My mom sabbatical is in its fifth month, and I still find
myself struggling with what it means to be a mother who is not actually
mothering each and every day. What does it mean for me that my son's father has
become the lead parent? What does it mean that I don't have to prepare three meals
each day? What does it mean that I'm not spending most of my day either
thinking about or taking care of my son's needs?
These questions and many more
float through my head on a regular basis. Sometimes they get the best of me,
and other times I answer them in the simplest way possible: It means that I have
time to take care of myself and do what I need to do. Of course the next
question is: What do I need to do? So in an attempt to give myself something for
my heart and soul, something that might touch me at the deepest part of myself,
I decided I would learn to surf.
In September I turned 47 years old. Having this birthday
during my mom sabbatical helped me see that I had not been fully alive before
my son was born. During my pregnancy, as if for the first time I finally felt
something deep, real and meaningful in the season of his coming. All of a
sudden I had access to another part of myself that had been unavailable before.
But with time, that connection faded, and I found myself exhausted by a loop of
meetings and boo-boos and playdates and mealtimes.
On the day of my birthday I was at the beach celebrating with several friends,
and I thought, "I need to be here more. I need to get familiar with the sea."
It felt like a deep call that came from the same place as becoming a mother
had. So I decided to learn to surf.
I had been flying by the seat of my pants in my life and as a mother, living in submission to the waves coming my way.
When I was a child about the age of my son, 8, I nearly
drowned in the ocean. I had not been in the ocean for 40 years since that
day, although I had swum in pools very often and very well. On my first lesson,
I didn't tell my instructor about my experience or of the fear I had. I can
only say that that lesson was brutal and shocking, as the ocean is no respecter
of fear, beginners or mothers.
For two hours my instructor yelled commands at
me that seemed to dissolve into my trauma and fear of drowning. "Keep your eyes
open." "Close your mouth, you'll choke." "This is not a pool, stop swimming
like you're in a pool." "You must pay attention out there or it can cost you
One command after the other, I felt my body tense up, and then
"Do your best to relax and go with the wipeout, don't panic."
As these words moved through my ears, they seemed to give me permission to let
go of everything. I could just allow myself to be in the ocean—loose, free and
I was exhausted after about an hour and spent the next hour
on the sand, talking and watching other surfers effortlessly ride the waves. I
didn't imagine myself being able to do that. As a matter of fact, I felt there
was no way I'd ever be able to stand up on a board, balance and ride a wave. But
I'm willing to keep trying and going back until something inside moves me into
a standing position on the board.
During my third lesson, several weeks later, I told my
instructor of the near-drowning event I'd had as child, in those very waters.
He barely acknowledged it, and instead continued to remind me of how dangerous
the sea can be for someone who isn't prepared and paying attention. "You are on
your own out there. You must hone your instincts, because if something happens
it will take the lifeguard 10 minutes to get to you. Ten minutes is more than
enough time to drown. Open your eyes, close your mouth, and pay attention to
It occurred to me that before becoming a mother, I'd never
really opened my eyes or closed my mouth, (at least metaphorically). Having a
child with Down syndrome demanded I pay attention in a way I never had in my
entire life. But the truth is, the waves of motherhood had gotten the best of
me, and I lost command of myself; I was drowning.
There is something about
getting into the ocean that feels like a rebirth for me. Surfing is an
opportunity to be a beginner all over again. It's as if I'm learning to walk,
talk and learn all over again. But this time I realize the value and
importance of my attention and intention. I realize that my presence is
necessary, and I can't just fly by the seat of my pants if I'm going to stand
I had been flying by the seat of my pants in my life and as a mother,
living in submission to the waves coming my way. My eyes were closed, my
mouth was open, and I was blind and choking. This sabbatical is helping me
reorient and live with meaning and intention.