This is me at 18 months, climbing into the wooden doll crib that belonged to my mother, Kim, when she was a girl.
And this is my daughter, Iris, at 16 months, climbing into that same little doll crib.
Like me as a child, Iris is preoccupied with her babies, and she's not the gentlest caregiver. She rocks them aggressively and flings them into the crib, shouting night-night and covering them with a small blanket. Sometimes two or three babies crowd into the little bed to take their naps, which are always short-lived, ending when Iris whips the blanket off, throws them out of bed, and gives them their bottles directly in the eyes. Then it's time for a quick trip around the living room, and she repeats the whole process over again.
I had dozens of baby dolls as a girl, most given away long ago. I still remember their names. As a teenager and young adult, I kept meticulous lists in my journals with names for my future children, even though I grew uncertain as I got older whether motherhood was for me.
My grandmother, Bernice, passed away this spring, just shy of her 95th birthday. She was one of eleven children born into a farming family in Tripp, South Dakota. She worked and saved when my mother was young so she could buy her the dolls and toys she had wanted for herself as a child: the doll crib Iris is enthralled with, several Barbie dolls with a wardrobe of clothes that Sky now cares for, and a set of wooden furniture Robin arranges in the dollhouse in his room.
When I see my children playing with these things, I think about my grandmother working as a bookkeeper, putting money aside each month to give my mother a little more than what she had. I think about her mother, my great-grandmother Anna, in a home noisy with eleven children, and how she, too, must have worked so that her children would have a little more than what she had.
My mom has always been my creative champion. Even though she claims not to “get” poetry (she totally does), she nurtured my passion for writing, from supplying me with endless spiral notebooks at age seven, to attending my graduate school reading twenty years later, tears in her eyes. She reads what I write now and sends me little emails and texts of praise. I don't think she got much praise from her own mother, and it hasn't always come easily to her, as it doesn’t come easily to me. Part of our matrilineal inheritance has been a reckoning with the critical voice in our heads, learning to question its authority.
“Daughter-my-mother/you have observed my worst,” Carolyn Kizer writes in her poem “The Blessing.” “Holding me together at your expense/ has made you burn cool.” It is a poem about the mirrors in generations of women, the things we want to fix in ourselves and in the world, and the dilemma of our humanness. We make mistakes as children and as parents. To give more, maybe the trick is to learn the truth of our inheritances, as both gift and wound. I’m not sure that blessings come in any other form in this world.
Sometimes I see my mother's features in Iris's little face, and I think of my favorite lines from Kizer's poem: “Mother-my-daughter/ I have been blessed/ on both sides of my life.” Now it is my turn to mother, and my children's turn with the doll crib, its wood worn smooth. Climbing in and out of the crib, Iris plays with these roles. She plays at being the mother, then the child, over and over again. In my parenting, too, I’ve learned to tend to myself as both child and mother, so that I can give my children more than I was given.
What will that be? What will my children see when they look back on their childhoods, with the perspective of adulthood? The more I understand my identity as a beloved daughter of a loving God, the more I am willing to accept that I cannot be or do everything for my children, and that’s as it should be. Where I fall short, I hope to offer humility and teach forgiveness. More than anything, I hope to teach them to seek God, our loving Mother/Father.
It’s a complicated holiday. Maybe your relationship with your mother is strained or painful in some way. Maybe you long for motherhood and can’t bear the sight of one more pregnancy announcement. Maybe the shape of your family has been shattered by loss.
My prayer for you is that you would know you are loved beyond measure, today and tomorrow and every day. May you experience the joy of caregiving and of being cared for, regardless of where you find yourself on the spectrum of parent and child.
Reading + Writing
Happy birthday, newsletter. This May marks one full year of monthly(ish) letters. A year ago, I moved from writing seasonally to writing more frequently here, and I’ve enjoyed the chance to connect with you regularly. It’s been an honor to write for you and to hear from you. Thank you for subscribing and responding. In a busy world, your attention is precious, and I don’t take it lightly that you choose to share yours with me. It’s always my intention to create words that are worthy of your time, and so some months that has meant choosing not to send a letter. Which brings me to…
Finals and my final year. I’m in the middle of studying for my June exams, which lead to my third and final year of acupuncture school. You can expect to hear from me less frequently as I begin to prepare for graduation and the NCCAOM boards. I know I’ll need to bring my full focus to studying, so I plan to write only when I can do so from a place of abundance and joy. I’d love your prayers as I head into this next phase of my journey to becoming a licensed acupuncturist!
Pray More Novenas. I’ve been exploring traditional forms of prayer and have loved using this website for novenas, a traditional Catholic practice of repeating prayers for nine days, usually with a specific intention, often with others. You can subscribe to receive a free daily prayer by email. I recently spent nine days praying the Novena for Exams, and I found my prayers answered in unexpected ways.
Lost Art. I had the privilege of receiving a complimentary subscription to Sarah McColl’s beautiful newsletter “Lost Art,” which she describes as “a Look what I found love letter published the third Sunday of the month.” Each issue takes a deep dive into the life and work of a different woman in art. In April, she wrote about Mary Hallock Foote, beginning with the enticing phrase: “I am obsessed with a house.” This newsletter absolutely floored me. It felt like picking up a beautifully-written biography or taking a tour with a knowledgeable docent. I’m already looking forward to the third Sunday in May.
Flipping the Scripts. I also loved Micha Boyett’s recent letter on Erin S. Lane’s new book, Someone Other Than a Mother, about expanding the way we think about purpose and meaning in women’s lives. I’m adding this to my reading list.
And I’m continuing to read and write about Kristin Lavransdatter. Here’s my latest for Project Redux.
Our family played a game of immunity whack-a-mole this April. It seemed like we’d barely get through one illness before another one hit. I can really only say one nice thing about tummy bugs, and that’s that they’re easy on the grocery budget.
I’m completely obsessed with cotton candy grapes, though.
P.S. We adopted four ducklings the day before Easter. They seem to double in size overnight, and are practically fully-grown ducks now, ready to move out of their cardboard box. How sweet are they?! We are in love.
"The more I understand my identity as a beloved daughter of a loving God, the more I am willing to accept that I cannot be or do everything for my children, and that’s as it should be."
Love this line!