On the cover North Coast Journal

May 5, 2005


On the cover: Journal editor Emily Gurnon with her children, Danny (left) and April (right). Photo by Hank Sims
The Gift of Motherhood: A Mother's Day essay



I AM IN THE BATHROOM one recent morning brushing my teeth when our 4-year-old, April, comes in and jumps onto her step-stool.

My head is in a getting-out-the-door mode; I'm thinking, "It's 8 o'clock, I still have to dry my hair, I need to brush April's teeth and comb her hair, did I finish making lunches? What do I have to bring to work today?"

April is not in that place.

She leans in toward the mirror until her head is nearly touching it. "I have a really big face!" she says, smiling at her reflection. "And big hair!"

It is moments like these that I never imagined before I had kids. Moments that bring me out of my own tortured tracking of all the details that fill my day, all the planning, all the thinking ahead. Moments that bring me back to the right here, right now. Live your life, my children seem to demand of me, moment after precious moment.

I feel as if someone has shaken me awake. I look at my daughter, and I laugh.

Sunday is Mother's Day. To mark the occasion, I wanted to write about the gift of motherhood, and what it has meant to me.

[Mom kissing baby on the head]  [young mom and grandma with kids]
Left: Jaden and Kathy Lambert of Arcata.
Right: From left to right, Lisa Sodeyama and her mom, Rie Sodeyama with Rie's mother, Tamae Watanabe, who carries Rie's daughter, Airi. The Sodeyamas visited Arcata from Yokohama, Japan; Tamae comes from Nagasaki.
Photos by Bob Doran

Taking the plunge

I went all the way through my 20s and well into my 30s before my husband and I decided to dive off the leisure ship of childlessness into the turbulent sea of parenthood. It is a plunge that no one can describe, though dozens of friends and acquaintances intoned the same mantra to us throughout my first pregnancy, as if it were part of the initiation rites for Club Parent: "Your life will never be the same." Then they would invariably laugh a sinister laugh that made us recoil in utter terror.

I'm kidding -- sort of -- about the terror, though "never the same" is the understatement of the century. And, like any change, it's good and bad.

Before I had my own children, I always liked kids. My nieces and nephews appreciated me. I even took a summer job in college working at a preschool.

But I had absolutely no clue what a difference there is between liking kids in general, as one might like puppies or French fries, and being head-over-heels, whipped, absolutely enamored of these two particular little people in my life.

This happens to men as well as women, of course. The kid is a drug, and you get addicted. When our 6-year-old son, Danny, was a baby, my husband couldn't wait to get home from work. "It's like I have a crush on him," he said.

What is it that makes us love our children so fiercely? Why do we memorize every detail of their small bodies and make daily inventories of what we adore? Why does this magical bonding process happen with adoptive parents as well as birth parents?

Maybe it's because your kids make you feel like the star of the show, the empress of the universe, the biggest celebrity on the planet. Remember John Lennon's famous quote to the press back in the '60s, his offhand comment that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ? Well, become a parent and you become something of a god yourself. You are worshipped. You are the one your children cry out to at night, the one they practically knock over when you pick them up from daycare or arrive home from work. (At least when they're young. I have yet to experience the, um, joys of parenting a teenager.)

I think the bonding between a parent and a child has to do with the incredible power and responsibility parenthood entails: We grown-ups can make or break their little world. When we are forced to pay attention to every single detail of another person's life, it feels inextricably entwined in our own. And we invest so much in our children -- lose countless hours of sleep, spend God knows how much money, and exhaust every last bit of energy -- that not caring ceases to be an option. It would be like scrimping for years to build a fortune -- and then walking away from it. Not gonna happen.

But here's my real theory about why we love them so: Every child is special, and I do not say this glibly. Our Danny's first sentence, at 18 months, was, "Daddy turned the dryer on." He reads to his little sister. He is more and more the tough guy, though the scene in Finding Nemo where the little fish gets separated from his dad made him cry and beg for the VCR to be shut off. As for our somewhat tantrum-prone April, she complained recently that her feet hurt, and when we asked her why, she said, "From stomping them." On the other end of the spectrum, she rubs our cheeks each night with a corner of her special blanket, or "dee-dee," her baby word for it, and talks like a little mommy to her stuffed animals.

I can list all these things, and yet I know that every other parent can list other things just as precious and funny about their children, and that is exactly my point. Every child is wonderful. I just happen to have been blessed with the chance to get to know my two. Really know them.

[mom holding toddler daughter with young son]  [mom with grade-school aged daughter and young son]
LEFT: Gianna Wilson of Arcata, with her children, Cheyenne and Latrell.
RIGHT: McKinleyville mom Cindy Porter with her daughter, Lauren, and son, Jackson
Photos by Bob Doran


A blessing and a curse

Now that I've completely alienated all of the child-free people out there who tire of hearing just how special parenting is, I hasten to add that there is a flip side to all this. Is there ever.

Being a parent means never being able to truly relax, because you are wholly responsible for someone else's health, welfare and happiness. It means rarely going out at night because, a) you can't afford a baby-sitter or b) you're just too damn tired to care about going anywhere. Speaking of going places -- forget travel. Even if you have the time and money to get to someplace really great like Paris or New York or even San Francisco, you don't do it because IT WON'T BE FUN.

Having children also means you make different decisions about where you live, what kind of house to buy or rent, what jobs you take, and how often you visit your mother.

And it means seeing yourself in the most unforgiving of mirrors, like the ones in the store dressing rooms with the too-bright lights that bring out every inch of cellulite. You see your kids fall victim to your own anger and exhaustion, and it's one of the most defeating, discouraging experiences there is. I can go through a whole day of working well with colleagues, meeting deadlines, doing good interviews, and handling things professionally around the office. But when I come home and the kids are screaming at each other and it's late and I'm trying to get dinner ready -- and I lose it -- I feel like the worst piece of crap on the planet.

Once, when Danny was 3 and I was yelling at him for throwing toys out of the bathtub, and I really got in his face -- he laughed. I went from furious to practically splitting through my skin with rage, and I just thank God that I did not hurt him. Other times, I've watched myself come unglued and reduce my kids to tears. Not tears of remorse or self-pity, but tears because I yelled loud enough to scare them. It is very hard to forgive myself for that.

[daughter and older mom]  [mom with teenage and toddler daughters]
LEFT: Dorothy Mumper, right, and her daughter Joan Dunning of Arcata.
RIGHT: Aracely Wallace and her daughters, Jessica (right) and Natalia, recently moved to Eureka from the Bay Area.
Photos by Bob Doran


A lifetime of worry

Then there's the fear.

Sometimes I lie awake at night listening for any sound from our children's room and wondering if this will be the night they get sick and throw up all over the bed. Each time I hurry them out the door in the morning or nag them about tidying up, I worry that I'm turning them into unhappy little obsessives who will seek years of therapy later to undo my toxic influence.

And of course, there is the greatest fear of all, every parent's worst nightmare, the thought I can hardly even bear to imagine before my mind fights desperately to obliterate it: that I will lose them. Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, talked in one of her books about how she believed she could pretty much handle anything -- until she had her son. Being a parent made her vulnerable to the worst pain life could throw at her, because this most incredible of gifts could be taken away. "Now I'm fucked unto the Lord," she wrote.

It was not until I had kids that I came closer to understanding what my parents went through when they lost my brother, who died of an asthma attack in his college dorm when he was 19. When he was a kid, he would stomp his foot on the bedroom floor if he woke in the middle of the night unable to breathe. My parents would hear the pounding and rush him to the hospital. Many years after his death, my mother told me she was left wondering if he had been stomping his foot that night, the night he died, and she wasn't there to hear him.

I do not know how parents who lose a child get out of bed the next morning, or the morning after that, or the morning after that.

[mom talking to young child]  [mom with two daughters]
LEFT: Lydia Jorgensen of Arcata with her daughter, Arianna. Photo by Emily Gurnon.
RIGHT: Joy Holland holds one daughter, Rhiannon, while kissing another, Niniane, as a third daughter, Astaria, plays nearby.
Photo by Bob Doran


The greatest gift

But you know what? All of the fear, all of the worry, all of the self-doubt, all of the exhaustion, all of the bloody hassle -- it's all worth it. This is what it comes down to.

The rewards come every day, mostly in little ways.

The first children's performance we ever attended as parents was a gymnastics show at the Arcata Community Center, featuring all the kids who were taking gymnastics through the city recreation department. Danny, at age 4, was in it. It was pouring rain outside, our power was out at home, and the center's parking lot was jam-packed. We ran in and looked around. The place was filled with dripping wet parents and kids -- half of us larger types equipped with video cameras. In my single days, I would have thought, oh, those poor parents. Having to sit through boring stuff like this on a night like tonight.

But as a parent myself? What I thought was: "This is a blast." I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

And it's not just seeing my children doing cute things or saying something clever that makes motherhood so satisfying. Without even trying to, our children give us back every ounce of love we give to them, and then some.

I have a picture in my office that April drew at preschool. It has three stick people, one red, one pink and one green. It has two hearts, a flower and her name. She has colored each corner of the paper, as a sort of frame.

At the top, a teacher wrote what April said to describe her creation. "These people are just dudes. I love Mom."

There is nothing intentional or forced about our kids' love. They just do it. They sleep, they eat, they breathe, they draw pictures, they love us.

I don't need any presents for Mother's Day. I already have the best gift of all.

[mom with baby in stroller]  teenage daughter with mom hugging her]
RIGHT: Amy Rebstock, from Bridgeville, with her toddler Dele.
LEFT: Lissa Daugherty and her mom, Mara Segal.
Photos by Bob Doran



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