Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Family

On Wonder: A Eulogy to My Physics Teacher, Mrs. Norma Howell

Norma,

I can still see you holding my three-week-old daughter in our living room, rocking in the glider. You offered to stay overnight at our place and help out with the night feedings on occasion, and we gladly took you up on the offer.

You cradled her in your arms, your gaze landing on her tiny face, your hands tracing her tiny hands. You said, “Oh… This is the best.”

“Really?” I asked, thinking of how unbelievably sleep-deprived I was. “The newborn part? Not when they were older?”

“Well…” You paused for a moment, before breaking into a wide grin, “Actually, it was all pretty awesome. But this… I just have such fond memories of my nursing my boys.”

I smiled. You rocked.

“But honestly,” you said. “I really loved it all. Every moment of it. I’d do it all over if I could.”

We talked for a time about your health, as you had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years earlier.

“I remember praying to God,” you said, “And I said, ‘Well, if this is my time, then it’s my time…'” Then you broke into that same wide grin, “I thought, ‘But, I sure hope it’s not!’ Turned out it wasn’t yet, and now I’m just grateful for every day I have here.”

Norma and Felicity

Norma and Felicity: October 2013

After the initial shock that you had recently passed wore off, I combed over my memories of you. Things you had said to me first as a student, and then later as a kind of occasional life mentor. And I arrived at a common refrain:

I’m sorry I couldn’t see what you were trying to show me.

I remember all those times when I was your student and I was working through physics problems. Rather than teaching the laws of physics deductively without fully understanding their application, you used a clever, inductive reasoning approach to help students discover the laws for themselves.

I didn’t realize how clever of a method it was. I just knew it was making me think. A lot. And because I didn’t trust my own logic and judgment, it made me nervous.

When I’d come to you with a set of questions or completed problems, ready for you to approve so I could move on to the next module, I remember thinking…

I hope I got the answers right.

I hope I don’t look stupid in front of you.

I hope I don’t let you down.

I remember you gently asking me to consider, once again, what was the difference between acceleration and velocity.

You knew how to talk to a fragile overachiever like me. You didn’t tell me I was wrong. You just asked me to “tighten up” my understanding.

You were also merciful to the class as a whole. I remember a time when our entire class failed a quiz. You stood at the room, your right hand clutching the frayed edges of notebook paper, and you said somberly, “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is…everyone failed.”

A brief moment passed to let that information sink in.

“The good news,” you continued cheerfully, “is that you can take a second quiz to replace that awful grade!”

For you, there was never failure. There were just more opportunities to try again.

For you, it was never about arriving at a destination.

It was always about the journey.

***

I wish I could have seen it that way. I wish you could have brainwashed me completely into seeing the world as full of wonder and possibilities.

It makes me sad to admit it, but I held myself back in your class.

I wish I could have let go of my fear of getting a bad grade in order to really embrace the deeper mysteries that this universe holds.

But I was young and insecure. I defined myself by what I achieved. And if I didn’t achieve, who was I? What did I have to define myself?

And so, I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine a future in which I was uncertain of whether or not I would succeed. I wouldn’t take the risk of pursuing a career in science or math. Because I was convinced that eventually, people would realize that I was an impostor. It would all catch up with me and I would fail.

So instead, I would carve out a path on which I wouldn’t fail.

Because, after all, what was worse than failing?

I was young. I was insecure.

***

After high school, I stayed in touched with you because your son married my good friend, Linda. I saw you over the years at get-togethers at your house or Linda’s house, and each time, you were the same: smiling, laughing, joyful.

You still peppered your speech with intonation and emphasis that made a lot of what you were saying into either Great News! or A Good Joke!

You were always interested in what I had to say, no matter what I talked about. You were that way with everyone, I think, and it’s why people loved you. You cared about what people said. You didn’t just listen–you heard people. Maybe this was because you found joy, real joy, in the happiness of others.

This is partly what made you such a great teacher: You were able to see me as a whole, complicated, unique person, someone more than just the scared-of-math-and-science teenage girl sitting on the left side of your class from August 1999 to May 2000.

But your willingness to being authentic with me also helped me see you as a whole, complicated, unique person.

Reciprocity like that is rare. And it is powerful.

***

Last night, I had a dream. It was one of those recurring dreams that you feel like you’ve had hundreds of times before (and it’s a mystery to you why you’ve always forgotten about it in your waking life).

I was walking a perfectly paved path, high in the most beautiful, lush mountains I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t cold. Even the highest peaks had no snow. As I walked that path, I was completely free of any responsibility that I’ve ever had. I was so untethered, I felt like I was floating.

I was so, so full of joy.

And the music. If I knew how to compose music, I could have written out all of the notes when I woke up this morning. But that memory is fading.

What stays with me from this dream is my certainty that I was coming back.

I had been there before. Many times.

And I was home among something beautiful and wild that had missed me as much as I had missed it. And my joy was coming from the realization that I had been away for so long on a journey that had taken me everywhere but here. That everything I needed to do and everything that people needed from me was completely finished.

But it was the journey that made my coming home so joyful. For how can you be as joyful to see something that you never left?

It was all those moments spent with my own students, from countries far and wide, who first awakened my own curiosity in other ways of seeing the world. The same ones who helped me open my mind to the fact that (shockingly) there were so many ways of seeing and living in the same world.

It was all the times I thought well, this well definitely be the thing that breaks me… and then it wasn’t.

It was all the happiness, the stories, the hugs, the missed chances, the blatant mistakes, the fights, the kisses, the stress, the doubts, and all the uncertainty of the journey…

That made coming home so joyful.

***

What happens when we die?

I used to be so certain of the answer to that.

I used to be so well-educated on all things spiritual, particularly in my senior year of high school. I had answers, and those answers were supported by carefully selected Bible verses.

But I’m being a lot more honest with myself these days.

And I’m willing to say, I don’t know.

What happens when we die? 

During my morning runs this week, I thought about this over and over again.

If we are more than body, what happens to us? Where do we go? Do we travel to some higher dimension that we can’t possibly imagine with our three-dimensional brain? Will I return to this heaven in the mountains, some strange place that calls to me for reasons I don’t understand? Do we review our lives in retrospect, weighing everything we’ve done? Do we wait between worlds until we feel ready to move on? Are we re-united with the ones we’ve lost? Or do we lose all sense of self and join a larger, higher consciousness? And what would that even be like?

I thought a lot as I ran.

And then clarity hit me.

I was finally doing the thing that you were trying to teach me.

I was wondering.

I was in wonder.

I was allowing myself to not have the answers. To allow myself to live in the space of uncertainty. And I was doing it without thinking of myself as a failure.

Isn’t that what you were trying to teach us the whole time?

To wonder? To think?

To allow yourself to not have the answers, but by God, to think about it.

Sometimes, clarity hits you in odd ways.

Sometimes, it comes to you as you think about a loved one passing.

Sometimes, it seems almost supernatural.

Because when I slowed to a walk during one of my morning runs, I looked over at the sign for the apartment complex down the street. Lots of things around here are named “Normandy.” Normandy United Methodist Church. Normandy Elementary. Normandy Ridge Road.

But in that moment, the sign of the apartment complex was partially covered.

And all I saw was,

Norma.

It was my honor to have met you in life. I hope we meet again, if that’s what happens when we die.

If you see my dad (You can’t miss him. He’s about 6′ 3″, mostly bald, and he’ll be wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, tucked into his swim trunks, which he calls his wrestling todds), please tell him that I’d give anything to listen to one of his annoying political rants, even if it meant hearing the words Make America Great Again hundreds of times–as long as he makes me his Famous Thresherman’s Breakfast when he’s done.

With gratitude,

Sharon

September Ramblings, Because I Can’t Focus

Lately, it’s hard to commit to writing about any single topic for any period of time in a meaningful way.

There’s just simply no time to develop anything that I want to write about.

Maybe I’ll tell you that I signed up to be the Hospitality Chair of the PTO for my daughter’s school. Actually, scratch that. I signed up both of us–me and my husband. For a few reasons. First, feminism. Second, I kind of like being nice to the people who are teaching/caring for my children while I work. They are the reason I can do anything else at all.

Or maybe I’ll tell you that the toddler has a 50% rate of having diaper explosion in the morning. On the bad mornings, it’s all over the crib. (And sometimes the floor. That was how Labor Day greeted us.) On good mornings (for me, at least), it happens at school. On okay mornings, it happens in the highchair, where it can mercifully pool in the seat.

#smallblessings

I could tell you our family survived the first stomach bug of the season. It was a quick week of passing it around the house. (Patient Zero was, of course, the toddler).

I experienced my first all-out sprinting in heels through the daycare on the morning that my husband came down with the bug and–SURPRISE!–I needed to take the kids 10 minutes south to daycare before driving 25 minutes north to go to work.

And I didn’t fall! (It’s shocking, I know. Calm down.)

Or maybe I’ll tell you that I’m learning about the possibilities (and potentially horrors?) or augmented reality in my Seminars in Technology Trends in Education course.

 

Gamify me, I guess?

Or how about the impending doom that I feel when I think about Brett Kavanaugh being confirmed as the ninth Supreme Court Justice? I have a whole 2,000 word post called “So You Want to Overturn Roe v. Wade?” that I haven’t published yet. It’s emotional. It’s cutting. It’s snide. Just not sure I’m ready to put that out there.

We could talk about how I subscribed to LetGrow.org because I’m kind of frustrated at the idea that letting my kids play outside by themselves–down the street at the park! Gasp!–might earn me a visit from the police. I’d like to meet other parents that believe we’re a lot safer now than we’ve ever been and it’s not neglect to allow your kids to play unsupervised.

Have a little faith in humanity, people.

I could talk about the fact that I realized several weeks ago that I now eat the same breakfast that my dad did for as long as I can remember–black coffee and a hard-boiled egg.

W. T. F.

We could talk about the fact that my current college students pointed out that they weren’t born yet when Titanic was first released.

Right. Of course, they were born in 1999.

God help me.

Or how those lines in my forehead are becoming a little more permanent. And God, they really do follow the same path of the face that I make when I say, “Huh?”

I could tell you that before I grade a pile of papers, I sometimes daydream about what I’ll do on my next vacation. I scroll through my Google calendar and think about when I could get away from it all for even just one or two days. I map out my favorite cabin in the middle of nowhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and think about when we might be able to get back there.

Would we need to bring the kids? Could my mom watch them? It would be nice to just sit in a cabin in the woods and write for a like a whole week. All by myself. Writing, writing, writing. So luxurious…

And then I realize that I’m sitting in front of a stack of papers, that my students have been writing, writing, writing.

Reality.

Back to work.

Please Don’t Try to Be the Best: A Letter to my Daughter on her First Day of Kindergarten

Last week, I bought your first backpack for kindergarten (not your first one ever—you had one for preschool). While we were shopping, I thumbed through the spiral-bound journals, remembering when I was eight years old, and my mother bought me my first scented diary. I let you pick one out for yourself and you chose a light pink one with a unicorn, the words Make today magical scrawled across the front.

That night, you stayed up far past your bedtime. You wanted to write in your notebook, but you’ve only just learned how to write the alphabet. So you pulled out your Richard Scarry book and copied words from it.

Richard Scarry

Hippoelephantzebra.

Then, you wrote your oft-repeated motif from your fourth year of life,

Mom love. Love moma.

IMG_20180412_103000

I thought you would sleep in the next morning.

But there you were at 4:00 a.m., standing next to my side of the bed. You didn’t touch me to wake me up. You just stood there until I opened my eyes to the light of the hallway.

“Henry’s talking, Mama. So I’m going to write in my notebook now. Are you going to do yoga?”

It turned out that Henry was just sleep-talking, but I got up anyway since I usually get up early to exercise. To you, exercise always means yoga. But instead of yoga, I lifted weights while you copied words into your notebook while eagerly watching me lift weights to my workout DVD. After fifteen minutes, you joined me in lifting weights.

Kind of.

You picked up a two-pound weight with your right hand.

Since this happened to your left elbow a few weeks ago.

Felicity cast

You and I “worked out” together. You, with a 2-pound weight and a haphazardly stretched resistance band. Me, with 10- and 20-pound weights.

And when we were done at 5:00 a.m., we took a walk down the street, you wearing your brand new backpack. With the tags still on.

You told me about how excited you were to start kindergarten and all of your plans about what you would put in your new cubby in your new school. You recited all the steps that will be involved in getting you to your new school.

“First, I’ll get up in the morning and get dressed. Then, Daddy will take me to daycare and I’ll eat breakfast. Then, someone will drive me on the bus to kindergarten. And then what, Mama?”

We went over the steps several times, our sneakered feet moving quietly across the pavement, the moon high in the early morning sky.

Of course, by 1:00 p.m., you completely crashed at naptime.

***

I’ve learned a lot about you in the first five years of your life.

You’re like me.

Caring. Lover of books. Curious. Persistent to the point of Stubborn. Strong.

But you’re also not like me at all.

You’re a Natural Born Leader. Optimistic. Super-sociable. Pusher of boundaries. Observant. (You can spot a tiny cricket, hiding behind the vacuum cleaner, from across the room.)

Some mothers say they love the baby years. Some say they love the toddler years (though I think they’re few in number). Others love the preschool years. And although I had moments when I couldn’t get enough of your newborn smell, I have to say…

I think I’m going to love the school-age years.

***

Here’s what I want to say to you as you turn five on your first day of kindergarten.

If I cry when you leave, it’s not because I wish you were still a baby. Still small enough for me to encircle in my arms. Still young enough to believe that I can keep the moon from fading from the early morning sky so we can walk together, uninterrupted for hours.

If I cry when you leave, it’s because I’m so excited for you.

To learn to read and write.

To find out what interests you, makes you curious, drives you crazy.

To dive into math and science.

To figure out how to build friendships and make amends.

To solve puzzles.

To fail.

To make bad decisions, and (hopefully) learn from them.

You won’t understand this just yet, but someday you will:

Please, please, don’t try to be the best.

Please, please, don’t try to be perfect.

There will always be someone who is better at something than you are.

I don’t care if you get all A’s. I don’t care if you’re the best at clarinet or soccer or gymnastics. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re class president or voted Best Artist.

Please, please, don’t live your life according to ways that you think will earn my love, my attention, and my respect.

You already have them.

Find what you love to do. Find what you’re good at. Try lots of different things. Read lots of different books. Ask questions.

But most importantly, don’t serve yourself.

Serve humanity.

Do good. Follow a higher calling. Keep your moral compass pointed north.

Don’t create a life that leads you down a path of wanting more money and more power. It’s futile and unsatisfying. And it will never be enough.

I’m so happy for you.

Happy that I get to be a witness to it all.

Love,

Mom

PoP # 15: Toddler Shoes

Can you tell how much I love to shop for toddler shoes?

toddler shoes

I sincerely hope this supply gets us to December.

PoP # 14: “Daystar”

Four years later. Still hard.

Dad and Sharon 1982

My father and me (at 15 months), 1982

One of my father’s favorite songs was, “Daystar.”

He particularly loved it as sung by our small church’s music minister, Darrell Sproles.

Lily of the Valley,
Let your sweet aroma fill my life
Rose of Sharon show me
How to grow in beauty in God’s sight
Fairest of ten thousand
Make me a reflection of your light
Daystar shine down on me
Let your love shine through me in the night

When it was sung at his funeral in June 2014, it meant a lot to me that my name was in the first few lines.

If I could talk to him now, what would I say?

After I’m sorry for ever causing you pain and I love you,

I probably would tell him that his grandchildren would have loved to have known him.

He always had a very tender way with kids aged 2-5.

Love you, Dad.

Miss you.

PoP # 12: Preschool Graduation Humor

When you pay $$,$$$ for 4.5 years of full-time, year-round infant/toddler/preschool daycare, you’re damn right we get a tassel.

felicity-graduation.jpg

There goes your college fund, Kid. Love you. Hope you had fun.

Just kidding.

We never had plans for a college fund. That’s why your mom teaches at a university.

For the win. Again.

“Weekends” and “Holidays” as a Mom…

…aren’t really weekends and holidays.

Today, when someone says to me, “Only one more day until the weekend,” I think, Nooo!!! It can’t be!!!

When I come in to work on Monday morning, sometimes I sing, “It’s the Most. Wonderful. Dayyyyy of the Weeeek!” (If you missed it, I go to work to “relax.”)

Not kidding. Ask my students.

When people describe their weekends using the words, Nothing much, or Pretty low-key, I think, You lucky dog, You.

When someone says, “Any big plans for the holiday,” I think, Yes, keeping my children alive and keeping myself sane until it’s time to go back to work where things are so much easier.

Where I can just do work without having to simultaneously mentally track a toddler’s location at any given moment.

Where I can do things like think. And eat while sitting down. And zone out.

Before I had kids, I never understood the “I never get to sit down to eat comment” that I would sometimes hear from mothers.

Just insist that your kids sit down so you can sit down, I would think. I would never let my kids dictate whether I can sit or stand.

Oh, sweet naive little Me.

It’s not that kids insist that you stand while they eat.

It’s more like, the toddler pushed his food off his tray. So you need to pick that up.

Or the older one slid into her chair at the table and managed to take the tablecloth with her. And there goes her plate. And she’s trying to pick up the food off the floor–and mashing it further into the carpet.

Or Surprise! The toddler decided now is a good time to poop.

Or. Or. Or.

A few weeks ago, one of the funniest tweets by parents published by Huffington Post was, “Every meal with my children is fifteen hours long.”

Amen, Girlfriend. Amen.

holiday

***

So it was just recently Memorial Day weekend, as you’ll recall.

How do I even explain to you how I was feeling by Sunday night, when I can usually see the light at the end of the tunnel…

By Sunday night, I found myself staring at a sink full of pots. My husband said, “Just go sit down. I’ve got this.”

In my head, I thought. No. Please. Seriously. Let me occupy myself with inanimate things that can’t cry to pull at me or give me sass or yell for me to wipe their butts after they’ve pooped.

But what I said was, “No. Please. Right now, I just really need to be away from kids. They are bringing me no joy right now.”

Truth.

Until that point, I had taken both kids to church so Doug could stay home and do house repairs without interruptions. To be perfectly honest, I don’t mind this time because both kids go to the nursery and I sit in the luxury of unattached solitude in an air-conditioned space with the stability of the music and liturgy reminding that, Hey, it’s going to be okay.

After that, while the toddler napped and my husband got a head start on cooking for the weekly meal (that’s how we save time prepping meals in the week), I had taken the older one to a children’s museum for two hours of Run-Around Time, followed by a trip to Target (because the toddler needs new shoes), although the older one really didn’t want to go. And Mama, you could just drop me off at home first, How does that sound?

No.

But I don’t wanna go!!!!!!

Then, because I couldn’t stomach the idea of sitting in their play room while the toddler turned into King Kong, attempting to bust down the baby gate, it was two hours outside in the hot humidity of May (!?!) while my kids played at the water table. The toddler–who is finicky about which sippy cup he’ll use to drink his milk versus which one he’ll use to drink water–was actually gulping cup after cup of (certainly) parasite-infested water directly from the same table that 24 hours earlier had been sitting in our garage, covered in garage dust and spider webs.

Gulp. Gulp. No problem drinking today, Mama!

Oh, sweet, sweet Lord.

The water table is actually a great idea. For about fifteen minutes. That’s about the longevity of both children being occupied by only the water table.

water table.jpg

Depicts 0-15 minutes of play.

After fifteen minutes, the sphere of entertainment grows by about a foot every several minutes.

First, they’re wandering over to the mulch and bringing handfuls of it over to the water.

Then, they’re finding the broom in the garage and bringing it over to the mulch.

Because it needs to be swept?

Then, they’re pulling their tricycles and bikes over to the water table.

Why? Does there ever have to be a reason?

And maybe they’re even bringing the scooter, which belongs to the older child (although it’s the toddler who more frequently requests to use it) which means that one parent is hunched over the toddler on a scooter, carefully guiding it down the driveway while said toddler teethes on the rubbery handles, his slobber landing on his new toddler shoes. (The slobber, I’ve heard, helps break them in.)

And then the older child says, “Let’s play Little Red Riding Hood, Mama. You’re the Big Bad Wolf and Henry’s the grandma.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m the Three Bears.”

Oh, that makes sense.

And then it’s time for dinner, but they’re covered in sweat and sunscreen and snot (?!?) and water table parasites. So it’s actually really Bath Time. So all their clothes come off in the laundry room and they’re running around the house naked or in just a diaper while you’re picking up the trail of shoes and towels and clothing they’ve left behind. So you’re trying to get everything straight into the washer–only, there’s already a finished load that needs to be dried and a dry load that needs to be folded. So you’re doing that. And then it hits you–

Oh my God, where did the toddler go?

And he’s rummaging through the diaper changing area, chewing on latex gloves with a smile on his face.

Death avoided again.

Winning.

Then baths. Then dinner. Then dishes. Then vacuuming for the third time. Then laundry. And, oh yeah, I need to do my laundry.

Then bottle for the toddler, books for the older one.

Collapse.

I really can’t think of anything more exhausting and less holiday-like than spending 72 hours with my own young children.

Every holiday, in my head (and sometimes aloud), I think, Someday, holidays will be holidays again.

Until then, pass the parasites, I guess.

PoP # 11: Where Do All My Hair Ties Go?

“It needed a seat belt, Mama.”

 

PoP #10: Homework

Feels like an important moment in time.

Happy Mother’s Day, all you amazing moms

It’s the most wonderful day of the year.

On my agenda:

  • Sunrise run (check)
  • Breakfast–French toast, bacon, eggs, and the most delicious coffee (I love you, Reza’s Roast).
  • Spa afternoon
  • Dinner

All meals, cooked by my amazing partner in life.

It’s good to be loved.

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