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These four faces made me a mother: the first by birth, the second by fire, the third by boy, and the fourth by grace. Every step I’ve taken in health and growth, spiritually, physically and mentally, has been to make me a better mother to them.

They gave me the question of my life: “How can I love better, bigger, and more fully?”

The answers have often surprised me and almost always cost me something I didn’t expect,  but it has been worth it every time.

When they were small, I gave up my body, my time, my work, my sense of autonomy, and even some of my dreams. As they grew, I gave up thinking I always knew what was best, right, or even true for them.

Instead I just tried to love them well and set them free to be whoever God made them to be. In return, I’ve received the privilege of their presence, intelligence, humor, curiosity, compassion and company and I also received the gift of that question, the one that animates my life and keeps leading me down new paths and to new discoveries.

“How can I love better, bigger, and more fully?”

So Happy Mother’s Day to the kids who made a mom of me!

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A Mother's Love Letter to Herself
A Mother’s Love Letter to Herself

Mother’s day is approaching. It’s hard to forget it if you are on social media, as sentimental posts about the glory of moms flood the news feeds. Ostensibly, these images were created by men and women for their mothers, but obviously, they were created by moms for themselves. More than anything, they are a reflection of how we hope our kids feel about us. We share them as a tribute to our mamas, but really, we are just sending them as love letters to ourselves. A mother-child relationship is infinitely more complex. It’s a wonderfully complicated combination of love, devotion, and gratitude, with a healthy dose of resentment, and old wounds mixed in. If you don’t have mixed emotions about your mom, then you’ve done a lot of inner work, or you’re in total denial.

I know that traditional Mother’s Day offerings are flowers, brunches and pretty cards, but is there space for a little bit of honesty too? A bit of gentle teasing about all the things your mama really taught you?

The first things that come to mind about my mom can’t be romanticized, though they can be appreciated. She taught me how to burn chicken, go to church, play Scrabble and clip coupons. She taught me to love the beach, dancing and the Jackson Five. She taught me to prioritize travel, education and physical activity. She taught me self-discipline, thriftiness and that reading is a wonderful way to spend your time. I’ve used all those skills and they have served me well. If you want lessons, I will give you her number.

But there were some things my mother couldn’t teach me, because she didn’t know how to do them herself. My mother does not snuggle, except with babies. Her hugs are all shoulders and hipbones, even for those she loves deeply. Handholding is inefficient and slightly uncomfortable. Strong emotions are suspect, to be squashed if possible. Tears are dehydrating. Poetic language beyond her. If she feels something, you might know it, but probably not because she told you herself. Risk-taking is synonymous with irresponsibility, as is following your instincts and eating out too often.

Though they aren’t my favorite qualities, I understand where they came from. They are part of a family legacy, passed on to her from devout, depression-era parents, who raised eight children, making sure everyone got some, but no one got more than enough. That was true of candy bars, soda pop and probably even love.

While those are the easiest things to rattle off about my mom, they certainly aren’t the whole picture, so I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you a little more. It is Mother’s Day after all.

This is my Mother’s Day card for Sylvia.

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For better and for worse, I am my mother’s daughter. I have learned and unlearned a thousand things from her, but these are the ones that I hope to carry on.

She is fiercely loyal to her family and friends. She shows up to every event on time and she does not gossip. Sylvia’s got your back. She is deeply faithful to her God and her husband. You do not make mass every Sunday and stay married for forty-eight years without saying to yourself, every day, “I’m in this for long haul.” She shows up where she’s needed. There is no task too big, or too small. From rocking a baby, to mopping the floor, to organizing charity events, Sylvia is on the job. Her home is open and so is the kitchen. Children, grandchildren, friends, friends of family, and friends of friends from foreign countries have all found a warm, clean bed and a full fridge in her house, just a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. No checkout fee required, only the hope of a good conversation.

Finally, my mother loves her children deeply, though she rarely says so. Words are not Sylvia’s forte, but ironically, they are mine. I need things spelled out for me and so for years I mistook her acts of love and service as her children’s inevitable due. I thought that sacrificing a career and personal creativity, making meals, driving carpools, and planning family activities was just what moms did. I thought it was their job. I know better now.

It was a choice and it’s a choice she continues to make for all of us. Her job is even bigger now that we are all married with kids of our own. Instead of the four she started with, she now has four daughters, four sons, and twelve grandchildren. She makes sure everyone has some, and hopes that it’s enough. But I have to admit, she set our expectations pretty high and though she won’t say so, she probably feels stretched thin, meeting the “needs” of her ever-growing family.

So Mom, here is my Mother’s Day “gift” to you today. I’m sorry it’s in my native language of words, expressing perhaps too much honesty and emotion. Tomorrow, I will try to show my love for you in your native tongue of action. When I see you, I will give you a sideways hug, play a game of Scrabble, and clear a table. We can do some dancing, cuddle some babies and walk on the beach. Together, we can show our family how we love them.

P.S. If you think I’m being hard on my Mom, whom I love and respect dearly, I write this knowing full well my own children will have a laundry list a mile long of the things they need to unlearn from me and my “love.” It will probably include an overemphasis on deep breathing, inspirational quotes, and self-awareness, as well as an obsession with laundry day routines, repetitive menus and the reapplication of sunscreen.

New Mother's Day tradition? Running the R.O.C. race in Del Mar.
New Mother’s Day tradition? Running the R.O.C. race in Del Mar.

Though publishing anything here has been difficult for me of late, I felt a Mother’s Day blog was a non-negotiable.

It must happen.

This will be my third one, which means that I’ve been publishing for almost three years. Blogging feels like dog years. It’s been a really long time and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m slowing down.

It’s not that I’m not writing. It’s just that I’m writing about things I can’t share with all of you.

When I started the blog, Keara was 14. She was just starting at an all-girls, Catholic high school, with all the innocence of an oldest child raised in PG household. For the most part, she wasn’t even watching prime time TV yet. Finn was 12 and puberty seemed a long way off. Molly was still a baby in my eyes and she was happy in that role. Their stories were mine to use and though I was respectful, they didn’t have much of a choice. They could say “yes” or “no”, but with mom looking over their shoulder, eager to hit “publish,” I never once had a kid stop me.

Over time, especially in the last year, that well has dried up. There are plenty of stories, juicy ones too: love, loss, betrayal, effort and reward, victory and defeat, but for the most part, they are no longer mine to tell. I am a witness to them; I may be a part of them. I am learning, growing and changing from them, but the major players no longer want to be on stage and without them, the theater seems empty.

How many one-woman plays can an audience stand?

I guess we won’t know the answer unless I keep publishing, which I plan to do, just perhaps less frequently.

The other day, I watched an interview with Sue Monk Kidd, best known for her novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair among others. She was married at 20, a mother of 2 kids and a working nurse by 25. On her 30th birthday, she announced to her family that she was going to become a writer. She was over 50 when her first novel was published. For obvious reasons, I was encouraged by her timeline, but what I appreciated even more was her wisdom.

When asked, “What do you know for sure?” Kidd replied, “What you pay attention to matters; the love I gave, the love I received are the most important things. Just to be is holy. Just to live is a gift. I know that for sure.” She also quoted Stephen Hawking, who said, “Real genius is radical humility, for when you humble yourself before what you don’t know, you open yourself to possibility.”

Listening to Kidd shifted my focus. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and though I hope for some authentic gestures of love and gratitude from my family, I’m going to pay attention to the things that matter. I can give love; I can be present. I will never be a genius, but life seems eager to work on my humility each and every day, which is great, because I want to be open to possibility.

Before she turned her hand to fiction, Sue Monk Kidd wrote three spiritual memoirs, which I discovered several years ago. Though I like her stories, I love her own. While reading When the Heart Waits, I took a passage and put it on a sticky note on my laptop. Though it isn’t always open, I see the title every day. It is called, “Sue Monk Kidd’s Prayer and Mine too” and it goes like this:

God,

I don’t want to live falsely, in self-imposed prisons and fixed comfortable patterns that confine my soul and diminish the truth in me. So much of me has gone underground. I want to let my soul out. I want to be free to risk what’s true, to be myself. Set free the daring in me – the willingness to go within, to see the self-lies. I’ll try to run away, but don’t let me. Don’t let me stifle myself with prudence that binds the creative re-visioning of life and the journey toward wholeness.

I’m scared. God make me brave. Lead me in the enormous spaces of becoming. Help me cease the small, tedious work of maintaining and protecting, so that I can break the masks that obscure your shining in the night of my own soul. Help me to green my soul and risk becoming the person you created me to be. 

Tomorrow I may regret these words, but tonight I speak them, for I know that you are somewhere inside them, that you love me and won’t leave me alone in their echo.

Amen

She wrote that prayer some time around 40 and when asked on the show, “Have you become the woman you wanted to be?” Kidd said, “I am becoming that woman, yes.”

At 65 years old, she is becoming. I love that. Twenty-five years later, her prayer is still being answered.

Too often, I think the answers should already be known (by me) and the outcome assured. I falsely believe that I should have already arrived, but Kidd’s response humbled me. If I can accept that I am becoming and always will be, the possibilities are endless, not just for me, but for all of us.

So Happy Mother’s Day to those of you who have given birth, or raised children and loved your little ones so much you thought your heart would break, but a special note of gratitude to everyone who has nurtured something new within themselves and had the courage to share it with the world. Neither are small tasks and both are necessary for the good of the world.

Postscript:

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating how much my family life has changed over the last few years, here is a visual perspective.

Mother's Day breakfast at Pipes Cafe, 2012
Mother’s Day breakfast at Pipes Cafe, 2012

Here are some pictures of the kids taken within the last couple weeks, just two years later. I couldn’t even put the same filter on the images to make them look more cohesive. It felt dishonest, since they are so different and yet each image perfectly captures the attitude they put out the world: Keara crosses her arms, suspicious of it all. Finn is literally one of the most “laid-back”people I know and Molly is going to give you a smile and play the game, any time, any day.

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Keara at 17, Finn at 15 and Molly at almost 12.

 

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This is the conversation Tim and I had this morning.

Me: I have a couple of good ideas for Mother’s Day gifts if you need any hints.

Tim: Do we give gifts on Mother’s Day?

Me: You’re joking, right?

Tim: No. Seriously, is it a gift-giving occasion?

Me: Really, you are joking, aren’t you?

In case you don’t know Tim personally, he jokes ALL THE TIME. There is no good reason for me, or anyone else, to take what he says at face value.

At any rate, he finally convinced me that he truly didn’t remember if he, or the kids, were supposed to have a gift waiting for me on Sunday morning.

I immediately forwarded him the link to “The Mother’s Day Debate” and thought I would share it with all of you, just in case someone in your life forgot as well.

“The Mother’s Day Debate”

My friend T and I were discussing Mother’s Day traditions last night – what we were doing on Sunday, what our kids, or husbands had planned, what we hoped for. We were definitely on the same page. We don’t need them to do something big; we don’t need them to do something fancy. We just need them to do something.

I definitely have friends who take the martyr approach, who are of the “It’s no big deal” variety – moms who are happy to overlook a lack of effort, sincerity, time, or money spent. I am not one of them, and as a result, there have been some rocky Mother’s Days around our home.

Before that second Sunday in May, I’d like to my kids know that:

There is such a thing as gratitude. There is such a thing as acknowledging the fact that each and every day, I serve you. I cook for you, clean for you, drive for you. I entertain you, love you, tuck you in at night, take care of you when you are sick, celebrate your accomplishments and mourn your defeats. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE doing this and I love you. I will continue to do this, whether or not I get anything special on Mother’s Day, Christmas, or my birthday. I will tell myself that deep down, you really do appreciate me and deep down, I really do believe it’s true.

However, I think Mother’s Day is a nice opportunity for my husband to reinforce the messages we try to teach our kids all year long: the art of acknowledgement, the joy of gift-giving, the impact of making an effort.

When they were all in elementary school, he had it easier. The teachers would help the kids make little balls of crepe paper flowers, signs of love, or traced handprints with poems written to melt a mama’s heart. Those were the good old days. I’ve only got the baby left in that demographic, and even her handprints aren’t that cute any more.

So now the onus is all on Tim. Somehow, he has to inspire the troops to really love on their mom. How will it turn out this year? It’s questionable – because they’re growing up and bought into the hype that it’s no big deal, that Mother’s Day is just another Hallmark holiday, that a hug and a kiss and a mumbled “Happy Mother’s Day” is good enough.

Sorry mister, it’s really not.

I’d like Tim to know that:

I know you are busy. I know the kids are lukewarm about shopping. I know you detest it. But I’d really like to get something from someplace other than Hallmark, Rite Aid and Starbucks, the three shops in a row at the strip mall a mile away from our home. I like to think my perfect Mother’s Day is pretty easy. A morning latte and blueberry scone, a trip to the beach, a plate of buffalo wings and a pitcher of dark beer for dinner, while we watch an NBA playoff game. You’ve said before that my Mother’s Day is a surfing man’s dream.

Tim might like to remind me at this point that I am not all that easy. That I forgot about wanting to go to church as a family, which always involves arguments about showers, clothing and shoe-choices. G**- Forbid, Molly has to wear something besides her slip-on, checkered Vans with a hole in the toe. Since it’s Mother’s Day, he has to do all the arguing. He might also mention that my morning latte is actually a “grande, two-pump, extra-hot, non-fat, vanilla latte,” which he can never order right since he only gets it for me once a year, and then despite his effort and embarrassment at ordering such a ridiculous thing, he has to see me be almost satisfied, instead of completely so. Finally, he doesn’t like dark beer, or buffalo wings, but I order them and he eats them, because after all, it is Mother’s Day. 

Now, if anyone is getting defensive on my poor family’s behalf, let me just say again that a gift doesn’t need to be big. It doesn’t need to be expensive. It doesn’t even have to be a bouquet of over-priced flowers. It just needs to speak my love language, which means it needs to come from the heart. And if their hearts are blank, if they come up empty when it comes to me, well then, that’s a story for another day. But I am going to pretend like that’s not the case. I am going to hope that they just need a little bit of encouragement to dig deep, take some time and put down on paper a little bit of mom-love. Is that too much to ask? Colored markers speak volumes.

Tim might also like to jump in here and point out that for his birthday last week I failed miserably at this very challenge. Only two out of three of our kids mustered up the energy to make him a birthday card and his gifts consisted of two gift cards from that same strip mall I was just complaining about.

In my defense, he always says we don’t need to get him anything. never say that! But okay, I’m humbled, but that’s not the point. The point is the ideal we are shooting for here people!

So what do you think, moms? Is Mother’s Day a big deal, or not? Does your family step up, or is it just another Hallmark-holiday to you? And what do you do to honor your mom, and your mother-in-law, and your sisters and all the other mothers you know and love and your own role in your family all in the same day?

P.S. As I finished writing, I looked up and saw this. It was my one of my best Mother’s Day presents ever. I actually have it hanging next to my bed to help me remember who I am.

Molly's Mother's Day Creation

Last Sunday, Keara saw a personalized license plate and said with a smirk on her face, “You know mom, Mother’s Day is coming up. What if we got you a plate that said COOLMOM. Would you use it?”

Now, lest you think my daughter actually believes I’m cool, she doesn’t. It’s our little inside joke.  We recently saw a play together where a “cool mom” showed up. In the first act, a tour group leader was taking attendance. When he called out, “Mom,” a dorky, fanny pack-wearing woman stepped out of line, threw her thumbs up like Arthur Fonzarelli, gave a couple serious hip-thrusts and said, “I’m not a mom; I’m a cool mom.” I almost died laughing, as my kids rolled their eyes and looked at me. Like the woman on stage, I’ve been known to rock a fanny pack on occasion. It’s cutting edge fashion.

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But in all seriousness, I think I’m a middle-of-the-road cool mom. It’s not like my kids particularly want to hang out with me, or introduce me to all their friends, but they don’t avoid me either. I am good for all the typical mom things, plus I surf and keep a stash of candy in my car. Those are bonuses to be sure, but I also dance and sing in front of their friends too often.

This week however, I got a new label at a book club meeting. Many of the parents were sharing stories about how stressed out their teens were and how hard they have to work to keep their grades up. I share their pain, or I did until one dad complained that he didn’t know how his daughter got anything done between Twitter on her IPhone and The Kardashians on TV. On impulse, I shared our strategies and then, I wished I hadn’t. For Keara, there is no TV during the week; all tech gets checked in at 10pm, phones and computers included and if a grade falls below the agreed-on standard, there’s no Itouch, or laptop until it comes back up. Keara might not like the rules, but she gets them. She knows tech is the distraction. It keeps her from sleeping, studying, and socializing with real human beings. We don’t look at it as a punishment. We look at it as a way of helping her manage her responsibilities. When she is managing fine, she has all the freedom in the world. When she isn’t, we help her out. For my contribution to the conversation, I got labeled, “The Mean Mom” by the host, and I’m not sure she meant it in a good way.

How funny is that? I am the “Cool Mom” to my kids and the “Mean Mom” to my peers.

Just last night, at a school open house, a dad made a comment about his 16-year-old son who is really giving him a hard time and rolled his eyes towards K, assuming we were in the same boat. I told him we were doing pretty well actually.

He looked almost disappointed. “Do you want to trade with me?” he asked.

“Naw,” I shrugged. “We’re good.” And I woke up this morning thinking about why that is.

I think it’s about balance. My friend at book club might be a little too lenient. She didn’t have the stomach for a fight with her precious little girl, so she had let her run her own program. But other parents are too tough, too fixated on their own point view. On book club night, a dad and I were talking about our girls. When he heard that Keara was interested in music, art and fashion design, he said, “My daughter wants to go into fashion too.” I thought we were about to bond on the best schools and internships we’d found, but he followed it up with, “but she’s going to engineering school.”

Oh. Well, that’s another way to go with your child’s dreams.

We’ve all heard that perfect love drives out all fear, so I am guessing that most of us love our children very imperfectly. It seems to me that we parent out of fear most of the time. We fear they won’t love us if we disappoint, or discipline them, so we let them spin out of control and run roughshod over us. But forcing our own agenda and point of view on our maturing kids is simply another fear-based method. We fear for their future and what other people will think of us if our kids don’t meet a certain standard of success, so we ram our plans down their throats. I’ve parented out of fear most of my life, in both extremes.

When the kids were small, I was the softy, which was tough on my relationship with Tim, but when Keara hit the teenage years, I became hard as nails, which was destroying my relationship with her. Thankfully, I got some good advice last spring that saved us all.

While on retreat in Santa Barbara, the director asked us to bring to mind a painful relationship in our lives and I thought of Keara and all the ways she was driving me crazy. I could find fault with virtually everything she did and didn’t do and I felt totally justified in my hardness, because I was just trying to make her better. As her mom, it was my job to help her grow up “right.”

I don’t know what I expected the director to say next, but it wasn’t what I heard.  She asked us to close our eyes and consider a simple series of questions: “How does this person see me? Who do this person think I am? Who am I in this person’s eyes?” She asked us to drop our defenses and see those answers as truthfully as we could. In that moment, I broke down and cried, because I was horrified at what I saw. Through Keara’s eyes, I saw judgment and criticism. I saw pursed lips and raised eyebrows. I saw a mama on a warpath, who said “I love you” with her mouth, but almost never with her eyes. And I saw our future relationship and it hardly existed at all. When given a choice, do we ever willingly spend time with someone who treats our hopes and dreams, talents and beliefs with so little respect, or appreciation? I came home from that weekend and apologized for parenting her out of fear, instead of love.

As her mother today, I want most of the same things for her I wanted a year ago. I want her to be healthy and well. I want her to be good. I want her to have self-discipline and drive. I want her to succeed in whatever she is passionate about. But more than anything, I want her to be loved. I want her to know she is beloved of me, of her father, of God. If she doesn’t know that, then she doesn’t stand a chance in this world. That is the one thing I could never fully communicate to her when I was afraid.

Fear made me want to “perfect” her. Love reminds me that she is already perfect.

One of the hardest things about parenting is coming to understand that Loving our kids doesn’t always mean what we think it does. When they are small, Love means protecting them because they are vulnerable, but as they grow, Love means being vulnerable ourselves. It means dropping our defenses and agendas. It means admitting when we are wrong. It means trusting in their budding self-awareness and helping them to become the best they can be, (which might not line up with who we’d like them to be). At the risk of sounding like a cliche, love means letting go, but we can’t do it if we are afraid. We can only do it  if we are in Love.

People can think of me as a cool mom, or a mean mom, but the one thing I want to be is a fearless one.

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