How Parenting Heals
When I first became a mom, I blamed motherhood for messing everything up. From my body to my schedule to my very sense of self, everything had been turned upside down and inside out. Where there had previously been control, certainty, and order, there was now just a big ole’ mess.
I find similarity in our global conversation around what Covid and the pandemic have done to life over these last two years. It’s been so hard, frustrating, stressful, and scary. Everyone wants to go back to "normal” or get clarity on whatever our “new normal” now is.
It’s funny because I don’t think we were all going around thinking how great everything was in prior years. Was 2019 so great? Was 2018 so perfect? Are we sure we’re remembering correctly? I mean okay, we were not in a global pandemic before but we also were not existing in utopia.
Beyond actual Covid infections, a very important impact the pandemic has had is that it has irrefutably revealed cracks that have long been in the system. For us Americans this includes healthcare, socioeconomic inequity, and our systemically racist culture. The virus did not cause these problems. They already existed, if only in a deep well of conscious and subconscious blindness for the many of us who have mainly lived a life of privilege. Before 2020, it was a lot easier to keep ourselves distracted, living myopically in our own little bubbles with our own little dramas. The sheer force of the pandemic made (some of) us wake the f*** up.
Obviously we are very far from having solved all of our many issues in our individual societies and in humanity as a whole. But more conversations are being had now than two years ago. Many of us are living more clearly in truth and reality. Even if things might feel scarier and less secure when you live with your eyes wide open, there is also a deep sense of relief because it is only through awareness that there can be change.
I became a mom and almost instantly I just wished I could go back to pre-motherhood. Back to when I had control of my body, my mind, my time, and my image. Back to before my stomach was sliced open. Back to when I wasn’t attacked by panic and anxiety. Back to what I was inaccurately remembering as having been such a perfect life.
It took me years to understand that motherhood propelled and anchored me into truth and reality. Motherhood didn’t create or cause my panic attacks. Motherhood unearthed the fear and anxiety I had unknowingly been repressing for most of my life. The veil of who I actually am was lifted - to my own self. And I hated, feared, and rejected what I was seeing.
I had been so attached to my story: I had survived my childhood as a daughter of mental illness, I had followed my intuition in becoming a yoga teacher, I had landed an absolute dream job with Nike, I had traveled the world, and I had fallen in love at first sight. I expected to be able to tack onto this story a perfect pregnancy, a perfect birth, and a perfect postpartum experience. I would manifest creating a postpartum yoga program for moms to get back into shape because look how easily I would do it! I’d design maternity and postpartum yoga wear. I would write a “how to” book that would have all the answers.
When all this came crashing down, it broke me apart. But I know now that it broke me apart to break me open so that I could be filled with truth. When I was living through such a tightly controlled exterior, I didn’t have the energy to really know myself. My “clean eating” and obsessive juice fasting “to be healthy” hid an eating disorder. My image as a yogi and yoga teacher restricted living in my layered reality as a human being. Despite having a meditation practice, I rarely sat still with myself. Even my constant traveling was a distraction that pulled me away from home base - from my center within myself.
I became a mom and I was forced to slow down and actually get to know myself. At the time, I thought it was the baby’s company that I did not like. I thought, “Babies are so boring, so demanding, so relentlessly mind-numbing!” And while all that may be true at times, the baby was just being a pretty normal baby. It was ME that I couldn’t bear to be with.
My son’s birth opened a portal of healing. It was like when Neo has to chose between the red pill and the blue bill. Morpheus says, “You take the blue pill: The story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill: You stay in Wonderland. And I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Will you choose contented ignorance rooted in make-believe or are you willing to learn the truth, no matter what the truth is?
In becoming a mother, that choice was made for me. I could no longer remain in contented ignorance. It was an incredibly painful process; healing is not straightforward, predictable, or even ever finished. It is difficult to excavate your long-buried demons and look them in the face. It feels earth-shattering to realize you aren’t sure who you are. But as the age old adage goes: the truth will set you free.
When I was a child, I had a favorite blanket. One side was checkered pink and white and had a smooth almost satin-like feel to it. The other side was white dotted with pink flowers and had more of a worn, pilled feel to it. The entire blanket was bordered by a frilly white lace. I can still remember the way the blanket felt against my skin, the way it felt as I breathed it in for comfort. I slept with it every night. I called it my night-night.
As I got older, my mom got mad at me for still needing and loving my blanket. In Korean, she would snap at me with disgust, "Night-night ha ji ma!" which translates to: “Don’t touch your night-night!" She felt it was shameful to be attached to a blanket. When I was around 10 years old, she took it away.
I cried and pleaded for her to give it back to me, but she was utterly cold-hearted. I knew I couldn’t whine to her too much as she would hit me “when I was bad.” I had no choice but to let it go, telling myself I would ask to have it back when I was an adult. I would tell her I wanted to pass it down to my child one day.
Years and years passed and when I was in my 20s, on one of my visits home to see my parents, I casually asked my mom for my blanket.
She blinked back at me in surprise. “Your blanket? You knew I threw that away a long time ago,” she said.
I was shocked. It couldn’t be. She couldn’t have. “I…I thought you just said you threw it away so I would stop asking for it. You actually threw it away?”
“Of course I did! Why would I have kept that old thing?”
I introduced lots of different loveys for my son. A tiny stuffed bunny that I nuzzled next to him for all of his shots and IVs in the NICU. Various fuzzy and furry small square blankets. I had heard other moms say that I would know when something would become a lovey because of the way he would become attached to it.
Amazingly, it did indeed happen this way. The first time my son touched what would become his “soft one blankie,” I saw an instant connection. He immediately loved that blanket. He cuddled it close and still has it today, at age seven. I bought a couple backups in case we ever lost the original but for some reason only the original feels a particular way. He named the backups “not soft one blankies.” He regularly tells me that soft one blankie is his favorite thing in the world and asks if he will be allowed to keep it forever. I tell him, “Of course you can! It’s yours!”
I am always trying my best to be the mother I wish I had.
Thinking my daughter would like the same thing my son did, when I was pregnant with her, I found her a similar blanket. I took it to the hospital for her birth and swaddled her in it for her first baby photos. But that blanket did not become her lovey.
What did become her lovey is a collection of three burp cloths. They are just regular burp cloths but these are special for two reasons: 1) Each one has a cheerful animal print on it. For whatever reason the teal elephants are her favorite, but she’s also happy with the purple monkeys or the yellow giraffes. 2) They actually first belonged to her big brother.
Just as I had seen my son attach himself to soft one blankie, my daughter established these three little burp cloths as her loveys. We called them mussies, short for muslin cloths.
“Here’s your favorite mussie!” we would say to her.
If she was upset, we would say, “Oh dear! Let’s find your mussie!”
Inexplicably, one day she reached for one of these mussies and said, “Night-night! Night-night!”
I had never ever called her mussies “night-night.” I had not used that term since I was a child and my night-night had been taken away from me.
Not too long ago, we FaceTimed with my parents. It was bedtime for our daughter, so she was wrapped up in her pajamas and wearable sleeping bag, cuddling her night-night, and sucking her thumb. She loves seeing our various relatives on FaceTime, never having met any of them yet as we have not felt comfortable traveling during the pandemic. She was simply smiling at my parents on the screen, being her sweet, innocent baby self.
I saw my mom squint back at us. “She sucks her thumb? She’s sucking her thumb! Don’t do that, that’s dirty! No thumb sucking, Avy!”
I said nothing. Honestly, I was gobsmacked that my mother who suffers from traumatic brain injury still had it in her to slip so effortlessly into her role of the critical mother/grandmother.
My mom continued, “Is that a night-night? She’s doing night-night! Avy, night-night ha ji ma!”
I squeezed my daughter tighter, letting her know that I had her back no matter what. To my mom I gently and simply responded, “Yes, she loves her thumb and her night-night.” I left it at that. I felt no anger, no need to be defensive.
I did, however, feel sad. I felt sad for my sweet, innocent daughter who was just doing what made her feel comfortable and cozy. I felt sad for the little me that had once been the same. I felt sad for my mom, that she so easily drops into unconscious unkindness and that she is so unable to mother. I imagine she as a child had been on the receiving end of such harshness.
On any given day, my daughter says “night-night” at least 100 times. This is not an exaggeration. Every time we pass through our lobby, she proudly holds up her night-night to our doorman and shouts, “Night-night! Night-night!” He responds, “Ah, there’s your night-NIGHT,” putting his unique emphasis on the second sound. A friend was recently in town from London and spent the day with us. She quickly learned the absolute importance of these night-nights. Now when I send her videos and photos, she notices that one of her “nigh-nighs” is always dutifully nearby.
On the surface, this is all just about a sweet baby and her loveys. But for the little me that had her night-night taken away forever, all of these moments are deeply healing. I may not have been able to pass down my exact, very loved pink and white blanket to my babies, but I love that they have their own. I love how much they love them, how much we all as a family love them.
This has been one of the great surprises of having children, one that I could not have imagined during those dark days when I was mad, sad, and scared, wishing I could go back to how things had been. Along with the joys of getting to relive the magical moments of childhood: snow, lights on a Christmas tree, a balloon, Elmo, getting lost in book after book after book, there is a truly powerful opportunity to move through the portal of parenthood to heal pain. Becoming a mother did break me apart, but it broke apart a me that was already broken so I could be pieced together with more truth, acceptance, and love.
As mothers and fathers, we now get to make our own best choices. We don’t have to blindly repeat what was done to us. We can be the parents we always needed and wished we had and when we do so, it’s not just for our children. It’s for our little selves, too.