Swell Seasons: When Motherhood Is Like the Ocean
This motherhood deal is a pretty classy gig.
There are so many things that have surprised me about being a mom. Like how crawling on the floor of a public restroom would ever be a consideration. Or how decentering having a baby can be, yet how wholly I would want to give myself to another. Another thing that surprised me is the saturation of feeling that would flood me at unexpected times.
Motherhood reminds me of playing in the ocean. Like when I was in high school and we spent most of our summer days at the beach. We would wake up late, and if we had spent the night at Michelle’s we would eat peanut butter swirl ice cream for brunch. Then we’d pile too many people into someone’s mom’s minivan and head to Oceanside for an afternoon in the sand. We would oil our skin, bronze until we blistered (I know, I know), and then run to the water to cool off. The waves made for a great diversion from all the boy watching and red-vine licorice eating.
In order to really experience the waves, we would swim out as far as possible while still touching the bottom; then we’d wait for the biggest ones to roll in. The game was to try to jump over the waves without getting knocked back to shore. If a wave was powerful enough, and you chose to jump, the swell would sweep your feet out from under you. You would get tossed around a bit and inhale some water up your nose until you regained your footing, just in time for the next wave. The goals were to keep your balance, to laugh like crazy when you lost it, and to avoid exposing your booty to the entire shoreline when your swimsuit bottom got rearranged in the surf.
Being a mom is like high school at the beach; I am constantly being moved by swells that threaten my footing.
Some of us are initiated into motherhood with an inner knowing. We are the ones who notice the first flutter of life inside us. We carry our children for months and know them before anyone else does. Others of us come to motherhood with an inner knowing that our child is to be welcomed from an external place, where we labor for years with hope and paperwork to welcome them into our family. How we arrive at motherhood has no bearing on the fact that it is filled with seasons made up of the brightest and also the darkest of days.
Darkness is immediate. Our bellies swell, or our hearts are knit together in the dark of another’s womb. We rock and feed babies in the dark. For some of us postpartum depression is the pitchest black we have ever known. From the dark womb we welcome new life, and our own new life, a life we haven’t known, unfolds before us as well. The unknown can feel uncertain with its shadows.
Daylight comes, as it always does, and we feel a little more equipped to face the new swells. Time goes by and we realize we are enjoying ourselves. We laugh at what once overwhelmed us, and we welcome firsts without so much fear.
First tooth, first step, first word. First day of preschool.
We laugh with our friends about how growing a baby took nine months, but bedtime takes for-freaking-ever.
Motherhood is full of joy, full of moments that make you relish who you are becoming. You give and give, and it’s okay because there is no shortage of love in your starry depths. Until it is infuriating as all get-out because you can’t reason with a four-year-old crazy person who, once all sweetness, is now screaming at you because she wanted the cherry sucker, not the stupid grape one. Bless her heart.
Your nighttime watch comes round again. You sit with a child whose fever is raging like fire, his hot breath on your neck. Your arms are tired, not from the holding but from the weariness that threatens to pin you to the floor. Tears swell. Worry and exhaustion make the night feel long and lonely.
The fever breaks, and relief washes over you. The light returns. Bedtime still takes for-freaking-ever, but that is okay because motherhood is made up of hard and beautiful moments that come together to create some pretty swell seasons.
Sun and inky blue water. Light and darkness at the same time.
One thing I have learned in my thirteen years of being a mom (I know what you are thinking, I couldn’t possibly be old enough to have a thirteen-year-old; you’re right, and I love you) is that we miss out on the fun because of our expectations. Thoughts that sweep our feet out from under us are, “I thought I would be a better mom, I thought my birth story would be different, I don’t feel as happy as I thought I would, I can’t do it all.”
Not being able to do it all is my shame trigger. And I am one of those really bad jugglers. I disappoint people and I forget my nephew’s birthday and I miss deadlines. It is in my bad juggling moments, when I can’t attain my self-imposed standard of perfection, that I feel like a complete failure—even though my nephew eventually gets a present, and the assignment gets turned in a few days late. It has taken a lot of years and some therapy to realize that my idea of perfection is a myth. It is completely unattainable. And trying to live at an unattainable pace has sucked all the fun right out of my soul more often than I care to admit.
For me, the trick of regaining my perspective and joy in mothering is permission to live freer. Free from clenched hands. Free not to always need to be in control. Free to do life my own way, not how everyone else is doing it. And free from being held hostage by the myth of perfection. Have you ever noticed how perfection looks good with her shiny manicure and homemade kombucha, but really she is the snob that no one wants to invite to their BBQ? The reason is perfection is annoying and frankly no fun. I find perfection is at best an illusion and at worst a lie. And this whole concept of defining success as the ability to balance everything only makes sense if you are a juggler in the circus.
Being a mom is all of it. Light and dark, joy, frustration, and consuming love. I think Debra Ginsberg had it right when she said, “Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did—that everything involving our children was painful in some way. The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain.”
For the rest of my life, I will be wading in the swells. I will feel it all deeply—the moments of darkness and the blindingly beautiful light. I will mess up and succeed—both many times over. Through all the swells there will be something holy, like a mother, putting breath back into lungs and holding close so there is no doubt about the depth of love surrounding it all: this fierce, fragile, thrilling, midnight motherhood.
Whatever season you are in—waiting for a baby, hoping for a mate, sending kids to college, or beginning a new adventure—may part of your story be about trusting that the swells are part of the game. And that jumping in is always worth it.
Mandy Arioto is the President and CEO of MOPS International, and is widely known for her unique take on parenting, relationships, spiritual and cultural issues. Through MOPS, which influences millions of moms through thousands of groups internationally, Mandy serves as the voice of one of the most influential parenting organizations in the U.S. and around the world. Prior to joining MOPS, Mandy was a preaching pastor at Mosaic, a church based in Southern California. She regularly speaks to national and international audiences.
Most importantly, Mandy loves thunderstorms, is one of the best listeners you will ever meet, is a mediocre hula-hooper and finds the details of being human deeply fascinating. She and her husband, Joe, live in Denver, Colorado and have three young children, Joseph, Ellie and Charlotte. Mandy’s debut book Starry-Eyed: Seeing Grace in the Unfolding Constellation of Life and Motherhood is available now wherever books are sold.
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