On Mother’s Day, I did the sermon at my church, Northlake Unitarian Universalist in Kirkland, WA. The theme of the month was Embodiment – a tangible or visible expression of an idea, quality, or feeling. There is no more literal embodiment than pregnancy and the birth of a baby. I spoke about all the joys, challenges, and complexities embodied in parenthood and our relationships with our own parents.
“So, my husband Peter has a great voice and loves to sing. You may wonder why he isn’t in the choir. Well, it’s because music moves Peter… a little too much. When he’s singing hymns, he gets choked up… may even sob a bit… thanks for those of you who support him when he’s having one of his moments…
We often think of mothers as the sentimental ones… but Peter’s the emotional parent in our family. The one who cries through all the significant life events. Not me.
Ah… but there are a few songs that can do me in… One is that hymn we just sang, Spirit of Life. It’s something about the phrase (SLIDE) “Roots hold me close, wings set me free” that gets me every time.
I am blessed with strong and deep roots. My parents have lived in Cheyenne Wyoming their whole lives. Mom belonged to the same church for 85 years. In town, I had siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, and church family, and scout troops, and 4-H groups, and neighborhood buddies. Wherever I went, I heard “Oh, you’re Leila’s grand-daughter” or “Alan’s little sister” or “Erin’s friend.” The roots ran deep.
And yet, we were also all given wings. We traveled all over the U.S. and Canada. We read books and saw movies that taught us about the broad outside world. We had exchange students from many countries. And the wings that our parents gifted us with have carried us far. The only ones left in Cheyenne are my dad, three elderly aunts and one cousin. The other children and grandchildren have flown away to Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona, Washington, North Carolina, Alaska, South Korea, and American Samoa.
We’re all still close and loving and supportive. But, we are not part of each other’s daily lives.
Yes… my parents succeeded at giving us all roots and giving us wings. And we all flew away.
And now I’ve worked to give my children roots and wings… and watch as they fly away, and return, then fly away again…
Roots and wings is just one of the many bittersweet parts of parenting… As Barbara Kingsolver said SLIDE “Kids don’t stay with you if you do it right. It’s the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run.”
Today is Mother’s Day. It’s a bittersweet holiday for many of us, for many reasons.
I know I can not speak for all of you. I can only speak from my own experience. But I do acknowledge and honor that you all have your own stories about the complexities of motherhood… and of being mothered… or not being mothered… of being parents or not being parents and the joys and challenges of children.
I will talk today about three parts of parenthood – becoming a parent, parenting our children, and saying goodbye to our own parents.
First… On becoming a parent.
Our theme for May is Embodiment – Embodiment is “a tangible or visible expression of an idea, quality, or feeling”. There is no more literal embodiment than pregnancy and the birth of a baby.
When I was in college, and Peter and I began dating, I was hit out of the blue by the realization of “I want this man to be the father of my children.” That was a really startling thought! I mean, I’d always thought that I would someday have children, but that moment was the first visceral realization of what that future would look like.
Fast forward to five years after that… I was ready to start on that path. Peter wasn’t yet ready. He kept saying he needed to know more first. I would ask what he needed to know – he’d say that he didn’t even know what he didn’t know! At one point, we went to Barnes and Noble. We found some illustrated guide to birth and parenting. And bought it. And a few days later, Peter decided he was ready. Now, I don’t think he ever actually cracked open the book! Just somehow having it on the bookshelf made him feel like he had the resources he needed to make the leap.
In the end, I think that the decision to have a child is always a leap of faith into the unknown.
That first pregnancy and the birth of Martin – was the embodiment of the love Peter and I shared, of our commitment to a life together, and to becoming parents together. And three years later, with the pregnancy and birth of Izzi, we embodied our idea of a family.
For the next 13 years, if you had asked us if we planned more children, we would have said no. But then… when Martin was 16, and Izzi was 13, we decided we weren’t done being parents of little ones – we still had parenting energy to spare. So, we decided to start again. Slide Ben is the embodiment of Peter and I’s love of being parents, and of living in the everyday messiness of raising a small child.
Now, my pregnancies and my births were our embodiment of our ideas… But, from the moment of birth, each of our children begins their own embodiment. With each day, and each step taken, and each word spoken, they embody themselves, becoming a tangible expression of their own qualities and feelings, separate from our original visions.
Our joy in watching that unfolding in our older kids is a big part of the reason why Peter and I chose to have Ben. It is amazing to share a life journey with another soul as they embody themselves.
The decision to begin a pregnancy is a decision to leap into the unknown, and to be forever changed by the experience. As Elizabeth Stone said: slide “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
I am blessed in that Martin, Izzi, and Ben were each planned and wanted pregnancies that came at a time when Peter and I were both ready to welcome a new baby into our lives. That is obviously not the case with all pregnancies.
We know that about 20% of pregnancies end in abortion. We know that of pregnancies the person intends to carry, at least 20% end in miscarriage. My sister experienced many miscarriages. About 6% of women are not able to conceive, and 6% of men are infertile. I know that there are people in this room who have been affected by one or more of these losses, and that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day carry a heavy weight of unspoken memories for many of you.
I am a childbirth educator, and have trained many childbirth educators over the past fifteen years. I’ll share with you some information I share at that training, slide
These statistics are based on a study of mothers in late pregnancy who plan to parent the child, and a separate survey of dads who are parenting young babies.
So, of that group, 42% of moms, and 46% of dads say this pregnancy came at the right time for them. Yeah… less than half.
15% of moms and 10% of dads say they wanted a baby sooner in their lives. Sometimes it took a while to find the right partner, or for both partners to feel ready. Sometimes it was fertility issues. Whatever the reason, these are long-awaited babies.
34% of moms and 19% of dads say this baby has come too soon. They had hoped to become parents someday, just not right now.
And then just look at these last two statistics. Remember that these are not women who will choose abortion or adoption – they will be parenting. And these are not men who will leave a child behind. These are the dads who stay. 8% of the women had never planned or hoped to be pregnant. 25% of the dads didn’t mean to have this pregnancy with this woman at this time.
Pretty heavy stuff, eh?
So, our children may be an embodiment of our deepest desires. Or, they may be an embodiment of the moment when we gave up our own dreams to care for an unexpected baby. Our complicated feelings about Mother’s Day often begin on the day we first learn we may be a mother…
In addition to being a childbirth educator, I am also a doula. A doula is a professional who “mothers the mother” during labor and birth – providing emotional and physical support, information and advice. I have been at many births. Some were welcoming long-awaited babies, others were adapting to an unexpected surprise.
I worked with one young man and woman, who had only had one date. They each came away thinking the other person was perfectly nice, but they just weren’t that into each other. They expected to never see each other again. But then she discovered she was pregnant. She contacted him. Their mutual plan was to give the baby up for adoption. That was the plan through her whole pregnancy – she met the adoptive family – they showed her the nursery they had prepared. Then three days before her due date, the adoptive family backed out.
After a few days of soul-searching, she decided to parent the child. She contacted the father to check in. Over the intervening months, he had realized that he is gay… he had struggled with that, because he’d always envisioned himself as a dad, and being gay means it’s harder to make this happen… But this offered the opportunity to become a dad in the “traditional way” of an unexpected and unplanned pregnancy. The two agreed to parent together. When the baby was a few weeks old, they moved together into a three bedroom apartment, and set off on a parenting adventure. The mother shared with me a quote that resonated with her. Slide
“Motherhood is the biggest gamble in the world. It is the glorious life force. It’s huge and scary—it’s an act of infinite optimism.”
Another mother talked to me about this infinite optimism. She had a complex history: an abusive, alcoholic father, an enmeshed relationship with an emotionally fragile mother… her own history of sexual assault and drug addiction. When I met her, she had done a lot of work to become a pretty healthy, stable adult. But to be pregnant…. To choose to bring a new person into a world which had proven itself to be unsafe over and over… She reported that it was the scariest thing she’d ever done… But she took the leap of faith… she gave birth to an angelic little boy with a halo of blond curls. The pregnancy, birth, and caring for that child have been so powerful for her… and have transformed her over time, helping her to heal and grow in ways she hadn’t imagined possible.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn said slide ““In giving birth to our babies, we may find that we give birth to new possibilities within ourselves.”
But embodiment is a messy process. It’s taking the tidiness of a vision and bringing it into our physical reality. You often see art and photographs that depict birth as this beautiful, transcendent, spiritual process. slide And it is. But, as a labor support doula, I can also tell you it’s a really messy process. As a mother and a father are embodied, and as a new human being is embodied, there is plenty of blood, sweat, tears, mucus, vomit, stool, and amniotic fluid. There’s pain, and despair, and ecstasy, and exhaustion. It’s quite a mix!
And great boot camp style preparation for life with babies and small children, which is also full of mucus, and vomit, and poop and all manner of bodily fluids!
The birthing process unfolds in its own way, impossible to predict. I have been at births where the baby came so fast, the midwife barely arrived in time. And I have supported women through labors that lasted 62 hours… 76 hours… 82… I have been at births that were smooth and easy and all the parents could have hoped for. And births that were nothing like what the parents had envisioned and they just had to roll with the punches.
In the midst of this unpredictability, you can do a lot to influence the process and create an environment which allows things to unfold as well as they possibly can. But in the end, the birth process is not fully in anyone’s control.
This is also great boot camp preparation for life with kids – you can do a lot to influence them and to create the best possible environment. But in the end, their process is not in your control.
Which brings us to Parenting, and all that Parenting embodies
Northlake subscribes to a resource called Soul Matters, where a network of Unitarian Universalist congregations work together on worship resources all tied into a monthly theme. Slide For May, the summary blurb includes this line: Embodiment is “about noticing that every moment and every context –- no matter how imperfect, messed up and incomplete – is trying to talk to us!”
What I love most about parenting is how it calls us to live in the moment. And noticing all of those imperfect, messed up and incomplete moments.
I’m very good at focusing on projects and getting tasks done. I’m not as good at living in the moment. Spending time with kids helps me get there. Reading bedtime stories, wading in the ocean, morning snuggles, times when every movie you see is declared “the best movie ever!” Bowling a strike for the very first time, having an a-ha moment when something finally connects, playing with a new puppy, saying goodbye to an old pet, laughing at little sister jokes when they’ve almost figured out how jokes work, belting Broadway show tunes in the car, critiquing the exact details of the performance of one particular line in a favorite play, road trips to check out colleges, birthday piñatas, hide and seek game, log rolling down grassy hills, and times in lines at Disneyland. The Sunday dinners with family, sharing our highs and lows. All of this pulls me out of my task-driven brain, and into the moment. With children, even something as simple as blowing bubbles can be a moment of pure enlightened delight. Slide
And no, it’s not all happy days. There’s also the drudgery of nonstop diaper changes, potty training, nights spent washing sheets covered in vomit. The toddler tantrums to the teenage battles. The shared tears over disappointments. The things you wish had turned out differently.
It is not a cliché for me to say that parenting is truly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But for me, it is also the most important thing – the most joyful thing. When we decided to start all over again with Ben, it was a testament to that balance.
Not only am I a parent, I’m a parent educator… I work for Bellevue College. All our classes are parent-child classes, which means I get to spend several hours of each week hanging out with toddlers, preschoolers, and kids as well as parents. And I get to know these families over months together. And many families return again and again to my classes, as their children get older. So, there are kindergarteners I’m working with now that I’ve known since they took their first. I love the opportunity to watch these little people unfold and embody themselves, and watch their parents learn and grow.
I tell the parents that there is no such thing as a perfect parent, and there is no one right way to parent. But there are so very many good ways to parent. And what good parenting looks like is a little bit different for every child.
As a parent educator, a supposed expert in the field, having your own children can be humbling. Even as I spend my days teaching other people all my wisdom about how to be the best possible parent, I’m also spending my days learning how to be a better parent to my own kids. Some days, in some moments, I nail it! I even impress myself. And other days… I suck as a parent. I say mean things, I make bad decisions, I miss important clues to what my kids need from me, I tune out just when they need me to tune in.
One of the messages I try to give to all the parents I work with (and that I tell myself on the hard days) is: have high expectations for yourself as a parent, but forgive yourself when you fall short of those expectations, and be gentle with yourself when life is harder than you thought it would be or should be.
I tell parents that my goal with my kids is simple… I’m hoping that when we look back on my parenting, we’ll see that there were good days and bad days, but in the end, hopefully there were more good days than bad. If I’ve accomplished that, that is enough.
Today, we have spoken about birth as embodiment, mothering as embodiment. I want to speak at the end about when we are ready to leave this embodied life behind.
As many of you know, my own mother died just a few weeks ago. But her process of leaving this life has been in process for a few years now. My mother had Alzheimers. Two years ago, she was no longer able to cook or to sew. A year and a half ago, slide she came here for Christmas –but it was a big struggle for my dad and her to travel, even with my sister’s support. By last Christmas, slide she was in a nursing home, no longer able to walk or to feed herself. By this April, slide she was bed-ridden and barely spoke and when she did speak, we could rarely understand. All of us kids had seen that Mom was leaving us for a few years. We had all said our goodbyes. We all knew it was time. Dad was having a harder time acknowledging that.
But as Mom was leaving her body behind, we were still surrounded by things that she had embodied… ideas made tangible. My mother was a maker. Slide She knitted and embroidered and beaded and made rugs and quilted and took photographs and made teddy bears. Slide When my older kids were little, each year they would tell her what they wanted to be for Halloween, and no matter what it was – she embodied it… made it tangible.
But her most important embodiment was her family. My mother became a mother in 1961 slide when she married my dad and began caring for my older brother and sister as her own children. slide Then Alan and I came along. slide And then 10 grand-children. slide And then nine great-grandchildren. For each of us, slide she helped to give us roots to hold us close, and wings to set us free. We are a tangible embodiment of her gifts.
As the hymn we are about to sing says: “Children ask the reasons why. In our lives the answers show, and by our love they learn and grow. Touch the earth, reach the sky! All are born and all shall die; life’s the time left in between, to follow a star, to build a dream.”
We all have different dreams that we are building – or embodying. For some of us that embodiment includes birthing and parenting children. Others embody themselves in the work they do, the love they share with family and friends, the ways they give to their community. May we all work to support, nurture and care for each other… because life’s the time left in between to follow your star, to build your dream.