I am up at 3:30 in the morning. I have already had my raisin bran, and though it will keep me up, I am downing water. I was having a dream where I was raising my little boy in the neighborhood I grew up in (Michigan), but in my dream my friend Lizzie and her little boy were living up the street from us and Lizzie was driving me home from her house. As I woke up, she and I were planning a Sunday brunch in my backyard of pancakes with cherry topping and orange juice. I guess I was hungry!
Last night I went to a get together known as a Blessing Way. Hosted by my generous and graceful friend Jenn, the idea is that our way into Motherhood is blessed, supported, and acknowledged as the huge transition that it is. Women, all mothers or close friends, gather to share experiences, fears, and advice and to pledge support to the new moms to be.
What I knew going in was that there was a ceremonial aspect and the call to share my own fears or hopes. Well, me being me, I came with a certain dose of skepticism. Having been raised in the time of New Age, when the New Age really hit the fan and one might send Mom off on a weekend retreat to join a circle of meditating women holding hands and/or crying and/or singing and/or tarot reading and/or spirit guide finding and/or offering crystal healing while Dad went to a Robert Bly men’s power weekend, I am naturally skeptical of modern “ceremonies” (if you think I exaggerate ask me about the laying on of Aventurine for my shin splints). But, maybe because I am older or maybe because the hostess (a new mom herself) had very concrete intentions and knew exactly why we were there and what we needed to hear from the very real world of mothering awaiting us, the Blessing Way did not feel “put on” at all. Instead, it got right to the heart of things– at least for me. And though it was in honor of Lizzie and I, it clearly was for the benefit of each person in the room. It is a powerful thing to show up and let yourself be seen for who you are. Even the simple act of acknowledging how important the people sitting there are in my life was powerful.
I felt compelled by the sincerity and love that surrounded me and so when it was my turn I decided to be brave and share my fears about becoming a mother. Speaking them out loud was a difficult thing for me. At times this blog holds the space of speaking certain fears or experiences out loud, but you can’t see me and some of you don’t know me. Last night we wrote our significant mothering fears on bits of paper, and then speaking my fears out loud gave way to tears. I asked a trusted girlfriend to read them because I literally couldn’t get them all out and because if I had sobbed right at that moment, the artist drawing in henna on my belly would not have appreciated it! What saying my fears out loud did for me is bolster my confidence in my friends and in my progress into this uncharted territory of motherhood. No one tried to tell me my fears were irrational. No one looked away as if I had embarrassed them or myself. And I sit here today in the process and on the verge of becoming a mother and joining mothers everywhere in their fears, hopes, and in giving our lives to loving and supporting another human being. And let’s be realistic, it’s scary. From where I am, the birth is a blip in time compared to what comes after.
In a sense, one of my greatest fears is losing my self. To the passage of time (how many people have told me that once you have a baby, time just slips away?), to the care and tending and total surrender of my own inner resources to the life of my child. And what about my marriage? Faris is the love of my life. I am madly in love with this man. Can there be any greater love? Is there room for it? Will I emerge a mother and yet still the woman he loves? I have no doubt in our marriage or commitment, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of change. “This perfect little dyad becomes a triangle with all roads leading to the baby and you have to figure out how to find the road that connects you two again,” Jenn says. Well shoot, I thought we had that all figured out! And then:
Will I understand Sufyan? Will I know how to be close to him?
And when Sufyan becomes an adolescent, how will I stay connected to him? How will I remain in his life as he becomes a teenager–will I know how to bring him back if we lose him to that potential abyss? We have all been teenagers. Tell me it wasn’t an abyss or at least very rough terrain, and I won’t believe you. It was for me…it was incredibly difficult.
In a matter of weeks, Sufyan will become my little guru, the master in diapers, our teacher. I know this is a long post, so if you are interested look below these pictures I posted and you will see an AMAZINGLY beautiful piece of writing by Anne Cushman entitled “Mothering As A Meditation Practice”. It’s very powerful and very insightful and you should read it.
Gathering of friends:
Mothering as Meditation Practice by Anne Cushman (excerpted from Fall 2001 issue of Tricycle Magazine)
For the first few weeks of my son Skye’s life, he would only sleep if he could hear my heartbeat. From midnight to dawn he lay on my chest, his head tucked into the hollow of my throat, awakening every two hours to nurse. In the day, he’d nap in my arms as I rocked, a slideshow of emotions—joy, exasperation, amusement, angst, astonishment—flickering across his dreaming face, as if he were rehearsing every expression he would need for the rest of his life. If I dared set him in his bassinet, he’d wake up with a roar of outrage, red-faced and flailing. He cried whenever I changed his diaper. And every evening from 7 to 9 he cried for no apparent reason at all.
When Skye was two weeks old, I ate black bean tacos for dinner and he screamed until sunrise, his body stiff and his fists clenched. While I sobbed along with him, my husband called the emergency room, where the nurse on duty told us, kindly, that it sounded like gas. The next morning, a nutritionist friend assured me that everything would be fine so long as I stopped eating dairy, wheat, yeast, soy, corn, legumes, garlic, onions, tomatoes, sugar, peppers, broccoli, and citrus fruit (and considered dropping fish, mushrooms, and eggs). As Skye finally fell asleep in the crook of my right arm, I collapsed on the sofa in my bathrobe, eating cold brown rice with my left hand and spilling it in his hair.
It was about that time that I decided that what I had embarked on was an intensive meditation retreat. It had all the elements, I told myself: the long hours of silent sitting: the walking back and forth, going nowhere: the grueling schedule and sleep deprivation: the hypnotic, enigmatic chants (‘…and if that looking glass gets broke/Mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat…’); the slowly dawning realization that there is nothing to look forward to but more of the same. And at the center of it, of course, was the crazy wisdom teacher in diapers, who assigned more demanding practice than I had encountered in all of my travels in India—like ‘Tonight you will circumambulate the living room for two hours with the master in your arms, doing a deep-knee bend at every other step, and chanting, ‘Dooty-dooty-doot-doot-doo, Dooty-dooty-doot-doot-doo.’ Or ‘At midnight you will carry the sleeping master with you to the bathroom and answer this koan: How do you lower your pajama bottoms without using your hands?’
Like all great spiritual practices, these were exquisitely designed to rattle the cage of my ego. They smashed through my concepts about how things should be (rocking in the garden swing by the lavender bush, watching the hummingbirds, while my newborn slept in a bassinet by my feet) and pried open my heart to the way things actually were (standing by the diaper table, flexing one tiny knee after another into Skye’s colicky tummy, and cheering when a mustard-yellow fountain erupted from his behind). And with every breath of my ‘baby sesshin’, I was offered the opportunity to cradle my child in my arms like the baby Buddha and be present for a mystery unfolding…
As a new mother, I’ve found myself wondering: How are other women negotiating the dance between practice and parenting? How does their practice affect their mothering? How does being a mother affect their practice? Are mothers changing the forms of Buddhism in America?
And—the most compelling question of all for me—can mothering really be a path of practice every bit as valid as the monastic path? Can suctioning the snot from a sick baby’s nose have the simplicity and purity of a nun’s prostrations? Can wiping out a diaper pail lead to ‘the awakening of Buddha and his ancestors’?
On one level, this question seems absurd. Nothing could be further from the regimented march of a formal retreat than the disheveled dance of motherhood. The books on my bedside table used to be about pursuing Awakening in the Himalayas. Now they’re about preventing awakening in the middle of the night. There’s a diaper changing table where my altar used to be; my zafus and zabutons have been requisitioned to cushion Skye’s play area. Forget about chewing a single raising for five minutes and admonitions to ‘when you eat, just eat’—I’m on the phone with Skye on my hip, ordering baby-proof plates for the electrical outlets as I eat cold potstickers with my fingers straight from the cardboard box and rub fresh spit-it up into the floor with one socked foot. It’s hard to find the moment even to tell my self that this is a spiritual path—I’m too busy looking for Skye’s other mitten…
Could there be any better way to get my nose rubbed in the truth of impermanence that to love a child in a jagged, careless world? Napping with sky in my king-size bed—his head on my breast, my nose pressed against the dark silk of his hair—I watch the heartbeat fluttering in the soft spot on his skull. Forget about freeways and plutonium, and stealth bombers—I’ve been sternly warned that even a teddy bear could suffocate him in his crib. At night, when he’s been silent a couple of hours, I creep into his room and stand in the dark, not moving for fear of creaking a floorboard, until I hear him sigh.
And even if everything goes absolutely perfectly, I know that this particular Skye—the one who warbles and passionately sucks on the bill of his rubber duck as he splashes with me in the tub—is going to dissolve like bubble bath. Yesterday he was a kicking bulge in my belly as I swam laps in the July sun; tomorrow he’ll be a middle aged man, weeping and scattering my ashes in a mountain lake. Watching Skye rub strained carrots into his eyelashes, my husband says, ‘It’s so beautiful that it hurts.’
I feel plugged into the world now, in a way that I never have been before. As I feed my child out of my own body, I see how I am fed by the body of the earth. I’m crocheted to a chain of mothers before me, and a chain of unborn children who will inherit a world I can’t even imagine. I want Skye’s grandchildren to be able to swim in the Pacific, and hike the granite ridges of the Sierra, and gasp at blue herons standing on one leg in Bolinas Lagoon.
Is this ‘attachment’? Or connectedness?
I don’t mean to be grandiose. I know these insights aren’t the pristine diamond of Samadhi. They’re a sloppier, stickier kind of realization, covered in drool and Cheerio crumbs. But maybe this is the gift of mothering as practice—a kind of inclusiveness that embraces chaos and grit and imperfection. It’s not based on control or keeping things tidy.
It makes room in its heart for a plastic dump truck in the middle of the living room floor, and rap music leaking under a bedroom door at midnight. It doesn’t slip away in the middle of the night to search for enlightenment. It stays home with Rahula the Fetter, and finds it there.
As mothers, what can we make of the story of the Buddha leaving his family in the middle of the night?
I asked Fu Schroeder. ‘Oh but he wasn’t the Buddha when he left his child. He was a young prince, in terrible pain,’ she answered.
‘If you’re awake, you don’t leave your child. Where would you go?’