Julian Barnes writes a book with an alluring cover—gray backdrop, wooden table, and an egg sitting in the middle. This is the edition of the The Sense of an Ending that I was most attracted to. It took longer to wait for the book to arrive in the mail than to read it, still stretching it out as much as possible so I didn’t gobble it up in one bite. Nuances of life and how they’re planted into our mind from the author is my audible reading exhale. Outside of his elegant farming, Barnes’ story is life’s commentary with a clever delivery, reframing the way we look at our own life history. Like every great novel, it makes us think of how we make decisions. He exposes how we remember things, the associations that filter and create the images we use to validate or explain our present.
If I could paint an image of what memory feels like to me, it would be of a man walking upward as if climbing stairs, and underneath his feet there are blurry, colorful chunks eroding into a midnight backdrop. Friends and family harbor some of those chunks for you, but mostly we’re at the mercy of what we remember and what surfaces when we need it. Above all of that is the present us that reads the past us. Ten years ago, I asked my mother in law what she would have loved to do if it was possible for her, and she said she would have loved to sing. I asked her the same question a few weeks ago, and she said she would have loved to study the culinary arts. Maybe it was the mood surrounding the question at different times, maybe it was her life events that changed her dreamy answers. But what I know for sure is the power of a question and the gravity of our experiences that help create the answer.
I was the first of my friends to start a family. I don’t remember clear ways in which I expressed those first years of motherhood. I don’t think I would have even called it that then. When my friends called me or visited me, I was too young to know how I wanted to present myself as a mom. I hadn’t even put those words in my mind not to mention the next big question: what kind of mom do you want to be? Thinking of asking that question didn’t occur to me. I wasn’t on social media then, so there wasn’t this extra effort of “this is the kind of mother I’m being” to be showcased. I probably went through it like I do most of everything else: do my best for the responsibilities of the occasion and then wonder how I feel about all of it later. I look back at old photos and get a sense of the weight of the years as we figured out our life in a bad economy; I see a young woman who took care of her kids with whatever natural instinct she had. I guess I let the experiences guide the way.
My best friend is 35 and expecting her first baby. She has heard me talk about my life consistently since I can remember. This includes any unfiltered detail over the years about having kids and husband. No one else around me was pregnant or even trying to be, and so I must have enjoyed talking openly. In what feels like beautiful contrast, she is having a mindful pregnancy; she has reflected a lot about what kind of parent she wants to be. She’s had friends all around her who have strewn their stories over her like a night’s sky while she helped them connect the lines. She’s facing her new life with intention. I know life isn’t as easy as that, but I also love that she has this creative template as a foundation. Whereas I just wanted to manage it all and do whatever Layla needed in those early years, I feel she has this adult vantage point that has its own weight of gold.
In thinking of memories, though, I am so curious which of my own memories bust out as she vents to me in a few months. I imagine that all the beauty she sees may add filter to my own pictures; I imagine how her experiences will shape how I feel about the kind of mother I am when I see—beyond where she can see in her own life—what kind of mother she evolves into. And I wonder how my answers to any of her questions will make me pause, think, and maybe even change based on the couch I’m sitting on, the mood I’m in.
My sister in law just had a baby. When they came to visit us, I saw the baby bottles. I saw her doing things I used to do and doing things I never did. I enjoyed watching her and remembering how the days of a 2-month old are in 2-hour rotations. I see that rinse and repeat as a blessing now. A new parent needs some predictability, and there you have it with feed, burp, cuddle, nap, and change. Now, my circumstances are no longer there; it’s somewhere between soccer practice and making intentional nudges. But on this Mother’s Day, I want to reap this fruit: my experience is making me stronger.
In I’ve Been Thinking, Maria Shriver says
“I’ve come to realize that we all mother in our own way, and I’ve come to trust myself in this job.”
Maybe that’s the best thing to frame my last 8 years and hopefully the next 8 or the next 80 to come. If I gather the net of my experiences and the ways in which my kids have repurposed and reminagined my life, I can see that I’ve come to believe in myself as their mother. And when the time comes when play areas turn into middle school plays which turn into high school games and then into college graduations, maybe I’ll recall her lines here, too:
“I have faith. Faith in myself and in my kids. I know this new era of my life is going to be more unscripted and more wide open. That’s both scary and exhilarating. The days will no longer revolve around school schedules. The days will become mine to imagine, mine to create.”
That sentiment of a very different stage in life does two things to me: it gives me immense gratitude that my children still make me paintings and want me near them all the time; that they are so not there yet. Also, though, it gives me perspective to see that motherhood has its stages. We have our growing pains as we take in their lives inside us and expand and “flow down in always widening rings of being” (Rumi).
I didn’t intend to end that thought with his words, but he said it best. And shouldn’t we always remember that we’re all in widening rings of being?
My kids just burst out of my bedroom for the countless time with loud grievances, one accusing the other and then overlapping in vehement self defense. I put my hands in the air and said, I know what needs to happen now. I smiled with my hands still up in the air. They paused and waited for me to get upset at the umpteenth interruption. Instead, I gave up and said, “Go outside and turn the sprinkler on and go run around. You don’t even have to change your clothes.” They looked at each other, started laughing, and ran together out of the front door.
Didn’t know those were going to be the words coming out of my mouth then either. But shouldn’t we be certain that we’re capable of more than we thought?
Happy Mother’s Day to every human who has helped a child or a mother make memories that are worth remembering.