Mothering as Meditation Practice
Anne Cushman (excerpted from Fall 2001 issue of Tricycle Magazine)
For the first few weeks of my son Skye's life, he would only sleep if he could hear my heartbeat. From midnight to dawn he lay on my chest, his head tucked into the hollow of my throat, awakening every two hours to nurse. In the day, he'd nap in my arms as I rocked, a slideshow of emotions —joy, exasperation, amusement, angst, astonishment—flickering across his dreaming face, as if he were rehearsing every expression he would need for the rest of his life. If I dared set him in his bassinet, he'd wake up with a roar of outrage, red-faced and flailing. He cried whenever I changed his diaper. And every evening from 7 to 9 he cried for no apparent reason at all.
When Skye was two weeks old, I ate black bean tacos for dinner and he screamed until sunrise, his body stiff and his fists clenched. While I sobbed along with him, my husband called the emergency room, where the nurse on duty told us, kindly, that it sounded like gas. The next morning, a nutritionist friend assured me that everything would be fine so long as I stopped eating dairy, wheat, yeast, soy, corn, legumes, garlic, onions, tomatoes, sugar, peppers, broccoli, and citrus fruit (and considered dropping fish, mushrooms, and eggs). As Skye finally fell asleep in the crook of my right arm, I collapsed on the sofa in my bathrobe, eating cold brown rice with my left hand and spilling it in his hair.
It was about that time that I decided that what I had embarked on was an intensive meditation retreat. It had all the elements, I told myself: the long hours of silent sitting: the walking back and forth, going nowhere: the grueling schedule and sleep deprivation: the hypnotic, enigmatic chants ('...and if that looking glass gets broke/Mama's gonna buy you a billy goat...'); the slowly dawning realization that there is nothing to look forward to but more of the same. And at the center of it, of course, was the crazy wisdom teacher in diapers, who assigned more demanding practice than I had encountered in all of my travels in India —like 'Tonight you will circumambulate the living room for two hours with the master in your arms, doing a deep-knee bend at every other step, and chanting, 'Dooty-dooty-doot-doot-doo, Dooty-dooty-doot-doot-doo.' Or 'At midnight you will carry the sleeping master with you to the bathroom and answer this koan: How do you lower your pajama bottoms without using your hands?'
Like all great spiritual practices, these were exquisitely designed to rattle the cage of my ego. They smashed through my concepts about how things should be (rocking in the garden swing by the lavender bush, watching the hummingbirds, while my newborn slept in a bassinet by my feet) and pried open my heart to the way things actually were (standing by the diaper table, flexing one tiny knee after another into Skye's colicky tummy, and cheering when a mustard-yellow fountain erupted from his behind). And with every breath of my 'baby sesshin', I was offered the opportunity to cradle my child in my arms like the baby Buddha and be present for a mystery unfolding...
The books on my bedside table used to be about pursuing Awakening in the Himalayas. Now they're about preventing awakening in the middle of the night. There's a diaper changing table where my altar used to be; my zafus and zabutons have been requisitioned to cushion Skye's play area. Forget about chewing a single raisin for five minutes and admonitions to 'when you eat, just eat' —I'm on the phone with Skye on my hip, ordering baby-proof plates for the electrical outlets as I eat cold potstickers with my fingers straight from the cardboard box and rub fresh spit-it up into the floor with one socked foot. It's hard to find the moment even to tell my self that this is a spiritual path —I'm too busy looking for Skye's other mitten...
Could there be any better way to get my nose rubbed in the truth of impermanence that to love a child in a jagged, careless world? Napping with sky in my king-size bed— his head on my breast, my nose pressed against the dark silk of his hair—I watch the heartbeat fluttering in the soft spot on his skull. Forget about freeways and plutonium, and stealth bombers —I've been sternly warned that even a teddy bear could suffocate him in his crib. At night, when he's been silent a couple of hours, I creep into his room and stand in the dark, not moving for fear of creaking a floorboard, until I hear him sigh.
And even if everything goes absolutely perfectly, I know that this particular Skye—the one who warbles and passionately sucks on the bill of his rubber duck as he splashes with me in the tub —is going to dissolve like bubble bath. Yesterday he was a kicking bulge in my belly as I swam laps in the July sun; tomorrow he'll be a middle aged man, weeping and scattering my ashes in a mountain lake. Watching Skye rub strained carrots into his eyelashes, my husband says, 'It's so beautiful that it hurts.'
I feel plugged into the world now, in a way that I never have been before. As I feed my child out of my own body, I see how I am fed by the body of the earth. I'm crocheted to a chain of mothers before me, and a chain of unborn children who will inherit a world I can't even imagine. I want Skye's grandchildren to be able to swim in the Pacific, and hike the granite ridges of the Sierra, and gasp at blue herons standing on one leg in Bolinas Lagoon.
Is this 'attachment'? Or connectedness?
I don't mean to be grandiose. I know these insights aren't the pristine diamond of Samadhi. They're a sloppier, stickier kind of realization, covered in drool and Cheerio crumbs. But maybe this is the gift of mothering as practice —a kind of inclusiveness that embraces chaos and grit and imperfection. It's not based on control or keeping things tidy.
It makes room in its heart for a plastic dump truck in the middle of the living room floor, and rap music leaking under a bedroom door at midnight. It doesn't slip away in the middle of the night to search for enlightenment. It stays home and finds it there.
Being A Mom
We are sitting at lunch one day when my daughter casually mentions that she and her husband are thinking of "starting a family."
"We're taking a survey," she says half-joking. "Do you think I should have a baby?"
"It will change your life," I say, carefully keeping my tone neutral.
"I know," she says, "no more sleeping in on weekends, no more spontaneous vacations."
But that is not what I meant at all. I look at my daughter, trying to decide what to tell her. I want her to know what she will never learn in childbirth classes.
I want to tell her that the physical wounds of child bearing will heal, but becoming a mother will leave her with an emotional wound so raw that she will forever be vulnerable.
I consider warning her that she will never again read a newspaper without asking, "What if that had been MY child?" That every plane crash, every house fire will haunt her. That when she sees pictures of starving children, she will wonder if anything could be worse than watching your child die.
I look at her carefully manicured nails and stylish suit and think that no matter how sophisticated she is, becoming a mother will reduce her to the primitive level of a bear protecting her cub. That an urgent call of "Mom!" will cause her to drop a soufflé or her best crystal without a moments hesitation.
I feel that I should warn her that no matter how many years she has invested in her career, she will be professionally derailed by motherhood. She might arrange for childcare, but one day she will be going into an important business meeting and she will think of her baby's sweet smell. She will have to use every ounce of discipline to keep from running home, just to make sure her baby is all right.
I want my daughter to know that every day decisions will no longer be routine. That a five year old boy's desire to go to the men's room rather than the women's at McDonald's will become a major dilemma. That right there, in the midst of clattering trays and screaming children, issues of independence and gender identity will be weighed against the prospect that a child molester may be lurking in that restroom.
However decisive she may be at the office, she will second-guess herself constantly as a mother.
Looking at my attractive daughter, I want to assure her that eventually she will shed the pounds of pregnancy, but she will never feel the same about herself. That her life, now so important, will be of less value to her once she has a child. That she would give herself up in a moment to save her offspring, but will also begin to hope for more years, not to accomplish her own dreams, but to watch her child accomplish theirs.
I want her to know that a cesarean scar or shiny stretch marks will become badges of honour. My daughter's relationship with her husband will change, but not in the way she thinks. I wish she could understand how much more you can love a man who is careful to powder the baby or who never hesitates to play with his child. I think she should know that she will fall in love with him again for reasons she would now find very unromantic.
I wish my daughter could sense the bond she will feel with women throughout history who have tried to stop war, prejudice and drunk driving.
I want to describe to my daughter the exhilaration of seeing your child learn to ride a bike. I want to capture for her the belly laugh of a baby who is touching the soft fur of a dog or cat for the first time. I want her to taste the joy that is so real it actually hurts.
My daughter's quizzical look makes me realize that tears have formed in my eyes. "You'll never regret it," I finally say. Then I reached across the table, squeezed my daughter's hand and offered a silent prayer for her, and for me, and for all the mere mortal women who stumble their way into this most wonderful of callings.
May you always have in your arms the one who is in your heart.