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The Powerful Parenting Lesson I Never Expected

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.

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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 your life."

One command after the other, I felt my body tense up, and then eventually relax.

"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 unprotected.

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 what's coming."

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.

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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 up.

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.

When the time is right, I will stand up.

Photograph by: Monique Ruffin/Damien Baskette

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