It's been said that we write the books we need to read. In this case, I've edited the book I desperately need to read. This collection of writings was born out of a burning desire to reflect on the rich and challenging experience of motherhood. When I became a mother, I realized that my life had taken a new and powerful direction. Motherhood was not what I had expected. I didn't get the smiling, chubby baby in the Gerber commercial (who, I now realize, was probably close to a year old). I got a newborn. A tiny, thin baby who seemed unimaginably vulnerable, who slept only an hour-and-a-half at a time, who sometimes cried inconsolably, who grew and changed and developed so quickly I could barely keep up. I quickly found myself face-to-face with my deepest hopes and fears, and uncomfortably aware of my limitations.
Four years later, I don't have the polite, compliant, appreciative preschooler I had planned for, either. My image of family life did not include my four-year-old son grabbing his one-year-old brother by the neck, and, upon being told to stop it immediately, him running away from me yelling, ‘‘I don’t like you, Mommy!’’ This far into the journey of motherhood, I am truly humbled, knee-deep in shattered dreams—and I am also growing up in important ways.
Soon after my first son was born, I began to look for books that spoke to the intensity of the experience I was having as a new mother. There are, of course, innumerable books on parenting, but the majority of these are about child development and the do’s and don’ts of effective parenting. I quickly found that only a handful of books spoke of the tumultuous inner experience of motherhood itself.
Early motherhood can be a real crisis. In addition to the significant physical challenges of caring for a new baby, there are the waves of powerful emotion, a profound identity shift, a sort of existential crisis: Who am I now? What does it mean to be a mother? How am I going to do this? Like my mother did it? Not like my mother did it? What or who can guide me through all the joy, pain, change, and uncertainty? Most books I found in the parenting section didn’t satisfy my need to explore these kinds of questions.
As I started to look around for guidance, I saw mostly romanticized representations of motherhood. In books, magazines, and television we see the perfect mom: calm, confident, unconditionally wise, unconditionally loving, part early childhood educator, part child psychologist, part Martha Stewart. I couldn’t relate to this image at all, and yet many of the young mothers I was meeting had a tendency to reinforce and project this perfect-mom ideal. For this reason, I was so very grateful to the women who were able to be candid about the realities of motherhood, including the darker side that had so surprised me: the frustrations, the insecurities, the disappointments. Talking to these women, I felt much less defective and alone.
And, little by little, I began to discover other helpful resources. I found books, articles, and essays that spoke to the lived experience of motherhood in realistic and profound terms. I also had the good fortune of knowing two wise, older parents, both longtime practitioners of Zen Buddhism, who introduced me to the idea that parenthood could be undertaken as a form of spiritual practice, of meditation practice. This became a compelling idea for me, one that I wanted to explore further, and so I began to look for writings that explored motherhood in spiritual and transformative terms.
The book you’re holding is the result of my search. It offers a variety of writings that capture the rich, inner experience of motherhood—writings that see beyond the gauzy, romantic ideals to glimpse motherhood as different and much more than we thought: as a profound opportunity for self-understanding, personal growth, and real wisdom.
The collection is divided into four parts. In part 1, "The Reality of Being a Mother," women get beyond the myths and ideals to look honestly at the mixture of joy, heartache, confusion, love, anger, fear, and passion that is motherhood. These selections describe the lived experience of motherhood during its most intensive years, from giving birth to the empty nest. I’ve included a short excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s groundbreaking memoir of motherhood, Of Woman Born, first published in 1976, in which she spoke boldly and openly of motherhood’s dark side, of the unsettling mixture of resentment and love that she felt for her three children. It is remarkable that almost thirty years later we seem to be struggling to overcome the same stereotypes and taboos that Rich sought to question and dismantle.
Part 2 is titled "The Inner Work of Motherhood." The contributors to this section speak from a variety of religious traditions on the topic of how we can understand and experience motherhood as a spiritually transformative journey. But why bring religion into it? Looking deeply at our experience as mothers, we are continually called upon to grow and develop as people—to become more compassionate, more aware, more flexible, more accepting of ourselves and others. In short, motherhood demands that we become better people. Some women are discovering profound connections between the lessons of motherhood and the truths articulated by their religious traditions. These women have come to view motherhood as a form of spiritual training, as cleverly conveyed in the book title My Monastery Is a Minivan (written by Denise Roy, a graduate of a Jesuit seminary and a mother of four). The writings in this section of the book are about discovering wisdom and insight in the midst of the ordinary, daily routines of mothering.
Readers will note that there are a number of selections by Buddhist authors in this section (and sprinkled throughout this collection). At first glance, you might not expect Buddhism, a tradition that has historically been monastic in emphasis—and whose founder abandoned his own wife and child to pursue enlightenment—to have much to say about motherhood. The Buddha named his own child Rahula, which means ‘‘fetter,’’ though, to be fair, he had not yet reached enlightenment at the time. Yet Buddhist teaching has long emphasized the view that ordinary, daily life can be rich ground for spiritual awakening. The Buddhist writings presented here will be meaningful and relevant to women of any religious tradition.
Part 3 is titled "Why Is Being a Mother So Hard?" These writings explore the vexing problems of guilt, unrealistic images of motherhood in the media, the trend of over-parenting, as well as restrictive stereotypes and our tendency to reinforce them. Daphne de Marneffe, author of the compelling book Maternal Desire, explores a more hidden problem: the difficulty we may have in fully experiencing the rich pleasures of motherhood. Mothering includes tremendous challenges and awesome beauty. De Marneffe reminds us that our work as mothers is to open up to all of it. The writings in this section of the book are somewhat academic and sociological, but they are well worth the reader’s effort. They provide a broader perspective and much food for thought about our experience as mothers.
Part 4, "Finding Balance," offers some specific techniques and approaches to finding sanity and solid ground as a mother. I’m wary of any parenting do’s and don’ts—the way we parent is so personal, so unique to each mother and child—but this section of the book does offer some advice and guidance from spiritual teachers and everyday moms on finding center in a job that often throws us off balance.
A few weeks after I gave birth to my first child, in the thick of my exhaustion, worrying whether I was doing everything right, whether or not my baby would live through the night, I realized something. I realized that if I was going to survive this thing, I was going to have to grow and change. First of all, I was going to have to let go of a lot of things I felt entitled to: uninterrupted sleep; things going as planned; a feeling of being in command, the master of my circumstances. I also saw that I was ultimately going to have to let go of my very self-concept, my idea of motherhood, and my expectations of my child. All of it had to go.
The idea of shedding all of these burdens was exciting. The thought itself was a relief. And it suddenly dawned on me that my whole concept of motherhood had been wrong. I thought that as a mother I would carefully mold and shape my children. If I did my job right, my children would turn out to be well-adjusted, loving, thoughtful, and interesting people. As it turns out, motherhood is molding and shaping me. At the end of all this, I am the one who could end up well-adjusted, loving, thoughtful, and interesting.
In different ways, the writings in this collection explain how this might be true, how our experiences as mothers can lead us to valuable insight and transformation. So with this collection I respectfully suggest to all of you that, from a certain perspective, your children will raise you. That’s good news, isn’t it?