Mothering: The On-Going Birth Story
I remember the moment of my oldest daughter's birth with incredible clarity. Every single birth of every single child is beautiful and miraculous---but something happens during the birth of an oldest that is never repeated at the other births. When you give birth to your first child, a mother is born as well.
I remember those early days of motherhood in a visceral way----I can still feel the excitement on my skin. If I immerse myself in those memories. I find myself back in that world of joy and worry, awe and fatigue. Those are the days we've crossed a threshold and can never be replicated. They made us mothers.
Ten years later, I was ripe for another kind of birth. I didn’t know a part of me had been buried and needed birthing. I didn’t remember that a different form of me existed. There was no hospital, no rushing around, but there was growth and contractions of another kind: I still vividly remember the days and weeks and months I rebirthed myself as a woman.
Those early years of mothering my children were intense, immersive mothering. I had three and then four very little ones who were (are?) very emotional and passionate and intense just like their mother is. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every moment from when they woke me up until l put them down to bed at night was spent listening to their every thought. Usually all at the same time.
It was around this time that a dear friend asked me to join Well-Read Mom. I think she was actually trying to get me lead the group, but I was intimidated to attending much less leading. What had happened? I had been used to leading discussions with students who knew less than I did; but joining a discussion with women who could accurately judge what I said and make opinions about me...that was scary. Opening up my heart to women and sharing my own struggles and experiences with literature and life, that was possibly even more terrifying. There was pride and insecurity both in my fear.
Luckily, I joined anyway.
Afterall, this wasn’t out of my wheel house. It wasn’t all that many years before that I had earned a Masters degree in English, and I had spent my pre-child professional life teaching college English. Maybe that's why my friend had asked me to lead? I should be able to do this...
But I was terrified.
I was worried I simply did not have time to read a book. I worried that I no longer had the attention span to read an entire book. I worried my intellect had dwindled to where I wouldn’t understand what I was reading, and I was very worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up in a conversation with some of the most intelligent and insightful women I had had the blessing to meet.
But I joined anyway.
Re-Birthing the Mother
The first book we read together was The Screwtape Letters. I worried about saying something wrong, or, even worse, something pedestrian that I believe my voice shook each time I voiced an opinion. Shortly afterwards, we read Till We Have Faces. Again, my voice shook out of anxiousness, but I was so passionate about that book that I dared to share more of my insights. Four years later, we will be discussing one of my favorite books, and I’m confident that by now, my voice will be even.
But as much as I loved our book discussions, I can’t say that it was those conversations that changed me the most. In fact, the biggest impact from joining the reading group was what happened to the interior of me. I was able to contemplate during the day. During a cartoon or while my kids were chatting away in the backseat, I could look at the life of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables and ask myself what is says about goodness and redemption. I have let that story inform my days and my life and my worldview. I could look at Dorothy Day’s experience of the birth of her grandchild, and I could let her authenticity help me see the truth of my own births and my own motherhood. And I could take a character that I hated, with an intesity that was almost somatic---Dorian Gray---and I could sit with that, for months on end actually, pondering the mystery of evil and what Dorian represents about life and the stain of sin.
I’ve spoken with a friend about the idea of density in human character. What we mean by a person of density is a person who has taken all that life has given her and is able to integrate that into notion of herself and into her worldview. And we all, by our very limited physical natures, are only able to experience so many actual tangible experiences. But through rich books and lovingly challenging discussions, we are able to open up whole new worlds and experience entirely different worldviews than we ever would be able to do on our own. And all of this adds to us. It deepens us. It grounds us. It makes our character more dense.
So while nothing can ever compare to those first weeks of new motherhood, I find myself nevertheless incredibly grateful for those years of re-birthing the woman, the person, inside of me.
It’s easy to tell ourselves that we do not have time or energy to "take away" from mothering and give to books. What if we're not taking anything away from our children when we read, when we become more humanly dense? Our kids learn so much more by who we are than by what we say. Perhaps our reading and contemplating, perhaps our time sharing with other women are some of the most profound acts we make as a mothers.
Have you listened yet? Episode 19: Mother Culture: Taking Care of Your Heart, With Marcie Stokman
Amanda Knapp is a wife, mother, writer, knitter, and reader of books. She earned her BA from Marquette University and her MA in English from Northern Illinois University. She credits reading and writing with helping her remember who she was after many years in the trenches with toddlers and infants. She currently spends almost all of her time homeschooling her four daughters and chronicling her thoughts on her website and Instagram page.