Parenting Philosophy

SPOTLIGHT ON: Sarah Kowalski – Motherhood Reimagined

Sarah Kowalski is a fertility doula, life coach, and author of the recently published memoir, Motherhood Reimagined: When Becoming a Mother Doesn’t Go As Planned, which chronicles her journey to motherhood when she realized at almost-forty that she actually did want a child – but she still didn’t have the partner or the white-picket-fence life she’d always pictured. Now, Single Mom By Choice and raising her beloved son, Sarah’s making it her mission to reach out to other women looking down the same poorly-lit path she embarked upon – and hoping to shed some light based on her experience.

I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of Sarah’s book, and to chat with her about her quest, life as a Single Mom By Choice, and the guilt and self-care struggles so many moms face, partnered or not. Sarah’s book is personal, fascinating, heart-wrenching, funny, and oh-so-relatable – even though I got knocked up the old fashioned way and am raising kids with a partner.

Sarah’s book ebbs and flows with intense dilemmas and calming realizations, so the first thing I have to bring up is one of the key themes in the book: letting go. It’s a steady undercurrent in the conversations I have with fellow moms, that motherhood is not as we expect. Sarah’s experience, though, goes beyond the usual laments, including the expectation of being biologically kin with her child.

“You don’t expect that having a child is going to be someone who’s not related to you,” she says. “The idea of not being able to see what a mixture of my genes and someone I was in love with’s genes would end up creating was a big letting go, and a huge reason I wrote the book.” When she first decided to try for pregnancy, she knew she would need a sperm donor, but it took fertility challenges and a lot of personal struggle for her to come to terms with using an egg donor as well. Once her son was born, though, she found all her fears had been, well, for nothing. “I see how it’d be really cool to see myself in him,” she says, “but it also seems completely irrelevant.” With her background in medical anthropology, Sarah cheerfully adds that “what we think of as genes is amorphous in a way – there’s no way for me to know that I don’t share any genes with him.”

This realization is partly why Sarah feels called to help other women considering the same path. I have to ask, since she’s mentioned it’s irrelevant, why she chose the many-layered approach of fertility treatments, insemination, and egg donation – instead of adopting. Her answer at first is simple: “I really wanted to be pregnant.” But as she speaks, I see her reasons are threefold: physical, emotional, and practical. “I stumbled upon the concept of epigenetics,” she explains of her university days, “which is the idea that the environment your child is in affects which genes turn on and off. These are hugely influenced by the in uterine experience. What your biochemistry is, and what you eat, and everything about gestating, have a lot to do with what epigenetics express.” (Yikes, I think, as I wonder which genes got switched on by me eating nothing but Kraft Dinner and Cinnabons for the first trimester… but Sarah mentions that life outside the womb also counts for some epigenetic happenings. Phew!) Sarah also wanted a metaphysical connection with her child, because having him “inside of me, hearing me, and experiencing everything I was experiencing, somehow bridged the gap for me on not having a genetic connection.” More practically, she notes that egg donation in Mexico was more affordable than adoption in the US – and she worried about negative bias against single women in the adoption system.

But whether women choose sperm/egg donation or adoption, one of Sarah’s biggest surprises has been that Single Motherhood By Choice is “not that unusual,” and is “actually very doable.” She reminds me of a mother I knew when I was a young teen, whose three sons I taught in theatre classes for years – two by sperm donation and one adopted, I think. I remember being in total awe of her, thinking wow, you’re just doing that. Sarah laughs when I relay this story, but I see a special quality in Sarah and this woman I recall.

Aside from moms who planned their families and pregnancies, I know women who became mothers by accident, and still other women (like me) who became mothers by a sort of game of chance, the old let’s-stop-using-protection-and-see-what-happens game, almost as a way to take the pressure off the whole endeavour, let fate decide. But Single Moms By Choice are each deliberate in their entry to motherhood. I’m curious to know if that strong choice might affect Sarah’s parenting style, and she agrees it probably does:

“I was very ready to step into the role,” she says. “I remember my mom said, ‘But you won’t be able to go to movies or concerts,’ and I couldn’t care less! Maybe that comes partly from being older, and partly from really having to think through what I was giving up to become a mother. It helped me settle into being a mom. I checked things off my bucket list, or was okay with setting aside things that were still on the bucket list in order to do this.”

This deliberate choice may also affect everyday interactions with her son. “I’m more present with him,” she muses, “I’m not pining over some other life I’m not living. I think that I was ready to shift my priorities and ready to be okay with that.”

Shifting priorities is, frankly, a bit of a shit show for many new moms. I wonder how many of us actually feel totally ready for this adjustment before we give birth? I always filed it away under Parts of Momming I Just Couldn’t Have Understood Before, so it’s new for me to hear someone so clear-headed about it. Part of this, Sarah says, might be a benefit of being a single mom. She acknowledges that it’s hard for women to split their priorities between their career, their partner, and their new child – a list that doesn’t even include the woman herself.

It’s not a secret that for many new moms, the ‘self’ is the piece that gets squeezed out pretty fast after baby arrives. We have full lives before having kids. We’re at 100% capacity – and then along comes a kid who needs 90-98% of our attention, at least for a little while, and there’s no manual to figure out how to piece this new life together.  

Sarah doesn’t seem to struggle with this shift, though – rather, her book includes this beautiful moment of clarity:

“I had gone through an impossibly powerful rite of passage, emerging into my nurturing, loving essence, the mother I had dreamed of being. In fact, the transformation had already happened. I could fight it, or I could surrender into being the best mother I could to this beloved baby. I chose the latter.”

I admit to Sarah that this revelation baffles me. The online momosphere seems to subscribe pretty strongly to the belief that after having kids, you simply have to find a way to hold onto the you you’ve always been; it’s implied that if we don’t try, by default we will lose ourselves.  Frankly, the thought of losing myself to motherhood has, at times, caused me quite the downward spiral. Hell, part of why we started Raise A Mother was to provide a space for women to be their multifaceted selves – mom and individual adult woman.

But as I listen to Sarah, her perspective is actually refreshing: “I don’t think we are the same people – we are different as moms. It doesn’t mean you have to lose everything you love and hold dear,” she says. “I’ve noticed moments in my life where I’m trying to push something, or trying to make it happen, and I had to step aside from what I wanted, and try to notice what was trying to open.” She recalls an anecdote from the book where her Qigong teacher didn’t ask her to cover his class, as he normally would. “I called him in a complete fit,” she says, insisting she could be both pregnant and the same aspiring Qigong master she knew herself to be. Sarah and I both laugh when she relays his response: “If you paid attention, you’d notice you’re preparing to be a mother right now,” he said.

The myth popular culture sells us is that we can have it all – the implied message is that if we can, we should, so if we don’t, it’s somehow a failing on our part. Sarah doesn’t believe you have to let go of all your old priorities, just that they will shift, as your “orientation shifts from being completely me-centered to being other-focused, or me-and-other, so clinging to the exact life you had before only causes pain and suffering.” Wow. Maybe this is another benefit to single motherdom – maybe it’s painful for some of us to shift and reorient because it doesn’t seem our partners are having to shift and reorient in the same way… Sarah agrees this might be true.

And that’s not the only benefit of being a Single Mom By Choice. For one thing, Sarah says post-birth, it felt very natural for her to have this “very intense bond” with her son, where she wasn’t “being pulled in more than one direction as far as someone else’s needs and wants and desires.” There was no partner to also figure out a new dynamic with. She gushes about how it feels “really great to not have to debate” things like parenting philosophy or style with anyone else – she calls all the shots. And even though that comes with all the responsibility, Sarah sees the silver lining here, too: “Knowing that it all falls to me – on the one hand it’s incredibly daunting some days that there is no relief and there is no help, but I also feel there’s no energy wasted hoping that someone’s going to help me or I’m going to get a break.”

So without that in-house help, I have to ask her – what does self-care look like? Again, her answer is not a standard mom-blog line about getting out to an aerobics class. She rarely gets such things, but she talks about “staying sane in the moments in between,” and gives a great example I fully relate to – after all, our sons are the same age. “I feel like waiting for my son to get into his carseat is part of my day where I’m going to lose my shit,” Sarah says, and I already know the scene: the slow climb, the distraction of something on the floor, the agonizing pace at which he does up the straps. “I always have this frantic feeling of Get in your goddamn carseat!” she says, and I feel relieved – this wise woman is just like me sometimes. But she uses a simple trick called “balancing on your skeleton,” which involves focusing on how her body supports her, her breath, and feeling her feet on the ground. “It feels like there’s a moment of zen,” she says, “rather than worrying about how long it’s going to take him to get in his carseat, taking a moment and breathing out.”

She feels like those “little moments” where she takes her attention away from her son (where it always is by default), “feel like an instant reset.” To reset yourself, Sarah recommends noticing the places you’re holding – like clenching your jaw or holding your breath – and softening those things. She also recommends walking meditation, since many of us are walking all the time with our kids anyway. (I tried this the other day when walking two cranky boys home before lunch, and it really did work.)

WebI love that her suggestions for self-care don’t require me to take an hour out of being a mom. I still want my wine nights with the neighbours, or time to do yoga, but I also want to be able to reset and be myself within the stressful parts of everyday life, and to model that ability for my kiddos.

I ask Sarah how she holds onto her pearls of wisdom – she seems to have so many – and she says her big moments of realization have stayed with her, but she also has to remind herself of them all the time. Writing her book was one great way to do that.

The particular pearl that struck me most while reading her book was this moment where she learns to peacefully hold two ideas that, to me, always seem in conflict: knowing she has done her best and accepting that there is more she could have done. Before this time, she believed deep down she wasn’t capable of doing her best, because “knowing there’s always more you could do, how could anyone ever feel they’d done their best?”

This really hits home for me. There is so much pressure on moms, all the time, to do more, to try harder. We love our kids, so we have to keep working or making things better for them. Sarah explains that “being able to hold paradoxes can be the hardest thing because we always want an answer.” It’s a value she’s learned from her Qigong practice. I really want to learn how to hold this particular paradox more consistently. Sometimes I really believe in #goodenough, but old perfectionist habits die hard. Sarah says trying to maintain these realizations in a physical way can be helpful – like writing them down.

As a Single Mother By Choice, there’s another paradox she holds, too: “I’m completely alone in raising my kid,” she says, “and I’m completely supported.” She trusts that she can find support, and knows that ultimately, everything falls on her. I know from reading her book that Sarah doesn’t have a lot of biological family support, but she does have a chosen family for her son. When I ask about them, Sarah glows: she talks about her son’s two chosen “grandmas,” whom she describes as her “wise women.” They are there for her in emergency situations, when, as she says, “I cannot deal, I need him away from me, I’m completely at capacity.” She also mentions her son’s daycare provider, who recently agreed to be her son’s legal guardian should the need arise. She says this seems like a “random” choice, but we agree that when it comes to choosing a guardian for your child, it’s not really about biological connection – it’s about who you want your child to live with and where, and who will teach your child about everything from sharing to academic pursuits to politics to loving relationships.

Whether it’s searching for a chosen family or finding out how to have the kid in the first place, Sarah stresses one skill required for Single Moms By Choice: being proactive. “I have to get over any sort of concern about asking,” she says:

“Humble is the word that keeps coming to me. You just have to ask and say, Hey, I need Sarah Kowalski photo2support. I’m looking for people who want to have a relationship with my child. I’m not shy about telling preschool families that I’m hoping my son’s going to have a friend and hopefully develop more of a relationship with someone’s dad for more of a male figure… Getting really good at making clear requests of what you need is important.”

It may be especially important for single moms, but I think it’s a lesson we can all appreciate. Sarah is now helping women in a myriad of ways to navigate some difficult paths, and to ask for the help they need. For more information on her services, or to see about getting a copy of her fascinating book, check out motherhoodreimagined.org.

Many thanks to Sarah for speaking with us at Raise A Mother!

 

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We Let Our Kids Grow… What About Each Other?

Recently, my partner and I got into a spat. It seemed to rise out of nowhere, was emotionally intense for about five minutes, and then ended up being almost laughably frustrating because, at the core, we struggled to identify what exactly was the sticking point of the argument. When we stepped back, it seemed we were perhaps mainly griping out of habit, based on particularly trivial triggers. (I take great comfort in the fact that the longer we are together – and it’s been a loooong time – the fewer, farther apart, and shorter our arguments seem to get for the most part.) This particular disagreement got me thinking about the stories I tell myself about my partner, the assumptions I make about him, and the way I treat him accordingly.

When partnerships last for a long time, we really get to know each other, and it’s easy for us to think we have our partner “figured out”: we know what they do, why they do it, and how it fits predictably into the well-worn pattern of our relationship (“I knew it!” “You always…” “You’re just saying that because…” Insert-your-own-key-phrase-here). I think this dynamic of assumptions is likely true of most long-term relationships, whether they involve friends, lovers, or family.

Parenting my two young children gives me a different experience of being in a relationship with another person. Instead of taking this same approach, I find myself allowing a great deal of breathing room to just watch them develop, and I’m more generous in my assumptions about why they may or may not be doing what they’re doing or not doing. I can be enormously patient (not all the time, but I can be) with my kids because I acknowledge that they are simply not ‘done’ yet. They are working so hard to master new skills, dealing with high emotional reactions, trying to communicate and not having the vocabulary to articulate all they would like, getting overstimulated by much of the world around them, and learning a bajillion new things every day. I accept that life is likely overwhelming to them, and I try to support them through this experience – to share in their joys, notice their efforts, and empathize with them when it’s hard. And it feels like a no-brainer that I do these things – after all, I love them fiercely.

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…Which begs the question – don’t I also love my partner fiercely?

When we’ve been with someone for so long, it can be easy to take for granted their familiarity, our own knowledge of them. The way I approach and interact with my children is, in one way, so much slower, requiring so much more patience and energy on my part. I have to pay attention. I have to read the cues and behaviour they display now, and hear the words and beliefs about the world they express now, not what they displayed or said six months or two years ago. I have to be constantly attuned to their development as people – their changing capabilities, stressors, desires, and viewpoints. That is what it means for me to connect with them as individuals.

Yet I don’t always extend this same attention to my partner, my beloved, the one I’m committed to loving through thick and thin. I don’t necessarily allow the same grace and breathing room for his development, though I certainly would like to have this from him, when I think about it. After all, I’ve changed a lot over the years, re-assessing my priorities, values, and understandings of the world, myself, and my relationships. I hope that my partner and others in my life can allow me the space to continue to develop as a person, instead of assuming I’m stuck in whatever ways they found me when we met.

Yet in those conflicts, quite often, it seems we don’t deal with each other as we are now – it’s far too easy to let our assumptions of what we think we know about this partner of ours dictate how we react to them. It’s easy to cast each other in the same roles we played in the early days of our relationship, though likely they don’t fit so well anymore. It’s easy to project the values, opinions, and behaviours of years gone by onto the tensions of today, but it doesn’t provide much opportunity to acknowledge growth.

Of all the things parenting tiny people has taught me about myself, a major lesson is that I don’t know it all. I don’t always know where the life path is leading, the best way to get to a goal, or the true desires of those closest to me. Yet despite this lesson, I still sometimes fall victim to the ignorance of thinking I have my partner completely figured out.

Perhaps we need to more often treat one another like we treat our children – with that kindness and that acceptance of being a “work in progress”. Because we most certainly are works in progress, every one of us. And if we can love each other as such, hopefully we can model the kind of love we want our children to find throughout their lives, too.

 

Like this post? Share it with someone you love. ❤

 

My One Parenting Resolution for 2017

As I’ve written before, I’m not generally a person who does New Year’s Resolutions. But I am a fan of using the new year to reflect upon what I want my future to look like. My New Year’s List tends to be a vague collection of activities I enjoy that I’d like to choose more often, or intentions I’d like to follow as guiding principles in my everyday life. One of the intentions I have this year is definitely applicable to my broader life, but especially relevant to my parenting.

When I look back on my last twelve months of mothering, one thing stands out to me that I believe has made the difference between moments of stress and moments of calm. Between horribly frustrating battles with my two year old and problems we solve together, often with a sniffly, weepy snuggle. Between sobbing my eyes out during a night full of infant wakings and not sobbing my eyes out through those nights. Between feeling like a parenting failure and feeling like I got this. And at its core, it can be summed up in one word: Continue reading

GUEST POST: An Elf I WANT My Kids to Emulate

We’re absolutely thrilled to have Caitlin Murphy writing her first guest post for Raise a Mother. She is a dear childhood friend of Lindsay and Shannon, and someone we both admired as a parent before either of us had kids of our own. Caitlin is an imperfect perfectionist, empath, and mama to three wonderful wildings – with another on the way! She has a passion for working with children and families, reading, and writing, and lives with her family and husband, John, in London, Ontario, Canada.

I love Christmas. There’s something about the holiday season that makes me feel like a kid again… and now, as a parent, I get to witness that magic through the eyes of my little ones! My family always had a lot of treasured Christmas traditions, and now that I have a family of my own, we’ve carried them on with the new generation. Decorating the house while listening to Christmas carols, making a gingerbread house while listening to Christmas carols, baking delicious treats while listening to Christmas carols (there might be a common theme here…) – the list goes on! But mostly, I associate the holidays with spending time with family and friends, and a general feeling of spreading kindness and the “Christmas spirit.” I wanted to share those same sentiments with my kids – to teach them that the meaning of Christmas goes beyond presents, treats, and holiday sweaters.

A few years ago, when my oldest was a toddler, the Elf on the Shelf became “a thing”. My mom bought one for us as a gift, and without giving it a lot of thought, we followed the basic premise: the elf arrived at the house to keep an eye on things until Christmas Eve, we gave him a name (“Spat” – thanks 2-year-old!), and every day he was in a new funny place for the kids to find (if I remembered to move him, of course!). It’s a cute idea, but parts of it didn’t quite sit right with me… the idea of this little dude reporting to Santa about my kids’ behaviour seems…. A little Big Brother to me. Also, some of the elf antics I’ve seen posted on Facebook or copious Pinterest posts are pretty mischievous or naughty… not really behaviour I want to encourage. As much as possible, I try to practice positive parenting, and my mom (a former child psychologist) has always said one of the best ways to encourage positive behaviour in kids is to “catch them being good.” So we decided to shake things up a little with our elf!
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Mom Stuff I Learned at Work #1: Celebrate the Small Victories

We’ve written here before about how our professional lives shape and impact our parenting lives. Usually, these reflections have been about the challenges we face as working parents, trying to find a balance for all the demands on our physical and emotional time and energy. I’m sure we’ll have plenty more to say on that theme in the future, but lately I’ve also been thinking about ways in which my work life has helped to prepare me for the marathon that is parenthood.

I am trained as a social worker, and my degree had a focus in social justice advocacy. For the better part of the past six years, I have worked in politics for a party that is known as a perpetual underdog. Let’s just say, I am familiar with an uphill battle.

And in both my professional training and work experiences, I have learned that the ability to do two things can be the difference between keeping motivated and dragging through your days: 1. the ability to re-define a “win”, and 2. the ability to recognize and celebrate the small victories.

At first glance, these skills might seem like another version of #GoodEnough, one of our favourite self-care reminders here at Raise a Mother. They’re related, but they’re also more than that.

Telling yourself something is #GoodEnough is about setting realistic expectations. It’s about not holding yourself to the standard of the “perfect Mom” who doesn’t exist. It is, to some extent, about letting yourself off the guilt-hook. It’s about allowing yourself to believe that you are doing a good job.

Redefining a win and celebrating small victories are a little different. These are about the big jobs, the ones that are going to take a while. They are about breaking down a seemingly impossible task into manageable chunks and giving yourself kudos when you deal with one of those chunks.

And while #GoodEnough is often about recognizing that a particular task is not actually important in the grand scheme of things, celebrating a small victory is about recognizing when a particular task is an important step on the road to achieving a larger important goal.

I’ve gotten fairly good at redefining a win and celebrating a small victory at work. When you’re trying to advocate for changes in public policy, things do not move quickly. There are many, many steps on the road to success. Sometimes your bigger goal is something that you know full well will be years, decades – or even generations – down the road. If you don’t take the time to claim some of the small accomplishments as wins, the challenging days start to take a much tougher toll.

Let’s be honest: parenting is no different. The ultimate goal is to raise a good human being. Talk about something that will be decades in the making. Even some of the shorter-term large tasks of parenting, (getting them potty trained/ getting them sleeping or eating well/ getting through toddler tantrums or puberty), can feel like endless hills to climb. And at the same time, you have the giant goal of becoming the parent you want to be – definitely a long-term project.

I’m not yet as good at celebrating a small victory at home as I am at work, but I’m working on it. This weekend, I watched calmly as my two-year-old coloured all over a Christmas list I was working on. For most people, this is probably nothing to note, but I was proud of myself. People who know me know that I have slightly anal-retentive tendencies when it comes to organizing and list-making. I get an abnormal amount of joy out of colour-coding. My little guy’s artistic expression rendered my list almost illegible and the colour-coding basically disappeared.

My pre-kid self (even my early Mom self) would have been annoyed and resigned myself to starting a new, clean list. But this weekend, I didn’t freak out; I didn’t get annoyed or make a new list. I just accepted that this year’s list is decorated by my budding artiste and I gave myself a mental high five. On the really, really long path to getting to the non-control freak Mom I want to be, I took a little step forward. On to the next…

A Lovely Little Corner of the Oft-Infuriating Internet…

I have a resource to share that has really been a game-changer for me, fellow parents! Recently, I signed up for Lori Petro’s Chaos to Cooperation 10-Day Virtual Retreat via her Teach Through Love site . I’m not even sure now how I came across her stuff… I think it was during my 5am-feeding window, where I scroll through Pinterest and Facebook in order to keep myself awake while little R eats. I must have been surfing on the topic of dealing with toddler tantrums, and I ended up inputting my email – an action that is extremely rare for me, since I always think I’m getting too many emails as it is. So I must have been pretty desperate at that moment. (I want to say up front, too, that the course was FREE – completely free! And she has not emailed me once since the end of the course, either!) Continue reading

Re-Thinking “Counting to Three”: Six Months Later

So I wrote awhile back about how I was re-thinking the old “count to three” parenting strategy we’re all familiar with. I tried to re-frame in tone and body language with my toddler that when counting to three, I’m offering a slow, calm chance to cooperate willingly, with empathy for the disappointment and resistance he feels; I’m not threatening with force (even though, when push comes to shove, I will be forcing him to do whatever I’ve said needs done). It was a new strategy at the time, and I said I’d let you all know how it went longer term, so I am!

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