It Takes A Real Man To Be A Mother
It started to rain this morning after we left the house for Tommy’s first day of school. We had walked half a block when the first raindrops fell and had to run back to get the car. “Maybe the clouds don’t want me to go to Kindergarten,” he commented, his enthusiasm replaced for a moment by concern. If indeed they didn’t, the clouds weren’t alone; I hated to see him go also.
Today marked a major transition in both of our lives; I’ve been a full-time Mr. Mom to our three children, William, 13, Angela, 11 and Thomas, 5, since five weeks after William was born. While my importance in their lives hasn’t changed, a chapter has now closed, and with it my identity has been subtly altered. Slightly different responsibilities will occupy me now.
When William was born, everyone warned us how quickly the time would pass. But those first weeks, when sleep came only in little parcels at random intervals, it was hard to take such warnings seriously. Right then, adulthood couldn’t come soon enough. Yet before I knew it, my wife, Lori, a country school teacher, had returned to work and I was suddenly alone with a tiny new life, a life that now depended on me for everything.
That first day was one of the most challenging of my life; I felt totally unprepared, despite having helped my wife with most of the parenting chores. That morning when I first changed his diaper by myself, he “initiated” me as only a little boy can, an inauspicious start to my new duties. I ended up taking that day an hour at a time, meeting the most immediate challenges as they arose. I couldn’t let myself look beyond the task at hand — the magnitude of the responsibility, coupled with my incredible ineptitude, was overwhelming.
I soon learned it takes a real man to be a mother. I had been cavalier in my approach to parenthood — filled with the false confidence only a prospective parent can possess. I had farmed for 18 years, since the age of 12. I had also, with my wife’s support, started a small recording studio in our home, designing and building much of the equipment myself. I was used to working hard and depending on myself. At 30, I was confident that I could handle whatever came my way. I would continue as I had, farming in season and working on music as time permitted. I didn’t think it would be that hard to take care of a baby while Lori taught. I didn’t see my new role as “mother” — I would just be a father taking care of the baby.
It was soon apparent though that the only way to care for a small child was to mother it, and while a father could fill in once and a while, to do so full time meant I had to become a second mother to our children. I quickly realized it was a detriment to be male in such a role. My wife had played with dolls growing up, and I had to think that made dressing small children easier. She had baby-sat in high school. She had been around tiny nieces and nephews and learned much, just through osmosis. I had never thought much about babies or children. I liked children, but I was more than happy to leave the finer details of rearing them to women.
I tried to adapt as well as I could, applying equal measures of love, patience and common sense, but I never developed the natural confidence other mothers seemed to have. I would watch them at well baby checks and immunization clinics. I had to put so much more conscious effort into everything, from keeping little shoes on to coaxing a burp. I envied them their ease, and I envied them their sisterhood — while the other mothers I found myself associating with were supportive and impressed by my dedication, being male, we couldn’t fully relate to one another. — I couldn’t converse about nursing difficulties or stretch marks. I watched the neighborhood moms get together for coffee in the afternoons, drop kids off with each other so they could run errands. We’d smile and wave, but that was about it.
For most of the last thirteen years, my only companions have been my children, and I enjoy a special closeness with each of them as a result (William recently commented that he plans to raise his kids the way I’ve raised him.) I know some fathers who wish they could have stayed home like I have, been there for all the special moments in a toddler’s life. But I wonder if they think about the loads of laundry, the meals to fix and the bottles to wash; floors to sweep and the ever-present diaper bag. Do they think about the logistics of grocery shopping, or how to handle school activities when the little one is just a babe in arms? To them a stroller is something to push now and then, not an essential part of everyday life. They have been able to do so much during the day that I haven’t; go places, spend time with people, build a career. But they are right to envy me; as hard as it has been, there is nothing in this world more important than our children, and for me, a male, to be privileged to participate to the degree that I have in nurturing three precious young lives has been a blessing beyond compare.
I can never have the complete experience of motherhood — never know what it’s like to be pregnant, to create a new life. I’ll never know the bond that comes from nursing, or even the convenience of hips to rest a child on, but I do know something of the sacrifices, the responsibilities, the worries and doubts, and even the isolation that come from living for a child. Most of all, though, I know the unspeakable joy the happiness of a child brings to one’s heart, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
As this chapter of my life closes, and I start directing my energy into other things, I come away knowing that I’ve had an extensive first-hand look at women and children’s lives, and that I’m a better man for it.
Our Trip to the City
My wife Lori and I don’t get out much. With three kids in school and both of us working a variety of jobs just to scrape by, days and nights blur together and weekends lose their distinction. So when I was asked to help evaluate new touring artists for the Nebraska Arts Council in Omaha, I jumped at the chance. Not only would it help me meet new people and hear new performers, it would give Lori and me a little time afterwards for ourselves.
Nebraska is better known for its cornfields than its arts and culture, but the urge to create is universal — anywhere you have people, you will have art and music. I spent several hours with other panel members going over material submitted by aspiring Nebraska artists, poets and musicians, and it only strengthened my contention that people here are just as creative and dedicated to their art as people any place else. I know first hand what artists face in order to do what they love doing — creating. It can be even more difficult in rural areas, but that only makes people work harder. Artists follow their dreams, dreams as old as humankind, and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve them. The one thing an artist can’t sacrifice is the need to create, something other people don‘t always understand. To an artist, creation is life, and artists will always be on the forefront of those creating tomorrow‘s world.
After the evaluations I caught up with Lori to enjoy a stroll through the adjoining Old Market, the largest of Nebraska‘s rare enclaves of bohemians, artists and devotees of more exotic lifeways. It was the middle of a warm early Spring afternoon and there weren’t a lot of people around. The clerks seemed bored as they watched people pass their windows, counting the minutes until they could leave their empty stores and enjoy the nice weather also.
We took our time; Lori tried on exotic clothing from the far corners of the world — not to buy, just to experience. We looked at hand-crafted pendants made from sterling and semiprecious gemstones, things not found in jewelry or department stores, and savored aromas wafting from Persian and East Indian bistros.
We shared the afternoon with people as diverse as the surrounding wares and cuisine. Besides corn-fed out-staters like ourselves there were professional people crossing to and from more conservative locales. Middle-aged men insulated from their unusual surroundings by coat and tie, clutching briefcases like the rail of an escalator. Women who seemed to have stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine coping, as stylish women must, with stiletto heals that wouldn’t allow them to cross the uneven brick streets and skirts too tight to allow them graceful entrance into their towering SUVs. Men with artfully torn shirts and carefully manicured faces — sporting exactly two day’s worth of stubble — always with a better-dressed woman at their side. Five identical women from half a world away listening to without comprehending directions on how to reach points of local interest from their sincere but exasperated guide. Men and women both with stainless-steel studs and rings protruding from brow ridges and nostrils, as if having a hoop in one’s ear was not enough to ensure they would be caught by a trawling hook cast backwards from a better tomorrow.
We went into any place that looked interesting. A college girl working over Spring Break betrayed her previous experience as a waitress by saying with false enthusiasm, “Hi, my name is Reagan and I’ll be your clerk today!” Another girl who looked like Nora Jones was restocking a display case, a third found our name in her computer from a visit years before.
A very pregnant young woman bursting with joie de vivre greeted us with sparkling eyes as we stepped into a quiet storefront filled with Buddhas and incense. She urged us to visit the room in the back, telling us that we had arrived just in time to see a completed sand painting done by a group of visiting Tibetan monks.
It takes weeks of painstaking work to create a sand painting. Small paper funnels filled with colored sands are tapped gently to create mystical patterns with astonishing accuracy and beauty. I had read of one being created in New York recently — when it was finished, the sands had been cast into the Hudson “to bless the fishes…”; I was eager to view one first-hand.
The sand painting was incredible — an intricate and detailed Buddhist Mandala created with geometric precision. One could somehow tell just by looking that this was an ancient art form created by a technique passed from master to master, generation upon generation, in the frozen recesses of the wind-swept Himalayan plateaus. It must take a lifetime to master the technique, a lifetime spent in monastic solitude, journeying inward with a diligence and commitment comparable to that of any modern business mogul in order to express those inner truths so powerfully in the outer world. This painting exuded a palpable presence, a testament to its makers skill and spiritual prowess. It was a striking example of the art of spiritual discipline every bit as much as a reminder of the spiritual discipline of art.
In the far corner sat one of the visiting monks and a boy on the verge of adulthood, manning a table covered with gaudy bracelets and necklaces made from hobby-store beads. Around him were photographs of the village these travelers hailed from, and the material poverty was appalling. It struck me how similar this was to the area in South Dakota surrounding the Wounded Knee burial site. Modern Lakota have erected small stands to sell (higher-quality) jewelry to tourists. Lori and I had taken our kids there last summer to pay our respects to the memory of those who had perished in the massacre over a century earlier.
As we tried to explain the slaughter of these people’s ancestors to our children, a young woman carrying a blanket and some dream catchers lumbered up the steep hill towards us. Out of breath from the walk, she sat down at the entrance in hopes of selling us something when we left. As she waited, she nursed a tiny baby. In talking with her we learned that she had given birth only a few days earlier. She was so desperately poor that she had to carry her newborn with her to hawk trinkets in the cemetery. (She assured not just us but the Universe itself that she would climb any hill, anytime, to give her precious little son a better life.) The Tibetan holy men seemed to be in pretty much the same position (wealth of spirit seems not to be a guarantee of wealth in the material world…).
I had been interested in Buddhism when I was younger and had for a time practiced daily meditation. I had made some progress, reaching a point where the random thoughts that filled my mind had been stilled. But I had paused there only briefly, moving on to marry and start a family, immersing myself in all the day-to-day things that monks of all faiths retreat to avoid. I was curious about this unimposing man dressed in saffron and scarlet, keeping quiet vigil on this precious creation made, like man himself, of sand. He smiled at us with a warmth one seldom finds except from men and women of the cloth, men and women committed to adhering to what’s best in both this world and the next. I smiled back as we left, but my eyes lingered — here was the one and probably only time I would encounter someone who had given his life to a path I had once considered — how had it shaped him, what kind of person was he for it?
My eyes stayed on him just a little too long, and his smile faded ever so slightly, like that of a person posing for a picture that is too long in being taken. In one fleeting moment, while his mouth held his smile, his eyes looked at me exactly as my eyes must have been looking at him — he wondered every bit as much who I was, and why I was wondering about him. It showed me that he was every bit as human still, despite being so close to attaining Nirvana, as we all are.
We returned to the lobby and paused to make music by rubbing the rims of brass and crystal bowls, bowls which bloomed with a pure and beautiful tone the way a woman’s perfume will blossom from a flush of excitement or delight, their tone capturing the essence of the room we had just left. Then we stepped back onto the street, out of a world of peace and serenity, free of chaos and desire, into the sights and sounds and odors permeating a little grotto hewn from the wind-swept expanse of the Great Plains, an oasis of culture built from old bricks and a thousand people’s dreams and desires.
Buddhists recognize dreams and desires as being illusions, and it is our attachment to such illusions that causes us to suffer. We build our lives out of sand, like the sand painting, pretending the tide will never turn, the wind never pick up and scatter our hopes. Because we pretend, we are inevitably, sooner or later, hurt when what we love is lost, what we desire not gained.
I had a chance, half my life ago, to live in a different world, an inner world free of illusion and desire like that of the Tibetan monk. But I made a decision to step back into this outer world of chaos and conflict, the world the great religions of the East exhort us to escape. It is a world of pain and fear, but it is also a world of hope and love, as that young Lakota mother and the pregnant lady in the shop knew so very well.
There are times I long for the peace and serenity captured so wonderfully in the back room of that little place, and won for a short time long ago through discipline and faith. But in the end, it is in this life, in everyday life, with its grand mélange of competing demands and transitory experiences — good and bad alike — that I belong. I guess I see the world, despite all its ugliness, the way artists and young mothers do — as a place that can and will be better if only we dare to follow our dreams, and like both, I can’t wait to see what wonders tomorrow will bring…
Though not an essay, the following piece touches on my connection to the land and those who occupied it before us…
A Letter to my Pawnee Grandmother
In 2001, in front of a semi-circle of very solemn and stoic men, the oldest member of the Pawnee Nation, Maude Chisom, made me her honorary grandson.
Dear Grandma Maude,
I’m sorry I haven’t written to you sooner; the days pass faster and faster it seems, and my three children keep me hopping all the time.
I hope this letter finds you feeling well; I visited the museum in Republic, Kansas, last summer and heard your voice in the display as I entered. It was good to hear you, and so nice that you had been able to record that message for everyone who visits the museum to hear. You are a treasure to your people, and to all of us who want to know your people better.
I have always felt a strange kinship with the Pawnee; as a child, and still today as an adult, I love to take quiet walks along the banks of the little Beaver Creek that flows through our farms and meets the Loup River near Genoa. The land along the creek is about the only place that’s still wild here; bulldozers have pushed out most of the trees and plows broken even the steepest hillsides. The farmers try to farm right up to the creek, and even sometimes straighten it, but it has a will of its own, and has been here a long, long time. It changes course with every flood, revealing that it has flowed everywhere across this valley at sometime or other, and attempts to farm its banks never work for very long.
There are trees, mostly ash and cottonwood now that the elms have died, along its banks, shading its waters. Willows line the little beaches and sandbars, and muskrats and beavers thrive. White-tailed deer rest in the tall grass and there’s one bend where three great horned owls roost in the daytime, hooting back and forth when I disturb their sleep. I’ve watched mother raccoons teach their young to wash their food along its banks, baby foxes play and mother ducks lead their ducklings up its channel. It is a timeless world, there on and just beside the water, and I have always liked that world best. Sometimes the skull of a buffalo will be uncovered by high water, and sometimes the remains of an old earthlodge will be revealed in a crumbling bank.
I have picked up stone arrowheads and knives, and especially hide scrapers all my life, and found more pieces of pottery than I could begin to count. I think there was good hunting here long ago from all the scrapers I’ve found — there had to have been a lot of deer and buffalo. And the people here before my family came must have traded with other people far away, because the stone tools are made from many different types of stone, stone from hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Once I even found a little piece of clear quartz stone, as clear as window glass and worn smooth in a stream or on a beach far away. I always imagined it had been a very special possession for someone who long ago lived where I live now.
On warm summer afternoons, when I was not quite grown, I would lay on a beach along the creek underneath a grove of towering cottonwood trees, and listen to the voices of those who had lived here before the white people murmur in the leaves. The sunlight shimmering across the ripples made by the wind on the creek seemed almost to be their spirits dancing. And if I was very quiet, sometimes it seemed they spoke to me deep down inside, helping me to know that the land and everything on it was alive and part of one family, a family joined together by love. Love of life, love of the land, love of those here now, and those who had left this world in the flesh, but never left it in spirit. I came to understand that people have come and gone from these lands many times over the centuries, but they all heard what I heard, knew they weren’t the first to have lived here and wouldn’t be the last. They knew that they were part of a family, a family the land allowed to live upon it for a time, and that during their time they were to protect and honor the land and all who lived upon it with them. The land made them who they were; no matter what language they spoke, and what name they were known by, they were the people of this land — its human children, and it was their mother.
When I would leave the creek and walk back up to the plowed fields and the metal sheds that populate the landscape, everything seemed dead. In my people’s rush to claim this land they destroyed a vital aspect of it. But they don’t seem to notice. They, with some exceptions, are not the children of this land. They just live here. Most people don’t even think about the land. They live in houses with central heat and air conditioning, strong walls and thick windows to blunt the sting of the wind (which is so much a part of this place). I take school classes out to the creek when I can, and show kids that have lived all their lives only a few miles away from it a world they never even knew existed. I ask them to be silent for just one minute, to listen to the birds, watch the clouds drift past, notice the way the grass sways in the breeze. I try to explain to them that we are just the most recent of many peoples who have called this home, and ask them to remember those who came before us, remember that they lived and died, laughed and cried, just as we do.
My oldest child, William, who turns 14 this month wrote this poem last summer while looking out across the fields. He too, sees the beauty of this place. We were honored when the Democratic candidate running for Congress chose to use his poem in her televised speech. It goes like this:
A sea of greenish plants,
With waves that dance in the wind;
A mixture of beauty and joy –
Happiness is cast upon the one who beholds.
May the coming year cast happiness, beauty and joy upon you and your loved ones, dear Grandmother.