Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Musings on the "sweet spot," invisibility, and mindfulness

I read two blog posts linked to by friends on Facebook recently that rang true to me.

The first, The Sweet Spot from the blog Rants From Mommyland, talks about finding a good place in parenting, in a family, where everything is coming together and running smoothly. I had a therapist when I was struggling with postpartum depression when Adriana was small, who talked about “hitting your stride” as a parent. I hit my stride early with Adriana, I felt. I could handle a baby, no problem. I understand how it is a struggle for new moms sometimes--the change of self, the change in routine, the demands of a small baby. But I felt good at something for the first time in awhile. It wasn’t until Adriana got a little older, approaching toddlerhood, that I began to feel out of step. I was overwhelmed by the idea of a child, not a baby, confused by the idea that her demands might seem fewer but would be so much more complex. Then I had Lyra, and I once again had a baby and thought I am so good at babies. But then I was negotiating the sibling relationship, learning what it was like to have a preschooler instead of a toddler, coping with how to manage the needs of two little people who didn’t always need the same thing at the same time. Now, though, we’ve sort of hit our stride again. The kids are older, although not as old as the kids of the writer of the post. They’re manageable because they don’t need to be managed so much. Adriana has her backpack of snacks and activities. Lyra still takes off running but at least now she knows enough to look back. They squabble with each other, talk back to me, and ask complicated questions that I struggle to answer.

Still, we’re reaching a point where I think that sweet spot is close, or even here. “You flew with two kids on your own?” people ask in surprise when I talk about recent trips, and of course I did. They’re kids, awesome kids, not babies. I flew with them on my own, and I even got to read my book and watch a movie. Even at home there’s an obvious difference: they play on their own while I cook dinner, and Adriana can even be a real help with cooking when she wants to be. I hear Adriana offer to read Lyra a book, and notice when Lyra puts away the blocks she just finished playing with.

There are even just “sweet spot” days, though, as the writer of the post says. The days when everything seems to go right. We get to a morning activity on time. The kids don’t fight too much. When they do fight they work it out on their own before I have to step in. When I do need to step in, I stay calm.

The second post I read was called The Invisible Mother, an anonymous post on the Whatcom Families website. The writer sees herself as invisible to her family even as they are asking things of her: she is a pair of hands, a car service, a crystal ball, but she is not herself. But then a friend gives her a book about the builders of the cathedrals of Europe, making the analogy that as a mother she is like these dedicated builders who devote their lives for no credit, who pay attention to little details that only their god sees.

I’m not religious, but the post still struck a chord with me. It’s poetic, yes, but it’s also useful: it can be helpful  to me to think of the kids and of our family as something we’re building. Maybe I’m stretching the analogy a bit too far, but instead of thinking of us as a magazine-perfect family and household, I can think of visiting La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.* Parts of it are certainly beautiful and it’s already amazing, but there’s scaffolding and cranes and dust all around. There are a lot of people who have designed it, influenced it, built it. Our family is part of a community and is a work in progress.

*I love that the picture at the top of the Wikipedia article says that the cranes are digitally removed. Some days there are some digital touch-ups I’d like to do on my life.

There’s something beautiful in thinking about all the little particulars that add up to a beautiful whole. I find something attractive about thinking that even if my work isn’t recognized as work (which is another topic to write about another day) it’s important. I believe that invisible behind-the-scenes actions can be magical and important. But there’s another part of me that cringes at the analogy, not for worry of coming across as trite, but for keeping the builders of families, women in particular, invisible. Behind the scenes, not getting credit, being taken for granted? How unlike our culture to treat women that way! As much as I love the idea of a family being a work in progress, as beautiful (and even accurate) as the inscription in the book the writer of the post received was (‘With admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.’), I think to not recognize the work of the individuals is problematic. Perhaps the idea is that the builders of the cathedrals are appreciated in some way (although then I think of the political prisoners who built the Valle de los CaĆ­dos, so maybe not) as a group, and mothers should be as well. And perhaps I wouldn’t struggle with this if I were a religious person. In that case I might be able to appreciate more the worker who pays attention to fine details because even if no people will see it, his god will. But maybe I should pay attention to the fine details because those are what make the whole even better. Because I am the one who knows what goes into the whole. Maybe I need to do these things for myself. Even if no one else knows, I do. And because someday, hopefully, the little details will be what come together to make these two little girls competent, happy, kind adults.

Trying to fit the analogy into my own life makes me think of a yoga teacher I had, back when I was relatively serious about my practice. She often spoke of mindfulness in our practice but also in every day life. She encouraged us to be mindful of even the little things we did--washing dishes, fixing a bike tire, preparing food, pulling weeds--and to value those things. I suppose in talk of mindfulness there was a Buddhist component that I cannot really address and that does perhaps parallel the discussion of god in the comparison to the cathedral builders. Thinking of mindfulness makes me realize, though, that it’s not just the “sweet spots” that are important. Yes, it’s important to be grateful for those blissful moments where I’ve hit my stride, the kids are getting along, and we’re happy and having fun together. But there is something to be said for being mindful of the not-so-sweet spots--the weeks where everyone’s squabbling, no one’s sleeping well, and the house is a wreck. If I can be mindful of those times, then maybe I’ll be less likely to feel defeated by it all. Because the struggles are part of motherhood, part of family life, part of Life.

My yoga teacher also talked about “observing without judgment”--she meant observing what we were feeling in our bodies during the poses without condemning ourselves for what we might feel as weakness. I’m trying to do that now in parenting. At the end of a rough day, I want to be able to look back at the things that happened and recognize what I could have done better but remain gentle with myself, so that the next day I can be gentle with all of us. Maybe that’s the sweet spot for me and my kids: tuning in to one another, letting go when we don’t manage that, and knowing that the little things we do add up to something bigger that’s never quite finished.