On a recent Saturday morning, I woke early to repaint the labyrinth in my back yard for a seasonal Women Writing Naturally Retreat I was planning to lead. As I worked on applying the wet white paint to the dry gray concrete, I had some realizations about the labyrinthine nature of motherhood.
1. Beginning can feel overwhelming. I’d been looking forward to it, but when the work actually began, I felt impatient and could only focus on how far I had to go. I’ll never forget the day when, three months pregnant, I was working in my usual way, submitting thirteen packets of poems to different journals at once, rushing to get them all done. In my hurry, I stubbed my flip-flop-wearing toe on the door going into the post office. Blood spurting all over the linoleum floor as I waited in line, I said to myself, “This is a sign of how becoming a mother is going to necessitate slowing down, being satisfied with doing less, and not trying to squeeze so much into so little time.”
2. Lessen your load and let something go. Part of my initial frustration on the morning when I was repainting the labyrinth had to do with the fact that I’d given my daughter, who’d also woken early that Saturday, the task of creating multiplication flashcards while I worked. She was grumpy and resistant, and since I couldn’t focus on both painting the labyrinth and paying attention to her, I let her go inside and find something else to do.
3. Pay attention to memories as they come. As I moved into a rhythm with the work, I vividly remembered the weekend I’d first created the labyrinth. Lily had been working on homework then, too, and had also gotten frustrated. I started to see that perhaps we return to these place memories in a cyclic way so that we can see what needs to be seen — within us — more deeply.
4. Follow the path of the present. Sometimes I would skip ahead, painting a bit of the line ahead of me, but then I would have to go back, and this going back led to unevenness and spills. The same is true for mothering; it does no good to worry about middle school when your kid is in kindergarten.
5. Take breaks. About half-way through, I was in a full sweat, my hands were cramped, and my back hurt. Part of me wanted to keep pushing, but when I allowed myself to take just a short break — walk around, refill my iced coffee, look at the sky — I returned refreshed and energized. I have had to realize this as a mother, too: taking a break means allowing myself and my daughter to pause long enough between activities so that we both can be patient and cheerful during the interminable motions of the in-between (finding shoes, tying shoes, finding a jacket, putting on a jacket, looking for a library book, getting the library book into the bag.)
6. Praise the good. During my coffee refill time, Lily told me she was inventing a game where she wrote one true thing on a card with two untrue things; later, she said, her dad and I would have to guess which was true about her. I was still a bit miffed that she wasn’t working on her math, but I stopped myself and said, “You are so creative!” instead. Her smile was my reward.
7. Be willing to change plans. I’d originally planned to repaint in the pattern of the labyrinth, but while working on the last quarter of the outer circle, I realized that if I didn’t go straight to the middle and fill it in, I could end up walking on some wet lines and making shoe marks. Sometimes we have to attend to the center of things instead of our original plan. My daughter once spent a year and a half trying to adjust to a school that was just not a good fit for her — we saw therapists, we tried new homework strategies, we bounced from one afterschool program to the next — until we realized that the center of the problem was the school itself. She transferred to another school, mid-year, and has been happy there ever since.
8. You can’t predict the weather. Suddenly the sky clouded over and there was a cold breeze. Rain hadn’t been forecast for the whole week. I could have let myself fret over whether it would rain on the wet paint; instead I allowed myself to enjoy the cool breeze. One day over winter break, my husband and stepdaughter and I planned a fun day of lunch and movies out. On the way, our car broke down. We had it towed to a station and from there, walked to a new place for lunch and took her to Kmart to get a little watch decorated with the characters from the movie we were going to see. I remember singing and holding hands as we walked along the busy four-lane road and realized the fun was in us, not in what did or did not happen to us.
9. The hand that holds is working, too. As I neared the end of the repainting, I realized that my left hand — the one that was holding the paint can — was more cramped and sore than the hand that had been doing the painting. This is true for mothering, too — the times when we are simply holding, or waiting, or supporting — these are work, too.
10. When you are close to the end, things seem to speed up. When I had only a few lines left to paint on the labyrinth, I felt a bit sad. I wished I could keep going. I remembered this feeling on the day I picked up my stepdaughter on her last day of elementary school: it had all seemed to go so fast; there was so little time left. She is now all grown up; at 22, she has graduated from college and teaches high school physics for Teach for America in Washington, D.C. The middle, high school, and college years went by even more quickly than those first twelve. It takes my breath away to say it now. It reminds me, once again, to be patient and enjoy every line, every moment in time, with Lily, who will soon be 11. And with a turn in the labyrinth, she will be 22. By keeping these ten teachings in mind, I will not only be an older mother, but a wiser one, too.
I invite you to use your own experience with an activity — an art or sport, hobby or routine — to write an essay that reflects upon the lessons it holds for mothers. Please email your submission of 800-1000 words to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by December 13th. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 2” in the subject line, and place the text of your essay in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your piece, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication.