Published on April 19th, 2021 | by Mary Welch2
The Hardest Part About Raising My Kids Was Raising Myself
There’s a drawer in the kitchen I call the Everything Drawer. It contains all the perpetual mess and possibility and nooks and crannies of childhood. A collection of useless souvenirs; I can never quite bring myself to organize it. It’s a museum in a drawer, uncurated and enshrined.
It holds: a broken locket, a baby tooth in a Ziploc bag, a tangle of beige rubber bands, a key to something, somewhere, a mostly used up book of stamps, a tape measure, a pen that doesn’t work, a pair of sewing scissors, a single, battery-less walkie talkie, a roll of blue tape.
Forget expensive toys; my kids were never happier than during the days we spent cutting up old cardboard and blue taping the pieces into dilapidated forts. We turned the living room into a shanty town. We dragged their stuffed animal collection down the stairs. Set up tea parties, blankets and pillows. We reconstructed the house, like Russian dolls. Stacking one version of reality inside another.
The whole time the kids were young and I was learning the ropes of being their mom, I was haunted by the feeling that I was not, in fact, learning the ropes. That I was, instead, mangling the ropes into some kind of web or giant knot – a Zen koan – that I would never solve or find a way out of.
The hours we spent reading the same mind numbing story, dumping out blocks just to put them away again, watching an episode of Thomas the Freaking Train on repeat, blue taping our lives together and then folding them up so we could stuff them into the recycling bin at the end of the driveway, felt utterly, inherently meaningless to me.
Because I equated meaning with accomplishment.
I yearned for progress. Or should I say: my Ego did. My Soul just wanted to teach me how to spend an afternoon with my children and let the mundane time unspooling between us be enough.
To learn from the being-ness of childhood, where the goal is to have no goal and connection is the point, not achievement.
Becoming a mom to my children highlighted how desperately I needed to become one to myself.
A friend of mine from the Midwest used to say: “You gotta make hay while the sun is shining.” Which is akin to the idea that if we want something done we should ask a busy person. In the midst of parenting we have so little to give and yet, being in that momentum of deep, juicy nurturing and working the muscles of attunement day in and day out, primes the pump for the repair work that’s calling to us from our own broken inner child.
There is no better time to take on the healing work of re-parenting ourselves than when we’re literally parenting. Our children are walking mouth pieces and flashlights. They will highlight and show us exactly where the deficits are. They will lead us where we need to focus within ourselves.
When do we technically become mothers?
There’s a strangeness for me, like a fog that’s never quite lifted, when I stop and really consider that I am someone else’s mom. Even now that my kids are teenagers, all these years later, to hear my name called out from one end of the house to the other: “Mommmmm!”, I sometimes do a double take. Oh right. That’s me.
I remember being super preggers and walking down 3rd Street from my office to the train when a homeless man on the corner called out to me: “Lookin’ good mommy!” It was one of those threshold crossing moments. The profundity of it struck me hard. I was no longer hot mama. I was Mommy.
Internally, I’m still 17, like a clipped bonsai plant that can grow no higher. Combat boots and fake ID. Camel lights in my back pocket. Pixies cassette in the car stereo. Driving with the windows down. Belonging to the day, the way the dogs belong to the field by our house, when I unclip their leashes and just let them run their hearts out.
Is it a lie that we have to trade the wilder version of ourselves in when we become mothers? I need to believe both of these parts of me can exist side by side like patches sewn together.
I wanna be a punk rock mother. The kind you’d see from across the blacktop at school pick up and feel proud to call your own. Not in an embarrassing, age denying way. (Though I’ll admit I do cruise the junior’s aisle from time to time pretending to be looking at sweaters for my daughter!).
I also want to live in an age embracing way. A way that declares, with gratitude: I am the sum of my years and my life experience so far. I am every age I’ve ever been, all at the same time. I am the wounded child and a sage mommy, too, with all the answers, real and faked, at the ready.
I’m loving us both, at the same time, in the most abundant way I know.
The hardest part about raising my kids was raising myself: out of the darkness of my own unconsciousness into the light of self awareness. I had to reckon with my need to make every moment count; trying to prove or outrun the secret suspicion that I might be worthless if I wasn’t doing something impressive or making myself invaluable to someone else.
We tend to think of ourselves like fixed stakes in a garden when we cross the threshold to parenthood. Our children are the ripe, young vines growing around our steadiness. They are the ones with the questions, we are the ones with the answers.
But I’ve come to see that my role, as a mother, is much less straightforward than this. We were growing in tandem, me and my kids. My brutal expectations of myself softened through the years. My confidence in my ability to love and show up deepened. I came to measure my sense of success by my willingness to try, not by how much I accomplished in a given day, week, month, year.
The work of mothering is the work of the amateur. The word amateur feels precisely right because it shares the same root as the Latin word for “lover”. To be an amateur, to me, means to show up with a heart full of love and curiosity. To come to the river with an empty bucket. To release the need to be an expert or feel a sense of mastery.
We’ve added to the Everything Drawer over the years but rarely taken from it. It seems to expand in an impossible, clown car kind of way without ever bursting. There’s an unspoken agreement in our household that it should remain purposefully chaotic and never be properly combed through or organized.
I read a book about the importance of cleaning up our living space in order to clean up our mental space but I left the Everything Drawer out of this equation, as I tore through the house trying to tame the wild coat closet and dusty bookshelves and neglected bathroom cabinets.
Some things are not meant to be rationally understood or known. Some things are meant to preserve their mystery.
Maybe there is no hierarchy to parenting. Maybe we’re in partnership with our children the same way we’re in partnership with everything and everyone else in our lives. Here to learn and to heal and to keep growing into the truest incarnations of ourselves we can sort out this time around.