Making peace with Mother’s Day

Earlier this week, my husband made the decision that we were not going to church today. I was totally on board with this, and very happy that I did not have to make the decision and the argument to go along with it. It’s not that we hate church; it’s just that the church in general worships mothers and traditional gender norms. The liturgy in our church has been more inclusive in recent years, but in general it’s just better for our mental health if we opt out.

So we did, and I had a fantastic day. The thing is, though, that correlation does not equal causation. Therefore while I had a chill morning of coffee and reading and thinking about planting flowers, the calm did not necessarily come from staying home from church. It’s all much more complicated than that.

It’s been five years since we decided to live life without pursuing parenthood, and seven years since we actively started trying to have children. Mother’s Day throughout those years has been tough. We are very thankful we have both of our mothers, but I’ve lost both grandmothers and my great-grandmother within the past 5 years. That grief plus the very intangible grief of infertility led me down a path of self-discovery that’s been often strewn with falling rocks, boulders, and paradoxically some of the most beautiful views.

I’ve been slowly finding my place in the world as a mid-30’s married woman with no children. You’d think that it’d be pretty easy to fit right in considering half the world’s population is women or people with a uterus, and my station in life really is not as marginalized as many I am acquainted with. However, in our arguably dominant microcosm of America, the pressure is on to be so many things all at the same time. Space is not held for those who want to tread their own path in life – we have to make the space ourselves, and usually that comes at a cost.

The cost for me, well, I’m not too sure what it’s been. Maybe friends. Maybe closeness with some family members. Maybe other opportunities. But now I’m at a point where I tell my story and make my own space. We had a “community circle” type of professional development recently at work where we had to answer the question, “What is a failure that you cherish?” Many people mentioned failures in school, in previous jobs, those sorts of things.

Whether or not people felt comfortable hearing it, I mentioned that infertility was a failure that I cherish for reasons that were shrouded in a fog of grief even a couple years ago. To this day I still can’t quite discern the reaction I felt from my fellow teachers – surprise, apathy, pity – but truly, I don’t care. I stated my peace while sharing just enough. A couple people told me “thank you” for sharing. I can’t say that I could have done it as gracefully a few years back. Maybe even as recently as six months ago. Self awareness and development is hard work, yo.

That’s how I feel every time I meet a new friend or new colleagues after being assigned a new work location. I’m always so glad people are meeting me at this very moment and not a minute sooner. I have more to offer that’s going to benefit other people. I don’t overshare. I really don’t give too many shits about what people think, but not in a self-destructive kind of way.

And that brings us back to Mother’s Day. Mostly today I felt like I was adjacent to the party, willingly hanging out on my own instead of feeling pushed out or shunned. That has a lot more to do with my own attitude and feelings toward this day than it does how people treat me. I think it was luck that intervened when I didn’t hear an ill-placed Mother’s Day wish, not people being mindful of whom they were extending Mother’s Day wishes. It was refreshing to not feel bitter or judge-y or torn-up. It was a feeling of, “I see you guys are having a good time celebrating your ability/choice to have children, but I’m not part of it and it’s okay. In fact, I’ve chosen to not go all in for this party.”

After doing hard work, I can be comfortable on this day. I can go out in public and not be walking on eggshells wondering how someone’s well-intentioned wishes may affect me by throwing off my whole day. If I do feel any ill effects, I lose minutes instead of afternoons or evenings. Most importantly, I’ve now mastered the training needed to hold space for others who feel othered.

Books under the rug

The memories we have as children are grossly underestimated. The experiences, people, sayings, jokes, smells, foods, books… it’s really amazing that all of this fits so well as it’s swept under a rug. Until it doesn’t fit, and one by one each memory or book or food grows legs and crawls out, peeking its head out to see if we notice it.

And once you notice it, you can’t not notice it. And then you have to decide what to do with it. Ignore it? Try to shove it back under the rug? Good luck with that, because all the other things under the rug have already spread out a bit more, just like you do when your spouse leaves you and the dog sleeping in the bed. It’s the nature of living things to spread out and take up more space when they can.

So then you have this thing to deal with. You can decide what to do with it. Deal with it immediately? Hold it and inspect it for cracks and lies? Set it on a shelf to collect dust? Whatever it is, your brain has a neural pathway for that, I promise.

My neural pathways have made detours and new paths with lots of gravel and potholes, but new inroads nonetheless.

Upon learning of my impending transition to teaching high school again, I judiciously curated my collection of items I’d acquired over the past four years of teaching elementary. This included a box of books that is now on the floor of my office closet. Many of those books were ones I purchase to have a copy for when I was working on students with the prescribed curricula – books about Biscuit and Little Bear and rocks and Willy Wonka.

Where this overlaps is that many of these books I had on the bookshelf in the nursery in my mind. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of my gifts for their children knows that I am a pusher of literacy. You will read, and you will like it. Or at the very least, know how to do it and use it to your advantage. In teaching elementary students, I found many books I added to the bookshelf in my head. One that was already there was Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman.

And thoughts and memories of this book are what catapulted me into an ugly cry at 6:05 AM after I’d been laying awake for at least an hour and a half. It was triggered by something as innocent as my husband telling the dog to “give your momma a kiss, no not me, I’m not your momma…”

Are You My Mother? is a children’s story about a baby bird that falls out of a tree and thus is separated from his mother. He spends the whole book walking around, trying to find out where his mother is. We can assume that he’s so young that he’s not yet imprinted on his bird mother and maybe this is a reason he’s having trouble figuring out that no, the dog is not his mother. And the boat was not his mother. And so on.

Some descriptions of this book call the baby bird’s wandering “hilarious,” but fuck me if this isn’t one of the saddest books out there. I never realized this sad perspective until the memory of the book came back to me. How sad for the mother and the baby bird to go through this event.

I could not tell you why this was one of my favorite books when I was young, and one of my favorites to introduce my students to (most of them were Spanish-speaking and I had the bilingual edition). I knew who my mother was, and I never questioned it. I was never separated from my mother like this baby bird was. I’m sure there’s more I could explore about being emotionally separated for a period of time.

I wanted to read this to my child. Over and over. To teach them the basic names of certain things, and to indirectly teach them how invert the subject and verb to make a yes/no question (linguist here). I wanted this book to get lots of handprints on the cover and maybe some crayon marks throughout. I wanted this book to have a wobbly name amateurly written inside the front cover.

So yet again in this journey that I 0/10 would not recommend to anyone I have found something else to mourn. For awhile I could hold off on it because I was sharing books with my young students, and sending books like this to nieces, nephews, and niblings. Most of the children in my life are getting older and ready for novels and fantasy stories and maybe poetry compilations. I have so many books to share and nowhere for them to go, except a box in my office closet. At least they’re not under the rug anymore.

Plan A is Plan A

In a one-on-one session with a student today, these literal words came out of my mouth: “Bear with me with biology; it’s been 20 years since I’ve had this class.” (For the record, I teach ESOL but a student came to me for language help with her bio class.)

I became a teacher long before now. Professionally, I’ve been at it for about 15 years. But before that I taught piano lessons at my local music shop. Before that, I was giving my sisters lessons using a chalkboard mounted on the wall behind the Laz-E-Boy in the living room.

I thought teaching was a great aspiration, but for me it was always a placeholder until I could do the thing I really wanted to do: take care of my own children.

When I learned that having my own children probably wasn’t in the cards for me (for many reasons.. check out those posts here, here, and here), I had a major identity crisis. Yes, I was a teacher still, but in my heart of hearts I was also a mother. I was a wife and a mother before anything else. Besides “teacher,” it was probably the first identity that emerged when I was a little girl. I’ve always been very maternal, be it with dolls, stuffed animals, my sisters, the younger siblings of my friends. I always knew I would be very suited for a long-term relationship as someone’s wife. And even then, becoming a wife was an avenue for becoming a mother. (Yes, I’m very traditional about some things. But only for myself. You do you.)

It’s taken now many years and dozens of therapy sessions, plus a whole lot of mental bandwidth, to disengage from my identity as a mother. During that identity crisis, I was still serving as a teacher but refused to accept that it was now (or still?) my life’s work. Another one for the record: I do believe in callings, in God’s will. As such, teaching has always been my life’s work.

It hasn’t been until this school year that I’ve finally felt liberated from my dormant and unfulfilled “mother” identity. It could be that I’m more comfortable in my own skin. Or that I’m back teaching in a high school as I spent four years in elementary, which has a role of its own in my healing from the hurt of infertility. I spent a lot of time and energy exploring other potential life paths in the past few years.

I started my professional career in high school, first in student teaching at a school in a very small town in the middle of cornfields, and then in my very own (windowless) classroom of wide-eyed Spanish students in another school surrounded by cornfields. I even started my (amateur) teaching career while I was a high school student. So many positive formative experiences happened to me while I was that age.

There’s a type of magic for me of being in a high school building. There’s not only nostalgia, but a feeling of “home,” and if you lead me to the band room, that feeling is only amplified.

School in post-COVID-closure 2020 may look very strange to my 14-year-old self who once sat in freshman biology class thinking about what 34-year-old Elizabeth would be like, or do with her life. But there’s something about imparting knowledge on others, about creating a classroom community, about leaning into the hard days and frustrations that makes me feel like I belong.

I don’t communicate these words lightly. In the five weeks since school has been back in session I have considered quitting my job at least five times. I could write many many posts about the difficulties of teaching these days, and a treatise on the inequities and bureaucratic bloat of the American public education system.

But late last week I had a realization. Me di cuenta… I realized that now is a good time to lean in. To embrace my chosen profession. To receive my new students, whom I have known for all of a month. To welcome new families, immigrants or not. To keep creating lessons that are fun to teach and hopefully to learn. To call on my creative brain to step up. To take advantage of the wealth of pedagogical knowledge I’ve amassed in the 13 years since I was a teacher candidate.

In our society that says that having a plan will make you successful, “they” are awfully silent about the plans that emerge from the shadows, or a child’s dreams that want to be Plan A when they grow up. I have come full circle, where my Plan A is still my Plan A.

When they’re all grown up

Sometimes the house is too quiet, sometimes the floors are too clean. On a lazy, cool, and rainy Sunday afternoon, which have been quite rare, I become more aware of my inner thoughts than I have been in awhile. I seem to oscillate between thinking and feeling, doing and observing. And I’ve been doing a lot of doing lately. What with the global pandemic and all.

I’ve been hiking and camping and walking and talking and reconnecting and putting semantic and proverbial puzzles together. It’s been good work for my brain. I’ve also been working with my hands – sewing, planting, (hoping to harvest), mowing, trimming, and cooking. Laundering, vacuuming, planning, scheming.

There are times I wish my life weren’t mine, and times I am utterly convinced that this is not my life, that my life is somewhere in the ether or in a parallel universe, being lived by someone who looks like me and talks like me. But isn’t me.

I’m here, wondering what my life story will be at the end. You ask rhetorically, But don’t we all… wonder what our life story will be? Yes, I answer, but it’s easier to let this thought go when you’re hustling and bustling about, chasing children who have dirty feet who are walking on your clean floor. Folding their still-warm small pants and shirts, organizing your collections of their pictures, wondering what they will look like as a adult.

Keep in mind, they could be like me when they’re all grown up. Educated, yes; successful, I guess yes by the world’s standards; happily married, most of the time; adventurous, absolutely. But then there are the periods of self-doubt, of self-loathing, of them harboring a sincere dislike of their own bodies for any number of reasons… too tall, too big-boned, too big-boobed, too klutzy. I just hope you know that your inquisitive and beautiful children could have moments when they’re all grown up when they look into the mirror and wonder what their own children could have looked like. When they glance at their spouse across the room and then look down, teary-eyed, wondering what of his characteristics they could have inherited.

And then, when they’re all grown up, they’ll look at their shiny clean floor and listen to only the whir of the AC or dishwasher and be overcome with emotion and write these exact words.

Vanishing

With all this time at home and so many headlines, I find I’m spending way more time on my phone in the past week than I have in a long time. As a result of scrolling, I saw this video of Kelly Clarkson (have always been a fan) doing an a cappella version of Mariah Carey’s “Vanishing”, or “track 5” as Kelly called it. I felt that in my soul – the eponymous album by the diva hooked me as a little girl and up into my teens I was still purchasing her CDs with my piano teaching money and listening to them on repeat. Of course, the listening came with an attempted vocal accompaniment by yours truly… attempted. By an untrained amateur alto.

After watching Kelly belt it out in her bathroom in a Montana cabin (ugh, that sounds awesome), I played “Track 5” by Mariah while working in the kitchen. That in itself felt strange, to play the song out of context. The album is one to be enjoyed in its entirety, preferably with the huge 80’s-era headphones of my dad’s, sitting on the living room floor completely oblivious to the world, bass cranked.

I was finishing up picking the meat off of a homecooked “rotisserie” chicken and putting the bones and some veggie scraps back into the Instant Pot to make a broth. My alto voice was (attempting to) sing along to the first verse, chorus, second verse… then I was putting away dishes from the dishwasher to make room for dirty ones.

If I could recapture || All of the memories || And bring them to life Surely I would

Before I knew it, I was in tears. Utterly blindsided. I could not have seen it coming from miles away. It all happened so fast, the train of thought that left the station quickly and then slammed on the brakes. I was swaying a bit (I’m home alone this afternoon so who cares) and in a split second I was reminded of my mom telling me that when I was little, she and I would dance to this in the kitchen. I was four years old when the album was released, in 1990.

Hear the distant laughter || Wasn’t it you and me || Surviving the night || You’re fading out of my sight || Swiftly

And suddenly the four-year-old blonde haired blue eyed girl became the nearly 34-year-old woman holding the four-year-old girl, swaying and dancing with her. Not in the Bacon Street kitchen, but in my kitchen in 2020 during a global pandemic. I, the almost 34-year-old woman was not looking at my mother, but I was mesmerized, gazing at my own daughter, at her messy ponytail swaying and her little legs and bare feet kicking and her mouth open, laughing. And that, with the lyrics and music and felt experience, I was realizing just how real the song felt in my bones and I just started crying.

Oh, I was so enraptured || No sensibility || To open my eyes || I misunderstood || Now you’re fading faster || It’s suddenly hard to see || You’re taking the light || Letting the shadows inside || Swiftly

So, like any sane person does when a song moves them, I played it again, while letting myself not just feel the feelings, but experience the feelings. The loss. The life that could have been. How this quarantine could be so different. How my life certainly must be playing out in a different way in a parallel universe. That’s the way we have to be present and sit with it (or sway to it in your kitchen with a dish towel in hand). It’s really not an option for me anymore to acknowledge the feeling with a nod of my chin and a few teary blinks and move on.

Fuck, it hurts. It’s a physical pain in my heart and chest. It’s intense, and lasts for a little while. But it’s necessary. And a reminder that while in general I am content with my life, and free from worry about bringing children into this crazy-ass world, I am not immune to my own grief and hurt and despair. It comes to the surface every now and then, a reminder that I am human and I am or was a mother (in another life) and that for some reason the souls of my children never made it to this world.

Reaching out into the distance
Searching for spirits of the past
Just a trace of your existence to grasp

Equal and opposite reaction

Physics was not my best class. Here I was, senior year of high school, vying for the “Seven-Semester High Honors” title I would share with many of my classmates. Our grades weren’t weighted, but I’d be damned if I got either that honor or valedictorian (something I shared with 20 of my classmates) without going toe-to-toe with them in classes like physics and calculus.

While physics didn’t even make the list of favorite classes, at least I remember one of Newton’s Laws of Motion – For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It also helped that I have a science teacher for a mom.

All those days sitting in school (ahem, I’m still sitting in school, voluntarily) and I wondered if I’d ever use those laws. Well, here I am, 15 years plus out of primary and secondary education, and I will say that yes, I am using what I learned, but in an unlikely way to a 17-year-old – an existential way.

I was pondering this whole people-pleasing thing I’ve been doing for basically my whole life, and how it really hit a peak shortly after we moved to Maryland. I was talking with Emily, my younger sister, about our very different but at the same time similar experiences of moving across the country (I went east, she went west.. I hate counting the miles). She said that when she moved to the PNDubs, she didn’t commit to anything other than work for a long time. She went sightseeing and exploring and took in everything western Washington has to offer.

I, on the other hand, was moving to Maryland whilst needing an “attitude adjustment,” as my dad calls it, and I avoided much exploring or discovering or spontaneity at first, at least not beyond the whole, “Wow, I’m living equidistant from Philly and DC. Let’s go.” Feeling like I should go. Not necessarily because I wanted to all the time.

I threw myself into everything – work, church, friends, volunteering for a nonprofit. I didn’t know my place yet in society, being childless not by choice and fresh outta infertility camp. Instead of doing the inward-looking word of reflection and introspection, I externalized all my hurt and anguish and feeling of not belonging. It felt like an equal and opposite reaction to basically having my life turned upside down within months – cross-country move, Grammie’s death, and really deciding to not pursue parenthood. It’s a perfect storm, really, and in my case, a Nor’easter.

Now, over four years later, I’m trying to back out of that equal and opposite reaction, because now it’s beginning to backfire. I’m experiencing burnout from all this externalizing that’s led to “yes” to all the things. When life seemed to implode, I reacted and clung to my highest-seated coping mechanism – being the “yes” girl.

Because that would make me wanted. Because that would make me needed. Because people would like me if I participated in their projects and presentations and ministries. Because I could quiet the monkey mind pretty easily if I were busy all the time.

After years of work, some on my own, some with a therapist, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I matter. I can prioritize myself and my own health and the world will not come to an end. I am worth a healthy mind and body. I can say “no” to so many things that don’t point me toward my goals or comprehensive health.

I’m not exactly sure what all my goals are. But slowly and surely I’m learning what I’m not willing to say “yes” to anymore. It’s not an option to not learn this skill, this very important two-letter word. But I do know one of my goals is to see how a different, more positive and life-giving equal and opposite reaction plays out.