We, a class of aspiring yoga teachers, are sitting on the floor of the meditation hall at the ashram in India when the conversation turns to the conflict between practice and parenting. “But how,” asks one of the men, “do you work with being here when your children are somewhere else? You have to worry about them, think about them… otherwise…” His hands go up in a gesture of helplessness. I (chagrined) admit a moment of surprise, because this is usually a conversation had amongst mothers, and to hear a man in a traditionally patriarchal society express the same concerns brings me back to reality. Parenting is this agreement we all make, described by Elizabeth Stone as letting your heart walk around outside of yourself.
I try to take it up, this question. How do you be here when they are elsewhere? How did I justify leaving my three children for an entire month to go to the other side of the planet where (it turns out) I will be unsuccessful even at finding the post office to send home the promised letters, let alone making a weekly phone call? And how is this search for myself related to my search for their mother, hidden somewhere inside me?
The teacher offers mother-love, the mythic, all-giving, all-merging force. The Mother, she says, sacrifices of herself for the sake of her children. The boundaries blur, her self is merged with that of her children, the Love is complete.
“No, no!” my inward protest screams. “That’s a recipe for disaster! Don’t you understand? Mothering must include the art of letting go, of moving from a place of merging, where even yourbodies are shared, to letting thinner and thinner tendrils connect you… it is a process by which you remain and become separate people.”
What I actually say, stumbling, is something like, “I need to have faith that I am not the only one. My children are surrounded by a web of other adults who support their growth. And worrying about them isn’t really about them. It is a superstitious belief that I can somehow influence their environment, keep them safe simply by fearing that they might not be. That just keeping them in the background of my awareness is somehow necessary to maintain the relationship to them. It is, in fact, taking care of the fear that if I stop that worrying, even for a moment, it is a sign that I don’t care.”
Despite years of education and training, daily exposure to cynicism and a tendency to a too-scientific view of the world, my superstitions run deep.
When my children were infants, I was afraid to sleep, believing somehow that their continued existence in the world relied on my sheer force of will. I’d like to say that this improved by number three, but it didn’t really. Some nights, even now, I peek into the children’s rooms on the way down the hall, just to make sure that I haven’t imagined the whole thing, and that no thief has come in the night, stealing these parts of my heart. There they all lie, even the 13 year old whose feet are now larger than mine, breathing quietly all these years later, with no effort on my part. I name this fear, that if I glance away, even for a moment, if I fail to show my appreciation, maybe they will be taken from me. Better not to chance it.
When my mother came to meet my first son, mere hours old, I held him up and said, “Hey, Mom! Look what I made!” She grinned. I grinned. We were as proud as when we shared my macaroni-and-handprint crafts in kindergarten. Yet even in that placental space, it’s not quite true that “I” made “him”. I had to walk through the world and gather the molecules from which my son would assemble himself, according to codes so complex that we don’t yet understand them. In this process I was neither the agent nor a mere vessel: he and I grew as entwined systems, evolving, communicating, sharing the resources of time and energy. It continues even now, as my limited time must be allocated among family members and my ever-growing list of projects, becoming myself among them.
In the varied practices of meditation and yoga, I learn to hold up my motivations to my own internal scrutiny. On the one hand, I don’t want to be a mother who treats her children as an extension of herself. This is an easy mistake to make, in a world in which we are judged based on our children’s behaviours. I admit feeling a pinch of pride when older women stop me in restaurants to say, “Your children are so polite.” (I even put it in here. You may call me on it.) Yet I pat myself on the back for having chosen to let them grow away from me organically. I take a certain amount of satisfaction in having faith that they will be OK for a month, even while feeling like I should probably miss them more.
It is a matter of some effort, placing my awareness on this ever-shifting boundary: where do I stop and you begin, child of mine? When I do this thing for you (whatever it is) am I responding to an actual need, or am I projecting one of my needs upon you? Worse, am I doing it to prove something to myself or the world around me, that I am able to play this role, that I am worthy to be this Mother of myth?
Which brings me back to that ashram in India. There is a message for my children even in my absence, and it is this: Someday you will be adults and you will leave me. We are in this for the long haul, you and I, but one of my tasks is to grow away from you, so that when you leave the parting will be gentle. The motion of two human beings, having walked together for so long, finally walking apart.
And in the meantime, as in so much of our practice, the instructions are, “Not too tight, not too loose.”