hold sick children through sleepless nights, or try to stay steady through trips to the emergency room, they have a power that extends beyond surface appearance.

Where others may see the lack of beauty (no make-up, no salon hair dos, no fashionable outfits, unfit bodies), I see the acquisition of beauty, the beauty of service, the beauty of motherhood.  It is a strong beauty, a humble one.  It isn’t flashy or self-conscious, in fact it is completely unaware of itself.  It is the beauty of a woman who has been pushed to her limit again and again, yet somehow finds a way to grow bigger and embrace more when she didn’t think she had anything left to give.

As a kid, I remember thinking my mom was the most beautiful woman on earth.  I loved how she smelled, her soft cheeks, the funny skin at the elbow that hung loose when her arm was straightened, the wrinkles on her forehead when she raised her eyebrows–I loved running my fingers over those again and again and my dear mother let me (thank you mom!).

I wonder what my daughters will remember about my body, about my beauty, once they are grown.  But I can’t know.  The essence of this beauty is that the one who has it isn’t entirely aware of it.  It is a beauty born of self-forgetfulness.  It is the beauty of motherhood.

And I think of all the mothers I know, the conversations I’ve had lately with other moms—we discuss our bellies, our changed shapes, the stretch marks.  The sag.  The widening.  The fact that we pee a little when we jog or bounce on trampolines or go to Zumba, we talk about changes in beauty that are usually taboo.  We empathize with each other and smile in comradery with a knowing nod.

But I think if we all looked carefully, if we all acknowledged honestly, we’d see the other beauty growing in each of us, too.  The beauty of self-forgetfulness.  The beauty of motherhood.

*        *        *

Back at our apple day, the apples we gathered have all been processed now.  They were once blossoms on the trees.  Then, they grew into fruit, were picked, washed, chopped and pressed.  Now, I bring home a jug of cider.  And I feel so wealthy.  Rich and sweet, deep gold in color, that sweet fruit transformed from stage to stage into this:  the essence of the thing itself, beautiful as the women who worked to make it.

*       *        *

What about you?  How do you feel in your beauty, in your body, in your motherhood?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I was silly and left my camera at home on apple-pressing day.  I am borrowing this image from another blog, http://localkitchen.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/apples1.jpg

I was forgetful and left my camera at home on apple-pressing day. I am borrowing this image from another blog,

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This Being Alive Thing

Just start to write.

Write something.

Yes, another cup of caffeine might help, but can you just sit down and write?

I want to say a perfect thing, a brilliant thing, a funny and/or insightful thing.

Write.  Just write.

Okay, I am writing.  I am doing it.  The words are appearing as my fingers hit the keys, nothing short of magic, really.  Nothing I understand, except loosely—something way down in the deep unknown of myself sparks a thought & language, then moves to a keyboard & electrical signals, and of course, the Internet, whatever that really is.  I don’t understand it, but I use it.  Like many things in my life: car, cellphone, refrigerator.  Loosely understood but often used.

I’d like to tell you about my day.  The walk down the hill to the coffee shop with my girls, passing the farm-stand along the way, the one overflowing with delicious summer garden abundance: cherry tomatoes, eggplant, spinach, & sunflowers.  I’d like to tell you about my day.  The song we were singing–or was it humming?–as we picked a few blackberry jewels off a neighbor’s rambling bush and crushed them in our mouths in jammy tart bursts.

We said hello to landscapers pulling weeds out of a half-hidden yard.  We said hello to two high school boys slouching in the bus shelter along the curb, or rather they said hello to us, loudly, which made me think it was a joke I am now too old to understand.  We picked pale purple flowers from the broken branch of a hydrangea, ate salty potatoes (which we sprinkled with extra salt) and drank a latte (me) and sparkling apple juice (them) under the almost sunny sky of the little waterfront village we call home.

I can try, but I can’t fully explain, the shape of my girl’s face as she sits across the table from me and tells me she wants to get her hair cut to her shoulders.  Her face, almost like a pear, sliced in half, so fresh and available and full of every ripe sweetness.  Her eyes could be the seeds, brown and shining, glinting with the thought of herself seated in a real salon chair, being pampered and shaped into another realm of beauty and grown-up-ness, a 6 and three-quarter year old queen.

And my little one, the light-bulb two-year old, flitting about the outdoor patio where we sit.  Skinning her knee here, on the gravely ground, then again there, on the stone pathway.  She melts into a whimper and a cry but after a quick scoop into my arms, and three tender kisses on each of her ouchies, she is off again– “my tay (I’m okay)”, she says–running, moving, an unstoppable force fueling her from an invisible source, like ocean waves or the orbit of the earth, just going, spinning, being.  Without explanation or self-awareness.  Existing as herself, fully and completely, she is mesmerizing.

We go to the bank, then the library, then make our way back up the hill.

We don’t pass anyone this time.  We just march up, the sun now streaming down, heading for home, pink lemonade popsicles, and nap time.

We live in luxury.  We are queens.  We have sun and blackberries, skinned knees and imagined haircuts.

We have ourselves, each other.  We have the invisible source/force holding us to this planet, fueling us down and up the hill of our town.

I can’t pretend to understand it fully, but I use it.  Often.  All the time.  This being alive thing.  This fuel, this source/force.  It creeps into everything we are and everything we do.  It uses us and we use it, inseparable.  The world shines of it, in broken flowering branches, in trips and falls, in the hot hike up the hill home, to more salty potatoes and cold, ripe figs for lunch.

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A path to Domestic Bliss

I have something to tell you: I am not a domestic perfectionist.

If you know me, if you’ve dropped my house unexpectedly, you know.  There are books and toys and DVDs strewn about, as well as dress-up clothes and yoga mats, the remnants of the fort we built yesterday and some paint splattered on the floor from an impromptu finger-painting session last night.  There are definitely dirty dishes in the sink.

Some might call it lived in.  Others might call it lazy.  I like to think of it as creative swirl.  And its a good thing.  It means that we are busy living our lives, busy making them feel right, instead of making them look right.

Don’t get me wrong, I think neat and tidy has its place.  I enjoy relaxing in a clean, crisp environment as much as the next person.  But as a mother, that is not my top priority.

If you have young kids you know what I mean: the process of cleaning up can seem never-ending.  It can become a battle ground, especially if you have a domestic perfectionist living inside of you.

But around here, we find perfection within the imperfection.

Around here, it is messy.  It is a creative swirl.

It is also fun and active.  We have important things to do.  Like wrestling and dance parties.  Bubble baths and homemade spa days.  Things like watching movies in a cuddle pile on the couch.  Or drinking tea, discussing the day’s unravelings— not letting “dealing with the mess” get top priority.

It was not always like this.  I’ve had to work, really work, at letting the house be messy and still being able to relax in it.

I’ve had to work at not letting my happiness depend on whether or not the laundry is folded and put away.

Before that, I was letting the state of the house determine my mood: if it was messy, I was unhappy.  I’d carry a dark grey cloud above my head, huffing around the house putting things away, blaming someone else for the mess, feeling resentful that I HAD to deal with it in order for my day to feel good again.  Sometimes I got really ugly and looked something like this:

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Then I realized something:  I didn’t HAVE to.  The mess didn’t have to come before my happiness.  My happiness could come first.  I could choose it.  I could look at that bad mood brewing in me because the house was untidy and I could not let it take over.  I could sit down in the middle of the house and not do anything at all to change it.  I could accept things as they were, crumbs and all.

Maybe I’d even shrug at the mess and laugh a little, wiggle my shoulders and jostle my head.  I’d decide to hug my kids and read to them in a cluttered house.  I’d decide to joyfully make pancakes for breakfast even if last night’s dishes were still in the sink.  I’d let the mess be, especially if letting it be meant I was a happier and more present person, a more loving mom, a more relaxed wife.

Now when I clean, I do it because I want to, because I enjoy it.  I don’t clean in order to maintain cleanliness, I clean because I want to create a fresh page, an empty canvas–so the creative swirl can be begin again in whatever way it needs to.

I won’t sacrifice a happy environment for a clean one anymore.  It’s just not worth it.  It took a lot of practice, but I no longer have a domestic perfectionist in me trying to control things and resist mess.  Instead, I have something else.  I like to think of it as a domestic goddess.  Yes, that’s right.

A domestic goddess has a home that feels full and fun and loving.  She has kids that know they can be messy without being scolded.  Kids that play without feeling stifled by a mom who needs everything to be cleaned up on the spot.  Kids who don’t stop being creative because they fear how tense mom gets when things get out-of-order.  She tidies up without anger or blame.  She spends time with her partner at the end of the day, making catching up more important than cleaning up.

A domestic goddess has a wide and long view, one that extends beyond this mess, this day, this week.    She sees down the road—way, way down when the kids are grown and everything is different—and seeing that place way down there, she turns and looks back.

With that perspective, she sees this moment, this splatter or spill or stain.  She laughs at it and wipes it up.  Or she steps right over it, that bit of creative swirl, and kisses or tickles or hugs whoever it was that made it.  And in that moment, she finds a snippet of domestic bliss.  It’s a wonderful place to be.