Oh, hello Mother’s Day. What do days like this even mean? I cringe over Valentine’s Day (always have), and Mother’s Day also feels sort of contrived to me. Like I’m being forced to have a super pampered day (not gonna happen as a single mom, and it only half-assed happened when my husband was alive). Mother’s Day is too much pressure. Add the fact that my former anniversary is often around Mother’s Day (May 12th), and I feel like pressing fast forward this time of the year so I don’t have to deal with any of it.
And then there is this quarantine.
I know some people talk about their quarantine being one long Netflix and chill, but that hasn’t been my experience. Quarantine is a constant juggling act between logging in to online programs, helping one kid with a problem, telling another kid to wait with their burning question, making sure everyone attends their Zoom calls on time and gets fed and the house stays clean and doing my own work while the youngest tears something apart in another room. I’m way more fatigued in quarantine than I ever have been– to the point where I physically need a daily nap. And then I feel guilty that I used the quiet time when Peter Jack is napping to sleep myself, and I just spin around in circles hating myself for not being better at this.
Other than that, I can’t really complain. We’re healthy. We have resources. Most days are peaceful enough. Recently I got to experience the joy of witnessing Ellie’s look of concentration as she silently read a book in her head for the first time. Can you remember feeling that kind of power? I am teaching Peter Jack the game of chess and he finally set up the board on his own. My kitchen counter has Ethan’s science projects growing and crystalizing, and he has notebooks filled with his engineering designs. There are Lego Hoovervilles cropping up on every possible flat surface in my living room. Our quarantine life is filled with watching for hummingbirds at the feeder outside of our kitchen window and searching every morning for monarch eggs on the milkweed plants. There are lots of bike rides and rollerblading and sitting on lawn chairs at the edge of our garage eating popsicles. These are memories and experiences I cherish.
In quarantine, one minute I’m deeply happy with the time spent with the kids, not having to worry about tedious commutes or prepping breakfast and lunch at 4:30AM Monday-Friday.
On another day at a different hour, I’m deeply resentful about the pile of limbs in my bed at night, the neverending work, the constant interruptions, the dishes, the cooking, the bickering, the laundry, the fatigue, the nowhere to escape.
But it’s not really them.
And it isn’t exactly the work.
It’s probably just me.
All of it compounded in a fishbowl.
Right now, we are all connected through our shared experiences in dealing with the unexpected challenges of a worldwide pandemic. There is nobody to file our grievances with for cancelled milestones, disruptions, loss, suffering, and massive disappointment. We desperately want answers and scapegoats to make sense of messy situations, but it isn’t always linear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about disappointment.
Especially on Mother’s Day.
Commercial days like Mother’s Day attempt to sugarcoat what it is like being and/or having a mother, making us feel like we’re supposed to arbitrarily feel happy on a designated day. Inevitably it doesn’t quite capture the human experience of motherhood. Motherhood, like life in general, is a journey of survival– for both children and mothers. Not everyone comes out of it unscathed. I think that’s my problem with the day. It’s not real. It stays on the surface of what motherhood entails.
Being a mother has exceeded what I thought it would be. Rewarding beyond measure. A source of great pride and happiness.
It has also sucked way more out of me than I could have ever imagined. Tedious and stressful, often thankless, with milk-stained shirts and sleepless nights just the prelude to the shitshow to come.
Being a single mother has frequently felt like a death sentence. Death by a thousand paper cuts. Yet it has also led to deeper connections to my children, our souls bound by grief and the comfort of having each other.
Motherhood is all of it– the happiness and disappointment. A series of Hallmark moments and a recurring drowning sensation. Fulfillment and emptiness.
Just like life.
My husband and I got married, bought our first house, and got pregnant all at once. It was early summer when we moved into that little house near the beach, and we began to work on transforming the extra bedroom into a nursery for our spring baby. I had always wanted children. It should have been a dream-come-true, minus the neverending nausea.
But almost six months into my pregnancy, my young stepson unexpectedly moved in with us–into that extra room. I remember quietly swallowing my disappointment as I took the baby items out of that room. New marriage, new house, new pregnancy, and a contentious custody battle to plague our sanity and wallets.
A few months later, I unexpectedly gave birth 12.5 weeks early to a winter baby instead of the spring one we planned. I had just started to feel his kicks inside of me and the birth left me feeling empty and robbed of the experience. Lab results would never be able to explain why.
My entry into motherhood involved being shown the newborn’s face for a split second before he was whisked away and I couldn’t see him for seven hours. Then, our contact was only through the hard plastic of an incubator, where I could gently touch his tiny feet while staring at his frail body hooked up to machines and tubes. It would be five days before they would let me hold him. I did not feel like a mother.
My preemie was born in the middle of the swine flu. NICUs required two minutes of intense hand washing and cleaning nails at the wash station before entering the nurseries. We had to wear a mask and robe. Nobody could visit except parents and grandparents, including my stepson, so my husband and I took shifts visiting and were not able to go together. This went on for 53 days.
I searched for ways to feel like a mother instead of just a visitor in a hospital asking permission to hold a baby. I gravitated toward breastfeeding. That seemed like one of the few ways I could contribute. But you can’t breastfeed a 2 lb. 15 oz. preemie, so they sent me home with a hospital grade pump, and that’s what I did every one to two hours around the clock, hooked up like a dairy cow. I froze the bottles of milk and wrote his name on the labels and drew a small heart. Each morning and evening, I delivered the stash to the NICU. My other motherly contribution was kangaroo care. I’d press his naked body against my bare chest until they told me he needed to go back into the incubator. Often they would forget about us and I would stay in that single position for hours until pumping could wait no longer. This was how I could be a mother, at least in my mind. Pumping breastmilk and kangaroo care– two things I could control. So that’s what I did. Religiously. It was the most religious thing I’ve ever done in my life. I started to feel like a mother.
When baby Ethan came home, I learned what social distancing was before that was even a thing. When you have a 29-week preemie, you can’t let people hold him or touch him unless they are symptom-free and wash their hands. You learn how to drape blankets over the stroller to avoid strangers from trying to touch the baby. Hand sanitizer and washing our hands until they were raw was our life. We avoided large crowds and gatherings for the first year. My stepson took off his school clothes as soon as he came home each day.
Meanwhile, I had other friends and family members who gave birth and took their babies home right away, frolicked around Disneyland with newborns, and never had to worry about a cold causing respiratory problems. I remember being insanely jealous of how it never even crossed their minds. They didn’t even have to think about it, but for us, it had altered the way we lived.
Ethan is now 10-years-old and we don’t keep score at this point of whose baby had a nice nursery and who had a bassinet crammed next to their bed longer than the average (us). Most of the things that felt disappointing in the moment became water under the bridge. That’s how we operate, isn’t it? Our brains move on to the next thing. Even if we’ve had a history of getting everything we want, there is always something more out there.
What is so interesting about my entrance into motherhood though is how much it gave me the mental tools to deal with subsequent problems in my life. I’m a more resilient person because I gave birth prematurely, as much as I wouldn’t wish for something like that to happen.
Fast forward six years. Dead husband. Three little kids. Single mom. Very similar feelings: betrayal, disappointment, resentment, sadness, jealousy, anxiety, self-hate, guilt, rage, loneliness, pain. You feel like the universe stole something you deserved, and it is incredibly difficult to watch everyone else continue to live their lives with their partners and dreams intact while your happily-ever-after is over. I’m sure we all have experienced this at various degrees.
But inside of me, I knew how to be a single mom. I learned how in the NICU. Morning and evening. Watching the other couples together– the way the husbands would stroke their wives arms and comfort them while I sat in the rocking chair next to my baby’s isolette crying alone. I found out my baby had a brain bleed when I was by myself, and I was so bitter about it. I remember seething over the fact that I did not sign up to be alone every day battling the overwhelming uncertainty of what would go wrong next. I did not sign up for paying half the bills and mortgage in a new home that would not have a room for my baby. None of that was in the contract when I signed the marriage license. I was supposed to get my happily-ever-after, but instead I got this.
We don’t sign up for a lot of what will happen in our lives.
But you learn how to adapt. That’s what we do. We either adapt or don’t adapt in this journey.
The NICU taught me how to quarantine. It taught me how to stand on my own two feet as a parent. It taught me strategies to cope with circumstances I couldn’t control, and it taught me there is no one way to be a mother.
Also: bad things do not last forever.
It’s what we call impermanence in Buddhism. Nothing stays the same.
The thing about this pandemic– just like World War II or the middle of the Great Depression or the Bubonic Plague or to be a child in a covered wagon headed west before there was a vaccine for typhoid fever– is that you can’t control it from happening. You can’t choose when you happen to be alive in history. It’s just your luck of the draw. We only get to choose our response.
Which is why I regularly remind myself that if Anne Frank can keep a positive attitude in an attic, what in the hell is my problem?
I know people are clamoring to go back to their old lives, but those lives are not our lives anymore. It is disappointing to be sure, but sadly a normal part of being alive in this universe. We adapt or don’t adapt.
In an interview with American science reporter Laurie Garrett, Garrett warns that there is no return to normal. She points out that after 9/11 we never went back to the way things used to be. Once upon a time, we used to pick up our loved ones right at the airport terminal, waving as they got off the plane. We didn’t take off our shoes going through security and we could bring a bottle of water onboard with us. I remember coming home from a college trip to China a month before 9/11 and several guys brought samurai swords back as carry-ons. Long, long gone are those days.
So are the days we used to know before this pandemic.
And right now, our lives are on hold as we watch all of this unfold without all of the answers. There is so much uncertainty.
I recently read Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, and she talks about how we crave order and meaning as humans. What I got out of her book is that sometimes in our haste to slap meaning onto the stimuli in our lives, we might get it wrong. Our propensity to bite down on our beliefs and unwillingness to examine other information can hurt us and/or others. I was also drawn to her point about self-delusion. Miller said in an interview with NPR that “unearned optimism can help you achieve kind of unthinkable things.” But she argues “the true path toward [like] saving lives and making progress is just being open to revision about your beliefs.”
It made me think about my own beliefs about myself. I started to pick apart sources of my unhappiness. If I can use beliefs to change what I think about myself and my circumstances, maybe I can experience more happiness, or at least dampen disappointment.
For me, I think expectations in life can be the most damaging beliefs we have if not handled properly. Expectations are not reality, but we treat them as such. They are not absolute truths, yet we feel entitled to them.
I’m fascinated by the neuroscience involved.
More specifically, how we can change neural pathways to avoid inevitable disappointment when our expectations do not materialize in the way that we want.
Is this what gratitude is for?
I think so.
Re-training our neural pathways. Re-programming what we see and feel and believe. Focusing on the goodness in our lives. Feeling grateful for what we have. Our loved ones. The pretty flowers blooming in the garden. Another day to be alive. Learning how to tune out the negative.
Human life is a series of peaks and valleys. We don’t always know when we’ll be standing on a peak, and even when we are, those moments can feel fleeting. A lot of our time is spent in the valleys.
If we dwell on the negative and fixate on our low points– it diverts precious energy to unproductive feelings that bring us down even lower. It’s counterproductive– kind of like fighting a riptide. Thus, if we are strategic about the way that we live, we learn how to re-frame our experiences when we are at the bottom, and it makes our climb back to the top more fulfilling and meaningful.
This is why I’m intrigued by a little bit of self-deception.
Why not convince yourself that something is greater than it is? Let yourself be optimistic. Maybe overly optimistic. Can this happen while still maintaining a firm grip on reality?
I don’t have all of the answers, but it sounds encouraging.
Like, I’m not gonna let this quarantine get me down, because I know there will be happier and more fulfilling days ahead. The reality is maybe there won’t be, but focusing on those beliefs won’t steer me into any productive direction. I might achieve more with an optimistic perspective.
Motherhood is good and bad. I don’t think I can escape this fact, so I might as well focus on the sweet drawings the kids leave all over the house and spend less time ruminating over the way they run around like screaming banshees at least half a dozen times a day.
I found a note I scribbled and left in one of my books: why not make this the most imaginative, dreamiest childhood experience ever?
It’s a belief that we can turn lemons into lemonades and spend time enjoying our lemonade. Spinning straw into gold. Transforming disappointment. Trusting that we can walk away from bad situations with the seeds of goodness to plant elsewhere.
What I know: my past problems have made me stronger and wiser today. Motherhood changed me. Widowhood changed me. Single motherhood changed me.
I suspect this pandemic will too. Maybe not right now, but someday.
And there is a lot to be grateful for, no self-delusion needed.
There is room for more gratefulness.
Today on Mother’s Day, I think I would rather pay homage to what it takes to nurture something you can not fully conceptualize but still believe in.
In Buddhism, ideal mother’s love is used to describe a kind of universal love we can all aspire to have and share. A boundless love. This love can be shown to ourselves and to others.
This is the type of love that I want to celebrate today.
As someone with the scars of life not going as planned, I know these designated holidays can feel painful, and for today this is especially true for the women who wanted children and never had them, moms who have lost children, children who had crappy mothers, and children who have lost mothers.
You don’t have to give birth to spread mother-like love. Not all mothers who give birth spread mother-like love.
Maybe you never even felt that kind of love as a child.
But we all have the opportunity to share it.
This is my 4th Mother’s Day without my husband here to carry the burden of honoring me in our household. He probably understood me the best in terms of what I would want on a special day. He leaves behind a huge void. What I learned after the initial sting of celebrating this forced holiday alone is that in life, we inevitably have to learn how to celebrate our own milestones. While it is great to have cheerleaders on our side and people to honor us and remember our contributions and success, none of it matters if we feel undeserving. We will achieve our greatest inner peace when we start to recognize ourselves. It is incredibly rare to be loved the way we want to be loved, but we can start by loving ourselves in the way that we need to be loved.
When we can let that mother’s love reflect back onto ourselves– when we can begin to see ourselves as the child version of us, deserving of opportunity and love in the tender way we view children– we can begin to realize who we are as miraculous beings. All other recognition is icing on the cake.
For me, it’s this type of love that we long to capture and celebrate, but sometimes we look for it and expect it in the wrong places. Society and Hallmark try to tell us where to find it, and in all of that noise we forget it was always inside of us.
Find it and use it. That is your gift.