Motherhood: Love, Fear & Living for Today

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mamas everywhere!

I thought I would take this holiday to reflect with my mom on making the life-changing leap into motherhood. Since the beginning of this blog, I’ve had a lot of messages and comments from readers marveling at my mother… She’s amazing! Sometimes, I don’t know how I’ll live up to her example. But, then again, she isn’t superhuman. She’s a very real person, with a real story, and fears and hopes and questions.

Cathy on the beach

My mom was born in Pasadena, California, in 1954. Her father was the CFO of the in-law family business called Barr Films, an educational film company. My grandma was a stay-at-home mom and housewife, but she also did volunteer work and eventually worked as a classroom aide at the local elementary school. My mom was a middle child of four kids.

In this conversation, I begin with one of the formative moments in our family’s story:

Lindsey: You were a middle kid of four siblings, and you had a loving and close family. When you were 10 years old, your younger brother Stanley passed away. I see it as a devastating event that ultimately brought your family even closer together. Certainly it affected all of you deeply and permanently. Did that experience affect your feelings about parenting when you were growing up?

Cathy:  Actually, I think I was nine, going on ten, when Stanley died. I was told flat-out by a pastor that, as hard as it was for us kids to lose a brother, it was way harder for our parents to lose a son. I remember that the pastor said that parents want to protect their kids from everything bad, and my parents had had no way to do that. They couldn’t protect Stanley from cancer, and they couldn’t protect us from loss. The pastor told us this the week that Stanley died, and it made a huge impression on me. I saw my loss and grief through the prism of it’s-worse-for-them.

Lindsey:  I brought this question up because I know losing your brother shaped your feelings about parenting at a young age. And I think it’s interesting because being a parent, especially being a homeschooling mom, became a huge focus of your life’s work.

Cathy: It’s funny, because I think my brother’s death was so shocking to me that kids could even die—we didn’t have movies and TV shows that showed that…We were so sheltered in so many ways, but all the bombing drills in the early 60’s had convinced me that nuclear war would inevitably break out—it was just a matter of WHEN. So I think I was as uncertain of the future as a kid could be.

    And as I got older, and mushroom clouds never did sprout over Pasadena, and humanity never did get wiped off of the face of the Earth, I decided that it was a bit of a waste of time to worry about all the bad things that could happen. No—it’s a bit different than that—I think I felt that bad things WOULD happen, of course, but we should get busy enjoying the good things while we could, as many good things as we could manage, for as long as we could—at least we could have some good memories.

     So by the time I was throwing caution to the wind and deciding to become a parent, I had that as my general philosophy. A kind of a “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” philosophy.

mom backpacking

My parents met at the University of La Verne, and later lived together in Hacienda Heights, California, where my dad had bought a small house. My father was working as a high school biology teacher, and my mom worked in a number of capacities in education. She worked as an educational game designer and curriculum designer; she taught third grade at a public school as a long-term sub for most of a school year, and then returned to writing and editing educational materials and textbooks through American Learning Corporation.

Lindsey: So, by the time you were at American Learning Corporation, were you sure you wanted to have kids? 

Cathy: Ummm…

Lindsey: Wait, let me rephrase this…As your daughter, who was homeschooled, it seems to me in retrospect that it was your destiny to be a homeschool mom. That was your life’s great experiment!  I’m curious how convinced of that you were at the time you and Dad decided to start a family?

Cathy: I don’t remember exactly what age I decided I wanted to have kids… When I was in college my family did a time capsule during Christmas; your dad was my boyfriend at the time, and he did it, too. In the time capsule I said that in 10 years I would not be married, or have kids; I thought I would be doing women’s rights advocacy and living in Santa Barbara! Your dad said he would be a teacher, married to me, living in Hacienda Heights, with two kids! So, by the time we opened the time capsule, I was wrong about everything, and he was completely right. 

Lindsey: That’s really funny.  So, what ultimately convinced you?

Cathy:  Basically, I knew if I had kids I wanted to do certain things. If I didn’t have kids, who knew? I could have pursued a lot of different directions. But if I had kids I wanted to do this, this, this, this, this – nurse them, raise them, homeschool them, which was going to take most of my time!

      It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want kids, it was just that I wasn’t sure which path I was going to take. The kids path that was very laid out, or the not-kids path which was very open with possibilities. That’s more what it was for me.

Lindsey: So, when you did eventually have kids, you went into it with all these big plans. Were you nervous?

Cathy: I was, somewhat. I had decided to get married and have kids, and I wasn’t yet pregnant. And I went over to a friend’s house. She had these two little boys and they were rowdy, and whooping, and kept doing these really dangerous-looking stunts. My friend couldn’t get them to calm down, and we had a really terrible visit! I remember asking my mom, “What if I have kids, and they’re awful?” And she said, “You won’t have kids that are awful. You’ll love them, and raise them the way you want them to be raised, and you’ll like how they turn out!“

Lindsey: And then homeschooling…trying to do something so ambitious, that you alone are completely responsible for!  What’s that like?

Cathy:  Well, I had already been given so much responsibility to teach complete strangers’ kids in school!

Lindsey: So the main cause for nerves was being vulnerable to the universe?

Cathy: Yes. Becoming a mom was this leap of faith for me. I’m really glad I took that leap, of course!

     Here’s a quote I like… Christopher Hitchens once said something like (I’m paraphrasing), “Having a child is like taking your heart out of your own body and dangling it around someone else’s neck. That’s where you keep your heart now.” It was very true; that’s how vulnerable you feel. Your happiness is dangling around someone else’s neck, unprotected by muscles, ribcage…what’s this bone called?

Lindsey: Breast bone? I don’t know?

Cathy: Yeah, whatever it is…None of that’s there to protect your heart, anymore!

(We looked it up. It’s a sternum, of course.)

My mom and I were laughing about this conversation, seeing it in writing… We hope it’s not too grim, especially on Mother’s Day! It was, for us, a very honest dialogue about love and fear and the tremendous journey of parenting.

In closing, I wanted to comment on what my mom was saying in the middle of this conversation about making the best of the moment, and living for today. After our talk I realized that through homeschooling my mom was trying to give us the fullest in-the-moment childhood and life philosophy she could provide. For her, unschooling was the best way she knew to be present, not living mostly for the future, but equally in the day at hand as well.

When my husband and I discuss parenting, and education, so much of the conversation is occupied by how to parent for the best future, the best adulthood, the head-start… Our hopes for the future are always a guiding North Star. But maybe it’s good to be reminded to love the window of childhood as it is, in the moment, taking the journey as it comes.