Photo: Happy Babies, exhausted parents. I suppose that means we did the birthday right. Right?
I found myself in a colonial church two nights ago. It’s funny how life’s map opens up like that. I’ve passed by this church more than a few times and remarked on its beauty. Well, it turned out that a lecture I’d been invited to attend this week was hosted in the building! Where the outside of the 200 year-old building was the perfect postcard of any New England church, I was reminded of the great Puritan protestants of old: no frills. A seemingly stark room with nothing on the walls but ancient windows, pews that were boxes rather than long rows, a plaque on the wall dedicated to the forefathers of the congregation.
Thus was the setting of an interesting revelation. The talk was given by a woman I’d never heard of before, Jennifer Senior, who is a very accomplished journalist and now the author of a new book on modern parenting. I am not one to attend these kinds of talks, but a set of extremely random circumstances brought me to this thing. So I sat, and listened. Her book, titled All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood and the talk she gave about it, is about the cacophony of reasons why modern middle class American mothers are so stressed out about parenthood, aren’t necessarily enjoying it, but are also saying that they get great joy out of it. It’s like, “huh? how can that be?” I won’t spoil it all for you, but I will tell you my ah-ha moment from it all. It brought a beautiful clarity to Ursa Major’s birthday yesterday.
Ursa Major woke up too excited. He asked for cake as soon as his eyes opened. I gave him options for what he wanted to do on his special day, understanding that we had to do it in the morning, because I’d spend the rest of the day cooking/baking for his big day (two sheets of brownies for school, a cake for that night, a brioche for Saturday morning, spaghetti and meatballs and 2 loaves of italian bread for dinner!). He chose to go to the farm, which made me incredibly happy. So off we went (after the little fights over breakfast, playtime, and getting dressed, of course!). He was so happy to be there and see everything (we haven’t been for a while), but he was mostly excited about it being his birthday. Matter of fact, Ursa Major announced to every single adult at the farm who would listen that it was his birthday. “Hi! Today’s my birthday!”
And, because it’s the suburbs and because he’s a child and because the farm is for children, all of the adults around him were delighted by it. “Oh really? That’s wonderful! Happy Birthday! How old are you?”
After getting the “how old are you?” question a couple of times, Ursa Major started including it in his announcement. “Hi! Today’s my birthday! I’m 4 years old!” He was delighted. They were delighted. I was sorta delighted. Ursa Minor was even delighted: “Hi! Today is my brother’s birthday!”
On three occasions, something really interesting happened. I got this: “Congratulations to you too, Mom! You’ve been a mother for 4 years! Did someone get you a gift?”
“Hey! You’ve been a Mom for 4 years! Good for you! Congratulations!”
“Happy Birthday to you, too, Mama. You have survived 4 years of motherhood!”
And I thanked them for it. Because it was true. Yesterday marked a big day for me, too. Three women recognized that yesterday: One of them was my age, but the other two were older women.
Which brings me back to the lecture. Jennifer talked about this paradox of why parents who are experiencing parenthood are (sorta) miserable but, when looking back on it, feel nothing but joy about it. That’s because, she said, our “experiencing” selves and our “remembering” selves are very different people. We’re miserable in the moment because we aren’t processing all levels of what we’re going through. We’re on a deadline, we’re in the crisis, we’re doing the work… but later, when the brain catches up and we’re able to dig deep and think about what we’ve gone through… that’s when the warm and fuzzies come in. And that’s when you get that sigh when your son turns four and you think to yourself, “where does the time go?” When, four years ago at this very moment, all I was thinking was “holy shit, my boobs hurt. Holy shit, I got NO sleep last night. Oh my God, did I just make a mistake!?”
And what I appreciated about the two older women who took the time to recognize me on my eldest son’s birthday is that older women are often in their “remembering” state. So when they say things like “oh, enjoy these moments” when our kids are having tantrums in the store, they are doing it because they are sincerely thinking of their own experiences with the wonderful buffer of time and processing. Unfortunately, they are communicating that to us moms who are in our experiencing mode and we’re miserable and, usually, not appreciating that little nugget of processed advice. But for them to stop and see me in that moment, to remember and to simply say, “hey, you made it another year,” I think, it wonderful. It just warmed my heart.
If there had been a Q&A after the talk, I would have asked Jennifer to talk about the static between us “Experiencing” moms and those “Remembering” moms. All I could think about when I walked back to my car was my September blow-up with my mother-in-law. It gave it a totally different context. It made sense. And it isn’t because Jennifer had revealed something new per se, but she presented me with a new language and tool-set to think about what my mother-in-law does, why she does it and why it pisses me off so much. Knowledge is power, yes? It might not yield forgiveness, but it is a start.
I did not purchase Jennifer’s book as I rarely read non-fiction outside of a classroom setting. But I highly recommend that you see her if she gives a talk in a community near you! (For a preview, she gave a TED Talk last year.)
My dear reader, there is a storm coming to Massachusetts tomorrow. Flakes will fall in the morning and last all the day. No party for Ursa Major… we had to go ahead and postpone it. Don’t feel too bad for him. He’ll sled until his fingers and toes freeze. 🙂 We have no control over the weather, but we do have the power to transform the unexpected into wonderful experiences instead. So my wish for you this Friday, dear reader, is for a wonderfully unexpected turn of events. A spur-of-the-moment change of plans, a chance encounter with a person or thing, a delightful deviation from whatever your routine is. I wish you an enlightening moment, a little nugget that drastically changes the way that you look at your world. I wish you a bite at something new that turns into a culinary journey. I wish for someone to see you in your fullness, to understand you for who you are, who you’ve been, and who you have the potential to be. And always, I wish you safe travels: the journey has many twists and turns, steep hills and sometimes merciless valleys… but it is yours to walk, and that is a powerful thing.
Until Monday, stay warm and safe, and take care.