Madonna and Child

Day

I spent the morning running errands in the cold morning, and all morning I missed my son. I missed him tangibly, with my whole body. I went back to our apartment, lay down in my bed and slept restlessly, unsatisfied. In a time not so distant this feeling came in the absence of a partner – the familiar weight of a hand resting on my skin or the intimacy of common experience. Now my loyalty rises to this: my only son and the imperfect family that we are. This apartment does not comfort me as a home does without his chubby fingers pulling open the cabinet doors, without the sound of small feet running unevenly, the questioning “Dhaa?” as he lifts a book to me.

I picked Joseph up from school and we went home to eat apple slices together at the kitchen table. We sat on the couch under a green army blanket and read the same two books again and again and I started to feel better. I had just wanted to be near him – separated I felt un-anchored, in danger of drifting off.
When I say it is time to go to bed he takes my first two knobby fingers in his little puffy red ones and waves goodnight to the kitchen table, to his bicycle and his books still lying open on the couch. He climbs into his bed and I kiss his cheek and then his head behind his ear. I read aloud as he drifts off beside me, his eyes blinking, and then closed, then his breathing slow and deep. I close the book and watch him breathe before returning to the other work that must be done.

This is the dream of motherhood, the world of magic we inhabit somewhere between the myth and this moment, where the love lifts us up as sparks from the bonfire reach up into the night.

Night

I wake to a wailing cry and the hard knot in my stomach. He must be hurting but how can I know where? I sit impotently at his bedside, pushing my fingers through hair quickly matting dark with tears and sweat and snot. I lift him into my lap and he arranges himself in perfect symmetry, one little foot on either side of my hips, his ear pressed to the center of my chest where the bones push out against the skin. He sighs into quiet and then sleep.

Dawn

When I wake again it is to excited babbling. He is talking quickly, “The sun is almost here, mama! Wake up! Let me tell you about my dream,” he seems to say. “Good morning bub,” I grab his head and kiss it. He flops on top of me, then picks his head up laughing. The windows are not yet light. We rise, boil water in a copper kettle, eat our breakfast of oatmeal from a blue bowl.

It is beginning to snow. I dress Joseph for school wondering if they will go outside, if he will be warm enough, if the other children are kind to him. I wondered how the mothers of this valley might have labored on a morning such as this, before there were windows out of which to watch the snow and all our artifices of security.

What work belonged to the native women of this valley? How did they carry their babies? Close to their bodies, under blankets and furs? I am driving us across the river, just downstream of the place where the Holston meets the French Broad. What if the bridges were gone? What if I couldn’t reach him? I see myself placing boots side by side on the frozen mud. I might not survive swimming the river, I think, but I would have to.

Love is at once mythological and ordinary. Today it is dressed in the trappings of school lunches, zipped jackets, bedtime rituals, but I know myself to be in the company of the Gods. Who was the first mother? I see Eve in the garden, eating an apple, waking up and remember the apple tossed into my backpack this morning – the one that was on sale last weekend when Joseph pushed the grocery cart between my feet.

Once, very pregnant, I squatted on a river bank and lifted the water to my face. I knew the geometry of that moment was sacred. In such a gesture I felt the strength of every woman squatted by the river, heavy with the weight of life, and in it also the strength of every apple tree whose gnarled branches have borne the hard round fruit through the turning of the season.

I brought Joseph home for the first time in the afternoon. I struggled to keep up with the nurse as she led me out the winding passageways of the hospital (a new mother couldn’t be expected to find her way out on her own). That night I lay with him on the mattress on the floor in my bedroom, his head on my chest and my face bent to his, smelling his yet-unwashed hair. In the stillness of that moment holiness washed over us as a tide claims the shore.

I took a photograph of us, and later people would tell me: You look like the Madonna and child. And we are, each of us, at least as monumental, at least as sacred. Motherhood ties us irrevocably to the ground: having participated in bearing life we become the kind of love that keeps us tethered to the work of survival and that is as sublime as Creation itself. We are forever to be both the holy icon and the aching mundane. Sitting on a footstool by the child’s bed not knowing what hurts, rising in the morning to serve oatmeal in a blue bowl, kneeling by the river.

mamababy-copy the-madonna-and-child-il-sassoferrato

Thoughts on Self-care from Someone Who Doesn’t Know Anything About Self-care

It’s interesting to find myself writing an article about Self-care, because frankly I loathe articles about Self-care. This is because I have deplorable Self-care practices, and even the most well-intentioned article leaves me feeling worse than when I started. Not only do I feel lousy because I’m not taking care of myself, I now have one more reason to beat myself up in my head: Why can’t I just meditate every once and a while, or do yoga, or manage to keep a regular exercise routine, or eat a balanced diet full of whole foods? The irony of the fact that I regularly harangue myself – for not taking better care of myself – does not escape me.

In reality, I figure I’m doing pretty good if it’s been less than five days since I last took a shower, or if I’ve slept more than six hours consecutively any night in the last week.

A child of our productivity-centric culture, I have always prioritized what I can achieve over maintaining the self that makes the achievements. Since becoming a single parent, my priorities schema has transformed into something more like a triage situation. I can only tend to the part of my life that is [most] gushing blood. This metaphor took on so much weight that recently when I explained the feeling to a friend, he responded with Yeah, I get the feeling. You know there’s whole different theories of triage out there. And I thought, Theories of Triage? Gee, I should really look into that. As though I could find valuable life maintenance advice in Triage Theory [and maybe you can, but I decided against pursuing that research].

So it wasn’t until a few days ago, when I came down with a stomach bug (the equivalent of myself being the [most] gushing blood), and was forced to sleep for a night and a day- calling in Grandparent-support to get Joseph to school in the morning – that I realized it was time to think about Self-care.

Recently a friend shared a great article with me dealing with Self-care after trauma called Kaleidoscopes of Chaos – How Traumatic Boundary Violations Destroy The Capacity for Self-Care by Heidi Hanson on her site The Art of Healing Trauma.

The most helpful part of this article was her metaphor of the swimming pool.

“It’s like this. Imagine you set up a nice swimming pool in your yard, the kind with the tall circular wall and blue lining. Then suddenly a car runs into your swimming pool and the walls break and all the water falls out all over the lawn. Then someone comes up to you and asks, ‘Do you want this swimming pool lining patch? It’s a really nice one. When my rose bush dropped a branch into my pool and it scratched the lining, I patched it right up with this! It’s a great way to take care of yourself. It feels so nice to take a little time for self-care. And the pool lining will be so beautiful, too!’

The problem is, at that level of boundary violation there really is no swimming pool lining anymore. It’s irrelevant. The car needs to be towed. And that life needs rebuilding.”

In this metaphor, the water is the self, and the pool lining is your boundaries. As a Nice Southern Woman who likes to take care of people and generally doesn’t say No, my swimming pool has been like one big pool party for most of my life. Every once and a while someone else will saunter up and ask to get in, and I’ll think Well, gee, there’s not much more space, but they look like they could use a nice swim. And so they climb in too, and pretty soon the water is splashing over the edge and the lining is bulging at the seams. I might feel a little scattered and a little worn thin, but mostly it feels okay because this is how it’s always been.

In this way, my understanding of Self has been me + everyone I’m taking care of. Which explains why, when my counselor says “You need to work on saying No (and get people out of your swimming pool),” it’s hard to understand. But that’s my Self. Who will I be? Won’t I be lonely?

This metaphor also helps me understand how it can be easy for someone dangerous to slip in and start poking little holes. They might throw everyone else out and it might feel good for a time to just have that one person floating around – you might even feel grateful to them. And then after a time all it takes is one good kick and your swimming pool lining goes out and the water spills all over the lawn in one big gush. This is when normalized boundary violations become traumatic boundary violations and loss of Self. Sometimes the trauma might be external and out of your control, like Hanson’s car crashing into the swimming pool.

Self-care Post Trauma means building a new swimming pool liner, and filling it up with new water. It might look exactly the same, and be in the same place, but it’s a different swimming pool. When I came home pregnant from Idaho, the first thing I did was start making a quilt. I didn’t exactly want to make a quilt – my Self was so destroyed that I couldn’t access any active interests – but I remembered that I used to like making quilts, and so I made a quilt: following the process like a map back to who I am.

It’s been two years since that winter that I came home, and I’m starting to feel impatient about this whole building a new swimming pool thing. But when I’m honest with myself I’m still far from finished with this work. The thing is, I want to build myself up with something sturdier this time. I’ve never done this before, and I am needing to do a lot of experimenting with new materials. I’m collecting drops of rainfall as I can, but I am continually unsatisfied – moving what water I have to temporary holding pools while I begin construction again and again – this time with clay, the next with brick and again with river stones.

I am getting closer and closer, but until that time when I have a safe and strong place for my waters to be held, I need realistic Self-care goals. I need Not One More Thing to Feel Discouraged Because I Can’t Accomplish It Self-care goals, I need Not One More Thing On My To-Do List Self-care goals.

Knowing that I need to start small and because it is sometimes still difficult for me to remember what makes me feel good, I wrote a list of things I can do in less than ten minutes when I realize I need some Self-care. Here are some of the things I wrote:

– Call a friend to say hi

– Put on clothes that feel good

– Take a dance break

– Mark one thing off your To-Do list, even if you don’t finish it

– Choose one room and tidy it

– Write a list of 10 things you enjoy doing

– Write a list of 10 things you are proud of yourself for

– Put on clean socks

– Make the bed

The list goes on. If this idea sounds like it might help you, please borrow it. If you’re killing it at Self-care, I’m so happy for you. If you have a similar story, or this resonates with you in some other way, I’d love to hear it. As they say, we walk this path together, and I am buoyed by your tales of struggle and reclamation.

baby-quilt

 

Artist In Residence in Motherhood, Part II: Process

Christmas was hard this year, harder than usual. My son was out of school for two weeks, all our routines got off, we both stopped sleeping, I pieced together childcare for one week and traveled to Cleveland, Ohio and back the next, with no one but me to provide structure for my emerging toddler and myself.

Before it all began, I knew this wasn’t going to be good for my writing practice. When Joseph is in school I spend one day a week at a desk with my work. But when there is no school and only just barely enough willing and loyal friends to piece together childcare for my responsibilities to my employer, the luxury of sitting at a desk and following a train of thought all the way to its end was simply not a possibility.

At the beginning of my Artist In Residence In Motherhood (AIRIM), I adapted the manifesto of Lenka Clayton, founder of AIRIM:

Like all new mothers, the birth of my child ignited a process of transformation – both internal in my person and external in the structures of my life – that is ongoing still even as my son has crossed into his second year. Among the tectonic shifts has been in the way that I myself and others see my career as an artist. It is a commonly held perception that the serious artist and the good mother are mutually exclusive endeavors. I actively reject this notion and choose to instead present the idea that my work as an artist strengthens my capacities as a mother and my life as a mother deepens my work: that they inform one another. I undergo this self-imposed Artist Residency in order to fully experience the unique challenges and structures of being both a Working Artist and a Single Mother, to make the best use of the material and resources at hand, and to allow these circumstances to shape the direction of my work rather than doggedly attempting to work “despite” them.

As I gazed into the expanse of holiday mess devoid of the structure that allows for my so precious working time, something drew me back to this manifesto. I was reminded that at the center of this residency is an aspiration to allow my understanding of being a working artist and being a mother to be transformed from mutually exclusive to mutually beneficial. My goal is an acceptance of ‘what is’ and to allow inventive new ways of working to emerge from the various limitations of motherhood instead of resisting those limitations and attempting to work in the same old ways despite them.

I realized that I hadn’t allowed this transformation to happen at all. To me, writing has meant sitting down and typing or scribbling, undistracted, at a desk for as long as it takes to get the thought out. Up to this point, the residency had been helpful in that it validated my creative life and helped me to make space for it, but I had simply claimed time to work in the same way I always have: long interrupted stretches at the coffee shop while my child is being otherwise cared for.

Unwilling to abandon my writing for two weeks, I was going to have to be a little more inventive. So I made a plan in two parts:

  1. I would keep an almanac, and
  2. I would continue a documentary photo series through my Instagram feed.

The goal of the Almanac was simply to document in short entries the facts of our days. For example:

December 23, 2016

“Spent all morning cleaning the apartment. Carried 14 lbs of diapers to the trash. After living here two months, finally assembled the spray mop and attempted to clean the floor. Immediately after putting the mop away I stepped on a chunk of Joseph’s lunch, and kicked it under the table.”

The photo series was a continuation of an exploration I began Mid-December which looks at the boundaries of self through images of windows and what obscures them.

(You can check out the photographs on Instagram @lwhulse)

Both were uncomplicated assignments I could achieve simply in moments between caring for my son and socializing with family, but remarkably both produced significant effect. The almanac was like holding a mirror up to my face, showing me where my internal processes in a way that on multiple accounts allowed me to shift the narrative or make discoveries that had previously been obscured. The photo series kept me engaged in thinking through image and through metaphor, and allowed me to continue to reckon with what it means to have boundaries even through my most fragmented and distracted days.

But the most important thing that happened is that when I (again) stopped resisting the limitations of motherhood and seeing them in opposition to my creative work, my resentment evaporated and the depression and weariness that dogged me lightened. This transformation mirrors the one that has in a broader way been in process since Joseph’s conception – the more I resist my new life as a mother, the more resentful I feel of all it’s limitations, the choices that led me here, and my experiences in the relationship with Joseph’s father.

On the other hand, when I accept the inevitable transformation I am able to see what is good in me and my life that I would have never found or created otherwise, I am able to see the change as growth and the limitations as creative. I say that this has been in process for a long time because I have resisted more often than I have accepted and I have resented more often than I have been able to see growth. Surrounded by single child-less friends, I often externalize my resentment, casting it at all those who have opportunities that are now closed to me. I am often angry at myself, for not being able to maintain my old self while simply adding on “good mother” to the hats I wear each day.

But on the best days I know that motherhood has catalyzed growth that could have otherwise consumed the rest of my twenties, and which obviously benefits my work. I know that it has drawn out my dedication, my gumption, and my strength. It has given me cause to fight for my ability to create, shown me the sacredness of the pursuit, and transformed the lens I look out through. I can only hope that all this inevitably shows up in the work, but I know for certain it shows up in my approach to making it.

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