on loneliness and a deep, deep well

I’ve been really struggling lately with the nights away from the boys. Standing in the doorway of their room. Feeling something like paralysis. Knowing it will serve them if I use that time to rest, but struggling to do so.

I met someone amazing, someone with whom I share much connection, but I discovered that I’m in no way ready for that. It was escapist: not the connection, but the timing. As wretched as it is, I need to be standing there in the doorway of their room. I need to be alone when I do it. And I need to unlearn the things about myself that the end of my marriage taught me. I would be nicer to have someone kind unteach me those things, but it wouldn’t be real that way. It would be a propping up. I need the quiet. I need, even, the loneliness. And here’s something I’m proud of: realizing that I need that made me want it. And wanting it made me willing to take it. And that makes me feel brave in a way I’ve never felt brave before.

But brave or not: the loneliness. It is awful. The heartache of losing a marriage against your will. As a friend recently (and gently) pointed out to me, how we experience divorce depends a lot on our subject position in its ending. If we didn’t want it to end, if we lost our partner and time with our children through no choice of our own, the feeling can be a little like hostage taking. It can feel like being robbed. Still, all these months later, it makes me sit up in bed gasping in the night, struggling to breath.

Loneliness. And so I decided to reach out to a group on social media, a group of queer moms. And what’s come of that has been remarkable.

Here’s what I wrote in that space:

Hi all. I’m hoping for some community. My wife ended our marriage last year, and we’ve been slowly transitioning our boys, ages 5 and 3, to a two-home family. Until recently, they spent most of their nights with me, but that is shifting now to a more even division.

I never imagined that I would spend nights away from my babies. I have meaningful work and deep friendships and yet: parenthood is far and away my strongest joy. The nights the boys spend away from me are crushing. I can hardly bear their absence from our home, from their bed. Not adding an extra blanket before I fall asleep; not checking their breathing; not having my youngest wake up in the night and stumble in to me; not hearing my oldest call for me in the early morning. It is anguish.

I have an incredible support network, a strong prayer life, and well-established comfort and coping measures. And yet: those nights feel endless. I’m not really asking for advice, but I would love the witness of any of you who have experienced loss of this nature. I would love just to feel a little less alone.

The response? Dozens and dozens of comments from mamas who have experienced the same loss. Who are still in the depths of sorrow. Who are past that, mostly, and healing. Who have found strength and power and new life. Who haven’t yet. Who have drawn closer to their children. Whose children are struggling still. Who say:

Yes.

And: I went through this. 

And: Your words brought tears to my eyes because I remember.

And: This is crushing. I know. I know it is.  

You are mourning. It will get easier. 

I am so sorry for your pain. I am so sorry. 

You are not alone. We are here. 

Sister: you’ve got this. 

Know how they knew to say all that? Because every bit of sorrow I’m feeling has been felt before. And is felt now. And will be felt again.

I spent much of the first twenty-four hours after their comments started rolling in crying.

Though community and community experience is extremely important to me, I’ve been mostly coping with this in specific terms (i.e. with regards to me and my boys). I think that’s all I could handle. I wasn’t ready for empathy: for thinking about the scale and scope of this pain out there in the world. I wasn’t ready to know this was a community unto itself.

The thread on that page exploded the privacy of my experience, which felt a little like diving into a deep body of water: water that is anguish and pain and loss, but also water that is shared. That is healing. That spans time and space.

I have felt these past days a deep sense of connection with all of the moms who shared, and with the countless mamas and papas and parents who have had to face this loss. It is not a source of connection I’d have chosen us to share with one another, but it is a source of connection, and for that reason it is also a gift.

We suffer, and then we grow strong at those points of suffering. Maybe like the Japanese tradition of adding gold where pottery cracks: we grow beautiful there. What I saw in that thread was pain grown beautiful.

The moms on that thread, they offered me wisdom, and bravery, and honesty. They witnessed to me so that I could witness to them. Now when I stand at the door to my boys’ room, I know I’m doing it in the company of many. In blessed company. It is a deep well, and water heals.

this call

I’ve updated this space about my wicked sweet kiddos, and about our finding-sure-ground-again marriage. But I haven’t written much about this new work, which is not so new anymore, I guess.

When I think back two years to that first time we walked through the wide, old door and into the nave, I am flooded with sense memories. I remember the smell: melted candle wax and wood polish and autumn air. I remember the feeling of wrapping Lou in the back of the church during a hymn, his tiny body pressed tightly against me while he fussed: expanding lungs against tiny expanding lungs, heartbeat against heartbeat. I remember pacing the narthex until he finally fell asleep, and then wanting to go back in, but being unable to stop crying. The sensation was of release. Relief. Lightness that by necessity meant tears. I remember Bram’s toddler-voice during the homily: “Jesus Christ?! ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ has a Jesus Christ!” I remember the awkwardness of that first time at the altar, and the longing to go back, which hit me at once. I also remember the shyness of my longing: how desperately I wanted to be invisible, and yet also never to leave. To be held and yet left entirely alone. Like I had come home, but no one else would think I belonged there. That one took quite awhile to shake.

But when I remember that first day – how it felt – I see and feel other things too, things that weren’t part of the physical experience. This gorgeous downtown church feels, in my memory, like a simple, tiny chapel in the middle of some vast green countryside. I have the inexplicable impression of a wooden porch and creaky doors, of the smell of wet timber and pine needles. Of the warmth of radiator heat. Of having received real bread and not the small round wafers we use. Of not crying at all. Of not feeling out of place. Of a room with fifteen people instead of a hundred and fifty.

When I think of the start of my work in ministry, this is the day I recall. Not the day I was baptized (accepting a hand knit shawl as a symbol of our shared work), and not the day I sat at my desk for the first time, dizzyingly overwhelmed. Not then, but this first day and the open doors and the landscape behind me: both city streets and pastoral hills. All those years of feeling like I couldn’t find a point of entry were of service. As unlikely and naïve and providential as it must sound, a thirty-five year Advent season – waiting, wanting – was just right. Right enough to make me smile now. I don’t think I ever could have been casually religious, and it is a kind of suffering to try to imagine knowing this was here and not being a part of it. I was only ever built for immersion, and immersion wouldn’t have been right before now. For me, faith requires the offering of faith. Means serving as a conduit. I was called that first day at the rail. The families under my care. Their marriages and their struggles and their joys. Their longing and despair and peace. Their children’s ashes in our columbarium, which I visit and pray with, though none of them know about that. The welcome heaviness of loving them, and worrying over them, and taking seriously the privilege of it all.

I feel about parishioners differently than I’ve felt about people before. A different way, I mean. Differently than I felt about students. Differently than I felt about people I served alongside. Even parishioners who leave: whose work takes them elsewhere, so that I wait for e-mails and updates to know how they’re doing. So that I feel lightness and joy when I see their faces again. There’s a different thing my heart does. It is a unique kind of loving people, being a part of their work with God. It is soft and warm. It asks for investment, commitment, love, detachment, and connection. It asks for presence.

I’ll preach in this old church for the first time October 16th. I got to preach in a small chapel at a Benedictine monastery over the summer, but this will be different: hundreds of people, and home. Because my mom and wife are generous souls, I’ll wear a lace alb, which is feminine and flowy and also a kind of homecoming. And I’ll be standing about four feet from that place I first knelt to receive. Maybe I’ll also still be in that countryside chapel. But in the meantime, I’ll read widely and deeply and try not to give in to the sense that I’m wildly behind. The timeline I’d have chosen for myself would never have yielded offerings this sweet.

inside

When I was in my first year of graduate school, two of my friends had a debate about the difference between being proud and being prideful. It was one of those pedantic arguments early (and sometimes seasoned) scholars have, but it comes in handy as a frame for me from time to time. These last couple of weeks, I’ve used it in thinking about the relationship between motherhood and judgement. I say motherhood not because I think there’s something uniquely primary about parenthood in the feminine, but because there does seem to be something about motherhood that draws out insecurity and judgment. And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how sad that is and how much we’re losing because of it.

A few months back, a close mom friend posted something to Facebook about the judgement working moms face from stay at home moms. And I remember wondering if I had contributed to this friend feeling judged. And the truth, awful as it is, is that I probably have. Because I am proud of being home with my kids. And so I am vocal. But am I proud or am I prideful? Because there is a difference, right? I hear the difference as this:

I could be proud of something I make sacrifices for and work hard to accomplish or I could pridefully use the fact of that something to feel better about myself.

In the case of being home, it’s mostly the former. But sometimes, sometimes, I know it’s the latter. Which is awful. And which is true. And which, this feels important to say, is a product of all the ways in which I feel not better but less than.

That particular mom gave birth to both of her gorgeous babies at home. She nursed her oldest until she self-weaned, and will no doubt do the same with her youngest. She is a mama-force. Those things make me insecure because my body failed at making babies. And because though I am fiercely devoted to my boys being breastfed, I will never be the one to breastfeed them. But those are points of pride for my friend. And they should be. They are markers of her strength. She is fierce and brave and maternal and beautiful and she should be proud. And – though this isn’t always easy to remember – none of that has anything to do with me.

Another friend and I were talking yesterday about the idea that in being an advocate for breastfeeding, one runs the risk of shaming women who didn’t or don’t. But how, my friend asked, can we avoid shaming while still criticizing the formula industry for convincing women in developing nations that formula is best even when their water supply is unsafe? How might we educate women – work against the decades.old.but.still.prevalent belief that formula is best or just as good – without shaming them for choosing against the breast (or for using formula when for circumstantial reasons the choice wasn’t available to them)? How can breastfeeding moms be proud without being prideful. And how can non-nursing moms hear that pride without feeling shame.

As parents and as people, we all have strengths and weaknesses. I am proud to be home with my babies (a privilege, I know, but also a sacrifice [of money, of a tenure-track career]). I’m proud that we co-sleep, and never yell or use physical discipline, and have never let our children cry it out. I’m proud that J does extended breastfeeding. I feel good about the fact that we eat the way we do, and don’t have a television, and are active. These things matter to me or I wouldn’t do them because they are all a lot of work.

But where I give my kids wonderful amounts of routine, I am not skilled at spontaneity. The spirited, wild, loud, messy, blast of a childhood that some kids have is not in the cards for these boys because neither J nor I would know how to foster it. Though I’m good at organized walks, Bram has to convince me to take him into the backyard because, well, it’s really outdoorsy out there. And frankly dirty. He’s already showing an interest in catching bugs and I am really, really, really not interested in doing that. I also show similar over-analyzing and over-explaining tendencies to Paul Isaacson from E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and let’s just say that doesn’t turn out well for his kids.

These are only a few of my limitations as a person and a parent. But this is where I think the judgement&insecurity trope gets especially dangerous. Because I could learn to be outside. Maybe even to enjoy it if I had the right teacher. And what I can’t learn my children can get from other people. Because J and I are not enough for them. If I have any hope of not just seeing my own limitations reflected in them, I need and want a village. But a village can only thrive if our defenses are down. And those defenses run deep. So lately I’ve been wondering if it’s possible that the whole awful Mommy War crisis might really just be an inside job.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say I’m at my library’s storytime and I’m giving Louis a bottle (of pumped milk, of course, but no strangers who see us know this). And a mama who probably gave birth to her children in a yurt and nursed until they self-weaned at six comes in and gives me what I perceive as the old judgy eye for being such a failure as to give my kids formula. I take all of this in in a second: her long flowy skirt and her long flowy hair. The fact that her children have never had a haircut and probably only bathe one a week. All of these facts of her feel like implicit judgements of me. And I admire her. I sound mocking here, but the truth is: I’m jealous. She and her children are clearly one with the universe and my children and I are awkward and out of step. And so what I perceive as her judgement about my bottle feeding is loaded already. But the truth is, maybe she hasn’t even really looked at me. She does have all these free-range children tugging at her hemp skirt; she is busy with her own stuff. But I am judging me because not breastfeeding my own children is a source of shame for me. So I put that on her. Because even worst case scenario – even if she took note of my bottle and assumed it was formula and felt better about herself at my expense – her judgement is not about me. What it is about is all the stuff that got lost in my appraisal of her wild, earthy beauty. Which is to say: all the stuff that makes her feel like a failure. All the stuff she might even think I’m doing better. But all of that becomes invisible the second I take her personally. The second I use her glance as a chance to revisit my own shame.

And the second I do that I make it impossible for her to be a part of my village. My children will never get filthy beyond my comfort zone playing with the goats outside her yurt, which is my loss, and theirs. And her children will never benefit from whatever strength I might have that they lack. Judgement kills the village. But in this case, the judgements were all mine. I will never even know what she really thought when she saw me.

So this is what I’m thinking lately. That it’s maybe sort of kind of possible to end the Mommy Wars just that simply. That it’s an entirely inside job. Because whatever her judgements are or aren’t, I get to decide whether or not to take them personally. And whether to listen past the look or the words that feel judgmental to hear what insecurities she might be propping up in herself. And whether to respond with openness to what she might be getting right, or to shut it down because I’m threatened. Whether to take her strengths as implicit judgements of my weaknesses or as invitations to grow and investigate and rely on others.

I love women. I trust women and I love them. This feeling of competition amongst women has always confused me. But as a mother, it feels especially dangerous. It’s an impossible utopia, I know, but isn’t it nice to dream of a community where kindness – to ourselves and to each other – takes over the spaces where we’ve let insecurity grow? I would like to think of the power I see in other women as interesting and admirable – and maybe even as an invitation – instead of as a threat to my own.

This photo was taken by another mom friend at a party last weekend. There are probably plenty of things that the mom who took this perceives as personal failures, but I am in awe of her. And when she looks at my family, this is what she sees. She doesn’t see all of my limitations, she sees this. Do you see what I mean?

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