I had one of those talks yesterday with my mother – the kind of talk where everyone cries.
We got to talking about when I was a baby. She described the pang she used to feel around mid-day when she was at work and I was home with the sitter. That was the time her body would tell her it was time to nurse. But I wasn’t there, and she would feel an ache – a pull to be with me. This really got to me, for a couple of reasons. First, because I hadn’t known she’d felt this way. And second, because I suddenly viscerally remembered how much I’d missed her.
My mother has always been a wonderful mother. She and my father raised us in San Francisco in the seventies. Like other progressives of their era, they approached parenting from a stance of inquiry. Rarely did they tell my brother and me what to do. Never once did they tell us what to think. As our unique interests developed, they did what they could to nurture those interests. That meant ceramics, science, and Nintendo for my brother, and music and children’s theater for me.
Of all the values my parents imparted, one stands out most strongly – the value of pursuing work you love. My mother’s passion was for language. In her work as a speech language pathologist, she helped children and adults with learning differences learn to read.
As I got older, I remember asking my mother how she’d balanced her career with caring for us when we were little. She explained that with me, for a lot of reasons, it felt right to go back to work when she did, when I was between three and six months old. My father was a freelance writer, and the family needed her income. But it was more than that. She wanted more out of life than domesticity. Moreover, she wanted to model for me and other girls of my generation that we could define motherhood on our own terms, rather than conforming to constricting social standards of what a mother should be.
As I grew, I saw this not only in personal terms, but also in historical ones. I felt proud to tell people my mother was a feminist. She and other women of her generation broke the mold of what “motherhood” had meant for their own mothers and grandmothers. By working outside the home, even when their children were little, they paved the way for their daughters to one day enjoy an even greater freedom – the freedom to not have to prove that we could do so.
I respected my mother’s choice. I always assumed that when I became a mother, I’d do the same thing.
But when I became a mother, something happened that made it all look different. Cave Woman happened. (See my post from a few weeks ago…)
And with my discovery of those ancient, primal instincts and ways of knowing, all my old ways of thinking about career went out the window. I just wanted to be with my children, and to spend as much time with them as possible.
Now, that my children are four and one, I have more perspective on what motherhood means to me, and I can say with certainty – motherhood has transformed me more than any other single life event I’ve ever undergone.
It’s been beautiful. Humbling. Difficult. Fullfilling. Many told me it would be this way, and they were right: it’s made me feel more tenderness than I knew was possible, and also more pain.
My time with my children has taught me more about service than I ever learned from teaching.
It’s taught me more about Spirit than I learned in Divinity School.
And in those many late nights, singing to my babies, it’s taught me more about music than I learned in all my years living the life of a professional singer songwriter.
But there’s another thing motherhood has brought me. And in this really lies the heart of it.
Motherhood has taught me that, like my mother, I too want more.
Because my culture, which I had navigated reasonably okay back before I had children, now felt strangely isolating. Why had I never noticed before how strange it was to be living three thousand miles from my family of origin on a block with more than 100 neighbors I did not know by name?
I remember returning bleary and traumatized from the week long hospital stay, having been literally cut apart and sewn back together. Who could I talk to about what we had been through?
Those streets, which I learned so well through endless walking with my little one in the carrier… How had I never seen it before? How beautiful everyone was? How precious? How vulnerable? Covered in their tattoos, the madman on the corner with the scowl on his face. He too was someone’s child. Where could I bring that feeling? I didn’t know what to do with it.
I yearned for some kind of structure I could enter, with my baby, and my raw new self. A space presided over by a healer. Someone who could help me figure out how to tie myself back together. What did it even mean to be me, now?
Not knowing how to find that in my own social context, instead I turned inward. I dreamed about Her. That great, primordial ancestor. In jest, I called her Cave Woman, and imagined her Cave Baby too, growing and changing parallel to mine. The original Earth Mama. Day after day, I called on her like a guide. I came to feel her wisdom running through me, filling me with new power, strength, tenderness, and fight.
How would she have approached nursing? Sleep? Diapering? How did she parent? What did she know, in her gut? My friend used to joke that she was going to get me a bracelet. “WWCWD?” What would cave woman do?”
Well, guess what… I’ve researched this. And based on what I’ve read, I’ve come to a conclusion. Cave woman would have a pretty hard time living the way we do. Actually, i believe she would be like a person forced out of her mind. A life spent indoors… Living in isolation, without nature, without ritual, without the support of extended family… And prioritizing her children’s needs so fully above her own.
Because here’s what Cave Woman taught me – we weren’t meant to live this way.
In Our Babies Ourselves, anthropologist Meredith Small highlights an interesting juxtaposition between cultural needs and evolutionary ones. Culture, she explains, has, in recent years, developed at breakneck speed. My great grandmother traveled in horse drawn carriages. In just a few generations, technology has developed to the point where most of our conversations happen via particles traveling through the air into tiny screens we hold in our hands, and many of us store belongings in a cloud. I mean, wow! (And I don’t mean to be a naysayer here… I always kind of dreamed of storing belongings in a cloud. 😉
But meanwhile, our physical evolution, and with it, our other deep needs, has not yet caught up. Evolution moves much more slowly, so that the slightest change can take hundreds of thousands of years to come to fruition. Take mothering, for example. Today, many of us, like my mother, go back to work when our babies are only a few months old. And we need to, in order to meet the needs of providing for our family, let alone the self-actualization that, prior to becoming mothers, we may have prioritized more fully. But meanwhile, babies’ needs haven’t changed from what they were back in hunter gatherer times. My little one needs the same things that her Cave Baby ancestor, hundreds of years ago needed from her mama.
To be held.
This is the predicament of the modern mother: our babies communicate endlessly to us what they need, in a language our instinct understands. But other responsibilities, for example, the need to provide materially for our family, can make it very difficult to do so in the ways that babies are designed for.
And this is why I cried in that conversation with my mother. Because for a moment, I glimpsed past our modern seeming. I saw her as the mama, and me as my child self, with those basic needs that our recent centuries of human progress could not erase. I touched into those feelings I had as a baby– just wanting to be close to her, to sleep next to her at night, to nurse and be snuggled close to her and be with her wherever she went.
I felt how, despite her sense of fulfillment in her work life, and her generally positive attitude about those choices, my mother felt this too – that unique call to closeness that perhaps only mother and baby could know.
I felt how, in a different world, and in a different time, it could have been different. What if, like the Yequana, an indigenous people of Venezuela, described by Jean Liedloff in the Continuum Concept, my mother’s work had been shelling beans, surrounded by the other women of the tribe? Then I would have been right there with her, picking up a bean here and there where I could, in between rounds cavorting with the older children of the tribe.
What if my mother could have lived in a way that didn’t ask her to choose between her child and herself? What if she and I had grown up in a culture where there was not such a distinction between grown up and childhood life, but where the two went on alongside and enriched one another?
These cultures existed. And, in some places, they still do.
In Our Babies, Ourselves, Small explains that while we can’t know precisely what our hunter gatherer ancestors would have done, there are cultures whose lifestyle is closer to those ways, and by listening to these people, we stand to learn a lot. Moreover, we’d better listen close, and quickly, because with the continuing expansion of Western culture, the world is changing fast. Amongst the hunter gatherer tribes Small studied, she described how more and more of these people are now leaving their traditional ways to pursue hourly paid work in cities and towns.
So what can we learn from modern hunter gatherer peoples about what our own ancient ancestors were like? How did women live? What did they do? There’s so much to say about this, but for now, I want to focus on three points:
- These cultures were adult centered. The day revolved around adult activities such as building shelters or preparing food, with children free to join in as they wished. The adults were busy with highly social forms of work. While preparing food, women chatted together. The children joined in only when and if they wished, and if they weren’t ready, no effort was made to force them into it. They joined when they were ready, and the rest of the time, the played freely, roving the area in mixed aged groups.
- Child rearing happened in community. To show what this might look like, Small gives the example of the Efé pygmies of the Ituri rainforest, in the Congo. As Small explains, “an Efé infant will spend 50 percent of its time with some other adult than its mother during the first four months of its life, and interact with five or more adults per hour… The baby clearly knows who its mother and father are, but has a cadre of adults to depend on.”
- Ritual was woven into everyday life, and in this lay the heart of maintaining and building community. African spiritual teacher Sobonfu Somé speaks to this when describing her experience leaving her native country of Burkina Faso to come live in the United States.
“My people the Dagara people live in community. Their life blood is ritual. As a child I never thought much about ritual and its implications… While in the Village, I would have never understood why anyone would want to create community or rituals. In fact, I would have laughed at their face if they ask me to teach them about rituals or community for it is a given in the Village.
My experience being away from my community has taught me that… at the core of my longing to belong was a desire to connect with something bigger — something sacred — which the psyche of the human being need to keep its life balanced.”
This is where we come from. And if Small and others like her are right, this is what we’re wired for. Is it any wonder, then, that it can feel isolating to be home with our children? That postpartum depression is so common? Our culture isn’t set up in a way that supports the work of mothering, so as mothers we may find ourselves living in multiple worlds as we balance the contradictory needs of work, child-rearing, and self care.
But… she is still there. As my children age, this Primordial Woman continues to awaken in me. And after my conversation yesterday with my mother, I know she lives in her too.
I see now who we have been, and who we are becoming, when we break through, and cry, and have the courage to be vulnerable – when we allow ourselves to feel the feelings, even the uncomfortable ones. In these moments, I think, yes, the Primordial Woman is where we have come from. But it is also where we must go. Not back to our past, for the world has changed irrevocably. But back to a deeper level of listening to those deep, ancient needs that live and breathe in our children.
We are not separate from each other, or from this earth. More and more of us are starting to awaken to this truth – to begin to see the wisdom in what traditional peoples have always known – that wholeness lies in relationship. So we are weaving, weaving, seeking to repair and strengthen the fabric of our connections, seeking the way back, to what exactly, we do not know… But to something deeper, richer, and more whole than the fragmented lives we once took for granted.
I look at my mother. I love her so much. We are both of us finding our way home.
Our Babies, Ourselves, by Meredith Small
Welcoming Spirit Home, by Sobonfu Somé
The World Until Yesterday – What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, by Jared Diamond
Want to connect further about these things?
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