I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Mother’s Day

What Is Your Dharma?

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Sacred Purpose

“What if you don’t know your dharma?” I whispered. Urgently.

Without hesitation Jill answered that my dharma was to be a mom.

What?!

Consumed by my own self-centered ambition to achieve something great, or at least be superior at everything I do, I’ve always thought of being a mom as something I did while pursuing achievement of external goals.

But the truth of the matter is that there is one thing that feels profoundly meaningful and elicits intense, tight chest, lump in the throat emotion. My children.

I was sitting in a circle discussing the Baghavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with a group of yoga teachers. I had shared a strong emotional reaction I had to the Baghavad Gita and its poetic argument for non-attachment. Arjuna is stuck in a state of indecisive and pained inaction as he resists the war he is destined to fight. (Been there. Haven’t you?) He is terrified. Not wanting to kill or be killed. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Krishna counsels him to act. It is his dharma, his sacred purpose, to be a soldier and to fight. He must be the best soldier he can be. He should not be afraid of death, because our souls live on.

I understand loosening the attachment – the grip we have on our stuff. I don’t need all the stuff in my house, in my life. It is not what makes me happy. And there is always someone who has better stuff then me. But after that it gets hard. I care deeply for the ideas I have come to think of as important. Living mindfully, making the world a better place with what you do and how you live.

And when it comes to people, how can we not be attached? Especially to our children. What does it mean to be not attached?

With their birth was born a new and infinite sense of responsibility, fear, and love. Hovering over them as newborns when they slept, making sure I could still sense their breath. Now that they are 16 and 20, the anxiety has evolved.

Are you happy?

Do you feel loved?

Please. Please be safe.

Worrying, worrying, worrying that all my neuroses have rubbed off on my children. (How could they not?) Worrying that my daughter is too much like me, too obedient, too diligent. Is she having enough fun?

Worrying that my son is too much like me, too eager to please.  Will he be decisive and express himself, especially if he is angry or wants to pursue something different from what we have in mind for him?

Worrying that in both cases we’ve controlled their interests and pursuits so tightly that they have lost track of what they feel and want, overshadowed by the need to please Mom and Dad.

But most of all, I am afraid. Afraid of losing them. Please. Please be safe.

If you believe that we are a soul, not a body, and that we continue on in some capacity even after this body dies, then, perhaps, you can lessen your grip on the people you love. Reduce the fear that they will die or that you will die.

But what if you’re not sure?

What does non-attachment mean when it comes to being a mom?

I think it means pausing. Considering whether you are putting your self first or putting them first.

A friend, with still young children, shared how she wakes up very very early so she can have time alone. (I know it well.) Every now and then, a child tiptoes downstairs to be with her. (I know it well.) Shit! There goes my alone time. (I know it well.) Do you send the child back to bed: It’s too early! Go back to bed! Go watch TV! Yes, I’ve done that. Or: Do you welcome the child to join you? Hello Sweetheart! You’re up early! What a wonderful surprise! I love you! What shall we do with our special time together? I have not done that as much as I should have. And when those young children get older, they will stop reaching out to you and you will have as much alone time as you want. (I know it well.)

I think it means being joyful and loving at their presence. Happy to see them.

I think it means helping them be them, not what you want them to be.

I think it means letting go of worrying about whether you are a good mom. I mean, really, how narcissistic is that?

You can’t change what’s already happened in the past and the impact it’s had. After all, it’s made them who they are.

It’s not about regretting the past or worrying about the future. It’s about being present in the present moment for them right here right now. And letting go. Letting them be them.

Photo Credit:  Photo by Cindy Knoke at cindyknoke.com.  Thank you Cindy for your beautiful photos!

Mother’s Day Presence

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My Teachers

I’m feeling a bit subdued this mother’s day. Kind of dreading the cheerful saccharine. Not sure the world needs another mother’s day post. What about all the people who have difficult relationships with their mothers? What about all the people who have lost their mothers? What about all the people who want children but can’t or won’t? What about the women around the globe dying because of poor maternal healthcare? Better to spend the money allocated to mother’s day gifts to helping women and girls around the world. Better to spend the time spent shopping for those mother’s day gifts with people you love. Basking in their presence.

My friend just told me about a student of hers, a high school senior, whose mom is dying of cancer. He is spending mother’s day weeping. It makes me cry. This young man is still a boy. What must this woman be going through? What is it like to know you are dying and to be saying good-bye to your children? I can’t imagine! Well, actually, I can imagine. Sigh. Can’t I just enjoy a nice mother’s day without ruining it with questions and angst?

I am so lucky. I want for nothing. I’m like ridiculously happy that we have a new garbage disposal. We’ve spent the last year (or more) finagling the old broken one. We had a system. My husband would go downstairs and turn on the electricity. Then I would plug it in and let it grind. Then he would turn off the electricity. Then I would unplug the whole contraption. All while yelling up and down at each other.

I’m like incredibly relieved that it didn’t cost $1,000 to fix the minivan with 120,000 miles on it. Come on Honda! You can make it to 200,000 miles and a couple more trips with dormloads of stuff.

I’m like ecstatic and at peace now that my daughter is home from her first year of college. I really don’t want anything. Theater tickets are always on my list though. My husband wants to buy me a tree, but the yard feels as cluttered as the house. Maybe next weekend I’ll feel the urge to plant. All I want today is a day with no errands and chores. And to feel loving presence.

I remember carefully making handmade cards for my mother and picking flowers (aka weeds) for her. When I got older I would bake something special for her. When I no longer lived at home nor near enough to visit easily, I would buy her a nice card, send her flowers or a book, and call her, of course. She always seemed thrilled with whatever tidbit I gave her. She completely understood that I was busy busy busy. Never did she say: “Why don’t you visit me more often? Please come visit me!” Did she not think that? Do I wish she had said that? Shaken me and knocked some sense into me: “Life is short! Stop being so busy busy busy! Come visit me dammit!” But no, she would never have said that.

My dad is very lonely. He deeply misses her presence in the house. He sometimes expresses surprise that I am not more grief-stricken. Me too. But I have mourned her loss for years. She faded to such a shell of herself over the last decade of her life. I was always wondering when she was going to die. It was a relief when she died. Finally. This is how she dies. Now we know. This is how we go on without her. This is it. Life. Flying by. Busy busy busy. Until we die.

Her presence. It’s true. Even as she faded away, her presence still permeated the house. When I did visit, her face would light up and she would forget that she was 92 and forget that she needed a walker and would try to get me food (always food!) or other items I might need or want. Sometimes I see an old woman who reminds me of her. I smile and send her love. When I slow down enough to breathe, to concentrate, to remember, I can conjure her presence. I feel her.

I feel all the women who have touched me, helping me to become who I am. The teachers I idolized. The babysitter I wanted to be. The other moms, my friends’ moms, especially Margie, all unique and different from my mom, adding their own perspectives on how to be a woman. Later, it was my friends who were my teachers. A community of women all worth honoring and celebrating this mother’s day, even if they weren’t or aren’t moms.

It is my own children who have taught me the most about how to be a mom. Their wisdom, their neediness, their resilience, their intuition, their amazing love for me and my breathtaking love for them that has taught me that life is short. Be less busy.

We are past the stage of handmade cards and weed bouquets. But my children are home. I am basking in their presence, feeling my mom with me and all the women who have been moms and mentors to me. Soon enough my children will be grown up and no longer living at home. And if they don’t visit me, well, then, I just might have to visit them.

Fly Like an Eagle

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Time Keeps on Slipping, Slipping, Slipping … Into the Future

If the metaphor of life as a mountain is apt, then I am a bit past the summit, wondering how I missed it after all those years of working towards reaching it. Now, I am urgently trying to slow down my hurtling pace toward the valley. I thought the summit would be some grand career achievement.  Looking back at all that hard work on my career, with all the other bazillions of mid-level executives, it’s not the career moments that have been meaningful, it’s the connections with other people that have provided meaning. And my most profound joy has been being a mother to my children.

So you would think Mother’s Day would be a happy day. It is more than a happy day.  For me it is a day of intense emotion, so intense I don’t know what to do with it. Mother’s Day Eve, the intense emotion manifested itself as PAIN, from my heart, through my throat, and up to my ears. I first identified it as sadness and then realized it was mixed with anger. I don’t easily recognize anger, being much more comfortable and familiar with feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety. Sadness is easy, an easy disguise for more negative emotions. Anger is much more difficult and it takes enormous care on my part to identify it accurately, to not swallow it inwardly, but to express it constructively. Even harder is to acknowledge the mixture of sadness, anger, loneliness, regret, disappointment, longing for what might have been and to let them go. Or at least let them coexist with happiness, to allow room for what is funny or joyful. So much is happy and joyful about my experience of being a mom. How can that joy take up more room in my heart so that there is less emphasis on regret and nostalgia?

I feel such pressure on Mother’s Day to have some kind of outpouring of honest emotion to my mother. Another Mother’s Day has come and gone and I have failed at taking any steps that will bring us closer. I have felt the emotion of love, loss, anger, regret and all that is associated with being a middle-aged daughter welling up in my chest and my throat, but I said nothing new to my mother. Perhaps I will never say all that I would like to say. Perhaps I will never hear all that I would like to hear. It simply may be all that it can be. Perhaps one way to honor my mother is by being more open and honest with my children than she was able to be with me.

It was a segment on NPR’s Studio 360 last Saturday that released the emotion. Beth Greenspan read a poem that is meaningful to her, through tears, about that time in adolescence when you realize that your child is fully separate from you with a world of his/her own that is unknowable to you. And that is how it should be. Part of the parent-child relationship is that the child must create their own life which does not include the parent and it is the parent’s job to allow that happen. The most joyful and heart-wrenching moments of parenting are all those steps they take away from you.

For Mother’s Day, I want my children to be who they are: on the road to becoming responsible and compassionate beings with a sense of ease and confidence. I want them to be less careful and less anxious than me and more able to express their emotions, especially love. I hope they take advantage of opportunities and find pursuits that are fulfilling and fuel their passion. I hope they know that I love them more than anything, certainly more than my career. I hope they know I am proud of them.  With my heart in my throat most of the weekend, sad and excited about what my children are becoming, I told them.  I love them.  Fly!

Into The Kingdom, by Mary Karr

As the boys bones lengthened,
and his head and heart enlarged,
his mother one day failed

to see herself in him.
He was a man then, radiating
the innate loneliness of men.

His expression was ever after
beyond her. When near sleep
his features eased towards childhood,

it was brief.
She could only squeeze
his broad shoulder. What could

she teach him
of loss, who now inflicted it
by entering the kingdom

of his own will?

Before You Die

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Dear Mom,

How well do we know our mothers?  As children, we focus on our own survival and development.  Our mothers support this behavior, desiring us to be happy, safe, and loved.  Our mother’s life before us is mysterious except as it pertains to our own personal development.  Our mother’s life after we grow up and leave home is a sidebar to our more interesting-to-us life, at least until her life makes the shift to requiring us to take care of her, to take notice of her.  Or until we realize that every essence of our being is infused with every essence of her being.  Learning about her, we learn about us.

When I was told that my mother had been brutally stabbed by her second husband before he killed himself, I was a young girl.  Too young to fathom this fact.  And so I did not.  Occasionally I would tell the sensational story to garner a reaction from a new friend.  It was a scintillating factoid that I thought made me interesting.  For the most part, I did not think my family was very interesting.  We did not fight.  There were only three of us.  We diligently pursued our activities and goals, with little demonstrative emotion.  This isolated nugget of sensation – that we never talked about – seemed so unbelievable and out of character that eventually I questioned its truth.  Did this really happen to my mother or am I making it up?  What did she do with the fear and emotion?  How has this event shaped her life, my life?

As my mother turns 91 this year, living…surviving another year, I am reflecting on her life and the end of her life.  I feel urgency to know what I can of her before her mind fades, before she dies.  How much more time do I have with her?  For her 90th birthday a year ago, I made the pilgrimage home to visit with her.  I set up the visit to have time with her, to ask her the questions I have never asked.  So much is unspoken.

  • Are you happy?
  • You are so successful, why did you end up with men who were self-centered and abusive?
  • How did you fall in love with Dad?
  • Is there anything you want to say to me?
  • What do you hope to be remembered for?
  • Would you do anything differently?
  • What advice to you have for your granddaughter?
  • What does it feel like to be at the end of your life?
  • Are you ready to die, afraid to die?
  • Do you believe in God?

I mustered up my courage to ask the questions and vowed to keep probing instead of sinking into docile silence with the first answer I got.

My mother was born in 1922.  Her father, a physicist, dropped dead suddenly of an aneurism when she was just 7.  She told me how every morning she went to her father’s room to say good-morning.  Clearly there was a special bond between him and her.  On the morning after he died, she was not allowed into his room.  She never saw him again and grieving was not tolerated.  What a devastating loss for her!  Her mother was a no-nonsense, undemonstrative woman who then had to hold the family together in the Depression.  She took on boarders, taught school, and did not have a lot of time for my mom.  My mother was painfully shy, sad and lonely, and was homeschooled because school was socially challenging.  Although she was drawn to art and more introspective and creative activities, she was encouraged to pursue science and academia.  She was good at school so she just kept going to school.  Kept going until she received her Ph.D. in 1950 – an unusual accomplishment for a woman in 1950.  But it was a more passive accomplishment than I realized.  She didn’t know what else to do with herself, so she kept going to school.  Her first husband was a fellow graduate student.  I am not sure what broke apart that marriage other than youth.  Her second husband had a history of drug addiction and mental illness.  My mother was discouraged from marrying him, but she went forward with it anyway.  My father once said to me, as I was embarking on my own marriage, as if to explain the mystery of attraction to himself, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.”  What a destructive act of self-sabotage on her part.  It did not end well.  I don’t know much more than that.  There is still a shroud of “don’t talk about that” in our house.  It took several years of therapy for her to recover from the violent attack, from the violent betrayal.  She moved to Washington and met my father.  He thought she was beautiful.  She loved being loved.  They married in 1961 and I was born in 1962.  She was desperate for a baby, for the family she did not have.  The story of my birth is told by my parents as if it was a miracle.  I was delivered by emergency C-section (her life-giving scar always fascinated me).  We both almost died.  Post miracle, she was felled by post-partum depression, rejecting the baby she so desperately wanted.

How did she recover from this post-partum depression?  What impact did her rejection of me have on me?  How did her trauma carry over to me?  My main sense of her as a mother is that she was very devoted to me.  She adjusted her work schedule to be home for me.  She spent a lot of time with me: reading together; teaching me how to cook, sew, do algebra; going to the ballet together.  She thought I was wonderful and gave me a lot of freedom to explore my interests.  Indeed, I could do no wrong.  I remember very few instances when she got angry with me or set limits for me.  But there were significant ways in which she was absent.  She was not physically demonstrative.  Very little hugging happened in my childhood.  The only times I remember my mother touching me were when I was ill.  I managed to be ill a lot.  All sorts of maladies kept my mother hovering over me, from hypoglycemia to migraines.  These illnesses kept me home, were an excuse for me to avoid.  Avoid parties that made me shy, avoid deadlines that seemed insurmountable to my perfectionism, avoid living in all its messy imperfection.  When I was sick, I was allowed to move into her bed where she would lie next to me, reading out loud or watching bad tv sitcoms and game shows endlessly.  In her desire to love and nurture, she neglected (or was unable) to model what a powerful and effective woman was.  Bereft of her father, abused and abandoned by her second husband, she did not know how to stand up to my father when he was boring, compulsive, remote, abusively inflexible and insistent to her, to me.  She and I stuck together, forming a strong mother-daughter bond built on a love of all things female (Jane Austen, Mary Tyler Moore, tea sandwiches at The Birdcage) and a suspicion of all things male (money, sports, confrontation).  But her desire to give me freedom meant that she was absent as a parent in many key ways.  She was unable to help me negotiate an effective father-daughter bond where I could articulate who I was, what I thought, and say no in a constructive way.  My inability to establish a sense of self with boundaries meant a string of intimate relationships where I lost my sense of self and had to end them, and hide at home, in order to regain my sense of self.

The summer after high school graduation before I went to college, my mother assured me that she was prepared for my departure.  Her composure at such a life-changing transition was so strange to me and not what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to hear that she loved me and would miss me.  Some kind of honest and emotional dialogue.  It was not to be.  When my parents dropped me off at school, my mother broke down sobbing uncontrollably.  I had never seen her cry before.  I had never seen her cry before!  How strange is that?  My beautiful, successful, brilliant scientist mom broke down.  It was my fault.  I never really recovered and spent college dealing with my inability to separate successfully and feel confident in my self.

After college, I never went home again.  The only way I could separate and create a sense of an independent self was to leave.

Simultaneously, my mother had a recurring benign growth in her throat.  This growth prevented her from breathing.  The surgery required to remove the blockage from her airway, damaged her vocal chords, preventing her from speaking.  As I was finding my voice, my self, she was losing hers.  How I wish I had an audio recording of my mother’s voice before the surgeries!  Ever so gradually, over the next 30 years, my father and I spoke for my mother, over my mother, depriving her of chances to speak her truth.  As she stopped speaking, she stopped remembering.  Speaking one’s truth, speaking one’s stories grounds us, establishing who we are.

Now, in her 90’s, faded and fading, she sits and reads or watches tv.  My father meticulously cares for her physical being, desperate that she not die and leave him alone.  But her self is locked inside the shell of her body, less and less able to express itself.

On the rare occasions when I visit her, because I am busy busy busy with my more interesting-to-me life, she lights up with complete joy at seeing me.  Even though she can no longer walk easily, she travels back in time to her role as an active mom – forgetting her walker in her eager enthusiasm to cook for me or care for me in some way.

In answer to my timid questioning, she whispers her regret about her life and her advice to my daughter, her granddaughter.  They are the same:  “Be more sociable.”  She whispers that God is unknowable, “too mysterious,” and last but not least, “I am so lucky to have you.”

I love you Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day.

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