“To bring children into the world and slowly to birth one’s death and to accept it rather than to get it over with, quickly and if possible without awareness of it–as our shabbiest fantasies would have it–are acts of participation in creation. They refuse to fall in love with the alien reality of money and violence that has laid hold of life. The pain of birth encourages and convinces us of life. Just as a piece of bread can convince us of God, so this pain is a sacrament, a sign of God’s presence. How could we ever have lost it?” – Dorothee Sölle – Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian
During a conversation about summer break awhile back, my second son casually offered, “Well, mommy’s always on summer break.” The statement was like a needle scratching across a record; the party went silent. My eldest son sat up straight and gave his brother the look of, “Dude, you’re on your own now…” as he scooted down the bench at our dinner table, creating a healthy distance for/from the wrath he expected to land in his brother’s lap. My husband was in the kitchen slicing something; the slicing stopped as his eyes–filled with what I would call a healthy (and proper) dose of panic–darted from my second son to me, back to my second son, back to me. The toddler babbled about something; she saw the whole thing as an opportunity to shove the remainder of her dinner on to the floor… “oooops…fressert pweeze?”… <<giggle>>.
The one who uttered the statement looked around; everything about the tension in the air told him he’d just said something wrong. Very wrong. He realized it. His head slowly turned, and his blue eyes slowly met mine. I was calm–let’s be more honest about that–I was as calm as I could be on the outside. In a cool and very controlled tone–the tone that my children know as the tone of sit-still-say-nothing-nod-amply–“Summer break?…Really?” I asked him. He nodded. I knew why he’d assumed that and even why he said it…out loud. “Just because I don’t leave to go to a job or go to work, doesn’t mean I’m not working at a job. If you really want the truth, Mommy doesn’t get summer break and she barely gets a vacation. Not even my sleep is mine. Mommies are at work every hour of every day, every day of every week, every week of ever year… Summer break?” I chuckled, and shook my head slightly. I poked around my dinner plate with my fork. “Not even close, buddy.”
No this isn’t a post about the unsung heroism of the stay-at-home-mother’s work day. Though, these works should be praised. The myriad of things I do every day from the hours of 4am to 9pm (when I practically fall into bed) to keep this house running, to keep #TheLarkinThree alive, and to maintain the barely existing heartbeat of my own professional work is worthy of applause. But I don’t want applause. I hate applause. (Anyone who knows me well enough knows just how much I hate applause and praise.) So, I’m not writing to be told I’m doing a good job or to be told that being a stay-at-home-mom is a noble choice…if I hear that one more time when I meet someone from my husband’s office, I’ll lose it.
I told the story above because what dawned on me (much, much later) is that if my son thinks I’m always on summer break, then maybe I’m doing my job right and well. That he doesn’t see me as working hard or that I’m always burdened by them, is indicative of a daily aspect of motherhood most don’t see in operation until death.
You can look upon my body and see the scars of having become a mother. From the moment a plastic stick tells me I’m “with child” my body starts to change.* My brain chemistry will alter (forever); I’ll be hardwired from here on out to put an other before myself. When he cries, I’ll come. When he stumbles and falls, I’ll scoop him up. When he’s troubled, I’ll comfort. When he runs away, I’ll run after. During pregnancy my body will betray me. My own body will choose him over me. My nutrients course through my body first to him and whatever is left, I’ll get. My mind and my body sacrifice me for his life; way before holding him in my arms, I’ll go through a multitude of deaths to bring forth life.
Not least of which is laboring to deliver. In labor I am confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And I’ll confront death alone. No one takes my hand and guides me through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; I will come close to and growl at death, bring it, Death! I’ll stare it down. My life for his! I’ll cry. And I’ll bear the wound of this battle in my physical body. (Wounds that will later allow men to judge me as unattractive and unappealing, judgments I’ll absorb and utter against myself as I look over my body reflected back to me by the bathroom mirror).
I could bring up the continued wounding of my physical body–how my breasts are now oddly shaped because of years of nursing, expanding and contracting; how my weight fluctuates depending on the time I have to take care of myself; how the nutritional values of my meals is skimpy because I’m gleaning from left overs remaining on little plates by little people. But the reality is that it’s not merely my physical body that incurs the wound, pain, and suffering, of being a mom. As I said, you can look upon my body and see the scars and disfiguring of being a mom, but there’s more you can’t see unless you not just look but also listen. For the suffering and pain of being a mom isn’t merely restricted to my body, but also to my mind and my soul. My body–inside and out–is continually broken for these children of mine.**
“The real question the pain of birth gives us would be how we might come to understand pain as birthing pain, labor pain as doors opening, groaning as ‘the onset of the glory of the freedom of God’s children.’ How do we approach our pains so that they do not torment us like pointless kidney stones, but, as pains of labor, prepare the new being?…We need a different theology of pain that finally feminizes the questions and relates our pain to the pain of God. The question then will be: How does our pain become the pain of God? How do we become part of the messianic pain of liberation, part of the groaning of a creation that is in travail. How do we come to suffer so that our suffering becomes the pain of birth?” – Sölle***
But there’s more beyond the inner and outer breaking of my body. There is something you can’t see or hear, because this war that wages is one that is mine alone. This battle is between me and the age that has come before me on behalf of the age to come. And it wages everyday I walk the earth; it’s the battle I’ll take with me into the grave. (And, truly, if I fight well, you’ll rarely see the effects or feel the impact of this war.) It’s more than just a my-life-for-his: it’s: his-life-will-be-free. Free from all of the generational shit that has been repeatedly passed down over and over and over again. Free from pain and suffering that should’ve never have happened…ever. Free from anxiety, stress, fear where there should’ve been peace, tranquility, and comfort. The battle is one that is not about a body breaking but the very opposite; it’s about a body strong, resilient, being a stronghold in the time of disaster. Like a dam holding back tons of water threatening to wash out and drown what lives peacefully in its shadow and protection, my body will hold back what has come crashing into it from the repetition of history to protect those who live and depend on my protection. Everyday I will awake and make intentional choices, decisions, and actions that repeat my motherhood-mantra: it will not be so for you. And, this shit ends with me; I’ll wrestle it into the grave it so deserves. Everyday, I will utter the divine “no more” that has infiltrated my language because of my encounter with Christ who defined love as suffering, love as a body broken, love as freedom where there was oppression, love as comfort where there was fear, love as tender embrace where there was abuse, love as acceptance where there was rejection, love as new life as a gift to us out of/because of Christ’s death and resurrection.
*In rather imperfect terms (needing some renovating and updating) I’ve written more about the process of death to life as it relates to the very beginning of motherhood here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/08/12/death-to-life-in-fertility-to-birth/
**I’ve written here about the inner body breaking: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/06/22/my-body-broken/
***Thank you to David W. Congdon who supplied me with the quotations from Dorothee Sölle. You can follow him on twitter @dwcongdon; I’d recommend it. 🙂